(Names and situation changed)
We live in a time where there is a great need for kiruv (outreach). Many Jewish children are growing up with little or no knowledge of their Jewish heritage. Assimilation is rampant. Even in religious communities many of us have family and friends that are choosing non-religious paths. Baruch Hashem we also live in an age that is addressing this problem. There are many wonderful kiruv organizations and wonderful people fighting tirelessly to bring these souls back to their roots.
It is not uncommon for adversity to be the catalyst that causes people to challenge their belief system. Watching a parent suffer from long-term illness, watching them suffer through pain for years may cause children to have questions about their own and their parents’ observance. How the children and adults come through this adversity is sometimes related to who gives the family support and how that support or lack of it is dealt with.
I discussed this issue with some religious well spouses. I asked them how they and their children dealt with chronic illness and religion. For many, the illness was as much an issue in determining the future observance of the children as was the support they received from their community. The more support the family received from their religious community the less there seemed to be a problem with later religious observance.
However, if the religious community’s support was non-existent especially in contrast to the support given by to the family by non-religious Jews or even non Jews, the more the likelihood seemed to be that the children (and sometimes the parents) would step away from their own observance.
I interviewed some well spouses who lived in smaller religious communities where the emphasis of the community and religious leaders was on kiruv. Hamantashen baking, shmura matzah distribution, Shabbatonim and any activities that would get people to enjoy their heritage and implant a desire to learn more about Judaism was the order of the day. It involved the whole religious community.
The Rosenberg family was very involved as well. Their house was always open to people who needed a Shabbos experience and Mr. and Mrs. Rosenberg rarely said no when called upon to help with the many kiruv activities. That was until Mr. Rosenberg was diagnosed with a chronic illness. At that point, the Rosenberg’s focus turned inward and though they were still involved in kiruv, their life began to revolve around illness.
Mr. Rosenberg was then hospitalized for almost a year. Community visits to him became less frequent over time, and after three months only one person in his community ever bothered to visit him in the hospital. It was as if the family had become invisible. Mrs. Rosenberg and her children were left alone for every Shabbos and Yom Tov meal. They were seemingly forgotten except when there was a need for a kiruv project.
At one point, a package of 30 shalach manos was just left at her door with a note to please deliver these to the addresses listed. It was just assumed she could and would help. No one had asked her (now that illness had invaded her home) if she had time and energy for this delivery job while working, making hospital visits and dealing with her husband’s inability to work.
Mrs. Rosenberg told me of another incident that occurred while she was feeling very depressed from the absence of any Shabbos invitations for the months of her husband’s hospital stay. In shul one Shabbos morning, Mrs. Rosenberg was sitting between the kiruv rabbi’s wife and the young mother of a new ba’al teshuvah family when the rabbi’s wife leaned across her to invite the ba’al teshuvah’s family to lunch without even asking Mrs. Rosenberg about her lunch plans. Going home with her children to their fatherless house, Mrs. Rosenberg cried her way through kiddush.
The eldest Rosenberg child was to have his bar mitzvah shortly after his father’s release from hospital. Adjusting to her husband’s new condition, Mrs. Rosenberg felt she could not handle the food preparation for the kiddush (as there was very limited kashrus available in the city) as well as deal with the changes illness had brought into the home. And so, she asked one of the women in the community who sometimes did catering what it would cost her for a kiddush. Mrs. Rosenberg was astounded at the high price (especially for something she used to do at cost or less, as a chesed). But she knew everyone needed to earn a living and so she was going to find the money somehow. But it was when she was told that there would be an extra $200 charge for the cost of the rabbi’s wife as mashgiach that she lost it.
Today, the Rosenbergs are still observant. Some of their children, however, are not. Mrs. Rosenberg attributes their turn-off to the lack of chesed when her husband became ill. She wonders why chesed had to be sacrificed for kiruv and why both could not exist side by side. She wonders who will provide the kiruv for her unobservant children and her grandchildren – kiruv that she feels would not have been necessary if chesed had not been lost in the stampede to do kiruv.
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