Category Archives: Parenting

Let’s Get Honest About the “At Risk” Thing

We in the Orthodox Jewish world have become accustomed to using the term “at risk” to describe teenagers who, because of unmet needs and resulting negative feelings, go about trying to satisfy their needs in ways we find tragic, one of which is to cease their observance of Torah and mitzvos. This “off the derech” type has become a familiar personality in the cast of frum characters, like the water carrier or dairyman of the shtetl. The question is, when does this person become “at risk”? Is it only when he or she stops davening? When he or she begins to experiment with drugs? When he or she stops keeping Shabbos?

Logically speaking, anyone who is exposed to conditions that endanger him or her is to be considered “at risk”. And, if you noticed, I loaded this question earlier when I placed “at risk” within the framework of Non-Violent Communication (NVC).  People have needs and feelings. When their needs are met, they have good feelings. When their needs are unmet, they have bad feelings. But they continue to attempt to satisfy their needs.  The problem is, trying to satisfy one’s needs amidst bad feelings tends to lead a person down some very dysfunctional detours.

This basic needs/feelings formula may be an oversimplification in some regards, but I believe that (in combination with other factors) lies at the heart of the aggressive and self-destructive behaviors that are the hallmarks of the “at risk” kid. Recently, a client of mine told me that I should know, at the outset of the therapy, that he “self-medicates” by using marijuana. Listen to the language; “self-medicating” with drugs implies that the drug is being used as a way to deal with a problem–as opposed to simply being a risky form of escapism or hedonism. What is he medicating away? This, of course, becomes the first order of business in the therapy, since it is clear that there remains a meaning for the client that has not been tapped, that is being obscured by the pot–but because it is ensconced in the client’s pain, he does not want to deal with it.

Any therapist will tell you that much of a client’s pain is linked to early life experiences. You don’t have to be a Freudian analyst to say that. Taking the Logotherapeutic perspective as man as an open system, we see that people, from their first few moments in the world, reach out beyond themselves, first and foremost to explore the world.  And there is a basic need that exists in every human being to receive a response from that world that is affirming, one that tells us that, not only is the world a meaningful place, but also that our presence within it adds value, that we matter, that our arrival in this world is something to be celebrated.  Somewhere within the first few years of a person’s life, he or she will receive this message or something that contradicts this message.  If the latter, then here begins a painful saga: the frustration of the person’s most basic concern–meaning.  To have one’s path towards meaning obstructed is representative of the ultimate unmet need, and has far more impact than not receiving a tricycle for one’s birthday.

It is easy to blame the internet or “Western culture” as the wolf that ran off with our sheep, but if you work in the helping professions, you know that people generally turn towards destructive, hedonistic vices in an attempt to numb their existential pain–to “self-medicate”, to fill the void (or in Logotherapeutic terms, their existential vacuum).  But needing to fill a void implies that the void was created in their lives much earlier, before they encountered the internet and “Western culture”.

I believe if those of us in the Jewish community would like to understand and help our young people make healthy choices and lead happy, fulfilled, meaningful lives, we will have to ask very honest questions about the way we have set up our world.  We will have to strengthen those aspects of Jewish life that affirm, that promote a sense of meaning, fulfillment and belonging–and we will also have to take a stand against those elements of our own “system” that promote the opposite of these, elements that destroy meaning and ostracize those who seek it.


Chanukah: Restoring Our Temple, Returning to One

CandlesRebbe Nachman, as recorded in Likutei Eitzos, Chanukah, makes a somewhat enigmatic statement: the selach na (“please forgive”s) that we utter on Yom Kippur enable us to partake of the holiness of Chanukah.

What is the connection?

In Likutei Moharan Tinyana 7:11, the Rebbe relates to the interaction between G-d and Moshe Rabbenu during the aftermath of the sin of the spies.  Moshe Rabbenu says to G-d, “please forgive this people for their sin in Your great kindness”.   In this case, Moshe Rabbenu was not only relating to the sin of speaking lashon hora about Eretz Yisrael, thereby causing an epidemic of bad faith amongst the Children of Israel; instead, he took the long view, and considered the sin in terms of its ultimate consequence: the future destruction of the Holy Temple.  The gemara (Taanis 29) states, “Hashem, may He be blessed, said to them, ‘you cried a crying for no reason.  I will establish a crying for all generations’.”  As we know, the lamenting over the idea of entering Eretz Yisrael occurred on Tisha b’Av, as did the destruction of the two Batei Mikdash.

