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September 2, 2014 / 7 Elul, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘off the derech’

Inspiring Our Youth and the Search for Meaning

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

One of the many themes I talk about here is the OTD (Off the Derech) phenomenon. Going OTD means abandoning adherence to Halacha and often includes abandoning belief in the Torah. Or God. Or both.

It should not come as any surprise to anyone that this is a serious problem in all observant denominations. From Hasidim, to Yeshivish, to Centrist, to LWMO… all have their share of OTD. Not to mention the “Lites” of every denomination.

The reasons one might go OTD are varied and many, including things like having been sexually abused; growing up in a dysfunctional family situation; undiagnosed learning disabilities (like ADD or ADHD); or the inability of teachers to answer hard questions about belief. These and other causes have been discussed here before.

But I would note that the cause of going OTD I have been hearing a lot about lately is the lack of finding any inspiration in the classroom. It doesn’t matter whether the classroom is a Haredi one or a Modern Orthodox one. The lack of inspiration to remain observant is clearly either missing or being missed by students who do not pick up on it – if it is there at all.

This was brought home to me again last night at the annual NCSY dinner here in Chicago. One of the awardees made this point as did my son in law, Rabbi Micah Greenland, International Director of NCSY (as well as Regional Director of the Midwest Region).

He spoke about this week’s Torah portion where the very first Mitzvah given to the Jewish people as a nation was the establishment of the lunar calendar. Although I am not a Kabbalist and avoid references to the Zohar for many reasons (which I am not going to go into here) Rabbi Greenland made reference to the Zohar’s explanation for God giving this as the very first Mitzvah to His people. He compares the Jewish people to the phases of the moon. The moon waxes and wanes every month. And every month when it renews its waxing and waning cycle we bless it.

The Jewish people have their own moments of waxing and waning. Sometimes that occurs simultaneously. As is the case in our own era. On the one hand we live in unprecedented times. There are more Jews learning in religious day schools, high schools, and yeshivos post highs schools than at any time in history. There are more books published in English on every possible variety of Torah subjects than ever before enabling masses of people to access Torah unlike any time in history. There are tons of shiurim on the internet on every Torah subject and for every level of student – from the most sophisticated advanced student of gemerah to the novice.

On the other hand this is a drop in the bucket compared to the number of Jews who don’t know anything about their own religion and don’t care. They do not know an Aleph from a Beis. Not because they reject Judaism. But because they never had the slightest exposure to it… other than tokenism. If I am not mistaken the figure Rabbi Greenland used is 90 percent.

Ninety percent of all Jews fall into this category. And more than half of them intermarry. In many cases this is even a cause for celebration. In a country that celebrates both diversity and assimilation at the same time, a mixed marriage is the quintessential example of how that works.

Who can forget the image of Chelsea Clinton under a chupah with her talis wearing, Yarmulke wearing chasan! The pop culture media salivated with great joy over that event. This is a media that includes many Jews. And many of those are themselves intermarried. As nice as it might seem for our standing in this country for one of our own to marry the daughter of a President, an intermarriage is not something to celebrate.

What we end up having is a twofold problem. Reaching out to the unaffiliated and reaching in to the uninspired. There is a lot of good work being done in the former. But what about the latter?

Rabbi Greenland said that NCSY addresses both problems. Although the majority of NCSY attendees are from non observant backgrounds, there are many from religious backgrounds who attend religious schools. While they all are taught the basics of Halacha, and how to study Torah in all its various forms many students just go through the motions. Once they graduate high school and move on to a university campus, the lack of having had any inspiration can easily cause them to drop observance altogether.

Keeping the Faith

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

I am wholly inadequate to deal with this subject. That said I cannot leave it untouched. There is a phenomenon taking place that is highly disturbing to a believer and a rationalist like myself. The phenomenon I refer to is that of an increasing number of Orthodox Jews that are questioning their faith. Emunah has never before been tested like it is now. At least in my lifetime.

It used to be a bigger problem in the more open world of Modern Orthodoxy. That is where Rabbi Eliyahu Fink suggests the majority of the problem lies. But with the advent of the internet, everyone is at risk.

