Cherishing and protecting relationships
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Cherishing and protecting relationships

Talk at Fair Lawn’s Shomrei Torah to focus on supporting loved ones who have chosen an alternate direction in their Jewish observance

Rabbi Menachem Bombach
Rabbi Menachem Bombach

There’s a saying that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree — but, of course, that’s not always the case. While children often make decisions similar to those their parents have made, it is by no means rare for some of them to take very different paths. These situations can be challenging for families to navigate, particularly when some of the decisions involve something as all-encompassing as religion and when the choices conflict with family religious beliefs or practices.

“Inspired by Ilona, Embracing All Differences” is a series of panel discussions designed to address challenging issues that may have a stigma attached or that can make a family feel isolated or not accepted by the community. The programs are intended to provide support and guidance to families struggling with these types of issues and to start a communal dialogue.

The series is coordinated and sponsored by Nancy Fish Bravman and Larry Bravman of Fair Lawn in memory of their daughter Ilona.

Ms. Bravman described Ilona as vibrant and very bright, doing everything with joy and determination and inspiring those around her. She also was physically disabled, suffering from spinal muscular atrophy. She died in 2021 at the age of 28. “Ilona taught us to focus on strengths and to appreciate our children no matter what,” Ms. Bravman said. As the family sat shiva, many people talked about how Ilona had inspired them to see abilities rather than just disabilities. Some said she set an example of how to live with adversity, others said she had inspired their career choices. “Ilona had a very meaningful life, she taught those around her so much,” Ms. Bravman said. “This series enables Ilona’s life to continue to have meaning and allows people to continue learning.”

The first discussion took place last winter and focused on disabilities. The second program, on “Unconditional Love: Cherishing and Protecting Relationships When Family Members Are on a Different Path,” is being presented as a two-part series; the first took place last month and discussed supporting loved ones who identify as LGBTQ+. “The last panel attracted hundreds of listeners, giving all participants the clear message that they are not alone –- that many others are navigating similar situations,” Ms. Bravman said.

The second part of the program on “Cherishing and Protecting Relationships” will focus on supporting loved ones who have chosen an alternate direction in their Jewish observance. Rabbi Larry Rothwachs of Teaneck, Dr. Shoshana Poupko of Englewood, and Rabbi Menachem Bombach, who lives in Israel, will speak at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn on December 6. (See below.)

Dr. Shoshana Poupko

Rabbi Rothwachs heads Congregation Beth Aaron in Teaneck; he is also a licensed social worker, the head rabbi of Camp Morasha, and the director of professional rabbinics at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Rabbi Rothwachs talked with his daughter, Tzipora, on David Bashevkin’s podcast “1840.” The podcast explores Jewish thought and ideas and addresses contemporary issues openly and honestly. The discussion was about how the father and daughter maintained their relationship while Tzipora battled an eating disorder.

Dr. Poupko is a mental health professional at Achieve Behavioral Health and the rebbetzin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood. She was also an educator and taught in modern Orthodox high schools for more than 20 years.

Rabbi Bombach is a communal leader and educational entrepreneur in the charedi community. He is the rosh yeshiva of a high school for boys in Beitar Illit and has established a network of charedi schools whose mission is to help students integrate into Israeli society. Rabbi Bombach wrote a blog post on the Times l of Israel, published on September 26, 2021, with the title “Thou shalt love your child who leaves religion,” about his commitment to maintaining a loving relationship with his daughter, Ruth, after she chose to leave ultra-Orthodox observance.

Dr. Poupko will speak about this issue from different perspectives — as a mental health professional, a rebbetzin, and an educator. “I think the Torah perspective is very much in line with the mental health perspective in terms of how to cope and relate to your child once they have decided to uphold a different degree of religious observance, from what they were raised with,” she said. “Our job as parents is to educate and to help lay the foundation for our kids to be adults who are proud of themselves. One of the most challenging aspects of being a parent to adult children is embracing that they are not simply a reflection of us. They are now going to shape their own lives. Unconditional love means loving them throughout this process, which can be challenging for both the parents and children; it means being devoted to raising and mentoring them and to giving them nurturance and love which is not conditional upon their living an observant lifestyle.

“There are many different reasons teens or young adults will walk away from religion,” she continued. “There are emotional, cognitive, and experiential factors, as well as personality and circumstances which have a real impact. One of the mistakes we often make is oversimplifying and pointing to one factor as being ‘the’ reason. Trying to isolate one reason and narrowing things down through one lens will almost always fall short.

“Sometimes a young adult won’t make a conscious decision to walk away, but there will be more of a gradual shift away from observance, especially but not exclusively if they don’t have a strong foundation motivating them to continue to observe.

Rabbi Larry Rothwachs

“To ensure that our kids receive a solid foundation, we need to have our best and brightest going into Jewish education. Our kids are complicated, the world we live in is complicated, and they need to learn in an environment which doesn’t shy away from complexity and nuance. It is also important to recognize that kids are inspired both through the mind and through the heart. It’s a tall order to ask of our teachers, but it’s absolutely attainable when parents and schools partner together.”

Rabbi Bombach agreed that there are many different reasons why teens or young adults might choose to leave religious observance, and that schools can play a role in helping some teens stay connected. In the charedi community, unfortunately, many of the yeshivot have the same culture, he explained. That culture is not a good fit for all kids and can cause some to feel that the system does not fit their needs. Offering different types of schools might allow some to find a better fit and enable them to explore interests or pursue hobbies within the framework of the community.

And Rabbi Bombach stressed that whatever the reason, maintaining a loving relationship with a child who decides not to be religious “is not just a nice idea or a suggestion, it’s a must. A home needs to be welcoming for each individual child.” And often, it is when a child is struggling that he or she is most in need of that love and support.

Ruth continues to live with the family, and she and her parents love each other and respect each other, he said.

“We know that every child, in every generation, wants to create their own identity,” Rabbi Bombach continued. “They need to be independent and to find their own path. That’s the way the world is built -– it’s not new. It’s natural for parents to want their children to follow a similar path, but a teenager is a teenager.”

And some teens and young adults are able to forge their own identities because they feel confident that their parents will continue to love them no matter what, Rabbi Bombach said. So while it may seem counterintuitive, for some children it is their security in that relationship that enables them to muster the courage to embark on a different religious path. On the other hand, children who have “abandoned religion in their hearts” but are afraid to act on their feelings because they are worried their parents will reject them “lead a double life, which is soul-destroying.”

And while it certainly can be upsetting for parents if a child chooses a different religious path, it helps if parents can be honest with themselves about what it is that they find upsetting, he said. Often, the concern is less about theology and more about culture and what the community might think.


Who: Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, Dr. Shoshana Poupko, and Rabbi Menachem Bombach

What: Will talk about “Supporting Loved Ones Who Have Chosen an Alternate Direction in Their Jewish Observance” as part of the series “Inspired by Ilona, Embracing All Differences”

When: On Tuesday, December 6, at 8 p.m.

Where: At Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn/ Livestream available at inspiredbyilona.com

For more information: inspiredbyilona@
outlook.com

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