At first glance, I was pleased to see an article by Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen entitled “Why Are So Many Kids Off the Derech?” (summer 2013). An examination of possible risk factors is always important so that we can continue to address and prevent these problems. After reading the article, however, I wonder whether Rabbi Kelemen realizes that this “mageifah” is happening next door; that his friends, relatives and fellow mispallelim—the normal, happy, well-balanced people he deals with every day—are the parents who have kids who are off the derech. They are the parents he would like to lump together as being responsible, beyond the 40 percent of kids from divorced homes, for the rest of our “off–the-derech” children. He has painted us all very neatly with one huge brush: “the other 60 percent [of kids who are off the derech] come from homes where the parents are still married, but the marriage is not flourishing—at least not by the Torah’s standards.”
Certainly a hypercritical and angry home environment is a major risk factor only secondary to shalom bayisissues. But if, as Rabbi Kelemen concludes, every child who goes off the derech is a direct result of the parents’ fundamental selfishness and lack of shalom bayis, what about the parents who don’t fit that bill?
There is no simple answer, no simple explanation. It is easier to grossly oversimplify the issue. However, many wise rabbanim and askanim have come to the realization that it is a convergence of factors that leads our children astray: learning issues, social issues, abuse, deprivation, negativity, technology, lack of emunahand many more. We must be aware and proactive. But we must also remember that Hashem has given each child a unique personality that might make it difficult for some of them to handle the stress of growing up in today’s world, even if they don’t fall into a risk category.
As Rabbi Kelemen writes, if a child goes off the derech, “parents have to admit the possibility that mistakes may have been made at home . . . approach our . . . experts and humbly accept advice and direction.” It is crucial for every parent to admit that he makes mistakes while raising his children. All of us can point to at least one of our healthy frum grown children and reflect on mistakes we made in raising them as well.
I suggest that Rabbi Kelemen read a recent article by Rabbi Yaakov Bender, rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway, New York, where he states that “there is absolutely no rhyme or reason for children going off the derech . . . Certainly there are . . . homes that are more likely to develop children with issues . . . but how can we say that chinuch is at fault when those same parents have raised several other children who grew up perfectly frum and ehrlich? . . . implying that any child is a rasha is simply unfair . . . to further imply that parents are to blame is even more unfair.”
We, as parents of children who have left the derech, do enough soul searching and blaming of ourselves; we certainly are not helped by reading articles telling us that it’s our fault because of shalom bayis issues that we don’t have. While discussing the issue is crucial, yet another parent-bashing article is totally uncalled for and hurtful.
Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen Responds
Guilt breeds low self-esteem and despair, and corrodes the confidence that is prerequisite to admitting mistakes. Guilt does this to children as well as to parents. Therefore, we try to avoid making children and parents feel excessively guilty over their mistakes.
Rabbi Yaakov Bender is a master educator. He sets a sterling example for us all in how to help parents and children admit mistakes. He opened a recent public presentation on the topic of “at-risk teens” with his well-known caveat: “There is no rhyme or reason why children go off the derech.” He then spent almost an hour presenting twenty-four parental mistakes, all expressions of egoism and selfishness, that heighten the risk of a child abandoning Torah. He said he only got halfway through his list of parental “no-no’s” before time ran out. Then he concluded by decrying Jewish guilt: “Never blame yourself.” Rabbi Bender understood that those who possessed sufficient confidence to admit mistakes and do teshuvah would hear all fifty-eight minutes of his warnings, and those who weren’t prepared to confront that painful reality would hear only the first and last minutes of his talk: “There is no rhyme and reason . . . . Never blame yourself.”
Had I said that parental errors play a role in only 85 percent of the cases, I would have left room for any parent of an off-the-derech child to include his child in the inexplicable 15 percent and say parental errors played no role in his child’s defection from Judaism. The idea that there is no rhyme, reason or responsibility when children go off the derech is the popular position, and I wondered if I should have stated that in my article just to ease some parents’ anguish. I confessed this regret to friends and colleagues, some of whom agreed that sometimes we need to blur issues to prevent pain and some of whom disagreed vehemently.
Professor Faranak Margolese, the great-granddaughter of the former chief rabbi of Tehran and author of Off the Derech: Why Observant Jews Stop Practicing Judaism, wrote to me, “There is very much a rhyme and reason. I think the reasons are abundantly clear.” She offered to send a free copy of her bestseller to anyone.
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.
Dr. Sorotzkin also wrote that just as we must be sensitive to the pain of parents of rebellious youths, so too we must be sensitive to the feelings (and sanity) of the rebellious youths themselves. If parents made terrible errors, it is cruel and psychologically destructive to tell the children that their homes were perfectly normal and it is they who are entirely to blame for their rebelliousness.
There certainly are exceptions—children who are blown off course by traumatic experiences outside the home—but even in these cases, a good marriage and proper parenting give children spiritual resilience and facilitate quick recovery. And before any parents can affirm with confidence that they played no role in their child’s spiritual crisis, they must honestly confront statements like this one from Rav Chaim Kanievsky (Orchos Yosher, p. 38):
If a child’s father and mother disagreed in matters . . . and the child saw or heard his parents’ arguments and fights, then the child cannot be punished as a ben sorer u’moreh (wayward child), for it is not the child who sinned.
Rav Kanievsky explains that by fighting in front of their child, the parents deprived their child of free will and drove him off the derech, and therefore he isn’t punished. If so, then according to the tradition that lack of shalom bayis is indeed the root cause of a child going off the derech, when is a child responsible for his own defection? It must be a case in which the child was never a witness to his parents’ fights. When parents are clever enough to fight only behind closed doors, even though this presents a child with a spiritual challenge that he could fail and become the Torah’s ben sorer u’moreh, hidden marital conflict does less spiritual damage and leaves the child with enough free will to choose to remain religious.
Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg once said:
Show me . . . the juvenile delinquent . . . and in almost every case I will show you a person resorting to desperate means to attract the emotional warmth and attention he failed to get, but so much wants and needs . . . If you find rebels in society today, it is because they were never given proper love” [Heart to Heart Talks (Brooklyn, 2000), 139].
Rav Scheinberg certainly didn’t say this out of a callous disregard for the feelings of hurting parents. Rather, he said it hoping parents would heed his message and avoid this tragedy or at least repair the damage, thus saving both parents and children untold misery. I did not intend to render a moral judgment on any parent. Most parents have good intentions and are doing the very best they can. However, just as it is important that our empathy for cancer patients doesn’t dissuade us from pointing out that smoking kills, so too our empathy for the (admittedly vast number of) parents whose children aren’t flourishing spiritually must not stop us from honestly discussing what we can do to stop the “mageifah.”