Defining Our Own Derech

Below is my response to a reader’s email previously posted here.

Dear Burnt Out BT Baal Habayis,

You write, “No experience is perfect, however, I am no longer seeing the frum way of life as better than the way I grew up.”

Your observation is a classic baal teshuvah revelation. There is always a point when someone who has adopted an orthodox Jewish lifestyle takes stock of their situation and realizes that the frum community is merely a microcosm of larger society. Any issue under the sun that plagues general society, also plagues frum society, despite the kiruv hype that says otherwise upon our entry.

Additionally, we know firsthand that the scare tactics used to keep FFB (frum from birth) folks on the derech (the secular world is a den of debauchery, depravity, immorality, crime, violence, drugs, and spiritual death) is propaganda. Many of us grew up in “frei” homes, but were still taught right from wrong. Our secular Jewish parents were still able to impart a belief in Hashem and Jewish pride, even if daily rituals and mitzvot such as kosher, Shabbos, and mikvah weren’t on the agenda.

Many BTs had a happy childhood and currently have secular relatives who lead happy, productive, and successful lives. Many of us were privileged to grow up in families where lifelong marriages were the norm and children were able to avoid the pitfalls of drug/alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, or succumbing to school dropout statistics.

When the BT honeymoon phase is long over and the rose colored glasses come off, sometimes it’s easy to look at the troubles in our lives and wonder why we ever believed that becoming orthodox would prevent problems. Part of the issue is romanticizing our past. For example, in a 2008 post on this phenomenon, I wrote –

“You are frum and you are unhappy. When you weren’t frum you were happy. You have frum friends and you know that they are unhappy. You have non-frum friends/relatives and they seem happy. Never mind that before you were frum you were young and single with no kids or responsibilities. Never mind that you haven’t had anything but a surface conversation with your sister in 10 years, while you and your frum best friend speak every day and she feels close enough to confide her troubles. Nevertheless, the issue becomes simple in your mind. If you stop being frum you will become happy again.”

This outlook simplifies a complex situation. Even if you and your wife hadn’t become frum, there is no guarantee that pressures of life and increased family responsibilities would be any less stressful. Some of the challenges you currently face, such as parenting an autistic child, would still be challenges – even if sending her to public school was never in question. Non-frum Jews are also not immune to financial problems, especially in our current economy, where downsizing and layoffs run rampant in practically every job sector.

However, the other aggravating issue is that BTs are given a set of unrealistic expectations during the kiruv process. We are sold a bill of goods that by living according to Torah ideals, we will be protected from the pitfalls of life. Even if we do encounter such pitfalls, our emunah will carry us through to survive any rough patch we might encounter.

We are in control of our ability to cope based on our own level of bitachon. Those who are bathed in the religious ecstasy of the true believer will not succumb to despair or depression over their trials. The closer you come to Hashem, the closer He comes to you. The farther you wander away from Hashem, the farther He wanders away from you. The level of blessing and mazel in our lives is entirely our own doing. This concept that we can control the uncontrollable through our level of religious dedication can be disheartening when we are in the throes of a crisis.

When I was in public high school, some of my friends and I had an inspirational saying that we would utter whenever anything disappointing happened, “Life sucks and then you die.” For some reason, that gloomy quote would throw us into fits of giggles, which would distract us, at least momentarily, from our pain. At the end of the day, however, it’s kind of true – in the sense that even frum philosophers write books trying to explain why bad things happen to good people. In the end, only Hashem knows the master plan and we can’t hope to decipher whatever heavenly design requires children to die of horrible diseases, make senseless accidents happen, or causes people to become victims of random violence.

Being frum enables us to believe that there is a master puppeteer pulling the strings for the greater good, but it doesn’t guarantee that bad things won’t happen. Being frum also doesn’t guarantee that when bad things do happen, the community will necessarily have the best resources to cope with such challenges. Again, this isn’t how the orthodox community is marketed during outreach.

Depending upon who you ask, you will hear a wide range of opinions on the orthodox community’s willingness and ability to rally around a family in crisis. What I have discovered, is that the community has pet causes it feels more comfortable rallying around than others.

