Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Kids at Risk

I went to get some routine bloodwork done. The woman helping me was clearly "in the know" about Orthodox living, and was proud to show it. After some Jewish geography, she dropped the bomb. "Can I ask you a question?  If your child decided not to be Orthodox anymore, what would you do?"

Seriously. What is it about me that invites these questions??

To be clear, I'm pretty sure just about every Orthodox parent has at some point feared just this. Following are excerpts from a friend of ours, expressing his thoughts when "it" happened to him. It's long, rambling, searingly honest, and almost verbatim. 
Welcome to the club.
I know what you’re thinking: “not my kid.”  I hope you’re right. But you may be lying to yourself – like so many others.
Yes, I’m just like you. I come from a great family – as does my wife. Our home is loving and open. Our family dynamic is strong. We are a model to so many. We are not poor in any way. Our children have everything they need. 
We did it all right. We have no regrets. Yet it happened to us. 
We learned many lessons the hard way – lessons that have allowed us to keep a strong connection to our struggling child – to keep a truly positive and loving relationship. Lessons that are universal – that apply to ALL children.
We daven [pray] every day: "Hashem [God], give us the strength and wisdom to persevere. Give us the gift of chochma [wisdom] for continued personal growth. Allow us all to come out the other end as greater people." 
I thought it couldn’t happen to me. I’ve got a great marriage, a happy home, we’re open-minded, warm, and friendly, we don’t have crazy expectations of our children, they have what they need… no, it can’t happen to me. Think again.
Why am I writing this? Mostly for myself – to gain clarity. Writing really helps. I also believe that Hashem has guided us with an extra dose of siyata d’shmaya [Divine assistance] and allowed us to find the perfect people to mentor and guide us through these challenging times. We want to share what we’ve learned – and for the honest sincere parents out there who want the best for their children – we are confident that they will find some valuable lessons in this article.   
Who do you blame? Whose fault is it? How do I take control? How do I show my child who’s boss? These and hundreds of other questions fly through our minds. What will my family say? What will the neighbors say? 
And let’s be honest, in our cruelly judgmental society – where so many people are more concerned about how others perceive them – when we think about "straightening out our child," is it for the child or for our reputation?   
This child can be the catalyst for the most exceptional personal growth you’ve ever experienced. This child will change you in a way that nothing else ever can. This child is your key to greatness. Are YOU ready? 
They are hurting – they feel like failures – they’re NOT bad kids. They want to belong and feel whole. Treating them as if they’re bad is a guaranteed way to ensure they’ll hate you and the system for a long time – and with good reason. 
I know it’s painful. Feel their pain. Allow it to envelop you. A wise woman who has dealt with many of these challenging situations told me, "Remember, as much as it hurts you, your child has even more pain."  We, as parents, are in pain. Yet, if we’re healthy we have a life outside of our challenges. Our child is living a nightmare of pain. They want to belong so badly, they want you to be proud of them, and yes – they want to be like everyone else. 
Deep in their hearts (and sometimes not so deep) they want to know what’s wrong. "Why can’t I be like my other siblings?"  It will take them some time to figure themselves out and how they can see themselves as valuable members of a Torah-based society.
These aren’t bad kids! There are very few bad kids. These are kids who don’t fit and they’ve been destroyed so badly inside that they simply don’t care.  Forcing them to conform – pouring your frustration on them – will KILL your child – and you only have yourself to blame. 
The litmus test for this principle is anger and frustration. If you have any anger or frustration towards your child – you’ve got some growing to do.  Let them live THEIR lives, not YOURS. This is really hard. We want the best for our children. We will do anything to see them successful. Yet, it would be a worthwhile exercise to go into a quiet room and ask yourself the following question, “Am I embarrassed of my child in front of my friends?”

Do you believe your child has greatness? Do you know where your child excels? Where are they unique? Where do they stand out? Why are you proud of them? If you can’t answer these questions – you’ve got a problem.

How can you be a good parent and be your child’s best advocate if you don’t believe in them?  We are living in a society where we value children. A family of 10 children is commonplace. This is a real example of our clear values. Parenting doesn’t end with having a child and sending them to school. That’s the easy part. The challenge is to dig deep within yourself to gain a sense of your child’s greatness and steer him in that direction.

Have a picture in your mind of them being successful in the future. It’s not enough to believe it – although it’s a great first step – you must articulate it. Again and again.

This doesn’t mean you have to approve of what they’re doing. Nor do you have to share their values. But you MUST appreciate their inherent goodness and potential – and you must find the areas in which they excel.

