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Book Review: Off the Derech - by Faranak Margolese (Devora Publishing Jerusalem - New York)
Book Review by Rabbi Avrohom Meir Gluck
by Rabbi Avrohom Meir Gluck
Publication: Jewish Observer

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Jewish Observer Jan./Feb. 2006

Off the Derech is an outstanding contribution to understanding the recently emerging phenomena of assimilation from within the Orthodox ranks. The book is neither a J'accuse nor a Mea Culpa. It is a balanced, well researched, gripping missive which I had difficulty putting down. But be forewarned -- it is only suitable reading material for mature audiences. Be prepared to experience strong emotions such as disappointment, sadness and anger as you travel through its pages. A hearty approbation by Horav Zev Leff, Rav of Moshav Matisyohu, graces its pages. Rabbi Leff is a Talmud Muvhok of the late Telshe Rosh Yeshiva, Horav Mordechai Gifter, zt”l, one of our generation’s great Torah teachers in the area of machshova (Jewish thought). Mrs. Margolese was raised in a traditional Sephardic home and came to observance later in life. She was moved to write this book when she realized, in her own words, “75% of my friends had been raised in observant homes, but were no longer observant themselves.”

The author introduces this topic by debunking a number of common “myths” believed to be the primary causes of this new manifestation of assimilation. These myths include: lack of belief in Judaism, the freedom of the modern world, the infiltration of the outside culture and the incredible allure or yetzer hara of the street. She contends that none of these dangers, as damaging as they are, are the common cause for defection from Yiddishkeit. The reader may disagree with her conclusions, but be forewarned -- her arguments are persuasive. They are based on many hundreds of interviews with experts and with individuals who have been raised observant but subsequently dropped out. These “case studies” come from among the ranks of the Modern Orthodox, Sephardic, Yeshiva world and Chasidishe communities.

Her own conclusion is stunningly simple. In her words,

“People leave observance primarily because when they compared Judaism to its alternative, Judaism paled in comparison. It just didn’t seem worth it and in many cases, it seemed glaringly deficient… They experienced Judaism as a source of pain rather than joy. So they did what was natural: run in the other direction… these people ran away from the pain of the Jewish world to find refuge in the outside one. So they were not running to the outside world as much as they were running away from our own.”

This is very divergent from the popular view held by many – pointing the finger at media exposure and the secular culture as the primary cause for defection from our ranks. For the record, this reviewer’s experience at Project Y.E.S. validates the author’s position. Although addictive viewing of inappropriate material is obviously very damaging to spirituality, our experience has shown that only when exposure is traumatic will it cause complete defection from observance.

The volume is well organized. Margolese divides the book into three sections. The role of the emotions, the role of the intellect and the “Ability to Implement” are each explained to demonstrate how they contribute towards ensuring continued observance. I will cite an excerpt from each section to illustrate the concepts she presents. Many helpful insights are included which can be applied practically in our daily lives.

Chapter six, entitled, “Sholom Bayis and General Happiness”, explains how negative parent-child relationships and parent-parent relationships are a key factor in deterring continued observance by the children.

“A child in these troubling circumstances may also begin to create a subconscious association between Judaism and pain since the pain emanates from a religious world. As a result, he may confuse the source of pain, thinking that Yiddishkeit is the problem rather than the familial relationships[1] … It may complicate matters even more if children are taught to believe that simply being observant makes one happy. A child who is taught to expect that committing to Judaism brings happiness may question Judaism’s effectiveness and truth when he sees pain in his family or experiences it personally in his adult life. In such cases, the unhappiness will damage his perception of Judaism and cause him to lose faith in it or the teachers who taught him.”[2]

Chapter thirteen, entitled, “The Role of the Intellect”, describes why sometimes people who have been raised in happy, healthy homes -- and experienced Judaism positively, sometimes abandon Yiddishkeit.

