Rabbi Kelemen on Why Kids Leave Orthodox Judaism (and why I think he is mistaken)

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Last summer, The Jewish Action featured a panel of experts answering the “tough questions.” One of the panelists was the great Rabbi Lawrence (Leib) Kelemen of Neve and Mussar Vaad fame. The question he was asked was: “Why are so many kids off the Derech?” (That’s their term. I don’t use it.)

Rabbi Kelemen starts off great. He says that kids don’t leave Orthodox Judaism because of a cell phone or the Internet or even because they never experience the beauty of Shabbos. He even says that secular courses at college are not the problem.

10142436Then he cites the research of the two foremost Orthodox therapists who deal with these issues in a paper published 15 years ago:

“First, there are child risk factors, such as attention deficit disorder (ADD), hyperactivity, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), learning disabilities, poor academic abilities, poor social skills and depression. Second, there are environmental risk factors, which include major medical or economic crises, corrupt rabbis and teachers, sexual abuse, physical abuse, lack of recognition of individual strengths and Internet abuse. Third, there are family risk factors, which include hypercritical or angry home environments, parents with poor parenting skills and lack of shalom bayis.”

But Rabbi Kelemen says that the only real cause in this list compiled by professionals in the field, is the home. Forget the first two reasons mentioned in the paper. Basically, the real problem is bad parenting. He calls it parental selfishness.

He then discusses some other very important points and critiques of frum culture including: The emotional cost of being a frum Jew, teaching Mitzvos without appreciation for Mitzvos, the Shidduch system meat market, and overall misplaced values. These are all excellent points.

Despite the fact that I didn’t love how Rabbi Kelemen latched on to one particular reason for kids leaving Orthodox Judaism and in essence blaming the parents, it was a pretty decent article. Made some good points, fell a little flat in others.

Apparently, not everyone saw it this way. It seems an avalanche of letters arrived in The Jewish Action mailboxes criticizing Rabbi Kelemen’s take on the issue. They sensed that Rabbi Kelemen was being too hard on parents of children who had left Orthodox Judaism.

Rabbi Kelemen responds in the current Winter 2013 issue of The Jewish Action. He basically doubles down on his theory, and not only that, he expresses regret that he left wiggle room for anyone to think that the parents did not cause the child to leave Orthodox Judaism. In fairness, a letter from a third professional (this is in addition to the two cited in the 2013 article) lends some support to his theory that the parents are to blame, but the context of the letter was to answer a specific question, not to address the general issue.

He also cites R’ Chaim Kanievsky who says that if the parents fought in the home then the children cannot be blamed for rebelling. This too, does not address the issue head on, it simply exculpates children from difficult homes from Heavenly Justice. Finally, he quotes R’ Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg who said that almost every child who is struggling with their religion is seeking attention they could not get at home from their bad parents.

This response disturbs me.

First of all, I respect R’ Chaim Kanievsky, but I don’t think he is in a position to offer specific advice on this specific issue. I could be wrong, but I do not think that he has experience with formerly Orthodox Jews in any meaningful sense. I simply have never heard of him being involved with these kids. Other Gedolim have such experience. I don’t believe R’ Chaim is one of them. So while his thoughts are interesting and worth hearing, I don’t see how his oblique statement should be taken more seriously than experts in the field. The same goes for R’ Scheinberg.

Second of all, I don’t like the assumption that there is a common or specific reason that people leave Orthodox Judaism which implies that without some sort of trauma or disability they would not leave. People leave for tons of reasons. And many people leave for intellectual or social reasons despite charmed childhoods. It’s arrogant to think we can turn every born Orthodox Jew into an adult Orthodox Jew. It just doesn’t work for some people. We have to acknowledge that possibility in any discussion of the topic.

Third of all, because there are completely healthy people who leave Orthodox Judaism, it’s obvious that not all of them are scarred by bad parenting. Most children of bad parents actually don’t leave Orthodox Judaism. Conversely, we all know excellent parents who have children who left Orthodox Judaism. The blame game here is silly and tired.

I remember when the Jewish Observer article on this phenomenon was released in the 90’s. The parents blamed the schools, the schools blamed the parents, the professionals blamed mental health issues, and the teens didn’t blame anything. I heard from rabbis who attended the Nefesh conferences in those days that the sessions were basically arguing over who was to blame.

Has it never occurred to people that not everyone is going to be frum? Has it ever occurred to people that some people just don’t get anything from Orthodox Judaism. Yesterday, I wrote about an heir to a Chasidic dynasty that did not feel comfortable in his religious environment. If not for an external factor, he may have left Orthodox Judaism too. (See: Book Review | Untold Tales of the Hasidim). The author of that book said in an interview that he was raised Orthodox, but just never felt or believed in God so he stopped practicing. It’s not always something other than that! I recently talked with a young man who left Orthodox Judaism about his journey. I asked him when he felt like he was no longer Orthodox. He told me that he never actually felt Orthodox. Throughout his years of school he kind of just breezed right through it and knew in his head that when high school yeshiva was over, he was going to leave. No trauma, no mental illness, no story. Just left. He’s not the only one.

