We all yearn to feel that we are part of something special. We all seek respect and acceptance for simply being who we are.
More than twenty years ago, I was invited to give shiurim on the small Caribbean island of Curacao. Located in a virtually unknown part of the globe, the Mikve Israel synagogue in Willemstad was built in 1732 and is the oldest synagogue still in use in the Western Hemisphere. My friend and I went to speak at the newer, Orthodox shul, which was founded within the past century. After circling the island numerous times in search of the shul, I finally pulled over to ask for directions. Not being fluent in the local language of Papiamentu, I handed the slip of paper with the address to the kind man who stopped to assist me. He spent the next 15 minutes guiding me to the other side of the tiny country, not leaving me until I pulled up to the front door of the shul. When I thanked him, he said that this is their way; to make sure a stranger gets to his destination. I experienced this chesed many times over the next week, and more than two decades later, I still cherish the warm and welcoming way I was treated.
We all seek to be surrounded by people who care, to be part of something special and larger than ourselves. The special feeling of being part of a warm, respectful family is the feeling that should be generated by simply being a member of the large Jewish nation. Just as the Torah commands us to help the stranger – even when he is our enemy – whose mode of transportation has become disabled on the road, so too it is incumbent upon all of us to extend ourselves, with warmth, to those around us. I firmly believe that one who feels loved and respected in his home and in his community will yearn to stay in that positive atmosphere. Why would a person have the need to go somewhere else, if where he is now is a place of comfort, happiness and growth? Making children feel warm and comfortable in our homes, schools and shuls is the most important way we can help them continue on the path we have chartered for them in our homes, schools, and shuls. A person who feels special at home is likely to want to replicate that environment in the future.
Why do kids go off the derech? The question itself generates further questions. There is clearly no single explanation that covers all of those who choose to stray from the path of Torah. Some may wonder what the point there is then in asking the question – let’s just focus on helping them return. My intent in writing this series is not to point the finger of blame or to trivialize what may be a painful interaction of multiple factors that contribute to many of our children leaving the path of our heritage. My goal is to share insights from my more than twenty years of experience and to suggest some important issues that we, as a community, can work on to help strengthen our children’s bonds to the eternal values of Torah and our Creator.
Many summers ago, I gave a series of shiurim in Ohr Someach Jerusalem on living a spiritual life in the 20th century. A sixty-year-old man sat in every class and diligently took notes on everything I said. Many decades his junior, his interest in learning was very motivating to me as a rebbe, and his enthusiasm was infectious to the rest of the students. When he missed a day, he explained that he had gone to Europe for a business meeting. He was a successful businessman, but Torah was his new passion. He had lived a life without Torah for four decades, and was now enthusiastically embracing his newfound heritage.
Then he told us his story. As a young man, he decided to leave the secular world of his parents and embrace the religious life that his grandfather so fervently adhered to. One Shabbos morning he awoke with tremendous excitement and went to the local shul to begin his new lifestyle. He found an empty seat in the front and picked up a prayer book with no English translation, and, while exhilarated that he was in the house of Hashem, was also nervous because he did not know how to daven.