There are many reasons why young religious Jews go ‘Off the Derech’ - OTD.
The reason most often thought to be responsible for that is a very negative emotional experience- often ongoing - with the religious community. This can involve living in a dysfunctional family or being sexually molested by a religious Jew. I think that’s right. Most people who go OTD do so because of bad experiences like these.
But there are other reasons - such as a lack of scholastic abilities. If one does not have an aptitude for studies in a high pressure school environment – one’s ego can quickly be destroyed and then easily fall through the cracks. He can easily find ego massaging elsewhere – outside the religious community. I wonder sometimes if this is the biggest factor in going OTD. If one were to take a poll of young people who are OTD would they find that they were all poor students?
This happened to a young man who is very close to me. He was very bright but learning disabled. And he was never diagnosed. That’s because it happened at a time when the very concept ‘Learning disabled’ didn’t exist. Especially in religious day schools.
This young man whom his parents had such high hopes for - could not learn. It was commonly held in those days that he was just not applying himself. Every one of his teachers thought that. He came home every day with homework that he could not do. His parents thought he could - but that he just didn’t want to. This led to many long years of mental torture for this young boy.
He was forced to sit in front of his homework hour after hour every night until his bedtime. He had tutor after tutor. Nothing worked. His parents became harsher and harsher – accusing their son of being lazy.
Long story short – his friends ostracized him and his teachers abandoned him. By the time he was in high school - public high school - he was OTD and into drugs and wild parties. Eventually he moved to Israel just to get away from all of his problems. But there he went from bad to worse.
Fortunately for him a Charedi Kiruv group found him at his nadir and brought him back. Today he is fully integrated into the Frum community, married, – and has a great job.
This young man was eventually very lucky. I wonder though how many OTDs there are who have had experiences similar to this? Even today when LD problems are often correctly diagnosed and dealt with – how many young people still fall through the cracks?
And what about just plain people who have average intelligence? Yes – Virginia – there are Jews who have only average intelligence. But don’t tell this to any Jewish parent. Most will not accept that their child isn’t at least above average if not outright brilliant.
But the law of averages tells me that there has to be many Jews who are just average. What happens to them in our current high pressure system of high intellectual achievement? In Charedi schools it’s about becoming a great Talmid Chacham. In Modern Orthodox schools it is about becoming a professional. These children - it would seem - are highly vulnerable to becoming OTD.
And then there is normalcy. Most human beings need to just occasionally relax in enjoyable ways that differ from their daily grind. That might involve observing or playing a game of basketball or soccer - a very common and normal way to relax. But in Israel - and to a lesser extent in some Charedi enclaves in America - this does not exist.
In Israel - spectator sports are outright forbidden by all Charedi sectors. Even participating in them is at least frowned upon if not forbidden. And we know that TV movies, radio, newspapers, the Internet - are all off limits to them. Just what are they supposed to do with their free time especially in the long period of time of a summer vacation?
Some people think that setting up more learning programs will help. What better way is there to spend free time – they might think. But they aren’t really thinking. That’s because the whole purpose of vacation time is to relax and rehabilitate in ways that differ from the normal grind. R&R - rest and rehabilitation - some people call it.
Yes, there are some students that will thrive in such an environment. They are natural young scholars who just can’t get enough of it. But I seriously doubt that most young people are like that.
Most of these kids do NOT come from dysfunctional families. Many are in fact quite bright and normally learn very well. It is not too difficult to conclude that there is a growing number of them who go OTD when their communities have made it clear that that a simple and innocent desire to play ball is wrong headed and even Assur.
I’m told by one Israeli mother who is very aware of this problem in Charedi Israel that this is the biggest reason that Israeli boys go OTD.
And finally there is the intellectual component. There are some cases where young people go OTD because of questions of faith. When they see things like the origins of the universe explained in ways that make more sense to them than what they’ve been taught by their Mechanchim. They start asking questions. And when they do not get satisfying answers they start questioning it all. I don’t know the percentages of OTDs that fall into the categories I’ve outlined. Nor do I know if I covered all bases. But I do think that tose I’ve mentioned covers at least most of them. The only question I still have is what are the percentages? Which of these reasons resonates with most those who have gone OTD?
If I’ve in any way identified the problem I also know that I don’t have any good solutions to them. But as the saying goes - knowing that we have a problem is half the solution. There are many great people who are tackling thses issues now and working with OTD kids. Both here and in Israel. But I am also sad to say that according to the experts I’ve spoken to, this community of OTDs is so large that they have become a community of their own – and are now a permanent part of our world.