“When a parent tells a child to so something ‘because I told you so,’ the child will comply. But he will not necessarily understand. When he grows up, he may observe out of rote or may stop observing altogether, because he was negatively motivated by fear rather than by love and respect… But teaching Torah must go beyond that. It must transform the soul – and this requires teaching principles – explaining and instructing so that a child can develop a Jewish consciousness, not simply a Jewish behavior, so that he can appreciate, respect and value the mitzvos and learn how to apply their lessons in every area of life… Providing reasons can help transform commitment to passion”[3].

The section on “Ability to Implement” speaks to a number of cultural changes in our community which make it difficult and for some, impossible, to remain observant. Chapter 27 entitled “Conformity and its Consequences” describes how the pressure to conform can be a very significant cause for discontinuing observance.

“While every community has its standards for behavior, observant communities seem to define more rigid standards and respond more intensely to deviation from the norm. Whether the standards are halachic or societal, legitimate or not, when they stifle self-expression, they can push people away from our communities and from observance itself[4]… This does not mean that all differences are acceptable or that individuals are never stifled. Existing in communities means making some sacrifices. But those sacrifices should exist in individual moments rather than define an entire way of life[5]… A narrow Judaism is simply less effective than a broader one, for it fails to be true to the greatness of Judaism and reveal it in all its inspiring aspects[6]… The parents whose children all stay on the derech are often the ones who implement this approach. They recognize the differences among their children and provide room for each to flourish according to his needs. In a sense, they do not believe in ‘a derech’. They believe in the derech that works best for their child.[7] These parents ensure that ”חנוך לנער על פי דרכו” does not remain an empty saying, meaningless in its application”[8]. (Reviewer: Unfortunately, too many read this verse, “חנוך לנער על פי דרכי”.) “This last group, the smallest -- those who leave observance because of implementation issues -- seem to have the easiest time returning. Their issues involve character traits and environmental circumstances rather than deep internal realities and thus seem easier to resolve. Sometimes all it takes to affect a return is a change in their circumstances, a modified behavior or supportive environment.”[9]

Equally refreshing are the frequent, well documented and sometimes outstanding Torah insights that are sprinkled throughout this work. On page 95, the book describes Elisha Ben Abuyah, the Torah sage who was the primary teacher of Rabbi Meir, who had abandoned religious observance.

“In one place, they (our sages) claim that Elisha was turned off from Judaism because he witnessed the disgrace of a holy Jewish man[10]. Alternatively, we are told that he went off the derech because of his father, Abuyah. Abuyah had put Elisha on the path of learning when he witnessed Torah scholars learning and was impressed by the honor they received… But which was the real cause – Elisha’s disillusionment or Abuyah’s ulterior motives? Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro explains that both were true.”

“Yes, Elisha was ‘turned off’ by witnessing the unspeakable disgrace of someone who deserved only honor. But where did Elisha acquire this weakness in his personality? Surely someone of Elisha’s stature should know that G-d’s ways are beyond understanding, and that the atrocities of this world are not a contradiction to the truth of the Torah.”

“But with a father like Abuyah, that’s what can be expected. To Abuyah, dedication to Torah depended on the glory it bestowed. He never [explicitly] taught this to Elisha, but Elisha acquired his father’s imperfection just the same. For someone whose commitment is due to the spectacular glory it brings, seeing the horrifying disgrace of a righteous sage can be devastating. “

“Elisha went off the path because he was raised by a man with an inadequate attitude toward Torah learning. Deep down he acquired that attitude himself, and [it] positioned him for failure – because parents’ actions leave an impression on children stronger than words can tell.”

As an aside, this piece of Talmud displays a stunning prescience that mental health professionals have only recently begun to understand. Exposure to trauma is a tremendous risk factor for defection from observance. With the necessary professional treatment, the trauma can be mitigated and/or resolved.

In this reviewer’s opinion, Mrs. Margolese has succeeded in authoring the first seminal work on contemporary assimilation from the ranks of the previously observant. Her work is a must-read for anyone whose work requires them to relate to Orthodox adults or youth. I would advise all parents to read this volume before their children grow to the age of Torah chinuch. My hat goes off (I’ll keep my yarmulke on, thank you) to Mrs. Margolese for making this well researched, well written contribution to Torah literature.

