Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Some Who Go Do Return

Ner Israel Beis Hamedrash

A few years ago Shulem Deen - a former Skverer Chasid that went OTD - wrote a memoir about his experience doing that. It was entitled. ThoseWho Go Do Not Return. The reason for that title is because of his own experiences there. One who goes OTD in that type of community is completely rejected by them. But there is another way.

If you want to know how to deal with a fellow Jew that was once observant and no longer is, there is an article by one such individual in the Forward. Eli Reiter once attended a well known Yeshiva. Although he did not identify it by name, based on clues within the article I believe it was probably Ner Israel in Baltimore. They deserve credit which is why I am trying to identify them.

He showed up there one day after having left some time ago. The students and faculty treated him with the respect that any human being should get, despite the fact that he was once observant and part of them but is now no longer observant… and may not even be a believer anymore.

They did not judge him. They did not look at the way he was dressed, which was not in consonance with the way students there dressed. Which is the ‘uniform’ of the Yeshiva world: Black pants and white shirt. He wore a pair of blue jeans and a shirt with ‘Christmas colors’ as he described it. He felt odd doing it. But did it anyway and did not get quite the negative reception he might have expected. They treated him with warmth and kindness and did not mention a word about his religious status. They only wanted to know how he was doing.

Their warm acceptance and non judgmental approach surprised him. That’s because the truth is that in some communities when a child goes OTD (Off The Derech)  it has often been accompanied  by being practically disowned by the family. (Although that is changing). The closer knit the community is, the more likely it is that that will happen. Not only will the family disown you, the entire community will disown you. As was the case with Shulem Deen. He was so ostracized that after awhile he has lost any relationship he had with his children. Who must have been taught that they should stay away from their father since he would be a bad influence on him.  

But not this school. Not the students and not the teachers. Which made Eli nostalgic for what he once had. Even though he railed against it when he was a student there. It didn’t matter. He came back for a visit in his current incarnation and instead of rejecting him or ignoring him, they fully embraced him without a trace of rejection.

I was told by someone involved involved in Jewish outreach that it is almost impossible to bring back someone that was once there and left. Which seems logical. It is lot easier to reach out to those that have never experienced observant Judaism and teach them the beauty of an observant lifestyle. But for those that have rejected it, they cannot be convinced about such beauty because in their mind they have already experienced it and saw it in a negative way. Hard to tell them something they already ‘know’ about  is something they think it is not.

That approach is what leads some people to believe that it is a waste of time reaching out to them.

But that is not the case.   There are a ‘million’ reasons why someone would go OTD. I am not going to list any of them – it is beyond the scope of this post. It is surely worth establishing a bond with them and treating them with respect. Judging them by their character and not by the fact that they once were observant but now reject it - a Shana U’Pireish.

More often that not people leave because of the way they were treated, whether it was at home or in the school. By their teachers or their peers. Or worse - because they were abused in some way (by a teacher, a parent, or some relative). They never had a chance to fully experience the positive side of being observant.

The fact that Eli had some warm memories and had an unexpected  positive experience means that at the very least he won’t think ill of those who are observant. And he may even see value in returning to some form of observance. Even if it is only for psychological reasons and not ideological ones. Mitoch SheLo L’shma – Bah L’Shma. Eventually they will do it for the right reasons. But whether an individual that left will return or not it behooves us all to treat all those who leave with warmth and acceptance. So that those that go can return if they so choose. Comfortably.

Update: I have been informed that Eli Reiter is still observant.