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Teshuvah: Loss or Gain by Penny Steiner-Grossman
Teshuvah: Loss or Gain by Penny Steiner-Grossman

Volume 4 , Issue 2

My son, age 19, is a baal teshuvah, a student at a Lubavitcher yeshiva for new learners. I attribute this choice as much to the turmoil in our family life -- chronic illness, death, divorce -- as to his own intensely spiritual nature. Both have left him with the need to retreat from the ?world? a bit so as to achieve some order in his life.

He has certainly done that. At the yeshiva, he rises early, prays three times daily, and spends most of his time learning the intricacies of the Talmud. To someone who did not know him before, he is virtually indistinguishable from the young men one sees handing out literature on the subways or from ?Mitzvah tanks? throughout the city. His short beard, black hat, and serious manner make him seem much older than his 19 years.

My own history as a convert to Judaism adds a further dimension to this picture. Years ago, I made the conscious choice to convert to Judaism, and had raised both children as Jews with strong Jewish values. We attended the synagogue regularly. I lit candles every Friday night, and, of course, the children were Bar and Bat Mitzvah. I even learned Hebrew and became a substitute cantor for our synagogue. With my son's turn toward chasidism, I questioned whether I had done my job well enough (or perhaps too well!). I was confused and hurt. Relatives and friends acted in predictable ways: some avoided the issue altogether: a few offered their condolences as if I were sitting shiva for a deceased relative! Others asked me whether I had read a book called ?Lovingkindness? by Anne Roiphe in which a troubled American teenager is ?snatched? by a group of Bratislaver chasidim in Israel. (Was I supposed to draw comfort from this tale?)

Metaphor for Return

Later, after finding and reading the book, I attended a lecture given by the author at a local synagogue. Roiphe wrote ?Lovingkindness,? she said, as a metaphor for her own return to her Jewish roots. She counseled the worried parents present that morning to ?try and bring up children who can ?tolerate the ambiguity of contemporary life," with its threats to the physical self and its disintegration of the family unit. Adolescents today have a ?drive to lose the self,? she said, and they may choose to express it through drug use or other antisocial behavior or, at the other extreme, by becoming extremely religiously observant. Well and good, I thought, but is this all that is going on? Is this why my son chose chasidism?

I looked around me at the other parents in the room, many of whom were struggling to hold back tears, and I surmised that they must have children they think of as ?lost? to ultra‑Orthodoxy. I sympathized with them. How often had they asked themselves the same questions I have asked, questions like: ?Was I a good enough parent?? ?Was I too strict? Or too lenient?? ?Should I have foreseen this?? ?Could I have prevented this?? Were they feeling ?shut out? as I was by their son's or daughter's new‑found attachment to the ultra‑Orthodox community? Did their children now refuse to eat in their homes or attend services with them?

That morning, I began to realize that we parents have got to stop torturing ourselves. It is no accident that teshuvah is the choice made by some of our children, raised and educated as Jews, looking for attachment and meaning in a culture preoccupied with achievement, material reward and upward mobility, Do we wonder that some young people (and some older people, too), faced with the prospect of engaging in a world bent on destroying itself through drugs, social disintegration, environmental pollution and conspicuous consumption, find safety, predictability, and spiritual satisfaction in the structured life of observant Judaism? Does this have to mean that we have lost our children, as those tearful parents feared -- and as I sometimes fear?

Meeting Halfway

As with most choices our children make, the path to acceptance must lie in meeting them halfway. Young people who become baalei teshuvah are not lost, but neither will they ever come back to us as the children they once were. We need to take comfort in the realization that something positive in our children's upbringing pointed them in this direction, rather than in some other, less constructive direction. They are establishing adult identities separate from us, yes, but these new identities are rooted in the values and love of Judaism we taught them. We parents are impelled by our commitment to those very values towards an understanding and acceptance of our children's choice. We will need to struggle hard to overcome those feelings of strangeness, of being shut out; we will need to look at our children with new eyes.

For their part, baalei teshuvah need to understand that the parental relationship is forever. We are fortunate that respect and love for parents is central to all forms of Judaism and estrangement from them for the sake of religious commitment is never encouraged. This seems to be particularly true of the Lubavitch movement. While we parents may not reject outright our children's choice for fear of losing them, we cannot be expected to understand and accept it immediately and without some pain. We will need help in understanding and accommodating new patterns of observance. We need communication to remain open, and most of all, we need time to adjust.

All of these conflicting feelings came home for me last Passover. Because my son wanted to spend the holiday with us, my home needed to be kashered as never before! I was worried that I wouldn't be able to do this, but he cheerfully offered to help. We set to work on my kitchen, scrubbing and removing all traces of chametz, then covering every surface carefully. After many hours, my kitchen gleamed with a brilliance reflected in yards and yards of aluminum foil! We talked as we worked and I felt such a sweet tiredness and a sense of contentment that we were doing this mitzvah together. He had bought enough shmurah matzah for all the guests and for the full week, and had taken me shopping in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, an initiation ritual in itself.

?Stunned by Fluency

As my husband conducted the seder on the first night, he encouraged my son to read aloud some Hebrew and Aramaic passages from the Haggadah for our guests, many of whom had just arrived from the Soviet Union. I was literally stunned by the fluency he had gained from his studies and by the new authority in his voice as he interpolated stories into the narrative of the Haggadah. Not only was my son far from ?lost?, he had found his own special path to adulthood through his choice of teshuvah, and now he wanted to share his discoveries with others.

Now, with the new year past, instead of entering Yeshiva University as planned, my son is spending another year learning at his yeshiva. Am I disappointed? Yes, a little, but this disappointment has been eclipsed by the joy I felt listening to him lead the davening at our local Orthodox synagogue on Rosh HaShannah morning.

The task of accepting teshuvah will never be easy or painless for parents, but neither is the task of reconciling Jewish values with a confused and chaotic world an easy one for young adults. Through mutual love, respect and understanding, we can make those tasks easier for each other.

Penny Steiner‑Grossman? is a health writer and medical educator who lives in Brooklyn. She is the editor of several books on chronic illness.



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