The Jewish Popularity Contest

Anyone that remembers middle school and high school remembers popularity. They remember the way there was this special caste of students in the school, the ones for whom everything seemed to go swimmingly. The guys got all the girls, the girls dated the older guys, and they all were great at sports and just about everything else.

These are the people who just seemed to get everything on a silver platter. Even the teachers liked them. They just seemed to dance their way through life without any difficulties.

And then there were the rest of us. The ones that got pimples and that got picked last for dodge ball, and that preferred reading or programming to going out drinking.

These people, these lower-status folk, they always seemed to have it hard. Picked on, made fun of, and sometimes there were some that even the teachers didn’t like. It was as if nothing could go right for them.

I often think about popularity since I’ve gone on the road towards becoming a baal teshuva (becoming religious).

As the years have gone on, it seems to me that the more religious I become, the more I notice the same sort of “popularity” sorting that exists in secular society exists in the religious world.

It takes a different shape in the religious world. Now it’s people who speak well, who seem to do everything perfectly. The ones who never seem to question or have any problems with Judaism. They’re the types of people whose house is sparkling when you come to visit, and who give over dvar torahs on Friday night. They’re the ones who in yeshiva were encouraged, groomed, and shown off to the donors.

The more I grow as a Jew, and the more that I observe these sort of people and the people around them, the more I feel like I’m in high school.

Why? In high school no one, especially the people encouraging the behavior and the popular people themselves, seem aware of how fake and contrived the world they’ve created is.

Because the truth is that most of the people who are “popular” religious Jews these days only have the appearance of success. They are people who never delved too deep into themselves because they associate their ego so closely to their Judaism. To them, Judaism is so connected to their appearance in the world, that doing anything but the perfect thing is almost unimaginable.

Of course, that’s fine. People will be like that, and it’s great that people are finding a way to connect to Torah, even if starts with the ego.

The problem lies more in the way the people around treat it. Or, more accurately, how they treat the less successful ones.

There is a whole class of religious Jew, a whole group, for whom everything is much more of a struggle. The people who forget to wear tefillin every other day, people who have trouble comprehending the value of mitzvos, who for each step seems a difficulty.

These people exist in the baal teshuva world and they exist in the frum world. Baal teshuvas like this are often encouraged at first and then slowly ignored. People in the frum world often refer to their unpopular ones as “off the derech” or “needing chizuk”, etc. In both cases, the “popularity” caste system makes it extremely hard for these people to connect to the Judaism they need.

Because the rabbis around them, the yeshiva teachers, the leaders, and the world they inhabit, tend to glorify and idolize the ones who do everything perfectly from the beginning, the unpopular people are not given credit for who they are. Instead, they are seen as less perfect versions of their popular counterparts.

Just like in high school.

The questions the “off the derech” people ask are seen as pimples. The difficulties the struggling baal teshuva faces are like disfiguring marks that will forever haunt them until they are completely hidden. And even then, these marks often tend to plague them when they are looking for a shidduch, or sending their kids to school.

The rabbis tend to ignore many of them. The teachers at their schools mark them as bad apples and talk to them harshly when they question or come late to davening or are caught doing something inappropriate.

The only reason I, and many other people I know, are religious, is because we had a guide that took us seriously whether things were easy or hard for us, and whether we succeeded or failed.

And when those people don’t exist in a person’s world, there is little chance they will stay “on the derech”.

What separates the people who encourage the less popular ones, and what makes them exceptional, is that they realize a simple truth: not just that the people who are not as popular deserve respect, but they are, in many ways, deserving of much more attention and praise than the successful ones.

They realize that often the struggles for these people come because they simply want a deeper truth than most people around them are willing or able to offer. Just as most teachers in secular schools would prefer an unquestioning automaton, to a deep, thoughtful, but hard-to-discipline student, most people in religious circles with any amount of power prefer those who fall into line and follow orders. It makes their lives easier and it reinforces their worldview.

Recently, there have been quite a few articles and blog posts spreading by people who left Judaism, or are at least questioning it. They claim that no one gave them “satisfactory” answers to their thoughtful, probing questions.

Many in the religious community think the way to address the people that leave the fold this way is by providing more satisfactory and deep answers.

I disagree. A person rarely leaves Judaism for logical reasons. The reason, as most of these articles implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) state, is that the questions these people asked were dismissed. The person was made to feel bad, or even stupid, for thinking outside the box. They were treated like unpopular high school students.

And so they left. I would argue that 90% of the people that leave Judaism leave because they aren’t respected, aren’t treated with the dignity they deserve, and aren’t seen for being the truly exceptional and amazing people they are.

