Parents whose Children Leave Orthodoxy

Accepting children that leave Orthodoxy is a hard topic to address. It is hard because it causes devastation and indescribable anguish to those who have to grapple with it. It is also increasingly important to address. Undeniably, many children in the ultra-orthodox communities are choosing to follow a lifestyle that is not sanctioned by the ultra-orthodox establishment. For some, this takes a milder form. For example, choosing a different chasidus. For others, their path leads them away from orthodoxy all together. Deviating from one’s established way of life is extremely painful for everyone involved. It is painful for the person choosing a different lifestyle, for the family and friends, and painful for the community. For everyone, it feels like an insurmountable loss and it also triggers a deep fear.

I was treating a young woman who was contemplating leaving the ultra-orthodox community. She struggled with the stringencies of the community and was troubled with theologically related questions. A recurrent theme in treatment, was her concern for her parents. In fact, she was tormented by it. She deeply cared about her parents and did not want to hurt them. She was also frightened to lose her parents love. After many months of soul-searching and introspection, she decided that she is no longer able to live an orthodox life. She wrote a heartfelt letter to her parents explaining her decision and expressing her deep love for them. She left her parent’s home and rented her own apartment.

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I never spoke to the parents. However, I can imagine the turmoil and devastation that followed. The following day her mother called her and said the following, “Hashem blessed me with nine wonderful children, now I will have eight” and put the phone down. My patient was devastated, though, knowing her parents, she anticipated the rejection. More than a year later, she has made significant strides in therapy and in her personal life. But the loss of her parents is a deep pain and an ongoing struggle. I only know the story from my patient’s perspective. Yet, I suspect that it is not dissimilar from the pain her parents and family is experiencing. Perhaps if we can imagine a bird’s eye view of this dynamic, it would reflect a scene of a child yearning for her parent’s embrace and parents yearning to embrace their child. Though, what keeps the two apart and what fuels the ongoing pain remains somewhat elusive.

Parents frequently use religion to explain why they must malign their dissenting child. This is doubtfully a satisfying explanation. Does religion mandate maligning children who go astray? I don’t think so. Some parents claim that they must protect their other children from being adversely influenced. This too seems overly simplistic. First, I believe that most reasonable children who leave their parent’s way of life would be sensitive not to influence their siblings and would likely work along with their parents to come to some sort of an agreement. Second, children who enjoy a healthy relationship with their parents are not likely to complicate that relationship simply because their sibling chose a different path in life. Furthermore, for many who leave orthodoxy it is because the lifestyle did not work for them. If one child could not make orthodoxy work for him/her does that mean that another child would also wish to leave orthodoxy? In other words, I don’t think that leaving orthodoxy is contagious. Rather, I believe it is the result of a deeper and more meaningful decision that is unique for each individual.

Why then do some parents choose to sever their connection to their own child? I believe that parents give up the connection to their children because they are deeply wounded, feel terribly guilty, and are lost and afraid. When their child leaves orthodoxy, it feels personal to them. For some parents it’s the equivalence of the child saying, “I despise you, your way of life, and all that you hold dear.” Parents may feel guilty because they are afraid that they have failed to raise a good child. Instead, they believe that they raised a monstrous child. And they are lost and afraid because they have no idea how to foster a relationship with a child that is so different from everything and anything they know and are familiar with.

But really this is not at all accurate. Children that leave orthodoxy do not despise you nor do they despise your way of life. Instead, your child’s mind is structured differently than yours. The way of life that seems so important to you does not work for your child. During adolescence children gain the capacity for formal operational thought (an ability to think in abstraction and the ability for a hypothetical thought processes). Adolescents and young adults have reached a tremendous milestone – they now have a fully developed pre-frontal cortex (part of the brain that is responsible for higher cognitions, impulse control, and analytical thought processes). They are now able to critique, analyze, and develop their own opinions and sometimes, those opinions are very different from those of their parents. Your child feels compelled to live a different way of life. In fact, for some, it is literally a matter of life and death. The guilt is misplaced. You raised a wonderful child who is trying his/her very best to lead a meaningful life. And your child is just as scared and lost as you are and is hoping that you, the parent, will lead the way.

Life is complicated, full of unexpected twists and turns. Some events are exciting others are painful. But one thing should never ever change. Your unconditional love and acceptance of your child is uniquely reserved for parents and only you can choose to do what is right and bridge the unnecessary divide. Perhaps what is between the outstretched arms of the child and the outstretched arms of the parents is the collected fear of both. And as Rabbi Nachman of Breslov so brilliantly teaches, “V’haekar shalou lefached klal.”

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