In Part I (10-30-09) I responded to a question posed by a ba’al teshuvah (BT) who wanted to ensure that his frum-from-birth (FFB) children become well-integrated, healthy and normal, frumJews.
I discussed the distinctions between a mitzvah, minhag and chumrah, and something that does not fall into any of those categories – but rather is a cultural practice.
Some examples given were:
Putting on tefillin is a daily mitzvah (mandated commandment) incumbent upon all Jewish males above the age of 13.
Refraining from dipping matzah in liquids on Pesach (commonly referred to as gebrokts) is a minhag (a custom only observed in some communities).
Not using an eruv that has been approved by the vast majority of your city’s rabbanim is a chumrah (stringency) that many accept upon themselves.
Wearing a black fedora is a cultural practice prevalent in some communities.
It is of utmost importance that you fully understand the difference between these categories of Jewish practice – in your personal life and especially as you guide your children. It may be helpful to think of these categories as spiritual “needs and wants.” Mitzvos are mandatory practices. Chumros need not be observed, especially when one is first beginning Torah observance.
In reality, the harm caused by blurring the lines between these four components of Torah life is not limited to ba’alei teshuvah. It is something that many FFB parents engage in as well. Here’s an analogy that might shed light on this matter:
Imagine if you were talking about safety with your six-year-old child and you used the same tone of voice to describe the dangers of crossing the street without looking, taking a ride from a stranger, forgetting to brush one’s teeth and eating too many snacks. While you may wish to impart all these values to your child, lumping all four of them together will not give him/her the context necessary to prioritize them.
As noted in Part I, the complexity of these issues only underscores the need to find and maintain contact with a rav who understands you well and can guide your family with wisdom.
Maintain ties with your family: It is very important for the stability of your family life and your level of personal menuchas hanefesh (tranquility) to maintain ties with your non-observant parents and in-laws. I am well aware that there are those who advise ba’alei teshuvah parents to sever their ties with non-observant family members for fear of confusing their children. However, I feel that this thinking is fundamentally flawed in theory and practice.
In theory, what kind of message does it send when you walk away from your parents and siblings once you begin Torah observance? Shouldn’t the Torah teach you an enhanced level of respect for your family members?
In practice, as it relates to your children, severing relationships with your family unnecessarily robs your children of the unconditional love that grandparents have to offer. It will be difficult enough for them to watch their FFB family friends celebrate their simchahs with large extended family members. Why compound the pain by having them feel that they are rootless?
Here is a final point on this subject – one that may not be evident at first glance: When you exhibit tolerance for family members, you are making the profound statement that family bonds run deep and they override any differences that you may have with each other. Over the years, this unspoken lesson will serve your children well and enhance the respect that they will have for you.
You never know how things will turn out with your children. What if one of them decides to take a different path in life than the one you charted for him/her? If you send clear and consistent messages over the years that “family matters,” that child will, in all likelihood, remain close to your family members. However, if you decided that spiritual matters are grounds for severing ties with parents and siblings, how do you know that this logic will not be used against you in a different context one or two decades down the road?
To be sure, there are many challenges that you will face regarding kashrus (kosher food requirements), tzniyus (modesty), and other matters. But they are very manageable, provided that an atmosphere of mutual respect is created and nurtured. Over the years, I have attended hundreds of lifecycle events of ba’alei teshuvah where their non-observant family members were active and respected participants.
Find a community and schools for your children that are tolerant and understanding: It is of the utmost importance that you find a community that will accept you with welcoming arms. That means one where you will not cringe with the “what-will-the-neighbors-think” thought process when your non-observant brother comes to visit. If you feel that way in your community, you may not be in the right one.
As for selecting schools, see to it that the school’s educational philosophy is in general sync with yours. I often get calls from parents who are put off by certain policies (dress codes, media exposure regulations, etc.) that their children’s schools maintain, or the culture of the institution (i.e. what will the rebbe say about Thanksgiving, and does it match how you feel about it?). And equally often, these guidelines were in place when the parents originally enrolled their children. One cannot blame a school for enforcing their stated policies.
Generally speaking, ba’alei teshuvah parents should not enroll their children in Yiddish-teaching yeshivahs. I am aware of the cultural reasons that people are inclined to do so, but in the case of ba’alei teshuvah, I think that this is simply a bad practice – unless you are fluent in Yiddish yourself. It will be difficult enough to do Judaic studies homework with your children as they grow older without compounding matters by adding language barriers that will virtually guarantee that you will not understand what your child is learning – let alone be in a position to help him or her.
In sum, when raising your FFB children – as with all other areas of life – follow the timeless advice of Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon) and stay on “the golden path” of moderation. It is the quintessential road map for success.