When the question of “Why are so many kids off the Derech?” is asked, the only proper response in my opinion, is to say that each kid has their own reason and each kid has their own story and each kid has their own choice to stay or to go.

People would like to identify trends so that fewer born Orthodox Jews leave. If the reasons for their flight are understood, the thinking is that the community can reform its behavior and as a result more people will stay Orthodox. Unfortunately, this is a game of whack-a-mole. There are too many reasons and too many factors to effectively keep everyone in the fold.

However, there is something that can be universally implemented. Many teens or young adults experiment with a life outside the confines of Orthodox Judaism. Some people call these kids “at-risk”. How we treat these kids is very likely to impact their loyalties as they grow older. If we marginalize them, infantilize them, insult them, hurt them, hate them, or judge them we are likely sealing their fate. So while I don’t think we can possibly control all the factors that might push someone to leave Orthodox Judaism, we can adjust our attitude toward people who are on the margins. They must be made to feel comfortable, loved, accepted, important, smart, and capable of contributing positively to the community. That is something we can control and it is something that should be done regardless of whether it will keep more people Orthodox. But I have a feeling it would help the numbers too.

Finally, I do think there is a bit of a silver lining here. If frum people really think that mental illness, and learning disabilities, or even ADD is a huge factor in kids leaving Orthodox Judaism and that a peaceful home is of utmost importance to keeping kids frum and that we should instill positive Judaism in our education system in order that more people appreciate the beauty of Orthodox Judaism so they will want to stay Orthodox, go for it! I think it’s a bit disappointing that we would only seem to address these issues as a way to prevent people from leaving Orthodox Judaism, but if that’s what gets people exciting about solving these problems, I am all for it. I would prefer if these challenges were addressed simply because they are important issues on their own, but sometimes people need superficial motivation to do the right thing. At the very least we can justify putting more resources into solving these very real problems for the sake of all the people who are affecting by them, not just the kids who are at risk of leaving Orthodox Judaism.

Links: Jewish Action Summer 2013, Jewish Action Winter 2013

  • DF

    Psychologists and Rabbis (some) like to offer broad, sweeping statements about people who leave orthodox Judaism. So here’s a broad, sweeping statement in response: Anyone who offers such a statement, and that most certainly includes the most well-known Gedolim of that world, has never seriously studied or questioned the intellectual underpinnings of orthodox Judaism.
    This doesn’t mean that anyone with intellectual curiosity automatically leaves the fold. Not at all. Some people are satisfied with the answers they see, and others reinterpret their faith to make it compatible with the problems. But this is 2013. There are scores and scores of blogs and FB pages, with hundreds and hundreds of commenters, who DID find the problems sufficient enough for them to leave. That means the real numbers are in the thousands. For anyone today, therefore, to still claim its all about bad parenting, or depression, or for pete’s sake, sexual abuse [is there nothing that can’t be used as a scapegoat for?] is just so much nonsense. Only the most uninformed and underexposed naïf can make such claims.
    Altogether now, and let us hope finally, finally, this will permeate somehow into the public’s mind: We don’t know why people leave, and intellectual reasons are just as high on the list as emotional reasons.
    Sheesh.

  • Shlomo Abraham

    R’ Fink, I’m rather surprised you didn’t attack the premise. Start defining ‘leaving Orthodox Judaism’ and you start realizing the problem is probably more with Orthodox Judaism than those ‘leaving’ it.

    When Orthodox Judaism is a binary choice, as it is in the Ashkenazi world, there will inevitably be people who are less committed or fervent than their family, friends, social circles, and may perhaps feel pressure to shape up or ship out. In the Sephardi world, there much less of a hard line between Traditional and Orthodox, there’s less conformity, much less social pressure, and much less ‘leaving’.

    • I agree with you. I was working under his (and the general public’s) working premise. I’ve written about what you are talking about in other contexts.

    • Alex

      There is plenty of conformity in the Sephardi world. On the level of the Hassidic communities. It’s just not about specific dress and halacha.

    • MarkSoFla

      While this (“sefardim leave less often”) has generally been true, the current generation, especially in Israel, is behaving much more like Ashkenazym, and many more Sefardi youth are simply leaving the religion completely.

    • Jacob

      Many orthodox Jews wonder why all the Jews in the world don’t become religious. Its because they can’t! Not at the standards orthodoxy holds. I grew up in a secular house and spent thousands of hours of my adult life studying orthodoxy till I came to the conclusion it is insane. Rituals for this, rituals for that, wash your hands before touching bread or you’re a Rasha! Don’t burn your nails and you’re a Rasha. Don’t forget to pray after the bathroom or an angel will be created that will testify against you. Ridiculous beleifs in angels and demons and spirts (I thought Judaism was monotheism but there is way to much dualism that I encountered studying orthodoxy). Ridiculous beliefs that touching a women on her period makes you impure. Making women feel like dirt because there elbows aren’t covered half an inch more (they are going to gehonnom because of it). Thinking women who wear pants in their house are loose. Thinking that you can live in the world without working and just studying Torah all day(has it ever crossed their minds that people leave Judaism for financial reasons? HELLO). No individuality and lack of empathy, hate fostered more in my heart as I studied more orthodoxy and couldn’t even look at a women in the target checkout lane without thinking some nonsense that i’ll lose my eyesight young because of it. Truth is I feel like there was some error in the oral Torah and all these Chumrot and adding to the Torah everyday. Even when all the Jews in the world were religious there were still pogroms against us, . I love Hashem very much and am grateful for every moment. I just can’t live a ritualized life where I have to feel bad about everything I do. I wonder if orthodox jews honestly feel a connection to Hashem as they pray the same prayer 600000 times or just feel guilty. It is Hashem who makes you pure or impure not jumping in rain water and saying the same bracha 10 times a day! Judaism went wrong somewhere and I believe we will return to the true derech once Mosiach comes, but the Judaism we have today is narcissistic, OCD and involves shaming and really is not far off from Christianity in terms of dualism. I will put my faith in Hashem alone, not the power of stupid beliefs about cutting nails, angels, demons, and other superstitions.

