This is definitely one of the most difficult articles I have ever undertaken. Since I began this parenting blog, I have been inundated with emails from parents asking for ways to ensure that their children don’t go “Off the Derech” (We’ll be using the term “OTD”). Other parents already have children in this situation and want guidance.
The obvious question is, what is the goal of this article? The answer is simple. Understanding. It would be great if we could understand the mindset of those that are OTD. I’m not just talking about our own children. I’m talking about all Yidden. However, ultimately, the article is focused on children that are going, or have recently gone, OTD, and the appropriate parenting practices. Therefore, if you are an OTD adult reading this, it may very well not apply to you.
I’ve divided this series into four separate topics.
Before I begin, I would like to write a disclaimer. When writing an article about this subject, it is understood that people have strong opinions one way or the other. I have put in many hours speaking to children and parents that are in this situation, rabbis and psychologists that deal with this on a daily basis, and many others. Although I would love to hear your thoughts, please keep all comments or other correspondence civil.
First of all, I truly dislike the term “Off the Derech.” I don’t even understand it. Who’s Derech are they off? Is it “Off the Derech of being Shomer Torah U’Mitzvos”? If so, then I’m afraid that, unfortunately, many of us are off the Derech in some way or other, albeit less drastically. Is it, “Off the correct Derech of following the Torah”? Well, let’s consider. If I’m sitting with a bunch of Chassidim, do they consider me “OTD”? Perhaps I am, from their perspective.
When we use the term “OTD” we’re usually referring to it as a child having gone off the Derech of their parents’ chosen path of being a Torah Jew. To illustrate my point, here’s a phrase that was emailed to me many times. “If only my son/daughter knew how much they are hurting us”. Or, “It is such an embarrassment to our family”. However, this issue is not always about the parents.
I’m not dismissing how painful it is for them and their families. However, this child also has a life, and probably a confusing one as well. Constantly referring to him as someone who is “OTD” is demeaning and insensitive. Believe it or not, a person that’s OTD doesn’t necessarily feel that they are off any path. Many of them have no regrets and are happy just the way they are. There are, in fact, many people in this situation who have embraced this term, and they wear it like a badge of honor. In any case, I think it’s better if we refrain from labeling anyone unless it’s absolutely necessary. If they choose to label themselves, that’s their prerogative.
It is extremely important that we are aware about the feelings of others, even if we don’t agree with them. They are not second-class citizens, and we are not the ones to be judging them. I recently spoke with an eighteen-year-old girl, and she told me, “I might not be religious, but at least I’m not stealing from the government or running elaborate scams.” Hard to argue with that. While she has given up certain practices, she has apparently maintained good Middos that, unfortunately, some “frum” Jews have abandoned.
After speaking with over 150 teenagers in this situation over the past few weeks, I can safely say the following:
I’m not trying to generalize, as I’ve always believed that 91% of statistics are fabricated. Nevertheless, the points I made above seem to be the consensus of many of the people I’ve spoken with. There are certainly exceptions, but that’s not for now.
I’m obviously not condoning becoming less religious. I hope and pray that all Yidden become Shomrei Torah and Mitzvos. I personally love being religious. I don’t feel restricted, I enjoy Shabbos, and keeping Kosher isn’t a challenge. Nonetheless, this article is not about me. We all need to be cognizant that the first step towards understanding those that are less religious, is to consider their feelings.
This segment of the article was to discuss what, OTD means. IY”H next week, we’ll discuss some contributing factors. Again, I do understand that many people have different opinions on this delicate matter. I would love to hear your thoughts. You can email them directly to me (everything is kept 100% private and deleted after) or you can comment on the blog. However, I will not allow any comments that are insulting to anyone, or that contain inappropriate language, or Lashon Hora.
This is the second part of the OTD article. To help keep it organized, it's in the same blog. Before we begin, there are some very important disclaimers.
Many adults that are OTD have made it very clear that they resent the fact that I am listing “contributing factors.” According to the emails I received, “You make it seem like OTD is a disease”. No, I don’t think it’s a disease. However, from a parent’s perspective, having a child go OTD is not a desirable thing. Below is a list of factors that I believe can cause a child to lose interest in Yiddishkeit. I encourage you to comment on the blog if you have anything to add.
