Should We Attempt to Make Our Family Frum?

My brother recently has been searching for answers to the age-old questions. Why is life so difficult? Why is he faced with challenges? Why don’t things turn out the way he wants them to? He also wonders about God and religion and his place in the world.

He’s been asking a lot of people these questions. He asked the rabbi of the Reform congregation that my family attends; he talks to my parents and grandparents about it. And recently, he asked me.

He came to me specifically wanting to know why I became Orthodox. My process to becoming frum happened quite a while ago; he was young and didn’t remember the details, but he was certainly puzzled by it considering I’m the only Orthodox Jew he knows (he lives in Birmingham, Alabama, where there is what can definitely be considered a dearth of Orthodox Jews around).

I gave him a brief overview of my journey and process; I told him that, for me, Orthodox Judaism seemed to offer meaning and purpose to an existence that I previously couldn’t figure out, that seemed random and disjointed.

He was interested in this, and I encouraged him to ask me questions whenever he wants. However, I didn’t push it. To me, if he wants to become Orthodox, he should do it on his own. I can show him by example what it is to be an Orthodox Jew, and I do that by trying to be kind, caring, and open and hopefully by acting as a kiddush Hashem in my interactions with him. By showing him that I am happy with the life I have chosen for myself, and that I don’t regret leaving my Reform background behind, despite the additional restrictions that Orthodox Judaism entails.

I feel that choosing an Orthodox lifestyle is a difficult decision, and not one that should be made under any kind of pressure, especially for someone like my brother who is living in a place where there is no supportive community. I can hope that he might make the decision to learn more about Torah, and I will help in any way that I can, but I have a hard time believing that I should push it.

Maybe I’m wrong and it’s my responsibility to attempt to mekarev him – what do you think?

31 comments on “Should We Attempt to Make Our Family Frum?

  1. Tevya –
    Thanks again.

    Risa –
    I have the contact info, and my mom is actually friends with Adina – but thanks! One of these days, we need to get together again, since we are in the same city!

  2. Shoshana,

    Rabbi Avroham Schmidman in Birmingham is an amazingly insightful, withit, young rav. He has a YU background, is extremely involved in kiruv (as you can imagine in that setting) and has a wonderful family of young boys. His wife Adina teaches a lot and is a great cook, for that good old fashioned kugle kiruv. Perhaps your brother might enjoy attending a program or going for a shabbos meal. Please call me if you want contact info! (For the rest of you folks, I know Shoshana as she keeps moving to each town I move to…)

  3. Shoshana,

    Hi. It was a pleasure to help you. If you need help please always feel free to ask.

    Tevya

  4. Chaya –
    That’s great! I’m going to call today :)

    Tevya –
    Thanks for the links.

    Ezzie –
    As always, thanks for the link

    Jacky –
    I think slow is always a good pace – tortoise and the hare.

  5. As a FFB I can only answer with common sense in which case I agree with you, even if you can convince him using pressure tactics , there’s a big chance he’ll be turned off quickly.
    Whereas if he learns about Yiddishkeit slowly and with interest the effect might be lasting

  6. I have a friend who set her brother up to learn via Partners in Torah, and she ended up marrying the guys set up to learn with him. Great idea all around!

  7. Mark – it is also important to remember to not let your brother’s blood be on your head (or your neighbor’s, or something…). While this can be interpreted to mean that we should teach others to do mitzvot, it can ironically mean the opposite as well: if you suspect that the person will be hostile, then you might end up with a case where one was inadvertently doing aveiros previously but is now intentionally doing them. A fine line, indeed.

  8. Mark –
    I don’t think there should be a blanket rule not to mekarev family, however, I do think it needs to be done extremely carefully, and without expectation. If one gets too caught up in the expected outcome, I think they could end up inadvertently pushing a family member beyond where they are ready, or willing to advance and it could severely damage that relationship.

    David –
    I agree that Chanukah or Sukkos might be fun for an introduction without being overwhelming. And there are opportunities for that, even in Alabama.

    Gershon –
    My brother is in college, and I have attempted to get him on a Birthright program several times with not so much luck. I continue to send him information about them though.

    Charnie –
    I well know the Chabad of Alabama and those involved in it; in fact my mother is very friendly with one of the rebbetzins there. Unfortunately, I don’t visit especially often, and not for Shabbos. With my limited time there, I don’t feel it’s appropriate to spend Shabbos away from my family (i.e. with Chabad, which is too far from where my parents live to just visit on Shabbos) and spending Shabbos with my family is extremely difficult and just causes problems. And I don’t think my brother is ready for that yet.

