Being a Supportive Parent to Child who leaves Orthodoxy- Ruvie

This is a guest post by a friend, who calls himself Ruvie, whose son left the practice of the religious life of Orthodoxy. The author Ruvie is now engaged in the emotional process of coming to grips with it.  This post started on Facebook and has turned into a full article. I met the author a few years ago at a Yeshivat Har Etzion dinner. He lives in Manhattan and works in the financial sector. This is a family dedicated to the Jewish community but is also involved in the best of Manhattan high culture including the arts. I will comment in a separate post.

The author himself provides this note:

Note: This post is not about parents with at-risk kids or those with restricted educations who become not religious. The individuals in my situation and observation are highly intelligent, attend academic schools, and at times top of their class- including valedictorians.

BEING A SUPPORTIVE PARENT – Ruvie

 A few years ago while helping my son move into his apartment I asked if I could put up a mezuzah. He responded: Thank you, but no. Abba, it says in the klaf “u’shmartem et mitzvotai” (actually, u’shmartem et divrei elah) and I am intentionally not doing that. I am not a hypocrite. My heart sank (even though I had known for a long while that he was no longer religious).

mezuzah2

Recently, Hadassah Sabo Milner penned an important piece Losing his Relgion: Trying to be a Supportive Parentabout her reaction to her son leaving Orthodoxy and becoming not religious. These moments in time, of acknowledging the loss of a child’s observance, are very personal and reveal varied emotional responses to unexpected events in our children’s lives. No Orthodox religious parent is adequately prepared for this event even if it happens gradually. We take it personally as if it is all about us to some degree. We experience a myriad of emotions: we are hurt, devastated, sad, disappointed, and most importantly, upset that we could not transfer our system of belief and observance to our children. Although some have experienced shame, I have not.

Is it the rejection or rebellion that bothers us? Is it our failure after years of education and home teachings? Or, does it hurt so much because we suspect that it is really our own fault? Is it ultimately about our own personal doubts seeping into our children?

First, we need courage to process and accept the reasons that our children offer us. We do not have to agree but since we love our children we need to listen and understand.

Milner, in her piece mentioned above, hits it on the head when she discusses unconditional love. To love someone doesn’t mean you approve of everything they do or that you would follow in their footsteps. It just means you love them no matter what. Each child deserves parents that are able to do this.

If we raise our children to be independent thinkers and to not follow blindly are we hypocrites to be upset when they choose otherwise? Whether it is because of intellectual reasons or of finding religion no longer meaningful to them, we have to recognize that in order to find the right fit socially, intellectually, and spiritually people go through stages in their religiosity.

We should widen the derech and recalibrate our success to include transmitting other Jewish values such as ethics, morals, and love of the land and people of Israel and their fellow Jews.

Where I disagree with many is in defining religious behavior. For whatever reason we define being religious as keeping shabbat, kashrut, and taharat hamishpacha (family purity laws). It is too narrow. It should also include all mitzvot bein adam l’chavero as well as ethical and moral bearings.

One thing is for sure- do not push your children away if they become non-religious; that would be a recipe for disaster. Do not punish yourself for their abandonment of your religion as well as religious lifestyle. Love them, be supportive of them, invite them, open your heart to them, and let them see that they have a place in your life as before. This is the unconditional love Milner was referring to: a door that is always open for communication.

Many years ago I had a conversation with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”l about attending a relative’s Reform bar mitzvah in the Midwest. He said the days of sitting shiva for those that have left the [Orthodox] fold are long gone- it is a failed policy. He believed that today we must keep a door open and communicate to those who have left. They are all part of Am Yisrael.

Rabbis, educators, and parents must understand that we may be limited in transmitting religiosity to our children. When Modern Orthodox children can be both in the Orthodox world and 80% involved in the secular/modern world (with few restrictions) why are we losing so many of them? This is not an individual problem but a communal one and needs to be addressed communally using its resources.

Rabbi Shaul Robinson (Lincoln Square Synagogue) describes a workshop he held for those now religious but whose families are not. To his surprise a large number of attendees were not BTs, rather religious parents of children who are no longer religious. There is an obvious unmet need in addressing these parents who are struggling with this issue with little communal help.

People have always been leaving the fold. Why are we surprised that it is also happening now? Is the current phenomenon different; is there anything unique about our contemporary attrition experience?

I can understand the leaving of Satmar/Skverer with their controlling, unacceptance of independent thinking, and the fear of the “other”, when they discover a world that is not as evil as described by their parents and educators.

What I do not understand is how we- Modern Orthodox- are failing so badly? We must first understand the problem, its contours and permutations. The challenge is why is this time different than years past? Or is it? Is the challenge better unanswered questions, science, theories of ancient times with more conclusive data than before? Is it a failure of leadership unwilling or incapable of dealing with the “new” modern world? Is there real data to analyze or just armchair analyses which are meaningless to a community to act upon? For more on the contours of the MO version of this phenomenon see Alan Brill’s post on Post-Orthodoxy.

Is it any different today than it was 150 years ago or 40 years ago? Since we have no real hard data (numbers and the rate of change) it is difficult to say. The reasons and the context are always different, yet “ein bayit sh’ein sham met” (there is no house without a death). In Israel, there is a similar problem of youth leaving religion as high as 25-30%; they are called Datlash (Dati Lesheavar- formerly religious). This problem is also mirrored in other religions- see  Brill’s post here. 

Reasons abound for becoming not religious and everyone has their own viewpoint depending where they stand and their personal agenda. I reject reasons such as it is easy for the MO to leave seamlessly, more options for Jewish identity outside religion, unanswered big questions (haven’t there always been since the beginning of modernity?), etc. They may all be true but it doesn’t explain the pull away from being shomer mitzvot when this is easier to accomplish than ever before. In addition, these reasons do not answer why insular orthodoxy- where it’s much more difficult to leave- has the same problem.

mezuzah3Reasons abound for becoming not religious and everyone has their own viewpoint depending where they stand and their personal agenda. I reject reasons such as it is easy for the MO to leave seamlessly, more options for Jewish identity outside religion, unanswered big questions (haven’t there always been since the beginning of modernity?), etc. They may all be true but it doesn’t explain the pull away from being shomer mitzvot when this is easier to accomplish than ever before. In addition, these reasons do not answer why insular orthodoxy- where it’s much more difficult to leave- has the same problem.

I think for most it is a combination of the religion no longer working for the individual on a personal/emotional/spiritual level and with intellectual reasoning that justifies the change (sometimes the latter precedes or creates the former). In the past, people wanted to assimilate. Today, it is not about assimilation but freedom. There are more options for Jewish identity outside religion or, alternatively, one can live comfortably as a Jew without a clear affiliation to a community. But this only creates the new terrain of the current age, not the demand to leave.

I do not think the community is meeting the needs of the current generation nor its parents. I find very few rabbinical leaders to be proud of. I think I am not alone. Being MO (although I now prefer Dati or shomer mitzvot, and feel MO is a pejorative) is living with the tensions between the modern word and our religion and at times with no resolution between the two. I enjoy being religious- the continuous journey of learning- and find meaning in observance. I avidly attend shiurim- from Hasidic/Haredi rabbis to non-Jews knowledgeable in Torah. To me ideas and content are king. I live with my uneasiness about poor leadership by looking to Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”l and others in Israel as a bright spot.

In the end, we must understand and accept our children’s choices with unconditional love. On a communal level, it is more challenging and the consequences of “getting it wrong” could be disastrous. The first step towards addressing this painful topic is to start a communal conversation. Perhaps there may not be any good answers and this is our reality, but we must talk.

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