Jewish Studies Exiting Orthodox Judaism
Schneur Zalman Newfield, Sara Feldman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0238


The question of the nature of the boundaries between the Jewish community and the outside world is present throughout Jewish history. So too is the related question of the status of those who leave the Jewish community. However, the motivation for exiting, the nature of the exiting process, and the options available to the person once they exit are shaped by the particular historical period in which they live. For example, some young Jewish women in Western Galicia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who felt trapped in their community and were desperate to escape unwanted marriage arrangements took refuge in a Kraków convent and sometimes converted to Christianity. Similarly, those leaving Orthodoxy in Europe in the early twentieth century often did not find a welcoming secular world ready to embrace them. This is one of the reasons many Jews joined secular Jewish political movements like the Bund in Poland. The situation today for those who exit—a process often referred to by members of the Orthodox community as going “off the derech,” off the correct path, or simply going “OTD”—is drastically different. Given the secular and multicultural nature of most countries where contemporary Jews reside, once an Orthodox Jew decides to leave his or her community and upbringing, the “outside” world does not place formal barriers in the way of the exit. Rather, outsiders are often intrigued by exiters and tend to try to help those exiting. These days, the major barriers are the structural ones created by the Orthodox communities themselves to try to prevent exit, such as the threat to intervene in custody battles should one parent exit and the other remain in the community. There are also internal psychological barriers each exiter faces consisting of the negative depictions of the outside world, the taboo against leaving one’s community, and the dire predictions of the life trajectory of those who do leave. Exiters must also confront the practical challenges of becoming accustomed to new styles of clothing, food, and popular culture previously strictly forbidden to them. Once exiters leave their community, they must also negotiate their relationship with their Orthodox family, who often feel betrayed and ashamed of them. A note on language: although some contemporary Orthodox exiters consciously embrace the term “OTD” to destigmatize it, given that it can be perceived as condescending it will generally be avoided throughout this entry. Also, following the limitations of contemporary scholarship, this bibliography primarily cites works on exiters from Ashkenazi Judaism.

Social Science on Exiting

In the rich extant social science literature on Orthodox communities, the subgroup historically most often overlooked consisted of exiters. That is, most of the literature on Orthodox Jewish communities tended to focus on those members who stayed and largely ignored those who left. This omission may possibly be explained by the fact that until recently the size of the exiter population was relatively modest. It is also possible that these scholars were drawn to the question of how after the Holocaust and in the midst of flourishing secular societies small enclave communities with strict rules of conduct and belief could survive and even thrive. Decades later, once these Orthodox communities have securely established themselves in their American, European, and Israeli environments, scholars have become intrigued about those individuals who grew up in these communities and chose to leave them. The first book-length treatment of Orthodox exiters, Winston 2005 and Winston 2006, gained a lot of attention and stimulated both popular and academic interest in the subject. Davidman and Greil 2007 and Davidman 2014 each added to scholarly understanding of exiters by highlighting the role of narrative and embodiment in the exiting process. Topel 2012 enhanced the field by contributing an analysis of the Israeli exiter experience, which invited scholars to think about how the exiter phenomenon may be significantly different in different countries and societies. Cappell and Lang 2020 demonstrated the breath of scholarship on exiters. Fader 2020, which explores the experiences of those who appear to be living Hasidic lives but are secretly violating its norms, highlights the complex array of choices for those who are discontented with their upbringing and may or may not eventually leave it entirely. The authors of Newfield 2020 and Engelman, et al. 2020, both of whom were raised Hasidic and left their respective communities, underline the expansion of the ranks of scholars on exiters to include those who personally underwent this process. Unlike most of the scholarship on exiters to date, which consists of qualitative studies, Trencher 2016 provides a comprehensive quantitative analysis of the subject.

  • Cappell, Ezra, and Jessica Lang, eds. Off the Derech: Leaving Orthodox Judaism. New York: SUNY Press, 2020.

    The first edited volume exclusively devoted to the topic of contemporary Orthodox exit. It contains both academic analysis and personal narratives regarding leaving Orthodox Judaism. The scholarly chapters of the book analyze the role of embodiment in the exiting process, the struggle of exiters to obtain a secular education, the representation of exiters in the mainstream media, and the social practices of Israeli exiters (Shababniks) who reside in Brooklyn.

