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Dear Ari: Help! My child went ‘off the path’

Advice for parents: Listen, don't ask too much, and for God's sake, don't go overboard with the religion stuff


Maybe it’s my face, I don’t know, but I get approached on a regular basis by frantic parents of children who have left the faith or are heading in that direction, wanting advice on how to”deal with” or “manage” this crisis. No matter which side of this divide you’re on, and regardless of how you feel about it, the phenomenon of people opting out of being Orthodox is becoming evermore common, and it would behoove parents and community leaders to think about how to properly respond and react.

The first thing I tell parents is that with rare exception, this isn’t about them, and not to take it personally. Unless your child had a terrible upbringing or abusive parents, their change in lifestyle or loss of faith is not meant as an attack on them. Try thinking of it as your son or daughter coming out to you as a Democrat, or in favor of Meretz. As devastated as you’d be, I doubt you’d take it as a personal attack on your very existence.

The same applies to those who feel that a child leaving the community or lifestyle they were raised in renders them a failure as parents. You are no more a failure than if your son or daughter decided to become a vegetarian after growing up on steaks and tuna sandwiches in your home.

There are as many reasons for leaving as there are people who leave, but those reasons generally fall into one of a few categories.

  • Abuse or mistreatment of some sort
  • Too restrictive or insular a lifestyle
  • Lack of belief in Orthodoxy, Judaism, religion or God

In most cases, there is at least some amount of overlap in rationale, and one can lead to another. In my case, for example, I was perfectly happy being a Hasidic guy until I lost faith in God, and then suddenly the lifestyle became oppressive and I couldn’t take it.

As we’ve seen recently with the tragic death of Faigy Mayer and, before her, Deb Tambor, being shunned and rejected can be deadly. Of course, there’s more to a person’s suicide than just that, but having been very involved with the ex-Orthodox community for a number of years, I can say unequivocally that parental alienation and shunning are the common denominator in suicides and severe depression within this community, so treating your family member or friend who’ve left Orthodoxy as if nothing changed is the right thing to do if only purely for selfish reasons.

Assuming you want your child to see the error of their ways and do teshuva, the best way to guarantee they never do is to throw them out of the house, cut them off, and disown them.

So tachlis, what do you do?

Talk to your child. Be a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. Whether they show it or say it or not, they are scared and desperately want your support and someone to talk to. Tell them you love them. Tell them you’re there for them.

If they join Footsteps or a similar group, don’t panic. I can’t vouch for other organizations, but as a Footsteps member for years and as an administrator on the OTD Facebook group, I can affirm that neither of them force people to participate in gay orgies while eating bacon-wrapped shrimp and drinking the blood of Hasidic babies in an elevator on Shabbos. Footsteps does not go out looking for souls to “save” (unlike Chabad and AISH), and they have no agenda other than to serve as a safety net for those who fall through the cracks in the Orthodox system. Trying to keep them away from “bad influences” will only make them feel more isolated, and will end up backfiring.

It is completely fair to set limits. Don’t want him parading around your house without a yarmulke or in her pants? That’s reasonable. Don’t want him or her bringing home unmarried (or non-Jewish, oy!) significant others or treifing up your kitchen? That’s not too much to ask, but don’t get carried away. If you push too hard — it might backfire, and frankly a lot of you need to lighten up a bit. God doesn’t even take religion as seriously as some of you do. Lead by example. Don’t tell them your way of life is superior — demonstrate it through your actions. They should want to be Orthodox, not have to be forced or talked into it.

If they need counseling — get them counseling. The legitimate kind, not some unlicensed macher you met in shul. If they’re rebelling and insist on acting out, you just might have to back away and let them blow off some steam. Overreacting can be worse than not reacting at all, and they’ll simmer down sooner or later. Remember that burnt bridges are hard to rebuild, so pick your battles wisely.

There is no good reason for you to know whether your sweet little angel is eating bacon cheeseburgers are going to the movies on Shabbos. If you’d rather not know the answer — don’t ask the question. I was strongly opposed to Don’t ask, don’t tell, and I was very pleased to have been in the military when it finally went away, but in this scenario I fully endorse it, everyone involved is better off that way.

Finally, let’s take a step back and try to get some perspective. Your son or daughter didn’t join ISIS, they haven’t become skinheads or chas v’shalom announced they’re Ready for Hillary, They’ve come to the decision — for whatever reason — that this lifestyle is not for them. Respect is a two way street, and in my experience, if the parents treat their children with respect, and treat them the way they would like to be treated, then the favor is usually returned.

Now that that’s settled, feel free to read and pass on my advice to the formerly orthodox crowd to your son or daughter: Dear Formerly Orthodox Jew…10 Commandments Just for You

About the Author
Ari Mandel was raised in a Hasidic community in Monsey, N.Y. He married at 18 and had a child a year later. At about the age of 22, he became an atheist. A couple of years later Mandel joined the US Army. After completing five years of service in 2011, Mandel enrolled in New York University, where he is currently studying for a bachelor’s degree. In his spare time, Mandel wonders why his least thought-out posts get the most attention.
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