In the essays that follow, we asked contributors: How should parents respond when their child is no longer religious? We learned that when dealing with a child who leaves the Torah way of life, there are no pat answers. Everyone we spoke to stressed that every individual and every situation is unique. “It’s nearly impossible for me to give you an algorithm that will meet every family’s needs and issues,” said Rabbi Shmuel Gluck of Areivim, a community organization based in New York that guides struggling teenagers toward an independent and productive adulthood.
None of those we interviewed—whether parents, mental health professionals, rabbis or educators—claimed to be an expert, and no one offered quick fixes or a sure-fire formula for success. What they did offer were words of comfort, healing and advice.
Ed. Note: Tolerance, compromise, flexibility and understanding are all important components in any attempt to maintain a relationship with a child who has left the path of halachic observance. It is important for us to listen to what these children are telling us they need. However, the precise degree of such tolerance in any given case raises extremely complex issues of both halachah and family dynamics and must be discussed with a competent and sensitive rav. We offer here only the most general of guidelines.
How should parents respond when their child is no longer religious?
1. Set a balance between love and limits
David Pelcovitz, as told to Leah Lightman
What are the “ingredients” needed for the religious observance of children to reflect that of their great-grandparents? Studies have shown that there are three core elements that best predict the intergenerational passing of the baton of religion.
First, there is an ongoing warmth and connection between parent and child. This factor also often exists in cases of children who return after having left the fold. Call it the parent’s ability to metaphorically “hold the child’s hand.”
Parents can grow their connection with their children by giving them their complete and undivided attention for a few minutes each day. Listen to them share their thoughts without being distracted. Envelop them with connection. Are the televisions, computers, phones and other media off during dinnertime? Parents should spend time with their children and get to know them at every stage.
Second, there is a consistent message of connection, despite the parents not always condoning or allowing what a child does or wants to do. According to Chazal, the authoritative parent pushes away with the left hand while using the right hand to draw the child closer. It’s important to tell your children “no.” The Midrash tells us that parents who set limits for their children will be loved by their children. There must always be a balance between love and limits.
A child’s need to find his own way in the world must also be taken into account. Children can’t always internalize their parents’ teachings if they stay at home. Sometimes they need to go off and even test things a bit so they can learn to do things their own way.
The third predictor is the marital couple. Parents don’t have to think alike; they have to think together.
There are times when one child is struggling and requires more of the parents’ attention and resources than the other children. The Kotzker Rebbe said: There is nothing as unequal as the equal treatment of children. It is not easy for kids to see a sibling getting “more” from their parents. The key is not to argue with them. Hear them out. Let them emote. Validate and create space.
Ultimately, parenting is an art.
Dr. David Pelcovitz is the Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus chair in psychology and Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University and an instructor in pastoral counseling at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.
Leah Lightman is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action. She lives in Lawrence, New York, with her family.
2. Love your child unconditionally
The experience of having a child leave the Orthodox way of life is one of the most emotionally difficult occurrences in an Orthodox family—both for the child and for his or her family members. The question posed is, “How should parents respond?” But I think a more important and deeper question is, “How should parents and siblings think about the defection?” Often the initial reaction is shock, horror and fear.
Leaving the Orthodox fold does not occur in a vacuum. It is generally just one symptom of a much bigger issue—the child is often depressed and anxious. He or she is not succeeding or feeling valued at school. A child who leaves is a child in pain in his current setting. It is usually a last resort after months or years of trying to stay, of behaving in risky ways to numb the pain, and of going underground with chillul Shabbos and kashrus and other breaches of Yiddishkeit. Every child who leaves has a reason, and that reason will be different for each one. My husband and I have a number of children who no longer identify as Orthodox, and each one is different with a different journey and a different story to tell. The bottom line is that each child felt deeply unhappy and lonely in the frum environment and could not bear staying.
Leaving is painful. It is a symptom of something deeper or of a combination of factors. And that is the most important mindset to hold—for parents, siblings and community members.