Most fundamentally, children are affected by negativity. We’re not talking regular negativity, we’re talking negativity about Yiddishkeit. Our religion is not exclusively one of restrictions. It’s about how we live and what we can, and sometimes must, do. Telling a child, “You can’t play that game on Shabbos!” is not necessarily the best way to instill an appreciation of Shabbos. A much better way of turning it into a teaching moment would be to say, “Let’s play that game tomorrow; we can play something else for now.” I’m not even talking about teenagers now, I’m talking about little kids. Let them grow up feeling excited and secure about who they are and what they represent. “You can’t eat that, it’s not kosher!” “You can’t go there, it’s not appropriate!” “You can’t touch that, it’s muktzeh!” “You shouldn’t watch that, it’s not tzniyus!”
There are 365 negative commandments in the Torah. It is no coincidence that the number equals the days of the solar year. If you’re telling your child, “You can’t. . .” more than once a day, you’re doing it wrong. There are 248 positive Mitzvos corresponding to the bones of our bodies (as the Gemara in Makkos 23b explains). This seems to teach us that being positive about Yiddishkeit should be the essence of who we are, as expressed by our actions. A conscious effort must be made to exclude negativity in reference to Yiddishkeit. Being a Jew is a positive experience!
A second contributing factor is anger. Although closely related to negativity, there are many differences. The Gemara tells us (In Brachos, amongst other places) that if you don’t get angry, you won’t sin. Anger is an emotion that does not have a place in the chinuch of children. There are times when a parent has to act angry. If your child disrespects your spouse, you can look upset and tell him off. However, once you become really angry, you’ll quickly lose control.
You might say things in anger that you don’t really mean. You might get frustrated over something insignificant. You might even do something that can have long-lasting consequences. We need to remember that low self-esteem is extremely prevalent in our communities, and if you combine that with an angry parent, it can have disastrous results. I would like to reiterate that getting upset at your kids isn’t called being angry. Even if you lose control occasionally, it won’t cause your children to go OTD. It’s constantly losing control or screaming that can definitely be a factor.
A third contributing factor can be a Rebbe. Many parents have told me that specific Rebbeim pushed their children OTD. I vehemently disagree. Granted, a “bad” Rebbe can be devastating, but that alone should not cause a child, in most cases, to go OTD. That being said, a “bad” Rebbe can really be a disaster. We’re talking Rebbeim that insult kids, make fun of them, and even antagonize them. Why would a Rebbe do that? I have no clue. I heard from an excellent Rebbe, that if you have a Rebbe that doesn’t love teaching Torah, the end result will be that he will drive children away from Torah.
A fourth factor is what I call exclusion. The phrase, “United we stand, divided we fall” holds especially true for children. If a child is constantly being excluded by his classmates and neighbors, it can be a contributing factor in him going OTD. One girl shared the following story with me:
“From when I was 7 years old, I didn’t feel like I belonged in my school. The other girls made playdates left and right, but they felt I was too modern to join them. Apparently, their parents excluded me from everything. I just wanted to play, not discuss religion. I might have become more religious if I would’ve spent time with them. I was a shy and quiet girl, and being ignored destroyed me. Once I turned 14, I decided that if I was being considered a black sheep, I needed to act the part. So, here I am 10 years later completely OTD. My “friends” were not contributing factors, they were the cause!”
Obviously, if you think a specific child is not a great playmate for your child, you have the right to separate them. On the other hand, is it always the right thing to do? Certainly, if a child is being “shunned” by everyone else, no good can come of it. It’s a horrible feeling to be left out, and a definite factor in causing OTD. Parents should listen to their children If they complain about not having friends, or being left out.
The fifth and final factor is an obvious one – a bad friend. It’s no coincidence that I put this right after the previous paragraph. You need to know your child. If she is susceptible to external influences, you must be extremely vigilant as to who they hang out with. A bad friend can undo all the good your child has learned, and it can happen in the blink of an eye.
IY”H next week, we’ll discuss ways to prevent OTD and I look forward to your comments and emails. Have a great Shabbos.
