For those of us that have been involved in outreach and fighting assimilation, whether as a full-time senior lecturer (as is the case with Rabbi Mordechai Becher) or as a lay activist leader (as is the case with Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon), various acronyms have become an accepted part of our mainstream “working lexicon” e.g. B.T. (Baal Teshuva), F.F.B (Frum From Birth) and F.F.H (Frum From Habit) … It is for the last mentioned category that we have coined the phrase “Adults at Risk.”
Our analyses of this phenomenon will emphasize some primary causes of the Adult at Risk crisis and more importantly, some proposed solutions. At the outset, however, a clarification of the topic at hand is essential …
What does “Adults at Risk” really mean?
Perhaps the best way to define the topic is to relay a conversation between one of the co-authors of this article and Rav Nachman Bulman, (Mashgiach of Ohr Somayach) Z”TL, a few years before he passed away. One of the most common objections to Torah heard from secular Jews is that they “… know an Orthodox Jew who was not honest in his business dealings and whose character left much to be desired …” In hearing this complaint the Mashgiach repeated the maxim that “ it’s not whether you go through Shas, its whether Shas goes through you …”
Rav Bulman, ZT”L pointed out that if a person’s learning and involvement in mitzvos do not make a fundamental change in his character, behavior and outlook, he could end up (to paraphrase the Mashgiach) going through life like an empty shell. Not only will he not have a sincere relationship with the Almighty, but most frighteningly, he convinces himself that he is a true oved Hashem…
Based on the comments of Rav Bulman, Z”TL, we may define the “risk” that is under discussion as the risk of going through life as a “spiritual zombie.” In other words, living an Orthodox lifestyle out of habit and convenience because it is a familiar routine; a good way to get off from the office a few extra days a year, and good for the kids, as long as it does not involve too much sacrifice.
While there may not be an immediate “risk” of these “Adults at Risk” going off the derech in the traditional sense, we submit that paradoxically “Adults at Risk” should present as much of a “wake up call” to our communities or perhaps even more than their “Kids at Risk” namesake. Unlike “Kids at Risk,” “Adults at Risk,” are not only unaware that they personally have a problem, but sadly, many of these “Adults at Risk,” for obvious reasons, are likely to contribute to the creation of “Kids at Risk.”
Case histories illustrating the extent of the Adult at Risk crises
In order to appreciate the magnitude and broad spectrum of the Adult at Risk phenomenon in our communities, we have outlined some case histories that we have been involved in first-hand. If any of these examples resonate or maybe even remind you of the person davening two seats away from you, perhaps you will agree that the word “crisis” is not an exaggeration:
- Following a lecture at a recent Shabbaton in Canada entitled “If Hashem loves me why do I feel so much pain?” one of the co-authors of this article was approached by a frum-looking gentleman, who talked and dressed in a yeshivishe manner.
His anxiety and confusion were obvious … “Rabbi,” he said somewhat sheepishly, “I’m almost embarrassed to say this but I’ve spent my entire life in mainstream Yeshivas … I have a wife and five children … why didn’t I learn this stuff in Yeshiva?”
Further probing made it clear that some basic concepts discussed during the Shabbaton, such as the fact that “Hashem loves you more than you love your own children;” and that “there is a big difference between feeling pain and something being ‘bad;’” had never formed part of his understanding of Torah.
When asked why he felt that he had not ever had the opportunity to get some clarity on these issues as a student, the response was all too predictable … “Rabbi, we were never encouraged to ask existential questions, and worse, were made to feel like fools if we showed interest in anything other than the classic Gemara curriculum.”