      • Yisroel

        Wow that was quite intense. It seems to me that you’re opinion is very blinded, narrow minded, and black and white. To make a general statement about a large group of people is prejudice and is usually a symptom of being lost in your head and your thoughts.

        What would be more honest and real would be to share your experience with Judaism and adding on that you see it that way with many people and in many places. But to believe that this is everybody’s experience and that they don’t feel anything meaningful is a very narrow and close minded approach.

        There is no question that 2 people can hear how something must be done and 1 of them feels condemned while the other just moves on and takes it in stride and in context. Additionally not every community speaks and teaches about the things you mentioned. Different communities place the emphasis on different things.

  • Adam Kenigsberg

    It just doesn’t work for some people.

    Define ‘it’.

    Has it never occurred to people that not everyone is going to be frum?

    Define ‘frum’.

    Living a life consistent with halacha IS for all Jews, and it is correct to expect that EVERY Jew can live such a life.

    You don’t follow the same practices that you were raised with. My hashkafa significantly shifted from when I first endeavored to keep mitzvot.

    However, we are both living lives consistent with halacha.

    Not every hashkafa will work for every Jew. That’s why there are the proverbial 70 faces to the Torah.

    Any Jew from an observant family, who has intellectual or social issues in the hashkafa of his/her parents, can search and find a hashkafa that works for them.

    I still have never met any Jew who gave up halachic observance for purely intellectual reasons.

    I have met Jews who claim that science convinced them to walk away from observance…. ….and then 20 minutes into a conversation on the topic, I hear complaints about the person’s parents, teachers, classmates, and anything and everything that was difficult socially for them in their surroundings.

    Gd commanded all Jews to follow His Law; not just the ones that enjoy it. To say otherwise is essentially to give license to Reform’s mantra of “informed choice”; the freedom to pick and choose which mitzvot one wants to observe.

    • Fred

      Adam, just because you haven’t met anyone doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty. I left for purely intellectual reasons. In fact it was the last thing I was looking to do, but found that from a purely rational perspective judaism and belief in god was completely untennable.

      • Adam Kenigsberg

        Why don’t you post with your full name from a Disqus-recognized account?

        • Tuvia

          Adam, why do you need his name? You want to picket his home or something?
          You believe you were commanded by G-d to observe mitzvos – others examine the evidence and come to different conclusions.
          The wider world is way more just. For some, that is enough to leave.

          • Adam Kenigsberg

            When someone makes a personal claim, using a real name allows other to test the claim. Right now, Fred’s assertion is unfalsifiable.

            The wider world is way more just

            More just? From where does the “wider world” derive its definition of Justice?

            • Tuvia

              Modern society is more fair and just. In the modern world, your rights cannot be abridged. There are no punishments for “wrong” thinking. There is no “wrong” thinking actually. Your obligation is not to abridge the rights of others.

              The modern world does not have a category of “heretic,” or a person who loses status, respectability, and rights in this world and suffers in the next due to having the “wrong” belief and/or practice.

              So, religions like Judaism, Islam and Christianity are inherently unjust. In Xtianity, believe as we say or burn for eternity in a lake of fire. In Judaism, believe as we say or lose your place in the world to come (or, reading Deuteronomy or Leviticus, much worse.) In Islam, even more strongly worded penalties for those who don’t submit.

              This is not just. Even if I were the strongest believer in Torah Mt. Sinai – I would know, in my head and my heart, that whoever wrote this book was not being just to those who didn’t believe like me. Because their only crime was — they happen not to be me. And nobody deserves punishment for that reason alone. And that is the divine lesson of the enlightened world for all people everywhere.

            • meirmoses

              Well my name is Meir Moses and I live in Vancouver, BC and while I have not ‘left’ Judaism completely, i do not observe for ‘intellectual’ reasons. More critically, I do not believe in an interventionist Deity. I do adhere to a selection of traditional rites and contribute to my community and attend shul, but ultimately I believe that Judaism and God are ideas conceived by men.

        • Fred

          For the simple reason that I live in a religious neighborhood in Israel and have kids in a religious schools. Unfortunately, for social reasons I have to keep my conclusions between myself and a select few trusted acquaintances (e.g. my wife, certain close friends).

          • Adam Kenigsberg

            So then….you didn’t leave the community. Thank you for confirming my original point.

