Losing His Religion – Trying to be a Supportive Parent

Losing His Religion – Trying to be a Supportive Parent

(Cross-posted on the Times of Israel)

The day my son told me he was no longer religious is one that will live forever in my memory. He was no longer living at home and was thousands of miles away when he felt ready to break the news to us.

I’d like to tell you I said all the right things and made all the right noises, but my part of the conversation is very much a fog. I know we were all crying, my son included.

I felt devastated. I raised my children to be like me, a religious Jew. And here was one of my precious children rejecting his religious upbringing, and it felt like he was rejecting me. I felt my heart shatter into a thousand pieces.

I cried for a week straight. My husband held me, comforted me through the long days and sleepless nights that followed, but I grieved. I grieved for the loss of my idea of what my son’s life would be like, I grieved for what I perceived as MY loss. But I felt so alone – other than my husband, with whom could I share my shame? For this is what I felt initially – ashamed, as if I had done something wrong, as if this was my doing. If I had been a better mother, I thought, he would never have turned his back on religion.

My son has his reasons for casting aside religion – that’s his business. I will say that now, after many a discussion with him, I do understand where he is coming from. I won’t say I agree, or that I would have taken the same path, but I get it.

Eventually, when the tears slowed, and after several emergency sessions with my therapist, I decided that I needed to stop crying into my coffee, and that I should figure out how to move forward without pushing my son away, even though I was in tremendous emotional pain. How can I properly forge ahead with my son knowing that I accept him for who is, when who he is is not who I wanted him to be?

The simple fact is this – I love him. He is my child. He is still that kid who as an adorable toddler fell asleep with his fingers woven through his knitted blanket, his thumb firmly in his mouth. He is still that little kid who told me I was the best Ima ever, and when he grows up he’s going to marry me, and if he can’t marry me his wife will come live with us so she can learn how to cook. He is still that teen who told me he wanted to make aliyah when he was older, but “don’t worry, Ima, I’ll carry you in my heart always.” He is still that same boy, but he’s now an adult with thoughts and feelings and emotions of his own.

I soon realized that I was grieving a loss that wasn’t real – really, I had lost nothing. My son, my precious child, was healthy and hale and hearty. He was living in Israel preparing for his army service – and he was happy. He was starting to live life on his own terms. What parent doesn’t want that for their child?

No one prepares you for these difficult parenting moments – and in our religious communities the feeling of aloneness is ridiculous because I know of so many people whose kids are no longer religious, but it is barely spoken about, which adds fuel to the flames of shame. This is one of the reasons that I am now speaking out – we need to support each other, so that we can support our children better.

I wish someone had told me how to cope, had prepared me in some way. I wish I hadn’t hidden my shame away – my son makes me proud because he is a good person, with decent core values that have nothing to do with religion and everything to do with morality. Is he a lesser being because he no longer dons tefillin, or keeps Shabbat? Absolutely not.

One important lesson that I have learned is that it is ok to tell your child “I love you, but I don’t agree with what you’re doing.”  Unconditional love is just that – judgment-free. And it’s the hardest love. Because loving a child who does things opposite to the way he’s been taught is painful. Every reminder rips the scab off a little bit. And I don’t know if the pain ever goes away completely – you just learn to live with it, and to accept it. Loving someone doesn’t mean you approve of all their choices – it just means you respect their right to make them, especially once your child has become an adult.

I have raised my sons first and foremost to be good people. I have also raised them to be independent thinkers, and not to follow blindly. I had hoped that they would all love Orthodox Judaism as much as I do – but I now have to accept that it is not meant to be at this time for all of them. And I have to be OK with that.

To every parent out there who has a child that is ‘OTD’ (Off the Derech – I hate the term, because each child finds their own derech) – I say this: don’t cut your children out of your lives because they are no longer religious. Love them, support them, show them that they still have a place in your life. There is more to who a person is than just religion – show compassion, show love, show your child that a parent’s love never stops, no matter what.

 [Blogged with permission from the son in question]

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  1. David Ebin says:

    “my son makes me proud because he is a good person, with decent core values that have nothing to do with religion and everything to do with morality.”

    Religion cannot be separated from morality. They are very much entwined. If your son is a good moral person, he is in very important respects religious.

    Relax, other aspects of his religion will probably return, particularly if he gets married and has children.

  2. LCB says:

    It is true what you say and it is very painful.for our family at the same time. Not easy in the slightest bit.
    We are so close to the geulah that I wonder if this particular test is an element of the issues that vBulletin plague our nation at the ketz…

  3. Yerachmiel HaLevi says:

    Dear Haddassah,
    Thank you this article his helped me to finally come to terms with 3 of my 4 children going off the derech.
    I have basically approached it the same way you have & now I know I am not alone.

  4. LCB says:

    I am recapping what I wrote yesterday under @LCB
    It is tremendously painful to say the least. I hear you on loving my child. It is the bottom line and I always will.
    The problem I have is that love is what the child needs and to know that it is unconditional. Fine.
    The issue I have is that shabbos desecration is so horrible. Sure, ok, one may say that perhaps Hashem will be more lenient as our generation is so full of tests etc…perhaps it’s the computer influence. The list is endless. Ultimately I try to teach my children that their relationship with Hashem is the only truly lasting thing in this world and that one needs to keep up the relationship and that it is beneficial.
    This is what is so difficult.

  5. Lady-Light says:

    Very interesting topic. It brings out food for thought. I’d like to address the interesting point in your statement (as was mentioned in a previous comment) that your son is a good, moral human being, although not religious.
    I believe that many–dare I say most–religious people separate the two, ethics & morality from obvious “frumkeit,” or religiosity,when they are really one and the same. In fact, ethics and morality are (or should be) thought of as “frumkeit” more so than the outer accoutrements such as mode of dress, including flaunting one’s religion by wearing one’s tzitzit out or wearing a $2,000 sheitel, or by how many chumras (religious stringencies, for the uninitiated) you do. People tend to equate religiosity with appearance. If you dress the part, you ARE the part. It is not noticed that a person who does not LOOK religious can be even MORE religious than a person who appears frum externally. Mitzvot bein Adam le-Havero, mitzvahs between human beings, are of paramount importance,and I dare say, THE point of Jewish religiosity. Mitzvot between man and G-d, on the other hand, such as Shabbat observance, for example, have gone through many interpretations. What Orthodox Jews follow today are largely Rabbinic interpretations of what “Shamor v’Zachor et Yom ha Shabbat” mean. In truth, I don’t believe we actually know what Hashem wants Shabbat to be. I don’t know if Hashem intended for electricity to be forbidden on Shabbat (it is not fire), for example. Electricity was only discovered in recent centuries, and the poskening Rabbis of the time had to interpret what impact it would have on Shabbat observance. How much science did they know?
    So, in the end, I would say your son IS a religious Jew. He is just not observant.

  6. LCB says:

    I am responding to you as though you were replying to me. I do hear you on the observance of mitzvos bein adam lechavero. Yes, I agree, yet where I differ is the area of what you had wrote- the outward appearance (tzitzit etc)
    Wearing of these articles is a part of observance and they enahance the relationship between the person and G-d.They are commandments given by G-d and are important etc…
    Your last statement about being religious and not observant, politely, I disagree.
    Take care.

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