This week, I'd like to speak about my Amish “friend” again. (Clearly, my trip to Amish country made an impact on me!) As I shared with you last week, my family and I visited Lancaster this summer and went on an Amish buggy ride followed by a tour of an Amish farm. The driver sat my family next to him, and therefore, we had some time to “shmooze” in between his commentary. We asked him about his family. He said he had four children. The oldest is no longer Amish and drives a truck. My husband and I turned to each other with a smile and said, “He went 'off the derech'.” It made me wonder, what is it that turned that child off to the Amish way of life?
I began to think of a book I read some years ago called Off The Derech- Why Observant Jews Leave Judaism by Faranak Margolese. Ms. Margolese speaks of a phenomenon that terrifies us as Jewish parents and educators, “...After a while, I realized that at least 75% of my friends had been raised in observant homes, but were no longer observant themselves...I couldn't understand it. My friends had the best Jewish educations money could buy... They all had the tools necessary to continue observing Judaism... But they all had moved away...” Most of them went to shul Friday night or attended Friday night dinner, “but they were not living the halachically committed lives of their childhoods. They were connected without commitment.” She then decided to spend the next five years of her life researching, through surveying and interviewing formerly observant Jews why they left the path.
Ms. Margolese uncovered what she saw as the primary causes for this abandonment of Judaism. Many assume that it is lack of belief or an intellectual questioning that may lead to desertion. Not true. Others assume that it is the attraction of the other lifestyles which pulls deserters to leave. Also a myth. Rather, she feels that “the outside world did not pull them in, but rather the observant one pushed them out. They experienced Judaism as a source of pain rather than joy. So, they did what was natural: run in the other direction.” As I raise my children I consider her findings- is the Judaism I am presenting to my children one of joy? Do I appear to love my Judaism or is it a burden to me? Do I make it clear in the way I live my life that the Torah is a privilege? (Those who attended my pre-Shavuot shiur last year regarding how to prevent Judaism from being a burden will recall that there are numerous mistakes that we as parents make that may lead to their feeling that).
Off the Derech highlights many areas that need to be remedied by Yeshivot and parents to ensure that our children remain. One essential question Ms. Margolese highlights is, “Do my children feel that they are being forced into observance?” This question brought to mind my Amish “friend” again. The Amish practice what they call “rumspringa”- when for about two years adolescents are allowed to expose themselves to the outside culture before they fully accept the Amish way of life. I do not support such a practice in our culture, but the message is clear. They want the teens to fully accept it on their own, and not only because their parents tell them they must. In Judaism, we do believe that parents should enforce that their children follow halacha, but at the same time our children need to accept Torah in a more meaningful way, as they explore it and make it their own. As parents, we can accomplish this “ownership” by helping them explore Torah learning as we learn with them topics of their choosing outside of school. Not homework related. Not for a test. This is pure learning because it brings us joy. Hopefully, as they explore that Torah it will bring joy to them as well.
Ms. Margolese states in her concluding chapter, “Since they are born into our homes, schools and communities, since they are born neutral, ready to absorb what we give them, much is up to us. We play a significant role in creating their Judaism and defining their perception of it. It is frightening and exhilarating to realize how much influence we have- that we hold the keys to shaping their observance; that we are the Judaism our children experience; that we give them joy or pain, the knowledge or the ignorance, the pride or the shame.” As we lead our children on the path of life may we have the strength and wisdom to keep them “ on the derech.”