Releasing Community Control and Widening the Path of Torah for Our Children

‘Fear no one, but G-d alone.’ 

By Miriam Racquel Feldman

I recently came across a letter from my son that was written to the Lubavitcher Rebbe (some people send these to the Ohel and some put into the Igros Kodesh—my family’s way is to use the Igros Kodesh) with a list of complaints about a yeshiva that he was in. Though the letter was not dated, I can guess from the content that it’s from a few years ago when he was about 15 years old, attending a yeshiva that he loathed.

In the letter, he told the Rebbe that his mother (meaning me) asked him to write a list of the good and bad things about the yeshiva because he wanted to come home; he didn’t want to attend that yeshiva anymore.

This was his list of the bad:

The chairs ruin your body

They don’t know how to teach people to be better 

There is no time to exercise

I’m always in a rush

I do not like the feeling of the yeshiva at all

The kids are bad and therefore I’m in a bad environment

I’m not learning

Davening is bad

I can’t learn what I want to learn

Someone dumps things on the floor by a search (the hanhalla has the kid’s stuff searched, looking for phones or music or other confiscatable things and apparently after they search, they don’t respectfully return the bochur’s things back to its original place; instead the bochur’s things are just left dumped on the floor)

You can’t listen to Matisyahu

You can’t do what you want

I’m not becoming a better person

I’m wasting my time and not accomplishing anything 

The two good things:

Some of the teachers who I’d like more time with

My friends

My mind is a bit fuzzy about the details of this time, but the point that remains clear was that my yiras shomayim, frum son was in danger of leaving the Yiddishkeit values that we had, with the mesiros nefesh of baalei teshuva, raised him with.

In fact, those were pretty much his words when during one of his weekly calls from this yeshiva, he said, “Mom, if there is anywhere that I’m going to frei out, it’s here.” When he returned home for a vacation, that must have been when the letter was written.

We did return him back to the yeshiva and tried to rectify things for him the best we could, but we had little control from afar. I know that I did finish his year out with trepidation that his faith would be shaken and committed to myself to find another yeshiva that would be better for him.

Boruch Hashem, we did find one. It was one that some people in the “system” warned us about—“that yeshiva is only for … kids.” I’m grateful that I didn’t listen to the warnings and instead sent my son to a school that I had heard consistently that the boys going there “loved it.” I don’t exactly know what magic they do there, but my son also loved it, and his Yiddishkeit remained intact.

I guess loving a place of Torah does wonders for one’s Yiddishkeit. Who would have guessed? Obviously, not the frum schools that use punishment for purpose and focus too hard to install limited cultural interpretations of the Torah—white shirts, black hats and other dress codes, yarmulkes needing to look a certain way, etc.

I mentioned this in a previous article, but it can be mentioned repeatedly since this message should be the modus operandi of all Torah schools: “Today’s children,” the Lubavitcher Rebbe said, “do not need to be overly criticized or lectured about their shortcomings. They are their own biggest critics. Instead, they need to hear more about their strengths and incredible potential.”

My point here is not to just blatantly complain about bad yeshiva systems. What I’m hoping to convey is that in the present system of our communities and our schools, there is room for improvement, and in some instances, for thinking outside the box.

Of course, I’m not the only one saying it. In an article in Vos Iz Neias, Avi Fishoff, “Twisted Parenting” creator, says that “yeshiva systems need a major overhaul” and he is calling for a “drastic change to the religious education system.” He says “the one-size-fits-all approach taken by many yeshivos is failing a substantial number of students.”

There are Torah values to convey and pass on lovingly, and then there are the community’s expectations and educational expectations that have a very narrow perspective of Yiddishkeit. Is there a way that we can look beyond the frumkeit of how we and the community think it “should be” when raising our children?

At schools and perhaps at home, some children are treated like criminals. Did you do your negel vasser, did you daven, did you say your brachas, did you … ? Why are you dressed like that, why are you doing that?

For my son, was it more important to find what was in that bochur’s possessions than to treat his things with respect? To treat him with respect? Was the Gemara that they were learning more important than teaching how to be a mensch, a better person? Did everything have to be controlled and the kids not trusted? And why are the kids not trusted? What are they trying to get away with? And why are they trying to get away with things in the first place? What’s going on inside them? Does anyone care to know and find out?

And the knas system—does it inspire the bochurim to actually want to do the right thing? To have yiras shomayim?

