Second Thoughts from an Ordinary Jewish Mother
A Process That Could Take Five Years
Years ago, I cried to anyone who seemed to be in a position to help. No rabbi, professional, or friend could fathom the depths of my pain or comprehend the desperation of my daily existence. Well-meaning friends covertly questioned my parenting skills. I couldn’t comprehend how this had occurred! Our children were protected from the outside world in a safely-sealed home environment. I had always tried to be a good mother and to do all the right things.
My son – beloved and bright, charming and charismatic – showed early signs of teenage rebellion. Soon, yeshiva was exchanged for pool halls as religious observance steadily declined. He chose a different derech – the low road – from the one intended. All attempts to “fix” him, and bring him back backfired. Tough love didn’t work. Neither did begging, manipulation, consequences or coercion. None of these brought the slightest change in attitude, behavior or attire. Nothing worked – he drifted further and further away until he was completely “off the derech,” hardly recognizable as the son we had reared.
I was just an ordinary mother… with an extraordinary amount of pain searing through my heart, unlike any I had ever known. Isolated and alone, I couldn’t imagine ever laughing again. “Hashem” I cried, “What went wrong? What do I do now? Please help me, and please, please return to me my precious son!” The hopelessness and helplessness were overwhelming.
It’s a process, we were told; it could take five years. (Five years? Each pain-filled day felt like an eternity!) We were encouraged to implement the 4 C’s – Compassion, Communication, Connecting, and giving up Controlling. Most importantly – unconditional love – to love him……no matter what! And to always keep the front door open.
I Cried For Both of Us
My crumbling life began to change when The Jewish Observer “Kids at Risk” issue arrived in November 1999. Countless times, I read and reread the poignant opening article, “Thoughts of a Mother,” and each time, I cried, for both of us. Had she read my mind? Her expressions of pain and despair, hopes and dreams were mine, as well. Her tefillos were my tefillos. We shared the same incomprehensible challenges of motherhood. How I longed to sit and talk (and cry!) with her.
Then it hit me. If she and I shared common feelings, thoughts and experiences regarding our children, then surely (unfortunately), hundreds more mothers could likewise relate. I dreamed of uniting desperate, frum mothers of off the derech kids around the world. The dream became my passion and a very realistic, yet formidable, challenge. How to begin?
An email support group seemed to be the obvious answer, though a few, not-so-minor obstacles presented themselves. First of all, I was technically challenged. I considered it a major triumph each time I successfully logged on to a computer. Furthermore, though I knew email list-servers (mailing lists) existed, I was clueless about beginning and coordinating one. Yet, filled with inspiring support from mechanchim, colleaguesand friends, I proceeded.
The email list I founded – born in personal pain and inspired by The Jewish Observer article – became a safe haven for frum parents around the world to receive and give chizuk, care and compassion. It serves as an empathetic lifeline for parents struggling with difficult teens. Its members evolved into a mutually supportive and united “cyber-family” – sharing sorrows and simchos. Most importantly, within the framework of a positive Torah hashkafa, we gained effective parenting skills while growing from our shared nisyonos.
So far, we have dealt with over 300 heads of family.
I’m a simple, ordinary person. Yet, I found that, through the pain of life and the help of Hashem, one can grow and accomplish. Subsequently, what began as informal parent counseling – an outgrowth of the email group – inspired another dream (recently realized) – to achieve professional status as an MSW.
Hakadosh Baruch Hu gave each and every one of us ordinary people amazing hidden kochos (strengths) for extraordinary accomplishments. Our hishtadlus is to pursue the passions that drive our dreams, thereby fulfilling the inner potential given to us by the Ribbono shel Olam.
It Began With November ’99
Six years ago, I called Rabbi Wolpin to share the positive impact the November ’99 issue had on me and other families in my community, and to relate the saga of my own struggling 16 year-old-son and his non-observant friend “Dovie.” (The JO staff graciously sent me copies to distribute.) Much to my surprise, excerpts of incidents I shared with Rabbi Wolpin were included in the follow-up “Readers Respond” March 2000 issue (pages 6 and 29).
Last week, I called Rabbi Wolpin again with an update. “Dovie’s” mother recently burst into tears of joy and disbelief when he was called up to the Torah on the Shabbos of his aufruf (preceding his wedding). Then, overcome with emotion once again, she cried the whole way to the chupa. No sane person would have believed six years ago that “Dovie” would be learning today in kollel in Eretz Yisroel. After reading the first “at risk” JO issue, “Dovie’s” parents focused their attention on loving and accepting their son unconditionally (even with an untucked shirt at Kiddush, which had triggered the regretful explosion described on p. 29 in the March 2000 JO issue).