Tablet Magzine has an article by Ari Margolies, an 18 year old that is going through this. He was raised in a religious home. He was someone that loved his Judaism as a child. But then after his Bar Mitzvah he started asking the difficult questions. Questions that are difficult to answer. Thus he has become a skeptic – joining the community of skeptics who have had the same questions.

These are not people who went OTD because of dysfunction in their lives. Nor are they particularly the ones whose educational needs are not met because they are not up to the fierce completion in Yeshivos, whether it is in the area of Limud HaTorah or in the area of academic studies. These are the bright kids. These are the good kids from good families. And in some cases these are adults who at some point in their lives ask hard questions that end up leading them into becoming skeptics.

I have dealt with this topic in the past. I have offered my own views as to why I have Emunah. But I fully admit that I do not have satisfactory answers to all the questions asked by these highly intelligent people. For example it is almost impossible to answer a question put to me many times by different people – and one that precipitated Ari’s descent into the world of skeptics. From the article:

One morning, I woke up and a thought fell on me like a ton of bricks. I realized I was only an Orthodox Jew because it was what I had been taught since birth. I knew no other way. If I had been born into a Christian family, I would have been on the Jesus train. If I’d been born into a Muslim family, I would’ve jumped on the Allah bandwagon. If I had been raised in the splendor of the flying spaghetti monster, then I’d have spent my mornings praising his noodle appendages. I was an Orthodox Jew by chance, I realized, and the realization shook me to my core.

I honestly do not know how to answer a question like this. And yet I have complete faith in Judaism as it has been handed down to me by my forefathers. Am I lucky to be born a Jew in a religious home? Yes! You bet I am. But that does not answer the question of why I get to be so lucky.

One of the things I deal with here (which my last post touched upon) is the fantastic stories of faith that strains credulity. As described by Ari:

I would hear stories of people who had their lives saved by their tefillin. One guy was praying while driving and got into a car accident; the only thing that stopped his head from smashing through the windshield was his headpiece. Another devout man, about to board a plane, realized he left his tefillin at home and missed the flight while retrieving them, and—you guessed it—the plane crashed. It all sounded like a bit much.

These kinds of stories tend to bring out the skeptic in me as well. Not that they are impossible to believe. But that they are so frequently used to prove that a miracle occurred because of an act based on one’s religious belief… Or taken a step further, because one participated in one of those Segula Tzedaka campaigns.

When people start questioning their faith, stories like this only accelerate the process.

I don’t have any answers to this increasing problem. But at the same time, there is absolutely nothing being done to address them in a communal way. At least not as it pertains to nipping it in the bud in one’s formal educational experience.

Them and Us

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

“Monopoly was created for a summer Shabbat and Fast Days…”!

So I heard, time and again, in my early years.

Distractions are perfect for these two days, and thus, some suggest, the less you think about what you’re missing [i.e.- be it the T.V/Computer on Shabbat, or food/water on a Fast-Day,] the better off you will be.

Years later, I know rather too well that while “Monopoly”  has a place in the Jewish home, I am not sure about it’s appropriateness to either Shabbat or a Fast-Day. Leaving the former for another time, let’s talk about the latter.

Seems to me that being “distracted” on the fast day… is exactly the opposite of what the intention of our sages was. In the words of the Rambam [Laws of Fast-Days, Chapter 5/1;]

“There are days that all of Israel fast on, because of the tragedies that occurred on them, in order to awaken the hearts, and open the paths towards Teshuva/Repentance, and they shall be a reminder to our wrong/evil ways, and those of our forbears, that were like our own today, which has/had resulted to them and to us in these tragedies, and by remembering them, we will return to proper ways… .and they are… the 17th of Tamuz…

In a word, the Rambam is saying that a typical Fast day is a means to an end-it’s a tool for us to repent for actions and behaviors that caused both tragic events of the past and those of the present.

Following suit, seems that we should be distracted on this day, and the natural feeling of hunger and thirst should lead us to deep introspection as to the way we act, speak and more.

So, as I sit in front of my screen on this commemoration of the 17th of Tamuz, allow me to pick on but 1 behavior pattern that seems to be a throw-back to then, and to my dismay, is continuing now.

