Latest update: March 28th, 2013
We all yearn to feel that we are part of something special. We all seek respect and acceptance for simply being who we are.
More than twenty years ago, I was invited to give shiurim on the small Caribbean island of Curacao. Located in a virtually unknown part of the globe, the Mikve Israel synagogue in Willemstad was built in 1732 and is the oldest synagogue still in use in the Western Hemisphere. My friend and I went to speak at the newer, Orthodox shul, which was founded within the past century. After circling the island numerous times in search of the shul, I finally pulled over to ask for directions. Not being fluent in the local language of Papiamentu, I handed the slip of paper with the address to the kind man who stopped to assist me. He spent the next 15 minutes guiding me to the other side of the tiny country, not leaving me until I pulled up to the front door of the shul. When I thanked him, he said that this is their way; to make sure a stranger gets to his destination. I experienced this chesed many times over the next week, and more than two decades later, I still cherish the warm and welcoming way I was treated.
We all seek to be surrounded by people who care, to be part of something special and larger than ourselves. The special feeling of being part of a warm, respectful family is the feeling that should be generated by simply being a member of the large Jewish nation. Just as the Torah commands us to help the stranger – even when he is our enemy – whose mode of transportation has become disabled on the road, so too it is incumbent upon all of us to extend ourselves, with warmth, to those around us. I firmly believe that one who feels loved and respected in his home and in his community will yearn to stay in that positive atmosphere. Why would a person have the need to go somewhere else, if where he is now is a place of comfort, happiness and growth? Making children feel warm and comfortable in our homes, schools and shuls is the most important way we can help them continue on the path we have chartered for them in our homes, schools, and shuls. A person who feels special at home is likely to want to replicate that environment in the future.
Why do kids go off the derech? The question itself generates further questions. There is clearly no single explanation that covers all of those who choose to stray from the path of Torah. Some may wonder what the point there is then in asking the question – let’s just focus on helping them return. My intent in writing this series is not to point the finger of blame or to trivialize what may be a painful interaction of multiple factors that contribute to many of our children leaving the path of our heritage. My goal is to share insights from my more than twenty years of experience and to suggest some important issues that we, as a community, can work on to help strengthen our children’s bonds to the eternal values of Torah and our Creator.
Many summers ago, I gave a series of shiurim in Ohr Someach Jerusalem on living a spiritual life in the 20th century. A sixty-year-old man sat in every class and diligently took notes on everything I said. Many decades his junior, his interest in learning was very motivating to me as a rebbe, and his enthusiasm was infectious to the rest of the students. When he missed a day, he explained that he had gone to Europe for a business meeting. He was a successful businessman, but Torah was his new passion. He had lived a life without Torah for four decades, and was now enthusiastically embracing his newfound heritage.
Then he told us his story. As a young man, he decided to leave the secular world of his parents and embrace the religious life that his grandfather so fervently adhered to. One Shabbos morning he awoke with tremendous excitement and went to the local shul to begin his new lifestyle. He found an empty seat in the front and picked up a prayer book with no English translation, and, while exhilarated that he was in the house of Hashem, was also nervous because he did not know how to daven.
Desperately wanting to belong and to understand the prayers, he eagerly looked up when he felt a tap on his shoulder, certain that it was a messenger from Above who was sent to welcome him home and show him the way. He looked into the eyes of a gentleman who politely said, “Excuse me, you are in my seat.” Not letting this temporary setback ruin his experience, he moved back a few rows and continued his silent prayer to Hashem to guide him in his journey. Before long he felt another tap on his shoulder. Looking up in anticipation of a warm smile, perhaps an invitation to Shabbos lunch, he heard another gentleman politely say, “Excuse me, you are in my seat.” His patience was waning, but his desire to be religious was still lukewarm, and he moved to the last row in the shul in order to be certain that he was not in anyone’s seat. He closed his eyes and prayed. A few minutes later, the man in charge of the services approached him. His heart was racing; perhaps he would be invited to a seat, or better yet, maybe he would get the aliyah to the Torah that he had not received when he turned 13. The gabbai told him, kindly, that it was inappropriate to come to shul in jeans and a t-shirt on Shabbos; next time he should please dress in a suit like all the others.
