Friday, March 31, 2017

Loosening the Reins

Footsteps member removing his Tefilin (NYT)
After reading yet another sad article in the New York Times about so many formerly religious young Jews that have gone OTD (Off the Derech), I thought,  just how preventable much (or at least some) of this could be.

As I’ve said many times, there are probably as many reasons for going OTD as there are people going OTD. Everyone that does, does so for their own reasons. And yet, there is often a common thread they all share. Which is the inability to live their lives under the strict rules of the religious segment from which they come.

It is this feature that can be best dealt with within those communities. With a little bit of understanding combined with tolerance, they could remain religious and yet change their lives enough to be happy, instead of being constantly frustrated by the strictures imposed by their particular segment of Orthodoxy.

Last week, I read an article in one of the Charedi magazines by a Charedi Rav who seemed relatively mainstream. In that article he gave suggestions how to avoid turning on the TV in a hotel room when away from home. His point was that no religious person would ever consider owning a TV in his home. And yet when away from home (e.g on a business trip) once in the privacy of the hotel room with nothing else to do for hours before going to sleep - with a TV staring you in  the face  you might be tempted to turn it on.

Now I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about watching porn. He was talking about watching any TV. As though if one did so, it was tantamount to eating Treif. I thought, ‘What must this rabbi think of people like me - an observant Jew that actually owns and watches this medium’?

TVs are not the only thing that is treated that way. So too is the internet, secular music, and just about anything that has no religious Jewish connotation. The point I am trying to make here is how restrictive some of the more right wing segments of Orthodoxy are - and how they believe it to be the norm for any religious Jew. 

In most cases if one is raised to lead their lives that way, they usually are able to do so with relative ease. But there are obviously many that can’t. And yet would do quite well if they were allowed some of those ‘forbidden’ things that many other religious Jews take for granted. For them there comes a breaking point where they seek relief and eventually leave observance completely. How sad it is that – were these people raised in a more permissive religious environment, they would have probably remained religious.

Now of course there are no guarantees. There are also plenty of more modern Orthodox Jews that go OTD too. Even those that have all of those ‘Treif’ items. But for them it is for a variety of reasons having less to do with the restrictions of Judaism… and more to do with things like the intellectual challenges of the modern world… or the simple attractions of a totally secular lifestyle. Which in my requires an opposite remedy. One along the lines mentioned by Rabbi Henoch Plotnik in another issue of that same magazine. They need to be inspired by their Judaism. Those that are not are more easily enticed by other ideals - or a more permissive lifestyle.

Now this lack of inspiration or enthusiasm about one’s Judaism may exist in Charedi circles too. I have no doubt that it does and plays its part in the motivation by some to go OTD. But I have to believe that more often than not - it is the heavy burden placed on young people on the right that is a greater factor for its members that go OTD. The more right, the greater the burden. That is the message I see so often in stories like these. A common refrain is that they can’t take it anymore. They want to live more ‘normal’ lives. And with no alternative religious lifestyle offered to them, they leave altogether.

Suggestions that they first try a more modern lifestyle does not work for them. They have been indoctrinated to think that owning a TV (for example) is the same as eating Treif. There is also the fact that they have been raised in a culture that simply can’t relate to a modern lifestyle. They feel odd among modern Orthodox Jews. They cannot relate to the kind of conversations they find nor the interests of the people in those communities. 

If they are from the more hard core Chasidic enclaves like Skvere or Kiryas Joel, their English language skills are very poor, heavily peppered with Yiddish and often sound like they are newly arrived immigrants from some European Shtetl. In those communities their lack of a secular education or any understanding of the secular culture in which most MO Jews live - leaves them with little in common. This does not make for an inviting situation for them. 

I also believe that most MO communities tend to be very self-centered and pay little attention to an ‘outsider’ with which they have little in common. Jews from the more restrictive backgrounds seeking relief skip it and go entirely secular. 

I can only imagine how desperate they must be in order to make that break from the warm embrace of family and friends in the cocoon in which they have lived all of their lives to that point - and enter the cold world of the secular lifestyle with no one there to welcome them in. The feelings of depression often generated by such a bold move can and sometimes do end up in a suicide!

That’s why organizations like Footsteps (which is focused upon in the New York Times article)  are so successful. Unfortunately though, Footsteps goals do not include retaining the religious values with which one is raised. They are only concerned with the material and social welfare of those that seek their help.

There is an Orthodox Jewish organization that was formed to deal with these people. They try to show them that there is another way to live and still retain their Mitzvah observance. But it would be a lot better if these communities nipped it in the bud before anyone in their community ever had a thought of going OTD.

My advice to the world of the right on how to better deal with the increasing OTD problem they are confronted with - is to loosen up the reins. This does not mean they must allow TVs and other cultural items of which they don’t approve into their homes. But it does mean not equating them all with Treif. So that if someone feels they need it, they will not be ostracized if they own one of these items. For those who need it - they should be allowed to  participate in a that part of the secular culture that does not violate Halacha. And not be ostracized for that either.

It also means that they need to provide a better education for their young. Not only for parnassa (livelihood) reasons - but to better understand the culture of the country in which they live. They must certainly stop disparaging all of it and reserve criticism of the culture for those things which are actually forbidden by Halacha. They can still live their lives the way they choose. But by changing the way they promote their lifestyles and the way they deal with Halachicly permitted outside culture, they can probably save a lot their own people the heartache caused by a child going OTD.