At age 16, when she was attending a yeshiva in Teaneck, Anna Wexler realized she was an atheist.
“I found what we were learning in science class in the morning didn’t exactly mesh with what we were learning in our religious classes and our history classes,” she told NJ Jewish News in an April 24 phone interview. She said that when she asked her teachers, “‘How could the world only be 5,000 years old?’” they responded, “‘That is what the Torah says.’”
Her doubts put her in conflict with her Modern Orthodox parents, so Wexler ran away from her Fair Lawn home in 2001.
“I fell in with a group of friends who were also rebelling from Modern Orthodoxy,” she recalled. “We all started hanging out together and we experimented with drugs. It was a very rough time. I was continuously sleeping on the subways at night. We were all pretty wild. It was not a typical teenage rebellion.”
Her story and the experiences of three young Jews struggling with their religious upbringing are chronicled in a new documentary, Unorthodox, which the Montclair Film Festival will screen Sunday, May 4, at the Clairidge Bow Tie Cinema.
Wexler is codirector of the film with Nadja Oertelt, a Reform Jew who grew up in Princeton. “I had my bat mitzva and went to Hebrew school for many years,” she told NJJN. “I was involved in the National Federation of Temple Youth. Judaism for me is a cultural identity more than a religious one.”
Oertelt — who now works with digital interactive science media at Harvard University — and Wexler spent months before they found three rebellious teens who were about to spend a year in Israel after graduation from religious high schools. In addition to capturing them on camera before, during, and after their year abroad, each was given a camera to document his or her own experiences.
“We tell the story of them coming to grips with their identities as religious Jews and their own sense of spirituality and how that year affected them,” said Oertelt.
Wexler eventually returned home midway through her junior year of high school. She graduated from public high school and enrolled at MIT, where she is now pursuing a PhD in neuroscience.
Unlike some of the others appearing in the film, who rediscovered their religious roots, Wexler said, “I am still an atheist. It has taken a lot of time to mend the relationship with my parents, but we get along. We still live in very different worlds, and sometimes it is harder to relate than at other times.” Observing Shabbat and fasting on Yom Kippur, she said, “are times when they expect me to do things I don’t want to, so I don’t do them.”
“My life is very happy now,” she said.