This is the fourth year that our family will be among the volunteers who assist the extraordinary faculty members at the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur retreats of Madraigos, a wonderful organization that offers a wide range of services to teens and young adults who are experiencing emotional or spiritual challenges.
These Yomim Nora’im retreats offer Madraigos members a non-judgmental setting where they are made to feel completely comfortable and welcome regardless of their appearance or level of religious commitment.
You see, many or most of the kids and young adults my colleagues work with all year would love to participate in the observance of the holiest days of our year – but on their terms, not ours. That may mean that they will attend shul for very short periods of time or come wearing the clothing they dress in all year. Their overall appearance is often at odds with the standards of our community, and they may be standing, tentatively, at the outer edge of our shuls – literally and figuratively.
On their behalf, and on behalf of their parents who love them unconditionally and wisely encourage them to spend Yom Tov with their family (not all do, you know) I humbly appeal to you to reach out to them warmly and welcome them back.
Please, please don’t comment on their appearance or make a remark about how long they have been away. Sadly, so many of the kids tell me that after they built up the courage to return to their childhood shul, some well-intentioned, decent people kibitz with them about the length of their absence or the clothing they are wearing. They are deeply hurt by that.
Don’t misread their discomfort as disrespect, or their tentativeness as a sign of contempt. Just walk over to them with a warm, welcoming, and genuine smile and say, “It’s so nice to see you.” Invite them to sit next to you – and grant them the space to turn down your invitation. I assure you that whether or not they take you up on your offer, they will be grateful to you for your unconditional acceptance.
In the final moments before we face our Maker at Kol Nidrei, the opening tefillah of Yom Kippur, many have the custom to read the haunting Tefillas Zakkah.. One of its most searing lines is, “Avinu Malkeinu, rachem aleinu k’rachem av al beno shemarad b’aviv …”Our Father and King, have mercy on us as a father has mercy on his son who rebelled against him and left his home; [and] when he returns to his father with shame and tears, it is the nature of the father to have mercy on his son.”
I suggest that it is entirely congruent and appropriate at that point to ask Hashem that just as we are welcoming His wayward children with open arms, so, too, He should envelop us in His welcoming embrace and grant us a year of fulfillment, joy, and happiness.
To give you a window into the souls of many of the kids and adults you may see outside your shuls, permit me to share with you an incident that occurred halfway through Neilah two years ago at the Madraigos retreat.
A young man I got to know over Rosh Hashanah approached me and asked, “Rabbi, tell me the truth, do you think G-d really wants me here now?”
“I feel that I should be here davening,” he continued, “but as you saw, I’ve been outside all day, desecrating Yom Tov and not davening. Isn’t it disrespectful for me to show up now for the last few minutes of Yom Kippur after being a kofer all day?” (The young man asking the question had been an outstanding talmid in a top-tier yeshiva who successfully passed an exam on 200 pages of gemara four years prior to this incident. He was abused several months later, and at the time I spoke to him he was in recovery from a drug addiction that he developed in a futile attempt to numb his agonizing and unbearable pain.)
As I normally do when I’m asked very challenging questions like this one, I whispered a quick prayer that Hashem provide me with the wisdom and language to respond properly. I then did what Jews typically do – I answered a question with a question.
“I always kiss my children before they go to sleep each night,” I said. “Now imagine if my teenager and I had quarreled earlier in the day and he was too upset to kiss me goodnight that evening. Would I take the all-or-nothing approach, or would I prefer a goodnight wave from across the room?”
I told him softly that one day, after he works through his pain and confusion and starts a family, he will see that parents take what they can get.
“Hashem hasn’t heard from you for a long time,” I said. “He misses you and would love to hear from you – even if you tell him how angry you are that you suffered so much pain.”
I then slid my Machzor across to him, and took another one for myself. We shared a Shtender for the rest of Neilah, praying and crying together.
Click here to watch a brief video of the singing at the Madreigos retreat, after Havdalah this year.
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