Monday, February 13, 2012

On, off and after the Derech: When Religion and Family Collide

Our Beit Midrash is hosting a panel discussion tonight on "On, Off and After the Derech: When Religion and Family Collide", with a local synagogue rabbi and a child-and-adolescent psychiatrist who is also an ordained rabbi.

[Update: The audio is now available here; the video should be available soon here.]

What are your thoughts on the following scenarios:

1. A couple after twenty years of marriage decide to become observant fairly rapidly. They have three children, a son age 17, a daughter age 15 and a son age 10. They put their children into observant Orthodox private schools, with tutors to help them catch up.

The 10-year-old takes to the change easily.
The 15-year-old has some bumps, but after effort seems to acclimate well.
The oldest, 17, is unwilling to switch schools, friends or change his lifestyle. He is somewhat willing to live within the home in an Orthodox lifestyle, but in his personal life, school and life goals he is not interested and occasionally defiant.

How should the parents help their 17-year-old, in terms of his own situation and his impact on the family?

2. An observant family has a child with learning issues, which influence personality and socialization. It is difficult for her to appropriately conform to the policies of Orthodox schools, from style of clothing to social activities. The child’s learning issues are not being addressing to the extent needed by the Orthodox school system, but are available in the public system. Further, the challenge of handling the school's policies is affecting the child’s self-image and self-respect, and she appears to be drifting away from observance.

What should the parents do to give their child an education and keep her on the path of Torah observance?

3. A family with several children finds that one of them, age 15, does not want to keep an observant lifestyle. The parents cannot determine the cause. The parents respond angrily, the siblings often fight with him, the child is becoming more sullen and distant. What can be done?

4. After 15 years of marriage, a couple with a ten-year old daughter divorces and one of the two becomes Torah-observant. Custody is shared, and the observant parent wishes to raise the chld in an observant setting, while the other parent does not agree. The child experiences drastically different lifestyles, messages, ethics and basic rules of conduct with the different parents. Leaving aside matters of family law, the observant parent is concerned that the child’s mixed messages will actually cause her to drift further away from Torah. What should be done?


  1. As usual, what to do depends on the specific people and situation. The capsule descriptions leave a lot unsaid that could/should influence the decision.

  2. Case 1: Though it is tempting to blame this on teenage rebellion the parents should have thought twice about making very rapid religious changes. In my opinion the parents should insist on Orthodox observance in the home and transition in Orthodox behavior in his personal life, starting with those behaviors that have non-religious impacts (e.g., start with no booze, then later on work on eating only kosher outside the house).

    Case 2: Assuming that public school in unavoidable it would seem appropriate to divide as much as possible the educational aspects of her life from her social. Of course she will make friends in public school but she should be exposed to observant friends her age as much as possible.

    That said, I think public school needs to be a last resort, with boarding options to be utilized before going to public school.

    3. Assuming medical issues have been investigated and ruled out I'm not sure there is much to do. Parents need to make and enforce standards, whether the kids want such standards or not. I think, however, that at 15 it is kind of early to worry about his long term religiosity.

    4. The observant parent must above all else provide a consistent message. Other than that there is nothing he can do. He can't control the other parent (though he might be able to work out some kind of deal).

  3. a request: please post the more interesting points brought up during the evening!

  4. As head of a Jewish 'Community School', I have often had to deal with teenagers in similar situations. Here - in brief - are my comments:

    Case #1: The parents should begin by respecting their 17 yr old [and, I would guess, possibly their 15 yr old as well]. They, not he -- already a near-mature individual -have decided to change their beliefs and lifestyle. For him, he sees his parents suddenly changing entirely the way they have brought him up, and asking that he reject every lesson that they have taught him until now. A mutually respectful discussion and much understanding is called for. Asking a 17 yr old to change schools and join a 'frum' school is asking for trouble. If he chooses not to go along with their 'journey' - don't try and force him. Work out a modus vivendi for home life, and show great understanding.

    Case #2: [This subject changes gender half way through the story]. Nothing will be achieved by keeping the child in an Orthodox school that is seting him/her up for failure, frustration and worse. If the student has to attend public school, work with eg NCSY or a similar group to ensure that s/he has a great social life in a Jewish setting,including the most attractive summer camp you can find. Take pride in his/her school life, and make sure that the student knows that you are very proud of all his/her achievements. S/he has not failed school; school has failed him/her.... [Boarding - see Marc's comments - is the worst option, sending a message of total rejection fromthe home....]

    Case #3: The kid, for whatever reason, doesn't want to be frum. Combine lessons of Cases #1 and #2.

    Cae #4: In these situations, the teen is often far better able to understand and cope than the parents predict. The explanation has to be matter of fact: Mum has chosen to live in this way, and Dad in another way. The O parent must, again,be respectfulof the teen; must NEVER use observance to undermine the other parent; and should work to makethe child's experience in the time spent with them as rich as possible, resisting the urge to criticise or evangelise.

    In all instances, the welfare and integrity of the individual child must be respected (that word again...). Setting other priorities will generate resentment and anger, and whatever the outward conformity, it will evaporate as soon as the young person attains independence. Each case described here demands huge sensitivity and love.

  5. Every family is different and kids can't be forced without taking into consideration their feelings.

  6. "Child-and-adolescent psychiatrist"
    I don't think psychiatry is science. If this rabbi was teaching what the Torah says about the soul than would be something. But psychiatry is pseudo science. Is there any observation that would falsify it? No.

  7. Case #1:
    I think the question is flawed. It's not how the 17-year-old should be helped, but rather how the parents should be helped to realize what a big mistake they are making to force their son on this path.

  8. What a fantastic post! Excellent questions and thoughtful comments. I have lived and continue to live these situations, including raising children in a divorce situation where dad has become significantly less frum since our marriage ended.

  9. I just want to say this post is intriguing and Paul Shaviv's responses are particularly excellent.

  10. Rabbenu, a less common but still important scenario is where one of the spouses becomes somewhat less committed to Jewish learning and observance. That is a delicate but important dynamic.

  11. "tesyaa" 1:23PM -- thanks!!!! PJS

  12. Anonymous 12:45 PM-
    Very true; the panelists were expected to address some of that.

    1 - By what right could they do that, and could that really be expected to work?

    Anonymous 1:32 PM-
    Sorry, you'll need to go to the recording. I have posted the link at the top of the post.

    Dr. Shaviv-
    Thanks for commenting, and for coming to the program! I agree with pretty much everything you have written here. [And I'll change the gender in #2, to avoid adding too much complexity to the case.]

    Batya, Shlomo-

    I assume you know that a psychiatrist is also an MD, and works with medications which act on the body in measurable and testable ways?

    Morah Betsy-
    Thanks! I hope you succeed in navigating that situation positively.


    R' Mordechai-
    So true.

  13. the definition of psychiatrist I am aware of. i directly my critique towards them also in spite of the fact that they use chemicals to affect the brain. the reason i included them in my critique was that they use medicines to affect the brain. i cant tell who is worse psychiatrists or psychologists. One is traif and the other nevalah

  14. Adam-
    I am quite leery of operating on the brain and nervous system with medications. My point is only that calling it pseudoscience is incorrect.