- A scenario that is becoming all too common … One of the co-authors is asked to speak with a young man who grew up in a Chassidishe community … Again the dialogue is one that has been repeated in several other such consultations … it goes something like this: “… Rabbi I have spent my whole life in good Yeshivas in the Williamsburg area … I had to leave kollel to get a job … I was always told that the outside world was filled with only immoral and dishonest people … In my experience so far, I have found that not to be the case … If that is not unsettling in and of itself, I have been asked questions about Judaism for the first time by co-workers and I don’t have the answers … This is all very confusing … I am starting to question some of my basic beliefs for the first time … ”
- A complaint that we hear frequently is, to paraphrase a cliché that they feel all-dressed up in Orthodox garb with nowhere to go. They are well versed in the outward manifestations of keeping the Torah, but lack simchah and inspiration in their Torah observance … “Rabbi” comes the complaint, “I grew up in the heart of [fill in your favorite frum community] and I only heard about sacrifice and mesirus nefesh. I never heard about emunah, joy, love or inspiration. … shul was always dull … and I remember my father always impatient in shul, looking forward to reading a newspaper, and rushing through the seudas Shabbos so he could sleep …”
Some of the major causes of “Adults at Risk” …
Lack of solid foundation in areas of hashkafah and emunah
Yeshivas such as Ohr Somayach and Aish Hatorah which are directed to towards students with a secular background and world view, provide a strong foundation in a classic Torah hashkafah and emunah, but equally as important, encourage and embrace questions, arguments and existential discussions.
Most students who spend time in these environments will become familiar with some of the best known English, contemporary “building block” works on hashkafah and emunah that, to quote one prominent Rosh Yeshiva’s haskamah, have become “essential reading for people serious about these topics.” Some of these publications include - Rabbi Lawrence Keleman’s “Permission to Believe;” Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb’s “Informed Soul;” Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s “If You Were G-d,” and “Living Inspired” by Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz.
We are not suggesting that our classic seforim on hashkafah – such as the Ramchal’s Mesilas Yesharim or Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s Nefesh HaChayim – can be replaced by the aforementioned contemporary works. Rather, it is often the case that a contemporary style, language and approaches designed for a skeptical beginner, may provide clarity, and on many occasions, life changing insights because it speaks in a familiar language, and confronts familiar issues that may not have been addressed in their Yeshivah education. These works and classes of a similar genre have been able to supply people with information and inspiration that they did not receive in their Yeshiva education.
In short, if Yeshivah graduates were better equipped from a philosophical, hashkafic and emunah perspective, they would not become unglued and de-stabilized when they face challenges to their beliefs, questions about Torah, or just the inevitable bumps in life’s journey.
Burnt out teachers generally produce students ripe for “burn out”
The old adage that one cannot “kid a kid” rings even louder in the case of chinuch … The phenomenon of a burnt out teacher who is not able or willing to relate to his students and disseminate the rich beauty of Torah in a manner that will build a deep foundation is often the catalyst for an “Adult at Risk time bomb” that ticks softly until a full blown crises detonates it.
We have both been asked many times to administer “spiritual emergency treatment” in the frum community to prevent another adult F.F.B from becoming an Adult at Risk. Too many of these “patients” have attributed their problems to negative experiences during their formative Yeshiva years for us to believe that such cases are anomalies. A burnt out rebbi who resorts to verbal abuse (or c”v physical abuse) in his desperate attempt to make a point when patience runs thin is planting the seeds for an Adult at Risk down the road.
Continuous negativity toward everything in “the outside world” sows the seeds of destruction
A plethora of studies in the fields of psychology and education underscore the importance of positive reinforcement and of building students’ self-esteem of students in order to ensure an all-round balanced and happy individual.
A recent story shared by a bitter, former-yeshiva student with one of the co-author’s makes the point about the consequences of being over-critical:
A yeshiva student was happily dancing at his former room-mate’s wedding, and pushed his way “to the middle of the circle” to entertain the chosen and kallah (successfully, we should add) with a break-dance (ask your teenager if you don’t know what this is). He was in a great mood, full of simchah, full of love for his fellow Jews,and feeling good about himself, until his Rosh Yeshivah pulled him aside at the chasanah and strongly criticized him for a dance step “from the street.”
