The day my son told me he was no longer religious is one that will live forever in my memory. He was no longer living at home and was thousands of miles away when he felt ready to break the news to us.
I’d like to tell you I said all the right things and made all the right noises, but my part of the conversation is very much a fog. I know we were all crying, my son included.
I felt devastated. I raised my children to be like me, a religious Jew. And here was one of my precious children rejecting his religious upbringing, and it felt like he was rejecting me. I felt my heart shatter into a thousand pieces.
I cried for a week straight. My husband held me, comforted me through the long days and sleepless nights that followed, but I grieved. I grieved for the loss of my idea of what my son’s life would be like, I grieved for what I perceived as MY loss. But I felt so alone Other than my husband, with whom could I share my shame? For this is what I felt initially, ashamed, as if I had done something wrong, as if this was my doing. If I had been a better mother, I thought, he would never have turned his back on religion.
My son has his reasons for casting aside religion — that’s his business. I will say that now, after many a discussion with him, I do understand where he is coming from. I won’t say I agree, or that I would have taken the same path, but I get it.
Eventually, when the tears slowed, and after several emergency sessions with my therapist, I decided that I needed to stop crying into my coffee, and that I should figure out how to move forward without pushing my son away, even though I was in tremendous emotional pain. How can I properly forge ahead with my son knowing that I accept him for who is, when who he is is not who I wanted him to be?
The simple fact is this: I love him. He is my child. He is still that kid who as an adorable toddler fell asleep with his fingers woven through his knitted blanket, his thumb firmly in his mouth. He is still that little kid who told me I was the best Ima ever, and when he grows up he’s going to marry me, and if he can’t marry me his wife will come live with us so she can learn how to cook. He is still that teen who told me he wanted to make aliyah when he was older, but “don’t worry, Ima, I’ll carry you in my heart always.” He is still that same boy, but he’s now an adult with thoughts and feelings and emotions of his own.
I soon realized that I was grieving a loss that wasn’t real — really, I had lost nothing. My son, my precious child, was healthy and hale and hearty. He was living in Israel preparing for his army service. And he was happy. He was starting to live life on his own terms. What parent doesn’t want that for their child?
No one prepares you for these difficult parenting moments, and in our religious communities the feeling of aloneness is ridiculous because I know of so many people whose kids are no longer religious, but it is barely spoken about, which adds fuel to the flames of shame. This is one of the reasons that I am now speaking out. We need to support each other, so that we can support our children better.
I wish someone had told me how to cope, had prepared me in some way. I wish I hadn’t hidden my shame away — my son makes me proud because he is a good person, with decent core values that have nothing to do with religion and everything to do with morality. Is he a lesser being because he no longer dons tefillin, or keeps Shabbat? Absolutely not.
One important lesson that I have learned is that it is ok to tell your child “I love you, but I don’t agree with what you’re doing.” Unconditional love is just that — judgment-free. And it’s the hardest love. Because loving a child who does things opposite to the way he’s been taught is painful. Every reminder rips the scab off a little bit. And I don’t know if the pain ever goes away completely. You just learn to live with it, and to accept it. Loving someone doesn’t mean you approve of all their choices – it just means you respect their right to make them, especially once your child has become an adult.
I have raised my sons first and foremost to be good people. I have also raised them to be independent thinkers, and not to follow blindly. I had hoped that they would all love Orthodox Judaism as much as I do. But I now have to accept that it is not meant to be at this time for all of them. And I have to be OK with that.
To every parent out there who has a child that is ‘OTD’ (Off the Derech, or path) (I hate the term, because each child finds their own derech), I say this: don’t cut your children out of your lives because they are no longer religious. Love them, support them, show them that they still have a place in your life. There is more to who a person is than just religion. Show compassion, show love, show your child that a parent’s love never stops, no matter what.