Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What Did They Think They Would Accomplish?

A beachfront protest of Chilul Shabbos by Lakewood rabbis
I have to wonder about the wisdom of this ‘protest’. A ‘protest’ is how an event that took place last Shabbos was characterized. This protest was organized by BMG (Lakewood) Rosh HaYeshiva, R’ Malkiel Kotler together with the Satmar Dayan of Lakewood. Its purpose was to protest the violation of Shabbos by the religious youth of Lakewood that have have abandoned observance of Halacha.

I’m not exactly sure what they were thinking. Does the world really need to know that religious rabbis protest the violation of Shabbos? Do young people that have abandoned the ways of their devoutly Orthodox parents not already know how these rabbis feel about it? Does the world in general need to be informed that Orthodox Jewish leaders protest violations of Jewish law? Or do they even care?

If these rabbis were expecting them to be moved to repent by walking through their midst on a Shabbos afternoon reciting Psalms, that is not what they got. What they got was pure ridicule. It makes me kind of wonder if these rabbinic leaders even have a clue as to what is going on in the world of Orthodox dropouts. Which is kind of strange since this is one of the biggest topics of discussion - even in their own world. It appears that they don’t care to know why did these young people abandoned the heritage of their parents.

This is not a new phenomenon. It has been around for decades. And discussed to death by all sorts of people. Even those on the right. There was a feature article on this subject in Agudah’s now defunct magazine, the Jewish Observer back in the 1990s. If I recall correctly it was their most popular edition ever published. They sold out and there had been many requests for reprints. As recently as last year, Mishpacha had series of editorials by its editor in chief, Rabbi Moshe Grylak dealing with this problem in places like Bnei Brak.

Even back in the 1990s it wasn’t just a few wayward kids that were abandoning Halacha.  There were enough young people abandoning observance to create an entire community of young dropouts from observant families. They were no more an isolated few people. They had a huge community just like them that gave them comfort and support. A community that would envelop them with a sense of belonging. They were no longer outsiders. They were a community.Organizations like ‘Footsteps’ developed that would help the dropouts from the most extreme isolated communities transition from the world of observant Judaism to a secular lifestyle devoid of it.

We now have outreach organizations both in Israel and the US that cater to these young people. Many of whom have gone on to indulge in every vice imaginable. Alcohol, drugs, casual sex, and various and sundry other antisocial behaviors have become a common occurance. Some of these young people come from the finest of religious families. One can even find children of Roshei Yeshiva. There is no family that is immune to this phenomenon. No matter how religious; No matter how fine.

As I have said many times in the past, there are many reasons why someone would abandon his religious heritage.  But in Lakewood, I sense that the abandonment does not come so much from intellectual pursuits. My guess is that many of these dropouts are there because of antisocial reasons – having more to do with parental rigidity and rejection.

I sense that in many of these cases a father will not tolerate the slightest deviation from the rigidly religious lifestyle he chosen for his family. And that can easily turn off a child that is a somewhat independent minded. Or just feels that he can’t compete in that world. There are the schools that are so competitive that the level of success they require of their students can only be achieved by the best and brightest – and only if they work very hard at it. The parents tend to want to send their kids to these schools. Whose very high standards  have earned them their reputations. Thus putting impossible pressure on a child that can’t cut it. And that can easily discourage a child to the point of just not caring about his religion any more.

Or they may have a child that wants a taste of some of the ‘forbidden fruit’ of the secular culture that they constantly speak out against – painting it all as evil. In some cases if a child sees himself as violating the strict religious guidelines set by his parents, it might make him give up on religious observance altogether.

One of my closest friends has a son who is involved in outreach to formerly religious young people who have gone astray. Many to the point of drug abuse. He told me of one young man he was working with got to a point of getting off drugs. The father of this young man was pleased – and asked how soon his son would be ready to go back to Yeshiva!

I think this kind of clueless reaction is common and explains a lot about the mindset of Lakewood type parent. It is almost as if getting his son off drugs was irrelevant to his main goal of getting him back into a Yeshiva. For him getting him off drugs – a possibly life saving achievement on the part of this organization was seen as merely a first step towards getting him into the only kind of religious mainstream he could accept, that of being a Yeshiva Bachur.

And yet despite this obvious and growing problem these Lakewood rabbis continue to be oblivious to it. And see a protest like this as a method of counteracting it. This attitude can only result in an increase the number of its dropouts. Fewer and fewer young people will be able to cut it in the this increasingly religiously rigid and overly competitive world.  Can rabbinic leaders in Lakewood really think a protest march on a Shabbos where these dropouts hangout is going to change anything?!