Thursday, October 02, 2014

It Takes a Village

How should we react to someone who has gone OTD? I’m talking about someone who went OTD in a big way. Rejecting not only Halachic observance, but becoming completely antisocial. How should we as an observant society treat them?

Much has been written about the importance of parents in this regard. ...that they must keep the lines of communication open with such children and more importantly - show them unconditional love no matter how far they have fallen. In far too many cases parents see their children as extensions of themselves. And that can end up in rejection. In such cases a child is seen as little more than an ornament - there to make a parent look good. Parents like this may discipline an OTD child be saying something like, ‘How dare you embarrass me with your behavior?!’ For such parents it’s all about themselves.  I think most people recognize that this attitude is a major contributor to a child going OTD or worse.

It’s difficult to know just how many parents are like this. I should hasten to add that there are many reasons a child goes OTD unrelated to a dysfunctional family or the parent/child relationship. Among them being a victim of sex abuse and the way he or she is treated afterward by their community. It also can happen to the best of families where parents have exemplary parenting skills - and are among the finest and most ethical members of their community. But I think it s safe to say that a significant number of OTD children are the direct result of dysfunctional parenting.

But what about the rest of us? What ever the reasons for going OTD are (and I've only scratched the surface) we need to deal with the here and now. Perhaps as individuals we can’t do anything about a dysfunctional parent. But once a child is so dejected that he starts exhibiting anti-social  behavior - is there anything we can do? I think there is. And no one expresses it better than Rabbi Yakov Horowitz. Here is what he says in a recent post
Many of the kids my colleagues and I work with all year long return to their own Shul for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – even though they may no longer be observant. Often, their dress and overall appearance are at odds with the standards of the community and they may be tentatively standing at the outer edge of our Shuls – literally and figuratively. 
On their behalf, I humbly appeal to you to reach out to them warmly and welcome them back.
Please don’t comment on their appearance or how long they have been away. Sadly, so many of the kids tell me that well-intentioned, decent people ‘kibbitz with them about the length of their absence, or the clothing they are wearing – and how deeply they are hurt by that. 
Don’t misread their discomfort as disrespect, or their tentativeness as a lack of commitment. Just walk over to them and say, “It’s so nice to see you.” Give them a warm, welcoming and genuine smile. Invite them to sit next to you – and permit them the space to turn down your invitation. I assure you that whether or not they accept it; they will be grateful to you for your unconditional acceptance. 
The key here is sincerity. One cannot not fake it. And must not. I believe it is imperative to be genuine. And to express a warm and welcoming approach toward our wayward youth.

Even in the best of circumstance where parents do he right thing. And they are truly there for their children. We must be there for them too. With the unconditional love. That is what it takes.  If there is any hope of bringing them back as functioning members of the Jewish community - or any community - it is going to require non judgmental community acceptance as well. 

There is no better time to show that than when these children are at the lowest point in their lives. We have to assure them that we are accepting of them just the way they are. If we do that, and they see, a warm and accepting a community to comeback to, there is much better chance for them to each lead a better life. And even if they don’t fully come back, the warmth we show them now will surely do a lot more good than rejection will.

So if see someone like that in your Shul this Yom Kippur, welcome them gently and warmly. And mean it.

Just received a note from Rabbi Horowitz asking me to post the following from his website for some additional context. I am happy to do so.

For the past few years, my family has been volunteering at the Madraigos’ (, Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur retreats, to assist their incredible and inspiring work with teens and adults who have slipped through the cracks of our educational system.

Halfway through Neilah (closing prayer of Yom Kippur) last year at Madraigos, a young man approached me and asked, “Rabbi, does G-d really want me here?”

“I feel I should be here praying, but as you saw, I’ve been outside all day smoking, eating and driving my car. Isn’t it disrespectful for me to show up now for the last few minutes of Yom Kippur after being a Kofer (heretic) all day?” (The young man asking the question had been an outstanding Talmid in a top-shelf yeshiva, and had successfully passed an exam on 200 pages of Gemarah four years prior to this incident. Several months later he was abused, and he is now in recovery from a drug addiction, which he developed in a futile attempt to dull his searing pain.)

Like I normally do when I’m asked very challenging questions like this one, I whispered a quick prayer that Hashem provide me with the wisdom and language to respond properly. I then did what most Jews do – answer a question with a question.

“I kiss my children good night before they go to sleep,” I said. “Now imagine if my teenager and I had quarreled earlier in the day and my son/daughter was too upset to kiss me good night that evening. Would I take the all-or-nothing approach or would I prefer a good night wave from across the room from him/her?”

I softly told him that one day, after he works through his pain and confusion and starts a family, he will see that parents take what parents can get.

“Hashem hasn’t heard from you in a while. He misses you and would love to hear from you – even if you tell Him how angry you are that He didn’t protect you from the abuse you suffered.”
I slid my Machzor (prayer book) across to him, took another one for myself, and we shared a Shtender (lectern) for the rest of Neilah; praying and crying together.