For example, ask any frum family who has a child with a chronic or critical health issue about communal support. Most orthodox families in that predicament are involved with Chai Lifeline and will tell you that the community is awesome. Ask a family who has a child with Down’s syndrome if the community offers support and they will sing the praises of organizations such as Yachad, whose purpose is to better the quality of life for families struggling with such a scenario.

However, there are other causes that don’t get as much public support. Families who have kids with severe mental health issues will mostly say that communal and financial support is virtually non-existent. Families who struggle with drug addiction don’t merit widespread tzedaka campaigns. Special education for kids who “can pass” in the mainstream classroom, but struggle to keep up, don’t attract many big donors. Families who have children that run away and have behavioral/discipline issues also struggle without formal charities to provide counselling and assistance, particularly outside of the New York area. The community will rally around certain socially acceptable challenges – others not so much.

Things are definitely changing. There are organizations popping up to help victims of abuse, help for agunot, and for divorced mothers. Positive changes are happening, albeit slowly. Social media has brought a lot of hidden issues to the forefront. The formerly frum, chained women fighting for their freedom, abuse survivors, those who struggle with mental illness, are all speaking out about unaddressed problems in orthodox society. The more we speak about these types of issues, the more the stigma and secrecy surrounding social ills starts to vanish.

I believe there are many people in the community who are as disenchanted as you and your wife. However, people are afraid to speak out lest they be labelled “at risk” and become ostracized. It’s fascinating to me that so many people will express their discontent off the record (at shul kiddush, the shabbos table, during informal conversations). However, in public, they would never dare say they disagree with the community leadership or status quo. Really, most folks are no different than the ones who vocally express dissent – it’s just that their silence connotes acquiescence.

Most community members don’t realize how often they complain. The difference is that most are complainers who have no intention of making a change – they are content to just complain but still feel powerless to do anything different. BTs have experienced another way of life and can more easily transition back to their former mode of existence. Yet, people are still shocked when families go OTD (off the derech), despite the fact that they themselves might have been bitterly bad mouthing the system the day before – and added to the negative atmosphere.

A commenter called, Shmilda, raised a common solution that many dissuaded frum folks turn to, in response to your letter:

“Growing up outside the community, you can probably well appreciate the positives of a tight knit community with high shul attendance. Hang out on the fringes of it, ignore the yentas, and educate your kids as is best for them – but don’t abandon it.”

Hanging out on the fringes to regroup is a common strategy for some people. Sometimes temporarily withdrawing from the larger community is necessary to take stock of what is making you unhappy and what can be done to make things better. People retreat to the fringes to varying degrees. For some, it might mean cutting back on organizational involvement, PTA activities, taking a leave from shul boards, or lessening contact with community members who are being judgmental. For others, it might mean a more complete withdrawal, confining their observance to their home and family, until they are emotionally ready to reengage.

One of the benefits of hanging out on the fringes is that it allows for observation from the sidelines. This observation can be useful because it allows families to shop around for a different communal niche. That might mean changing the shul they belong to; trying out different minyans until they find a spiritual base that’s a better fit. Along with that, maybe the rabbi they have been affiliated with just isn’t the right fit – finding a rabbi isn’t just about hashkafah and halachic knowledge – there is also the personality factor. Sometimes people just don’t click. It’s important to find a spiritual leader to respect and relate to. Another strategy for change might be interviewing and enrolling at different day schools. Still another option could be moving to a different community – which might mean a move across town, across country, or across continents.

The bottom line, as another commenter, Apikorus al ha’esh said, is to “Define your own derech.” Part of becoming a baal teshuvah, for many of us, was to be told that we were ignorant of how Hashem wants us to live our lives because we never learned Torah. We were told that our instincts and knowledge that had served us well until becoming frum, were not to be trusted anymore. What is discovered through years of living in the frum community, is that community values don’t necessarily equal Torah values.

It’s important not to abandon common sense and the lessons learned by experience, parents, and even secular teachers. For example, you know that your children have special needs that can only be met by the public school system. As such, you must trust your experience and instincts, even if they go against communal norms and expectations, and enroll them in the school that best meets their requirements.

I believe that, as baal teshuvas, we have the ability to create derechs that combine the best of both the secular and frum worlds, even if those innovations rankle those who follow the crowd.  It takes koach and courage to buck the system, but BTs have already been there, done that.  By bucking the secular system and joining orthodoxy, we have already proven ourselves willing to go against the grain. We have the ability to enact social change, and while that might make us dangerous to some, it also makes us pioneers to others.