    Martin –
    I agree that everyone must go at their own pace. I would never push him to practice things he isn’t ready for. My brother has not been to the NY area, but if he visits, I would like him to experience the Jewish aspects that NY has to offer, and will attempt to show him those, if he does visit.

    Tzvi –
    I think Partners in Torah is an excellent idea, and I will suggest it to him when I get the chance. I actually benefited from it when I lived in Alabama.

    Steve –
    My family is on good terms with the Shmidman’s. Thanks. And I hope that when I get married, my whole family will be able to learn a lot and feel comfortable at the simcha.

    Ezzie –
    I agree also, and my relationship with my brother is important to me, more so than pushing him into observance that he isn’t comfortable with.

    Mark –
    I think, as I said above, the relationships with one’s family and upholding those, have to be put ahead of possibly severing them by emphasizing the importance of doing mitzvos to those who don’t appreciate them and possibly never will, especially if it is at the cost of a relationship with a family member. I don’t think any Orthodox Jew would say that doing mitzvos is not important, but at what cost do you emphasize this to someone who doesn’t currently agree?

    Steve – Complete agree that timing is extremely important, as is the way the message is sent.

  9. Mark-We all hope that either sooner or eventually, that all Jews will want to keep mitzvos. Yet, as in everything else in life, timing is an issue and sometimes, how a relative will relate to Torah is an issue that is really upon many factors that may not be in a BT’s hands.

  10. Mark,

    It is important for people to do Mitvos, but you have to try to “gently” get them to do it, without looking like you’re forcing them. A fine line, indeed.

  11. I totally agree with the fact that it can’t be forced or pushed.

    My question is whether the advice “don’t mekarev family” is a technical consideration or is there a belief that it’s really not so important that people do mitzvos.

  12. Ezzie,

    Same goes for all, whether it’s friends or family. Nothing can be forced on a person, because then you’ll lose them for sure.

  13. Good post – I think I’m in strong agreement with David Linn on this one.

    It’s important to be there to support him if he decides it’s a path he’s interested in, but pushing will never help. People I’ve met in Kiruv are definitely wary of trying to be mekarev their own family; it generally causes more problems than not.

  14. Steve & Shoshana,

    I think if someone is going to change, THEY HAVE TO WANT TO CHANGE. You can help them, but they are the ones who have to do it.

  15. FWIW, IMO, family, especially those members who have a skeptical or oppositional POV to Torah, really cannot be expected to be candidates for kiruv. Sometimes, you can raise their consciousness and sensitivities on Judaism, especially for family simchas.

    More importantly, I think that there is an O shul in Birmingham, Ala, whose rav is a R A Schnidman, a RIETS musmach. R Schmidman might be of assistance to you.

  16. Shoshana,

    Since you say that your brother is open to finding out more about Judaism, why not suggest that he try Partners in Torah?

    The advantages of having a Tele-Partner are:
    1. He can do it from anywhere
    2. He can study or ask about any topic he wants
    3. He can try it without committing at all
    and, best of all …
    4. It removes you from the uncomfortable position of being mekarev him.

    Check out http://www.partnersintorah.org/

  17. Shoshana,

    Everybody has to go at his/her own pace. Eventually, you’ll get there…but you really won’t, because your neshama will want to learn more and more…the quest will never end. What he/she WILL have is a sense of growing more Frum, which he/she may never have had before, or had very little.

    If he’s ever in NY (in our area, KGH), perhaps he can try Hashevaynu. He can even check out Gateways. Both are excellent Kiruv programs that are very good for your brother, and for any Jew who wants to grow.

  18. Shoshana, IMO you’ve tackled this situation in exactly the right way. You’re there to answer questions for your brother, and also to be a role model, but you’re keeping it low key. By the way, of course, there is a Chabad in Birmingham: http://www.chabadofalabama.com/. Perhaps when you visit in Birmingham yourself, the two of you could go there for Shabbos? There are probably other resources too, this was just the result of a quick Google search.

  19. Shoshana, how old is your brother? Perhaps you might be able to suggest a brief kiruv Birthright program at Ohr Somayach or Aish or something like that. If he’s in high school, perhaps suggest an NCSY convention.

    While I agree that it’s never good to impose anything on anyone, however when they’re asking you, that’s the time to offer some solid advice. That still doesn’t mean imposing anything, but it does allow you the opportunity to present some great suggestions.

  20. I agree that from a practical point, it is tremendously difficult, but given it’s importance shouldn’t we try to uncover successful approaches rather than establish a rule that we don’t mekarev family.