I’ll never forget the day that started my road towards becoming religious. I sat there with Rabbi Shmuel Tiechtel at ASU Chabad, and argued with him throughout the night about everything from evolution to abortion. Not a single one of his arguments convinced me. But I was struck by how he spoke to me with calm respect. How he didn’t dismiss me the way I expected all religious people to.

I remember being in Mayanot and debating with Rabbi Shemtov about women’s rights and he would just smile at me and hand me a l’chaim, and we would both yell our arguments and then somehow end up on the table dancing.

This is the way the black sheeps in the Jewish world need to be treated. With respect. With the acknowledgment that they deserve more attention and more love than the popular people. Because they want their Judaism to be real. They don’t just use it for their ego, and are even willing to forgo the entire religion to get to the truth in the world.

In the end, it’s always the unpopular nerds that truly succeed. Unfortunately, this truth isn’t as obvious in the religious world as it is in the secular one. The system perpetuates it. We need more Rabbi Tiechtels and Rabbi Shemtovs, more people willing to follow the example of great men like the Rebbe who were able to see past our flesh.

Most of us are tired of hearing the same old people give dvar torahs at shul. We’re sick of reading rehearsed, uncreative, articles about how people left the horrible secular world to become religious.

What everyone really wants to hear, what we’re all craving, are people speaking from the heart and from a place of pure truth.

Until we encourage, respect, and admire the unpopular, pimply people of the Jewish world that simply will never happen.

  • Before the Rebbe took the nesius, Reb Dovid Goldstein, a young bochur as the Rebbe “How to begin serious avodah?” The Rebbe responded warmly, “Techilas Ho’Avodeh iz, az m’tut nit vos m’vil” (The beginning of avodah is to withod from doing as you wish” The Jewish people are human, and prone to error. The Galus (exile) is a thick cloud that stops us in our tracks, yet as the Alter Rebbe sayins in Perek 12 of Tanya, “A little bit of physical light banishes a great deal of darkness.” Chabad Chassidus shows a Jew that they have the ability, not the potential, but the actual ability to “mekbal u’malchus shamayim” to take the yoke of the kingdom of heaven upon us.

    The challenge is that you have to let go. You have to let go of your ego. Not just the evil ego that tells you that everyone is so fake and that you are so holy, but the Chassidishe Ego. The one that puts people in their place because they dont farbrengen enough, or learn enough, or daven with a minyan, or do what the Rebbe demands of us.

    Ego. The Alter Rebbe says in Ch. 47 of Tanya (shortest chapter btw) that the only thing stop you from nullifying yourself to the Ein Sof Baruch Hu, is….you.

    In my journey in life I have been challenged, questioned, mocked, insulted, even threatened for my beliefs. I realized something at a farbrengen that the Rebbe truly is Chased she’b Malchus. The chassidim messed up so many times, the Jews who visit him that were not even frum, the Rebbe took everyone in and never once rejected a single neshmah that reached out to him. So there I am 5:30am after farbrengening past midnight sitting in the mikveh and here is this guy going to the mikveh and isnt even wearing a pair of tzitzis or a kippah. What a fake! What a joke! Why even go to the mikveh, and then it hit me.

    I am all of the above. I wake up early every morning and go to the mikveh, I learn chassidus for an hour before davening, I make it to mincha and maariv with a minyan, I have a very solid seder of learning, I farbreng till midnight once sometimes twice a week. And what? All of this and I havent made one single inch of progress. 3 years of rejecting Baal Teshuvah parents and 7 years of trying to become one myself and I am still where I started.

    Thank G-d I didnt realize this at 40. C”V.

    Every Jewish soul is precious and we need to literally kill ourselves to love that Jew. To separate the sin from the soul and realize that our love for that Jew will help them a myriad more than our Judgements.

    Maybe I didnt read your article well enough but in reality this response to you is really a response to myself, where I need to be, and how I need to work on myself.

    I once farbrengened with a chasid who had a million dollar home, 2 luxury cars, pesach and sukkot trips that cost in the thousands and figured that he had the life. Turns out the guy is in therapy once a week at least and the “easy life” isnt so easy now is it?

    Chasima V’Chasima Tova! Moshiach Now!

    • Guest

      Your reply to this article was as inspiring and introspective as the article itself. Thank you for your insights, and whether intentional or not, your words of encouragement and hope.

      – New to the Derech

    • Love this, man. Always love your thoughts, of course. But yeah, I totally agree. And it’s great that you look at growth in such a way, I think, because it shows how easy it is to fool ourselves that we are ahead when we really aren’t.

      BTW, the Rebbe also taught that the ego isn’t something that needs to be completely broken down and abnegated, as it sometimes appears in Tanya. Our ego is meant to be elevated, not destroyed, especially in these later generations.

      And yes, I don’t think we should be judging each other, but we can speak about things that disturb us about the Jewish world without judging them negatively, I think.

