Off the Derech: Why Observant Jews Leave Judaism

Off the Derech: Why Observant Jews Leave Judaism

By Faranak Margolese

Devora Publishing

Jerusalem, 2005

429 pages

Reviewed by Hillel Goldberg

In the decades after World War II, with the growth of Orthodox Jewish society from the ashes, it was assumed that with an observant family and a proper day school education in place, Orthodox Jewish growth was guaranteed. No wrinkles. No drop outs. No re-run of the nineteenth-century breakdown of traditional Jewish society.

We all know that this is not the case, although, thank God, there is no near-total meltdown of the kind that began in the early-nineteenth century in Western Europe and in the mid-nineteenth century in Eastern Europe. We also have much to be grateful for in the existence of a large number of aware, sensitive and effective rabbis, parents, educators and others who work with children at risk. To that list we may now add Faranak Margolese, who has compiled an extraordinarily wide range of analyses of fault lines within Orthodox society that cause or facilitate Orthodox Jewish youth to “go off the derech.”

The school, the home, the synagogue, the peer group, the general society, the teacher, the parent, the rabbi, the mentor, the Hollywood star–virtually every possible source of disaffection from Orthodox Jewish society finds its analysis in Off the Derech. Despite a marked tendency to present sweeping historical generalizations and armchair philosophy as profundities, Off the Derech offers a number of concrete causes of disaffection from halachic Judaism, and suggestions for altered behavior on the part of parents, teachers and others who could ameliorate the problem.

The question is, Is the cure worse than the disease? Is the tail wagging the dog?

To take one critical arena of going off the derech: the Jewish day school. If the day school is to stop harboring those attitudes or engaging in those activities that turn certain kids off, what are the unintended consequences? Often, a dumbing down of the curriculum. When the prime focus in the school is to be sensitive to that which turns off a child at risk, the result is a major emphasis on making the process of learning sweet and delightful. This often entails a lowering of standards. In other words, it is not enough to know what turns off a child, and what can be altered to prevent this. It is also necessary to know how the crucial alteration in (for example) the classroom can be accomplished without distorting the entire curriculum and educational goal. For this, Margolese provides little guidance. She writes as if the special attention or adjustment required for nurturing a child at risk can be implemented in a vacuum. This book is written from a pertinent but narrow focus.

This constricted focus calls into question some of her evidence. She quotes, for example, unqualifiedly stupid statements by day school teachers, reported by drop outs, as a cause of their disaffection. No doubt, stupid statements are sometimes made in the classroom; and understandably enough, a person could be turned off by them–by the racism, indifference or ethnocentricity they reflect. However, Margolese makes no attempt to establish the veracity of these statements. To her, it is enough that the drop out understood them to have been just as he or she reported them. Again, from the angle of helping the individual, his or her perception is critical. But from the angle of addressing the larger issue–how Judaism is presented in the day school classroom–one cannot take an individual student’s impression at face value. One needs to know exactly what happened in the classroom. It is this context that the book does not address.

Another critical arena: the family. Say that a family with seven children has one child at risk. Is it possible to put into place a series of adjustments that meet the sensibilities of the child at risk without altering the entire family focus? This is not merely a question of enrolling children in different schools or programs, including one tailored for a child at risk, or a question of relating differently to different children, a point that Margolese elaborates, and rightly so. The question is, What do the implicit goals of the family become?

For example, can a family hold up, as a value, the preeminence of talmidei chachamim, including the inculcation of the aspiration to become one, while also openly acknowledging a related but still different value system–a love of Torah in general, without the rigorous, disciplined pursuit of Torah texts? It is one thing to subscribe, in the abstract, to the admirable truism that each child needs to be encouraged Jewishly according to his innate tendencies. It is quite something else to deal with a rebel and to foster a genuine thirst for Torah in one and the same household. Should one put the needs of the child at risk above all else, and if the standards for the other children are somehow lowered, so be it? Or vice-versa? It is naive to simply mouth the truism that one can have both. That may be possible, but not without guidance and thought. It is not enough for a book to tell us why children at risk are created and how one should respond. It is also necessary to know how to do all that in the context of sustaining standards in the Orthodox Jewish family, school and synagogue.

No doubt, this is complex and the answers are varied, perhaps as varied as the individual family, classroom or shul. If one keeps in mind that this larger agenda cannot be dispensed with in dealing with children at risk, the reader will benefit from some of the case histories and approaches that Margolese sets forth.

Some of her approaches, however, leave one wondering. She cites, for example, the lack of ability found among certain day school graduates to articulate their basic beliefs; then writes, “intellectual exploration can strengthen and improve the degree of belief.” That sentence makes sense only in a profoundly anti-intellectual age, when genuine philosophical exploration is rarely undertaken. In fact, intellectual exploration is precisely what steered many Jews, from Baruch Spinoza to Solomon Maimon and a slew of nineteenth-century maskilim, away from traditional Judaism. Again, just because some day school graduates found the intellectual foundations of their faith wanting, one should not change the curriculum without considering this: If a day school inculcates a profoundly personal experience of the holy, will this hold the students better than “intellectual exploration?” These contextual questions are critical, and while they should not excuse a shallow curriculum lacking any attempt at giving students a rationale for belief, they do show that what for one student might be a problem will be, for a very different student, a solution.

A final comment. History does not allow us this easy bifurcation: Children at risk are lured by a decadent society; or, as Margolese believes, the temptations might be there, but essentially children at risk are turned off by negatives within Orthodox Jewish society. And if the negatives weren’t there, the temptations wouldn’t triumph. Margolese’s effort at identifying the negatives is valuable; and her prescriptions, or others’, should be evaluated and implemented. But historical forces are more complicated than this. It is not strictly within the mechanics of Orthodox Jewish society that the phenomenon of observant Jews who leave Judaism can be understood.

On the material level, economics, lifestyles, social status and family background introduce countless shades and nuances into any personal decision to leave–or to embrace–observant Judaism. On the spiritual level, the collective Jewish soul is too sensitive for easy readings. How did the Haskalah undermine much of traditional society in the nineteenth century? Centuries earlier, how did false Messianism take root in much of Jewish society? After World War II, why did Orthodox Judaism flourish—and also suffer these current setbacks? These questions are far too large for a simple bifurcation. This should offer some solace to both the at-risk youth and their parents and teachers, without derogating from the importance of addressing the issue concretely. If for that alone, we owe Faranak Margolese a strong word of thanks.


Hillel Goldberg, PhD, is the executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News in Denver. He serves on the editorial board of Jewish Action.

This article was featured in the Summer 2006 issue of Jewish Action.
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