Sunday, March 17, 2013

Deception on All Fronts

Deception. Never a good thing.*
When orthodox Jews leave orthodoxy, it is said that they've gone "off the derech," which is basically "off the path" of what is usually orthodox Judaism. As part of an ever-growing network of off the derech Jews (which I'll now refer to as OTD,) I've noticed that there really isn't just one path that people are leaving. There are people leaving who were once baalei teshuvah (returnees to Judaism) leaving, as well as those leaving who had long family histories of Jews practicing in the orthodox tradition. They come from all walks of orthodox life, from the very religious to the more modern. In looking at the communities that these Jews have left, I've found a surprising similarity in how leaving is perceived. Communities all over the orthodox spectrum (and not all communities, but a large number, based on informal conversations with Jews of varying religious backgrounds,) cite a few reasons why religious Jews go OTD. Many in the orthodox community will point to the person being unstable, possible child abuse, the lure of the secular world--including drugs and sex, the desire to rebel, mental illness (because, hey, you must be mentally ill if you don't want to be within the religious community,) and probably a few others that I'm neglecting. Religious leaders will swear that technology is the cause of the problem. In reality, the reasons given by the formerly frum (formerly religious) range from intellectual disagreement with orthdoxy, Judaism, and a lack of proof of the existence of God, to the feeling that their own education and creative pursuits were being stifled. Many just didn't fit into the ready-made mold to which their communities assumed that they'd conform. Just as everyone is not meant to be a nuclear physicist, not everyone is meant to be an orthodox Jew.
     On the other side of this can be found the parents and families of those who are either secular or are members of the more liberal Jewish denominations (such as Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc.) As a parent (and as someone who has parents,) I think that probably most of these parents want to support their children's decisions, whether they are choosing a major in college, finding a suitable career path, or even pursuing their own spiritual journey. However, what happens when parents find that their college-age child has gotten so involved with a Jewish group on campus that he or she has begun to distance him/herself from the family that has always been supportive?
Let's toss in a few facts:

1. Orthodox observance requires strict adherence to certain set rules.
2. Many on/off-campus Jewish groups are funded by and/or affiliated with ultra-orthodox factions.
3. While strict observance isn't pushed upon initial contact with students, those who seem interested are pushed into other programs in which ultra-orthodox thought and practice are taught. These programs may be offered by the "campus rabbi" and his staff or they may be programs run by the larger organization with which his group is affiliated. They may be innocently billed as a fun-filled spring break in Florida or Israel or New York with touring and learning about Jewish culture/heritage. These trips may seem cheaper because organizations may offer subsidies for interested students.

     By the time parents realize that the kid they sent away to school in September is slowly being indoctrinated into an orthodox lifestyle, it's often already too late. The kid they thought was "just learning Hebrew" with the self-appointed "campus rabbi" is now refusing to come home for a weekend because he/she is spending every Shabbat with either the rabbi and his family or with religious families he/she is set up with. The kid they expected to come back for Passover seders now feels that he/she really should go to an orthodox family for the holiday to further his/her religious learning. There is often a degree of guilt felt by students in this situation--they feel obligated to the rabbi and his family (or organization) for meals, classes, etc., and when they are offered an opportunity to have holiday meals/observance organized, they feel like they can't say no. It's easier to brush off their parents with excuses than it is to brush off the rabbi and his organization, because by now, the group is a large part of the student's campus life.
     In the beginning of this post, I mentioned why some orthodox communities think that orthodox Jews leave the fold, in addition to actual reasons why many choose to leave (often with great personal ramifications.) What I've found is that when non-orthodox parents realize that their kids have been scooped up and alienated from them by ultra-orthodox organizations, similar excuses are made by the orthodox community as to why this has happened: the baal teshuvah (newly religious person, who I will now refer to as BT) came from an abusive family; the BT comes from an unstable family environment; the family lacks morality and/or Jewish education. Not only are non-orthodox Jews unaware of the deceptive nature (and often, existence) of kiruv/outreach, but many of those within orthodox communities are also often lacking an understanding of the deceptive nature of ultra-orthodox kiruv. The more I read about this and the more personal stories I hear, the more it seems that many college-age BTs and those in their 20s, seem not to have made a conscious decision to become ultra orthodox, but rather, through a series of well-orchestrated moves by kiruv/outreach professionals, have found themselves in high-pressure situations in which guilt, seclusion, and separation are used in order to enforce conformity to a culture that may not necessarily have been their choice.

 *image from


  1. Wow. This absolutely nails the experience on the head. I could not have stated it more clearly, and it's not for lack of trying. Thank you, Rebecca.