We all know that Hashem created each and every person as a unique individual with a unique set of talents. As a parent you’ve been charged with helping your child find the areas where they can excel. Are they artistic? Dedicated? Funny? Thoughtful? Creative? Musical? Friendly? Hard-working?

What do they enjoy? Find those areas and encourage them. Please don’t be bound by what others find acceptable – don’t abdicate your parenting to them. If your child doesn’t feel that you believe in them – you’re a failure as a parent.   Hashem has given you a great gift – the greatest gift – a child. You may be a Rosh HaYeshiva [spiritual head of a rabbinical institution] or a CEO, you may be a millionaire and a macher. All of that pales in comparison to your role as a father or mother. You will ultimately be judged on how you dealt with your children.

Separate your nisayon [test] from their nisayon. You’re not a BAD parent (I hope) – recognize that Hashem has given them a nisayon – and you CAN’T win their nisayon for them. You can only deal effectively with your nisayon. Welcome to the gift of growth. This is an unparalleled opportunity.

We only grow when we are challenged – and this challenges us like nothing else

We only grow when we relinquish control – and that’s the only way to succeed

We only grow when we REALLY rely on Hashem – and now we’re in a foxhole

We’re forced to find the best in them

We’re forced to keep our mouths shut

We’re forced to reassess our parenting skills

We’re forced to think about the values we hold dear – and what is being transmitted to our children. 
Stop the religious fight. They’re empty inside and feel apathetic (at best) towards yiddishkeit [Judaism]. 

Do you think they don’t know what’s right and wrong? Do you think they need your reminders? Do you really think it’ll help? So GIVE IT UP. Never tell them the obvious. It’s counterproductive.

Your job is to be totally positive and not demanding. Ask yourself, "Why is it so important for me to mention this halacha [law]?" If it’s for your reputation – forget it! They will see right through you. If it’s because you’re worried about their neshama [soul] – then the right question is, "What’s the most effective way to engage them?" It’s not about getting them to do the right thing today – it’s about allowing them to begin to feel connected again. If they feel connected everything else will follow.

Focus on the joy in mitzvos – don’t expect them to join in – allow them to see the experience.

How real are mitzvos to you? Are they an expression of ahavas Hashem [love of God]? Are they an expression of hakoras hatov [gratitude] to Hashem? Do you live with "ivdu as Hashem b’simcha" [the concept of serving God with joy]?  If you’re just "going through the motions" your kid knows it – this is a wakeup call for you – to start making Torah and mitzvos real for you. You can fool a lot of people... but not your kids. 

Remember the choice is yours – will you sit and kvetch about how "the system" is at fault… or will you recognize the great gift Hashem has given you – the incredible opportunity to be forced to grow as a person. If you can shift your perspective – this can be the greatest growth opportunity you have ever experienced. 
I learned that whatever my gut told me was wrong! It was quite a humbling experience. I was convinced that it was my job to be mechanech [an educator], and I learned that it was my job to let go. It’s my job to fix my child? Wrong again – it’s me who needs the fixing.

No one is equipped to deal with this alone – and if you think you are - you need help more than everyone else – because it means that you’re an arrogant fool as well.

Please, I beg of you, don’t speak to your friends for advice, don’t ask your parents. Speak to someone who is an expert in this field. It can save your child’s life. 
Finally, pray.  Let’s be honest – for many of us it’s hard to make davening [prayer] real. I remember the lyrics of a song from when I was young. "You can get up every day and pray those same quotations, you can do it all on the outside going through all the motions…"  These words always spoke to me – as I recognized how shallow much of my davening was.

Remember this nisayon [test] is your ticket to greatness. Don’t squander the opportunity kvetching. You can make your davening real. You can beg! You can speak from the depth of your heart and soul....
There's more. Much more. All of it honest and growth-oriented.

My answer, then, to my erstwhile questioner in that random suburban lab, should have been: "If my kids, God forbid, decide to give up this faith that means the world to me, I sure hope I can be just like this writer."



  1. Wow. Thank you for sharing this. And do you often get questions like that?

  2. I know very few families where all the children have the same level of religious observance as their parents and grandparents.
    Some kids are a mirror image of their parents, but most move to the right or to the left.

    In terms of religious observance, I am not the same as my parents, and my parents are different from their parents. None of my five siblings have an identical approach to Judaism.

    Yes I would like my kids to grow up to be just like me, and that is how I am educating them, however if one (or more) of them goes "off the derech". or "frums out", or becomes Chabad, Bretzlov, Satamer, "Open Orthdox", a Kahanist, or any other expression or non-expression of Judaism, should I be surprised? Should I reject them as a my child?