And so a thinking parent must ask himself: How does our Torah teach us to respond when someone is in pain? How do we respond to emotional turmoil? As a religion of chesed, the answer is obvious. We must respond with kindness and with love. We must respond with trust and with acceptance. We must respond with inclusion. We must give the benefit of the doubt and give the child space to navigate the journey.
I think many parents coping with a child leaving Yiddishkeit, us included, struggle with two aspects: One, doesn’t acceptance look like approval? And two, what kind of message does this acceptance send to the other kids at home?
Leaving the Orthodox fold does not occur in a vacuum. It is generally just one symptom of a much bigger issue . . . Every child who leaves has a reason, and that reason will be different for each one.
I remember our daughter coming downstairs in a very short skirt. I met her eyes and told her she looked beautiful. We went out together with my head held high. Do I think for one moment that my daughter, who grew up in my home for nearly two decades, thought that I suddenly changed my hashkafah on short skirts? I can assure you she did not. The message she got was, “My mother loves me even more than she dislikes my skirt. My mother sees past my skirt to my inner self.” It makes absolutely no sense to tell a child something she already knows. If I disapprove of her skirt, or even tell her—very nicely—that she should respect our wishes and dress accordingly in our home, I simply drive a wedge between us and strengthen the idea that other places and other people are more loving and more accepting than I. She’ll definitely still wear the skirt—just not in front of me. So now she’ll hide her lifestyle from me. What have I accomplished?
A final point I want to mention is the importance of emunah and self-care. When a family is in crisis for any reason, it must strengthen itself in emunah—that Hashem runs the world, that He tests us because He loves us and not because we are bad people, that He sees all our efforts and all our tears. This may be achieved via a rav, a network of friends, shiurim, tefillah or any other avenue. A parent of a child in crisis is, like any other primary caregiver, subject to burnout and exhaustion. We must care for ourselves physically and emotionally so that we will have the ability to care for the precious souls Hashem has entrusted to us.
Rebbetzin Ruchi Koval, co-founder and associate director of the Jewish Family Experience, runs women’s character development groups and is a certified parenting coach and motivational speaker.
I was sitting in a car repair shop learning with a student when an elderly gentleman approached us. He said he did not normally do this, but he felt compelled to share his story with us. (I assume this had to do with the fact that we were wearing kippot and learning Torah.) He began by describing how his parents struggled with observing the Jewish laws. His mother’s parents were very upset by this, as they were “very religious.” When he was five years old, the extended family was at his grandparents’ house for the Seder. When it was time to search for the afikoman, all the grandchildren eagerly jumped out of their seats. However, as the young boy tried to rise, his grandfather put his hand on him and made him sit down; he was told that he wasn’t allowed to participate as his parents were no longer observant. This led to a big fight between his parents and grandparents, and he had no relationship with his grandfather since. Today he is ninety-two years old and the pain of that event still sits with him.
While a child may not observe Judaism in the same way as his parents, or even in extreme cases where the child is completely disconnected religiously, there is always hope of reengaging with Torah and mitzvot. And it is important to understand that religion is not a zero-sum game.
Children crave the love of their parents. It is our responsibility as parents to love all our children unconditionally. The mishnah in Avot states (1:12): “Hevei mitalmidav shel Aharon . . . ohev et habriyot umekarvan laTorah—Be of the disciples of Aharon…loving your fellow men and drawing them near to the Torah.” Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook explains: The mishnah says to love your fellow Jew and bring him closer to Torah, not to love him in order that he should become closer to Torah. If this is true of a non-relative, how much more so of our own children. This is not to say that parents have to condone the rebellious actions of their child, but the child must feel that the parents still love him or her as a person.
How does a parent show love despite the pain he might feel at his child no longer being religious? It is crucial that the child feel comfortable coming home in general, but especially during Shabbatot and chagim. My experience in a secular college campus has shown that those students who do not go home because they no longer “fit in” will not have a chance to experience a Shabbat or chag at all if they do not have an opportunity on campus or are not motivated to seek it out.
There is ultimately one factor we cannot control: the fact that our children are their own people, with their own experiences, minds, hearts, souls and, of course, free will.
