Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 24 November 2012 / 9 Kislev 5773

Revolving Door

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman - www.rabbiullman.com
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

From: Menashe

Dear Rabbi,

The ba’al teshuva movement seems to be successful in connecting non-observant people, particularly student-aged, to Judaism. On the other hand, unfortunately, there are young people raised in the system that are disconnecting. Are there methods that the established religious community could learn from the ba’al teshuva movement to keep kids from religious families involved? Or are they two separate phenomena each with its own particular dynamic?

Dear Menashe,

This is a very interesting question.

I am not familiar enough with the unfortunate phenomenon that you mention and its reasons, so I can’t say for sure whether what works to inspire ba’alei teshuva would work for uninspired young people from observant homes.

It seems to me that they are, in fact, two different movements – one in and the other out – resulting from very different experiences and mind-sets. Since each group has different needs and aspirations, ideally there should be different, specialized approaches and methods used to inspire each group separately.

That having been said, from my limited experience with such disconnected young men, I have encountered three basic claims for their disillusionment. While I’m sure the vast majority of parents and teachers in the system are inspiring role-models, and the young people themselves may just be looking to justify their disassociation, nevertheless, a proper approach to these issues in general is important in inspiring both ba’alei teshuva and straying religious kids alike.

One complaint of these disaffected kids is that they perceive a lack of enthusiasm among their role models like parents and teachers, and sensing a lack of love for what their leaders do and teach, the kids lack motivation to pursue their models’ path. Of course, we all have our spiritual ups and downs, but clearly parents and teachers who are passionate about what they teach and also perform with joy and vigor what they preach will be much more likely to inspire others to follow suit. That’s one of the major factors in the teshuva movement – the rabbis and students, by and large, are “living inspired”.

Another claim of these kids is that not only do they sense a lack of passion in their role-models, they often perceive a lack of sincerity which they sometimes describe as hypocritical. Parents and teachers, they say, demand certain behavior and morals of the young people, but they’re perceived as not living up to that ideal themselves. Clearly, to the extent that this is true, it’s not particularly inspiring. We must be true to our teachings and be of pure enough intent that we are living examples of what we teach. The nature of the teshuva movement is that the young people, lacking a religious framework of their own, do see their role-models living the teachings – in school, as guests in their homes, with their children, around the neighborhood and more.

A third complaint I hear is that these young people feel a lack of love and affection from their parents and teachers. They express the idea that role models only want to tell them what to do, to instruct them in the ways of the Torah, but that they don’t actually listen to what the kids have to say. Difficult questions are sometimes not properly addressed, or problems and frustrations are not duly deliberated upon. So these kids feel there’s no room for their questions and predicaments in the Torah. Consequently, they lose their respect for and commitment to Judaism. The ba’al teshuva movement, however, is predicated upon encouraging questions and offering answers – not only academically, but in all realms of life. Usually, this is accompanied by close personal relationships with teachers who are also like family to their students. This is very heart-warming for both.

As I wrote above, these are only impressions I have received from a relatively small number of disaffected young men I have met over the years. But if there are ways in which we could all improve in inspiring our youth – both those who start out of the system and those who start in – it would be in these three areas: living inspired, sincerity and consistency in our own observance, and being loving listeners.

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