He took off his yarmulka, handed it to the gabbai, and left the shul and Yiddishkeit for FORTY years. He had a tear in his eye when he said to me, “Rebbe, can you imagine that I did not have Torah or Shabbos for forty years because no one extended himself to say good Shabbos to me?” He joined a Reform temple for his three-day-a-year version of Judaism until he decided to look for meaning in his life and went to Israel. When he arrived at the Kosel, someone tapped him on the shoulder, offered him a Shabbos meal, and the rest was history.
My student wanted to come close to Hashem, but he needed to feel that he belonged somewhere. The two go hand in hand. We are the emissaries of Hashem and we are supposed to emulate His love and chesed by extending love and chesed to our brothers. The warmth and brotherhood in a close knit Jewish home, shul or community is a ray of light to observers. Many returnees to a Torah life are motivated on their journey by the warmth of a family Shabbos table, the singing and divrei Torah sans technological interruptions. They are touched at the attention given to the children and the special family atmosphere created each week. Conversely, when members of the community grow up without warmth or love in their homes and/or from teachers, the chill that is generated causes them to feel as if they don’t belong.
Many who have left claim that they can clearly blame a teacher, parent or principal for a bad experience or comment that made them feel alienated and rejected. By withholding warmth and acceptance, we risk alienating our children and creating in them a yearning for an alternative lifestyle they hope or assume would be warm and accepting. If they can’t be accepted for who they are in our world, then they will find someplace else – anywhere that will make them feel at home.
Although my shul is an eclectic group of individuals from many backgrounds, nationalities and levels of observance, I am proud that its members are warm and welcoming to each other and to newcomers. I am proud that if you come to my shul, your hand will be squeezed in a Good Shabbos shake by almost everyone, and it is common that a guest or stranger will be offered a kibbud or aliyah during his visit. In contrast, for many years a close friend has davened Friday nights in a particular shul. He davens near the front and passes about one hundred people as he walks to his seat. He tries to catch people’s eyes and say Good Shabbos, but he is not one of the “chevra” and people don’t look his way or greet him. When he does say “Good Shabbos,” he often does not get a response. When he goes on vacation for the summer, no one seems to notice that he is gone or welcomes him back upon his return. Although the Rav kindly greets him, his sense of alienation from the other hundred people is very disheartening and generates a feeling of not belonging. This friend commented that he could understand why teens or young adults who do not feel part of Klal Yisroel would not feel that this is their home.
As Jews, we are supposed to make all other Jews feel comfortable and greet them like brothers. Achdus, unity, means that we must make others feel as comfortable and accepted as we would like to feel. Fortunately, this works for the vast majority of people in most communities. True baalei chesed reach out to all Jews, no matter their beliefs, background, mental stability, or behavior. A welcomed brother is always welcomed – under any circumstances.
I don’t think I have ever met someone who loved his home, his parents, had loving memories of his school life, felt enamored with the warmth and chesed of his community and abandoned it all for the trappings of the secular world. Just like each finger finds its unique purpose on the hand, we all need to feel that we are necessary part of our homes, schools and communities. Making children feel special and creating a home of Torah that is warm and accepting is the most important factor in helping our children remain in the house of Hashem.
About the Author: Rabbi Gil Frieman is the pulpit Rabbi of Jewish Center Nachlat Zion, the home of Ohr Naava. He is certified as a shochet, sofer, and has given lectures in the United States, Canada, and throughout Eretz Yisroel. Rabbi Frieman is currently the American Director of seminaries Darchei Binah, Afikei Torah, and Chochmas Lev in Eretz Yisroel, and teaches in Nefesh High School, Camp Tubby during the summers, and lectures weekly at Ohr Naava. In addition, Rabbi Frieman teaches all tracks in Ateres Naava Seminary. He is a highly anticipated speaker on TorahAnytime.com where he speaks live most Wednesday nights at 9:00pm EST.
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