  3. Thanks for sharing. I just want you to know that I have friends who struggle with this when their children shift from Reform Judaism or Conservative Judaism, or "just" Jewish to more traditional (either Orthodox as they may define it) or start observing certain mitzvot that they were not raised with in their family home. This can cause as much of a soul searching as the situation your write about. We are all so wrapped up in seeing our kids as successful (in so many orbits), I love what the writer wrote about letting them learn and live and succeed and do the tests given them (by HaShem or whoever might be testing them!), and not stepping in to pass those tests for them.

  4. I wish I had read this 10 years ago.
    I TRULY want my kids to live an observant life FOR THEIR benefit. Although their life will be far from perfect, I truly believe that living a Torah observant life the way Hashem intended us to live it, is an extremely meaningful, directed life. I feel it provides the best opportunity for a successful marriage and home life. It helps you grow every day of your life.
    Although I believe this with every fiber in my being, I don't feel this is what came across to my kids. I was not immune to worrying about what other people thought. For example, if my kids weren't dressing modestly enough, I felt it was a reflection on me and my parenting. Instead of emphasizing all of their good qualities (which thank G-d) they have many, I was more focused on how they looked when they walked out of the house. Not to belittle the importance of modesty, but I now see so clearly that there are much more important things to focus on. My kids are bright and sensitive and giving. They are responsible and have allot of common sense. They are great communicators in writing and in person. They are self motivated... the list (thank G-d) can go on and on. But the first thing others see (especially those who don't know them) are how they are dressed. I think our community puts allot of emphasis on this quality. I should add, that although I would like my kids to dress more modestly, compared to the secular world, they are still extremely modest. I do feel I missed the mark terribly in this regard, when my kids were younger. I put way too much emphasis on how they dressed then on who they were. And they knew it before me, that I was so concerned about what others thought.
    Thank G-d, today I have an amazing relationship with my kids. The communication is incredibly open and honest. They are really incredible kids in many ways. They are not all living a Torah observant life to the extent (if at all, in one child's case) that I would like. I would like them to be more committed and more connected to Hashem, because as they get older and marry and have a family, G-d willing, I think it will provide them with the richest, most meaningful life (if they are following in the ways of the Torah the way Hashem intended us to).
    In the past I've blamed allot on the schools, some of the faculty, people in the community etc. I do feel there is allot of room for improvement in these areas and I do feel discussions like these on Ruchi's post, are really fantastic. But in the end, as the writer on this post said, it's our challenge. How we raise our children and deal with their and our disappointments is a huge opportunity for growth. Thank you to the writer of this post and to Ruchi for "putting it out there"!

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  6. honestly - I think my kids are following exactly in my footsteps - by choosing their own level of observance that's comfortable for them. They actually have been asked by friends if they dare come home dressed as they are [or do they dress differently for me??] and I thank G-d that they laugh at the question. G-d forbid that their mitzva observance not be their own but only for "show".

    I have tried to inculcate in myself - and hopefully in them as well - that what's under the hat matters more than the type of head covering in use [if at all?]

    let's get things straight - asaik, being a mentch is more important Upstairs than which hechsher food you eat. As much as chabad are strict in the latter, the basis for all yiddishkeit is love for your fellow Jew - and if I can't love my own children unconditionally, then who?

    1. Rena, at the risk of going off topic: This is a sweet post to read, thanks for giving me that insight into your Jewish thinking. Can I ask about the basis of it all being love for fellow Jew? It has come up on the blog before, but why (I mean this truly, not rhetorically) should you love your fellow Jews? Even the awful ones? Is it a particular commandment that makes this more important than (it sounds like with your "the basis of...") other Jewish responsibilities?

    2. SBW I want to take a stab at answering your question. It is a Mitzvah to love your fellow Jew. I once had a class on the verse " You Shall Love Your Neighbor as Yourself." It was trying to answer the question of why? It's not realistic that you're going to be able to do this, sometimes people just don't get along, you find them annoying etc. The teacher suggested that this verse was conveying the message that you should want for your neighbor what you want for yourself. Just as you might like a family, job, house etc. you should also want that for your neighbor and be able to empathize with either their joy in attaining what they want or their sorrow when they don't have it. Also, this verse may be referring to other Jews and not all people, but I don't know. Let's hope someone more knowledgeable than me can answer that.

      In terms of loving fellow Jews, instead of say all other people...I think this is because the Jewish people are like one giant family. In the same way you would strive to love your siblings, cousins etc., one should apply that concept to the Jewish people.