From the Mailbox – Long Time Baal Teshuvas Rethink Their Level of Observance

Below is a message I received from a reader about being a long time BT who is rethinking his commitment to the frum community.  He brings up many different issues, but one main struggle is his disillusionment with Jewish day schools and their stigmatization of kids with special needs.  He has also learned through hard experience, that sometimes when impressionable young people make drastic lifestyle changes, they might wind up regretting those youthful decisions later in life.  I wrote my response in a separate post, but please feel free to share your thoughts with “Burnt Out BT Baal Habayis” in the comments.

Dear Sharon,

My wife and I are BTs that currently are going through the feeling that being fully frum is not for us. We originally were mekareved separately and then together after we got married about 12 years ago. We have three kids, one with developmental issues, and the others where the really frum day schools just did not work out for us. We home schooled for a year and now one child is starting regular public school, one is currently in a public school special needs class, and one will remain homeschooling for the time-being.

I am writing you, because as my wife and I have gone through this phase where we are trying to “shift our observance” in light of so many issues, I am curious to know where you stand on how a frum BT should be. I really enjoy your articles.

It is bizarre, because I am not truly bitter per say, I have many friends very frum, still view the Torah as from Hashem, etc, etc, However, for my wife and I both, being frum while our entire family is not, while all of our memories as children in the “frie” world were not bad, but rather good and we were supported….all of those memories are taught as the yetzer hara. No experience is perfect, however, I am no longer seeing the frum way of life as better than the way I grew up.

For example, with our daughter who has high function autism, the public school system has embraced her with all the help she needs. According to the board of education….in Monsey, NY of all places….there are so many non-judgmental resources to help her maintain stability and regulation. The public school where her class will be goes out of their way to treat these kids with a sense of open mindedness and non-judgment.

At the same time, the Jewish schools we have dealt with have serious judgment, zero skills, and basically a 19th Century approach to a real issue…autism/Asperger spectrum and judging the family as a nebech case as opposed to someone with potential…and by default judging the whole family in that same manner.

I guess the reason I am not bitter is because I know this community is not perfect. The problem I have is signing on to the idea that the frum way is “the way” while public school is “yetzer hara.”

When I think of the Jewish school approach, which according to my mekaruvim is supposed to be EMES and the blessing of Hashem, as opposed to all the resources that the public school offers including NOT judging my daughter and even accommodating kosher food for programs in class, being viewed by the frum world as sheker and the yetzer hara stealing you away to an evil place, it is so hard for me to stay fully frum.

The menhal of my daughter’s former school viewed my daughter as someone “with baggage.” When she was pulled out of school on medical leave….it took the principal a whole month to respond while very concerned about the check he would receive. I have heard so many times that “you can’t judge based on a bad experience” or “don’t let one bad apple ruin Halacha.” Part of me feels that this is an extremely invalid excuse.

It is not that I am necessarily bitter….it is just that I have a hard time taking on this new extremely rigid view of the world when the board of education meeting, in Monsey of all places, brought a sense of comfort, a sense of relief, whereas the idea of walking into a girl’s Jewish school gives me major anxiety.

Another issue is that MOST PEOPLE are so bitter towards these schools for tuition and terrible educational standards, abusive rebbes, etc. Growing up, I would not say I loved public school, and my parents had specific issues from time to time with a teacher, an assignment, etc. HOWEVER, in my growing up my town and therefore my community was NOT SO BITTER DAY IN AND DAY OUT ABOUT how much school sucked. And then at the same time I was not receiving the conflicting message and principle….yes it sucks, but is the emes of Hashem.

Additionally, my daughter is not just isolated from school, the kids from shul think she is weird, etc. At the psychiatrist’s advice we let her dress how she wants and then we hear from people in the community, “Did you ask a Rav?” It is so frustrating when dealing with someone with real serious issues and everyone is like, “Did you ask a Rav?” I mean…seriously most Rav’s have no tolerance for this and most people wouldn’t accept the Rav we use because he is Modern Orthodox which I will hear about later.

The isolation continues on in the summer camps. My daughter was in camp four days and acted out and had to go home.

