(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 firstname.lastname@example.org