A parent also needs to find common ground to talk about with his or her child outside the scope of religion. This demonstrates that the parent is interested and engaged in the child’s life. At the same time, it is important to remember that children appreciate honesty. It is completely acceptable for a parent to tell his child that there are boundaries that have to be kept in the house. If the parent is open and respects the child, even while not supporting all of his choices, the child will naturally want to reciprocate that love and respect.
Rabbi TzviWohlgelernter is the OU-JLIC educator at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He has semichah from Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh and Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, as well as from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. He is a certified psychotherapist at the Family Institute of Jerusalem.
Many formerly religious Jews have told me how much they resent their parents, siblings, relatives or teachers perpetually telling them, “I know you’ll come back one day. I have no doubt.”
There is nothing to be gained by repeating these overtly patronizing clichés. Similarly, I don’t like the condescending term “not-yet-frum.” This term and all similar boilerplates are meaningless and pretentious quips that never bring anyone back to Judaism. In fact, they clearly invalidate the lifestyle of the person with whom you are speaking. Love must mean acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean agreement or affirmation of the lifestyle choice of the child; however, it does mean ceasing and desisting from constantly belittling and speaking disapprovingly of the irreligious individual’s lifestyle.
Picture the following: A child who is no longer religious returns home after a long absence. The parent embraces his child with a loving hug. The parent who claims he has “unconditional love” for his child is now put to the test. He must welcome his child to the Shabbos table even as he notices her cell phone protruding from her pocket. He must accept the fact that his child no longer eats kosher and not remain in denial.
In order to remove the tension and emotional turbulence in the home, parents must work on accepting who their child is. One cannot claim to love his child unconditionally but refuse to accept—notice I didn’t say endorse—his lifestyle. One can simultaneously accept someone’s behavior while not approving of it. However, one cannot openly resent his child and his behavior and simultaneously claim that he loves him unconditionally.
Recently, a relative of mine who is a rav in Williamsburg told me that even in his insular Chassidic community there are instances of intermarriage. When I expressed my total shock at how a former Chassid could engage in such a betrayal, he related the following story. A young Chassidic man who had left the fold was dating a non-Jewish woman. The young man’s mother came pleading with my relative to intervene with her son and at the very least “knock some sense into him” by convincing him not to marry a non-Jew.
The rav met with the wayward son and asked him—in Yiddish of course—“Maybe at this point in your life you are not frum. However, why marry a non-Jew? There are plenty of nice non-observant Jewish women in New York. Why break your mother’s heart?”
At this point the young man said with decisiveness, “Ich vil nor chasunah huben mit ah shiksa—I specifically want to marry a non-Jewish woman.”
The rav asked, “Why is that?”
The young man replied emotionally, “If I marry a non-Jew, my children won’t be Jewish and my mother will stop ‘tcheppering’ [badgering] me. I’ll finally have some rest from her.”
The story reinforced in me the realization that the constant badgering and nagging by his mother was certainly counterproductive. Indeed, it eventually led to an intermarriage. We must first and foremost focus on repairing and reconciling relationships. This is the be-all and end-all in responding to the child who has left the Orthodox fold; all the rest is commentary.
Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman is the rav of Congregation Ahavas Israel in Passaic, New Jersey, and a professor at Lander College for Women in Manhattan.
3. Respect, Respect and Respect
Daniel Kalish, as told to Nechama Carmel
A parent should never lose his belief in the inherent goodness of his child. I’m not saying this casually. I know a family where the father is a highly successful individual who is extremely self-disciplined. Yet he was blessed with a son who suffers from ADHD and who is therefore impulsive and often out of control. This father’s challenge is to learn to accept his son with his particular limitations—he has to have an expansive view and believe in the goodness of his son despite the stark differences between them.
I’m very opposed to parents using the word “disappointed.” The word implies that you now view the person differently, as if everything you previously thought about him or her was wrong. But should a mistake really destroy our view of our child? At one point, a student at the yeshivah took a rebbe’s car without permission. Unfortunately, he ended up wrecking the car. The rebbe was angry, rightly so, and gave the student well-deserved musar. However, despite the fact that he was upset, the accident did not cause the rebbe to view the student differently. His belief in the fundamental goodness of the talmid did not change because of one bad mistake, an incident of poor judgment.
