What I Would Say to Parents of OTD People

About a year ago, I was contacted by a rabbi I knew. He had been invited to speak at an event for parents of OTD children, and since he knew me and respected my opinions, he wanted to get my take on things.

His question to me [throughout, I have redacted any potentially identifying information]:

I’ve been invited to address a group of parents of “OTD’ers” … for a “Shabbos of Chizuk” … I have some vague thoughts about what I want to say, but I think it would be helpful for me to hear from you what message you would want to have delivered to such a gathering. As noted, the point of the Shabbaton is chizuk, so what I’m looking for is something constructive and positive.

I took some time to think about it and reached out to a few fellow OTD’ers / XOs. I sent him a numbered list of 14 points, prefaced with a brief statement and written as if I were addressing the parents themselves:

I think the best way for me to respond is to say a lot of what I’ve heard in various discussion groups, and what I think myself, about interactions between parents and children who have left. Not all of it is positive, but I can leave that part to you… And it would be disingenuous of me to put a religious spin on this, in any case. Also, most of these points are specific to people who left as adults, or as teenagers but without resorting to drugs, etc. With that in mind, here are some thoughts. I’ve tried to group them and order them in a way that flows, but this isn’t an essay after all, just a collection of thoughts…

1. Children are their own people, too – not just markers of parents’ success. Your life as a parent is not ruined because your child is not religious, and it’s not your “fault” that your child chose a different path.

2. Don’t make your child feel guilty for the pain their choices cause you. Telling your child how hard this is for you is not what you as a parent should be doing.

3. It was probably very difficult for your child to tell you they’re not religious. When it feels like your child completely rejected your lifestyle (which they may have done), realize that they trusted you enough to tell you they’re not religious. Also recognize at what point your child comes to you about it, and understand the amount of thought that goes into a decision like this. If they tell you they haven’t been religious for quite some time, it’s not a decision that is up for discussion. Attempting to reason with them now will not be effective, and will instead make them feel like you aren’t listening to them or respecting their choices or ability to act as an adult, to have agency as a person. This is a decision they made as an adult, and they’re making you aware of it, likely because they care about you and want your approval and respect even though they know there’s almost no chance of getting it now.

4. Recognize that’s it’s really hard to “go otd.” Going otd is not a quick answer to dissatisfaction. It’s not an “easy way out.” Once your child is otd, they are constantly in a position of having to prove to you and other frum people that their life is worth something without mitzvos (even when they feel no need to prove that to themselves because they already know their life is worth something).

5. Don’t destroy your family over your child’s choices. It won’t change your child’s convictions, but it will tear you apart. Make rules if necessary about what they can or can’t do in your home, but realize that rules won’t change your child’s life. The rules are there to ease the tension you feel when your child is around, and your child usually wants to ease your tension and will comply. Just don’t create rules that will add to the tension.

6. Listen to your children – it’s great to listen to what experts or rabbis are saying about how to show your child you still love them, but if your child says that won’t work in this case, trust the child. (For me, personally, it was very frustrating to hear Rabbi Horowitz saying again and again that Pesach is a time for family, and that parents should do everything they can to make sure their child comes home. Pesach is stressful for me and encapsulates so much about Yiddishkeit that I cannot stomach, so the best choice for making things work with me and my family was for me not to come home. But my parents continued to call and text and beg me to visit, even when I have explained numerous times in the past why I don’t want to. Most people do want to come home for yomim tovim, but parents should listen to their own child’s wishes, not just the rabbis’ views.)

7. Also listen to what they say about the reasons they left. Give them credit for thinking about it. Don’t assume it’s because of “taavos,” or because they just want to wear pants or just want to have sex or just want to eat a cheeseburger. It’s almost never that. Even when someone does leave because they want to “party,” it almost always runs deeper than just that. It could be an explanation your child feels more comfortable giving you, rather than a long, drawn-out fight about emunah.

8. It also could be defiance or trying to get you angry to make the separation easier – if you kick your child out, or in other ways indicate that your love and acceptance are conditional, they have an easier time of it, without having to figure out how to navigate the relationship with you… It’s also really difficult to completely separate from family, so what they really want from you is not to be kicked out. They have a choice between the anguish of an irreparable rift or the anguish of working things through. Either way, their choice is not easy.

