Leapfrogging Faith: Religious Children and the Parents Left Behind

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Family dynamics can be a tricky thing. Even in the closest, most loving households, there is spirited discussion and discord. Parents strive to imbue their children with morals that reflect the family’s values, religion principal among them. But what happens when a child’s embrace of religion supersedes the parents’ to the point of derision?

Photo of religious young man with parents looking on.

Like most Jewish mothers, BJ Rosenfeld worried about her two sons: “Would they ever stop fighting?” “What colleges would they get into?” “Would each one find a Jewish wife?”

She never imagined, however, worrying whether her kitchen was “kosher enough” for them; whether she was dressed “modestly enough” in their presence; or whether they’d choose a life so foreign to their Conservative Jewish upbringing that it could threaten familial ties.

“I was scared; I was really scared,” says Rosenfeld. “[My oldest son] was a student at Princeton University. He wasn’t coming home; he was spending all of his time with a rabbi. I actually thought he might have joined a cult.”

While her son had not joined “a cult,” the sense of abandonment she felt was similar; Rosenfeld’s son (now 34, married and living in Israel with his wife and seven children) did plunge into Orthodoxy, becoming more and more observant as he studied. His younger brother, 31, who lives in New York with his wife and two children, ultimately followed the same path.

Rosenfeld, a former Spanish and French teacher living in upstate New York, wrote a memoir, The Chameleon in the Closet: A Conservative Jewish Mother Reaches Out to her Orthodox Sons, about her family’s emotional journey. She spoke about her experience last fall, during the 2010 Jewish Book Fair at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield.

“One woman came up to me at the book fair and said, ‘Having a religious son is like having a death in the family,’” the author recalls. “Until my older son started to become Orthodox, I had never met anyone who was Orthodox. Initially, I thought it was a slap in the face. We kept a kosher home, I raised him in a good way; how dare he ask me to do things differently? The more we argued, the further away he was getting — I didn’t want to lose him, especially over Judaism.”

As Rosenfeld puts it, she’s become a “chameleon,” finding a way to balance living the life she’d always chosen with the new life her sons now lead. She has two sets of clothing in her closet: her everyday attire and the long skirts and long-sleeved blouses she wears with her sons and their families during visits, Shabbat dinners and other religious observances. She says her persona changes with her wardrobe.

“As parents, when our children make life-changing decisions, we have two choices: Slam the door or do our best to stay connected,” she says. “I share my story to show other people how important it is to stay connected to their children, and I’m still learning. It takes a lot of respect and accommodation, and I want people to give some serious thought before they push their kids away.”

In the final analysis, she concludes, “I would never begrudge either of [my sons] for the paths they have chosen. And I could not be more proud of the men they have become.”

Hybrid Orthodoxy

Just as Rosenfeld’s family found a lifestyle that works for them, countless other families are doing the same.

One Huntington Woods mother, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the subject, says a few years ago she attended a secret support group called Parents of Religious Kids — or PORK, an acronym that was offensive to some people. To her knowledge, the group no longer exists locally.

“The people in this group, their kids were all in college, and those children got swept up with someone on campus,” she says. “These young people were kind of searching for something, and they were paid to take courses on Judaism or offered low-cost trips to Israel. All of these parents were really struggling with what was happening to their kids. [Their children] were being heavily influenced, and it was really wreaking havoc on their families.”

Her own son became religious after college. While she maintains a close relationship with him, her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren, they don’t spend any of the Jewish holidays together.

“We don’t see them on Shabbat; we’re not included — and that’s hurtful,” she says. “Our house isn’t kosher, but we have a kosher cupboard for the grandchildren. We follow the rules, and we don’t allow them to watch television or use the Internet.”

She says when her son became Orthodox, she went through a grieving process — from denial to anger to acceptance. While she describes him as a “good person” who is “wonderful to people,” she also readily admits this is not the life she wanted for him.

“We respect what they decided to do and how they live their life,” she says. “But, I wanted my son to be a person of the world. I didn’t want him to live in a very narrow and very isolated world. I’ve seen so many parents in despair because they’ve really lost their kids. My son is not the boy I raised; he’s a different person.

“We’ve sort of made an agreement as adults to disagree. We focus on the things we do have in common. But, it’s hard.”

This type of emotionally charged struggle is not unique to American families, either. A worldwide trend over the last several decades by some religious organizations to recruit less traditional Jews into assuming an observant lifestyle has further bolstered the ranks of the Orthodox, making it the fastest growing denomination within the religion, according to the 2010 National Jewish Population Study.

And, while Orthodox Judaism rejects proselytizing to gentiles, it does embrace kiruv, or the practice of convincing nonobservant Jews to adopt a more traditional existence. The better-known organizations devoted to this cause — some of which are active within the Detroit community — include the Chabad-Lubavitch sect, Aish HaTorah and Ohr Somayach.

The Golden Path

“These are all very sensitive issues, very painful issues,” acknowledges Rabbi Elimelech Silberberg, rabbi of the Sara Tugman Bais Chabad Torah Center in West Bloomfield, himself a veteran of the kiruv movement.

“We live in a society where secular Jews and religious Jews are worlds apart,” Silberberg says. “They each have a totally different mindset, belief system and goals. A religious person’s primary goal is to serve God.”

“If you’re dealing with tolerant parents and tolerant kids, they’re usually able to make accommodations for one another.”

Rabbi Silberberg, who came to Michigan in 1975 as a shaliach (emissary) of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (the leader of the Lubavitch movement who died in 1994), says he encounters this issue on a regular basis. But he disagrees that becoming more observant changes people.

“Most people who become frum (observant) don’t change their personality. They’re the same people,” Rabbi Silberberg says. “The good people remain good people; the tough people remain tough people. Very few people change internally because of religion.”

He believes the real problem has more to do with extremism in either direction.

“The Rambam [the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses ben Maimon, also called Maimonides] tells us about the ‘golden path’ — a path that shuns any extreme,” he says. “We encourage people to try to make shalom, to try to have peace, but a lot of parents make it very diffi cult. You also have certain kids who become religious, and they can also at times be very obnoxious. If you’re dealing with tolerant parents and tolerant kids, they’re usually able to make accommodations for one another.”

Rabbi Silberberg concedes there are signifi cant obstacles to overcome when it comes to keeping kosher and observing Shabbat and Jewish holidays, but he says there are ways to work around those issues. On the other hand, he points out there’s little or no room for compromise when a Jewish family member marries someone who’s non- Jewish. An Orthodox Jew would not be able to attend the wedding, even if his or her brother or sister was the one getting married.

“There are certain issues that can divide a family,” he says. “Intermarriage is close to 50 percent. If there’s anything that rips families apart, it’s this issue.”

Ultimately, Rabbi Silberberg believes the individual personalities involved and the underlying relationship between family members will determine what happens when a child chooses a more religious path than the rest of his/her family.

“In a family where there is true togetherness, sensitivity or unity, they can usually work things out,” he says. “I contend that in families where there’s a close connection before someone becomes frum, they will continue to be close after the person becomes frum.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Author BJ Rosenfeld is starting a blog for parents of religious children. You can learn more on her website: readbj.com

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