      • Unless we have perfected the disturbed aspects of ourselves, what do we personally have to gain from pointing them out in the rest of the world? Do we become better people? I did not read anywhere a solution that you have devised to solve the problem in yourself that might help others growing in the same area.

        That is the beauty of Chassidus, and Chabad Chassidus especially. Instead of point out the darkeness and saying “HEY! Look its dark over there!”, Chassidus Chabad says “Here is the light!” and goes over to the darkness.

        Kaballos Ol is about nullifying our ego. Nullify doesn’t mean destroy, it means it is absorbed, and in this case it is absorbed into the Ein Sof.

        • Not sure exactly what you mean. I specifically pointed out examples of people I learned from about how to treat the “black sheep”.

          And Chabad doesn’t just say to point out the light, but to turn the darkness into light. That can only be done by acknowledging the darkness exists and finding out how to elevate it. The last thing we need to do is blind ourselves.

        • Jason

          Is it possible to have a Chassidishe Ego regarding “Chabad Chassidus”? I’ve always noticed that Lubavitchers are the only ones who speak about their Chassidus this way and are the only ones who exclusively learn their own Chasidus and never learn others’. What’s this about?
          Gmar Chatima tova.

          • “are the only ones who exclusively learn their own Chasidus and never learn others”

            It bugs me to no end when people say this.

            #1: Chabad Chassidus is by far the most recorded and “studyable” Chassidus there is. Of the other groups, Breslov is the only one that comes close to having as many recorded pieces for study by its Rebbeim. And even they aren’t even close.

            #2: EVERY Chassid mainly studies their own derech’s Torah. Otherwise they wouldn’t be focused on that derech. There’s nothing wrong with being mainly focused on what you believe in.

            #3: I know MANY Chabadniks that study other Chassidus. Many of them are interested in Breslov. They just don’t talk about it as much because, as I said, that’s not their core belief.

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  • Prag

    Great Post, very insightful and I find the comparison to
    high school interesting.

    Nevertheless in more general terms, sometimes I wonder if adult life is not
    simply and scarier and crueller version of high school ?

    • Haha yep… that’s about it in a nutshell…

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  • Shmiel B

    Gevaldige observation of our attitudes.

  • You may be accurately describing places that you’ve experienced, but in plenty of communities it’s the opposite: The really serious, sincere types are in the minority and are viewed as nerdy and “farchnyokt,” while the “in crowd” is more modern.

    Also, even in more “Charedi” communities, often people who have charismatic personalities end up being popular even when they are more modern, while those who lack it are unpopular even if they are very G-d-fearing.

    I object to the implication that only doubters seek truth, while all those who are fully observant and follow a high standard are on some kind of ego trip. I’m not saying that there aren’t some who suffer from this, but you seem to be levelling an unfairly broad-brush indictment.

    If anything, doubts come from an unhealthy, highly egotistical place within–see here.

    If you think you see someone “automatically” and “easily” always getting it right, you just don’t know them well enough. Hashem tests everyone, albeit in different areas, because our purpose in life is to struggle to refine our coarse inner self–see here.

    Yes, one should have compassion and understanding for those who struggle with basic observance, and find appropriate and permissible ways to include them, but at the end of the day, a frum, charedi community must by definition be focused on encouraging and rewarding behaviors and activities that exemplify and promote Torah and Mitzvos, fear of Hashem, love of Hashem, love of Torah, and so on. This is not simply “popularity”, it’s sending a needed message of rewarding accomplishment of value according to our timeless Torah, so that others will emulate it.

    • 1. I agree about your first point. Popularity and favoritism takes many different forms.

      2. Never said only doubters seek truth. And I wasn’t just talking about doubters, although I did mention them as an example.

      3. Doubts may come from an egotistical place, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be dealt with respect.

      4. Agreed that Hashem tests everyone in different ways. I didn’t mean to imply these people don’t have any issues or difficulty. What I was referring to was the way people around them treat them and the ones who don’t fit in quite as well.

      5. I definitely agree that a community must be focused on “encouraging and rewarding behaviors and activities that exemplify and promote Torah and Mitzvos” etc. My point is that these communities actually tend to do the opposite if they punish or ostracize those that don’t follow the straight path. That’s not encouraging, it’s demeaning, and these people end up doing many less mitzvos because of it.

  • Mikhal-Sarah Gordon

    Highshul never ends?

  • I can tell you that while I love my BT yeshiva (i won’t mention the name), i’ve seen a lot of this there…and at other BT yeshivas. i’m 31 years old. i thought this stuff was over and done with. i haven’t seen it in 13 years…but apparently it’s not done lol

  • Jay

    What a great article. gmar chatima tova.