Sin destroyed the Holy Temple.  The absence of the Temple is problematic in and of itself, because it was the primary mechanism in the expiation of sin for the Jewish people, both collectively and individually.  The verse (Yeshaya 1) states, “righteousness dwells in it”, and Rashi explains this to mean that this was possible because the morning tamid-offering cleared all of the sins from the previous night, while the afternoon tamid-offering cleared all of the sins from that day.  As long as the Beis HaMikdash was extant, it was possible for the Jewish people to be clean of sin.  Rebbe Nachman emphasizes here that this is all-important, because the Jewish people, due to their delicateness and high level of spirituality, cannot really bear the weight of sin, even for one day.  Without the Beis HaMikdash, there is no way to relieve ourselves of that crushing burden–and Moshe Rabbenu knew this.  Therefore, he said:

סְלַח-נָא, לַעֲו‍ֹן הָעָם הַזֶּה–כְּגֹדֶל חַסְדֶּךָ; וְכַאֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה, מִמִּצְרַיִם וְעַד-הֵנָּה

Now, if you look at part of this phrase, namely:

הַזֶּה–כְּגֹדֶל חַסְדֶּךָ; וְכַאֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתָה

You will notice that the roshei teivos (first letters), when arranged properly, spell out the word חנוכה, “Chanukah”.  Moshe Rabbenu asked specifically that the forgiveness of the Jewish people should involve an antidote to the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash–a chanukas habayis (re-dedication of the house).  When the Maccabi’im entered the Beis HaMikdash and purified the altar, as we commemorate on Chanukah, this was an example of Moshe Rabbenu’s request for restoration made manifest for the benefit of the Jewish people.

The main aspect of the holiness of Chanukah that we aim for is the very purpose of that Holy Temple: to know that Hashem Hu HaElokim, that the L-rd is G-d–specifically, that His attributes of kindness and judgement, which appear as separate, contradictory forces in the world, are aspects of His Oneness. We end Yom Kippur with this statement, this idea. And we re-invoke it on Chanukah. This knowledge can enable us to purify ourselves from sin.

In addition, as we gaze at the menorah’s warm radiance, and the candles burn on into the night, let us tap into that desire that lies deep within us, to carry this knowledge of holiness and purity forth to our children, for all generations.

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The Old-New Path: Parshas Toldos

Rabbi Dessler, in his legendary sefer Michtav M’Eliyahu, gives us a very keen insight on parenting from this week’s parsha. There is an idea that the Seven Shepherds–Avraham Avinu, Yitzchak Avinu, Yaakov Avinu, Moshe Rabbenu, Aharon HaKohen, Yosef HaTzaddik and Dovid HaMelech–became the vehicles, as it were, for the various attributes of the guiding power of this world as G-d arranged it. Even if you are not familiar with the layout of the kabbalistic sefiros, you can understand something about these sefiros from the content of the parshios in Bereshis.

For example, Avraham Avinu, though his life, was the chariot of the Divine attribute of Chesed (Lovingkindness); he manifested this attribute through all of his actions. We have a principle from our Sages’, מעשה אבות סימן לבנים, the deeds of the forefathers are signs for the children. We, as the children of these people, must look to Avraham Avinu as the paragon of chesed if we want to learn what it is and how to do it.

Yitzchak Avinu, by contrast, became the vehicle for the attribute of Gevurah (Might, Severity or Restaint) which is also referred to as Din (Judgement). Gevurah seems like the polar opposite of Chesed; Chesed bestows kindness in a limitless way, whereas Gevurah comes to limit that kindness and ensure that it is conferred in a just manner, but this, in turn, actually maximizes the impact of Chesed and insures that its effects are beneficial. Gevurah is also the root of discipline, self-restraint and self-transcendence, which are key tools of the pathway towards holiness. Gevurah is what is required to suppress and fight against one’s yetzer hara (evil urge), as we find in the Mishna, “Who is considered mighty (gibor)? One who conquers his evil urge.” These were the character traits of Yitzchak Avinu.

