As the child of BT parents who got a strong dose of ‘flaming BT-itis’ when I was a teenager; and the wife of a BT, I’ve had the good fortune, if you can say that, of experiencing Baal Teshuva parenting from both sides.
That doesn’t mean I have a 100% fool proof knowledge of what ‘works’, when trying to bring up religiously-inspired, emunah-filled kids. But I certainly have a fair idea of what doesn’t.
When my parents first got frum, I was 15. We were doing Xmas; we were eating in McDonalds; we were starving on Yom Kippur (without any real idea of why) and avoiding bread on Pesach (again, without any real idea of why) but that was it. It was the worst kind of exposure to yiddishkeit: periodic occasions when we asked to do difficult things with no explanation or context as to why we should, or why it was important.
No Jewish community, or Jewish friends, to speak of. But a lingering sense that we were fundamentally ‘different’ to everyone else, which for a teenager, is probably one of the worst sensations.
It’s a long story which I won’t go into here, but when my parents embraced Judaism, they did it at 5000 mph. All of a sudden, Mcdonalds was out. All of a sudden, we had separate plates, and couldn’t have icecream after our chicken supper. All of a sudden, Saturday became a big long list of ‘thou shalt nots’ – once again, with minimal explanation as to why.
I’m the oldest of five, and me and my next brother down certainly had the hardest time adjusting to the new regime. As teenagers, it felt to us like another ploy by my parents to control our lives – minutely, right down to what we ate, when we ate it, what we wore and even, what lights we turned on and off.
If I’m honest, I think that was part of the attraction for my parents, at least initially.
That was really hard.
But I’m a voracious reader, and as my parents started bringing home more books on yiddishkeit, I started going through them and understanding that despite my parents clumsy attempts to ‘make us frum’, Judaism was actually something worth having inspite of them.
As a lonely teenager, I also loved going to shul. The people in the shul we went to made such an effort to welcome my family – it was the first time ever that we were part of a community, and my first experience of not being an outsider, in a social setting.
The assistant rabbi, in particular, was amazing. He got me out of the house (which I was finding increasingly oppressive) by asking me to babysit; made me responsible for organising children’s activities in the shul (and paid me handsomely for doing it); and his wife really took the time to talk to me, when all the other adults in my life were simply telling me what to do.
They were my inspirations, and really showed me that religious jews – real religious jews – could be amazingly kind, generous and considerate people.
This is a potted life history, so I’m missing a lot of details here. But my experiences as the teenaged daughter of BTs taught me a few invaluable lessons, that I’d like to share here for other BTs with older kids.
Tip one: Include your kids in the journey. Becoming frum requires some enormous life changes and ‘sacrifices’ from every family member. Instead of imposing yiddishkeit on your kids like martial law (guaranteed to turn them off…) talk to them about your growing observance, and why you want to start doing things like keeping kosher etc.
Equally if not more important is to listen to your kids, and their concerns. The teenage years are a particularly sensitive time, socially. It’s asking a lot of a child to either stop going where all their friends go, or to stop eating what all their friends are – they will need an awful lot of understanding and support from their parents to get them through it. And often, ‘new’ friends to help them to make the transition to frumkeit without losing all their social life.
Tip two: Don’t look to your kids to fix your own failings. If you weren’t frum, and you brought up your family not frum, take responsibility for that, and don’t expect your kids to become perfect paragons of observance. This can be particularly hard for boys – my brother was expected to come to shul and pray 3 times a day. He tried his hardest for a year, but as the list of demands got longer and longer, he eventually gave up trying to meet them. Thank G-d, he’s found his way back, subsequently. But if you’re embarrassed by your previous lack of observance – and any reminders of it – don’t take it out on your kids. Your relationship with them has to be based on unconditional love, not on them towing the line in order to spare you embarrassment or discomfort about your previous lifestyle choices.
Which brings me to the last and most important tip: Be prepared for your kids to challenge your own level of observance, and to rip the scab off your own inadequacies. There are many levels to this: On the one level, one of things that used to really rile me up is that my parents, who had happily eaten traif for many years etc etc where now being so strict with me and my siblings’ religious observance.
When my father got frum, he started throwing my ‘secular’ books in the rubbish if I read them on Shabbat; and refusing to buy me jeans (which is where the babysitting money really came in handy…)
I didn’t feel that he had any moral authority to tell me what to do, religiously, having done so little himself for so many years.
Many BTs emphasise the ‘trappings’ like Shabbat observance and kashrut (which are fundamentally important, don’t get me wrong) – but fail entirely to address their own failings.
If a teenager’s parents sit them down and say: ‘We made a lot of mistakes. We got angry a lot. We didn’t always act with compassion and consideration. We want to try and improve ourselves – and how we treat you, our kids – and keeping kosher and Shabbat is part of that process’ – that will make such an enormously positive impact on their child.
Wow – so mum and dad aren’t just emphasising the stuff that suits them, like ‘respect your parents’; they are also working on the stuff that I know must be really hard for them to do.
We all make mistakes. We are all only human, after all. But particularly when we are at the beginning of our journey towards yiddishkeit and Hashem, we have to admit our past mistakes, particularly where they affect our kids, apologise, and then do our best to make real tshuva in every sense of the word.
Kids know their parents inside out: they can spot fake sentiments and phony piousness a mile off. If you want to give your kids the best possible chance of joining you on your journey towards observance, make your relationship with them the ‘test bed’ of your tshuva.
Be honest about your mistakes and flaws, and say sorry for them. It’s hard – and often excrutiatingly painful – but it’s worth it. And as parenting methods go, I think it’s probably the single best thing you can do to show them that being frum isn’t just about appearances, but about living a better, more meaningful and happier life.
Postscript: 17 years on, thank G-d I have a good relationship with both my parents. As an adult child, with children of my own, I can see how religious observance has helped to mellow my parents, and enabled them to have a much richer relationship with their kids and grandkids. I also appreciate, now, how hard it was for them to turn everything upside down in their own lives, and how much courage it took for them to start a brand new chapter.
Lastly, I’m grateful to them for starting me on my own journey towards Hashem. They took some tough decisions, but we are all reaping the fruit of their decision today.
Originally Published on August 29th, 2007