Rabbi Gluck is the Director of Operations of Agudath Israel’s Project Y.E.S. mentoring programs for teens, parents and educators. He is also the Rov of Congregation Kehilath Israel in Spring Valley, NY.

Letter to the Editor: (Jewish Observer - Oct. 2006)

In his review of Faranak Margolese’s Off the Derech (JO, January-February ’06), Rabbi Avrohom Meir Gluck found the book “balanced, well researched, [and] gripping.” I, too, read the book and it does indeed contain some fascinating insights into the off-the-derech phenomenon. Rabbi Gluck, who serves as administrator of Project Y.E.S., which deals with kids at risk, has apparently seen effective approaches pursued by Y.E.S. echoed in the pages of the book, and thus overlooked some of the book’s glaring shortcomings. May I point out some of these problems?

Looking For Reasons

First of all, the topic of kids going off the derech is a most elusive, multi-faceted issue. It cannot be quantified, simplified, or reduced to any equation. When trying to establish the cause-and-effect of why kids go off the derech, it takes more than just figures and statistics. It takes experience, insight, and the proper perspective.

The questions often boil down to, “What makes the most sense?” which means, “What makes the most sense to me?” – making it necessary to rely on one's own subjective outlook, understanding, and values to form conclusions. This also leads to the inevitable possibility that the interviewer may often use her findings to validate her own preconceived notions. It is imperative, therefore, that when searching for answers, we turn to those people who have an appreciation for our sacred value system and hashkafa (outlook), and are interested in perpetuating this derech in the most successful way possible.

Faranak Margolese clearly is an intelligent, firmly religious individual. But she never was a member of the yeshiva world. She continually endorses a "broader" (read: more modern) Judaism and berates the yeshiva system time and time again, pointing out “fallacies” and suggesting reforms that have major implications on how the mesora of Torah is transmitted (for example, all yeshivos should pattern their curriculum after yeshivos for baalei teshuva – pg. 215). These suggestions are objectionable on two counts. Firstly, major alterations of the mesora require the judgment of Gedolei Yisroel, with whom Margolese has failed to consult. Secondly, after being informed (at length) of the author's disenchantment with black-hat Judaism (see chapter 3), the reader is left wondering if Margolese's "solutions" are products of her research, or if her research is being used to validate her conclusions.

Inconclusive Research

The crux of Margolese’s research is the extensive interviews that she conducted with children and adults who have gone off the derech. She quotes candidly from these interviews, giving the reader an earful of complaints, frustrations, and angry, resentful and blasphemous remarks. She takes their comments at face value, making them the foundation upon which most of the book rests. Margolese admits that these interviews may not reflect reality. As experienced mental health professionals can testify, this is usually the case. Nevertheless, she argues, we need to understand what these people went through in terms of their own experience (pg. 16).

Here, the author makes a grave error. True, if you are counseling someone and helping them work through their feelings, it is more important to know “what they went through” subjectively than what actually transpired. But when you’re objective is to determine the real causes of people going off the derech, it is imperative that you know what really transpired.

People often look for excuses for why they chose to deviate from a Torah life. The decision to deviate, in effect, looks for an excuse. And often it comes after the fact, not before. Can one trust such a rationale?

Although many or most of her interviewees were unable to properly identify their reasons for going off the derech, enough people did come up with the same superficial reasons, and these speculative patterns became Margolese’s truth. What really ends up happening in this book is that Margolese uses the interviews to support her own theories.

Leaving Which Orthodoxy?

Early in the book, Margolese struggles to provide evidence that there is indeed a significant number of people abandoning Orthodox Judaism. The premise of the book is, after all, that the off-the-derech phenomenon is an epidemic, which would justify implementing the drastic changes that the author proposes for the yeshiva system. Nevertheless, she seems to be unable to show that the problem has reached such magnitude. Finally, she reverts to the argument that if 90% of Jews today are non-observant, each of whom had religious ancestors, that is a clear indication of people abandoning Yiddishkeit because our contemporary Torah life is inherently flawed. Here the author has taken a leap, assigning an assumed cause to a statistic that is the product of a multitude of factors that span many decades of Jewish history. The statistic has no clear relevance to the subject of Off the Derech. Equally unconvincing is her argument that the off-the-derech phenomenon has reached epidemic proportions as evidenced by the sales of the 1995 Jewish Observer dealing with teens at risk.