  2. You have put into words what so many of us have struggled to say - to our parents as apology, to our former rabbis in outrage, to ourselves to begin to heal. Thank you for your words and for your activism!

  3. I also see some similarities between many of those who are OTD and BTs - but in a different way. It's very common for it to happen in late teens/early adulthood, which is the age when people really start to define themselves as individuals apart from their families. Many of the narratives from both OTDs and BTs about their families sound almost identical as well - switch some terms, and it's hard to tell them apart.

    I've seen some horrible kiruv practices, but also seen how parental reactions affect outcomes. Parents who rant and rave that their child has been brainwashed and reject the adult child's new Orthodoxy will find themselves alienated from their children - not because of the dictates of some rabbi, but because nobody likes facing a wall of hostility and disapproval. OTOH, I know plenty of parents who still have close relations with their BT kids. They may not understand them completely and may be a bit irritated by some of the things that are necessary to accommodate them, but they accept their children as they now are.

  4. I have a couple of thoughts about JRKmommy's comment. First, kids who go off the derech grow up learning that the "dangerous" secular world is out there. They know that going off the derech might cost them friends, family, community, marriage, children and possibly their livelihoods. They have an entire lifetime to think about what going OTD means and they are well aware of the risk.

    BT's on the other hand, have no idea what they are getting into. As Rebecca points out, BT's are pulled in little by little until they are over their heads in religion. They have no idea that it's normal for the relationships between BT's & their families to become strained, if not estranged. They have no idea that the good rabbi offering them "free" Hebrew lessons & Friday night dinners has a hidden agenda and a clear goal of making them ultra orthodox. They have no idea that learning about their heritage at school and Jewish philosophy at a yeshiva or seminary will mean giving up their ambitions, friends, families, communities - their lives as they knew them, really.

    Temptations may abound in the secular world, but secular people do not recruit religious people with a hidden goal of making them go OTD. On the other hand, kiruv actively, covertly and deceptively recruits secular kids with the clear goal of making them frum.

    Certainly, learning that BT's will not eat with their families, will never enjoy most family activites with them, knowing that future grandchildren will not learn the secular studies necessary for earning a good living, or be able to play on teams as BT's themselves did, coming to terms with the fact that BT children will not have meaningful relationships with them is a lot for BT parents to grasp.

    Even if a parent disapproves of a BT's new "choice," how do you explain BT's rejecting their entire extended families, old friends and communities? Putting the blame of estrangement on parents for telling their BT child that they believe he or she is brainwashed is really grasping at straws.

  5. agathe:

    I don't know you and anything about your own relationship with your child, so please don't take this as a personal attack.

    I've been involved with Jews from a wide variety of backgrounds. As part of that, I know many BTs, and also many of their extended family members. I also know some OTD Jews. My comments are based on my observations and many discussions with both BTs, OTDs and their family members, plus some personal family experience. I've seen not only families that are estranged, but more importantly, families that are still close.

    Advice on dealing with family varies from one rabbi or organization to another. Some are careful to put a premium on maintaining family relationships, others almost encourage a BT to see themselves as reborn.

    Has telling an adult child "you are brainwashed" EVER caused that child to say, "ya, you're right"? It doesn't matter whatever it is correct or not - it is not a statement that builds up the relationship.

    I know that eating with family is often one of the biggest sources of conflict, and it truly doesn't have to be. When my husband and I decided to keep kosher and keep Shabbat, we also agreed that our house would be open to the family. We got a house with an open plan, bought folding tables and chairs and have up to 17 on Friday nights and up to 40 on holidays. We also go to eat with family - we just take out kosher food, eat on paper plates, and it's like a picnic.

    With some basic goodwill and cooperation, family relationships can be maintained. It can take some effort, and it can be hard to see an adult child doing something that goes against your beliefs and values and raising your grandchildren in a way that seems wrong to you - but that's also a struggle in families with OTD children, and it's part of adjusting to children growing into independent adults. You no longer have control over them. You can, however, have some influence simply be being a loving part of their lives, and if they ever do doubt their new lifestyle, they will be more likely to seek your support if you have been non-judgmental and they aren't worried about hearing "told ya so".

  6. Parents know not to harp on calling their child brainwashed or hammer on the word cult. They also know when it's appropriate not to tiptoe around & avoid very serious problems.

    An organization that nearly always causes great rift between recruits and their families is destructive and bad. The idea that with work some families maintain relationships is just not acceptable. In fact, accepting that as normal is just nuts.

    JRKmommy, you seem willing to chastise families for committing the crime of saying what they think and are willing to spend as much time on that subject as possible. It changes the focus away from the much bigger problem; the unethical and deceptive measures used by kiruv to lure new recruits into the group.

