There’s a special kind of pain when your child leaves religious observance. If you’ve been there, you know. It intensifies on the High Holidays, especially when it’s new. And it is stronger still when more than one child is involved.
This year, two of my sons, Israeli soldiers raised in a religious-Zionist home, chose not to come to synagogue on the High Holidays. Their absence was palpable. Their empty chairs stood as silent witnesses, testifying to a process of shedding observance that I had been trying to deny. Now there was no escape.
Sitting in the synagogue, I mulled over the factors that might have contributed to this change: the schools they attended, the friends they chose, their service in elite units in the IDF. But mostly, I blamed myself.
Did I raise them in an environment that stressed commitment and obligation, and forget to instill them with passion and joy?
Did I raise them to be too rational and empirical, and neglect to teach them about magic and wonder?
While downplaying images of a watchful and wrathful God, did I neglect to transmit a sense of reverence and awe?
In trying to make observance fun and avoid making religion onerous, did I somehow unbind my children and condone being lax?
Were the religious values I tried to transmit overwhelmed by the liberal, Western values conveyed alongside them?
Did “modern” ultimately trump “Orthodox,” “Zionist” trump “religious,” and “Israeli” trump “Jew” in the double-barreled identities with which I raised them?
Were the age-old values I passed down from tradition overpowered by foreign values imported on screens, despite the limits I had tried to impose?
And if nothing else, did I not inoculate them with a healthy enough dose of Jewish guilt?
On Rosh Hashanah, the calls of the shofar, which my sons weren’t hearing, confronted me with my colossal Jewish parenting fail. But unlike other transgressions, I saw no way of repenting for this misdeed, and no possibility of repair.
I thought of the chain that started at Sinai, winding its way from Moses to Joshua, through the Mishna and Talmud, from the sands of the Middle East to the shtetls of Eastern Europe, to the United States and Canada, and back to Israel again. I remembered the devout ancestors for whom my children are named, the sacrifices my grandfather made for his Shabbat observance, the eulogy for my grandmother, who raised generations of Torah observant Jews. That chain of tradition has started to fray. What will be passed down to the next generation?
Looking around the synagogue, I saw rows of other parents with their adult children. Their sons still cover their heads when out in public, even if their kipot are smaller than those of previous generations. Their daughters may not dress according to the Jewish laws of modesty, but still come to services, at least on the High Holidays, at least for some of the time. Why have their children remained within the system while mine are stepping out? Once the community cottons on to my new reality, will I be judged not only by God but also by man?
“Why would you see it as a failure?” one of my sons had asked. “Aren’t you glad you raised confident, independent children who can think for themselves? Isn’t that better than cloning yourself?” I was not consoled. Maybe someday, when he is a parent, he will understand the appeal of the latter option.
Beyond the sense of failure, I felt a sense of loss and abandonment. When my children pulled away from observance, my own observance became lonelier, stripped of the joy that once stemmed from the fact that the rituals and customs I practiced were shared by those I love, marred by the fact that the religious constraints on my life no longer applied to those in my most inner circle. Shabbat and kashrut were once non-negotiables; now they were up for grabs. Suddenly, life in my family had very different rhythms, with two generations, parents and children, out of step with each other and being pulled in different directions.
On Yom Kippur, as the words of Netaneh Tokef rang out, and angels scurried on high, I feared for my sons’ souls in a deep, primeval way.
What system of morality will guide my children as they move forward?
When they say “what’s most important is to be a good person,” what will their mooring be?
Which of the values that I have passed down will remain? What will my children be left with?
But mostly, I feared for the future of my family. How are we going to strike a balance regarding observance while still living under one roof? What rules will guide public and private spaces on Shabbat? Will I continue to both want and not want to know what my sons are doing on the weekends when they are away? Will I ever get used to seeing them sit down to eat or leave my house with nothing on their heads? Will they grow away from me as they grow away from the beliefs and practices with which I have raised them?
My fears ran far into the future. When my children set up their own homes, will I be able to eat there? What will family celebrations be like? Will coming to our home be oppressive for them? Will their children see us as their quaint, antiquated grandparents, a throwback to a primitive, irrelevant world?
But on some level, I could relate to my sons’ departure. I remembered my own struggles with religion at the same age, and part of me admired my children for their courage. And when I chose to move from the United States to Israel to be part of the dominant Jewish culture, perhaps I set up my sabra sons to wish to assimilate into the predominantly secular mainstream in which they have found themselves.
I remembered too that my husband, who voluntarily embraced the yoke of mitzvot, had also rejected his parents’ lifestyle; his rebellion was simply in the opposite direction. Perhaps life was coming full circle.
I thought of the term “Off the Derech” (OTD) — the term used in the Orthodox world to describe Jews who have “left the path” of traditional observance. I found myself resenting it because it implies that there is only one way, and resenting it even more because it now applies to my family. The Hebrew term “datlash” — an acronym for “dati l’she-avar” (formerly religious) — is only mildly better. Both of these terms define people by negation, focusing on what they once were and are no longer.
My children, however, are not “Off the Derech”; they are “On a New Derech” — a path that I hope will somehow intersect with my own. They are not OTD, they are OND — moving between origin and destination, questioning their relationship with their God, their people, their family, and their country, exercising autonomy, standing up to authority, defining themselves and their core values, and trying to find what feels right. They are searching for their new path. And our family must find its own new path together.
And so, standing in the synagogue, I added my own silent prayer, a prayer that has accompanied me into the new year. I prayed for a year of acceptance, a year of balance, a year of compromise, a year of dialogue, a year of empathy, a year of forgiveness. I prayed for a year of communication, a year of mutual understanding, a year of respect, a year of love. I prayed for a year in which we are all authentic and true to ourselves, see beyond exteriors, find common ground, and focus on what we share. I prayed for a year in which I guard my tongue and curb my criticism, a year in which my children don’t push my buttons and I don’t push theirs, a year in which I don’t push my children away.
And I prayed for my children because they were not praying for themselves, beseeching for a year of health and safety, a year of productivity and fulfillment, a year of kindness and good deeds, a year of happiness and a year of meaning.
But most of all, although I hate to admit it, I prayed — in a still, small voice — for a year in which my children will return.