Rabbi Yaakov Menken
The post that appeared here several days ago from the father of two Baalei Teshuvah fits nicely with a concept that I have explored recently with a relatively-new BT. Indeed there should be no power struggle, no “right” or “wrong,” but parents may not see it that way.
All parents attempt to bring up their children in their own image. This is only natural — while they expect their children to explore their own careers and “play to their own strengths,” they also have certain basic expectations. A Jewish family belonging to a Reform Temple naturally expects their children to become and marry Reform Jews. Whether the child brings home a non-Jewish significant other or becomes observant, either way it can be a disappointment — and as “David Shub” intimated, often it is the latter option that is more disturbing. And in both of these cases, the children themselves may have no idea how upset their parents will be.
People often say that it is easiest to become a Baal Teshuvah early on in life, but — although that is largely true — this area is one of the exceptions. Here, the younger you are, the greater the challenge.
When young people are still in high school or college their lives are still very flexible — so turning over their lives isn’t, at that point, terribly difficult. They have no career, no spouse, no home life to disrupt with their newfound religious fanaticism (smile, I’m kidding). But it is these same young people who then return home and disrupt their parents’ home life.
New Baalei Teshuvah, and, again, especially younger ones, often do not recognize how disruptive their observances may be. Kashrus and Shabbos have an obvious impact upon eating together and social activities, but they are often too caught up in the newfound wonders of Torah to think about mundane things like the family’s tradition of spending Saturday at the beach.
In addition to the pragmatic challenges, philosophical differences may also come to the fore. A BT’s parents may have come to a similar fork in the road at some time in their lives, and made a very different choice when they got there. Thus the children become an unpleasant reminder of the road not taken. The parents may also have been influenced by a steady diet of negative caricatures of Orthodoxy which they’ve been fed by the media.
So in addition to all of the challenges of adopting what is not only a totally new belief system, but also a complex behavioral code, new BTs can find themselves creating arguments with their parents when they attempt to follow that code. This manifests itself in a host of ways, from “why are you leaving the lights on” on a Saturday afternoon, to “our food isn’t good enough any more?”
So what happens is that they come home — from camp, yeshiva, seminary, or college — and suddenly discover that they are the center of unwelcome attention. They are told that they are — much to their own surprise — in rebellion, rejecting the family in some way, and/or saying that they find their parent’s lifestyle devoid of meaning. And they are too young to know how to diplomatically say that they simply found a path to religious self-expression, or some similar language that disarms their parents while celebrating their right to free choice.
One way or the other, this puts an additional roadblock in front of new BTs, right after they thought they handled “the big issues.” “HaShem, I just turned my whole life over for You. I’m refraining from all sorts of things my friends take for granted. I’m inconveniencing myself in a host of ways in order to follow Your Law. And now it’s messing up my relationship with my parents? When I thought about becoming frum… this wasn’t part of the deal!”
I’m not certain how this might be resolved. Summer programs might offer an evening class on how to subtly divert criticism into positive conversations about Judaism, or otherwise how to handle discussions of their newfound “fundamentalism.” But I don’t think that’s going to do the trick.
Community support is much more important. Those of us who have traveled this road can provide support and advice to both parents and children. A lot of parents might be calmed by “David Shub”‘s words of wisdom. If you know someone “on the way in” in this type of situation, they may have a lot to talk about if you’re there to listen.