From Seminary to Atheism: A Whirlwind Journey Out of Orthodox Judaism

From Seminary to Atheism: A Whirlwind Journey Out of Orthodox Judaism

“I was steeped in contradiction. Never before had I felt the suffocation that I was living someone else’s life, that I was living by someone else’s values.”

Growing up, I attended Chabad Sunday school, celebrated the major holidays, and was part of Jewish Teen groups. Despite my orthodox education, I was raised in a reformed household that did not encourage much spiritual connection to my Judaism. I was the byproduct of intermarriage, with my mom being Jewish and my dad having been brought up as Catholic. This was not the only case of intermarriage in my family line: my great-grandmother on my mother’s side enlisted in World War II and found her husband, a non-Jewish American. I had never identified this fact to be negative.

In university, I became more involved with Chabad and experienced the fullness of Jewish life and community and it was there I felt a personal responsibility to preserve the Jewish identity and the rich culture I had experienced. In fact, I attributed the loss of my culture to intermarriage and was determined to get it back.

One fact that struck me was this: the largest factor contributing to the decrease of the Jewish population is intermarriage. I never valued marrying another Jewish person or upheld ideas of “preserving” a culture. That changed last year when I began to view myself as part of the Jewish collective. I began to view each Jew as necessary for preserving the Jewish nation. I believed that we were all connected due to our shared identity.

I became so passionate and involved in the Jewish community while in college that they recommended I further my Jewish education. I had only received a formal Jewish education up until about 12 years old. The rabbi’s father had advised another young person considering yeshiva (male equivalent of seminary), “A person wouldn’t end their non-Jewish education until they’re a young adult. Do a service to yourself and your future and learn how to have a Jewish home and live a Jewish life as an adult.” Made sense to me!

And so, I applied for and received a full scholarship to attend a seminary in Israel for the year, which I started in August 2023. On the holiest day in the Jewish calendar—Yom Kippur—where the laws of observance prohibit most actions except reading and praying, I elected to read Anthem by Ayn Rand. Part of the holiday requires you to fast, which means no eating or drinking for 25 hours. As I read the book further into the afternoon, I self-reflected on whether it was contradictory for me to be an objectivist as well as an observant Jew. As I finished Anthem on Yom Kippur, I was provided with a new challenge to my worldview. I thought to myself, amongst the hundred other women surrounding me praying and atoning for their sins, how could I go on believing any of this is reasonable to follow when I have just read a book presenting a superior framework?

About six weeks into the program, the October 7th war started in Israel and I decided to go home for my own health and safety. If I am being honest with myself, I was always disillusioned with the orthodox lifestyle, but saw the scholarship as a great post-grad opportunity to learn about my heritage and culture and I still did find Judaism to be an interesting subject to study.

The week the war started, I suppose whatever belief I could have in a higher power intensified. That entire week, I heard jets overhead all the time and Hezbollah sent a drone over our city. I didn’t realize until after the BOOM of the Iron Dome that it wasn’t a rocket in the distance. I raced into the bomb shelter and all I could do was wait. I had no idea what every next second would be in that shelter. Every slight noise was able to be heard as the reinforced room meant no outside noise got in.

That day, I booked a flight to Dublin (the only cheaper flight that would get me close to the US as direct flights were nearing 10,000 dollars during the wartime). The evening I left was the most frightening moment of my life. The driver was meant to take my friend and I to the airport at 7 p.m. At 6:23, a siren went off and 50 women had to huddle together in an open hall. One girl suffered from a panic attack and started hyperventilating. Another started shouting the Shema for us all to repeat. Everyone began reading from Tehillim (Book of Psalms). All we could do was wait. My roommate took my hand in the open hall and we rushed upstairs to a secure bomb shelter and out of the open hall on the first floor. Miraculously, my driver called me to assure he could still take us. I was shocked. The siren said Hezbollah had broken through our airspace and could have paragliders flying overhead, which meant the orders were to stay inside and lock our doors. I knew I had to go. We communicated through someone who knew Hebrew to tell the guard we had to be permitted to leave. He said to wait 15 minutes since a siren had just gone off. My phone was blowing up. Leaving the seminary building, I didn’t know whether I would make it the two-hour drive to the airport.

I was awake for the next 30 hours. I was certainly too wired to get any sleep at the airport. My flight was delayed until 5 p.m. I arrived at the airport around 9:30 p.m. the night before. I had a long wait. I may have slept on the flight and woken up when the plane rocked as it landed on the runway.

I believed that reading from Tehillim and the protection of God was the reason I made it out alive and was able to safely leave Israel. I had gone through an extremely traumatic situation and really believed that. Returning home to America, I maintained a strong conviction of Jewish law and custom I hadn’t had before. I was observing Shabbat in a home and area where no one else was. It was isolating and I had issues with my family respecting my newly adopted practices. I knew I had to make an intense choice. I had to return to seminary. It was around Thanksgiving and I wanted to tell my family so very badly. I was keeping up with my friends from seminary in Israel who were still in the program and I wanted more than anything to return. I had plans to pen a very detailed letter to my mother, explaining how I needed to return to Israel despite the war, all in the pursuit of receiving a Jewish education.

