Rabbi Avraham Tfilanski was a leading rabbi in one of the strictest ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel. His family of rabbis has been living in Jerusalem for over 200 years, and as a young man he was head of a large yeshiva and a brilliant expositor of Torah, Talmud and Halacha. Ultra-Orthodox Jews came to Rabbi Tfilanski from far and wide to study under his guidance.
And for twelve years Rabbi Tfilanski lived a double life. He went through the motions of performing as a renowned rabbi, all the while possessing no faith in the only God, and Judaism, he had known.
Tfilanski, or Avi as he now likes to be called, leads a movement of tens of thousands of former Orthodox Jews who, like him, have left the fold, but found a new way to faith in the living and loving God of the Bible.
I sat with Avi in our Jerusalem offices over coffee as he shared his story from heartbreak to healing and joy, and how he became the spokesman for Anusim, a growing movement of young Orthodox Jews crying out to be heard.
Israel Today: Give us a little background to your journey.
Avi Tfilanski: By the time I was 12-years-old I understood that my father was an idol worshipper, though he was the head of a large ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem. As a child I was abused violently by my father.
I am the first-born son in my family making this all the more difficult. It is hard to talk about, but when a boy has “romantic” relations with a rabbi, the child is considered the “problematic” one. I was punished by my father with violence, without anyone even explaining to me what the punishment was for.
I now know that many of those leaving the Orthodox community are suffering this kind of abuse. I am one of many.
How did you finally “come out”?
From the age of 21 I would visit a small second-hand bookstore just outside our Orthodox neighborhood. The owner, a former ultra-Orthodox Jew, had all these books considered heretical and forbidden. You could buy 5 books for $20. On the second floor he hid the really “dangerous” books on philosophy by Spinoza or Yochi Brandes. [There is an article about Yochi, a Hasidic Jewess who loves Jesus, in the February 2018 issue of Israel Today Magazine.]
One day my wife found these books under my bed. You need to understand that in marital relations in Orthodox families, spouses are very distant from one another. We even sleep in separate beds. When she discovered the books she stirred up a scandal in the family.
I was married for 17 years, and we brought six children into the world. Even at home I had to pretend to live as an Orthodox Jew for fear that my father would find out. My wife soon discovered that I was not keeping the traditions as required, like smoking a cigarette on the Shabbat. She told my father that I was having doubts about the Orthodox faith in God, and my family held a funeral for me. I was excommunicated from family, friends and the entire Jewish community. As I mentioned, my father was very violent, as this is the way he and many others like him believe they must punish in order to train their children, particularly the firstborn son.
I am not allowed to speak to anyone, not even my own children. A legal guardian was appointed by law over my children. I cannot see them, speak to them, or send them gifts. I am forbidden all contact with them.
This is why you have come to call yourself and others like you “Anusim” (literally “one who is coerced or raped”)?
Exactly. Anusim are people who have been wounded deeply in the Orthodox community and are no longer able to continue with the “show” of religious hypocrisy.
One of my friends is still the leader of an Orthodox congregation and he has physically abused hundreds of children. He taught in a school where he would hit the children violently. Using physical force to discipline children is the normal acceptable practice in these communities.
We now know that there are at least 30-40,000 Anusim. All of these, men and women, are running desperately from some trauma. There are now congregations and fellowships with tens of thousands like myself.
Some are still sitting on the fence, so to speak, waiting. But many more are coming out. There is like a “Me too” Haredi movement of people speaking up about the abuse.
Before I opened up and revealed this skeleton in the closet, nobody had any idea just how bad the situation is. Once I began to speak out publicly, investigations and research began, most of which are based on the original essays and reports I wrote on the subject.
Why did you finally decide to make this public? What motivated you?
Loneliness. After 12 years of thinking I am the only one that has doubts about the Orthodox faith, I just couldn’t stand the alienation any longer.
Nine years ago, I made it public that I am Yotze B’sheala (lit. “Going out in Question,” playing on the Hebrew for repentance, Hozer B’tshuvah, lit. “Return to the Answer”). I thought I was alone, but when I came out I found hundreds, then thousands, that are just like me. I had no intention of turning anybody against my family or the Orthodox community. I simply could not endure the loneliness any longer.
Now you are helping the other Anusim?