9. It actually is possible for people to have intellectual reasons for leaving. The idea that people who claim to be atheists cannot possibly be atheists is not true. You may disagree with their beliefs, you may think they’re ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t carefully thought through their choices. Citing Rashi’s opinion about atheists at them [that every generation comes up with their own means of denying god in order to allow themselves to indulge in physical pleasures] will invalidate them as people with the ability to think and make choices for themselves.

10. The term “at risk” is so problematic because it encompasses people who are literally at risk of drug addiction and suicide in the same category as people who are not keeping shabbos. Separate them – they are not the same problem.

11. Some people have said they “went otd” in high school but hid it from their parents because they knew their parents would move them into an “at-risk” school, where many people don’t even graduate with a high school diploma. Admitting that you don’t keep shabbos could lead to never graduating high school because your parents would move you…. That’s so wrong.

12. While some people do leave because of abuse or trauma, a) just because a person has experienced abuse or trauma does not mean that’s the direct cause of them leaving; b) even if it is, don’t assume that healing the trauma will bring them back. You can’t turn back time, and a person’s entire trajectory is determined by every step and every choice they make. Maybe they’ll decide to be frum again, maybe they won’t. You should care about their trauma being healed because you want them to be whole and healthy and happy people, not because you want to bring them back. And most people can sense the difference in motivation…

13. You raised a child who either grew up and made personal choices, or struggled but survived and found a way not to give up on life – focus on the joy of that. You raised an adult, a person of integrity whose integrity manifests as the need to live their life according to their principles. If you disagree with their principles, that’s fine, but be proud you raised a person of such integrity.

14. Understand that your child can lead a productive life, even if it’s not the life you dreamed they would live. Adjust your dreams for them, when they grow up and start dreaming on their own. Try to help them be successful in the way they define success as an adult, even if that’s outside of Judaism.

The rabbi followed up, focusing on my prefatory remark about these points coming from people who left as adults or as teens who were not involved with drugs. He asked:

I wonder what response I might have received had I posed the question to someone who went off because she fell in with a bad crowd or because he was addicted to drugs or some other precipitating factor that has nothing to do with mature, intellectual choice. I don’t know the statistics, but am I right to assume that the majority of OTD cases fall into this latter category?

I wasn’t entirely pleased by the spin of this, although the group in question were mostly parents of “fell in with a bad crowd” type of OTD (ugh, that phrase). I also knew by this point that none of my reasoned responses were going to make it to the parents in any way. So I abandoned diplomacy, and wrote:

I can really only speak for myself and for those I know personally. And those tend to be people who followed similar paths as myself… So I can’t really speak to the experience of being a “troubled teenager” because in that sense, I wasn’t. (I was definitely a troubled teenager, but it manifested as trying to fit in rather than as lashing out and turning to drugs. Mostly, I think, because I was terrified – I bought into the narrative that no one outside the Jewish community will care about me, which is quite false.) But here are some thoughts about that:

Of course, I don’t know statistics either. But I did recently speak to a young girl who might seem to fall into the category of falling in with a bad crowd and getting addicted to drugs. That did happen to her, after all. But she only sought those out because she felt uncomfortable in her Bais Yaakov, started doubting some core beliefs in middle school. Because of “how will it look to the neighbors,” her parents insisted she go to a Bais Yaakov high school rather than a more YU-type high school. So by tenth grade, when she realized she would never fit in there, she started trying to find “her people.” She found people who accepted her – and gave her drugs. Now, she’s grown up enough to want a real life, to know what that is, and she’s in college. She’s gotten past the drugs and bad company. But she didn’t leave because she fell in with a bad crowd – she fell in with a bad crowd because she wanted to leave and didn’t know any other option.

Others I know (or know of) fell into bad company and got into drugs because their parents sent them to schools for “problem kids” when they started not putting on tefillin or wearing shorter skirts. Or when they were expelled from yeshiva or Bais Yaakov for skipping shacharis or keeping their tznius button open. Or being accused of being lesbian, whether or not that was true. Some girls were expelled or shamed for having a boyfriend when in fact the boy they were seen with was their brother or male cousin. What can they do after that, how can we blame them for falling in with a bad crowd or turning to drugs to dull the pain of rejection?