Luckily, there was a seminary in Brooklyn I could attend instead. Despite being affiliated with the Israeli seminary, this new seminary was completely different. It was strict. There was a list of laws enforced upon us including not being able to date for six months upon arrival, not being able to bring in ‘non-kosher’ food you purchased using your own money into even your own room in the dorms, not being allowed to wear pants both in class and in the dorms, and so much more. I faced institutionalized sexism, where I was told even by my employer not to wear pants to work, that I shouldn’t even be working and instead, focus on my studies since, according to my boss, “I had a lot to learn.”

A story I was told the first day I arrived at this program, December 3rd, was that a girl in the program had gone downstairs with pants on and was told by the dorm mother to apologize to a picture of the rebbe on the wall. A rebbe is the spiritual leader of a Hasidic movement. I couldn’t believe it. What did I sign up for?

Everything began to slowly chip and chip away at me. I realized very quickly I was surrounded by irrationality, by people who were in a very different mindset than I was. I went to the classes, I challenged the rabbis, I always voiced my disagreements. But when it came to the rules, I felt suffocated. I had no one to relate to in not only the seminary, but in the community. No one in the seminary ate non-kosher food so I would go by myself to Indian restaurants, to non-kosher grocery stores, to try out pizza places, etc. If I brought in outside food that didn’t fit their high level of kosher, I could be in trouble. During a room inspection, my friend hid these cookies I had because they were a different kosher standard than the community’s. I thought, did I want to be in an environment so concerned with the kind of cookies I eat? I had started to keep Shabbat since the war and it mattered to me.

A few weeks into the seminary, I decided I would write on Shabbat—a prohibition according to the laws of observing the Sabbath since, according to them, it is a form of work. It’s one of my favorite hobbies and I only had time on Shabbat to do it. After candle lighting and everyone had gone out to synagogue before going to their Friday night meal, I went upstairs to my room, locked the door, and took out my journal. A very strange, concerning thing happened. As I put the pen to the paper, I hesitated. Why was I hesitating? It was just writing. It was an action I had done all my life. I pushed through and wrote the date. It felt odd. It shouldn’t feel odd. I shouldn’t be concerned about whether or not to write, but what to write.

I was steeped in contradiction. Never before had I felt the suffocation that I was living someone else’s life, that I was living by someone else’s values. I was so frustrated living in dissonance. I was steeped in contradiction and I wasn’t willing to accept that for myself. I knew I had to free myself of it before it consumed me. I remember thinking, the answer is either yes or no. Yes, I stay and accept what comes with that or no, I leave and have to rebuild. It had to happen for me. Reason or mysticism. I was squeezed into the decision by myself. I was in a catch-22 living in Brooklyn not having the money and job to leave the seminary and while being at the seminary, having the obligation of seminary duties. I had to attend class, go to dinner, and make sure I’m in line with the rules. I knew I couldn’t line up a new job and apartment at the same time.

I had voiced my concerns and only got reasons which contradicted reality and couldn’t be logically proven. They would tell me all the laws which govern our lives came from the Torah and we are not meant to understand it. It is believed that upon the coming of the Messiah, the Torah will be revealed to us. That every law we are commanded to follow will make sense at any time, that the Messiah has the ability to come at any time. According to the Jewish calendar, we are in the year 5784. In Jewish mysticism, there is a belief that by the year 7000 the Messiah will come. This corresponds to the 7 days of creation, where each millennium is representative of a different Messianic Age. I guess we’ll see!

I never gave up on my mind. I knew I had to leave. The last week I was there was by far the worst. I had completely stopped believing in God, in a higher power. I was truly all alone. I had begun debating the girls in the dorm about how there is no proof for any of the things we do, plus it isn’t logical. I hesitate to label the seminary a cult. It carries a negative connotation. I obviously had the ability to leave and it was a voluntary program. I am glad I never gave up on my rational mind. I achieved more clarity in my life and a shift in focus. It was okay to try out an entirely different life and still come out of it. I had tried. I had gone into it and come out of it. I knew what would never work for me.

Since leaving, I have taken the plunge into learning atheist arguments and how to identify reason. I wish to be surrounded by fellow rational thinkers who also challenge their worldviews and seek the truth. I believe I can say I officially became an atheist on January 21st. It was Friday night Shabbat in Brooklyn and, as I lit the candles that were meant to usher in the holiness that was the Sabbath, I felt nothing. No shift in the air to signal it was a “holy day.” I stood in front of the candles I lit, and felt silly. The silence that followed would have been filled with my reciting of the candle lighting blessing. But I felt silly. I stood there lingering for about 10 seconds, staring at the candles, thinking about what I was doing in front of them.

Upon leaving the seminary, I gained back 25 hours each week that I would otherwise have spent struggling against my better judgement. Now, my Friday evenings are spent doing whatever I please. I couldn’t be more excited to have left that old life behind.

To hear more about Serina’s story, check out the AFL interview:

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