Religious Children and the Parents Left Behind
By Robin Schwartz
amily dynamics can be a tricky thing.
Even in the closest, most loving house-
holds, there is spirited discussion and
discord. Parents strive to imbue their
children with morals that reflect the
family's values, religion principal among
them. But what happens when a child's embrace of
religion supersedes the parents' to the point of deri-
Like most Jewish mothers, BJ Rosenfeld worried
about her two sons: 'Would they ever stop fighting?"
"What colleges would they get into?" "Would each
one find a Jewish wife?"
She never imagined, however, worrying whether
her kitchen was "kosher enough" for them; whether
she was dressed "modestly enough" in their pres-
ence; or whether they'd choose a life so foreign to
their Conservative Jewish upbringing that it could
threaten familial ties.
"I was scared; I was really scared," says Rosenfeld.
"[My oldest son] was a student at Princeton Univer-
sity. He wasn't coming home; he was spending all
of his time with a rabbi. I actually thought he might
have joined a cult."
While her son had not joined "a cult," the sense
of abandonment she felt was similar; Rosenfeld's
son (now 34, married and living in Israel with his
wife and seven children) did plunge into Orthodoxy,
becoming more and more observant as he studied.
His younger brother, 31, who lives in New York with
his wife and two children, ultimately followed the
Rosenfeld, a former Spanish and French teacher
living in upstate New York, wrote a memoir, The
Chameleon in the Closet: A Conservative Jewish
Mother Reaches Out to her Orthodox Sons, about her
family's emotional journey. She spoke about her ex-
perience last fall, during the 2010 Jewish Book Fair
at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield.
"One woman came up to me at the book fair and
said, 'Having a religious son is like having a death in
the family:" the author recalls. "Until my older son
started to become Orthodox, I had never met anyone
who was Orthodox. Initially, I thought it was a slap
in the face. We kept a kosher home, I raised him in a
good way; how dare he ask me to do things differ-
ently? The more we argued, the further away he was
getting — I didn't want to lose him, especially over
20 January 2011
I RED THREAD
What happens when your
adult children think you're
not "Jewish enough"?
As Rosenfeld puts it, she's become a "chameleon,"
finding a way to balance living the life she'd always
chosen with the new life her sons now lead. She has
two sets of clothing in her closet: her everyday attire
and the long skirts and long-sleeved blouses she
wears with her sons and their families during visits,
Shabbat dinners and other religious observances. She
says her persona changes with her wardrobe.
"As parents, when our children make life-changing
decisions, we have two choices: Slam the door or
do our best to stay connected," she says. "I share my
story to show other people how important it is to stay
connected to their children, and I'm still learning. It
takes a lot of respect and accommodation, and I want
people to give some serious thought before they push
their kids away."
In the final analysis, she concludes, "I would never
begrudge either of [my sons] for the paths they have
chosen. And I could not be more proud of the men
they have become:'
Just as Rosenfeld's family found a lifestyle that
works for them, countless other families are doing
One Huntington Woods mother, who asked not
to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the
subject, says a few years ago she attended a secret
support group called Parents of Religious Kids —
or PORK, an acronym that was offensive to some
people. To her knowledge, the group no longer exists
"The people in this group, their kids were all in
college, and those children got swept up with some-
one on campus," she says. "These young people were
kind of searching for something, and they were paid
to take courses on Judaism or offered low-cost trips
to Israel. All of these parents were really struggling
with what was happening to their kids. [Their chil-
dren] were being heavily influenced, and it was really
wreaking havoc on their families."
Her own son became religious after college. While
she maintains a close relationship with him, her
daughter-in-law and her grandchildren, they don't
spend any of the Jewish holidays together.
"We don't see them on Shabbat; we're not in-
cluded — and that's hurtful," she says. "Our house
isn't kosher, but we have a kosher cupboard for the
grandchildren. We follow the rules, and we don't al-
low them to watch television or use the Internee
She says when her son became Orthodox, she went
through a grieving process — from denial to anger
to acceptance. While she describes him as a "good
person" who is "wonderful to people," she also readily
admits this is not the life she wanted for him.
"We respect what they decided to do and how they
live their life," she says. "But, I wanted my son to be
a person of the world. I didn't want him to live in
a very narrow and very isolated world. I've seen so
many parents in despair because they've really lost
their kids. My son is not the boy I raised; he's a dif-
'We've sort of made an agreement as adults to
disagree. We focus on the things we do have in com-
mon. But, it's hard."
This type of emotionally charged struggle is not
unique to American families, either. A worldwide
trend over the last several decades by some religious
organizations to recruit less traditional Jews into
assuming an observant lifestyle has further bolstered
the ranks of the Orthodox, making it the fastest
growing denomination within the religion, according
to the 2010 National Jewish Population Study.
And, while Orthodox Judaism rejects proselytiz-
ing to gentiles, it does embrace kiruv, or the practice
of convincing nonobservant Jews to adopt a more
traditional existence. The better-known organiza-
tions devoted to this cause — some of which are
active within the Detroit community — include
the Chabad-Lubavitch sect, Aish HaTorah and Ohr
THE GOLDEN PATH.
"These are all very sensitive issues, very painful
issues," acknowledges Rabbi Elimelech Silberberg,
rabbi of the Sara Tugman Bais Chabad Torah Center
in West Bloomfield, himself a veteran of the kiruv