Once again, I spent a good portion of my week reading some interesting emails (and comments) sent to me by a wide range of readers. I’ve noticed a fascinating pattern when it comes to these emails. Therefore, before beginning the 3rd part of this series, I would like to reply to the most common responses. I’m sure that many of you won’t like what I have to say – you’ve been warned. Next week, I will IY”H continue with Part III.
First of all, in many instances, when a parent of an OTD child emails me, they shift the blame onto their spouse. Many of the emails I received contained phrases like, “I tried warning him this would happen” or, “She would get so frustrated about the most insignificant things”. I’m not that knowledgeable in couple’s therapy, but it seems that blaming your spouse means there are more deeply seated problems. You and your spouse are on the same team. Although you can disagree about things, when it comes to raising your children you need to be on the same page.
Second of all, when children, or even adults, that are currently OTD email me, many of them insist that no matter what their parents did or didn’t do, they would have stopped being religious either way. As one person put it, “It’s in my DNA”. In other words, many of these people that are OTD truly believe that it had nothing to do with the way they were raised.
My response is always silence. It’s not worth discussing. However, it’s plain and simply not true. It might not be solely because of your upbringing, and yes, certain children are inherently born with stronger desires. Nonetheless, I don’t believe any of you are correct. You might think you’ve identified the reason(s), but, for lack of a better terms, you’re way off base. I know many amazing people that have raised all types of children. We’re talking about children that questioned everything and always hung out with the “wrong” crowd. They still did an amazing parenting job and all their children remained happily frum.
This doesn’t mean that any particular method of raising children is foolproof. It just bears noting that many OTD stories of regret could have been avoided. One father who discussed this with me was initially defensive. He felt that I was accusing him and/or his wife of not doing all they could. That’s not at all what I was implying. Raising children today is very difficult, and it’s constantly evolving with the changing times. We, as a klal, need to work together and learn from our collective mistakes. If a family has a child go OTD, we need to use that as a learning experience so we can improve our methodologies.
Lastly, many people have commented regarding what I said about a Rebbe or teacher not causing children to go OTD. Therefore, I would like to clarify that statement. I have spoken to many people that are currently OTD, and they insisted that their Rebbe or teacher was the sole cause of them either going OTD, or having serious doubts about Yiddishkeit. I completely understand. I don’t even disagree with them.
I do believe that one negative teacher or Rebbe can affect a child.... but I also know that good parenting can, and will, rise up to the challenge. As a general rule, there will unfortunately always be Rebbeim that are rotten (I certainly had my share of them growing up), Rabbonim that betray our trust, and even role models that are dishonest. I wish that parents recognized that their role is not to live vicariously through their children, but rather to be their last line of defense. We need to be there when our children are hurt or confused, and guide them or defend them as necessary. We need to create stable homes in which children know that they are loved and respected, so their self-esteem will withstand the bad apples.
Therefore, when I say that a Rebbe or teacher can’t be the sole cause of a child going OTD, it’s because good parents will overcome that obstacle and win the battle. They will rebuild their child, and help them get past it. They will defend their child at any cost, and show their child that no one is as important as he or she is. This will become a bonding moment, and if you play your cards right, it can even become a maturing opportunity.
Obviously, this isn’t true all the time, since every case is different. If your child is more sensitive, or if this particular “educator” was just plain horrible, the result might be worse. Nonetheless, I truly believe that, in most cases, good parenting will prevail.
If you’re unsure what to do as a parent, I wrote an article a while back about having a Rebbe who doesn’t like your child. Alternatively, you can always speak to your Rav for guidance.
I would like to begin by thanking you. I have received so much feedback over the past few weeks regarding this ongoing article. Most of it has been positive, a lot of constructive criticism, and even a few people who believe that I should focus my talents elsewhere. I apologize that I haven’t been able to respond to many of the emails that have inundated my mailbox.
This week, we’re going to focus on ways to prevent children from going OTD. There are four categories comprising these positive, yet preventative, measures. Each one is a partner in a child’s growth.