    I think the follow up question to this, is what does success look like. From the somewhat undefined, becoming a better Jew, to awareness there is a G-d, to performing mitzvos to concretizing that awareness, to living a halachically oriented life, to fully integrating and functioning in a frum community. And all the graduations in between.

  21. Rafi –
    I guess the question is, is there a way to do more than just lead by example in a way that also isn’t pressure?

    Dina –
    My brother is very rarely in a position to be in a community where Shabbos observant families reside; he visits me very rarely. Additionally, I think a whole Shabbos might be very overwhelming for him. I have encouraged him to go on Birthright trips in the past, but it hasn’t been possible for him yet. You are right that it is difficult to lead by example from such a distance – the best I feel I can do now is to be open to his questions and encourage him to feel free to ask them whenever he wants. Additionally, when I visit, I try to show him by example that being frum doesn’t necessarily mean that you are divorced from everything you knew before.

    David –
    I think your point about him being a better Jew without necessarily becoming frum is a great one – every step and extra bit of information he has is huge.

    Mark –
    I think what’s important is being able to share these things without at the same time, disenfranchising our family and friends. And that can be a hard line to walk, and might mean not specifically “mekaraving” them.

    Martin –
    I totally agree that it has to be a slow process, as I know my journey to becoming observant was. I guess the hard part of my situation is knowing that my brother doesn’t have much exposure outside of me to get information about Torah Judaism from.

  22. Mark,

    I hear your point but I think that the general viewpoint is that attempting to mekarev family members is often likely to turn them off completely to yiddishkeit. This will not only squelch their potential but may also kill the relationship.

  23. Shoshana,

    I believe that you can’t do it by saying “Being Orthodox is the only way to be truly observant” in those exact words, even though that is the true path to Torah. It cannot be forced on anyone. You have to introduce your brother (or anyone who is thinking of being Frum) to it gradually, and show them WHY this is the right path. Lecturing someone about it is not the answer, either. They have to be made comfortable, and make their own decision on it. They also have to take it one step at a time. After all, when learning to swim or bike ride, you don’t swim or ride like a pro the 1st time out, do you? No. A little at a time, until you feel that you can advance and take on more. It has to happen from within. When you’re comfortable with the changes you need to make, you’ll know it.

  24. I know many hold that we should not mekarev our family. But if we know Torah is the emes and we truly believe that we build our eternity (Olam Habah) by our actions (mitzvos) in this world, then how can we not share this most valuable of lessons with the ones we love most?

  25. IMO, it is generally a bad idea to attempt to mekarev your family members. However, in a situation (like your brother’s)where the person has explicitly shown interest, I think it is critical to, at the very least, share philosophical outlooks, especially those addressing his areas of inquiry.

    In many ways, this may lead him to become a better Jew. That does not mean that he is frum. He may take on something small or have a deeper undertanding of the things he already does or his conception of observant Jews may become more positive (that is not saying that it is currently negative since that doesn’t seem to be the case).

    Of course, your example and conduct are, as you stated, critical. But I don’t think I would be as hands-off as I would be with friends or family who show no interest.

  26. It’s so nice that your brother is exploring important ideas!

    I agree that pressuring is bad news, but that’s not what I thought “being mekarev” was about anyway. Helping someone see the positive aspects of Judaism is all anyone can do. All BTs, in my experience, made their decisions themselves.

    Would you feel comfortable at some point inviting him for a Shabbos/weekend to your community so he can experience first hand what it is like to have a supportive communal environment, to have a day set aside for the holy, with meals and conversation addressing the issues he is thinking about?

    Even though he cannot return to Alabama and recreate this experience, it may plant a seed. In addition, if you find he shows interest, you could always talk to him about going to Israel on a Birthright mission and direct him to an organization which includes Torah learning.

    None of this would be perceived as pressuring, in my opinion, unless repeated over and over without regard for his reactions.

    If you are living far from Alabama and he is still there, it seems that it would be hard to “lead by example.” What would he be seeing, exactly? I agree that it is hard to mekarev one’s own family, but it has been done many times with siblings and they are usually hugely grateful. It just has to be done out of love, and a sense of sharing, which they will perceive.

  27. I agree with your thoughts. Forcing and pressuring peopl eto change their ways rarely help. While intially someone might change as a result of the pressure, after time they will regress back when they don’t see the specific results they were looking for, or when they see and encounter people with less integrity who may portray things in a bad light.

    The right way is like you said, to lead by example.

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