Israel (Izzy) Eichenstein never chose to follow the easiest path. Born into a prestigious haredi family that could trace its roots back to the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of Hassidism in the 18th century in Eastern Europe) Eichenstein had his path set out for him. He was expected to continue the family dynasty, one that was quite well respected in the haredi world. And yet, already as a young boy, Eichenstein knew that he didn’t really belong in the haredi world, and that at some point he would leave it. He paid dearly for his decision, though: he was excommunicated from his community – totally disconnected from his previous life and MOST of the people he knew. He faced such intense loneliness knowing that he and his children would never know the joy of a large, loving extended family.
In his new book, The Rebel and the Rabbi’s Son, which was recently published in the US, Eichenstein tells his story – from his feelings of otherness as a young boy until today, where he is an active participant at in the Beverly Hills Reform Jewish community, so far from where he was meant to be. Although this story takes place thousands of miles from Israel, it is connected to the Holyland in more ways than one.
A family history of rebellion
The Eichenstein family members are among the celebs of the haredi world – any average streimel-wearer in the US would recognize the name. “When I was young, people were always telling me I was the descendant of a very famous family,” Izzy says.
All of Izzy’s extended family – all of whom are haredi, of course – now live in Chicago, New York and Jerusalem and most of them are even heads of yeshivas. Since both Izzy’s father and grandfather each showed their own type of rebelliousness, it is important first to understand their stories. Izzy’s grandfather, Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel Eichenstein, the first Zidchover Rebbe of Chicago was the first one to stray from the family line when he decided against tradition to leave Europe and move to Chicago in 1920 where Izzy’s parents, Moshe and Sarah Eichenstein, who were born in Poland, later met, got married and raised a family.
In the 1960s, Izzy’s father also rebelled when he decided to take a major risk by accepting the position of Rabbi of a non-haredi synagogue. Both religious and non-religious Jews prayed at this synagogue, and scandalous to the extended Eichenstein family, men & women sat together and a microphone was used on Shabbat, so of course this was considered a major scandal in the eyes of the haredi community. Rabbi Moshe Eichenstein was always strict in his observance – but, as a member of a respected haredi family, deciding to become the rabbi of such a synagogue where – God forbid! – most of the members of the congregation drove to services was shocking and embarrassing to the extended Eichenstein haredi family.
“In the 1960s, my father, like most Rabbis, wanted to make a good living. So he asked the head of the Chicago Yeshiva for permission to become the Rabbi of a non-haredi synagogue. And he was granted permission,” Izzy says. “My father didn’t want to live like most of my extended family. He wanted to make money and improve our standard of living, so he decided to work for a non-haredi synagogue in order to make money with which he could support his family. At the time, a community rabbi was considered a prestigious position and it paid well. My father was loved, valued and respected by the synagogue members. The only problem was that the synagogue was not haredi, and my father was very conflicted. He made a nice living for our family, but my extended family spoke ill of him behind his back. However, when they needed money, they always came to him, and he always helped them.”
Rabbi Moshe Eichenstein’s controversial decision exposed his son, Izzy, to new people and cultures that were very different from the way of life he had known until then. “The family I went home to after services at the synagogue was very different from the families of the other kids,” Izzy recalls. “The community where my father worked was not religious at all and I was exposed to influences that most haredi boys my age were not. In the haredi community, people are always asking boys about that week’s Torah portion. But all I was interested in was baseball and girls. I didn’t want anything to do with the Torah portion.”
His exposure to the world outside of the yeshiva as a child created an internal split inside Izzy. His mother and father still expected him to be the perfect yeshiva bochur and to spend hours learning kodesh. But Izzy, who had tasted the forbidden fruit of the outside world wanted to be free of the shackles of the religious world. This double life of lies turned his world into a nightmare. He suffered from internal and external struggles – within himself and between him and his family. He didn’t know which way of life was the right one.
“The life of a religious boy is very restrictive and monotonous,” Izzy explains. “Every morning you wake up, pray, go downstairs, sit with your parents, say hamotzei, eat, and say birkat hamazon. Then you go to the yeshiva and learn gemara half a day and then math, science and other secular subjects the other half.”
At least in most if not all of the US haredi schools students learn core curriculum studies.
“Yes, it is a requirement in US schools. But I wanted to live a normal life and I couldn’t because it embarrassed my parents. For example, I wanted to listen to rock music and go out with girls, but this wasn’t socially acceptable in my parents’ community, so I had to hide these things. They made me wear a kippah and go with my tzitzit out all the time, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to be free. But I knew that if I did these things everyone would stop talking to me.” I dearly wanted to be loved and accepted by my parents, this always weighed heavily on me.
In his book, Eichenstein recounts a series of events that led him to eventually turn against his family and abandon Orthodox Judaism. The first incident he tells in the book occurs when he was at summer camp in Wisconsin. “After two weeks at camp, my father and mother came to visit me. They told me that they had decided to take me out of this camp and were sending me to a haredi (ultra-orthodox) camp in New York. I told them that I didn’t want to go. But they made me go against my will. I gave my parents the silent treatment the entire way from Wisconsin to Chicago. My father told me that I wouldn’t be able to go back to Chicago if I didn’t find a Yeshiva that was considered haredi (ultra-orthodox) enough. In the end, I met a group of boys from a yeshiva in Pittsburgh who introduced me to their Rosh Yeshiva and in the end I went there.”
Why didn’t your parents send you to a less haredi (ultra-orthodox) camp in the first place?