2) Rav / Community
It’s should be obvious that parents are those that have the greatest influence on their children. What many parents don’t realize, is that they are full-time ambassadors for Yiddishkeit. Beginning at a very young age, parents need to give their children a love for Yiddishkeit in a kind and caring atmosphere. Some smart habits to develop, include:
A) Giving sincere compliments when deserved. Find reasons for your children to deserve them. If your daughter says “Amen” to a Bracha, turn to her and say, “You just created a Malach!”
B) Choosing your battles. Sometimes you need to let certain things slide.
C) Being genuinely happy doing Mitzvos. Keeping Shabbos, Kosher, Davening. If it’s a burden to you, you can bet it’s going to be a burden to your kids.
D) Don’t speak badly about other Yidden. If there is one thing we can take away from Tisha B’Av, it’s that Sinas Chinam is corrosive as well as contagious.
E) Treating your spouse well.
F) Living in an area with like-minded Yidden. In other words, if you’re living in a “Young Israel” type community and you are a very Yeshivish family, it might be difficult for your children. I am, Chas Veshalom, not saying what’s better or worse. However, when your children are older, it might be confusing for them to watch other good Jews doing things that you frown upon.
Please remember that some of these ideas might work well for some families, and not for others.
The next partner in a child’s growth, is the community and a Rav. I can’t stress enough how important a good Rav is. I’m not talking only about a learned Rav, Baruch Hashem there are plenty of those. I’m talking about a Rav who understands you and your family, and cares about you. Your children should be excited to talk to the Rav, and any difficult questions that your older children might have, they should ask the Rav directly.
However, it’s not only the Rav, it’s the community you live in. “Boro Park” or “teaneck” are not examples of community that I’m referring to. We’re talking about a much smaller, and more intimate group - the people that you interact with on a daily basis. People that Daven with you, whose kids go to Yeshiva with yours, etc. They should also be looking out for you, and vice versa. If you see that your neighbor’s son is hanging out with a boy you think is a bad Shidduch, you need to say something to his parents.
By the same token, if you think you friends need help with their children, speak up. I would tell them, “I see that you & I have similar issues with our kids.” You can then either let them know in passing what’s worked for you, or, if you run the risk of insulting them, you can let your Rav know how you feel.
The 3rd partner, is the Yeshiva. Actually, there are two components to the Yeshiva - the younger grades, and the older grades. The younger grade Rebbeim have an important job. They need to make sure that the younger children have an excitement for Mitzvos. They need to encourage children to help out at home, and lead by example.
A 2nd grader I know recently sat down in a pizza store. I didn’t see him make a Bracha before eating, so I asked him, “Did your Rebbe teach you how to wash for bread yet?” He responded, “Yup! I never see him washing though.” I don’t doubt that the Rebbe washes, it’s just that the children don’t see it. They need to see these role models love being Yidden in everything they do.
The older grade Rebbeim and teachers have a much more difficult job. They need to simultaneously convey and impart a love for Yiddishkeit and while making sure the children feel important. They need to answer any difficult questions honestly and carefully, and keep an eye out for kids that seem unhappy or confused.
There is a married Yeshiva Bachur I know who is a tremendous Talmid Chochom. He told me, “I don’t remember what my 7th or 8th grade Rebbeim taught me, but I remember how my 5th grade Rebbe smiled at me every day”. Rebbeim and teachers need to be cognizant about the importance of showing these precious children how amazing it is to be a Yid.
The last partner is, of course, Hashem. We need to constantly Daven that our children should stay on the path of Torah and Mitzvos. We need to Daven that Hashem should give us the strength and ability to be good parents and teachers. Just remember, Davening without putting in your Hishtadlus, is not a good way to see positive results.
If we all work together and follow these steps, the number of children going OTD will be a lot smaller. There is no magic formula – it’s hard work and we all need a lot of Siyata D’Shmaya. (This still doesn’t mean that if your child has an amazing and loving childhood, he won’t go OTD.) Next week, we’ll discuss what to do if your child is OTD.
Looking forward to your comments and thoughts. Have a great Shabbos.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been discussing OTD in our communities. We’ve discussed what it is, some of the causes, and ways to prevent it. During this series, I’ve received well over one thousand emails. Some were from parents sharing details that are absolutely terrifying, and others were from teenagers and young adults sharing their thoughts.
