HaShem, This Wasn’t Part of the Deal!

Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Cross Currents

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.

20 comments on “HaShem, This Wasn’t Part of the Deal!

  1. Thank you Rabbi Scher, and to all of the other posters. It is comforting to know no one is alone in this even when sometimes it may feel that way. This blog is so important, and the beauty of the Internet is that we are not constrained by geography but that we get to appreciate experiences from around the globe.

  2. There definately is a certain age at which a person should be worried about ideas filtering in. If a child is allowed and always encouraged to ask questions it definately can help when a non frum relative challenges them. If you raise a child with concrete answers then when something contradictory or confusing is introduced to them they may already have the answer, but if not then they will know who to ask, and, more importantly, that they can ask.

    When I was becomming frum a major draw was that no matter the question there was a satisfactory answer. When I talk to people who are not frum, thier answers are not so concrete. Even further, when I talk to people who were frum but are not anymore (the most tragic) I see it all boils down to the fact that nobody answered thier questions, and they were too afraid to ask.

    As far as relatives, if they ask tell them. If they don’t ask, still tell them but in a creative way, such as by example and never by force. When I was teaching my mother about tznoius, instead of telling her I showed her. We went shooping and i let her pick out a bunch of outfits for us and I also picked out a bunch. We had a lot of fun trying it all on, and now my mother dresses a little closer to tznoius than before. If it had been thrown at her, she’d have rejected it. But now she also knows I’m there to answer questions, and whenever we can we go on errands together simply for the five minutes to talk in the car. Then she is more willing to let me go away for shabbos and yomim tovim because she knows its not her, but the lifestyle, that I am rejecting. And, hopefully, the more she learns the less she will be against it. She may never follow it, but it helps if she (and the rest of my family) are at least not adamantly against it.

  3. Just to clairfy in case anyone has read my two previous comments on this thread… My children are young and, at this point, I feel it much better to ignore some funky ideas that come from their grandparents. When children are older and the grandparents don’t simply mention the theory of evolution, Bible criticism etc, but advocate, I think I different approach is needed.

  4. Richard,
    Respectfully, your statement about Shimshon Refael Hirsh and Tiferes Yisroel is simply and completely false. Tiferes Yisroel’s Drush Ohr Hachaim deals with the age of the universe. It does not support evolutionay theory AT ALL. In fact, it completely contradicts the theory of evolution. Shimshon Refael Hirsh, in one place, states simply that even if the theory of evolution were true we would still be obliged to keep the Torah of the One who brought such an amazing briah about through the process of evolution. He refers to Darwin derisively. Rav Hirsh could, perhaps, be used as a support for arguing that one can believe in theory of evolution and not be an apikores for it.
    The issue here is that some parents of baalei t’shuvah want to demand that their children and grand children accept the theory because they realize that if the theory of evolution (as they understand it) is true, Torah is undermineded. That is an unacceptable and unwelcome interference in the chinuch of our children. We have the right (and indeed obligation) to tell our children that the theory of evolution is complete nonsense if that is waht our understanding of Torah tells us.

  5. To add one more category of BT parents to Steve’s litany: The unobservant parent who went to a Yeshiva for high school and think therefore that he is an expert on Orthodox Judaism. Although to be fair my dad (the above mentioned) is supportive and I love when we are able to spend shabbes together and he teaches me new niggunim that he never taught me growing up

  6. Ilanit, Shalom!

    I don’t know if this is of help, but I’ll share my experience. My parents and older sister and relatives never kashered their homes (nor my wife’s), so this is an ongoing experience for us.
    I’ll avoid specific halachic details. You can ask your rav for that.
    I started keeping kosher as a teenager, a few years before moving to Israel in ’76. I was fortunate to have the guidance of two rabbis who understood the need to do things gradually and to maintain peace at home. (Thank you Rav Elihu J. Steinhorn and Rav Meir Kahane z”l!) Once I was fully committed to this (beyond the ‘no cheeseburgers at McDonald’s stage), we came to an agreement in my parents’ home. I got separate utensils and dishes (thanks partly to my father’s mother, who donated part of her stuff), and worked in my mother’s kitchen, taking full responsibility for my own cooking and cleaning.
    There were obvious limitations, but kashering a burner on a stove top isn’t hard, and G-d bless the inventor of self-cleaning ovens.
    Eventually, as things evolved over the months and years, we found ways to eat together. Sometimes my parents would pitch in to make an all kosher meal for all of us, so that we could have a Shabbat meal together, or some such. Other times, we sat at the table together with seperate meals. My various aunts and sister all saw that this was important to me, and would accommodate me in similar ways. I especially remember how my Aunt Gerry would go out of her way to get me an Empire chicken or duckling for Thanksgiving, and double wrap it, and show me everything before it went into her oven. As long as I tried to remain humble and respectful, the extended family indulged my mishagas; as long as I didn’t make demands, just stuck to what *I* need for me.
    When I went to Israel, all my untensils and such went into boxes in the basement. When I came for a visit, the boxes came out of storage, and in short time we were ready to work…
    For five years we lived in Massachussetts, within a reasonable drive of my sister, parents, and my wife’s family. We had boxes of utensils strategically placed at two homes. Our parents were well aware of how very careful we were going to be about all this. (Again, I’ll leave the details for your rav.) If we were going for just the day, we often brought food from home. If we were going for a few days, then we got a space in the cupboard and refrigerator, and worked in cooperation, avoiding stepping on the hosts’ toes.
    We constantly would have to deal with offers to cook something for us, or do dishes, or critical questions, but we learned to take it all patiently and in good spirit.
    We’ve been doing this almost 30 years now. My mother moved into an assisted living place after my father died. She no longer has room to store extra sets of utensils, so we bring the stuff we use for backpacking, or eat cold. Fortunately, we can shop and even get a sandwich in town. We even managed a visit on Chol HaMoed Pesach one year! (Not sure we’ll repeat that soon…)
    The keys for us have been the desire to make this work, the everpresent goal of maintaining respect for our parents, and realizing that doing this b’darkei noam (with ways of pleasantness) would itself be a great mitzvah.
    If you can get even *minimal* cooperation, you can make this work. I’d bet that over time, the family’s willingness to help would even grow.
    Good luck! May Hashem bless you, and grant you the peace of mind to do this gently. :-)