When a family is in crisis for any reason, it must strengthen itself in emunah—that Hashem runs the world, that He tests us because He loves us and not because we are bad people, that He sees all our efforts and all our tears.
The bedrock of chinuch is respect. In fact, when I look for a rebbe [for the yeshivah], I look for someone who respects his students. “Don’t children have to respect adults?” some parents will ask. Of course they do, but a child who is respected respects others. Shlomo HaMelech says in Mishlei (9:8): “Al tochach leitz pen yisna’eka—Do not rebuke the scoffer, for he will hate you.” The question is asked on this pasuk: aren’t we obligated to give musar to everyone who needs it? Why are we exempt from giving reproof to the scoffer? Maharam Schick explains that what the verse really means is: Don’t rebuke someone whom you perceive to be a scoffer. For if you do, he will end up hating you.
In order to give honest rebuke, you must view the individual as an inherently good person. There’s a pure person, a ben Avraham there. I can’t emphasize the importance of this principle enough. This is no simple feat. When a child is guilty of causing enormous stress in the home, it inevitably changes our view of him. The flaws frustrate us and there’s a lot of emotion. What do we do? As parents we need to work on ourselves to perceive this child’s goodness and positive qualities despite the aggravation he or she might cause, often on a daily basis. And then we can start having an impact on him or her.
We all make mistakes. The goal for all of us is to have an ayin tov, to see the essential goodness in all people, and especially in our children. And I’m not talking about the child’s potential, but where he is now. It’s no coincidence that Avraham Avinu was the greatest impactor in history. He had an ayin tov. He saw the good. “Kol mi sheyeish bo sheloshah devarim hallalu hu mitalmidav shel Avraham Avinu . . .
ayin tovah . . .—Whoever possesses these three qualities is among the disciples of our father Avraham . . . a good eye . . .” (Avos 5:19). This is essential in chinuch.
Reish Lakish was a bandit and yet Rav Yochanan looked at him and said, “Chelcha l’Oraisa—your strength is perfect for Torah.” He saw his essential goodness. We must work on having an ayin tov.
Rabbi Daniel Kalish is menahel of Yeshiva Ateres Shmuel of Waterbury in Durham, Connecticut.
Nechama Carmel is editor-in-chief of Jewish Action.
4. Invest in the Relationship
Daniel Kalish, as told to Nechama Carmel
Every child yearns for a connection with his or her parents.
In Tehillim 92:2 it says: “Tov lehodos laHashem,” which we are accustomed to translating as, “It’s good to thank Hashem.” The general understanding of the pasuk is that just like it’s good to eat pizza and it’s good when the Mets win the game, it’s also good to thank Hashem. But I understand it somewhat differently. What is the essence of good? Lehodos laHashem, connecting to our gratitude to Hashem, having a relationship with Hashem.
If we want to know what tov is, we also need to see how the Torah defines its opposite—what’s not good. “Lo tov heyos ha’adam levado—it is not good for man to be alone” (Bereishis 2:18). If aloneness is lo tov, clearly the essence of tov is connection and relationship.
A crucial role of parents and rebbeim is to create and maintain connection and relationship. How is a relationship made? I’m not saying anything terribly original here, but we must make time. Often parents will tell me, “My child is not interested in a relationship. He pushes me away.” Persevere. A persistent parent will figure it out. Find something that interests your child and make it your interest. Quality time and good conversation—about topics other than his struggles!—should never be underestimated. Take, for instance, a child who is hyperactive. He’s struggling in school. He’s stressed out about the rules, about certain aspects of Yiddishkeit like prayer. A good conversation with his parents—these high-energy kids are often the best schmoozers—is worth gold. So much validation, so much encouragement can be conveyed in a good conversation. If you know how important it is to form a relationship with your children, you will get creative. One father I know, who was never interested in sports, now goes to ball games with his son; another father cracks jokes.