The desire for Yiddishkeit has to come from within, not from external control. Our kids are up against a tidal wave of confusion, of pleasure from the outside world of fun, excitement and a quick fulfillment of desires.

The Torah can hold up to this onslaught. But not in the way that it’s being handed down in many communities. The Torah is broad, it looks beyond what kind of kippa is on a kid’s head (if one at all), what kind of clothes that child is wearing, what kind of music that child is listening to.

The Torah looks to the pintele yid inside the Jew, and it is always beautiful. It is beyond frumkeit and restrictions and judgements. Those judgements are sucking the life out of Torah.

Our children need to breathe, they need to be looked at as whole, not broken. They need to be looked at with love and kindness.

Torah looks beyond external frumkeit. Can we?

In a Rosh Hashanah song by Aish Hatorah, there is a beautiful line: “Lift up your vision to what G-d can see.” G-d sees the pintele yid in every Jew. Halacha does matter, but judgements and expectations are crushing our youth.

I finished a book recently called, I Love When That Happens, by Schwartzie (makes for a great Chanukah gift, by the way). It’s an inspiring read about Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, who was an unconventional pioneer in the Orthodox world in reaching thousands of Jews and non-Jews and teaching them Torah wisdom. He sometimes wore tie-dye shirts and suspenders, held out-of-the-box shiurim and brought a bit of heaven down to earth. He was completely in line with halacha at all times and a force to be reckoned with, yet if he had walked down the streets in Monsey, N.Y., or popped into most yeshivas, he likely would have been stared at, criticized and judged.

Dr. Laz, who wrote Skullcaps and Switchblades about his adventures as an Orthodox Jew teaching in public schools, is also completely unconventional, yet inspires thousands of Jews in the way of Torah. 

He also has an incredible effect on non-Jews, makes a kiddush Hashem in his love of humanity, while doing everything in accordance with halacha. But again, if any of our children dressed like him or acted like him in many of our shuls or schools, what would happen?

We truly have the ability to expand our vision and broaden the Torah-based track for our children. We just have to go beyond what, until now, has been our frumkeit boxes.

I’d like to finish with this story of the Baal Shem Tov from the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn:

When I was five years old I was orphaned from both my father and mother. The last words spoken to me by my holy father before his passing were: “Yisrolik, fear nothing but G‑d alone.”

Consonant with my father’s words I was drawn to walk the fields and the great, deep forest near our village. From cheder I would make my way to the fields, where I would review by heart what I had learned in cheder. Often I would sleep over the night in the field or the forest.

My guardians, who looked after me and several other orphan boys and girls, did not tolerate this behavior of mine to wander in the fields and the forest, and dealt severely with me.

Our kids don’t need to sleep in the forests, but they also should not need to escape from their guardians, whether these are teachers, rabbis or family, because they are being treated harshly and critically.

Our generation didn’t start this behavior towards children, but we can end it. Can we look beyond the present presentation of frumkeit, widen our perspectives and views, drop community expectations and judgements, see how our children are hurting inside from biases, criticisms and unnecessary pressures, and show up more loving and kind?

Faulty systems can change when we fear G-d more than the limited viewpoints of imperfect human beings.

As the Baal Shem Tov’s father made clear to his son, “Fear no one, but G-d alone.” 

This amazing quote belongs in the home, the shuls and the schools: 

“I thought that setting limits and teaching values was the main objective of parenting, but I now know that it’s this: making your home the most safe, fun and loving place to be. I wish I could reach a long arm back through time and hug those kids and also myself. I would say, ‘Oh honey. Just breathe. It’s good enough. You’re good enough. Love. Just love.’ ”

— Ruchi Koval, co-founder and director of the Jewish Family Experience in Cleveland

Practical help:

  • “Twisted Parenting” videos by Avi Fishoff, in which he shares his wisdom and the Torah wisdom of sages
  • Rabbi Shimon Russel
  • Devorah Weiss and Choice Theory

Miriam Racquel Feldman is a somatic healer, clarity coach and relationship expert, helping to empower women to trust themselves through the wisdom of their bodies and intuition. An avid gardener, she lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her husband and children. She has a new eguide: “The Mindbody Wellness Dating Guide For Frum Women—Questions, Red Flags, Brakes, and the Good Stuff.” Learn more at MiriamRacquel.com.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s