traffic sign Zigzag isolate on white backgroundBy Rabbi Yitzie Ross

After writing this article for a quasi-religious online magazine, I was advised by rabbanim, as well as a few “off the derech” children, that it would be better suited for an Orthodox publication.

It has happened again. A young Jewish woman’s life has ended. Fingers are pointed, accusations are leveled, but are we doing enough to prevent this from happening again? Faigy Mayer is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of Jews who have gone “off the derech,” but a tragic and premature death should not have been the result.

Before I begin, I want to point out the obvious–this article is not about one specific person or case. There are so many variables involved in each situation that it’s impossible to focus on one example. Often we are misled by the media or social media (see the case of Izabel Laxamana), and we jump to conclusions that are frequently incorrect. There were definitely other circumstances that led to this specific incident, and we all have the family in our tefillos.

Having said that, let’s take a step back to analyze our religion–in theory and practice. Yiddishkeit is not a mold. There are all types of wonderful Jews, and each is special. We have many different groups (or sects) of chassidim, we’ve got Reform, Israeli secular (or “chilonim”), Conservative, Orthodox Jews (chareidi and otherwise), and more. I can imagine the many gasps emanating from readers. “Reform! Did you really call them Jews?” Actually I did. I had the privilege of teaching an evening class in a Reform and Conservative school in Merrick for a few years. These wonderful children were Jewish and were proud of it. They didn’t daven every day, they knew practically nothing about their religion, but they believed in Hashem and loved being a Yid.

Who will stand up and tell them that what they are doing is wrong? What gives anyone the right to judge others in these times? The scariest part of it all is that Hitler, y’s, best illustrated this “together” attitude. He was the worst of the worst, but he didn’t differentiate. A Jew was a Jew! He wanted us all dead, and he didn’t care what sect you belonged to. Do you really think that explaining to the Nazis that “I don’t really daven three times a day” would have saved one’s life?

I am an Orthodox Jew. I have been a rebbe for almost 20 years and have seen all different types of Jews who call themselves Orthodox. Some daven three times a day in shul, some don’t. Some wear a black hat, some don’t. Some learn Torah all day, and, again, some don’t. Nevertheless, we’re all aiming for the same goal.

But having the same goal does not mean we are identical. We each serve Hashem differently, and show our love to Hashem in our own way. I have a good friend who is a Reform Jew. Every night before he goes to bed he says, “Thank you, G‑d for letting me have this day. I hope I treated others well and made You proud.” He does not wear a yarmulke, does not daven in shul, and certainly doesn’t learn Torah. He’s practicing what his father taught him, and he’s doing it well.

Many people would respond by saying, “He doesn’t know better.” I would take it a step further. I think he’s serving Hashem the way he knows best. I think we can all agree that there are many ways to be a good Jew. He didn’t fast this past Tishah B’Av, and admits that he doesn’t think about the Beis HaMikdash every day. I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t either. As I heard from many rabbanim, perhaps we cry on Tishah B’Av because we don’t know what we’re missing. It may very well be that part of the “off the derech” problem stems from the way some parents view their children. Ideally, all children would identify with the customs of their parents and serve Hashem as their parents do. Most children do. What about the children who don’t? Are they no longer our children?

There are many reasons that children go “off the derech.” Some told me that their parents were too restrictive, others felt that their parents weren’t happy with their lives. It doesn’t really matter. What does matter is how we deal with this issue.

The first step is to identify the root of the problem. There is not enough love going around. I’m not talking about a hippie sort of “love everything” mentality, but rather about real love. Jews should love being Jewish (and ideally, love doing mitzvos, davening, and learning Torah). You can’t force this love; you have to feel and share it. Telling your kids, “Boy, do I love Shabbos!” with a smile is great. Taking your kids to shul shouldn’t be a battle; it’s a privilege they should earn. If they don’t want to come, all you need to do is say–with a smile–“OK, maybe you can come next time.” If we always transmit a love for Yiddishkeit, it will remain forever.

The second step is understanding Yiddishkeit. Our religion is not exclusively one of restrictions. It’s about how we live and what we can, and sometimes must, do. Telling a child, “You can’t play that game on Shabbos!” is not necessarily the best way to develop an appreciation of Shabbos. A much better way of turning it into a teaching moment would be to say, “Let’s play that game tomorrow; we can play something else for now.” I’m not even talking about teenagers now, I’m talking about little kids. Let them grow up feeling excited and secure about who they are and what they represent.

You can’t eat that, it’s not kosher! You can’t go there, it’s not appropriate! You can’t touch that, it’s muktzeh! You shouldn’t watch that, it’s not tzniyus! There are 365 negative commandments in the Torah. It is no coincidence that the number equals the days of the solar year. If you’re telling your child “You can’t . . .” more than once a day, you’re doing it wrong. There are 248 positive mitzvos corresponding to the bones of our bodies (as the Gemara in Makkos 23b explains). This seems to teach us that being positive about Yiddishkeit should be the essence of our actions and who we are. Being a Jew is a positive experience!