I think on that note, as my wife and I did not have formal Torah learning, or any family, and now realize that a lot of the basic mitzvot we took on was not out of love of being a BT, but subconscious pressure, it makes it hard, as for all my issues growing up, this was not anything we experienced at all.

Finally, I don’t know if this can be connected, but it probably can….the BT community advertises itself and the BT rabbis as a “support system.” I am not sure if this is the best word for it. For example, I go to therapy. The therapist hears me out, does not judge, and tries to help in a non-threatening way and, at the very least, show empathy.

One thing we have noticed is that this type of empathy is often missing in the community. For example, let’s say we are going to an intermarriage because our entire family is not religious. Instead of getting true support and understanding of the situation, the main thing we see happen is people say, “What do you mean you are going? You are a BT. You represent Torah and Hashem to your family, By going you will be putting an OU hechsher on the wedding and it will be as if you married them yourselves.”

This type of talk happens with the decision about day school. Instead of support we get, “But….what are you going to do…you are obligated, etc, etc.” This is followed up by someone pointing out how our daughter did something in our house to break shabbos and the cycle continues.

It does sound like I am bitter, but I am more burnt out, and more simply feeling in tune with how things were prior, however, with more of a desire to be somewhat observant.  I don’t want to come across as someone angry, but rather as someone who feels that I simply don’t see the point when the frum options seem so bad for my kids school wise.

I think the frum option I see as so bad is not just that the schools are bad, but that people are pushing to put people in schools they hate, throw disabilities aside for the sake of the school they hate, all because this is supposed to be the correct method of Jewish living.

As an aside, although we have three kids, the issues with the one with special needs obviously affects the other two majorly as well.

My wife and I are burnt out, not so into being “frum,” but very Jewishly connected. We keep kosher, still do mikvah, and for the most part keep Shabbat. We have no issues with Hashem running the world, but simply don’t connect with the frum way of doing things….after so many years of trying to “feel the passion” we felt for the first few months or maybe a few years at most when we started…..we now feel we simply connect more with our former life, while still viewing the Torah as originating from Hashem.

In any event, thank you for posting the articles you do. I was curious if you know of any resources for couples with kids who are rethinking this lifestyle we took on when we were so young and innocent, but now are rethinking?

Thank you for your patience in my long email.

Sincerely,

Burnt Out BT Baal Habayis

Kicked out of the club: when special needs families aren’t welcome in Jewish day schools

I received a long message today that included many important subjects.  The message is posted on my blog here.  However, one very important issue that was raised had to do with students who require extra assistance in the classroom, either academically or behaviorally, within Jewish day schools. Having a special needs child can have a tremendous impact on a family’s level of satisfaction within the frum community.  The amount of support or lack thereof that such a family receives can even play a role in sending a family off the derech, or keeping them committed to yiddishkeit.

Parents who have children struggling within the day school system face a unique conundrum. Many day schools don’t have the resources, nor the desire to have the resources, to deal with students who have special needs. Most day school classrooms are designed to educate the average student, and if a child doesn’t fit into the average category in either direction, their family will be faced with the dilemma of whether to continue their enrollment in the day school system. Sometimes that decision is made for the family by the school – particularly if there are behavioral issues that cause disruption in class.

It might seem an easy decision to remove a floundering child from the private school setting and place them in public school, where not only is the education free, but there are usually more special education resources on offer. However, the stigma of having a child attend public school, a fate which most families impoverish themselves through tuition to avoid, keeps many families from making such a choice. Most families would rather have a child in a Jewish school that’s a bad fit, than in a public school that’s educationally a good one.

My husband and I were faced with this issue several years ago – to the point where my child needed to leave his day school for one year to enroll in a behavioral program. There was no guarantee he was going to be let back into his original school. That was a year of extreme anxiety. Not knowing if we would have a Jewish day school spot for him after his behavioral program ended caused many sleepless nights.

While that year had a tremendous benefit for him, I have to say that the experience of facing a row of closed doors for fall acceptance in the day schools had a major negative impact on me. Even though in the end, he was allowed back into his original school with aides and through the school’s special education department (BH, he has been mainstreamed in the regular school program with no aides for several years now), those sleepless nights and the hoops we had to jump through for him to have a place in the Jewish educational system were an eye opener.