            • Fred

              Huh? That wasn’t the point that I read. You were arguing that people do not give up religious observance based intellectual factors alone. That is simply untrue.

              In any case just because I still live for pragmatic family reasons in a religious neighborhood doesn’t mean that I am in any active way part of the ‘Orthodox Religious Community”. I just avoid bringing attention to the fact that I am no longer religious. I do not keep Shabbat. I do not limit myself to eating only kosher food. I sometimes pop into shul to see friends. I have stopped being religious simply due to the fact that I have concluded intellectually that judaism and god are main-made concepts and don’t reflect any true reality. I avoid publicly doing things that are unacceptable in a religious culture simply due to their potential re-percussions on my family at this stage in life.

      • Debra

        You use the word “rational” to imply that it’s the obvious truth for anyone to go looking for it. A more accurate word would be “subjective perspective”. That is, in your intellectual quest, this was your conclusion. It is not universal.

        • Fred

          Debra, I don’t understand how you equate rational with obvious truth.

          Secondly, many people reach conclusions based on things other than rationality. Some people are swayed by emotions and feelings more than rational thought. When peoples conclusions are swayed by such factors, then it can be called subjective but then those conclusions are no longer rational. There’s a reason why religious faith contains the word faith.

          For the limits of rationalism within the framework of Orthodox Jewish thought have a look at the following posting by Rabbi Natan Slifkin:

          http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2011/07/limits-of-rationalism.html

    • G*3

      > Living a life consistent with halacha IS for all Jews, and it is correct to expect that EVERY Jew can live such a life.

      Who is entitled to expect it? You? God? Is it reasonable to expect Jews who don’t believe that God gave the Torah to keep halacha?

      Also, how do you define “halacha?” Other movements have their versions of halacha. Are those legitimate, or only Orthodox halacha? If only Orthodox, then who gets to define normative halacha?

      > I have met Jews who claim that science convinced them to walk away from observance…. ….and then 20 minutes into a conversation on the topic, I hear complaints…

      That someone’s objections to Judaism aren’t *purely* intellectual doesn’t mean that their intellectual objections are invalid. Arguments stand on their own merits, whatever an individual’s motivation for putting them forth may be.

      • Adam Kenigsberg

        G*3,

        I was responding to specific statements in Rabbi Fink’s post.

        Rabbi Fink (to the best of my knowledge) knows and understands that the Creator of the Universe gave the Written Torah and Oral Torah on Mount Sinai, to the people of Israel.

        One who knows and understands that the giving of the Torah happened, also knows that the Torah is obligatory on all Jews. (deaf-mutes, mentally ill people, and those who were deprived of a Torah education may be exempt from punishment in certain cases, but are still obligated to the Law)

        Under those parameters – the parameters under which Rabbi Fink operates – it is correct to understand that the Creator of Everything gave one Law that applies to all of the People of Israel.

        • It’s still not going to work for everyone and practically speaking, because who really cares what could be in theory, it’s not going to work for everyone.

          • Adam Kenigsberg

            Your original question was, did it ever occur to observant Jews, that not all Jews will be observant.

            I answered that it didn’t, nor should it, since all Jews are obligated to the Law.

            You don’t seem to dispute that; you’re just saying that practically, we can’t expect everyone to follow the Law to which they are obligated.

            Why not?

            Why can’t every Jew find a home somewhere between YCT and Satmar?

            The only reason they couldn’t, is if they have some emotional scarring from parent, teacher, or peer, that prevents them from finding their niche in shmirat hamitzvot.

            You know as well as I do that observant Jews are found in the medical, legal, academic, and scientific worlds. A person can love rationality and science and still accept Matan Torah.

            That’s why so many leaders in the observant Jewish world point to emotional trauma as the main cause of “leaving the fold”. Logically, it’s the most consistent explanation.

            • No that’s not the only reason, and no it’s not logical. Sorry.

              • Adam Kenigsberg

                Care to provide any evidence for that statement?

                • You do realize that there are people who don’t believe in God?

                  • Adam Kenigsberg

                    Living according to halacha is not synonymous with believing in Gd.

                    We are talking about Jews who have learned through years of schooling and socialization, to live according to halacha.

                    Doubt about Gd alone isn’t enough of a motive to abandon a lifetime of halachic observance, sever ties with families, traditions, ones entire social and cultural norm.

                    A break that big can only be precipitated by some kind of trauma.

                    • I didn’t say doubt. I said don’t believe in God. Atheists.

                    • Adam Kenigsberg

                      What event could cause a born and raised observant Jew to become a devout Atheist?

                      Desire for a rational life? From Rambam to Rav Slifkin, there are rationalists who maintain observance.

                      Desire to work in a certain profession? Again, there are frum Jews in basically every profession?

                      Desire to live a modern lifestyle? Plenty of observant Jews living in big cities (not ghettos), going to the theater, involved in politics, etc.

                      What catalyst could there be to cause such a huge shift in perspective?

                    • Why does a reasonable, intellectual conclusion require trauma to obtain it?!

                    • Adam Kenigsberg

                      See my response to “A thought”, above.