Aside from personal interviews, Margolese’s research included a survey that she conducted on the Internet. There are a number of problems with this source of information. Firstly, as explained above, one cannot rely on the spin of those who went off the derech.

Secondly, over seventy percent of the poll’s responses are from people who were brought up either secular or marginally Orthodox (not shomer halacha, other than Shabbos and kashrus). Throughout the book, Margolese refers to the answers supplied by these people in her analysis of the yeshiva community (the primary focus of Off the Derech). This is like testing apples in a laboratory to find out the properties of oranges.

Problems With Her Methods

1. The following is one of Margolese’s solutions to the off-the-derech epidemic: “To establish strong belief, we need to encourage our children to explore their beliefs, ask questions, and challenge the status quo.” (pg.374) She asserts that we must let adolescents “find their own Torah” instead of imposing faith on them (pg. 73). Although, she admits, this is risky, “we must walk in G-d’s ways and allow our children free choice, just as Adam, the first child, was allowed to falter.” (ibid.) Baalei teshuva, she argues, “often have more passionate commitments to observance than those born into it” because they have gone through this exploratory process.

She then goes on to argue that going through a period of grappling with belief is essential to the religious development of every Jew. The author thus presents a “solution” that is clearly incompatible with the hashkafos of our mesora as taught by the leaders of our generation and their predecessors. Firstly, it is forbidden by halacha to study alternate religions and “life-styles,” and to engage in challenging our G-d-given mesora. Secondly, the very exploratory type of education that Margolese suggests is likely to send many children down a path of no return – hardly a solution to the problem of defection from Judaism. Thirdly, creating a strong basis of emuna in young children requires teaching them to experience G-d as a reality. By doing so, we are instilling a belief that runs deeper than any intellectual understanding. Encouraging youth to challenge this reality can run contrary to the development of emuna as "second nature" (emuna peshuta). According to our mesora, it is only after a strong foundation is established that intellectual exploration of any sort is in place.

2. One of the causes of kids going off the derech, according to Margolese, is when teachers claim to be able to transmit foundations of belief with certainty. Since we cannot be certain that G-d exists, she asserts, it is wrong to "trick" children into thinking so:

“There is always an element of doubt when it comes to our life beliefs, but we pick a side anyway – we take a leap.” (page 179)

By asserting that to believe in G-d's existence one must take a "leap of faith," the author makes a terrible error. There are, in fact, countless authoritative sources stating that we are indeed commanded to KNOW that there is a G-d (see, for example, Rambam, Hil. Yesodei Hatorah 1,1), and this is how it has been for millennia. In her flawed understanding, Margolese misrepresents a basic foundation of Yiddishkeit.

3. Margolese candidly quotes the rebellious youth that she interviews, even when their comments are not fit to print. (See page 59.) Inappropriate expressions cannot be deemed acceptable reading material.

4. Page after page, Margolese makes unfounded, sweeping statements regarding such as: “[They] stress mitzvot bein adam lamakom and ignore the interpersonal mitzvot.”

“[They] currently spend a lot of time discussing prohibitions and not enough time focusing on things that are permissible and inherently positive.”

“[They] focus on duty…. While society at large goes too far in valuing happiness, we have gone too far in almost ignoring it completely.” (pg. 229) Her judgmental observations fly in the face of the vibrant, confident ambiance of the yeshiva world.

“[They] focus on everything else at the expense of hashkafa, truth at the expense of meaning, mitzvoth at the expense of a universal and national vision, particularism at the expense of similarities of others, Gemara at the expense of basics, the past at the expense of the future, ritual at the expense of ethics, fear at the expense of love, negatives at the expense of positives, duty at the expense of pleasure and happiness, information at the expense of inspiration, blind faith at the expense of reason (they stifle questions).” (pg. 253) – A mishmash of sweeping generalizations and total misunderstandings of priorities in religious education.