We must first and foremost focus on repairing and reconciling relationships. This is the be-all and end-all in responding to the child who has left the Orthodox fold; all the rest is commentary.
I recall a parent once telling me, “I’m going skiing with my son. What should I ask for in return?” That was one of the saddest questions I ever heard. Spending time with your child is not a business deal. Take your child skiing because you want quality time together. In exchange, you will have quality time, quality conversation, relationship and connection.
I know parents are genuinely busy and there are financial and other pressures, but having a relationship and a connection with your children must be a priority. It’s one of the most powerful things we can give to our families.
The more we stick to the above two principles of relationship and respect—and these are principles, they’re not tricks—the more likely it is that your child will come back. He’ll come back and he’ll do well.
5. Allow for Individuation
To begin with, it seems that some basic examination of why we become parents is in order. Aside from fulfilling the Biblical obligation to be fruitful, and satisfying basic maternal and paternal yearnings, each individual enters the world of parenting with his own unique set of expectations, hopes and dreams.
Some questions we need to ask ourselves are: Do I believe that my children should be a reflection of me? Should their ideals and choices mirror mine? How important is it for my children to identify and develop their own interests and talents? How do I relate to them when they express themselves in ways that feel alien to me? Do I sometimes experience a sense of shame from their behaviors?
As parents, we do so much for our children. Our daily lives include countless small and large tasks to assure that their health and well-being are provided for. Our moments are filled with multiple encounters with their minds, bodies and souls. It can be difficult under these circumstances to see our children as unique beings who have their own paths to forge as they grow. Since we have invested so much in them, we sometimes feel that they are extensions of us. However, as they grow older, this feeling may no longer be viable. An important developmental task is individuation. Somewhere in adolescence, every teen feels the need to separate from her parents—to identify herself in a way that is experienced as unique. This can feel like a rejection of all that a parent has done for his child and prove to be very painful for some parents. If we understand the importance of this stage in moving toward healthy adulthood, it can lend some perspective as a child starts to differentiate.
The rejection parents feel when a child leaves the fold is often heightened by what they may experience from the community when a teen starts to remove the vestiges of his upbringing from his external appearance. In those early stages of recognizing that a child seems to be changing, there can be a strong sense of fear and loss. Fear of otherness, fear of the possibilities and consequences that lie down the road, fear of isolation from the community, loss of a sense of family wholeness and unity and a loss of dreams for the future of the child. Giving oneself the time and space to experience a full range of feelings is crucial. Every person responds to challenges in vastly different ways. Tuning in to and accepting our own emotions and reactions can help us be open to the feelings of all members of the family who need support. Caring for and understanding ourselves is a first step toward developing one’s approach to the individual child and the new family dynamic.
Yael Wedeck, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice and co-founder of WorkAtIt, a program that helps struggling teens in the Metro New York and Northern New Jersey area find a practical way forward.
The question of how to handle children leaving the fold resonates in a way that is far too complex and individual to satisfyingly respond in general terms. That said, having learned Torah with, hosted Shabbat meals for, and spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours cultivating relationships with emerging Orthodox adults, I’ve come to identify a few factors that may be helpful for families navigating this question.
Fact: Our children are not extensions of us.
This is perhaps the toughest factor to internalize. We can live as passionate Jews, aspire to a “Torah personality,” sacrifice our time, energy and assets for our community. We can strive to raise our children with awe of God, to instill in them love of Torah, to engage their minds and hearts soulfully and intellectually, to educate them in the ways of halachah and to equip them with a fluency in learning. However, there is ultimately one factor we cannot control: the fact that our children are their own people, with their own experiences, minds, hearts, souls and, of course, free will. I frequently see students struggling with emotional disconnection from parents over life choices. Ironically, the most critical moments of reconnection boil down to a disjunction: They are not their parents and their parents are not them. Children’s choices should not be a threat to parents’ identities.
Remember to . . .
By Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman
Accept your child who is no longer religious for who he or she is.
Celebrate the relationship and cherish time spent together.
Take pride in your child’s accomplishments and achievements.
