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.”
Young adults I have mentored have described homes that are battlegrounds. I’ve heard about parents who are unabashedly contentious and critical of each other, fathers who behave like boot camp generals, mothers who are unrelenting perfectionists and who don’t give their children love. And the list goes on.
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Young adults very rarely rebel against Hashem. They know too little about Hashem to wage a rebellion against Him. Young adults are predominantly rebelling against their dysfunctional parents. It’s up to parents to ensure that their children have healthy and wholesome role models.
Youth are also turned off by perceived injustice and hypocrisy. One area of particular concern is when questions about Yiddishkeit are deflected or repudiated. I’ve met people who have were scorned and ridiculed by teachers for asking fundamental questions.
Many of the young women we work with gave up tznius. What happened? Several of them were disparaged by their principals after inquiring why it was necessary to conform to a certain standard of tznius. Other young ladies were turned off after they later discovered that what purportedly was absolute halacha was merely a chumrah created or adopted by the school. Children are absolutely repelled by what they view as disingenuous behavior.
Hostile or dishonest reactions to questions are anathema to Yiddishkeit. Torah learning is predicated on shakla v’tarya, questions and answers.
A young boy learning about the miracles of the midbar asked his rebbi, “How is it physically possible that the people wore the same clothing for forty years and that it didn’t wither?” The rebbi, annoyed at such an irreverent question, snidely responded, “So Yankel, I see you are mechusar emunah!”
The rebbi may be surprised to learn that the Rosh asks this very question on his pirush to the Chumash. Whether this confounded the Rosh or one of his students is immaterial. Rabbeinu Asher gave enough credence to the question to record it for posterity and offer an answer. His solution is quite intriguing. He could have simply insisted that there is nothing beyond Hashem’s purview. Instead, he offers a more pragmatic explanation and states that we find a parallel to this extraordinary occurrence in nature: When a snail grows, the shell has to be enlarged to fit the snail’s body. According to the Rosh, the clothing worn by Dor HaMidbar took on the property of the snail, which gradually extends its shell by adding new parts at the shell opening.
We similarly find that the Ramban questions (and answers) how the teivah was able to physically accommodate an innumerable amount of species of all forms and sizes. The Netziv questions (and answers) the reality of finding fossils from prediluvian times (some posit he’s referring to dinosaurs), when all remnants were supposed to be eradicated in the mabul. The point is that not only is every question deserving of an answer but there’s virtually no question that hasn’t been grappled with by Chazal. We should anticipate children’s questions and scour our repository of seforim and consult with gedolim for answers.
Our greatest gaonim – including the Steipler Gaon of the past generation (who though renowned for his tremendous geonus and hasmodah, was not particularly known as a ba’al machshavah) – wrote sifrei hashkafa, never shying away from issues that needed to be addressed, explicating Yiddishkeit in the vernacular of their respective generations. We must create an environment and a Hashkafah curriculum where respectful questions are not only tolerated but where they are encouraged.
My Rebbi, Rav Pam, zt”l, often discussed the Gemara that condemns someone who merely learns Torah but doesn’t teach others (Sanhedrin 98b). The Gemara condemns this person as one who is defaming Hashem’s Word. Rav Pam explained that Torah learning is incomparably contagious and joyous – so much so that it is virtually impossible to contain one’s love for it.
A person who learns Torah and is not bursting at his seams is not appreciating the Torah for its true value – in effect he is diminishing the value of Torah. Rather than appear as a burden, Torah is supposed to be the key to happiness and ultimate fulfillment.
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Our children are trained to get caught up with the subtleties and nuances of mitzvah observance before they have a genuine appreciation for being a Yid. Children can grow resentful of punctilious observance if they don’t understand the grand scheme.
One student complained, “Nothing is josher – everything is off limits. I can only eat such and such. I am restricted in my dress. I have to guard my language and always behave dignified.” I explained to him that the word “kosher” has the identical letters and can be construed as k’sar – like a prince. A Jew, like a prince, has a certain diet, dress code, and etiquette because of his ennobled status. Observance is not a burden, but rather the greatest honor and privilege.
Our children need to be inspired. They must know that they are special and distinguished. Of the world’s billions of people, Hashem chose us to be part of His Am HaNivchar, His Am Segulah, His Mamleches Kohanim, His Goy Kadosh.
The Tur explains why none of the women in the midbar sinned with the Golden Calf. It is because the women felt so empowered and elevated that Hashem addressed them first at Har Sinai (and only later the men). They could not reduce themselves to sin. We need to uplift our children and impart to them the message that as children of the Avos they are here to impact the world.
While the Brooklyn Jewish Experience continues to focus on igniting and kindling the spark that may have never been ignited, we recognize that the spark that is teetering or, even worse, has already extinguished, is just as important, if not more important.
I firmly believe, however, that with the right combination of raising a child in a loving, stable family with a sound hashkafa education and a pronounced Jewish raison d’etre, our work will become obsolete. I hope and pray for the day to come.
Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer is rav of the Brooklyn Jewish Experience, a popular lecturer, and the author of the acclaimed hashkafa book “Search Judaism: Judaism’s Answers to a Changing World. He can be heard on Radio Hidabroot, 97.5 FM, Wednesday mornings at 9 o’clock and may be contacted at email@example.com. The Brooklyn Jewish Experience website is www.thinkandcare.org.
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