            • A Thought

              in fact, Judaism may be found to be false by some. There are some strong arguments in that direction. Perhaps that may be enough of a reason for some to not see the point in keeping “the Law”. There are very many orthoprax people out there. They don’t leave and still (at least outwardly) follow “the Law.” But they don’t think Judaism is true. Many of them are happy with the lifestyle. Many haven’t been “traumatized.” It’s simply an intellectual conclusion.

              • Adam Kenigsberg

                A thought,

                That is exactly my point.

                People who have ONLY intellectual concerns don’t leave. They stay in observant communities, they marry observant spouses, and they raise observant children.

                If they did not experience any trauma, they are content to remain outwardly observant, and give their children the same upbringing that they themselves had.

                • A Thought

                  Actually no. Some, once realizing that (to their understanding) Judaism is false, has some things they are uncomfortable with. Perhaps they don’t want to be identified with a religion that represents ideas they don’t hold. My impression is that, fakhert, orthoprax people are usually already married with children before they realized that they don’t think Judaism is true. So yes, breaking up a family and leaving it prevents them from abandoning Judaism. However, a single person who thinks Judaism is not true is not to be expected to marry someone (who likely believes and that is very problematic) and raise their children in a falsehood. One doesn’t need a trauma or bad parenting to decide that. There is also the basic urge for people to live true to themselves. Again, no need for bad parenting or trauma, to have someone decide to live according to their beliefs. Do we consider all baalei teshuva to result from bad parenting or trauma?

                  • Shades of Gray

                    This is the dispute on the Cross Currents thread(“People With Questions Are Not Sick”, 4/17/11) from R Adlerstein:

                    “Rabbi Yerachmiel Milstein is one of the most talented people on the kiruv scene. If he says what he is quoted as saying, I will believe him.

                    Emotional problems are behind almost all kefra. “In addition to many other things, to stop believing is inconvenient.” Immersed in a religious world, they are suddenly cut off from their entire milieu. “Why would they do it if they didn’t have some emotional issues?”

                    Why? Because some people have enough intellectual integrity to live by what their minds tell them, even if it is inconvenient. Isn’t that what we Torah-true Jews often have to do? Is it impossible to believe that others do the same? Perhaps Rabbi Milstein hasn’t met them. I have.”

                    As I said above, I am content with saying that both the intellect and emotions operate simultaneously in different people, differently..

                  • Adam Kenigsberg

                    Do we consider all baalei teshuva to result from bad parenting or trauma?

                    No. BT isn’t a rejection of the parent’s core beliefs. In fact, if the nonfrum Jewish parents have a positive Jewish identity, and pass that to their children, a child becoming BT is simply carrying that message to its logical conclusion.

                    My grandfather told me how proud he was that I had become BT – even though he was a completely secular Jew. He cared about the Jewish people, saw that so many Jews were not bringing up Jewish families, and realized that my observance was a confirmation, not a rejection, of the positive Jewish identity that I had been raised with.

                    • A Thought

                      One, there are BT for different reasons and backgrounds. I hardly think your experience defines the field. Two, so OJs brought up to value truth and living up to the truth who upon investigation realize (according to them) that the truth is otherwise and live accordingly are also continuing their tradition and upbringing.

                • This is delusional. Sorry.

                  • Adam Kenigsberg

                    Look, we have two FFB nonbeliever groups:

                    -Orthoprax

                    -fully, outwardly secular (I know you don’t like the label OTD)

                    What explains why some FFB nonbelievers choose one, and some choose the other?

                    martial / parental status doesn’t explain it. Some single FFB nonbelievers stay Orthoprax, and some married with kids FFB nonbelievers walk away completely.

                    What other factor would explain why there are these two distinct choices being made?

                    • Social factors are the reason people stay Orthoprax. That, and fear of disappointing people in their lives. I think that might indicate more emotional issues than someone who can’t be a faker.

                    • Adam Kenigsberg

                      Social factors are the reason people stay Orthoprax.

                      Then you agree with me.

                      They haven’t been traumatized by someone in that society, and therefore, they want to stay in their community.

                    • A Thought

                      Personality? Their independent values? Fear? Financial concerns? Or many other reasons that don’t include bad parenting or trauma.

                    • Adam Kenigsberg

                      Let’s take those one at a time:

                      -Personality: Which human personality type does not exist among observant Jews?

                      -Independent values: Why would someone not accept the authority of Torah values, only to turn around and suddenly obligate themselves to another set of values? By what authority were these other values constructed?

                      -Fear: Fear of what? If they fear staying in the community, that would indicate trauma

                      -Financial concerns: Being threatened with abject poverty, by withholding financial support from someone with no way to make his/her own living, is a form of trauma / abuse.

                    • A Thought

                      I’m sorry. Those responses just don’t make sense.
                      Personality AND intellectual disbelief.
                      People have their own values, period.
                      According to your understanding of trauma everyone who does anything is because of trauma.
                      I’m not looking to go back and forth all day with you. All the best.

  • Red Sox Fan

    I think the point of these rabbis and experts is that even in cases in which people “go off” because of intellectual reasons, there were emotional factors that led these people to start questioning the validity of Orthodox Judaism. In other words, if someone is in a healthy state of mind and comes from a supportive family, according to these rabbis, there is no reason for these people to start doubting Judaism’s authenticity. Human nature is such that most people follow what their parents do, so when one goes against one’s upbringing, it raises the question – what happened?