In both scenarios, it was painful to read. Families torn apart because, let’s be honest with ourselves, parents fought the wrong battles. Sure, there are other reasons we discussed, but the fact is, so many of these stories I’ve been reading could have been prevented.
However, that’s not the goal of this last part. We’re going to discuss the aftereffects. How to deal with OTD after it’s become a reality. (I’m borrowing from an article I wrote a few years ago about this subject.)
There are two things we need to keep in mind:
The fact remains that we are all different. Just because your child does not want to imitate your way of life does not make him or her an evil person. If your daughter insists on wearing pants or partying, she is still a creation of Hashem. Arguing won’t work. Explaining how much they’re hurting you is counterproductive. This isn’t about you. It’s about them expressing themselves as individuals.
It hurts. There is no doubt that it’s hard for parents to watch a child leave the path they were set on. However, he or she is still your child. Keep the connection open. The goal is not necessarily to make them religious, it’s to show them that you love them no matter what. They might return. They might not. Either way, you have a responsibility to your child.
If you have other children that are young or impressionable, it can be even more challenging. Tell your other kids, “Your sibling is going through a hard time and we love him no matter what.” Only positive.
You do have the right to ask this child to follow your rules in your house. If your daughter has gone OTD and is wearing pants, you can ask her to please wear an appropriate skirt in your house. You can also ask that they refrain from behaving inappropriately or discussing private matters in front of the other kids. Certainly, they should not bring non-kosher food into the house.
Keep in mind that most children who go OTD are not trying to change you or be vindictive. They’re expressing their individuality. One 17-year-old told me his father told him, “My way or the highway!” He chose the highway. Now they lost their son.
Obviously, every case is different. When in doubt, you can ask for help. A Rav is a great person to ask, if he has an understanding of people and loves all Jews. I am fortunate to have such a Rav. If your Rav is better suited for a halachic discussion, call a psychologist. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength.
I want to end by sharing a few short stories people have shared with me. One girl who asked to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, told me the following. “My parents have always been strict. If I a had a problem with a teacher, I was always considered at fault. My parents would tell me every night that the reason they were so tough on me was because they loved me. That might have worked years ago, but actions speak louder than words. I didn’t feel loved. Once I became 15, I began acting out….. wearing shorter skirts that borrowed, or listening to music that I knew would annoy them. Thinking back, I’m not sure how I expected them to react. I kind of hoped they would pull me in and tell me they need me. I got the opposite. They flipped out and told me to sleep elsewhere until I acted like a Bas Torah. That was the last time I slept at home. Last year my mother called me begging me to come back. Not going to happen. I’ve been reading your articles about this, and had my parents showed even an iota of love, I would’ve jumped back into their arms.”
The second story is from a parent’s perspective. “Hindsight is 20/20, but I want to share what went wrong in my house. My wife and I both agreed that our son was an at-risk child. Therefore, we tried to shelter him. We didn’t let him watch movies or have anything his friends had. When he complained to us we always told him, “You’ll thank us later”. Well, later passed and he never thanked us. He stopped acting religious, and we lost our relationship with him. Looking back, we knew it was happening, but we were too stubborn to ask anyone else for help. We finally caved in and spoke to a therapist who explained that there was a difference between sheltering and preparing. Instead of taking away everything, we should have been giving it to him under our supervision. The sleepovers should have been by us. Once we understood this, we were able to contact him and show him we changed. He is still not religious now, and we don’t know if he ever will be. However, we talk regularly. The door is open.”
The last story is of a Chassidic family that has a son who went OTD. I met the father walking with this 19-year-old son (who was not wearing a yarmulke), and as I passed he called me over, and told me excitedly, “Mike got accepted into college!” His son was beaming. Parenting. He is doing it right.
We need to open any channel we can. Let them know that we love and care about them.
It feels right to end with a Brachah to you all. I know this puts pressure on you, but may you be zocheh that your children should want to emulate you.
Have a great Shabbos!
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a Rebbe and has been working with parents and kids for many years. You can read more about him in the "about" section.