    mordechai y. scher

  7. I am struggling with this myself and my parents. My husband and I decided to become more observant after we got married, and no one in my immediate family is observant. We are planning on moving back to live near them since they are very important to me. However, I have to consider several issues, such as kashrut. Eating together is extremely important for my family, yet I will be the only one with a kosher kitchen. How do I maintain harmony without burdening anyone’s lives? I do not want to upset normal patterns. While my family is willing to buy kosher meat, they are not yet willing to kasher their kitchens. Add to it a somewhat-hostile attitude towards Hashem from my sister; I always hear “How can God stand back while 6 million were being murdered?” and similar comments. I know that some may advise having all meals at my home, but I just can’t imagine a situation where I do NOT eat at my sister’s or my parents’ anymore. There are many mixed messages in my family: I went to Orthodox day school but we never practiced; my sister sends her kids to a Conservative day school but I am not sure she believes much…

    I am trying to come up with strategies that maintain the family peace, as I love my family very much, but at the same time, I need to stay true to myself. I find this problem to be the most difficult.

  8. R Menken-thanks for your kind words. One word of caution. Parents have different approaches and levels of understanding based upon their knowledge or lack thereof. For instance, a parent who has frum business clients may be far more favorably inclined to telephone calls and other overtures from rabbanim,etc than a parent who considers himself or herself an “educated” albeit not totally “observant conservative Jew.” The latter can be quite hostile to all forms of Orthodoxy.

    Of course, the yeshiva experience and finding yourself both spiritually, economically and a shidduch helps you stand on your own feet with a partner in life who can really help you deal with the issues in a constructive manner.

  9. Yaakov,
    The principal knows NOTHING about my in-laws. That’s the point. He assumes the worst of all BTs. (When, actually, they are amazingly good about kashrus, turning off the TV, and even draping the nudes among their art collection with sheets!) It’s all about the unfair perception!

  10. Shayna, I wonder what’s in your parents home that inspired such a drastic recommendation.

    Your children will always know that you are frum by decision, and not by default. This can and should lead to age-appropriate discussions of why you made that choice. One can only hope that with however many years of education plus some good parenting, your children should be less tempted than their bnei-FFB peers to join a secular path. And how many frum people today don’t have a non-frum relative?

    Rabbi Seinfeld’s response is excellent. He’s also an accomplished writer — Mark should contact him for guest contributions. :) In fact, that comment is probably important enough to be worth a post of its own.

    tired daughter, as hard as it is to let comments about frumkeit slide off you, it’s much harder to see it directed at your children. If he’s making your kids explain why they are religious, that’s enough to, as you said, cause a crisis. Besides teaching your children Rav Weinberg’s recommendations quoted by Rabbi Seinfeld, you do have to “encourage” the grandparents to lay off.

    Oh, and a sense of humor helps. This might be worth a post of its own…

    Richard, you must not be a BT! I can’t imagine a BT with living, non-BT parents who is not reminded of the media’s standard portrayal of frummies with some frequency. Further discussion is off-topic for this blog; start with Rabbi Shafran’s excellent summary at http://www.momentmag.com/archive/feb00/feat1.html , and then come give us a read over at Cross-Currents. We find new examples almost weekly.

    Steve, thanks for the kind words. And, yes, how one deals with it is critical. But it sounds like your parents were supportive. When they aren’t, it’s just easier when you aren’t living at home, facing negativity on a dialy basis. And the older a person is, the more diplomacy he or she has learned. At least, we would hope so. :)

    Libbie, I don’t think that it’s right to say the site is for people who were “once” BTs, because it lasts for a lifetime. Generally speaking, we share a set of common issues that those with frum parents do not have. There are also “current issues” that only come up after BTs start having children of their own, which was support of some of the comments were about.

    So, welcome to the community!

