First let me say that there are many fine organizations that do tremendous work in this area. They inspire people to become more religious by using honey rather than vinegar. By showing young Jews with no background the beauty of Judaism instead of focusing on the fire and brimstone, many unaffiliated Jews have become observant and have given meaning to their lives.
But there is occasionally a downside resulting in unintended consequences as the story in Kveller tells us. Sometimes the parents of a newly observant Jew – commonly called a Bal Teshuva (BT)- or returnee to observant Judaism – become alienated from their children. There are several possibilities that can explain why this does occasionally happen.
The author of that Kveller story is the mother of a young woman that became a Bal Teshuva. She describes the events that led her to see Kiruv as akin to kidnapping! She talks of the great lengths she went to accommodate her daughter’s new found religious lifestyle. But to no avail. Her daughter became completely alienated from her. She was obviously very hurt by that and blamed the Kiruv group that reached out to her daughter for that.
Rabbi Avi Shafran has written a response to that article in the Forward. He basically says that there are several possibilities that might explain what happened which do not necessary entail ‘kidnapping’.
First he said that there are always at least 2 versions of a story and wonders if the daughter would have described the situation differently. He also mentioned the fact that legitimate Jewish outreach actually encourages BTs to retain and even enhance their relationship with their parents. But in some cases people use their new found religious observance as an excuse to deal with a pre-existing problematic parent child relationship.
There are other reasons that might explain it. Sometimes a Kiruv organization will insist on its own Chumros without telling them that they are only stringencies and not basic Halacha. Which I find to be unscrupulous. That can cause unnecessary friction between a parent and child.
There is also the possibility that a religious cult like Lev Tahor will use Kiruv as a tactic to gain control over someone’s life. Which of course requires severing all past relationships. Especially those of parents and family. They will convince cult members that the negative influences of their parents home requires them to sever any relationship with them.
These are just a few of the possibilities that might help explain what happened between this BT and her mother.
One thing is clear to me. Any legitimate Kiruv organization will never try to sever the relationship with a parent. The opposite is true. What often happens is that even the parents become observant too. But even if they don’t they will respect their children’s choices and accommodate them. The love between parent and child remains intact.
This article actually raised a question in my mind involving Kiruv of another kind. One that usually takes place in Israel during what has come to be known as the gap year. Which is the year a religious high school graduate takes to study Torah before he comes back to continue his education. The phenomenon is sometimes referred to as ‘Flippng out’. A child will go to Israel with one Hashkafa and comes back with an entirely different one.
The reaction by some parents to this is similar to the reaction by the mother of the BT in the Kveller story. If a parental home is one with a Modern Orthodox orientation where for example higher education is valued along with Torah study – and the child now rejects higher education in its entirety opting instead to continue Torah study only – does a parent have the right to feel that the values he taught that child have been rejected by him because he was in fact ‘re-eductated’ by his Torah teachers in Israel?