This past week, my daughter Ruth and I went to the mall in Jerusalem to buy glasses. We weren’t dressed like we are in the picture above, which was taken at a family wedding. I was wearing a black suit and black kipah, as I traditionally do, but Ruth was wearing jeans, as she prefers to dress. As we walked, I noticed that we were getting looks from those who passed us. In particular, we were getting looks from an ultra-Orthodox couple who hovered around us. We seemed to have become their favorite place in the mall.
Ruth asked me if I was embarrassed by the looks that were relentlessly cast in my direction. “Even if I am,” I answered, “you are my daughter, and I love you, and you are more important to me than anything else in the world.”
In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of young people who are leaving ultra-Orthodox observance. Some parents experience this as a crisis that destroys their home and family life. They crash against the rocks of life, harboring a sense of guilt and a deep, dark secret.
Sadly, many of these parents become estranged from their children and banish them from their homes and hearts. This is my message for those parents:
1) The situation that you are in is undoubtedly a source of great sorrow. As Orthodox Jews, we believe that our lives have spiritual meaning. Keeping the Torah and mitzvot is the essence and purpose of our existence. When a child leaves observance and leaves our community, we are filled with concern for his or her spiritual welfare. It is natural that we feel hurt and tormented.
2) Be honest with yourself and ask yourself what bothers you more — that your child has left religion or that your child no longer abides by the external trappings of the community’s dress code. A mother once said to me: “I am hurt that my son no longer puts on tefillin, but at least he could wear a suit and hat.”
3) Pay no attention to the small-minded people who gossip and judge you behind your back. They simply are not worth your energy. (And if they are whispering behind your back, that’s a sign that you are ahead of them. Remember that.)
4) It is important to remember that our patriarch Abraham loved his son Ishmael, and that Isaac loved Esau. Moses, our great prophet, did not have children who followed in his footsteps. King David fled from his son Absalom. It is also commonly known, even if often denied, in the Hasidic world that Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin had a son who left observance, the Baal HaTanya had a son who left observance, the Imrei Chaim of Vizhnitz had a daughter who left observance, and Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe had a son who left observance, as did Rabbi Shach. The fact that the children abandoned the tradition of their fathers did not diminish the greatness of these scholars; on the contrary, those who continued to embrace their children displayed a nobility of spirit that serves as an inspiration and model of good parenting for us. The sages of the Talmud taught: “Why is it not common for Torah scholars to give rise to Torah scholars from among their sons?… So that it will not be said that the Torah is an inheritance to us. Therefore, it is unusual to find that all the sons of a Torah scholar are also Torah scholars” (Nedarim 88a). (By the way, none of those children left their parents’ way of life because of technology. It is time to stop ascribing so much power to technology.)
5) Some children are able to leave observance because they know deep in their hearts that the love of their parents will endure, come what may. It is their security in their parental love that enables them to embark on their journeys. In contrast, those who have abandoned religion in their hearts but have left their shtreimels on their heads lead a double life, which is soul-destroying, and it is likely that their chances of returning to the fold are very low.
6) Love conquers all!
Just as God accepts us despite our weaknesses, so too we must accept our children in their new ways of life. We are commanded to do the best we can — after that, it is not our responsibility. A little humility will not hurt us — we must admit that not everything is under our control, neither our failures nor our successes.
When a father of 12 children asked the late Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman whether he should banish his daughter who left religion and dressed in an immodest manner from his home, he received the following response: “You may send away the other brothers and sisters, but this daughter must be allowed to remain at home at all costs. She is the one who needs your love more than all the others.”