    3. The concept of love for a fellow Jew is more than the love for another member of your family. The kabbalistic concept of the Jewish people is that all the generations together are a composite of an entire body, it's as if you're the right hand of this body and your fellow Jew is the left - would it be possible for one hand be angry at the other one? This is how we should attempt to feel about our fellows.

      Not only that, but the Talmud teaches that the exile was brought about thru "sinat chinam" - unjustified hatred, If you read the history of our people, you discover that it was hatred of our fellows that brought about the destruction of our Holy Temple and the ensuing exile, that it was infighting that caused Jewish informers to call in the Roman armies.

      Therefore, the Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that we must endeavor to bring our redemption thru "ahavat chinam" - unjustified love - in other words, even if [or especially if] that Jew really doesn't deserve our love.

    4. Thanks Rena. Interesting. Do other Os not have this emphasis on loving fellow Jews? Or is it justified differently?

  7. This is a great post! I often think about how important it is to avoid the "what will they think of me?" trap and do what's right for our kids. I would also hope I could handle this test as well as the author of that piece.

  8. I used to think to myself, "How would I react if one or more of my children decided to become Observant Jews?" The thought of it really freaked me out. Now I can see that we all struggle with the "what if my kid isn't just like me" question. What if one of my children is gay? What if one of my children marries a non Jew. What if, what if, what if. If it's "all for the good" then I need to let go and let God and just love and accept my children no matter what their path is.

  9. I respectfully disagree with the author's point that someone who left Orthodox Judaism automatically feels empty inside. Our rabbi emeritus was raised in a loving Orthodox home, but became a Reform rabbi of national renown and, while now retired, is still beloved and active in the community and attends functions in the Orthodox and Conservative communities as well as his own.

    1. Thanks for this interesting comment, Katie. I am wondering about your rabbi's background, in what era/ community he was raised. I do known that today's teens who are raised in observant, Orthodox homes who leave the fold and are struggling (as the author describes) very rarely find their place as leaders or even active members in other denominations of Judaism. Usually they become apathetic about Judaism in general. That's my impression. I could be wrong of course.

    2. I agree with katie but from a different perspective - it's my own feeling/experience that those who left Orthodoxy felt empty before they left. Indeed, the reason they "left" is because, notwithstanding their family background and/or education, they were never really "inside" to being with.

  10. another thing I feel I need to add to this discussion, something that keeps me going during my own dark times: Out of the 8 children that Avraham Avinu fathered (Yitzchak and Yisham'el, as well as 6 more after remarrying Ketura after Sarahs' death) - only one (!) continued on his path of monotheism. Nonetheless, G-d calls him His "beloved" - for doing the best he could in trying to teach them all the correct path.
    We have our job in life in parenting them the best we can; after that, their choices are their own to make. We cannot make them in our image - only G-d can do that.

    1. for clarification: Nonetheless, G-d calls him [i.e. Avraham] His "beloved" - for doing the best he could in trying to teach them all the correct path. - See more at:

  11. Hi again Ruchi:
    The rabbi in question is in his 70s now; I never asked him the whys and wherefores. The point you make about the younger folks who leave Orthodoxy is very interesting. As an aside, I find the most Jewishly vibrant people I know are those who converted to Judaism (as a single person, not because of marriage.) I know these people in all the "branches" in our community and honestly, they are the least spiritually empty Jews I know...

    1. I think there's a big difference between converts, who are moving towards their chosen religion, and kids who drop their religious observance and are moving away.

  12. The question really is what was she really asking? Someone who asks what you would do if your child left the fold of orthodoxy really wants to know how important it is to you and why why why. She wants to know what is so great about Torah life.

  13. Warm homes are not really good. Cold ones are not good either. The problem in very warm homes where parents profess the perfection of Torah living is – it is a type of bullying. Many natural feelings and thoughts and modes cannot be expressed. It is stifling.

    This does not only happen in Torah homes. Middle class, cheerful, upscale homes can suffer this problem too. In fact, it is more an attribute of affluence and a society where we tend to tell everyone who asks, that we are “great!”

    A kid is a natural emotional being. He can tell if dad is using a cheerful tone as a threat – as a way to stifle the child’s natural feelings (some of which are not “up,” or “cheerful.”)

    I do not live in a Torah observant home – have spent a lot of time around “warm, loving, caring” Torah people. It is much more like being in an emotional straightjacket than most parents can see. As nice as it is, it is great to escape.

    Just something to keep in mind: you can enrage someone close to you with kindness. Because your bright light is washing out all of the different colors in their emotional palette. And they will register it unconsciously and then consciously.



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