Thursday, July 23, 2015

Doing What’s Right for the Rebellious Child

Faigy Mayer
After my recent posts on Open Orthodoxy, one may find this a bit strange, but I actually admire Rabbi Ysoscher Katz despite my profound disagreement with the ultimate path he’s taken. Rabbi Katz was a Satmar Chasid that was ordained by a Satmar Dayan. But Rabbi Katz is no longer a Satmar Chasid. He is now a self described Modern Orthodox rabbi and his Hashkafos are in line with those of Open Orthodoxy, a movement that has divested itself from traditional Orthodoxy. A movement that many of his rabbinic peers in Charedi and Centrist Orthodox world considers to be a neoconservative one.

And yet I admire his journey if not its conclusion. Rabbi Katz is a thinking, intellectually honest Jew who sought the essence of Judaism - and didn’t find it in Satmar. He found it in Open Orthodoxy. It took a lot of courage for him to follow his religious convictions and leave the community where his parents raised and nurtured him. It took even more courage to move  into one that his community rejects. But his views on Emes compelled him to make that choice so that he could live his life in an intellectually honest way. That is something to admire even if we disagree with where he ended up.

There is one area where he and I agree: How to treat people that did what he did, only instead of finding a different Hashkafa ended up rejecting religious observance entirely.  Rabbi Katz has written a very insightful article on this subject in the Forward. It was in response to yet another suicide of a woman that left the ultra religious world. In her case it was Belzer Chasidus. Feigy Mayer became entirely secular and embarked on a new lifestyle and successful career. Last week at age 30, she jumped to her death from 20 stories above ground.

She did what Rabbi  Katz did, but the results were dramatically different. Rabbi Katz’s changed his Hashkafa.  But not only did he remain observant he committed his life to a new cause. Feigy’s change ended up in death. The question is why. Why the personal success story in one case and the tragedy in another?

First, I do not want to minimize the role clinical depression may have played here. That appears to have been a possible factor. In severe cases of clinical depression one will find many a suicide attempt. The emotional pain of such people is so unbearable… and seems so unfixable, that suicide seems to be the only way out. It is possible that this was what happened to her.

But that doesn’t mean that her circumstances didn’t play a part. External factors can precipitate a clinical depression.  It is possible that Feigy’s sense of rejection by her old Belzer community and anxiety over fitting into her new secular one was the trigger. Once a person gets into that mode, they tend to see no end. Especially if they take anti-depressants that don’t work. They get a feeling of hopelessness. And that’s when they start thinking about taking their own lives.

I don’t know if this is what happened to Faigy. But it easily could have. I am not asserting blame here. What I am saying is that if indeed this was the case, then as Rabbi Katz says, a ‘beautiful soul died this past weekend, prematurely and unnecessarily’.

There has been a lot of discussion of the phenomenon of Jews raised in observant families that dropped observance. This is a growing phenomenon. Although there are organizations that are trying to deal with it, there are certainly not enough. Suicides like Faigy’s are far more common among those who have dropped observance than one might think. And it can be prevented if people like her are not rejected. There ought to be unconditional love and acceptance from parents, family, peers and friends. One does not need to approve of the choices their children make in order to still love them. We must love our children. We must fully accept them into our lives – as long as they do not disrupt family harmony and cause family dysfunction.  Acceptance of a child that has these issues may make the difference between life and death to that child.

Although the phenomenon of dropping observance crosses all Hashkafic lines, in the Charedi world it takes on an extra dimension. Those communities are not known for tolerating a rebellious child that drops observance. When a child rebels like that and the parents can’t convince them to stop, a common response is to throw the child out. Bnei Brak has a serious problem of young Charedi adolescent girls that have been thrown out of their homes.

Not all Charedi parents react that way… although too many do. There are some who are willing to be flexible about a child rejecting the Hashkafos of the parent and allow them to adopt a more modern lifestyle. I have mentioned this before. I know Charedi parents whose children were very troubled by the strictures of their Charedi schools. Instead of those parents forcing them to stay, they switched them to coed elementary school or high school.

Even though I am generally opposed to coed high schools that was a wise decision. The troubled young people that were rebelling in the Charedi schools flourished in the coed schools. Today they are happily married and part of the greater Orthodox community. There are no guarantees, of course, that this will work in every case. But I’m pretty sure that had the parents not shown some flexibility in these cases, their children would no longer be observant today.

For Faigy, that was never an option. Modern Orthodoxy is considered an illegitimate lifestyle in Chasidic communities like Belz. Going all the way out was seen by her as the only option. Although it satisfied their sense of living their lives honestly and openly, it remained a source of great pain to them that their families rejected them. And if one has a propensity for depression, the results of such rejection can lead to suicide.

We must somehow try and convince communities like Belz and Satmar to be more open to a child’s needs by way of allowing them a bit more freedom. Freedom that they can find in the Hashkafos of a Modern Orthodox school. We must try and convince them not to demonize all of Modern Orthodoxy. There is a lot more we can do. And should do. Here is how Rabbi Katz puts it: 
Our efforts towards addressing this problem have so far been haphazard and piecemeal. We are, for the moment, too distracted to notice the tragic proportions of the problem, a phenomenon that impacts all segments of Orthodoxy. Attrition is not unique to the ultra-Orthodox community…
We need to shift our energies from the hypothetical to the practical and start providing support to the young souls who are struggling and flailing.
Our efforts should be two-pronged. We need to develop a robust support system for those beautiful souls who are imprisoned by existential loneliness. They should know that our acceptance of them is absolute and unconditional…
We also have to support their families and loved ones who are rightfully pained by the rejection implicit in this pursuit of self-discovery. We can legitimate their pain but at the same time help them appreciate the difference between product and process. They can be made to understand that while they might not approve of the final outcome of their relative’s journey, they can still support the process and be there to provide the unconditional love that the relative craves and deserves. 
Although I have some minor quibbles with certain parts of his article, I completely agree with the above. And I applaud him for saying it out loud.