“The profile is chillingly similar: 13-14 years old boys and girls. High achieving in school. No emotional problems; great, respectful kids from great homes. Well adjusted. They just don’t want to be frum. Period. They are eating on Yom Kippur, not keeping Shabbos, not keeping kosher; et al. ” (Source)
That is Yakov Horowitz, the director of Project YES. I don’t really know a lot about what he does, but I know that he deals with children and teenagers, specifically those labeled “at-risk” (I hate labels, and that one specifically). I enjoy reading his writing because of the candor with which he addresses genuine issues that face the Orthodox Jewish community; he frequently doesn’t toe the chareidi line, to the point of angering many people from the community of which he calls himself a part.
The reason I decided to quote from his latest blog posting was because of a bit of serendipitous timing; at the same time that I read his article (directed from this MoC post), I read this post at DovBear, and something he wrote over there (quoting/linking to the same article):
“This includes our own children who know from their first visit to a museum that anyone who says the earth is 6000 years old is lying or hiding something. Perhaps Yaakov Horowitz and his friends at Project Yes would have less to do if our leaders and role models didn’t destroy their own credibility by binding themselves to ideas that are easily disproved.”
I think that’s a very serious point. What could drive an otherwise well-adjusted teenager, with no apparent emotional troubles, from a stable home that is presumably intelligent and doing well in school to just completely reject the practice of Judaism? Maybe it’s simple rebellion. Some kids rebel by doing drugs, some by ignoring school and getting into trouble, and some by abandoning religion. There certainly may be something to that. But in the absence of any other issues, it isn’t clear that the motive is rebellion. Perhaps there is something deeper, more insidious. Like DovBear suggests, perhaps these teenagers are simply turned off from the practice of a religion that is so caught up in details and minutiae and enforcing an agenda that boldly stands and spits in the face of scientific evidence (instead of adapting to it), that they’ve decided to reject it all, instead of rejecting only that which needs to be rejected.
Indeed, it’s not a secret that my opinion on the matter is that many parts of what we call “Orthodoxy” need to be rejected or adapted. However, as a married father of two, who has come to these ideas relatively later and after the acquisition of some experience and a certain level of maturity, I am able to mentally separate the wheat from the chaff. I can mentally and cognitively know, as an academic matter, that the scientific record is clear that the universe is several billion years old. I can reject orthodox apologetics that try to reconcile this evidence and maintain a “young earth” theory, such as the flood changed nature, or god created the earth to look old, and instead cling to ideas that may otherwise be deemed “kefira” by some educators. This doesn’t bother me. As an adult, I have the maturity and mental faculty to withstand being branded a kofer by closed-minded people, and still continue with what I consider essential practices of Judaism, that are not tied to a non-essential belief in a young earth.
Teenagers, however, may not be able to do so as easily. When faced with educators that insist on clinging to ideas that seem to (me and) the teenagers as absurd, they begin to question everything that comes from that same educator or education system. When the education they’ve received seems illogical to them, it all gets lumped together. In the same way, when they find comfort in ideas that are deemed kefira, they will instead of rejecting such a label, and continuing to practice Judaism in the way they were brought up, they will reject it all. Instead of accepting that Judaism as a practice can be separated from many of the theories, they reject the whole.
We end up, therefore, with a group of well-adjusted teenagers that have rejected the whole for the only reason that the education system they belonged to refused to accept that these budding adults are beginning to have adult understanding, and dealing with them like children; trying to suppress their thinking and reject their ideas. These teenagers, in the age of the internet, will find each other and find blogs and other websites that support them. They will talk to each other. They will share ideas about the lack of evidence for a global flood, they will talk about how no person Abraham likely ever existed and that there’s no way God created the world in six days. They will then support each other, in the overreacting ways that teenagers are wont to do, with saying things like “well, if the creation story isn’t true, and the flood story isn’t true, then whole thing’s a crock” and they will ultimately reject the whole of Judaism, including it’s practice.
What if, instead, when these teenagers came to those same conclusions, they had educators that listened? That said, “you’re right. The flood story is an allegory, and the creation story was written for a scientifically unsavvy audience that wouldn’t be able to relate to what we know now.” What if that educator brought the child closer, and said, this is no reason, however, to reject the truth of the whole Torah, and the importance of it’s message. Perhaps the teenagers would have a way to relate; an increased maturity to use to help separate the important from the meaningless.
If a teenager asks “does God really care if I wait 5 hours and 59 minutes or 6 hours and 1 minute between meat and milk” the answer shouldn’t be “yes, of course he does.” A person asking this question is inclined to reject the strict and draconian. Because in this person’s mind, of course God doesn’t care. To this teenager, God doesn’t concern himself with trivialities. And to insist on such, without a proper explanation would push the child to completely reject the whole of Basar and Chalav, and possibly kashrus as well.
The answer, of course tailored to each specific child as he needs it (“chanoch lana’ar al pi darcho“) should be geared, perhaps, to an understanding that while God himself may not concern himself with trivialities, and the 6-hour cutoff may seem arbitrary, such lines and arbitrary distinctions are borne of a necessity of man. Man cannot distinguish between the infinite shades of grey, and so black and white lines become the guiding principle. The lesson of the first shabbos is instructive here. While God can discern the exact minute when shabbos starts, man cannot. And so, as a rule, a requirement, man must start shabbos early, so as not to possibly go past that instant when shabbos starts. Is 18 minutes an arbitrary number to establish for that purpose? Possibly so. Nevertheless, man requires such rules and strictures for his own lack of divine discernment.
Does this answer work? Am I claiming to have the way to solve all the problems of children who reject Judaism and it’s practice? Of course not. This is simply my opinion. In order to keep Judaism alive and thriving, we must recognize that people will not stand when what they see with their own eyes must be rejected. And so, we must begin, instead, to reject that which has been disproven; instead of rejecting that which is essential.