    • This assumption is incorrect. Normal people question things all the time. You think that God expects us to be zombies unless we had some trauma in our lives?

      • Adam Kenigsberg

        Do you think that people who accept Shmirat HaMitzvot as obligatory are zombies??? What does that make you?

    • tesyaa

      A certain amount of drama or trauma is inevitable within a family or community. It’s called LIFE. If belief can only be maintained in the absence of normal life stresses, maybe the foundations of the belief are not as sturdy as they are purported to be.

      Maybe someone has loving, no abusive parents, but their sibling is in an accident and becomes severely disabled. Maybe a parent gets cancer and dies while the kid is young. Maybe there’s a learning disability. Maybe financial problems take a toll on household tranquility. Maybe a child is just physically unattractive and has a hard time desling with it. These traumas are common and normal. It’s likely a person will avoid one trauma or another, but the likelihood of avoiding ALL traumas that are blamed for sending people off the derech is quite small.

      • tesyaa

        Put it another way. Jumping on a childhood trauma as the “cause” of going OTD can always be performed in hindsight. See the OTD person and find their trauma. He was overweight… Her mother missed her siddur party. Etc.

  • Hallel

    R’ Chaim Kanievsky is merely saying a vort, a Dvar Torah. According to one opinion in the Mishna, a prerequisite for being a Ben Sorer U’moreh is both parents having identical voices (meaning they sound identical). R’ Chaim says, bederech drush, that this can be taken to mean that they speak in a consistent voice, not arguing. Such a child cannot be executed=stoned for his rebellious behavior. That does not mean he’s off the hook b’dinei shamayim. Nor does it apply to the majority view which disagrees with this “identical voice” opinion. It’s a Dvar Torah to say on Shabbos Parshas Ki Setzei, nothing more.

  • Dear Rabbi Fink,

    I read your take on Rabbi Kelemen’s article on why kids leave orthodox Judaism. I hold this issue dear to me and just want to comment that family is a huge factor that cannot be discounted. With many people I’ve seen go “off the derech,” in some cases a family that outwardly looked healthy turned rotten in the inside, resulting in divorce. That can easily emotionally scar someone to see everything – including religion – as superficial.

    Another example has to do with bad parenting and step-parenting. Step-parents are unique in that the child of the spouse that remarries is not theirs, but is to a degree. Step-parents I find can go in one of two extremes: either they overcompensate with love or they show particular disgust to the child that isn’t biologically theirs. It’s an unfortunate phenomenon.

    Also, I want to point out that simply put, bad parents may be bad parents as a result their own pasts. At the risk of launching a whole other discussion, one case in point is with many children of parents that survived the horrors of the Holocaust. Many parents of that era had a difficult enough time readjusting to their own lives (no fault can be placed there), but the unfortunate result was that many of their children were impacted on a subconscious level, leading to their desire to assimilate into American culture and leave any remnants of their past behind.

    Lastly, in a lot of cases bad parents may be that way simply because they are bad parents. For example, the way a parent deals with child when that child fails a test in school, gets sent to the Principal’s office, or in a more extreme case gets arrested will have a lasting impact on how that child develops later on in life.

    These are just some examples. I think that the real underlying issue is that parents fail to transmit the intense love and warmth that a Torah-observant way of life offers. Most people – not just children – want to be loved. And if they don’t feel they will get it from Torah Judaism then they will find other outlets to fill that void.

    Just my 2c.

    • G*3

      > parents fail to transmit the intense love and warmth that a Torah-observant way of life offers

      Do you mean that a Torah-observant life is uniquely warm and loving, or that kids are not seeig the warmth and love that is available within that framework?

      If the latter, I agree. Mitzvos are often just another layer of things you’re not allowed to do – for both kids and adults – or demands on their time.

      • I was referring to the latter, but the former is also true (that’s not to say that there aren’t other channels where love can be transmitted).

  • Susan Barnes

    Nicely written. No one form of religion is going to work for everyone who was born into it. All forms of religion have people who leave, and others who give up something else to join.

  • Lior

    I actually came to a similar conclusion to Keleman on my own over the years. But I don’t think you are entirely disagreeing with him. Sure, kids have their own reasons, but as you said “…we are likely sealing their fate.”

    So it really does come down to the parents or the household at the end of the day (depending on the age of the child). They pretty much seal the deal with how they manage and deal with their children’s feelings towards Orthodoxy.

  • Shades of Gray

    In “Kids of Hope”(Hamodia Supplement, Peasch 5770, pg 7, available online)the Noverminsker Rebbe is quoted that “there’s no one single cause that we can point to; obviously many factors are involved”.

    Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin writes in “The Role of Parents in The Current Crisis of ‘Off the Derech’ Adolescents: Dare We Discuss it? Can We Afford Not To ?”(pg 139, available on his website;R. Keleman references the article in his JA letter),

    “…Rabbi Matisyohu Salomon has been quoted (from a Tisha B’Av speech) as describing the current epidemic of rebellious youngsters as “a gezeira of golus.” This has been interpreted by some as suggesting that this tragedy can happen to anyone without natural reasons of cause and effect. Recently, I had an opportunity to ask Rabbi Salomon about his statement. He explained that he did not mean that this tragedy strikes at random, without rhyme or reason. Rather, he meant that the conditions that bring about this problem – and he emphasized the quality of the parent-child relationship as a major factor – are the result of the geziera of golus (e.g., the absence of the Beis Hamikdash).”