One can ask the question, why did Yitzchak Avinu decide that his life’s work would be in an area that was distinct from that of his father? After all, Avraham Avinu was the greatest tzaddik of his time; it might have been more logical to emulate him and continue in his path of building Chesed in the world.

Here, Rabbi Dessler brings a thought from the Alter of Kelm, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv zt”l. In the Midrash we find that, when Yitzchak Avinu and Rivka Imenu involved themselves in intense prayer to facilitate Rivka’s ability to conceive (after years of barrenness), G-d granted them this desire, but only in the merit of the prayer of Yitzchak Avinu. Chazal explain that this is because the prayer of a righteous person born of a righteous father is greater than the prayer of a righteous person born of a wicked father. What, in this case, made Yitzchak Avinu’s prayer greater than Rivka Imenu’s prayer? Lineage alone?

Rather, what gave Yitzchak Avinu’s prayer its particular effectiveness was that it came as a result of a dimension of spiritual accomplishment that Yitzchak Avinu possessed. Having been born to the greatest tzaddikim in the world–Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imenu–Yitzchak Avinu could have fallen back upon his education, upbringing and good habits that had been reinforced throughout his formative years to coast through a holy life as if on autopilot. Instead, he built upon these endowments in a very unique way, by transcending them and striking out on his own, serving G-d by opening the gates of Gevurah in this world. This was a unique path that Yitzchak Avinu had cleared himself, as it were. This is much harder to do, explain Chazal, than to leave an evil, idolatrous family for a life of holiness, as Rivka Imenu did.

I think that what we can learn from this perspective, as I have said before, is that we have to empower our children to use the gifts we give them to be the choosers, the architects of their own holy destinies as people.

In parshas Lech Lecha, we see that, at the end of the wars of the kings, which Avraham Avinu’s forces had successfully brought to an end, Malkitzedek, the king of Shalem, brought out bread and wine to commemorate the war’s end. Bread and wine, in order to be the best that they can be, need to adhere to certain criteria. Bread must be new and fresh, whereas wine must be aged. This also applies to the making of a person; we as parents must give our children a mesorah, a tradition of Torah that is as aged as Creation itself, and has stood the test of time. Simultaneously, we need to teach our beneficiaries to live this mesorah in a way that is as fresh and new as bread.

Good Shabbos!

Spend Time With Your Kids!

Those of us who are parents–and those of us who have been kids–know how important it is for parents and children to spend time with each other.  And those of us who fully appreciate how much the demands of life compete with that goal, know how hard it is to get the balance right.  Most of us do not live in the agricultural society of yore, where we rise at dawn and fall asleep at sunset, where the loudest noises are  the whinnying of horses and the lowing of cows–and the occasional thunderclap.  We do not have the experience these days of the family working together, on the farm or in the general store, interacting with each other constantly, learning from each other, embracing life together.  Instead, we live in a world where the electromagnetic buzz of the city is itself a constantly rising level of noise, where we are expected to work efficiently until long after the sun has set–and square away our children accordingly in a variety of settings that do not involve us.  The cell phone may go off at any second, and someone out there may demand my immediate response just because I have the technology to instantly respond! We are forced, in this day and age, to run our lives like logistics coordinators just to retain our humanity.

You and I both know that this is a crazy arrangement, one that does not respect the natural needs of people and their families.  And this is especially true when we remember the importance of spending time with our kids, and we feel that pang of guilt, that sense that we are not doing what we know to be right.  We complain about the influences of the outside world and the media, but we are not around our kids enough to exert our own influence on them! To top it off, we rationalize the little amount that we give our children as “quality time”.  We know that, in fact,  quantity is quality, don’t we?

It doesn’t have to be this way.  While we can’t turn back the hands of time and demand that civilization not organize itself in the manner that it does, we can choose to conduct our affairs in a way that benefits us and our families, even if that’s old fashioned.  Let’s reclaim control of our time!

I have a few suggestions–let’s call it a Beta Version–for increasing the quantity and quality of your time with your kids.  You would be doing me an incredible favor by trying them out and sending me some feedback.


