In almost every lecture or event about the “OTD Crisis,” the speaker will mention the multitudes of young men and women he’s spoken with, men and women who have struggled with faith or have left Yiddishkeit. The stories are often heartbreaking, are almost always told with empathy, and are most often used as evidence of the speaker’s compassion and dedication to these young men and women.
But you know who we never hear from? These young men and women themselves.
We hear about the rabbis’ perspectives on these conversations, and we hear only the parts they want us to hear. Do we know if we’re getting the full picture? At the very least – no. But in truth, many of us know we’re most often getting a very carefully filtered version of what XO people have said to the rabbis.
In November 2015, I was part of a group of five OTD / XO individuals who met with Agudah prior to the national conference which included a panel titled “OTD: Why Do They Leave? And What Can We Do About It?”
But the meeting happened behind closed doors; we were told firmly and numerous times that this meeting is not to be blogged or tweeted about; and none of the panelists who were in that meeting, who responded well to our stories, who expressed surprise and shock and pain and wonderful intentions to help – none of them mentioned it or hinted that it had happened.
Since then, I have asked Rabbi Zwiebel (the director of Agudah) a few times to go public with that meeting. When Eytan Kobre’s response to an “OTD Surevy” was scathing mockery, I emailed Rabbi Zwiebel and begged him:
Dear Rabbi Zwiebel,
I understood the need for confidentiality when [names redacted] and I met with you before the Agudah convention in November. Now, though…I think it’s important to share information about the meeting.
Articles such as Eytan Kobre’s in the Mishpacha…keep showing up. They mock, dismiss, and refuse to engage, all on the basis of assuming that people who leave don’t have anything worthwhile to say. Kobre says he declined to interview the researchers, which is his right. But what he essentially did is shut down all conversation and preclude the possibility for any progress in understanding.
Forget acceptance – we can aim for that later. Let’s start with understanding.
It hurts to read this kind of thing over and over – this scorn and mockery of things we keep saying, again and again, hoping that this time, maybe this time, people who write and influence the community’s thoughts and attitudes will listen.
You listened. Rabbi Lob, Rabbi Klein, Rabbi Shafran, Rabbi Becher – you all listened. And the panel at the convention reflected that.
But written articles have a far wider audience, and this is what people know – that a survey was done, that leading thinkers in the community see it as a farce and as continued proof that OTD people lie and delude themselves.
I beg you, please acknowledge that Agudah sees some validity to the survey and/or the responses. We all know it’s flawed. But it’s a first step. Perhaps at some point an Orthodox organization can partner with others such as Footsteps or Makom to sponsor a better study, a study that can generate more objective responses and results. That would be fantastic.
For now, we need to stop harmful attitudes being disseminated throughout the community. Agudah and its partners can help do this.
Rabbi Zwiebel responded kindly, but his response and my ensuing email exchange with him left me no hope that our conversation and the things he said to me and my friends behind closed doors would ever be made public. Whether it’s due to communal pressure, to political needs, or whatever else – rabbis’ responses to us behind closed doors is to remain there, and only what they deem acceptable for public dissemination is included in their speeches.
Today, on Wednesday, January 10, an event in Los Angeles will be livestreamed on Facebook – a conversation between Shulem Deen (author of All Who Go Do Not Return) and Rabbi Yakov Horowitz (Monsey educator and outspoken about XO / OTD issues). What will happen here, I don’t know. The conversation is specifically about “insularity,” not about OTD, though it’s fairly obvious that that will play a part in the conversation. And the conversation is being moderated by a woman, whose picture appears on the poster. So it’s already not Agudah-style, that’s for sure.
More importantly than that, though, this past week has given me hope, as two bloggers I follow published public responses to private messages – one blogger responding publicly to a private message she received herself, and one responding to an email that was forwarded to him.
This, I think, is a valuable method and strategy. Arguing and conversing with people who send these messages behind closed doors does nothing. Each time, we need to recreate the conversation, we need to wade through the misdirection and emotional manipulation to make our points, and we always know we won’t convince the other person – so what are we doing?
Publishing public responses, however, allows others to eavesdrop – others who perhaps include XOs or potential XOs who are trapped by the guilt these kinds of messages cause, who can now proudly and confidently, with head held high, turn to their accusers and say – you have no hold over me.
Others who perhaps include truly kind, sincere, compassionate people who have been listening to the rabbis and have not had access to a reasoned rebuttal of the repeated condemnations of XO people.