Maybe a point of chizuk for parents is to realize that their kids are still not adults. Teenagers will mess up – some worse than others. If we stop thinking of our children as “products,” especially if we allow them room to grow and to make mistakes, sometimes horrible mistakes, we can look forward to the future in which they do become adults. It may be horribly difficult now for parents to watch their children making horrible mistakes – but that’s adolescence. Their brains are not fully developed, and if parents (and schools) adjusted their expectations of how adolescents should behave, they could mitigate some of their own pain with the realization that this is a stage – not to say that it’s a stage and they’ll come back to Yiddishkeit, necessarily, but that it’s a stage in the development of any person. It’s a turbulent, tumultuous stage for anyone, religious or not. [NOTE: This, as I read it over again now, is perhaps the most important point in all of what I’ve written.]

In the Mishpacha a while back, in response to the OTD survey, Eitan Kobre wrote a scathing dismissal of the results. In that response, he included a line about how if you believe this survey’s results, OTD people are all altruistic and idealistic. On the whole, I have found this to be true. I know that many people who left as adults did so because of this directly, and even those who left because of drugs, even those who spent time on the streets as teenagers, have huge hearts and want to right wrongs in the world. There’s one girl I know who is … determined to work in child psychology and trauma. She spent her teenage years living on the streets and addicted to drugs and alcohol. I don’t know the exact details of how she got into drugs and alcohol, but I do know that she has a tremendous caring heart and is devoted to making people’s lives better. As a college student, she has … helped numerous people already.

I saw a video of someone (a well-known rabbi whose name I recognized but have forgotten just now, and can’t find the video again) speaking to a Flushing, Queens community about children at risk. He made many good points, and one which resonated with me was – people who turn to drugs or who suffer from depression or who are suicidal are often some of the most sensitive, caring people in the world. We feel the weight of the world, we want everyone to be happy, and we know that most of the time we can do nothing to make that happen. Sometimes the knowledge that the world is terrible to so many people, at home in our own communities and around the world, gets to be too much. While we have to be careful not to romanticize suffering and mental illness (“broken souls are more beautiful” is a wrong attitude on many levels), there is truth to this.

And I do hope that it gives parents chizuk if they can see their children as unique, sensitive, wonderfully caring people who just don’t know how to handle all that care and sensitivity. Because they’re still just adolescents!

For myself, yes, I left because of intellectual reasons. I tried for years to reconcile my intellectual doubts and bring them back in line with Orthodox Judaism.

But a large part of what I took issue with was the way in which Orthodox teachings seemed to care about some people more than others. I was sent to the school guidance counselor in fourth grade, and I was referred to a psychiatrist during my first year of teaching, my first year post-seminary. I was diagnosed as bipolar, and I was medicated and in therapy for seven years. About two years ago, my psychiatrist revoked the diagnosis of bipolar, and said that in fact my uncontrollable bouts of mania and depression were actually just my coping methods – I couldn’t bear the lie I was living, and I couldn’t bear the feeling of wrongness about what I was told is truth. When I witnessed conversations at friends’ weddings, when I had to fit into a mold or else be gossiped about, when I saw people who are wonderful not getting a shidduch and being whispered about, when people spoke of “am hanivchar” and meant that all others were trash – my heart broke, and I would get depressed. I attempted suicide three times before leaving (though my parents don’t know about this – the attempts never left serious effects).

I don’t know what chizuk I could offer to parents. My thoughts about this are more in line with telling parents to be better, to parent better, to see their children as separate people from them – not as extensions of their own lives – and to accept that their children will sometimes mess things up monumentally. And that when that happens, they still need to do their job as parents, and still need to care for their child – not for the neshama, not for the child who will bring them nachas, not for the kvelling from the rest of the community, not as a child who will bring good shidduchim for his siblings – but as a child, as a person who needs to be cared for, whose subjectivity and agency need to be respected.

His response:

Oy.

 

6 thoughts on “What I Would Say to Parents of OTD People

    1. The entire episode of teens leading this movement has resonated with my own experience so much. And this is an excellent analysis of part of that.

      Like

    1. That is an excellent question! Short answer: Facebook.

      I knew no one in the same position when I left, and for about a year after I left. But then I joined Facebook groups, and though I’ve left almost all of them by now, I made many friends that way – some just FB friends, some developed into IRL friendships.

      Like

  1. Dainy. I’m such a big fan of yours. I hope we get to meet some day. Not just the former bais yaakov stuff but also that we’re both writers and academics. So much of your writing has touched me so deeply.

    Like

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