Inspired by the work of Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola who studied the situation of Christian clergy who become atheists and created the Clergy Project, a support group that enables these late unbelievers to secretly share their experience with others going through the same transition, Paul Shrell-Fox, a clinical psychologist and researcher at Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, realized that there must be rabbis in the same boat. So he put out a call for them, and finds that their experience is similar to that of disbelieving clergy.
Only 11 people accepted Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox’s call. “The fear of exposure was too big,” he says, “and some of them simply did not feel comfortable enough to open up. Those who did were questioned and interviewed in order to receive a clearer picture about the personal coping in light of this problematic situation.”
“Most of them are still there because they love community life, their friends, the Kiddush after the Shabbat morning prayer. Most of them are 40 and 50 years old – not exactly an easy age to start a ‘cultural emigration.’ Moreover, and that’s a very important parameter, most of them make a living off the profession, and their livelihood depends on their faith, even if just outwardly.
“The same rabbi who teaches in the school is afraid to take a step out, because he is economically dependent on the community. In a different economic climate it may have been different. An Israeli Orthodox rabbi, who teaches in a religious academic framework, may lose his job, and again, it’s uncertain he will find an alternative.
“The study of the clerics [in the Clergy Project] began from a small group too, and today we are talking about 150 active participants and hundreds of visits to their forums by unique users. I am very much in favor of creating such a virtual support group here too, because there is no doubt this phenomenon exists, and my goal is to ease the distress.”
It must be really tough, especially for those rabbis in the ultra-Orthodox community to come out as disbelievers. Not only does their extremely narrow education and lifestyle make them unequipped to do anything else, but the risk of total shunning by their close-knit community is extremely high. They need all the help and support they can get.