“Our communities become obstacles to observance in a variety of ways…. This can lead to arrogance, judgmental behavior, and ostracism of others.” (pg. 345)

In sum, she totally misrepresents the yeshiva community and educational system, giving the reader the impression that it is repressive, unsophisticated, and out of touch with reality, when any visitor to yeshivos cannot but be invigorated by the pervasive atmosphere, permeated with a joyful sense of purpose and dedication to personal growth.

In Summary

In conclusion, within the 400 pages of her book, Margolese occasionally hits on some important points and eloquently presents well-thought-out analyses that are on the mark. In light of all the aforementioned objections, however, these morsels of truth are hardly sufficient to validate the book as a whole. In fact, one of the greatest dangers of Off the Derech is that its good points and objectionable material are interspersed. The average reader, finding points that he or she agrees with, is likely to overlook Off the Derech’s shortcomings and be lured into concurring with its conclusions.

Furthermore, it is not necessary to consult Off the Derech to glean the positive parts of the book. They have all appeared in various published works on chinuch and character building, during these past few years.

Endorsing Off the Derech is an insult to the yeshiva world, implying that we need to “look outside” for the answers to the issues facing our community. Are we truly so at loss for guidance? Let us consult our own leaders, our own mechanchim, and our own mental health professionals who are in tune with daas Torah, on matters that are clearly of a hashkafa nature.

While Rabbi Gluck may find “her work a must-read for anyone who works… with Orthodox… youth under threat,” I would strongly limit that endorsement for the reasons outlined above.

Yair Spolter

Kiryat Sefer

Rabbi Spolter is rebbe at Mosdos Kesher, a Yerushalayim-based yeshiva for American youth at risk. Due to space limitations, Spolter's letter does not appear in its entirety. Additionally, some of the examples that he cites of inappropriate material found in Off the Derech were deemed unfit for publication in the JO. The unedited version is available at

Rabbi Gluck's Replies:

Rabbi Spolter credits me with effective approaches at Project Y.E.S., which I truly appreciate. In reality, my review doesn’t reflect on Project Y.E.S.’s wonderful work. It is simply the product of my the mesora I have received from my diverse rebbeim and my own life experience.

He begins by expressing doubt that “the of-the-derech phenomenon has reached epidemic proportions” in our Torah community”. I respectfully submit that our mutual, full time occupations in this field, and dozens like us, provide adequate evidence.

Much of his unhappiness with “Off the Derech” stems from his stated perception that the author is addressing the “yeshiva community,” advising the “yeshiva community” and misrepresenting the “yeshiva community”. This is an unfortunate misreading of this volume. Mrs. Margolese makes it very clear that she never was, and is not currently, a member of the yeshiva community. She also makes it clear that her subjects for interview were, by and large, not defectors from the yeshiva community. She is also patently clear, that to her way of thinking, individuals who were raised “not shomer halacha, other than Shabbos and Kashrus” (quoting Rabbi Spolter) who leave that splintered observance, should be a grave concern to us and is a serious part of her discussion.

The critique supposes that the faulty methodologies she describes and proposes solutions for – are methodologies practiced in the Yeshivos. Mrs. Margolese never makes this assertion. To state, that “she totally misrepresents the yeshiva community and educational system, giving the reader the impression that it is repressive, unsophisticated, and out of touch with reality,” is simply unfair. She is clearly talking to, and about, the broad Orthodox community and not the “yeshiva community” as the writer suggests.

They majority of our beloved mechanchim and menahalim are well educated, well trained and more than simply, well-intentioned. These are heroes of the first degree who are overwhelmed with the large numbers of children in every classroom who need special attention (not special education). (To combat this problem, Project Y.E.S. launched the KESHER school program last year, now operating in more than a dozen schools nationwide. KESHER trains the entire staff about role conflicts, relationships and boundaries in daily conduct between teachers and children. A trained counselor goes into the school every week for up to four hours, to spend time with the rebbeim/teachers, seeking solutions for creating better interactions with individual children in their classroom. Some of our best schools have signed up for this donor-sponsored program, and are presenting excellent results.)

