Five years ago, inside the relentlessly enforced rules of the Haredi Judaism community and under its controlled environment, I began questioning my most ardent beliefs.
By age 14, I did not believe in my God or my religion. It was also at this age when I took a flight to a boarding school in Dallas to attend my first year in yeshiva, the Haredi equivalent of high school.
I was immediately given the chance to learn about beliefs that were not taught to younger students. The teachers preached that homosexuals should be stoned, African-Americans were created to be slaves and that life was nothing but an unimportant hallway to the real world just around the corner.
These archaic philosophies were far from the only disturbing aspect of yeshiva. The first thing I noticed when I arrived was the suffering of the other students. Faced with immense pressure to study the cult’s laws and obey its most demanding commandments, many had nervous breakdowns or gave up and became depressed.
A student who slacked off in his studies (girls are barred from yeshiva) was immediately pushed to the bottom of the social ladder and made to feel utterly worthless. Sickened and saddened by what I saw, I resolved to do something.
My public rants combined with poorly kept secrets allowed word to quickly spread. Before I knew it, I was known as the atheist in a school filled with people who had, until then, thought that atheists were not real. This unintended and seemingly negative turn of events had far-reaching implications.
Students who had no idea that atheists existed suddenly learned that a regular kid, their good friend, was an atheist. It suddenly became an option. For the first time, the idea of leaving the cult was turned over in their minds.
I plan on continuing my fight to help free the kids who never got a chance to choose the life they will live.
Meshulum Ort, Lakewood N.J., graduated as valedictorian from Texas Torah Institute in Dallas and is a National Merit Scholarship finalist. He will be attending Rutgers University.
All students received $250 for their essays.