    Regarding the need for data, Jonathan Rosenblum wrote in “More Information, Please”(January, 2008),

    “The truth is that we have relatively little hard empirical data about the drop-out phenomenon. Most of what we know is based on anecdotal experience from which we extrapolate wildly. Each person in the field comes at it from his own vantage point. Thus those who work in the area of learning disabilities tend to see learning disabilities as the primary cause for dropping-out…Others will tell you that the problem is poverty, or, in America, affluence. Those who deal with sexual abuse see that as a major cause…My own guess is that virtually everyone is right — to a degree…Certainly no one explanation fits every case.”

    My own take regarding the similar issue of “Adults at Risk”(discussed, for example in “People With Questions Are Not Sick”, Cross Currents, 4/17/11, in response to AMI Magazine’s “The Imposters Among Us”), is similar to the above. Instead of trying to find the single ultimate and universal cause, in absence of a Pew study for internal Orthodox matters, why not leave it at the observation that a person is made of mind, body, and soul, all of which play a role in different people, differently, and simultaneously?

  • Big Mike

    I loved this article, as an Addiction Counselor in Jerusalem for the last decade or so I’ve dealt with this issue the entire time. R’ Scheinberg had an amazing way with dealing with”OTD” kids or adults. He treated them like human beings.

  • tesyaa

    The argument that “bad” parenting causes OTD is belied by the fact that in many families, only one child of many goes OTD. Those looking to prop up the “trauma” argument will try to find evidence that that one child was secretly abused or had some other “trauma”, but that’s not always the case. If parents are good parents for 5 kids and the sixth kid goes OTD, does that mean they somehow screwed up parenting that one kid? How could they have known that the methods which worked fine for 5 wouldn’t work for #6?

    As I said above, the whole “trauma” theory is bull$hit. Everyone has trauma, or at least drama, in their lives. Plenty of people who remain within the fold, as true believers, have suffered horrible traumas. Plenty of people who leave have suffered minimal or negligible trauma. The idea of trying to pin OTD, in hindsight, on trauma is the worse use of the sharpshooter’s fallacy.

    • Adam Kenigsberg

      Trauma can also occur without any parent, teacher, or peer actively hurting the person. Struggling with mental illness, learning disabilities, any situation where the person feels separate from, or marginalized by, the community; it’s traumatic. It hurts. It can cause a deep desire to run away, to escape the pain.

      That has nothing to do with parenting, per se.

    • Shades of Gray

      “If parents are good parents for 5 kids and the sixth kid goes OTD, does that mean they somehow screwed up parenting that one kid?”

      Perhaps it’s not an issue of being a “bad parent”, so much as not being a perfect “shidduch” for the child, or key for the lock. In other words, parenting has an important effect as an OTD factor, according to this view, but it’s incorrect to blame parents for being imperfect. There could be multiple factors simultaneously, including the level of the child’s free will. The focus should indeed not be on hindsight, but on prevention. אל תדין את חברך עד שתגיע למקומו– regarding both children and their parents.

      From Rabbi Kelemen’s JA letter:

      “Rabbi Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin, a clinical psychologist with more than thirty years’ experience in the Orthodox community and author of The Role of Parents, wrote to me regarding the argument that it can’t be deficiencies in parenting that cause children to go off the derech when there are other siblings who are “perfectly frum and ehrlich”:

      If a car with four passengers was involved in an accident, one passenger was killed and the three others escaped injury, would this prove that it wasn’t the accident that killed the driver? In addition, our assumption that the other siblings [of an off-the-derech child] are doing fine can often be very inaccurate. I have often had lengthy discussions with highly functioning siblings of off-the-derech youth. They often point to significant issues in the family that contributed to the development of the problems of their wayward sibling (e.g., shalom bayis issues, overly critical parents, et cetera). I always make it a point to ask them how they managed to avoid being damaged by these family issues. The most frequent response is that they were impacted, just not in the obvious manner that is displayed by their wayward sibling”

      ———-

      From a section titled “Why only one sibling?” in “The Role of Parents in the Current Crisis of Rebellious Adolescents: Dare We Discuss It? Can We Afford Not To?”(available on Dr. Sorotzkin’s website):

      “The most common “evidence” cited to prove that parenting practices are not significant factors in causing adolescents to rebel, is that often only one of many siblings rebels. As one mechanech challenged me, “If the parents were cold and distant how did they manage to succeed with their other children?”

      The assumption that parents succeeded with their other children is often based on superficial criteria, for example, the fact that the other children didn’t rebel against yidishkeit. Often however, the other children have also been hurt, but in less obvious ways. Perhaps the other children lack self-confidence or suffer from low self-esteem. Sometimes some of the other children are quite depressed, but not to the point that it is obvious to other people. Even more misleading is when some of the other children become highly functioning perfectionists as a guilt-ridden reaction to constant criticism. What is clear is that one should not assume that the other children were not hurt based on superficial impressions. No one ever claimed that errors in parenting have to result in children going off the derech. It is only one of many possible negative consequences.

