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Off The Derech And The Community

 (Names and situation changed)


 


Our communities, unfortunately, are faced with many crises in today’s world. One that has become quite familiar to well spouses and others is children that are off the derech (no longer religious). In my interviews with well spouses I came across two stories that I think can teach us a great deal about how we as individuals in a community can help and hinder a child as he struggles with his feelings about being religious.

 

Dan was a well spouse. He had five sons. They had all made their adjustment to his wife’s chronic illness differently. Four of his son’s had taken different religious paths. One had been attracted to Chassidus, another to a Modern Orthodox academic path. The other two fell somewhere in between. Yet they all got along well and enjoyed each other’s company. The fifth son had, however, become irreligious.

 

Despite his pain, Dan kept his fifth son close, doing everything he could to not have him go further and further down the irreligious path, while trying to bring him closer. His fifth son was his most sensitive. Dan tried to overlook the change in clothes, the earring, the tattoo and all the other trappings and stay focused on the wonderful, caring, giving son that was under all the exteriors.

 

It was not uncommon for community members to criticize Dan’s son if they saw him not helping his chronically ill mother to the degree they thought was proper. They were always quick to offer him criticism, compare him to a sibling, and tell him how awful he was for worrying his parents.

 

Dan decided to take advantage of a day when his son had no school and took him along to his day of work. His son accompanied him from one kosher establishment to the next. They had time to chat in the car between stores and Dan thought the day was progressing well. Dan had been able to listen to his son’s feelings and his son was finally being open and honest about just how angry he felt about illness, confused about religion and his place in the community. It was the first time in a long time he was not hiding behind silence.

 

And so the day went well until they entered the last store. When the owner asked about the boy (as each of the other store owners had) Dan introduced his son. The storekeeper’s eyes widened. “That’s your son?!” He yelled. “Aren’t you ashamed of how he looks…of who he is? No wonder his mother is so sick.”

 

Dan was swift to react. He told the storekeeper how proud he was of his son and of his wonderful “middos.” He told of how much he did for his mother. And then, he told the storekeeper that he should get to know his son, instead of judging him by how he looked. Years later, when Dan’s son had come back to leading a religious life, he confided to his father how the man’s comments had made him feel justified for his off-the-derech behaviour. It verified, to him, that the community hadn’t accepted him and therefore he didn’t belong. He also told his dad that it was his Dad’s comments of pride in him, despite his appearance, that had help push him to consider coming back to a religious way of life.

 

When children are off the derech, or are thinking about going off, they will often expect − and almost look for − negative comments from people within the community.

 

(Unfortunately, they are rarely disappointed.) They behave in a manner or dress in a manner that seems to almost dare anyone to make a comment. These comments only serve to justify their feelings of not fitting in and reinforce their decision to leave the community.

It is very important for community members to be careful of what they say and how they say it. Negative comments serve only to push these children, and any children, further away and, in their mind, justify where they are going.

 

The issue of going off the derech is a complicated one. There is no one cause or one contributing factor. But being positive and finding positive things to say to all our teens can only contribute to a feeling of belonging and can’t help but encourage them to want to belong to our community instead of distancing themselves from it. This is something we can all do. And you never know when your positive comment may be the one to have a child rethink leaving the fold.

 

You can contact me at annnovick@hotmail.com

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More Articles from Ann Novick

When one is blind one learns to use Braille to read. When one cannot walk, a wheelchair gives mobility. Sign language allows a mute person to speak and ocular implants assist in hearing when one is deaf. These are all compensatory strategies that help a person function despite his disability. But compensatory strategies are not just for physical problems. Understanding our psychological weaknesses and setting up our lives to ensure that we are not tempted to repeat our past mistakes, is as necessary as any aid to the disabled.

Well spouses have often discovered that their friends and relatives, despite their closeness to the situation, often don’t realize the tremendous emotional impact living with chronic illness has on the family. With the best intentions, suggestions, ideas and criticism are offered, based on the non-experience of those with healthy families. Even when the good intentioned get a taste of the difficulties, it is sometimes not enough for them to then identify and understand what the family of the chronically ill must face on a constant basis.

Over the past two weeks I have shared letters from a therapist and a well spouse. Both of the letters gave personal insights into the process of losing hope, how we react when that happens and some ways of coping when test scores, diagnosis and just simple repetitive behavior indicate that change for the better is impossible.

Dear Ann,

I’ve read your last few articles on psycho-neurological testing (Oct.8-22) with interest. As a therapist who has counseled couples dealing with chronic illness, I’d like to give you another perspective.

Dear Ann,

Your articles on the Neuro-Psychological Testing were right on (October 8-22). My husband underwent testing twice and your articles explained it things exactly the way they were. Besides the test, we also tried therapy.

Very often when we can’t face our big hurts or big loses we focus on the little ones. We can discuss those. We can cry over the small loses, be angry at the smaller hurts even though it may look trite and sound ridiculous to others.

Over the last two weeks we have been discussing one way in which well spouses can determine whether behavior displayed by their ill partners is caused by their illness or is a way they have chosen to act. We have focused on Psycho-Neurological testing, what it can tell us, as well as its pros and cons.

Last week I discussed a question that haunts many well spouses: not knowing if the difficult and often inappropriate behavior frequently displayed by their partners are caused by the disease and therefore not-controllable, or if the behavior is a choice the spouse makes and can therefore be changed. This doubt can be the source of much frustration and many marital disagreements. One way of alleviating this doubt is by having a psycho- neurological work up done. But that path is not so simple.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/off-the-derech-and-the-community/2008/04/16/

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