Understandably, many of us have an instinctive reaction that automatically deflects any and all criticism directed at the yeshiva community and its institutions. Perhaps the time has come to acknowledge that merely by identifying a school as charedi does not preclude the unfortunate reality of flaws in that individual school – or our yeshiva system as a whole.

Despite Rabbi Spolter’s protest, the individual horror stories recited by the interviewees in Ms. Margolese’s book ring true, whatever her own agenda may be. Let us face up to an unfortunate truth: not every person in our educational system knows how to deal effectively with our youth. There are just too many instances of unfair and unjust criticism, rigid discipline that was unfairly enforced, favoritism, and other forms of insincerity that sours the students’ experience in many of our institutions. It is unfair to trot out ‘the gedolim’ at every juncture as if they were actually being consulted in the daily operations of every school, supported every policy, or approved of the individuals employed at decision-making levels. (Seven years ago, I admonished a prominent big- city menahel for still hitting children as a form of education. I cited a member of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah’s opinion – who took the trouble to mail to me a page of Pele Yoetz – that corporal punishment is forbidden today. Regretfully, this 50-something menahel, a talmid of that very Rosh Yeshiva, still defends his practices and his right to be the final authority in his school.)

Rabbi Spolter raises concerns that Mrs. Margolese’s proposals do not follow our mesora. In the same issue of Jewish Observer in which my review appears, there is an applicable quote in Yehuda Levy’s excellent article about disagreements between our diverse communities and the halachic mesora. “Before we disqualify any idea as totally out of bounds, we should first make sure that not one authority supported it.” In fact, the first problem that Rabbi Spolter cites with Margolese’s solutions is amply supported by Reb Klonimos Kalman of Piecesna, zt”l, who suggested this very approach in his landmark Chovas Hatalmidim, which he produced in 1942. (See the entire introduction entitled, שיח עם מלמדים ואבות הבנים. And specifically the paragraph, ד"ה לא די ללמד את הנער.) I am aware through gracious email communication with Rabbi Spolter that he does not understand the above quote in the way I have represented it. But this is דרכה של תורה – והבוחר יבחר.

Finally, I don’t agree with Rabbi Spolter’s supposition that “the average reader… is likely to overlook Off the Derech’s shortcomings and be lured into concurring with its conclusions.” I believe that Jewish Observer readers easily recognize the names of the individuals quoted in the well-footnoted materials for whom they are and for what they stand. I apologize to Rabbi Spolter who states that he feels insulted, as a member of the yeshiva world, by my endorsement. No slight was intended to a talmid chochom of his caliber or to any member of my world – the yeshiva world.

To sum up – l don’t expect to agree with everything I read and JO readers shouldn’t either. But I stand by my statement that "it is a must read for anyone whose work requires them to relate to Orthodox adults or youth under threat." Having spent the last 8 years of my life dealing with the at-risk phenomenon – and seeing the ravages of what happens when children do not make it in our schools, for whatever reason – it is my strong feeling that the painful process of reflection is vital and long overdue. Part of this process must include a no holds barred discussion, seeking answers to the critical question of why too many of our precious children are leaving yiddishkeit. If we, proud members of the yeshiva world, will not engage ourselves in this process, others will do it for us.

[1] p. 87

[2] p. 89

[3] p. 208-212

[4] p. 302

[5] p. 308 This reviewer conjectures that our community’s current infatuation with conformity may be a form of religious “backlash” to western society’s enthusiastic embrace of every form of diversity, good or ignoble.

[6] p. 375

[7] p. 377

[8] p. 377

[9] p. 364

[10] Elisha saw the tongue of חוצפית המתורגמן, one of the ten holy martyrs, wallowing in a garbage dump after his execution by the Romans, Chulin 142a)

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