“My father was a very conflicted man and was under immense pressure from our famous haredi family.”
Izzy’s conflicts with his family did not cease. “At 18, I began to let my hair grow longer,” Izzy says. “My brother was supposed to get engaged (to a woman who later became his wife) and my parents told me that I couldn’t be home when her parents arrived because my hair was too long and it would embarrass them. So I wasn’t home when my brother got engaged because my hair was too long. It was very difficult living at home in those days.”
At the age 19, Eichenstein decided to finally leave the religious world. “It was Friday night,” he recalls, “and I was having Shabbat dinner at my sister’s house in New York. On my way home, I did something that I had never done before: I took a train. On Shabbat. That was when I decided that I no longer wanted to live a lie.”
After this, it was only a matter of time until he stopped wearing a kippah and said goodbye to the haredi way of life. “When I stopped wearing my kippah, I suddenly felt free. It was an amazing moment. Not long afterwards, I also stopped keeping kosher. I suddenly felt like I was living in a new world that I loved. I started going out to restaurants and movies.”
Where did you go the first time you went out as an non-observant Jew?
“To a non-kosher restaurant. I had a huge steak.”
How did your family react when you finally stopped being religious?
“It took a few more years until I completely broke with religion. As expected, as soon as my family found out that I was no longer keeping Shabbat and kashrut, they didn’t want anything more to do with me. This has been a source of great pain for me throughout my life, but there’s nothing I can do about it. There’s a saying – My way or the highway! When you are a part of a haredi family, you have to live exactly like everyone else does. And if you don’t, they ignore you, don’t speak with you. It’s as if you don’t exist. It’s a very lonely way to live. I’m only in touch now my brother who is a haredi Rabbi in Chicago. Expect for my contact with him, I’m completely cut off from the rest of my family.”
The biggest challenge for people who leave the haredi community is finding their way in a secular world that is so new and different from where they came from. Eichenstein found himself dealing with this exact issue. He says that it took him a long time to learn how to function in society. “The biggest problem is that you don’t know any other way to live,” Eichenstein explains. “I had to build a new life for myself from scratch. I had to learn how to live on my own in a strange new world that was so different from how I grew up. This was an incredibly hard thing to do. I went to a psychologist for years to learn how to integrate into the society.”
In the end, it was getting a job that saved Eichenstein’s life. He started working in advertising. This helped him not just with making a living. Through work he met new people, many of whom were women. “It was a liberating experience. I began working in an advertising agency where I met lots of new people. Lots of girls. I suddenly realized that people liked and respected me. This might sound ridiculous, but this was amazing for me. I felt as if I had just been released from prison.” Eichenstein worked in advertising for a while and then moved into real estate, the field in which he still works today.
When he was 26, Eichenstein met Rita, who later became and still remains his wife. The couple has three children: two boys who are 32 and 30 years old and a daughter who is in her 20s. He has never forced them to do anything they didn’t want to do, especially when it comes to religion. “Each of my kids has a different way of expressing their religious beliefs,” Eichenstein says.
Even having grandchildren did not bring Izzy closer to his parents. “My family limited their connection with my children since they were not growing up in a religious environment,” Eichenstein says. “My parents were very nice to the children, but as soon as they had grown up, even this slight connection waned. I wanted my children to grow up thinking for themselves. They are always quoting what I said when they were young: ‘If someone tells you they have all the answers to life, run the other way – quickly!’”
And yet, despite all of this, when Izzy talks about his parents (who passed away in the last decade) his tone becomes softer. “I waited to publish this book until they had passed,” he says sadly. “I would never have published my story while they were still alive. I did not fill my book with anger, but with love. I honored my parents my entire life. I told my wife that as long as they are still alive, I will not write one thing that would hurt them even a little. They were very sensitive people and did so much good for others. Izzy’s father was a chaplain at two hospitals in Chicago; he spent a lot of time devoting himself to assisting others.
Do you think your father came to terms with how he had treated you after you left the haredi world?
“Ten years before he died, my father told me that he hadn’t raised me properly. I think he succumbed to family pressure and it snowballed from there. My father desperately wanted me to be a good religious boy, and he was deeply disappointed that I wasn’t. He saw early on that I wasn’t interested, and felt guilty that he had exposed me to a different kind of synagogue. My family believed that they were trying to save me.” I am quite sure they blame my father and his acceptance of being a rabbi at a non-religious synagogue for my exposure to the outside world: I am the living proof of why people in the haredi world should stay
strictly insular and only associate with others exactly like themselves.
One of the reasons that Eichenstein is sharing his story, is to talk about a different kind of Judaism. “My problem with the haredi community is that they are very egocentric,” he claims. “They are not willing to share the beauty of Judaism with others. They prefer to keep it for themselves. In Israel, for example, many more Jews would feel a closer connection to Judaism if haredim were a little more open and flexible.”
Eichenstein visits Israel quite often, and he hopes that within a few months his book will be translated into Hebrew. “I visit Israel because I love the idea of being a Jew there. There is no other place where Jews are free to be Jewish.”
Eichenstein also has a message for others who, like himself, have chosen to leave the haredi world. “I want to help them,” he says. “Many people who’ve left the haredi world have written to me that I gave them the strength to go on. It’s very, very painful to be rejected by your family. There are 24 hours in the day and if you spend most of your time hiding who you really are and refusing to accept that people don’t love you – this is the worst feeling. If you are a parent of a child who no longer wants to be religious, please try to love your child in any way possible.”
By the way, do you still believe in God?
“Yes. God has no religion.”