I discovered a Judaism that is amazing. I discovered the God of Israel, Who is amazing. Ten years ago, anyone who left the Orthodox community was or became an atheist. There was no such thing as a Yotze B’shelah who was not an atheist. I am now teaching communities of Anusim how to rediscover the God of Israel even after such horrendous trauma.
I understand God in a different way. God has become alive to me. Everything we see is made by God, but this is only a small part of Who and what God is.
Opening my mind to think for myself gave me an even greater appreciation for the Talmud and religious Jewish thinkers.
We have made over a dozen series and documentaries for Israeli television and now I am working on and playing the main character in a new drama. Our story has become very popular in Israel.
Why is that?
It took 200 years from the Enlightenment to reach modern Zionism. Now we are here, Jews from all over the world, and we are called the “New Jew.” There are so many groups of Orthodox Jews that are still living as though the Enlightenment never happened.
Now their children and grandchildren who were born in Israel develop a different way of looking at things. They begin to think differently, and they have the confidence to do so. The same Enlightenment that happened 200 years ago is now happening to the children of the Orthodox Jewish community.
Why can this happen now in Israel?
Because here we have freedom to practice religion in the way we want. We didn’t have this in Europe where the communities were so cloistered you couldn’t develop you own way of thinking about God and Judaism. The answer is the State of Israel. Here a Jew can be part of the Jewish people and accept other Jews who are not like themselves.
My family immigrated from Vilna, Lithuania and we have the same community here in Israel. Nothing has changed. Same culture, same religious practices, same Jews. If a Jew is different than us, we say, “He is not one of us. We don’t need to include him.” Here in the Land of Israel, anyone who wants to be a part of the Jewish people can because in Israel we are obligated by law to accept the one who is different.
In Jerusalem, when I want to think differently, where do I go? I simply move to a different street. And my friends have to see me and meet with me again and again. We can’t get away from one another!
Israel has absorbed about 1,000 different cultures. We are forced to accept one another.
Why is this so interesting now to Israelis?
Because our grandparents and great grandparents are watching as we are changing the way we live our lives, and they want to understand. I wrote 12 episodes for a documentary on how the Jewish world is changing since the establishment of the State of Israel and the generation of Jews that grow up in this land.
We live in the year 2022 and many religious Jews are still hiding what they think until they Yotze B’shelah. Israel is a pluralistic society, and you would think that people could think or believe however they choose. But in the Orthodox community if a husband even has a question as to a way of believing, he cannot tell his wife. If someone has doubts about the faith and she tells her husband he will demand she divorce him. And she will lose her family.
Have you been able to reconnect with your family?
I have been punished without possibility of contact with my family, including my six children and five grandchildren, for seven years. Now I am in the midst of a long and difficult process of restoring relations with some of my children.
When I left, I thought that I would never see them again. I was 36-years-old.
Two years ago, when my daughter turned 18 she decided that she had enough courage to contact me. We are now going together for counseling to bring healing to these broken relationships.
All my children have learned to be open minded. When they saw that I was able to leave and make a life for myself, and still believe in God, they understood that they too could read, write prose, songs and learn to enjoy life in a whole new way. They listen to popular Israeli music like Shlomo Artzi. They play musical instruments. They remained in the Orthodox community, but what we call Orthodox-lite. They wear jeans. They are not like I was as an ultra-Orthodox person.
I am entirely at peace with the decision I made. It may very well be that there will still be more troubles on the way. And maybe I am only partially on the way, but I left my children a heritage of free choice, free thought. The Bible is supposed to set us free from slavery, right? Well, that begins with freedom of choice for each and every man and woman.
I gave my children the gift of freedom to think for themselves. No one can make them slaves to extreme religious thinking.
I also teach them as Jesus said, “Forgive them Father, they do not know what they are doing.” I believe Jesus is one of the greatest Jewish prophets.
Judaism as I knew it is dead. I see this as a revival or restoration of Judaism. When we explain to people who have left religion and show them how rich and beautiful the Bible really is, they say, “Whoa, I didn’t know that God actually exists.”
I see this as a fulfillment of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel’s prophecy. These Anusim are restoring a smile to their faces, and they are happy again to live here in the Land of Israel.
This is not Orthodox Judaism. This is simple faith in God, like your grandmother believed in God.
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