Photo Credit:
Rabbi Lawrence (Leib) Kelemen

Last summer, The Jewish Action featured a panel of experts answering the “tough questions.” One of the panelists was the great Rabbi Lawrence (Leib) Kelemen of Neve and Mussar Vaad fame. The question he was asked was: “Why are so many kids off the Derech?” (That’s their term. I don’t use it.)

Rabbi Kelemen starts off great. He says that kids don’t leave Orthodox Judaism because of a cell phone or the Internet or even because they never experience the beauty of Shabbos. He even says that secular courses at college are not the problem.


Then he cites the research of the two foremost Orthodox therapists who deal with these issues in a paper published 15 years ago:

“First, there are child risk factors, such as attention deficit disorder (ADD), hyperactivity, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), learning disabilities, poor academic abilities, poor social skills and depression. Second, there are environmental risk factors, which include major medical or economic crises, corrupt rabbis and teachers, sexual abuse, physical abuse, lack of recognition of individual strengths and Internet abuse. Third, there are family risk factors, which include hypercritical or angry home environments, parents with poor parenting skills and lack of shalom bayis.”

But Rabbi Kelemen says that the only real cause in this list compiled by professionals in the field, is the home. Forget the first two reasons mentioned in the paper. Basically, the real problem is bad parenting. He calls it parental selfishness.

He then discusses some other very important points and critiques of frum culture including: The emotional cost of being a frum Jew, teaching Mitzvos without appreciation for Mitzvos, the Shidduch system meat market, and overall misplaced values. These are all excellent points.

Despite the fact that I didn’t love how Rabbi Kelemen latched on to one particular reason for kids leaving Orthodox Judaism and in essence blaming the parents, it was a pretty decent article. Made some good points, fell a little flat in others.

Apparently, not everyone saw it this way. It seems an avalanche of letters arrived in The Jewish Action mailboxes criticizing Rabbi Kelemen’s take on the issue. They sensed that Rabbi Kelemen was being too hard on parents of children who had left Orthodox Judaism.

Rabbi Kelemen responds in the current Winter 2013 issue of The Jewish Action. He basically doubles down on his theory, and not only that, he expresses regret that he left wiggle room for anyone to think that the parents did not cause the child to leave Orthodox Judaism. In fairness, a letter from a third professional (this is in addition to the two cited in the 2013 article) lends some support to his theory that the parents are to blame, but the context of the letter was to answer a specific question, not to address the general issue.

He also cites R’ Chaim Kanievsky who says that if the parents fought in the home then the children cannot be blamed for rebelling. This too, does not address the issue head on, it simply exculpates children from difficult homes from Heavenly Justice. Finally, he quotes R’ Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg who said that almost every child who is struggling with their religion is seeking attention they could not get at home from their bad parents.

This response disturbs me.

First of all, I respect R’ Chaim Kanievsky, but I don’t think he is in a position to offer specific advice on this specific issue. I could be wrong, but I do not think that he has experience with formerly Orthodox Jews in any meaningful sense. I simply have never heard of him being involved with these kids. Other Gedolim have such experience. I don’t believe R’ Chaim is one of them. So while his thoughts are interesting and worth hearing, I don’t see how his oblique statement should be taken more seriously than experts in the field. The same goes for R’ Scheinberg.

Second of all, I don’t like the assumption that there is a common or specific reason that people leave Orthodox Judaism which implies that without some sort of trauma or disability they would not leave. People leave for tons of reasons. And many people leave for intellectual or social reasons despite charmed childhoods. It’s arrogant to think we can turn every born Orthodox Jew into an adult Orthodox Jew. It just doesn’t work for some people. We have to acknowledge that possibility in any discussion of the topic.

Third of all, because there are completely healthy people who leave Orthodox Judaism, it’s obvious that not all of them are scarred by bad parenting. Most children of bad parents actually don’t leave Orthodox Judaism. Conversely, we all know excellent parents who have children who left Orthodox Judaism. The blame game here is silly and tired.

I remember when the Jewish Observer article on this phenomenon was released in the 90′s. The parents blamed the schools, the schools blamed the parents, the professionals blamed mental health issues, and the teens didn’t blame anything. I heard from rabbis who attended the Nefesh conferences in those days that the sessions were basically arguing over who was to blame.

Has it never occurred to people that not everyone is going to be frum? Has it ever occurred to people that some people just don’t get anything from Orthodox Judaism. Yesterday, I wrote about an heir to a Chasidic dynasty that did not feel comfortable in his religious environment. If not for an external factor, he may have left Orthodox Judaism too. (See: Book Review | Untold Tales of the Hasidim). The author of that book said in an interview that he was raised Orthodox, but just never felt or believed in God so he stopped practicing. It’s not always something other than that! I recently talked with a young man who left Orthodox Judaism about his journey. I asked him when he felt like he was no longer Orthodox. He told me that he never actually felt Orthodox. Throughout his years of school he kind of just breezed right through it and knew in his head that when high school yeshiva was over, he was going to leave. No trauma, no mental illness, no story. Just left. He’s not the only one.

When the question of “Why are so many kids off the Derech?” is asked, the only proper response in my opinion, is to say that each kid has their own reason and each kid has their own story and each kid has their own choice to stay or to go.

People would like to identify trends so that fewer born Orthodox Jews leave. If the reasons for their flight are understood, the thinking is that the community can reform its behavior and as a result more people will stay Orthodox. Unfortunately, this is a game of whack-a-mole. There are too many reasons and too many factors to effectively keep everyone in the fold.

However, there is something that can be universally implemented. Many teens or young adults experiment with a life outside the confines of Orthodox Judaism. Some people call these kids “at-risk”. How we treat these kids is very likely to impact their loyalties as they grow older. If we marginalize them, infantilize them, insult them, hurt them, hate them, or judge them we are likely sealing their fate. So while I don’t think we can possibly control all the factors that might push someone to leave Orthodox Judaism, we can adjust our attitude toward people who are on the margins. They must be made to feel comfortable, loved, accepted, important, smart, and capable of contributing positively to the community. That is something we can control and it is something that should be done regardless of whether it will keep more people Orthodox. But I have a feeling it would help the numbers too.

Finally, I do think there is a bit of a silver lining here. If frum people really think that mental illness, and learning disabilities, or even ADD is a huge factor in kids leaving Orthodox Judaism and that a peaceful home is of utmost importance to keeping kids frum and that we should instill positive Judaism in our education system in order that more people appreciate the beauty of Orthodox Judaism so they will want to stay Orthodox, go for it! I think it’s a bit disappointing that we would only seem to address these issues as a way to prevent people from leaving Orthodox Judaism, but if that’s what gets people exciting about solving these problems, I am all for it. I would prefer if these challenges were addressed simply because they are important issues on their own, but sometimes people need superficial motivation to do the right thing. At the very least we can justify putting more resources into solving these very real problems for the sake of all the people who are affecting by them, not just the kids who are at risk of leaving Orthodox Judaism.

Links: Jewish Action Summer 2013, Jewish Action Winter 2013

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Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D. is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice CA. He blogs at Connect with Rabbi Fink on Facebook and Twitter.