If you've been reading this blog for a while, then you probably know a bit about my past. But in case you're new here, I'll share with you something personal: When I was in high school, I was a pretty unhappy fellow. Why was I unhappy? Well, I'll get to that in a moment, but first, check out this video that a friend recently showed me. It was put out by one of the kiruv organization that exists to help "at risk kids." To be honest, I was actually surprised at how impressive the production quality of the video was. Not that I agree with its message, but these sort of frum productions are usually lacking a bit in their professionalism, and this one seemed to not suffer from the typical overuse of chassidish music, cheesy effects, and truly awful acting (the acting on this isn't what I'd call great, but it's nowhere nearly as bad as some of the other frum stuff out there).
However, once I saw the very first frame of the clip, I knew I wasn't going to like it. The entire piece was basically a dramatization of the stereotypical view that the frum world loves to tell about people who aren't frum: That the inevitable result of leaving frumkeit is a descent into a lonely life of depression, drugs, and alcohol. (I'm sure they would have also liked to show the drugs and sex, but I suppose that wasn't suitable for their intended audience.) And of course, it also showed that all it takes to turn around those who left is a friendly smile from a patient, "down to earth" rabbi (this particular one knew how to hit a baseball) who, with enough persistence (and love, of course), knows how to show them the beauty of Yiddishkeit. There were also other classic stereotypes throughout - the way that the characters connect in a video store (what else does a shaigetz have to do in his life but watch movies all day?), the directionless lifestyle of the characters, and other all-too-familiar characterizations. (I also found it funny how they showed the cluelessness of some of the frum characters, such as the father suggesting to his son that he put on a hat and jacket when lighting candles. Not sure if that was meant as an intentional joke or not.) It's because of the widespread prevalence of these stereotypes that I decided to start my "Better Know a Kofer" series. (See the sidebar for the full list of interviews.)
Of course, the truth is that, sadly, some people do end up on such a path. But one can't help but wonder if that would continue to be the case as much if the frum world didn't tell such people that that would be the inevitable result of such a decision. I've always felt that the frum world prefers to see a religious dropout burn and crash than succeed in his or her life, as it corroborates the messages the faithful have been told all along.
And that's what I find to be most troubling about these kinds of organizations: despite their professed concern for the troubled young man, it seems to me that when all is said and done, they care more about the persons adherence to halacha than they do about the person's emotional and physical well-being. I know they talk all the time about helping, but how willing are they to continue helping if the person has no interest whatsoever in being frum? Not very much, I'm afraid. I have a friend whose parents offered him an all-expense paid trip to Israel for a month. He was thrilled. Until he found out that it was contingent on him spending some time at Aish Hatorah when he was there. Needless to say, when he declined to accept the stipulation, the offer was off the table.
Let me be clear here, I don't blame anyone, or any group, for having strings attached to their beneficence. People are entitled to devote their resources to whatever causes they value, and the frum world is entitled to promote kiruv as much as they want. But to claim that your kindness stems purely out of a love for a fellow Jew is simply not true. Far too often, the generosity to that Jew is directly proportional to how receptive he or she is to the message of halachic observance.
From what I've heard, there are a large number of these kinds of organizations: Areivim, Eizer Bochurim, B'Derech, Priority-1, Project YES, Aishel, Tzofiah, Home Sweet Home, Eitzah, Rachel's Place, and more. And honestly, I think these groups do a lot of good work. Even if their assistance is driven by religious motivations, these groups are still deserving of much praise. It just bothers me that they aren't truly honest about their real motivations. It's disingenuous to act like you care nothing more than to just give a troubled soul a helping hand, when really your ulterior motive is primarily to give them a hand back onto the derech.
Which brings me back to my original point of my unhappy adolescence. So why was I so unhappy throughout my high school days? Well, there were probably a number of reasons for that, but one very significant one was that I was being raised in a world that valued torah learning above all else, and I knew very well that I was a thoroughly abysmal torah learner. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I shvitzed over that daf, no matter how hard I pleaded with god - "v'sein chelkeinu b'sorasecha!" - I never really understood what the hell was going on in that damn gemara shiur. I was a failure. I knew it, and everyone who spent 5 minutes talking the sugya with me knew it too. And I hated myself for this.
Now, I was fortunate that I had many caring, kind people around me then - my family, my rabbeim, etc. - and they all did their best to help me overcome this obstacle. They set up extra sedarim for me. They paid tutors to go over the shiur with me. They took out extra time from their schedule to learn with me. They even moved around the class chavrusas in the vain hope that someone would be able to help me understand what was going on. Like I'm sure the dedicated staff of these various kiruv institutions do for the people they are helping, my rabbeim went above and beyond the call of duty to help me overcome the source of my frustrations. They did everything they could.
Except the one thing that would have really helped me.
They didn't do the one thing that would have solved my problem forever. The one thing that would have eased my constant guilt, and erased the shame that I was living with every single day: They didn't tell me that it was ok that I wasn't a good learner. If they had only told me that, and made me understand that my value to god was not contingent on how well I could make a leining, all that inner torment would have dissipated in an instant.
But they chose not to. They had no choice, really. Because they believed it did matter. And despite their concern for my suffering, they couldn't compromise their principles.
Looking back, I don't doubt for a second that those rabbis genuinely cared about me. And of course, the same goes for my family. But because they cared about the religious ideal of torah learning more than they did about my emotional well being, I ended up suffering through a large chunk of my life.
So you can see why I don't trust frum people when I hear they are doing everything they can to help out a troubled yeshiva bochur. I'm sure they do indeed love their fellow Jews. And indeed, they will do everything they can to help the person. Everything they can... up to a point. Because while their love for their troubled brethren might truly be sincere, their devotion to halacha is even greater, and if forced to choose, they will proudly sacrifice the happiness and well being of their loved ones on the altar of their religion.
Photo credit: flickr user Onironauta...
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