Know that the future is in Hashem’s hands, but appreciate the present—Hashem’s gift to us.
Fact: Life is comprised of millions of choices, not just one.
For better or for worse, life is complex. Identities are multifaceted. Relationships and spirituality are dynamic. Few choices single-handedly, or permanently, define our children’s commitment to God, halachah, community and Torah. In my time on campus, I’ve received calls from parents who feared their children were going “off the derech.” In such cases, I’ve encouraged parents to zoom out and look at the larger picture and longer-term trajectory of their child’s engagement with Judaism.
Fact: Ownership is critical.
Intentionality is a critical developmental element of transitioning from childhood to adulthood. For our children to thrive as Jewish adults, and for them to cultivate the next generation of Jewish souls, they need to have taken ownership of their Judaism. Sometimes the journey to that point of ownership is circuitous. Sometimes that point of ownership looks different than our own. Those nuances are healthy. If we want our children’s Torah life to be sustainable well after they leave the nest, it is important to recognize their experiments and choices as a step toward leading intentional Jewish lives.
Fact: Acceptance does not equal approval.
When loved ones do make the intentional, pervasive, and long-standing choice not to live by Torah values, distinguishing between approval and acceptance is pivotal. Whereas approval is a value statement, acceptance is a warm hug. Humans are multifaceted. We have the capacity to help others feel loved and essentially validated, even while fundamentally disagreeing with their opinions or disapproving of their choices. Expressing disappointment and dissent in the context of love and support can prove critical in maintaining a strong family bond, which, in the long run, is one of the most important things we can do to nourish our children’s neshamot.
Tal Attia is an OU-JLIC educator at Binghamton University in New York. She has worked for Ayeka Center for Soulful Education, and as program coordinator for Counterpoint Israel and the Run4Afikim program for Israeli at-risk youth.
6. Don’t Play the Blame Game
Ron Yitzchok Eisenman
When parents realize their son or daughter is no longer religious, they often go through a “who-is-to-blame” phase. Parents will ask:
Is my child struggling religiously due to my unsuccessful parenting?
Is the school to blame for not dealing properly with my child?
Was my child a victim of abuse or trauma?
Human beings are complex. Rarely can anyone pinpoint one single cause that brought about a child’s going off the derech. If we as parents point the finger of blame in every direction or we begin to live in a state of perpetual guilt, blaming ourselves for our child’s life choices, we are setting the stage for helplessness, which is ineffective at best and destructive at worst. As opposed to focusing on “who is to blame?”, we should focus on “how can we rebuild?”
Parents can certainly be introspective in order to discover how to improve themselves going forward as they navigate the uncharted waters of dealing with a child who is no longer religious. However, they should never allow healthy introspection to dissolve into a state of despair, which can easily occur when parents feel they are to blame for their child’s lack of religious observance. The goal of such introspection is to discover how to more constructively deal with the child who is now outside the fold. First and foremost, parents must solidly anchor the relationship between themselves and their child.
7. Never Give Up
Shmuel Gluck, as told to Leah Lightman
My staff and I work one-on-one with most of the kids [who are struggling]. That’s not to say there aren’t group events or meetings. But connecting with the individual person is perhaps the most important thing that can happen. I emphasize this to parents all the time. Staying connected to your child will help you navigate and overcome a lot.
Although I don’t usually agree to interviews, I accepted this one because I want parents to know that there is hope and there’s a lot they can do. Daven. Consult your posek. Seek help. And never give up.
Rabbi Shmuel Gluck is the director of Areivim, a community organization based in New York that guides struggling teenagers toward an independent and productive adulthood.
Strategies for Siblings: What should a parent do if there are other children at home?
Religious imperatives and behaviors are generally divided into two categories: those designed to strengthen the relationship between man and God and those meant to impact the social arena—mitzvot between man and his fellow man. Within these broad categories, certain commandments necessitate interacting with items, such as a mezuzah or tefillin, while others entail interacting with people.
