When Lazer Introlegator was born, his parents were not religious. In fact, they were a pretty typical secular Jewish family. But then, something changed. His parents had their “G-d moment.”
“The doctor told my parents that they couldn’t have any more kids. My father said that if they were able to have more kids, he would become religious. And they ended up having three more kids after me…. So they became religious.”
Lazer’s family became deeply immersed in the Chabad community, a branch of Hasidic Judaism that actively recruits secular Jews. He was sent to Chabad preschool and then continued on through the Chabad education system. From ages of 14-16 he attended the Lubavitch Mesivta of Chicago, then he continued on to Yeshivas Beis Dovid Shlomo in New Haven from ages 17 and 18. Finally, at age 19 he enrolled in Oholei Torah in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Secular education was limited to basic English and math, and even that stopped once he reached eighth grade. As a yeshiva student, Lazer was expected to spend about 14 hours a day in religious studies. Although the days were long and grueling, Lazer tried his best to be a good student.
“I gave it my all and I did everything I could. I used to learn during lunch break, during dinner break, I used to learn after the school day was over.”
One of the most challenging aspects of Lazer’s education was the limited future it offered him.
“There’s a reason why yeshiva is from seven in the morning till nine o’clock at night. They don’t want their students to participate at all in the outside world. When I was 14 at a fabrengen (Hasidic spiritual gatherings), they forced everyone to have a shot of l’chaim (a toast) and to promise that we would never go to college. They were trying to get us to all say we’re going to be shluchim (emissaries spreading Jewish knowledge to other Jews).”
At the same time that his teachers were telling him not to go to college, they were also praising the successful religious doctors and lawyers that would donate large amounts of money to the yeshivas. This apparent hypocrisy confused Lazer.
“I wondered, ‘How did these people get to have this money to donate If they didn’t go to college?’ So it’s okay for them, but it’s not okay for us? Something doesn’t make sense.”
Besides the lack of education, Lazer also experienced emotional and physical abuse during his time in the Chabad education system. He particularly remembers fabrengens as a time where rabbis were free to “rough up” the students. Farbrengens were often mandatory parts of school that lasted late into the night.
“It’s so normalized that you don’t even think to question. During fabrengens they usually pick on a couple of guys and yell at them to be more Chassidish, slap them around a bit. Once, I had a rabbi burn my sweater because it had words on it. He took my sweater and he lit it on fire and then we danced around it.”
Despite the harsh environment and lack of secular education, Lazer was so immersed in the community it wasn’t until he was in Oholei Torah as a teenager that he began to question his path.
“I started to realize that the system never ends. After Oholei Torah, you do your shlichus (spread Jewish knowledge to other Jews), then you get married, then you have kids, then you’d be a teacher, then you’d be a rabbi. You’re always in that system. I realized I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be a rabbi, I don’t want to be a teacher. But I didn’t have any other aspirations because I wasn’t allowed to. I wasn’t allowed to dream of being an astronaut or of being an accountant. Because my life was laid out for me, I couldn’t have any aspirations.”
Lazer was having serious doubts about his future with Chabad, but he still wasn’t ready to leave. He knew that if he stayed in Oholei Torah, the next step of his education would be to go on shlichus, something he did not want to do. Instead, he reached out to a friend who was in an alternative Chabad yeshiva called Bais Menachem in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
“It’s not like a typical Chabad yeshiva. They don’t have a dress code. They let boys listen to whatever music they want. People described it as kind of like a hippie yeshiva. They were basically a way to get Chabad boys who were kind of leaving the fold to stay. But, I was using it the opposite way: to get my foot out the door.”
About six months into his time at Wilkes Barre, Lazer realized he wanted out of the system entirely. He moved back to Brooklyn and worked at a restaurant while he studied for his High School Equivalency Test (HISET). But the 70 hour work weeks made it almost impossible for him to prepare to take the test. Since getting an education was his top priority, Lazer began to consider other options.
Without even a basic secular education and extremely limited contact with the rest of the world, those who attended yeshivas typically have few job opportunities outside of the community. But, in Lazer’s case, he was able to reach out to his secular grandparents who invited him to come and live with them in California.
Once he reached California, the first big step for Lazer was taking his HISET. Because he had received such a minimal education, passing the test seemed almost impossible. Lazer spent long hours in the library studying to take his test.
After obtaining his HISET, Lazer went on to a community college, where he explored his interests and took remedial classes to fill in the significant gaps in his education. He found he had an affinity for science, something he probably never would have discovered if he hadn’t left the community.
“We shouldn’t have to leave the community to get an education. It’s ironic, because what the community is doing to keep people in the community is actually making people leave. If they opened it up and said, normalize college, normalize trade school, normalize doing anything other than becoming a rabbi, or teacher, I think the community would retain a lot more of the people that are leaving.”
Not only was Lazer acquiring new knowledge, he was also shedding some of the old ideas he’d learned from the Chabad school system. One of the most difficult things for Lazer to unlearn was the dismissive attitude towards non-Jews that was taught in yeshivas.
“We were taught that goyim are just not as important, like they don’t have their own complex thoughts, behaviors, emotions, like they’re not people just like us. It was only after I left, and I started making friends with non-Jewish people that I had to question that. It’s like… I didn’t learn English. I didn’t learn math, but I did learn that people who aren’t Jewish are not really people. It’s a very significant issue.”
Despite the many challenges he faced, Lazer was able to continue to advance in his studies. This year he’ll be graduating with a B.S. in neurobiology, physiology, and behavior.
As Lazer continues to rebuild his life, his relationship with Judaism as a whole is… complicated.
“When I left Oholei Torah, I was very upset at the community. I hated Jews, I hated Judaism. I didn’t want anything to do with it. But then, I went on Birthright that summer and it was the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s cheesy to say, but that trip changed me.”
Lazer said that the biggest realization he had when he was in Israel was that there is no one right way to be Jewish.
“My whole life I was in this bubble, and then I went to Israel, I was like, wow, everyone here is Jewish. And it doesn’t matter if they’re Chabad, if they’re conservative, reform. That really impacted me. I had been so deeply hurt by the community that for a long time I didn’t want anything to do with Judaism. But, in Israel I finally realized that Judaism and Jewish people are bigger than a few people who wronged me, even if it is systemic.”
Today, Lazer maintains a warm relationship with his parents and siblings. He continues to be active in the Jewish world, even attending Chabad events at his college campus. Despite the pain he experienced within the religious community, he said that he will always consider himself Chabad adjacent.
“There’s a lot of issues that need to be dealt with. I say that out of love for the community. Because if I didn’t love the community, I wouldn’t care. But I want the community to thrive and to thrive, they need to change something. Things can’t keep going on this way.”