For both students and parents – having a child that doesn’t fall within the range of average (at either end of the spectrum – truly gifted beyond the norm or one who falls below the spectrum) there are no options. If a child doesn’t fall in line with the program, there is no place for them nor for their parents.  I have had friends who had to pull their kids out and put them in public school or secular private schools that cater to special needs. Not only does it become a challenge for their kids to maintain their friendships in the frum community – but it also can become socially isolating for the parents – especially if they only have one child.

Day schools keep social ties going strong for both parents and children. When your child has to leave the system, families lose those social connections and have to find other avenues to maintain ties – shul, outside charitable organizations, extending lots of invites for shabbos and yom tov – but they no longer have a natural and consistent avenue for meeting and seeing frum families on a daily basis. 

When these families are around a group of day school families, it’s akin to a single in a group of marrieds, or a childless couple in a group of families – meaning that people tend to talk a lot about their kid’s schools, teachers, and events. If a family isn’t part of a Jewish day school, they are absent from a key social hub of the frum community during their children’s educational years.

Even on a lesser scale, for example, there are some friends I used to be close with before we all had children.  After our kids were born, we chose different day schools for them and, as a result, we aren’t as close anymore. This is due to many years of having our kids go to different schools and making a different set of friends.  It’s not a conscious decision to drift away from friends who send their children to different schools, it’s just that life is hectic, and unless you are put in a situation where you naturally see people at carpool, school events, or your kids having play dates, it’s easy to lose touch.

The message I received this morning brought me back to the time when my son’s school acceptance was down to the wire, and I didn’t know if we would have to make the difficult decision of enrolling him in public school (in his case, I knew he could make it in day school with assistance; if I had ever doubted that I would have enrolled him in public school). For all the parents out there who are making last minute decisions, or who have their special needs/behavioral needs children enrolled in a school that they are unsure of, as long as you do what’s best for your child, you are doing the right thing. Pulling your child from day school comes with sacrifices, but sending your special needs child to day school often also comes with sacrifices. I wish all such families strength and a fantastic upcoming school year.

Shidduch crisis or women’s liberation?

mishpachaChart from Mishpacha Magazine

I’ve just read yet another article about the tragic shidduch crisis plaguing the charedi community. In Mishpacha Magazine, Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz laments that out of one 2011 bais yakov graduating class:

“seventy-two shining faces, and today, out of all of them — ranging in age from 21 to 22 — only 13 replaced those caps with sheitels. No, that wasn’t a typo! Only 13 out of 72 girls are engaged or married!”

He goes on to cry:

“..every day, more bnos Yisrael become destined to remain single. Single forever! No husband, no children… ever! Is this a life worth living? “What is my purpose on this world?” “There must be something terribly wrong with me…” These sentiments are reborn with them every morning from the moment they awaken. This is not something a girl can get used to. How can their parents possibly watch this consistently, without falling apart mentally and physically, feeling they failed in their innate responsibility to protect their children? How many girls cry themselves to sleep every night? How many girls get to the point where only therapy or other means can get them through the day, as they live in a depression, losing all self-worth and confidence, when in fact it’s the current system we have in place that is defunct?”

Hold your horses! I have absolutely no doubt that in a world where girls are told that their only tafkid in life is to be a wife and mother, being single is a tragedy. I have no doubt that there are girls who cry themselves to sleep every night because they thought that they would have traded in their graduation caps for sheitels shortly upon completing their educations.

HOWEVER –

Part of this so-called shidduch crisis is by design. Not by the design of evil shadchans, not by the design of the age gap between boys and the younger girls they choose to marry, and not by the design of a community who doesn’t organize round-the-clock tehillim sessions until this problem is resolved.

Women are taking themselves out of the shidduch parsha post high school. That’s right, although they realize that they are taking a risk of not finding a partner when they finally are ready to focus on dating and marriage, more charedi women are putting an emphasis on education and self-actualization before settling down into marriage.