The reality is that it is far easier to fulfill a mitzvah properly when it involves inanimate objects than when it involves human beings. Volumes of halachic discourse and debate notwithstanding, it is relatively simple to ascertain the right way to grasp an etrog. Yet each human interaction presents an ever-changing kaleidoscope of variables and a myriad of potential pitfalls, regardless of the best intentions. All the more so with intense relationships, such as close friends, spouses, and especially between parents and children.
In much of Jewish law, it is rare to encounter diametrically opposed approaches with equal legitimacy. However, in matters of parenting and social discourse, where it’s challenging to determine what’s right, it is as common as it is unsettling. So without any pretense of having easy or comprehensive answers, here are a few contextual guidelines in response to the heartrending issues raised in this symposium.
We do not always have the luxury of confronting quandaries in a vacuum. The child in question deserves individual and unique parental engagement, but there are limits to this. It is fair to assume that other children will, and should, change the equation. At the same time, there can be better and worse ways to consider the influence on other household members.
As parents, we have a natural inclination to protect. We may apply that instinct toward an often futile effort to shield the other children from harsh realities. In most circumstances, this will fail. Moreover, the closer to home these painful experiences are found, the less simple it will be to distract siblings from them. And there is not much of a middle ground. If we make the religious crisis taboo, we will not only fail to insulate, but we will also isolate our children and leave them to make sense of the turmoil on their own.
There is an alternative. And it directly correlates with the more constructive consideration of the rest of the family. We are constantly educating our children. From infancy, they learn from us and about us. More than anything else, they implicitly learn our values and priorities. We model for them how those principles allow us to cope with challenges and address life’s curveballs.
The scenarios we are discussing need not have been chosen or desirable in order for them to present teachable moments; these moments happen irrespective of our wishes or consent (much like the original religious rejection). Our children will be observing our reactions and discovering our values throughout.
If that is the case, it would seem that two conclusions can be drawn. First, we are, as always, playing to a crowd. This is an integral concept in family life. Whatever approach we choose will send loud messages to everyone around us. There is no whisper quiet enough or mansion large enough to conceal our thoughts and feelings from this audience.
Second, once we accept that we are “having the conversation,” let’s actually have it. It does not need to be limited to innuendo, guesswork and implication. We can sit with our children and talk to them using age-appropriate language. We can even be honest about our own vulnerabilities and uncertainties. They will sense them anyway. Why not use the opportunity to discuss the situation and connect?
Rabbi Moshe Benovitz is the managing director of NCSY, a rebbe at Yeshivat Reishit Yerushalayim and the longtime director of NCSY Kollel. He lives with his wife and children in Ramat Beit Shemesh.
When parents are still raising other kids, having a child at home who is no longer religious is admittedly thorny. Siblings can easily feel resentful and threatened. They may feel embarrassed in front of their peers. Parents have to set an emotional tone of calmness and love in the home. They also have to make sure the frum kids are getting love and attention, because parents, myself included, can sometimes go overboard trying to make the non-frum kids feel good, to the extent that they neglect the emotional needs of the siblings. We’ve tried hard to take our kids out one-on-one on small outings and trips to give each one the time and space they need to be seen, heard and valued.
But it’s also important for parents to recognize that they cannot manage their kids’ relationships and can’t be responsible for every inter-sibling interaction that takes place—just as we can’t assume responsibility for all of that in typical families (what are those?).
What I have learned is this: a child who has a sibling who has left Orthodoxy will not necessarily be motivated to follow in her sibling’s footsteps just because the parents are treating the off-the-derech sibling with acceptance. Most kids want to be similar to their peers and families. Often seeing a sibling in crisis will actually disincentivize a child from wanting to follow, especially if the sibling is in crisis in other ways, such as involvement with drugs, alcohol, or risky relationships. Parents have to truly be “chanoch l’naar al pi darko“ and trust that each child will follow the journey his or her soul needs. Emunah is paramount here, and we can’t parent from a place of fear or shame. Ultimately Hashem runs the world, and we have a very small piece of the picture.