  11. Er…hi everyone. I just found this website from the person who writes the frum.org sermons. I’m kind of confused. Who is this website for? I’m a BT, i’m seventeen and a junior in high school. I came looking for support and I’m finding parents who were once BT’s and are now dealing with the aftereffects. Not the current issues. Could someone please email me and HELP????? LauralieStar -at- aol-dot-com. I don’t really like the tone of what I just wrote and I’m sorry. Please email me, I really need the help, my parents are so unsupportive. They got angry tonight when I insisted they not put something dairy on our meat tablecloth. (my parents kindasorta keep kosher. by their definition.) anyway. please help. LauralieStar -at -aol-dot-com. Thanks. ~Libbie~

  12. Evolution is the least of it. Anyway, we are not threatened by the science of it, but his trying to preach irreligion to the children. He just uses evolution as an example.

  13. I also think that when a person becomes a BT is not as relevant as how one deals with it. i know that NCSY certainly helped me as a teenager grow in observance as I met a whole network of people who I have some of closest relationships outside of my immediate family ( wife and children).To say that I lived from Shabbaton to Shabbaton and from National Convention to National Convention was an understatement.

    OTOH, I am sure that many of us, regardless of the age that we became BTs, encountered some reaction that ranged from curiousity to bewilderment to hostility.As R Menkem pointed out, one key is learning how others coped with the same issues.

  14. R Menken’s response is excellent. Just having a place where BTs with similar issues can discuss them, whether on a blog or by a more formal means such as a Melavah Malkah, is a huge help for BTs to realize that there are many people that they can share experiences with and develope strategies on these issues.

  15. The parents may also have been influenced by a steady diet of negative caricatures of Orthodoxy which they’ve been fed by the media.

    Examples, please?

    he still tries to influence them about evolution,

    Samson Rephael Hirch and the Tiferes Yisroel both had almost no trouble with evolution. It isn’t the threat to Judaism you imagine, and certainly no cause for becoming estranged from your father.

  16. This has been a very significant issue for me. After -literally- 20 years of being frum, my father still has major issues about Judaism, and even though we have been very strict about what they are allowed to talk about in front of the kids, he still tries to influence them about evolution, etc. At one point he even made my daughter justify why she was religious. It became a major crisis. At that point I basically threatened that he would not be welcome to see the kids if he couldn’t refrain from such talk/questions. So, I think what Shayna’s principal said came from a knowledgable place but it is not practical. I don’t know if there are any easy answers to dealing with the hostility, but I am envious of Mr. Shub’s children.

  17. R. Noah Weinberg has a lecture on tape instructing BTs how to visit home for the first time (and subsequent times). His wisdom in a nutshell:

    1. Before you see your parents and other loved ones, make a list of 10 or 20 things that each person did for you in the past, and every day you are there, remind them of one of those things and how much you appreciate it and how much they’ve helped you, etc.

    2. When they ask you a question like, “Why do you have to wear that thing on your head all the time?” understand and respond to the real question. The real question is, “Are you judging me?” Of course, as a BT you know that it is ussur to judge, so the answer is no. How do you answer No in the context of their question? You say, “It’s a long story” or “It would bore you to tears for me to explain it” or “You wouldnt believe me if I told you.”

    Use such devices to put off a given question seven (7) times – R. Noah says count them. Most of the time, they’re not really interested in the answer, only in seeing if you’re judging them, and by putting off the question, you will be telling them effectively, “I’m not judging you.”

    In the rare case of a sibling or parent who does want to know what the kipa/Shabbos/etc is all about – i.e., they’ve asked you an eigth time, then you answer like this (use this exact lashon):

    “Well, if you really want to know, it seems to me that there is EVIDENCE that God gave the Jewish people the Torah at Mount Sinai.”

    Your brother will then say, “Do you really believe htat?”

    To which you’ll reply, “I told you you wouldn’t believe me!”

    And then you’ve got his attention and you can get him ASAP down to your local kiruv organization/Discovery/etc.

    3. Be happy. Nothing is better for your family and friends to see that you’re happy. They’re going to be more suportive and maybe even want to know what is that is making you so happy.

    4. From one of my non-Jewish friends I learned to use this line when people feel that some rule is stringent or bizarre (like shomer negia). Instead of trying to explain it in any way, I just say, “It’s just one of the rules.” This line is very effective.

  18. Shayna,
    I don’t worry about it overly. Kids have emunah p’shutah. My mother in law once came to zoo with us and started explaining to our 4-year-old daughter that these cute monkeys are her great, great grandparents. My daughter thought that her grandmother was completely wacko. It can actually be a good thing for kids to be exposed to challenged by funny ideas from their grandparents. Also, it help them appriciate how far their parents have come.

  19. When I became frum, I remember being confused by the emphasis on honoring your parents. Then the loopholes were explained to me. We BTs become stubborn in our resistance to our secular parents, but what’s of ongoing stress is our parents’ influence on their FFB grandchildren! How do we keep the relationships alive and still protect our children? By the time we have kids, they’ve mellowed but I can’t tell you how many times our relatives have protested frumkeit in front of the kids. I’ve never discussed this with him, but the Rosh Yeshiva of my boys’ yeshiva simply assumes the worst; he doesn’t even want my boys to visit their grandparents!

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