It’s no secret that we are fasting today to recall, amongst others, the breaching of the walls surrounding Jerusalem, probably [only] during the period of the 2nd Temple [Tractate Ta'a'nit 28b, which suggests that during the 1st Temple, this happened on the 9th day of Tamuz.] It is also well known that the 2nd Temple, according to the prevalent view of our sages, was destroyed due to “Sin’at Chi’nam”/Senseless hatred [Tractate Yo'ma 9b.]

Putting two and two together, seems like today is a day that we are still fasting, and not [yet] feasting [as, hopefully, we will-see Tractate Rosh-Hashana 18b] due to such senseless hatred still continuing in the year 2012.

“But I don’t hate anyone?”

True, we probably seldom used the term “I hate…” for another Jew. But there is something that is still be done today, and is a by-product of the above- the use of the word “them” about fellow Jews.

You all know the scene – you are watching the news, and see some sort of an occurrence. As Jews seldom stays quite and refrain from voicing their opinion, I am sure one of the following statements were uttered recently about the latest events in Israel;

  • They should make a deal and go to the army”
  • Violence won’t get them anywhere.”
  • They are really two-faced, just demonstrating in the summer and not in the winter…”

The list goes on, but I’m sure you get the point.

There’s only one problem with it; “They” are really… us!

We are not speaking about some group in the hinterlands of the USA doing this or that, or what the locals are constructing in the Far-East! We are speaking about… our fellow Jews!

  • You may not formally have a membership card into the [so-called] “Charedei” world, but when seeing the recent controversy concerning the “Tal Law”, how many of us said, “I feel bad… for us” versus “them?”
  • You may not live in Tel Aviv, and thus are not part, or are not personally effected, by the “Social demonstrations” of recent. But how many of us looked at the news reports on it, and commented that this is not a good thing… for us, rather for “them?”

Sin’at Chi’nam”/Senseless hatred is not just hating someone. In my opinion, it would include creating a feeling of two nations within the same people/it would include looking at current events in Israel, being produced by fellow Jews, and referring to it as “what’s happening to them.”

Chronicles Of Crises In Our Communities

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

Sympathetic to A Sympathetic Bubby
(Chronicles June 8 )

Dear Rachel,

I just finished reading your response to the worried bubby and was very disappointed with your answer. This bubby is right on. We are seeing an alarming increase in childhood anxiety. We also have kids being diagnosed with ADHD and all kinds of learning disabilities. Medication is given out like candy, without any thought of the immediate side effects and long-term effects it can have.

Today, in addition to the tremendous financial demands of sending a child (or numerous children) to yeshiva, most families are spending money on tutors and therapists as well. And yet with all of this, we are at a loss as to why our kids are having so many behavioral issues (kids off the derech, mood disorders, bullying, OCD, etc.).

It’s time to take our heads out of the sand. Our children are being deprived of normal childhood activities because of the demands of the yeshiva system. Our children should be coming home from school and taking their bikes out for a ride or playing ball, but there’s almost no time for anything, not even sleep.

We all grew up in a different era where the demands were not as great. Kids at risk or many of the issues we are seeing today, such as bullying, etc., were almost unheard of. We are making unrealistic demands of young children, and much of the time they aren’t given a constructive outlet for their stress. These demands transmit to the parents as well; we are unable to have positive communication with our children, since we are frantically trying to help them complete all their homework instead of spending quality time with them after their long day at school.

Recently a friend told me that half of her son’s high school class – he is now in college – was on medication. We are asking our kids to sit for 10-hour days with almost no movement, and then to come home for hours more of studying and homework. That’s a ridiculous expectation. Where do they turn? Social media, computers and phones are being used as a means of distraction from the day-to-day pressures.

In some cases, kids are displaying real at-risk behaviors in trying to cope with the pressures that face them. My girls are having bekius tests as early as third grade. This is stressing kids out and for what? They don’t need to be rebbetzins; they need to develop into happy, well-adjusted adults. There are girls in my daughter’s class who are exhibiting real behavioral issues, such as bullying, and are displaying a real lack of middos.

