I grew up in a modern Orthodox Jewish community in Miami Beach. Till today nearly all of my friends remain observant Jews. But that kind of predictability, whereby those who are raised observant remain so, is a thing of the past. Every week I meet and receive e-mails from formerly observant teenagers and twentysomethings who have left Orthodoxy. This also includes large numbers of chasidic youth. The reason this is so alarming is that it goes against the most basic assumption of the Jewish community, namely, that receiving a Jewish education is the surest way to guarantee Jewish observance and commitment.
When I joined Chabad before I was bar mitzvah, it was almost unthinkable that Lubavitch children should choose to be non-observant. Indeed, the majority gave their entire lives to the Jewish people by choosing to go out to the far corners of the globe on shlichus, on a mission. But today Chabad is beginning to ask itself why a not insignificant number of its youth are giving up observance, even as they remain attached to the Chabad community and continue to live in Crown Heights. The same is true of other chassidic communities. I recall a lecture I gave at the 92nd Street Y a few years back when about 10 former Satmar chasidim came as a group to introduce themselves. They had no yarmulkes or beards and a few had tattoos. I much appreciated their candor in sharing with me how far they had drifted from Judaism, but wondered what could have so thoroughly alienated them from their heritage. I ask the same question of the many non-practicing chasidic youth who often join us for Shabbat and holiday dinners at our home.
Several theories are offered as to why some Orthodox youth are leaving. Many believe it is because Orthodoxy is no longer insulated from mainstream society. Try as one might these days, the secularizing influences of the culture pour through. Still others argue that it is simple mathematics. With more Orthodox children being born it makes sense that mathematically a larger number will choose to leave Judaism. One rabbi told me that we should focus not on the growing number who are leaving but on the overwhelming majority who choose to stay put, which numerically is quite an achievement.
But for the branch of Judaism that has long advocated – and rightly so – that education is the key to observance, it is simply unacceptable to see so many young people lost.
I cannot claim to know all the causes for their exit, but I have learned this: A big part of the problem is distracted parenting. We in the Orthodox community justifiably pride ourselves on our strong families. But as parents, we usually face even greater pressures than other parents because of our large families and our considerable religious duties. We are sometimes not as engaged with our children as we ought to be, and delegate their Jewish upbringing to teachers and the community. Many who live in the Orthodox world quietly harbor the opinion that their kids will, by osmosis, remain observant. They send their kids to yeshiva, they let them play with religious friends. Surely they will choose a righteous path. But absconding on our responsibility to be the primary influence in our children’s lives is irresponsible and unacceptable.
Take synagogue, for example. More and more shuls are creating youth services where the expectation is that young children will not pray with their parents but will immediately be farmed off to a youth director. But is that a good thing? Isn’t it a parent’s responsibility to teach a child to behave in synagogue and pray rather than have the child go to a youth service where he or she will be given pretzels and sing Adon Olam? And even if the youth service is as comprehensive as the main service, isn’t this the one day a week when a father prays with his children rather than have them do so with teachers at school? And speaking of school, yes, we rely on our children’s rebbes to give them inspiration and information. But only a parent can make a child feel unconditionally loved and appreciated, making Judaism in turn feel warm and inviting.
Many rabbis work so hard for the community that they are unaware that their own children are neglected. Few, for example, are as dedicated to the Jewish future as Chabad. But it can come with a cost. Many shluchim, chasidic emissaries, are so overwhelmed with teaching, organizing communal events, and fund-raising that they scarcely have family time. Just last week I went to visit a Chabad shaliach who has literally brought hundreds back to Judaism and runs every evening to teach from home to home. The man is a hero of the Jewish people. But surely even he would agree that he must also be a hero to his children.
Our rabbis go through all our life-cycle events with us. Weddings, bar mitzvahs, and, sadly, funerals. But they need to have at least four proper family dinners a week if they are not to lose a connection with their own kids. A highly regarded Reform rabbi who hosted me for a lecture in California told me how, after his 22 years in the pulpit, his wife was leaving him. She simply could no longer take the loneliness of being a rabbi’s wife. He spoke of how this was unjust recompense for having given over his whole life to the Jewish community. He is right. But families are also hungry and also need to be fed.
We in the Orthodox community must also begin to question at what age it is appropriate for children to be sent away from home to yeshiva. To be sure, a dormitory experience can be very rewarding, as it was for me from the age of 14. But there is no substitute for a child receiving the affirmation of loving parents, and we need to open more yeshivas in more places so that kids don’t need to be sent away at too young an age.
Observant parents would do well to remember that there is no mitzvah to save the entire world even as we watch our own children being lost. And as we all think about what we can improve upon in this new year, being better parents should be at the very top of our lists.