My son, B”H, is also traveling the high road – as a ben Torah, focused upon growing in avodas Hashem and ruchniyus. I am in awe of his commitment and devotion to the teenage boys he mentors. “I’m only giving back what I received,” he tells me.
What did he receive? What factors precipitated such incredible growth in yiras Shamayim, Torah and mitzvos? Siyata diShemaya for sure. And many long-term, meaningful relationships – individuals who reached out and stayed connected with him throughout his teenage nisayon. People who did so much –how can I possibly express my gratitude and gratefulness? – yet tell me it was nothing; they are the ones who gained from knowing my son! They demonstrated their care by “being there” – listening to him with respect and understanding and supporting him with kindness and genuine love. They bonded on a neshama level and never tried to change him. They appreciated his specialness. His growth is a source of great joy and inspiration to all who know him.
I am now aware that the difficult challenges and nisyonos that Hashem gave to me were His special gift, forcing me to grow and develop in ways I never would have dreamed possible. Hatzlacha with children, according to the Chofetz Chaim, is one hundred percent siyata diShmaya. Yet, our hishtadlus as parents is to do everything we can (including daven!) – leaving no stone unturned – because after 120 years, we’ll be asked, “Were you the best parent that you could have been, and were you the best person that you could have been?” Behind all the hishtadlus was the understanding that Hashem rewards effort, not outcome.
“Would You Jump on the Bed?”
A key component of my growth was the realization that the only thing I could change (and control!) was my own behavior. This was my tikkun. I saw a fragile and unhappy child in pain – emotional pain embedded in his neshama. “Children in pain” (as opposed to “children at risk”) can be compared to a teenager lying in bed with two broken legs. Using this metaphor, I’ve asked parents, “Would you jump on the bed? Or demand he get up and walk out the door?” Obviously, no parent would consider inflicting even more pain on their child or demanding the impossible – a simple walk to the door – under these circumstances. An “at risk,” “off the derech” child in pain deserves equal understanding and compassion. My nisayon was to work on strengthening our relationship, the importance of which superceded everything. I replaced blame, control, lectures, criticism and judgments (things that actually harm relationships, causing additional pain) with love, listening, respect, and acceptance. By giving up “direct control,” I gained “indirect control” through the strength of our improved relationship. No matter what he wore or did, he experienced unconditional love. My mantra became: “I see only the sparkle in your eye and the smile on your face. I love you.….. no matter what.” And I meant it.
Others have asked, what exactly is unconditional love, and what do you mean by “no matter what”?
During those turbulent nocturnal years, my son often returned home at daybreak. Feelings of fear for his wellbeing, as well as anger at his behavior, enveloped me each time I passed his empty bed. When he finally (BH!) walked through the door, my gut, hysterical, motherly reaction would have been to scream and blame. (One can imagine the typical speech, “Where have you been……!!!”) Instead, he was calmly greeted with a smile, “Hi, so glad you’re home,” and offered something to eat. No questions, no yelling. “No jumping on the bed!” I reminded myself over and over, with the flashing picture in my mind of my son, a pained, suffering child.
Another time, he noticed his passport was missing the day before his flight back home from Israel. At great expense to us, he was able to procure another passport, with our support. There was no blame, criticism or guilt trip throughout the process. We were so happy to see him (and the new passport picture). Months later, I asked him, “Do you know what it means each time I say, ‘I love you….no matter what?’” Noticing the quizzical look on his face, I answered, “The passport…. Remember the passport? That’s no matter what!”
Focus: Beyond the External
Today, I continue to focus beyond the external – to his neshama. Beyond his hat, payos, and bekeshe – the ultimate derech he has chosen. I still focus upon his sparkling eyes and smile… the radiant smile… of a chassan!
Guided by siyata diShmaya and hishtadlus –planting the seeds of respect and acceptance – it all began with an article in The Jewish Observer.
Hazorim bedima. Tears of joy flow.
Berina yiktzoru. As we reap a harvest of nachas.
I hope you will join in our simcha. Thank you, The Jewish Observer
Devorah Weiss (Edison, NJ)MSW, has been counseling parents of “at-risk” teens for several years. She is the founder of firstname.lastname@example.org mailto:email@example.com and can be reached through the JO office.
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