    The problem of the destruction of lifelong family bonds stems from the systematic methods used by kiruv to lure, control and retain kids. Families do not fall apart because a parent loses his cool once or twice or even a few times.

  7. You are right that some organizations and rabbis use methods that undermine family relationships, and they should be called out on it. I've encountered a range of attitudes towards family - my rabbi is quite adamant that family relationships be maintained and that the duty to honor parents is upheld, but there's another rabbi in my area who will push people beyond their comfort zone, counsel kids under the age of majority to attend schools that the parents will not support, be unsupportive of a couple going through marital problems who decided in therapy that some reduction of time spent in shul on Shabbat was necessary to preserve their relationship, and even tell a divorced couple that the children shouldn't be with the father on Shabbat because his new wife's children are not religious. We warn people that this rabbi is not good with family issues.

    At the same time...I also counsel people about the importance of doing what they can to maintain family relationships. It's not just the parents of BTs - I spent over an hour on Shabbat speaking to a religious friend who is concerned about his daughter rejecting Judaism, and I've also spoken to BTs about doing what they can to maintain relationships with parents.

    Pointing out problems in organizations (or with a particular rabbi, or with societal attitudes, or with an ex-spouse) is important. When it comes to a particular family relationship, however, people need to accept that there are limits on their ability to control the situation. Past a certain age, children will make their own choices, for better or worse.

    There are certain questions (eg. What is the organization's position on X?) that a parent can pose that can help - but only if the parent remains close enough to have calm conversations with a child.

  8. SOME organizations use methods that undermine family relationships? Right, let's minimize the damage that kiruv actually causes & blame the families of their victims.

    JRKmommy, it's pretty obvious that you have little desire or ability to think for yourself. The fact that you sing the praises of a rabbi who "is quite adamant that family relationships be maintained," is telling. You will do what a rabbi tells you to do, simply because he tells you to do it. How about having a relationship with your family because they are your family, just like you did before you were a BT? It's perfectly acceptable to have a relationship with your family because your rabbi tells you to have one, but not because you or your family want a relationship, or because they are your family, or because it's what normal people do. It's all about doing what a rabbi tells you to do. A rabbi controls who you have relationships with. How messed up is that?

    The scary thing is that you're out in the world "counseling" people. One more reason to beware of frum counselors. I think it's clear what your position is: stay in the fold, reject parents who do not support "learning," do what rabbis tell you do, don't think independently, and spin it around so BT's look good and families who call shenanigans become evil anti religious zealots.

  9. agathe:

    I am not making baseless assumptions about you. Please do not make them about me. No, I do not do whatever a rabbi tells me, simply because he says so. I never said that I did. I do, however, know families who have been counseled by this rabbi. In any case, he doesn't advise people to have a relationship with family members to show obedience to him, but because it is the right thing to do.

    In some cases, that means going BEYOND what someone "feels like doing". I'm a divorce and child protection lawyer, and see crappy family relationships every day. "Honor your father and mother" is not an easy commandment for everyone.

    Your other assumptions about my positions are simply not correct. For the record, my advice to the friend worried about his daughter going "off the derech" was "stop using the kids in a tug-of-war with your ex-wife, stop making sarcastic comments or putting them down when they aren't observant enough for you, don't constantly criticize their poor performance in religious subjects, don't bad-mouth their school and say that it's not religious enough for you, listen to Gordon Neufeld on YouTube, read "Raising Roses Among of the Thorns", work on your attachment, stop putting down your kids' therapists, don't go to court for stupid reasons and show some sensitivity to your kids' actual feelings."

  10. I was born into an OJ family and brain washed by yeshiva and family. Years of studying science, archeology, ancient comparative religion, and bible cretinism led me to my earth shattering conclusion that OJ is false. Many in my family and extended family believe that either some terrible sexual abuse perpetuated by a Rabbi or someone at the yeshiva occurred and that is why I rejected OJ. I tell them I was never sexually abused, but they respond I am just blocking it out !

  11. As a man who became a Baal Teshuva as an adult, all I can say, from my own personal experience is that becoming an Orthodox Jew has strengthened the relationship I have with my parents and my brother. In addition, it has helped me with my relationship with my relatives (Aunts, Uncles and cousins). My parents, brother and extended family are all secular Jews.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Binyamin. That's actually wonderful. Unfortunately, many people don't have that experience, explaining why even kiruv organizations have attempted to find explanations that their charges can give their families in order to lessen the blow of such drastic life changes.


Your respectful comments are welcome.