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Daughter, lost and found

A family's bumpy road through anger, therapy and water pistols to make peace with a child who left Orthodoxy

We could see our Bais Yaakov educated teenage daughter slipping away from Orthodox Judaism. It was more like watching a freight train lumber along than a high-speed rail. It pained us and tore the family fabric. We yelled, we talked, we pleaded, we changed her school, but we were losing her. On the Passover eve, the fight was so intense I lost control and she threw chometz potato chips around. That was the crescendo.

Our family morphed from Modern Orthodox to Haredi-light. We kept the television, but sent the children to “black” yeshivas and girls’ schools. As adults, they now tell us they chafed at school rules and regulations, imposed to cloister them (and protect them) from the poisonous secular world.

By mid-teens, our daughter “went out” Friday nights. She made new friends, alienated from their families. We needed therapy. My wife and I went, while our daughter clammed up, seething with resentment.

The therapist made it clear. We stood to lose her completely or we accept her lifestyle as it is. Maybe one day she will come back, so keep communicating. God knows we tried. We laid in wait one night, and when she crept into the house in the wee hours, we squirted her with water guns. The three of us roared with laughter. Eventually she moved out, supporting herself with two daytime waitressing jobs and later as a bartender.

There is an oeuvre of books, articles, interviews, Facebook rants, and documentaries detailing a genre of religious rebellion, ugsome personal attacks, excommunication and rejection. Even the minister’s daughter of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church recently left her cloistered community and is exposing its family secrets in the media.

Ex-pats from Hasidism and Orthodox Judaism recount their alienation from family, friends, and community. They are alone in a new world. They have few survival skills, because they got little secular education, no job training, and no one to moor them. The new world is frightening and lonely place. Some turn to drugs or commit suicide. Others have a mission to expose, retaliate, and condemn their rabbis, families and communities in the most dark and vile expressions.

A wistfully written new book by Chaya Deitsch, HERE AND THERE: LEAVING HASIDISM, KEEPING MY FAMILY (New York: Schocken Books 2015) is a refreshing change on the same theme, one to which we can relate. Hers was a Lubavitch family totally immersed in Jewish Law and commitment to the Rebbe. Chaya’s story gives insight into the emotional stress our daughter must have experienced, yearning for what the larger world has to offer while holding on for dear life to her parents, siblings, and friends still living in the old world. We made the choice, like Deitsch’s parents, to keep the front door open, and eventually we learn to accept what we cannot control.

Deitsch musters the courage, at the urging of her publisher, to tell her parents about her “ease in crossing over into sin” before her memoir is published. She sits with her parents back home again. You feel the nervous tension. Deitsch proclaims, “I’m no longer frum.” Momma says, “You think we didn’t know? That’s why I don’t call you at home on Friday before Shabbos. I don’t want to make you lie to me.” And from her father, “You chose a different life. Of course we knew about it.” Even I breathed a sigh of relief, with tears welling, having been there myself.

A Hasidic Rebbe once confided to my wife and me, when we sought solace and a blessing, with a deep sigh, he has a brother off the derech (the path of strict religious practices). The brother became Modern Orthodox. It was all I could do to keep from busting out laughing.

Chaya recounts the small awakenings, like how impressed as a youngster she was with her Modern Orthodox relatives seemingly so comfortable in their religious skins. Each transgression takes her deeper into the secular world: wearing pants (a very cute story about fit and style), having coffee in a non-kosher shop, forsaking the kosher cafeteria in college, first for breakfast and then for other meals.

Deitsch grew up a voracious reader and keen observer of the world outside her bubble. Her parents worked with her recognizing early that Chaya was different. They did not go nuts when she wanted to apply for college, but negotiated with her. I think it is why she is healthy, a survivor, and productive citizen. She loves her Manhattan life and visiting her family in the old neighborhood.

And so is our daughter. She has a successful career and wonderful friends living in a tony urban community. She began phoning us, coming for Friday night dinners, wedging her way back into trembling arms. In our house, she was respectful of our religious practices. Outside was her world. My pet-fearful wife agreed to watch the dog when our daughter worked. That way, our daughter had to stop by twice a day.

She once asked me why we let her back home when the parents of her friends tell them not to come around (they will negatively influence the other children and hurt marriage prospects)? I shuddered, but without hesitation said, “Because you’re our daughter and that comes first.”

Chaya is “one of a smother of aunts, with nieces and nephews to indulge.” She loves her brothers and sisters and they her. Our daughter too is close with her siblings, some Orthodox and others not at all, and they did as much to help her grow as her parents contributed.

This is a story about people trying to reconcile spiritual absoluteness with mundane daily life. I ran into her one day at the gym. She pulled me over introducing me to a woman working out on the treadmill in skimpy workout wear. My daughter said, “Dad, she was a Bais Yaakov girl too,” and they both laughed.

Dr. Harold Goldmeier
January 2016

About the Author
Dr. Harold Goldmeier is an award-winning entrepreneur receiving the Governor's Award (Illinois) for family investment programs in the workplace from the Commission on the Status of Women. He was a Research and Teaching Fellow at Harvard, worked for four Governors, and recently sold his business in Chicago. Harold is a Managing Partner of an investment firm, a business management consultant, a public speaker on business, social, and public policy issues, and taught international university students in Tel Aviv.
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