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.
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.