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Notes from Limmud 2009

Leaving Religion: Kids at Risk

Leah Malamet

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

A growing phenomenon in the Orthodox Jewish world is children who reject the observant/traditional lifestyle of their families. What are some of the underlying reasons for this trend, and how can families and educators respond? What does this situation tell us about religious Judaism as it is currently practised?

Is it actually a misnomer to term these kids "at risk"?

Kids at risk can refer to people who drop out of frumkeit to become a normal well-adjusted person, or those who fall into a criminal world. Isn't it misleading to use the term for both these classes?

The two have been conflated over the years; twenty years ago, it referred to substance abusers, self-mutilators, kids at risk of crime. Over the years, though, because people who were at risk religiously were often, though not always, [at risk of things like the above], the two got conflated. And this is a problem.

From the point of view of the parents, if the parents are frum, their children are no longer living what they would consider the way to have a G-d centred existence. They feel they have left the fold.

There are also kids at risk from a psychological point of view but who appear to be at risk religiously. Religion isn't the point, it's a symptom; it's the area in which the issues get played out.

For example, a child growing up in a house where they don't feel their individual opinions are respected, or where the full range of their emotions is respected—they don't talk about sadness or anger—they will be at risk from a religious PoV because they feel their issues are lumped along with authority, and thence Torah authority, rabbi authority; the only way they have safety is to want to blow off religion. This isn't a conscious thing, but rather than blowing off at their mother they break Shabbos.

The kids feel they have to start hiding or banishing parts of themselves. And when they feel that, they show up in other ways. The key word is integration. It's not that all aspects of a person need to be expressed all the time, but it is important not to be hiding or banishing parts. Don't tell children parts of themselves are bad, but [tell them] to regulate them.

Case example from ten years ago. A girl in grade nine who was referred to the speaker as having an eating disorder. She said, "I sort of like school, but there's this thing which happens a lot, and I don't know how I feel about it." Example? "The teacher is saying that the Jewish soul is better than the Gentile soul. The other kids are taking this down; I say but how do we know? The teacher looks at me, and says you have problems with your emunah.

"Either there's something wrong with me, as everyone else is happy with all of this, or I'm right, and then I'm in a bad place as I don't want to split with my community, and I don't feel I can speak my mind there."

The speaker tried to respond in a way to open up other possibilities rather than just "I'm right, they're right." "Have you read any other sources on the topic on what he teacher said?" "Not yet; are there other sources?" "Maimonides expresses an opposite view to R. Yehudah Halevi." And when she said this, the girl sat up and looked up for the first time. Suddenly she was back part of the great chain of tradition. The parts of her that were complex and not black and white were okay.

If kids are raised in a more integrated fashion, such that they feel respected, and are needed and important in the family, even if parents don't always agree, they generally want to stay where they've been raised. They're generally not wanting to step out. Sometimes there are general theological differences, but not with younger kids.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe interpreted the Ingathering of the Exiles, as chassidim often do, as a metaphor for an internal proccess: It's really about gathering in the exiled parts of yourself.

Kids feel a need to individuate, to make themselves different to their parents, but don't have to do so in the realm of religion, whether becoming more frum or less so. Given freedom in other areas, they feel they can be religiously the same as their parents without being swallowed up by them.

Are we developing a self, or are we developing a counter-self? A reactive self, a counter-self, is not a real self. Parents are supposed to be both a secure base and a safe haven.

There are no large statistical studies about why [lacuna]

What should be the educational focus on what we inculcate into children? Love and joy in Torah observance, or it is more important to inculcate into them why we do that? And is spiritual passion a teachable thing?

There's no question that text and intellectual engaging is crucial. You have to know what to do and why you do it. You need to form a relationship with G-d; and as in any relationship, if you want to develop intimacy, you have to develop knowledge of the other, which means Torah here. As the Rambam said: The level of knowledge will be the level of love.

In general in the Jewish educational system, it tends to be neck-up education: very cerebral; not involving role-playing, music, drama, art, etc. Even on a textual level, teachers can be doing it differently. It doesn't have to be: here's the possuk, read it, translate, here's what Rashi said, here's what the Rambam said, Ibn Ezra and so forth. That gets the knowledge in, but spiritually it does nothing; it doesn't make you feel you own the text. Kids are picking up on this, and they don't want it.

How about: Read the text; does anything jump out at you; is there anything it reminds you of; how do you feel about it, etc? [Audience member: Some Orthodox shuls are now doing this in the UK. For example, what would it like to have been to go on the journey with Abraham, etc.]

[Mossy W: Is it always a bad thing to rebel? For example, a child who goes away from their parents and looks at non-Jewish philosophers, but is still engaged in the debate.] So long as the parents do not freak out and respond reasonably. Indeed, if the parents are able to expose the child to other worldviews, when they get to university, they're not going to be goshwowed and seduced by external knowledge.

[Speaker's husband:] Individuation is always a healthy thing; rebellion is always a bad thing. It's a turbulent, turmoil-filled thing; and there's always a reckoning: Mentally, they're always the other in your head, and at some point you're going to have to come back and confront it, to get it back together.

One thing that changed everything is that there's more choice. As R. Chaim Soloveitchik pointed out, once upon a time, you had to stay in the world you grew up in unless you want to be completely ostracised. Now, that's not true. Also, the sense of traditions being passed down within families has been ruptured, largely due to the Holocaust.

There's also a heavy emphasis (q.v. article "Rupture and Reconstruction") on [lacuna]

This led to everything becoming book-dependent, which is spiritually cold. It's hard to maintain a spiritual atmosphere around this. Because there was no one to look to, people became hyper-machmir; this made people feel they were ensuring the continuity of what came before. This created the gross imbalance described above, and emphasis on external practice.

[This next bit was rather fast and my notes are a bit bitty:]

[lacuna] Mind creates brain. Mindfulness meditation, based on [the practice of] Tibetan monks. [This shows] more of an integration between the left and right sides of the brain, [?leading to] greater fluidity, and less rigidity, [making people] more self-compassionate [with increased] ability to cope. [This has] massive implications in terms of religion.

[A frum audience member says the success rate of keeping people in the fold is actually high, and is for the opposite reasons to those the speaker talked about.] Speaker's husband: There is a direct disconnect between the number of charedi babies but they're being a static percentage of the Jewish community, with the exception of Israel and a few other places. There should be far bigger communities based on the birthrates, but there aren't. Secondly, there is a growing conversation about these things. It may not be official, but there are a lot of people studying this, e.g. at Bar Ilan.

Where do our kids go for help, when they feel they have questions? How should the parents react when [they see evidence their child is dropping out]? Should the kids be unconditionally accepted? What about the effect they have on the other kids in the household?

It depends on the age of the kids. Unconditional love, yes, but not unconditional acceptance. You need to know they disagree. Also a division between what goes on in the house and what goes on outside. It's okay to say to the kids what Moishe does in his own time is not what we agree with.

This can be negotiated; and if the parents aren't clear whether it's a theological issue—and therapists can get involved to help make that distinction.

Parents will often get very nervous about minor infractions, and inflate the whole scenario in their minds. We tend to have self-fulfilling prophecies: we create the very thing we fear when we panic. So parents, to avoid the panic and defuse that feeling of catastrophe: Consider what you would say if you're giving advice to a friend about their friend. And secondly [say to yourself], if I wasn't busy feeling embarrassed about how other people in the community would feel about it, how would I feel? This makes parents aware of stuff from their own childhood that they don't want to think about. If they can get in touch with that, it helps to have a conversation in a more normal put-out-the-fire way.

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