I grew up in a Modern Orthodox Jewish community in Miami Beach. Nearly all of my childhood friends remain observant. But that kind of predictability – whereby those raised observant could be expected remain so – is a thing of the past. Every week I meet and receive e-mails from formerly observant teenagers and twenty-somethings who have left Orthodoxy. This includes a not insignificant number of chassidic youth.
When I joined Chabad before my bar mitzvah, it was almost unthinkable that children from that community – the majority of whom give their lives to the Jewish people by choosing to go to the far corners of the globe on shlichus – would choose to be non-observant. That is no longer the case today.
The same is true of other chassidic communities. I recall a lecture I gave at the 92nd Street Y a few years back when several former Satmar chassidim came up as a group to introduce themselves. They had no yarmulkes or beards and a few had tattoos. I much appreciated their candor in sharing with me how far they had drifted from Judaism, but wondered what could have so thoroughly alienated them from their heritage.
I ask the same question of the non-practicing chassidic youth who often join us for Shabbat and holiday dinners at our home.
Several theories are offered as to why some Orthodox young people are leaving. Many believe it is because Orthodoxy is no longer insulated from mainstream society. Still others argue it is simple mathematics: with more Orthodox children being born, it makes sense that a larger number will choose to leave Judaism.
One rabbi told me we should focus not on the growing number who leave but on the overwhelming majority who choose to stay put, which, numerically speaking, is quite an achievement.
Perhaps. But for Orthodox Jews, who have long advocated – rightly so – that education is the key to observance, it should be simply unacceptable to see a significant number of young people rejecting a Torah lifestyle.
I cannot claim to know all the causes for their exit, but I have learned this about disaffected Orthodox youth: a big part of the problem is distracted parenting. We in the Orthodox community justifiably pride ourselves on our strong families. But because of our large families and our considerable religious duties, Orthodox parents usually face greater pressures than those faced by parents in other communities.
The net result is that we are sometimes not as engaged with our children as we ought to be and delegate their Jewish upbringing to teachers and the general community.
Take synagogue, for example. More and more shuls are creating youth services where the expectation is that young children will not pray with their parents but will immediately be farmed off to a youth director. Is that a good thing? Isn’t it a parent’s responsibility to teach a child to behave in synagogue and pray rather than have the child go to a youth service where he or she is given pretzels and taught to sing Adon Olam?
And even if the youth service is as comprehensive as the main service, isn’t this the one day a week a father gets to pray with his children?
We may also want to begin questioning at what age it is appropriate for children to be sent away from home to yeshiva. To be sure, a dormitory experience can be very rewarding, as it was for me from the age of fourteen. But there is no substitute for a child receiving the affirmation of loving parents. We need to open more yeshivas in more places so that youngsters won’t need to be sent out of town at too young an age.
There is no mitzvah to save the entire world even as our own children go lost. As we think about the various ways we can improve ourselves in the coming year, being better parents should be at the very top of the list.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the international bestselling author of 20 books. His website is www.shmuley.com.