Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Making of a Charedi Lite

Although the conventional off-thederech phenomenon is far too complex to allow us to point to one specific cause for all children who leave the fold, experts have isolated several common causes: learning disabilities, social handicaps, unstable family environments, physical or emotional abuse, and overly harsh or overzealous chinuch. In short, when children associate Torah or Yiddishkeit with pain or negativity,they may eventually rebel against the fundamental principles of their upbringing.

The above was taken from an article in last week’s in Mishpacha Magazine which I excerpted from a VIN PDF file. It deals with a new wrinkle on the ‘Kids at Risk’ phenomenon. The experts mentioned in the excerpt are Charedi. And it is quite an admission on their part to realize that some of the problem lies (at least in part) in their very own overzealous Chinuch system. This - they say - has been corrected in recent years and the at risk phenomenon has peaked and lessened somewhat. At least in its overt form.

What this article courageously admits is that a new problem has developed and it is sky rocketing - far exceeding the numbers of openly at risk kids. Charedi Chinuch is increasingly producing children who I can only define as Charedi Lite. They look and act like Charedim and adhere to various Halachos and customs identified with Charedim. But they are in essence spiritually bankrupt.

They observe Halachos for social rather than ideological reasons. And they transgress Halachos as suits there purposes. Cell phone use on Shabbos is but one of many examples of this kind of behavior. They will make all kinds of rationalizations and excuses to ‘permit’ themselves these Aveiros. But as the article points out they have little or no spiritual connection to Judaism at all. And many of these kids come from mainstream Charedi backgrounds.

The article tries to understand this phenomenon and turns to some Charedi leaders to get their perspective. One such perspective is critical of parents who are lax in applying punishments. They claim that these kids never get to associate wrongdoing with the pain of punishment. The result is an aura of permissibility that rewards good behavior but does not punish bad behavior. They say that deep down children crave these guidelines from parents. If they don’t get it, they flounder off into laxity of observance when it becomes inconvenient. I think that argument has some merit.

But the big culprit blamed for all of this is the creeping secular values of western culture – which is in great moral decline - into even the most sheltered of homes. The idea of sheltering a home by keeping the TV or the internet out of it has become a near useless mechanism in preventing that immorality from reaching one’s children. Immorality is everywhere. Billborads today freely display images that used to be consigned to pornographic magazines.

But what’s worse is the ease by which the worst and most immoral images can be seen by any individual without anyone else being the wiser. The sophisticated celllphone is now commonplace and can receive with ease via the internet - the most disgusting images imaginable right in the palm of your hand.

Of course one of the responses of this community is predictable. They insist that even more isolation is necessary. The internal logic is - I suppose - that since conditions are worse than ever more isolation than ever is required. The problem is that it is a virtual impossibility to do that in our day.

In my view they are just digging the hole deeper. They should know by now that insulation isn’t working. It’s like trying to get out of the hole you dug using the same shovel that got you in there and digging in the same direcion . They are digging the hole deeper by not confronting the problem head on. They are simply running away from it. But it has long ago passed them up. The only thing they accomplished is leaving their children to their own devices when they do inevitably encounter it.

I have said this many times before and it bears repeating. There has to be a balance between protecting your child from the hazards of the culture and exposing them to some of it in a healthy way and thereby teaching them how to deal with it. Increasing isolationism just doesn’t work as the sky-rocketing increase of hidden OTD kids demonstrates.

It is true that complete isolation from negative influences would work in a perfect world - if one can be guaranteed never to encounter any negative influences in life. But that’s almost like trying to shelter your children from air. It is just not possible to do.

I am not an expert in this new phenomenon. So my advice should be taken in context. But I have raised children in an imperfect world. They were exposed to the culture. We had a TV in the house and they all watched it all the time. I can tell you that none of my children are ‘Lite’ anything! They were exposed to the culture with heavy doses of religious direction and lots of Hashkafa talks.

It takes a loving parent with firm values to impart them to children. It requires lots of positive reinforcement. And yes, sometimes even punishment – used sparingly. One cannot substitute isolation for values. If values are not transmitted properly in the context of the culture children who will one way or another encounter it are going to deal with it in their own way.

I’m glad to see an acknowledgement of a new problem. But that is only half the solution. And half of a solution is no solution at all.

It’s really all about the home. Children need role models. Parents are the number one role models for them. One has to live the life they preach. If you have a cellphone with the internet - telling your kids how evil it is turns your admonition into a joke. One cannot be a hypocrite – telling their children not to do the things they do themselves. You can’t hide it from them. They know and will emulate you discounting everything you say. The bottom line is to be who you say you are. And to teach by example… and with love and understanding.

One must teach children the proper reactions to the ills of society and the only way they are going to learn what those ills are – is by exposing them to it in limited ways making it a teaching moment. It is far better to expose them under the controlled environment of the home with you there than it is to pretend it doesn’t exist and let them find it by themselves.

Talk to your kids. Have Hashkafa discussions with them. Practice what you preach – and by all means preach it to them. They do need direction and guidance and parents are the right people to give it to them. The one thing to avoid is over-sheltering. That is putting your head in the sand. And that’s a prescription for disaster.