  • Every child in the family deserves a special date with each parent.  This will assure the child that he or she is special in his or her own wright, and having some “just you and me” time with Mom or Dad or both will probably reduce sibling rivalry, since sibling rivalry is based on competition for one’s place in the family.
  • If there are 4 weeks in a month, with effectively 5 days/nights, then there are, potentially, 20 quality time units per month, all else being equal.
  • Divide 20 by the number of children in the family.  If there are 4 children in the family, each can have 5 exclusive dates with a parent per 4 week month.  These dates can be redeemed in any way that allows the parent and child to experience something pleasant together.  If homework is not a mutually gratifying experience, it would not be the preferred activity.  Yet this “date” does not have to be as elaborate as a trip to Niagara Falls either.  Keep it simple, and let your child take you where he or she wants to go.
  • In addition to dates, each child should have quality time every night.  If the parents are home from 6-8, for example, and there are 4 children, figure that you have 90 minutes plus a half an hour for baths, brushing teeth and pajamas.  Divide these 90 minutes by four.  You will have 20 minutes’ worth of exclusive time available for each child.  These minutes can be forgone for the sake of a mutually gratifying group activity.
  • Do whatever it takes to facilitate this time.  You can feed the kids early, bathe early, whatever.
  • Do not answer the phone during dinnertime, and if you can stand it, ignore the phone during family time too.  You don’t have to answer the phone just because it is ringing, or an email just because it arrived.  (Hey, shut the computer off!)
  • Shabbos and Yom Tov are “free zones”.  That means family time.  No one can lay exclusive claim to each others’ time, because of the time demands of shul and meals.  It’s first come, first serve, and the parents have to make sure that each child has a fair shot.  But remember, the kids come first!
  • It is important to remember that there will be times when the childrens’ needs will differ, sometimes based on their ages, or when one needs more TLC or alone time, so the division of your time does not always have to be exact.

Please try this for a week and let me know how it goes.  One more suggestion: you may want to kick off your new, quality life with the following activity.  If you have a television set, unplug it, and put it in the trunk of your car.  Pile the family in the car and drive somewhere where you can sell the TV for a good price.  Take the money and buy a bookshelf and some great books to read together.  This will instantly create a new activity for you and the kids that is calm and productive.

Alternately, if your kids are rambunctious and hyperactive, you can purchase a sledgehammer.  Pop some popcorn and let the little angels have some cathartic whacks at the tyrannical tube (preferably in the backyard).  Next, bring out some tempera paint and let them make some form of installation art out of the former centerpiece of your living room.  Just kidding.  Sort of.

Getting To Choice

A lot of parents become frustrated when they see that their children are less than enthusiastic about Judaism–far less than the parents. This is particularly disconcerting for parents who are ba’alei teshuvah, who sacrificed so much in order to build a Torah life that, hopefully, has never lost its luster. Ba’alei teshuvah are generally maverick in nature, people who are willing and able to make deliberate decisions about what is meaningful to them, which aspects of their native cultures and mentalities to retain and which to jettison in the name of Judaism. That has entailed, for many people, changing their diet, dress, outlook on life, interpersonal connections, geographic location, choice of profession, education, and so much more. How is a BT to deal with an FFB child who takes it all for granted, eats kosher his or her whole life, keeps Shabbos, goes to the Jewish school his or her parents didn’t get to, and still emerges with a “been there, done that” attitude, so disparate from his or her “holy roller” parents’?

I think that it is important to keep in mind that the connection to Hashem and Torah that ba’alei teshuvah have is as intense, enriching, and joyful as it is because they chose it.

I have a friend who hated school as a child. He told me that, even at the young age of five, he was bored in kindergarten, so he just walked back home. Fortunately for him and his parents, he lived in a safe, upscale suburb of Detroit. When he recounted this to me, he was engaged in serious learning in a kollel in Jerusalem. He went on to say that, even though he never developed into the type of person who fit neatly into an educational framework, and even though he found it difficult at times to keep up with the demands of Torah learning now, he was able to remind himself that, unlike his days as an elementary school student who attends school involuntarily, he was choosing the learning now.

Herein lies an important key to being a Jewish parent, whether you are BT or FFB. In order for a person to invest him or herself in a spiritual life, he or she must choose it for themselves. Mesorah is a critical component in Jewish life to be sure, but so is making Yiddishkeit one’s own. Our job as parents may be to stop worrying about whether or not our kids will do what we do and start providing them with the incentives and tools to choose it for themselves. Let’s stop worrying about “at risk” and “off the derech” and start making Yiddishkeit an incredible option that is too good to refuse.

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