As rav of the Brooklyn Jewish Experience, a local kiruv organization devoted to reaching out to Brooklyn’s almost 70 percent non-observant Jewish population, I also teach and counsel young adults (18-33 years old) from the frum community. These students are often indistinguishable from their frum peers. Outwardly they may appear frum, but inwardly they’re disenchanted, jaded, and alienated. Their exterior appearance is largely a façade and their feeling of disenfranchisement from frumkeit is frighteningly real. There are others that are part of our program who, tragically, already took the next step and are no longer observant.
Admittedly, our primary mission and Brooklyn Jewish Experience’s success has been working with the not-yet frum, but our programs are inundated with the aforementioned members of the community who find our hashkafa and kiruv-styled shiurim to be invigorating, refreshing, rejuvenating, and often life-altering.
I will never forget an incident that occurred during a weekly shiur several days before Yom Kippur. The lecture introduced our students to the concepts of teshuvah and a philosophic but practical understanding of the restrictions of the holiday. After the shiur I fielded halachic and hashkafic questions about the impending fast.
Following the Q&A session, a student approached me privately to ask a question. He was exceedingly fidgety and nervous and I had to calm him to elicit his query. He confided that though he was almost thirty years old and grew up in a frum home, he had, astoundingly, never fasted on Yom Kippur. After several minutes of intense conversation and a warm, supportive embrace, the fellow said, “I want you to know that because of what you’ve told me, this will be my first year fasting on Yom Kippur.”
I was in tears.
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That encounter and numerous others led me to reassess my role. Who is to say that the rechokim, those raised in irreligious homes, are more paramount than the kerovim, those brought up in frum homes but, for whatever the reason, are no longer inspired and committed? It is for this reason that Brooklyn Jewish Experience will not turn away kerovim who sincerely seek to learn and grow in a tolerant and non-judgmental environment.
In my work with this segment of students, I’ve drawn several conclusions concerning what may be surefire ways to keep children inspired and enthusiastic in their observance and prevent them from deviating from and abandoning Yiddishkeit.
Most often the success of a child developing into a passionate frum adult is directly correlated to coming from an emotionally stable home. Just as plants and trees need sunlight and water to blossom and thrive, there is an optimal environment in which a can develop. Children need love, stability, and structure.
Children need to receive love from both parents to be emotionally healthy. Kiddushin 31 teaches that a child is more inclined to respect his mother because of the love and nurture a mother provides. The very first time the Torah employs the word love is not in a spousal context but rather in a parent-child relationship, between Avraham and Yitzchak, a father and a son. I believe this is to stress the importance of a parent, particularly a father, showering a child with love. A child needs love from both mother and father in order to develop into a psychologically healthy adolescent.
Parenting requires tremendous perseverance and self-sacrifice. We learn a lot about the parenting imperative from the Hebrew word for parents, horim. Rashbam and others teach that horim is etymologically derived from har, mountain, which symbolizes stability. This means it is vital that parents convey a sense of stability and consistency. Tehillim says “Esa einai el heharim m’ayin yavo ezri (I lift my eyes to the Mountains from where my help does come), which Yalkut Shimoni interprets to mean “I lift my eyes to my parents from where does my help come.”
In other words, help comes from parents who prioritize, placing their children first and their own needs second. The Gemara teaches that in addition to symbolizing stability, harim, mountains, also signify eternity, so that horim, parents, denote eternity to a child (Avodah Zarah 17a and commentaries on Tehillim 121). There is a definite correlation between good parenting and the preservation of mesorah in children. When parents are derelict and fail to properly provide stability, consistency, and love, the child often loses interest in perpetuating the eternal chain of tradition.
Rav S. R. Hirsch said: “The maintenance of Yiddishkeit requires parents who will faithfully transmit the faith to their children, and children who are willing to accept from the hands of their parents. The survival of Yiddishkeit rests entirely upon the obedience of children to their parents…. Parents in fact represent the tie that binds the child to the past of his people and that enables the child to be a religious man or woman.”