      Even if it were clear that, in a particular case, the parents were successful in raising their other children, what relevance would that have to the parents’ impact on one particular child’s life? There are cases of undisputed, serious parental abuse where some of the children seem to have survived without major psychological damage. Does that prove that the problems that the other children suffer from were not caused by the abuse? If four people are in a car accident, and one passenger gets hurt while the other three escape unscratched, does that prove that it couldn’t have been the accident that caused the injury?

      Parents never treat all their children identically (e.g., boys vs. girls, youngest vs. oldest, etc.) and there can be other external factors unique to one of the siblings (as noted above from Alice Miller) that may make him more immune to the negative impact of parental maltreatment. Likewise, parents sometimes learn from their mistakes with one of their children and therefore are more successful with other children. Based on informal surveys that I have conducted, for example, it seems that the vast majority of parents are significantly less strict with their later children than they were with their oldest children since they learn from experience that being overly rigid and strict is counterproductive. In such a situation, perhaps only the older child would develop a serious problem.”

  • MarkSoFla

    Objectively, I think the reason many people leave Judaism is the same as the reasons people leave other religions. The modern world is much more free with regard to choosing ones affiliations. It wasn’t always like that, if fact, it’s a very recent phenomenon. Up to a hundred or so years ago, you HAD TO be affiliated with one religion or another, there was no such thing as secularism. And up to a few hundred years ago, you had to be strongly affiliated, if you didn’t meet your religious obligations (whether it be attendance at services, tithing, or the generally required lip service), you were shunned (and you were shunned by everyone in your community, because there were no “separatists” from religion).

  • Jacob

    Many orthodox Jews wonder why all the Jews in the world don’t become religious. Its because they can’t! Not at the standards orthodoxy holds. I grew up in a secular house and spent thousands of hours of my adult life studying orthodoxy till I came to the conclusion it is insane. Rituals for this, rituals for that, wash your hands before touching bread or you’re a Rasha! Don’t burn your nails and you’re a Rasha. Don’t forget to pray after the bathroom or an angel will be created that will testify against you. Ridiculous beleifs in angels and demons and spirts (I thought Judaism was monotheism but there is way to much dualism that I encountered studying orthodoxy). Ridiculous beliefs that touching a women on her period makes you impure. Making women feel like dirt because there elbows aren’t covered half an inch more (they are going to gehonnom because of it). Thinking women who wear pants in their house are loose. Thinking that you can live in the world without working and just studying Torah all day(has it ever crossed their minds that people leave Judaism for financial reasons? HELLO). No individuality and lack of empathy, hate fostered more in my heart as I studied more orthodoxy and couldn’t even look at a women in the target checkout lane without thinking some nonsense that i’ll lose my eyesight young because of it. Truth is I feel like there was some error in the oral Torah and all these Chumrot and adding to the Torah everyday. Even when all the Jews in the world were religious there were still pogroms against us, . I love Hashem very much and am grateful for every moment. I just can’t live a ritualized life where I have to feel bad about everything I do. I wonder if orthodox jews honestly feel a connection to Hashem as they pray the same prayer 600000 times or just feel guilty. It is Hashem who makes you pure or impure not jumping in rain water and saying the same bracha 10 times a day! Judaism went wrong somewhere and I believe we will return to the true derech once Mosiach comes, but the Judaism we have today is narcissistic, OCD and involves shaming and really is not far off from Christianity in terms of dualism. I will put my faith in Hashem alone, not the power of stupid beliefs about cutting nails, angels, demons, and other superstitions.

  • d123

    test

  • d12345

    I spent my entire childhood and teenage years being an orthodox jew (and a very good one at that … best yeshivos etc).
    The reason i left is because I believe as the sky is blue that orthodox judaism does not represent god’s will for planet earth and his creations on this planet. Another words, it is a house of lies.
    I have 100s of examples of why orthodox judaism is false but i’m not going to waste my time listing them. My classmates growing up use to copy off me for gemarah class and are now actual orthodox rabbis. So I know a LOT … probably more than most of you … but the more I learned the more i realized its false.
    What tipped me over the edge was I got a job teaching mishna to high school students in a orthodox yeshiva. The students asked me very intellegent questions which cannot be answered. Growing up, i use to ask the same questions and was told “you will figure it out when you are older”… the problem is that I was older and i still didnt know the answers. Why? Because orthodox judaism is built on a house of lies…. it just is….
    You can all keep being orthodox and i’m sure there will be many other generations to follow who make the same mistakes you do… just like there will be many mormons, and jihadists in future generations (and other misguided souls). They will have their Kelemens who will convince you that its all good. 50% will leave but you will prop up the numbers with high birth rates…
    you will make up reasons why everyone else is wrong …
    your israeli friends will suck govt tax dollars to fund their unsustianable lifestyles …
    and when you die… go to heaven .. and you will realize … it was all false.
    you are a very sad bunch

    • Aviva

      So you believe that there is a god but don’t believe in matan torah?