Sorry, but the age gap explanation only goes so far. What is a crisis to some, isn’t a crisis to all. Women are starting to wait later for marriage, and taking time for independent self-improvement and self-discovery before they get married. This is scaring the daylights out of charedi orthodox leaders who fear that women who put off marriage for education, travel, or working and living independently, will leave the orthodox fold. So instead of admitting that some girls are deciding to put off marriage, they are fanning the flames of the shidduch crisis propaganda – citing girls who cry themselves to sleep every night and parents who do the same because their daughters remain “spinsters.”

The reality is that these spinsters are living out their youth with a freedom that their charedi predecessors never had. Unburdened by husbands, pregnancies, and babies, these women are free to travel the world, try out new communities, live on their own or with other young single roommates, go to college anywhere they choose and also pursue advanced degrees, etc. This does not bode well for the future of charedi Judaism. Therefore, the image of the sad, pathetic, and in-need-of-therapy single woman is the image that is being portrayed. In fact, single women are told that this should be their natural response to their lone status – any other response, is quite frankly, unnatural.

I think those studying the shidduch crisis need to take another look at their statistics. It isn’t a crisis if the players involved want to stay single.

What is the real purpose for sending girls to post high school Israeli seminaries?

Some of the wording in the Meisels class action lawsuit to recoup tuition and deposit fees stood out at me:

34. The role of the seminary is particularly important for Orthodox Jewish girls because it profoundly shapes and influences their marriage prospects within a quasi arranged marriage system known as the Shidduch (translated literally as Introduction) system.
35. This influence is so important that it causes Orthodox Jewish parents to save money for years in hopes of being able to afford the annual tuition that regularly exceeds twenty thousand dollars ($20,000.00). In the case of Defendant Binas Bais
Yaakov Seminary, tuition for the 2014-2015 academic year was twenty one thousand five hundred dollars ($21,500.00). The other seminaries discussed herein had similar tuition rates.
47. Moreover, upon information and belief, Defendant Meisels would threaten his victims that if they shared their story with anyone, he would draw on his vast contacts within the Shidduch system to ruin their reputations and ensure that no
viable candidate would want to take their hand in marriage.

I don’t have a girl in the seminary “parsha” yet, but I do have a boy who is going to an Israeli yeshiva in 2 weeks. The decision about where to send him had everything to do with the level of Torah learning at the school, the hashkafic outlook, plus the warmth and inclusiveness of the rabbaim, students, and surrounding community.

We started seriously thinking about which yeshiva would be best for our son during his junior year of high school. We started contacting yeshivot and arranging interviews for our son during his senior year. While there were other factors to consider besides the three main conditions I listed above, one thing I can say with certainty is that which school would look best on his shidduch resume never once factored into our decision. In speaking extensively with other parents who were also deciding where their sons would be going, none of them ever expressed that shidduch considerations were a factor in their decisions either.

I always thought that the seminary year for girls worked the same way that it did for boys. Seminary is a time to engage in higher learning Torah studies, a chance to immerse in the land and culture of Israel, and an opportunity for independence and self discovery. I had no idea that the main purpose for seminary was to be able to tick off an item on a shidduch resume checklist.  Even reading this excerpt from the Pninim Seminary acceptance letter gives me pause:

We are proud to welcome you to this class and are confident that the year spent with us will be one of growth and fulfillment as you join with the finest Daughters of Israel (translated from Hebrew) to create goals and memories for years to come. Your choice of our seminary ensures staff as you prepare to build homes and lives that reflect the centrality of Torah.

Is there any mention of rigorous academic studies and in-depth learning? Are these seminaries merely home economics courses taught thousands of miles away at 21K a pop?

I also was interested to note the dress code published for prospective students:

43. Another example is the strict dress code that was published to prospective students via email on or around April 9, 2014. This dress code included bans on “tight fitting clothing,” denim fabric, pants of any kind, and of skirts that were below a certain length. The dress code also required students to “dress in a modest and conservative manner, and [to] present a refined appearance.

I found it ironic that the girls’ seminaries place such an emphasis on the dress code, while we are shopping for my son to go to Israel in two weeks, and still haven’t received a dress code standard from his school (not that I’m complaining, but it seems there isn’t one).

I am wondering what the purpose for sending girls to seminary in Israel is, besides for shidduch purposes? Is there any real learning going on in these schools? Is there a point to placing our daughters in a potential safety risk far from home, spending over $20,000, and having them come away with little more Torah learning than they arrived with?