What will the Rosh Yeshiva say after 120 years when he learns that his comment was one of a series of little pushes, and perhaps even “the last straw,” that eventually sent this promising student “out of the circle completely” and out of Torah observance?
On the other hand, Orthodox parents who preach to their children the importance of Torah (i.e. getting good grades in Gemara etc.) while discussing nothing but current affairs, headline news and work at the Shabbos table, are sending the type of mixed message to the next generation that will only increase their fascination with everything but Torah, by showing that the “real action is outside the four cubits of Torah.”
Our obligation to stop the “Adult at Risk” phenomenon from spiraling even more …
Before suggesting some solutions to curtail the “Adult at Risk” syndrome, a word or two on our obligation to expend the time and energy necessary to ensure that we have no further hemorrhaging within our own ranks …
The chiyuv that we all have to reach out to our unaffiliated brothers and sisters has been the topic of much literature. Aside from the Torah principle that “kol Yisrael arayvim ze le ze” and the outspoken calls to action from the time of the Chofetz Chaim, we are all aware of the recent public declarations of our Gedolim for every Torah Observant Jew to be participatein the mitzvah of kiruv rechokim. But what of our obligation of kiruv krovim?
If anything, all indications are that the obligation that we have to “stop the bleeding” within our own camp is at least as great an obligation. Apart from the devastating effect on families and communities, in the case of an F.F.B that becomes an Adult at Risk the “tinok shenishbah” card cannot be played. In addition, many readers may be familiar with one of the battle cries of the former Munkatcher Rebbe, that, “before trying to “make a profit”, one should ensure that he is not losing what he already has.” While many Gedolim disagreed with the Munkatcher’s objections to kiruv rechokim, there is no question that they wholeheartedly agreed with the need to preserve and guard what we already have.
Proposed solutions to the Adult at Risk syndrome …
Some general solutions are implicit in the comments above. More specifically, some approaches that have proved effective include the following:
Validate, do not castigate doubts and fears …
One of the greatest mistakes one can make is to reject a question or questioner out of hand. Our experience has shown us that for a frum person who is experiencing doubts and questioning an axiom of Torah, nothing is worse than being made to feel abnormal or crazy or to be told “don’t ask questions”, or “what are you? An apikoros!’
On the contrary, a person suffering from a spiritual existential crisis is in tremendous pain. They need to feel validated and encouraged to ask whatever questions are causing them confusion. Our prime directive is to listen to and accept without prejudice or criticism (or even reaction) any question at all on any topic.
Encourage the study of Taamei Hamitzvos …
The study of Taamei Hamitzvos, often a neglected field in standard Yeshiva education is vital to giving an Adult at Risk a sense of meaning in what he is doing. The verse states, “Taamu ur’ooh ki tov Hashem” (Tehillim 34:9) “Taste and see that Hashem is good.” Rav Moshe Shapiro Shlita explained this as an exhortation to look into the taamei hamitzvos (the ‘taste’, or reasons of the commandments) and that when one does so, one will see immediately that Hashem is good and that He has commanded us these mitzvos for our benefit. Classics such as Sefer Hachinuch, and Horeb by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, as well as contemporary works in this field abound.
Refreshing kiruv type seminars should be embraced in frum communities …
In our experience in numerous seminars and classes, people with kiruv oriented skills are often best equipped to recharge the confused and tired “spiritual batteries” of Orthodox adults suffering from burn out. In addition to the hashkafa and communication training that we have, it seems that F.F.B’s find it is less embarrassing and perhaps less threatening to speak with people who regularly confront these questions rather than shock or “lose face” in front of their shul Rabbi. Moreover, after many years in the field, there is hardly a question that will be a total surprise.