Daniel Kalish, as told to Nechama Carmel
When parents have a difficult child, they should recognize one fact: Hashem knows what you need. Hashem gave you that challenging son, and He gave the siblings that particular sibling. Parents often worry: How is this struggling child going to affect the other kids? Your other children will see how much you love this child who is struggling and how much you care, and that will have a positive impact on them.
No child wants to be a nachas machine. (“My Mommy and Daddy love me because I give them nachas.”) The siblings will look to see how you treat the child who’s difficult. Let’s assume you have two children—a goody-goody and a troubled child. When you show understanding and compassion to the troubled child and connect to him no matter what, you are conveying a message to the goody-goody as well: my love runs deeper than any nachas you bring me. The “good” child receives a very deep message. On the other hand, when we reject the struggling child—even if we do so for the sake of protecting the “good” child—I think we actually hurt the [latter]. Because we’re essentially saying, “I love you but only until a certain point.” And that message is a bad message for all of our kids to hear.
In Their Own Words
What message would you most want to get across to parents whose children have left Orthodox Judaism? Jewish Action posed this question online to hundreds of formerly Orthodox Jews. Below are some of the most common responses, compiled by someone who himself left the Orthodox community.
1. Love and respect your child even though you do not approve of his or her decisions.This was the single most common and emphasized response. Understandably, you feel extremely pained and saddened by his decisions—but your child is still your child. He still very much wants a relationship with you, just as he wanted it before, and he wants you to love and respect him.
On a more practical level, if you want your child to have any chance of returning to Judaism in the future, then rejecting him, or cutting him off, is the complete opposite of what you should be doing. Instead, you should be showering him with love and showing him just how beautiful and warm religious life can be.
And what about your grandchildren? Do you want to have a positive relationship with them, and do you want there to be some chance of them returning to Judaism? Then fill their memories with loving interactions with their grandparents and positive experiences of Judaism, not fights between their parents and grandparents over religious issues.
2. Do not attack.“Don’t you know how much this is hurting us?!” “How can you abandon the religion your grandparents died for?!” Manipulating through guilt, repeatedly blaming the child, and harping on the pain the child is causing will not improve your relationship and will almost certainly not help your child come back on thederech.
3. Remember that your child is hurting too.Your child is most likely experiencing pain and uncertainty, just as you are. Most of all, she is hurting because she is worrying about losing her relationship with you. She knows how painful this is to you and hopes you can see past your disappointment and still maintain a relationship.
4. Reasonable boundaries are fine, but too many can ruin your relationship.It’s okay to set certain boundaries that you feel are necessary, for example, that your child not violate Shabbat while in your house, or that she should not try to convince your other children to violate halachah in any way.
But at the same time, remember that your child also has her own needs. If you set too many restrictions, you will end up doing more harm than good. If you insist that your child never meet you anywhere without dressing in a fully religious way, or that she can’t talk to your other children, most likely all you will do is further alienate your child. He or she may even decide to stop having a relationship with you entirely.
Where exactly you draw the line between your requirements and your child’s requirements needs to be an ongoing discussion between you and your child. Sometimes a good family therapist might be in order.
5. Your child is still the same good, moral person you raised him to be.Do not speak to your child as if his friends and new lifestyle are an immoral abyss of hedonism and depravity. This is condescending and offensive and, perhaps more importantly, reflects a refusal to accept your child as he is.
6. You are not a failure.Your children are not clones of you, nor should they be. Sometimes that results in them ending up on a different path than the one you had hoped for. But that is not a reflection on how well you “succeeded” as a parent. Perhaps you are terribly embarrassed by what your neighbors or relatives will think. What will this do for your other children’sshidduch prospects? But embarrassment is not a good reason to reject your child. You must have told your children to ignore what other people say and just do what’s right! In this case, prioritizing your relationship with your child is what’s right.
7. It’s a journey.Maintaining a relationship with your child who is no longer religious can be difficult, and it requires a lot of effort on both sides. It takes time, but it can be done. Sure, there are lots of things to work through. Will you be able to have your children over for a Shabbat oryom tov meal? What will you talk about?
It will be painful and it will take effort, but your child is still your child and your relationship with him or her is certainly worth it.