Why is our focus so off? We need to make school fun and give our children constructive positive ways to enjoy themselves minus the Internet, cell phones and TV. We would not need an asifa to fix the problem if we start using some basic common sense. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Midwest because some of my kids compete on a professional level in certain sports. I have been so impressed with these non-Jewish kids. They have tremendous focus, discipline and respect. They are seriously involved in wholesome sports that they love. I speak to their coaches and I see that they have almost no drug issues and very little behavioral issues. They have found a way to give their kids positive outlets for their energy and stress.

Why can’t we learn from them? If we are able to reduce the demands made on our kids and make more time to communicate with them positively, teaching them basic derech eretz, kavod habriosand positive forms of enjoyment, we will see happy well-adjusted adults who will not have to resort to deviant distorted behaviors to find themselves.

We can do better!

Dear Can Do,

Your points are well taken, however your letter addresses multiple issues that are not necessarily linked. For instance, can we really pin the blame for children’s learning disabilities on the burden of homework overload? Does a demanding itinerary inevitably result in a sedentary lifestyle? Do kids act out in unhealthy ways because of a lack of physical recreation that some of our schools fail to provide for their student body?

Off The Derech And The Community

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

 (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

The Fourth Son

Wednesday, April 12th, 2006

As we recite the Haggadah during the seder, we are introduced to the “Four Sons.” These represent four types of people. There is the wise son – the kind every parent and teacher prays to have. He is smart, respectful and has stayed on the derech of his people. He is curious and asks questions in order to satisfy his quest for knowledge. The second son is also smart, but he is off the derech, and has distanced himself from his family and his heritage. The third son is a good-natured boy but is either very young or simple. He is curious about his current environment – the pre-Pesach cleaning and the seder – and asks about it. The Torah states that one should teach each child according to his level, and so the answers to his questions are likewise simple and easy to understand.


The fourth child – the one who seemingly is oblivious to his surroundings and does not even know to ask about the hustle and bustle around him – is the most problematic of the bunch. He is so self-absorbed and so detached from what is happening he may very likely have a personality disorder that can negatively affect those around him.


As I see it, this apathetic, non-involved individual is more problematic than his “off the derech” brother. One can reach out to the lost son and possibly bring him back. With the patience and perseverance of caring individuals, many kids who have fallen off the path changed their ways and did teshuva.


You can be sure the fourth son was not among those caring individuals. The only person this narcissist is interested in is himself. His needs and wants are paramount. Any activity or event that does not revolve around him is of no interest at all to him. That includes Pesach. With all the tumult that is part and parcel of the holiday – the cleaning, the cooking, the sitting down at the seder – he expresses no curiosity in what is going on. The house has been turned upside-down – inside-out, an elaborate seder prepared with foods served in an atypical manner, and he doesn’t make the effort to inquire about it all. He does not know to ask - she’aino yodea lishol – because he is emotionally not there -nor does he care to be – since the holiday is not abouthim. If the seder was a celebration of him – if he were the honoree – you could be sure that he would ask a lot of questions and be on top of every detail.


Unfortunately many of these self-declared “masters of the universe” have families. But since they are so self-absorbed they take – rarely give. Their attitude is that the world revolves around them and “kimt mir alles” (everything is coming to me). They are the husbands who enjoy laundered clothes and delicious meals – but do not thank their wives or offer tokens of appreciation. But if anything isn’t perfect, they are quick to criticize and insult. They are the parents, who can’t be bothered asking their children how their day in school was – they come home, eat supper and either watch TV, read, or attend to their hobbies. They are the people who monopolize the precious time or finances of their siblings, co-workers, friends, parents, etc. constantly asking for favors – but they never reciprocate.


Sadly, as a community we are at risk of exhibiting self-absorbed behavior and detachment from issues that don’t affect us personally. It is imperative that we collectively not fall in the tragic category of one ” who does not know to ask” – where we are witness to extraordinary events and situations befalling less fortunate members of the community – be they the poor, agunot, older singles, Israeli citizens victimized by misguided government policies – but remain ignorant or uninvolved, unable to even ask – as the simple son does – mah zeh – what is this?


Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/the-fourth-son/2006/04/12/

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