Some of the kinds of programs that every Orthodox community and/synagogue should embrace include the following:
- Project Chazon under the leadership of Rabbis Daniel Mechanic and Yerachmiel Milstein, which presents comprehensive Hashkafah seminars on the Yesodei HaEmunah to Yeshiva and Bais Yaakov high school students throughout the United States and Canada. To date, over 1200 programs have been presented to over 100,000 students in over 200 schools.
- Gateways’ staff of internationally acclaimed lecturers has had a profound effect on the lives of thousands of observant Jews who have attended Gateway’s Retreats during Pesach, Shavuos and Rosh Hashanah, as well as their advanced-track seminars presented on a frequent basis throughout the country.
Avoid a “fire and brimstone” approach
The Adult at Risk candidate should have a totally new type of learning experience dissociated from previous negative experiences. The learning interaction has to be as friendly and informal as possible with no “put downs” nor “hakpadahs” by the teacher. The text should be fresh to them e.g. something like Kuzari , Michtav MeEliyahu or Maharal, as opposed to texts that they are likely to have studied in Yeshivah or seminary. Most importantly subjects should include the Ikrei Emunah and the authenticity of the Sinai Revelation, and the Torah Sheba’al Peh, the Oral Law.
At the end of the day, our experience has clearly shown us that the feeling that there is someone
who truly cares, that one is not being judged, and that it is normal to have ups and downs in one’s spiritual journey, is at least as important as the content and information of the class. Love, warmth and friendship are perhaps the most vital ingredients in dealing with a crisis in faith.
F.F.Bs and B.Ts - a symbiotic relationship …
Much has been written about the importance of ensuring that people from a secular background who have turned to Torah and have committed themselves to Yiddishkeit should aim to become integrated into the mainstream Orthodox community. To that end, the F.F.B community plays a significant function as role models and mentors.
Paradoxically in the case of the Adult at Risk, which occurs almost exclusively within the F.F.B. camp, Baalei Teshuvah can serve as the spark that rekindles the flame of inspiration in the established frum community. Recordings of shiurim by “kiruv” lecturers, reading materials that address questions F.F.B’s so often feel too embarrassed to ask, and the popularity of kiruv type seminars in the heart of frum communities are now common sights …
If there is any positive fall-out from the looming Adult at Risk crisis it seems to be the fact that as the kiruv and teshuvah movements mature and expand, the newly observant and the traditionally observant worlds are becoming more intertwined in a positive and mutually beneficial way … After all, at the end of the day, we all report to the same Boss!
Heard directly from HaGaon Rav Moshe Shapiro Shlita
The sub-title of this article, “Will Your Grandchild Be Jewish?” is a “play on words based on the title of Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon’s article and accompanying demographic chart entitled “Will Your Grandchild Be Jewish?” which he co-authored with Richard M. Horowitz, the North American President of Aish Hatorah and which was first published in the JO in 1996.
Rabbi Mordechai Becher, originally from Australia, is a Senior Lecturer for the Gateways Organization. Before joining the staff of Gateways, Rabbi Becher taught at Yeshivas Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem for 15 years. Rabbi Becher received his Rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. His latest book Gateway to Judaism was published by Artscroll last year and is now in its second printing. He has co-authored two books on contemporary issues in Halachah and has responded to thousands of legal, ethical and philosophical questions on the Ask the Rabbi website. Rabbi Becher lives with his wife, Chavy, and their six children in Passaic, New Jersey.
Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon, originally from South Africa, has been a frequent contributor to the JO on topics related primarily to kiruv rechokim and Jewish demographics. Chanan has been involved in issues pertaining to outreach on a national and international level for the past 15 years and has assumed leadership positions in various capacities including, Chairman of this years’ AJOP Convention; serving on the Board of Gateways and chairman of The L.A. Kiruv Coalition. Chanan received his Rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and Pirchei Shoshanim. He graduated with a Fulbright Scholarship from the Harvard Law School and is the Managing Director of Investor Relations for East Avenue Capital Partners, a hedge fund. Chanan lives with his wife, Lebe, and their five children in Los Angeles, California.
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