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Areivim - Speaking to Someone Who Doesn't Believe - Part One
by Rabbi Shmuel Gluck

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Rabbi Shmuel Gluck is the Director of Areivim, an organization that offers counseling, crisis intervention and referral services for teens and their families.

There’s so much talk about teenagers going “off the Derech”. These talks assume the teenagers who’re “going off” are still “on”. Little talk is dedicated to teenagers and, in many cases, young adults, who haven’t been religious for many years. They started being irreligious only at home, but then they began behaving irreligious also in public. They’re now very comfortable with their lack of any religious activities or interests.

(To a lesser degree, this article also applies to young adults who present themselves as Frum (religious), but have decided to ignore certain Halochos (laws). They may have kept Shabbos for years except for the fact that they listened to music. They may have been very careful about learning Torah every day but were unconcerned with Negiah (inappropriate touching). There are many contradictory activities with which people become comfortable, even championing those leniencies to friends and strangers.)

In this article I’d like to discuss what I would say to frum from birth (ffb) individuals who’re comfortable living in totally irreligious environments. Suggesting to them that they change will be quickly rejected. They’ll also respond to suggestions that they’re not happy with, “you don’t know how I really feel, but I’m telling you that I’m happy.” In many cases these aren’t immature teenagers, but mature young adults. They have jobs, pay their bills in a timely fashion, and lead lives that appear to be successful. What can one say to these individuals? Who can argue against their claims of happiness and contentment?

I would focus on promoting self reflection within them; asking them to get in touch with, not their superficial thoughts, but their deeply buried thoughts. I also would not focus on their Yiddishkeit, but on their lives in general. The following points will apply to most, but certainly not all, young adults who have left their Frum upbringing.

1: A common pattern found among non religious individuals who were ffbs, is that their lives lack a strong foundation. In addition to religion, which is often their war cry, they find themselves grappling with substance abuse, intense anger at individuals or institutions, depression, kleptomania or other socially unacceptable vices. Frequently there’s something about them that is unsettling to others.

Pointing out to them that they have multiple issues doesn’t “prove” that they’re “mixed up” and, therefore, wrong for having no religious beliefs. Parents and Rabbeim try to use their other issues as “proof” that they’re the “problem” and not their Yiddishkeit. The young adults counter that Yiddishkeit caused all of their social and mental health issues. The debate can, and does, go on endlessly. The only undeniable conclusion is that, at this moment, they’re a “work in progress”.

When I say a “work in progress”, I mean that they should at least reserve judgment on their true religious beliefs until everything else in their lives falls into place. They should first focus on improving themselves as individuals, and not place any focus, at this time, on their religion. They have serious character issues. They’re comfortable in taking other people’s money, show a lack of respect for others, are up at night and sleep by day, and/or aren’t people of strong character. Their lifestyles are frowned upon by the conservative, secular, world, as well as by their parents and community. Since there are serious character issues, they should reserve their judgment of religion. They should reflect on the fact that they haven’t been able to replace their old lifestyles by other acceptable ones. Having exchanged their lifestyles to do “what I feel like doing” or “what makes me feel good” isn’t good enough to reject a life full of values.

2.Many people lead a life of self indulgence, one that allows them to feel good. Such a life is common and, in the short term, may even be necessary for the individual’s present stage in life. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s an acceptable lifestyle. Individuals can do things that they feel they need to do, but can still appreciate that they’re not right. Eventually, they’ll think that, “at some time I’ll need to do what’s right and it may not be what I’m doing now”.

This difference is significant. Non Frum behaviors are sad but they aren’t irreversible. Hashem forgives people faster, with sincere Teshuva, than people forgive themselves or others. However, insisting that, “I’m right” condemns people to never reconsider what they truly believe. I therefore ask young adults who’re acting on what they consider to be their personal rights, to do the following: First solve your personal issues and then we can sit down and decide what you actually believe or don’t believe.

3. It’s very rare for me to find individuals who’re truly comfortable with their decision to leave the Frum world. How do I know this? As non-religious people age, particularly those who were Frum before world war two, they often begin putting on Tefilin and performing Mitzvohs. It’s certainly uncommon for people who’ve aged to lose interest in religion. Why?

I believe that the reason is that deep inside, they feel guilt. Something haunts them. They think of their years before the war, learning Gemora, their parents Shabbos table, their relationship with their grandparents, and past incidents that had meaning to them. These “warm” incidents become flashbacks, penetrating their minds when they least expect them. During the middle part of their lives they’ve had many distractions which diverted their attention from what haunted them. As they age and their lives simplify, it becomes more difficult for them to deny what’s in their heart.

In the last decade many teenagers have left the frum community. As they reach their mid twenties, their lives become simpler. They’re not going from school to school, they’re not running away for 2 days at a time, and they’re not “making up” stories to go to places that their parents won’t like.

They have an apartment, they have a job, and their lives are comparatively calmer. They’ve more control of their lives and begin to feel good about themselves. It’s at this time that their guilt begins to haunt them. As teenagers they denied their guilt and the memories of their relationships with friends. However, those parts of their lives are still part of them. Although, in some cases, there never seems to be any guilt (although we need to wait until they’re much older to be sure), the vast majority will admit to a discomfort that accompanies their decision to be irreligious.

To be continued….

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