Dear Shimmy,

I'm 15 years old and come from a non-religious home/community. This past summer I went to a Jewish camp where I became more familiar with Judaism, and my interest in the religion sparked. Since I've returned home I have tried really hard to keep Shabbat and Kosher. Both have been very hard to do, especially since I am having no support from my family. In fact, they are very against it. My parents refuse to let me return to that camp this summer since I came home so "weird" after last summer, and I hear them discussing how they regret sending me there in the first place but "they hadn't realized what kind of place it would be." I'm losing my energy and am afraid I will soon lose all my motivation for holding onto Judaism. This all makes me angry at G-d. I feel like it would be so much simpler for me to just give it all up. What does G-d want from me? If He wants me to be religious, why is He making it so hard for me?

In Despair in New York

Dear "In Despair,"

I must admit that I was very moved by your letter, which brings up a critical issue for you personally and for the entire observant Jewish community as a whole. While we revel in the success of our kiruv, outreach efforts, your issue reminds us that it isn't enough to inspire someone, drop them off at their front door, and then drive away into the sunset. Having worked in the kiruv field for a number of years, I believe that it's critical for our camps, schools, and youth groups to help people bring their newfound religious commitments home successfully.

This issue, of course, is not new. A friend of mine now in his 60s told me how, as a teen, he attended a youth group Shabbaton and became very inspired. He remembers the singing, dancing, and learning. To him, this was amazing, and he returned home excited and motivated. He lamented, however, the lack of support he had upon returning home to a house where his new-found ideas were not welcome. Overall, the issue of how to support one's own religious growth in the face of family challenge is critical and complicated, and I truly hope that our kiruv organizations proactively help their disciples navigate this challenge.

Now, on to your question...

Strange as it seems, I'm going to answer a question that you didn't ask. Noticeably absent from your letter was a request for advice regarding how to improve your situation. While I am definitely willing to touch on your theological question later--and it's certainly an important one--I suggest you ask yourself the question, "What can I do now to help myself?" Even if you find satisfactory answers to your questions about G-d, you will still have to live your life, face your parents, and make things work. So before I even attempt to touch on the question you asked, I feel that I must touch on the one that you didn't.

I believe that the first step in resolving conflict is to try to see things from the other person's point-of-view. Here your parents are, presumably paying good money to send you to summer camp, only to have you come back rejecting their lifestyle, not eating in their home, not going out with them on Saturdays, etc. How would you feel if you were in their shoes? Most likely, they feel angry, rejected, and hurt. Also, I'd be willing to bet that they feel powerless, since who are you listening to now: them or your camp counselors? No wonder they're giving you a hard time! Am I agreeing with their approach? No. Do I understand it? Absolutely, and if you can understand them, I'm sure you'll be in a much better position to work things out.

When we feel powerless, what do we do? We try to regain a sense of power. We need to "win." We get angry, which makes us feel more powerful. We seek to control others as well. Doesn't it make sense that your parents aren't letting you go back to camp and are making it difficult for you to keep Shabbat and Kashrut?

So what now? Let me preface my thoughts by saying that, although I have a few ideas for you, since I don't know much about your parents or your relationship with them, I can't guarantee that they'll be effective. The key, however, is to realize that if you decide to take responsibility for working things out--instead of getting stuck with blaming G-d or complaining about how unreasonable your parents are--chances are good that your home life will improve.

I suggest that you do two things. First, find ways to reduce your parents' feelings of rejection and powerlessness. One way of doing this is to let them know that you still value their input and advice by soliciting their input and opinions on matters not related to religion. When you need to choose a topic for an English paper, ask them their opinion. When you have a school problem, ask for their advice. And when they give it, don't argue ... even if you disagree, listen and say, "Thanks. I appreciate your advice and I'm going to think about it." (I also suggest you actually do think about it, by the way!)

Second, once you've done this, I suggest you write them a note about your religious growth. I suggest a note rather than a conversation because the emotions here are so high, and writing a note will give you the opportunity to communicate some important messages without the possibility of getting sidetracked by a power struggle. I'm sure you've had such conversations and discussions about these issues in the past, but make this communication different. Do not try to convince them that your approach is the right way or is better than theirs. Remember: to them, this is rejection. Your goal here is not to win; it's to build an understanding and a better relationship. Let them know:

  1. how much you respect and appreciate them (hint: did you ever thank them for sending you to that camp?)
  2. that you apologize if you've caused them distress (hint: whenever you feel someone needs to apologize to you, often there's something that you should ask their apology for as well.)
  3. that you recognize the positives in your relationship and what they've done right--and say them. Examples are "You've taught me good values," or "In the past, you've always been there for me." Then, ask for their support in allowing you to find your own way from here
  4. that you've found something that makes you feel good about yourself and the world; that you understand that to them it's strange; and that despite that, you'd really like their support. The framework I usually suggest is, "When you ___________, I feel _______________. What I want is ________. Will you?" You can ask for them to help you keep Kosher, let you stay home on Shabbat, etc.
    Remember that the answer to the question, "Will you?" may be no. But even if it is, maybe they'll stop saying that you got "weird." Maybe they won't be supportive but they'll begrudgingly let you be religious. Or maybe, just maybe, if they feel less rejected and less powerless, they'll actually start to support you.

And now, to address your theological issue: why is G-d making it so hard for you? I do not consider myself an expert in answering this question, but I do feel comfortable offering responding to it briefly and then offering suggestions as to how you might find a more complete and satisfying answer.

Dr. Alan Morinis, in his book, "Climbing Jacob's Ladder," quotes the following from Rav Yisroel Salanter: "As long as one lives a life of calmness and tranquility in the service of God, it is clear that he is remote from true service."

You are right. It would be much "simpler" for you to give it all up. But just because something is simpler or easier, doesn't mean it's "right." In fact, as Rav Yisroel says, if service of G-d is coming really easily to you, you're probably on the wrong path. Torah growth is always a challenge.

The good news, say Chazal, our Rabbis, is that G-d never gives a person a test that they don't have the strength to pass. So while the bad news is that your current test is so difficult, the good news is that you can pass it, and you just need help to figure out how.

I shared your letter with Rabbi Yosef Cohen, a wise colleague of mine from Hebrew High School of New England, and he offered the following advice:

  1. Find a Rabbi that you can speak to. Regardless of how the situation plays out with your parents, if you're intent on keeping Kosher and Shabbat in your home, you'll need guidance. Preferably, and especially if your parents become more supportive, I'd let your parents know about this Rabbi so they don't feel that you're circumventing them. Instead, you can explain that this Rabbi wants to help you keep Kosher and Shabbat in a way that's not disruptive to them.
  2. Get more involved in Jewish learning. Provided that you're getting your homework done and taking care of your household obligations, dedicate some of your free time to learning. It's something that isn't disruptive to your parents, and it'll keep you interested and encouraged. These days, there is so much online. I asked one of my students, and he suggested http://www.simpletoremember.com and http://www.aish.com, so I figured I'd pass those URLs along.

I hope you've found some of this advice useful, and I wish you much luck in following your path. Lastly, remember: you can do it, and you're not alone!