I would suggest that before choosing a battle, ask for help. Is it worth fighting over sock length? How about camps? Shirt color? I can’t answer these questions, because every case is different. However, I have yet to hear a parent tell me, “I wish I had been stricter about things!” This doesn’t mean to always give in, but rather to realize that you might need help in determining which battles to choose, and how to fight them. There are many wonderful people who can help you decide these sometimes mundane, but always important, issues. It could be your rav, a guidance counselor, or even a friend who has experience.

Step three. Focus on your child’s strengths. Is your son great at sports? Convince him to help his neighbors improve their skills. Tell him it’s a mitzvah. Is your daughter good at baking? Let her bake for other families. Make a big deal out of the mitzvah. (This is good parenting advice in general.)

I had a student a few years ago who wanted desperately to go to Shea Stadium. His parents felt that a Mets game was not a good environment for a young boy (and no, they weren’t Yankees fans). In the end, we told this boy that he could go to the Mets game if he’d make a berachah when eating something at the game. I remember how excited he was to make the Shehakol–“I might be the first person to make a Shehakol in this spot!” What could have been a disaster became a mitzvah, one that he’ll likely remember for a long time.

What about those children or teenagers who are already “rebelling”? To simplify, let’s categorize these children into two groups, temporary and permanent. The temporary ones are those children who rebelling for attention. An example would be a nine-year-old boy who exclaims, “I’m not wearing tzitzis today!”

One father had this happen, and he shared with me some ideas that are guaranteed not to work. Guilt trips. Yelling. Arguing. Punishing. He told me that he once told his 11-year-old, “You’re the one who will be burning, not me!” Sound ridiculous and extreme? That’s because it is.

If your child is acting out like this, you need to take a step back. This is not personal. It’s not necessarily an issue with your parenting. Your child needs you, now more than ever. Here’s an idea. Take your child out of school for some one-on-one Mommy or Daddy time. Tell him how much you love him no matter what. Is there a specific battle going on? Try to avoid it. Is he not making berachos? It will come in time, it’s not worth fighting about.

Your goal should be to keep your child happy and feeling loved. If you want this to be a temporary issue, let things slide. One of my teachers used to tell me all the time, “This too shall pass.” To quote Elsa, “Let it go.” (I apologize if the song is stuck in your head now.) There are many of these children who go on to become outstanding members of their communities.

The permanent ones are a bit trickier. I know of many children who are not religious anymore; some don’t even identify as being Jewish. Although a few start acting out at a younger age, I’ve found that the average age of disillusionment is typically between 12 and 15. Remember, this does not mean you have done something wrong, nor is it a blemish on your parenting skills.

The fact remains that we are all different. Just because your child does not want to imitate your way of life does not make him or her an evil person. If your daughter insists on wearing pants or partying, she is still a creation of Hashem. Arguing won’t work. Explaining how much they’re hurting you is counterproductive. This isn’t about you. It’s about them expressing themselves as individuals.

It hurts. There is no doubt that it’s hard for parents to watch a child leave the path they were set on. However, he or she is still your child.

The first thing to do is for the parents to get, and stay, on the same page. Placing blame on your spouse (“If you would be more tzniyus” or “If you would go to shul more often”) isn’t going to help. Instead, you should focus on what you can do to keep this child happy. Keep the connection open. The goal is not necessarily to make them religious, it’s to show them that you love them no matter what. They might return. They might not. Either way, you have a responsibility to your child.

If you have other children that are young or impressionable, it can be even more challenging. Tell your other kids, “Your sibling is going through a hard time and we love him no matter what.” Only positive.

You do have the right to ask this child to follow your rules in your house. If your daughter has gone OTD and is wearing pants, you can ask her to please wear an appropriate skirt in your house. You can also ask that they refrain from behaving inappropriately or discussing private matters in front of the other kids. Certainly, they should not bring non-kosher food into the house.

Keep in mind that most children who go OTD are not trying to change you or be vindictive. They’re expressing their individuality. One 17-year-old told me his father told him, “My way or the highway!” He chose the highway. Now they lost their son.

Obviously every case is different. When in doubt, you can ask for help. A rav is a great person to ask, if he has an understanding of people and loves all Jews. I have such a rav. If your rav is better suited for a halachic discussion, call a psychologist. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength.

I want to end by sharing a beautiful story. I know of a Chassidic family that has a son who went OTD. I met the father walking with this 19-year-old son (who was not wearing a yarmulke), and as I passed he called me over, and told me excitedly, “Mike got accepted into college!” His son was beaming. Parenting. He is doing it right.

It feels right to end with a berachah to you all. I know this puts pressure on you, but may you be zocheh that your children should want to emulate you.

Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a rebbe in the Five Towns and a public speaker. He can be reached at Rebbe@Gishmak.com.

 

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