Parenting

Why Are Our Teens Going Off the Derech?

October 19, 2012

King Solomon stated in his wisdom: “Two are better than one, for they get a greater return for their effort.” But three are even better, “for the three-ply cord is not easily severed” (Kohelet 4:9,12). The Midrash (Kohelet Raba 4) interprets this as applicable to family continuity: “R. Zi’era said that a family of scholars will produce scholars, and a family of Bnai Torah (“children of Torah”) will produce Bnai Torah, and wealth will beget wealth, ‘for the three-ply cord is not easily severed.’” One sage asked: didn’t a well known family lose their wealth? To which R. Zi’era responded: “Did I say ‘the three-ply cord is never severed?’ I said, ‘for the three-ply cord is not easily severed.’”

But why should a three-ply cord – tough and durable – ever be severed?

A new unpublished study recently brought to my attention has challenging implications for the Torah world – to wit, that a substantial number of graduates of Modern Orthodox high schools are no longer Shabbat- or kashrut- observant within two years of their graduation.

Another study from last year reported the not-quite-shocking news that 25% of those graduates who attend secular colleges assimilate during college and completely abandon Torah and mitzvot (Jewish law).

Those are frightening statistics that should cause us all to shudder. Perhaps the numbers are less dire than they seem on the surface. For sure, a not-insignificant percentage of students enter those high schools already lacking in Shabbat observance – their families are not observant – and they leave the same way. Other teens already fall off the derech (Orthodox “path”) while in high school – a more exacting study would measure their observance level at graduation and then two years later. But, undoubtedly, many slide off the path of Torah as soon as they gain a modicum of autonomy. Just as certain, there are some who return to Torah years later as well.

What are we missing? What are we lacking? What are we failing to provide them after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per child on their Jewish education? What is going wrong? And how can it be rectified?

It needs to be stated that parents who look to blame the schools, the shuls, the youth groups, the rabbis, the teachers, and/or the greater community are looking in the wrong place. They should start by looking in the mirror. That should be obvious, because parents have the primary obligation of educating their children – “You shall teach [these words] to your children to speak of them…” (Devarim 11:19). Even if parents delegate this task, they still remain primarily responsible.

And of course, the general disclaimer always pertains in these matters: there are perfect parents whose kids go off the derech and horrendous parents (absolute scoundrels) whose children are righteous and scholarly. Even such illustrious people as Yitzchak and Rivka produced one of each – a tzaddik (righteous individual) and a scoundrel. There is no panacea, and we can only talk about the majority. There will always be exceptions.

To me, it all goes back to basics – not just what the parents say, but what parents say and do. The “chut hameshulash” – the “three-ply cord” of our world – is Torah study, prayer and Shabbat – and in no particular order.

Children who see their parents prioritize shul – not once or twice a week, but every day – see shul as a value. Children who see their parents attend shul once a week and primarily socialize and converse while there see shul as a place to meet their friends. When older, they can just bypass the middleman and go straight to their friends.

Similarly, children who see parents learning Torah during their leisure time perceive learning as a value. Children whose Shabbat is different than the other days of the week – the Shabbat table is different, the conversation is laden with talk of Torah, ideas, values, and zemirot (hymns) instead of idle chitchat, sports, and gossip – experience a different Shabbat. It’s just a different day. When Shabbat is not observed as a different day, it stops being a different day.

I have noticed that there are teens who simply do not daven (pray) – they will converse the whole time – and invariably they are the children of fathers who themselves don’t stop talking in shul. Children who roam the halls of the synagogue Shabbat morning are invariably the offspring of parents who roam the halls. Like father, like son.

And something else: too many teenagers have absolutely no concept of bigdei Shabbat – the obligation to wear special clothing on Shabbat. I am not even referring to wearing ties and jackets, although that is clearly perceived as dignified dress in America. Many teens come to shul dressed in weekday clothing, even on the lower end of what might be called “school casual.”

How do parents not impress upon their children from their earliest youth with the idea of Shabbat clothing? That is part of what makes Shabbat different. Every child – girl or boy – should have clothing specially designated for Shabbat, ideally a jacket and tie for boys and a nice dress for girls.

At age five, I put on a suit and tie for Shabbat, and never looked back. How are children allowed to leave the house on Shabbat as if it is a Sunday – whether it is to attend shul in the morning or meet their friends in the afternoon?

Are we then surprised when Shabbat for them becomes “not Shabbat”? Their whole experience of Shabbat is being told what they can’t do, incarcerated for two hours in the morning in a place where they don’t want to be, to then eat a meal that might be devoid of spiritual substance, the day salvaged only when they meet their friends who have had similar experiences.

But if Shabbat is not a different day, then apparently the moment the child gains his independence, or a moment or two after that, his Shabbat becomes Saturday, which, combined with Sunday and Friday night, makes for a long, fun and enjoyable weekend. The 15-year-old who walks around the streets Shabbat afternoon in shorts and sneakers will likely not be observing Shabbat when he is 20. But no one will make the connection then – so make it now.

“For the three-ply cord is not easily severed.” The three-ply cord of Torah, tefilah (prayer) and Shabbat is not easily undone. The survey is not as surprising as is the persistent reluctance to draw the obvious conclusions. Instead we cast a wide net looking for the suspects. George Orwell famously wrote that “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”

The good news is that we need not look very far for solutions. If the parent wants the child to learn Torah, then the parent should learn Torah. If the parent wants the child to daven , then the parent should daven. If the parent wants the child to enjoy Shabbat as a holy, special day, then the parent should make Shabbat into a holy, special day.

Perhaps there is an even more important idea. The Midrash (ibid) also states: “Two are better than one – that is, a man and his wife who are better than each alone, but the ‘third cord’ (that fortifies the first two) is G-d who provides them with children.”

Parents have to convey to their children beginning in infancy a sense of G-d’s immanence, a sense of the godly in life, and a Jewish identity that is rooted in the Torah that Moshe commanded us. From day one, it should be inculcated in our children that what they do matters before G-d, and that mitzvot are not just performances but points of connection to the Creator.

Anything can happen. There are no guarantees in life, and each person is endowed with free choice. But when parents enlist G-d in their parenting – not as the Source of All Guilt and Dire Punishment, but as the Source of “the Heritage of the Congregation of Yaakov” – then there’s a three-ply cord. And “the three-ply cord is not easily severed.”

What we want for our children, our greatest priority – is the summation of our lives: not that they should necessarily attend Columbia, Harvard or Yale, or become doctors, lawyers, rabbis, or businessmen, but rather “the sum of the matter, when all has been considered, is to fear G-d and keep His commandments…” (Kohelet 12:13).

When we speak with pride not of, “My son, the doctor,” or, “My daughter, the lawyer,” but find our true pride in, “My son, the G-d-fearing Jew” and, “My daughter the shomeret (observer of) mitzvot,” then we and they will be prepared for the great era ahead, when G-d’s name will be made great and exalted before the nations.

 

Read what OU President Dr. Simcha Katz says about this topic at Jewish ActionTouching Our Teens’ Neshamos.

Read what Jack Lew tells group of Jewish teens about their religion.

 

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey. He is a member of the New York and Federal Bars and is a trustee of the RCA on the Board of the Beth Din of America, as well as a dayan on the Beth Din itself. He also is a member of the Rabbinical Alliance of America.