  • Davidman, Lynn. Becoming Unorthodox: Stories of Ex-Hasidic Jews. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2014.

    Davidman introduces to the study of religious exiting the importance of the body as a locus of transition. Davidman argues that bodily inscribed habits are the most difficult to relinquish, recurring unexpectedly in the lives of exiters even years after leaving. Davidman’s focus on the body tries to correct the near-exclusive focus on the exit process as it relates to belief and intellectual argumentation found among many scholars.

  • Davidman, Lynn, and Arthur Greil. “Characters in Search of a Script: The Exit Narratives of Formerly Ultra-Orthodox Jews.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 46.2 (2007): 201–216.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2007.00351.x

    Religious exiters face the daunting existential task of creating a new identity, a new “script” or “narrative” for themselves. Those joining enclave communities (baal teshuvahs) are given a prepared script including gender roles, behavioral norms, and religious beliefs. Those leaving these communities are at a loss for how to define themselves. Both the community they are leaving and the outside world they are joining fail to adequately assist them.

  • Engelman, Joel, Glen Milstein, Irvin S. Schonfeld, and Joshua B. Grubbs. “Leaving a Covenantal Religion: Orthodox Jewish Disaffiliation from an Immigration Psychology Perspective.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 23.2 (2020): 153–172.

    DOI: 10.1080/13674676.2020.1744547

    Applying insights from the study of immigration, this work describes and quantifies the psychological experience of leaving Orthodoxy and investigates both factors that push people away from their community of origin and factors that pull them toward the outside world. Using survey data from 222 exiters, the authors explore the reasons people leave and their sense of wellbeing after leaving. They also consider gender differences among exiters.

  • Fader, Ayala. Hidden Heretics: Jewish Doubt in the Digital Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691169903.001.0001

    Based on her analysis of social media messages, Jewish blogosphere posts, community circulars, and personal interviews, Fader illuminates the secret world of “double lifers,” Hasidic men and women whose “life-changing doubt” has caused them to reject some or all of their community’s beliefs and values but who nonetheless continue to outwardly conform to Hasidic norms of behavior. Fader describes in depth the general response of the Orthodox to religious doubt.

  • Newfield, Schneur Zalman. Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2020.

    Employing data from seventy-four in-depth interviews with Hasidic men and women, Newfield explores the lives of those raised in these communities who leave that way of life. Newfield presents a comprehensive portrait of the prolonged state of being “in-between” that characterizes transition out of a totalizing worldview. In their thinking and behavior, exiters express both a sense of independence and a persistent (sometimes unwanted) connection to their past.

  • Topel, Marta F. Jewish Orthodoxy and Its Discontents: Religious Dissidence in Contemporary Israel. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2012.

    Topel analyzes the life of Orthodox exiters in Israel (yotzim leshe’elah) and the crucial role that nongovernmental organizations, including Hillel and Dror, play in their exit process, especially early on in their journey away from their communities when they are desperate to find a new community and to obtain assistance with establishing their new identity. Topel found that many Orthodox families break off all contact with their exiter family members.

  • Trencher, Mark. “Starting a Conversation: A Pioneering Survey of Those Who Have Left the Orthodox Community.” Nishma Research, 21 June 2016.

    Trencher is a market researcher and not a scholar, but this report, based on survey data from 885 Orthodox exiters, is the largest quantitative study to date. This report is full of important information on why people leave Orthodox communities, how exiters identify Jewishly after leaving, their relationship with their families post exit, and the kinds of support they need to flourish in the outside world.

  • Winston, Hella. Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005.

    This book is a popular retelling of the dramatic and sometimes tragic stories of Hasidic rebels that Winston discovered while conducting her doctoral thesis on the subject. The reader is introduced to rebels from various Hasidic communities, including Malkie Schwartz, who was raised Lubavitch, left her community, and went on to found Footsteps, a NY-based organization that helps Orthodox exiters.

  • Winston, Hella. “Edgework: Boundary Crossing among the Hasidim.” PhD diss., CUNY Graduate Center, 2006.

    Winston describes the social control mechanisms operating inside Hasidic society to prevent rebels from leaving. The most common form of pressure the community placed on her subjects was the fear that their “deviant” behaviors would tarnish their siblings’ or children’s marriage prospects. Winston details the great pain and suffering such individuals endure trying to make the transition to the outside world, sometimes leading to drug and alcohol abuse.

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