Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Symposium: Why People Become Orthodox V

(continued from here: I, II, III, IV)

Orthodox Rabbi Kenneth Brander is the inaugural Dean of Yeshiva University, Center for the Jewish Future (CJF). Rabbi Brander is also the Rabbi Emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue, founding dean of the Boca Raton Community Kollel, and founder of the Weinbaum Yeshiva High School of Broward and Palm Beach Counties. During his 14 years of service to that community, he oversaw its explosive growth from 60 families to some 600 families.

Click here to read moreThere are several reasons why people decide to become part of an Orthodox community:

These are often a combination of practical and philosophical reasons:

People may become involved in the Orthodox community because they send their child(ren) to a Jewish day school, even though they live a non observant lifestyle. Once their child begins to study, they feel compelled to start learning how to read Hebrew so they can understand the child’s homework or they begin to study Chumash so that they can keep up with their child. They may start attending synagogue so their children can interact with their friends. They begin by becoming socially orthodox.

I remember one particular experience, when my eldest, Tuvia was in kindergarten. He became friends with another boy and they had regular play dates together (my wife had joined forces with a friend in the Conservative community to write “the Emily Post handbook” on making everyone comfortable around kashrut and religious standards at birthday parties and playdates) At one point, the friend turned to his parents and said that he wanted to wear tzitzit like his friend Tuvia. Eventually, that family koshered their home. The two boys, now young men, are still close. He and his family not only keep a strictly kosher home but they are all serious bnei Torah and are true lights for our people.

In the Boca Raton community, there were more that sixty families that were slowly drawn to an Orthodox life style because of the openness of the community and the purpose it gave their lives. This renaissance watching the unaffiliated grow overtly in their spirituality empowers the FFB (frum from birth) community. It causes those in the Orthodox community to revaluate their religious observance - moving from robotic mechanical practices to actions which celebrate a rendezvous with God and a responsibility to influence society around us.

I have had the privilege of watching accomplished doctors, lawyers, and business people engage in a metamorphosis from driving on Shabbat, eating at the finest non-kosher restaurants, to embracing a lifestyle which was previously unfamiliar to them. I have watched as they sat in synagogue struggling to keep up, worked to find precious time to learn Hebrew and study Torah and ultimately become pillars of the community. One very prominent physician, over a period of ten years moved from not being able to read Hebrew to receiving semicha from the Rabbanut in Israel and Rav Zalman Nechamyah Goldberg. Another prominent businessman and his wife moved from sending their children to the fanciest of Christian prep schools to engaging in Torah study with the Rabbis of the community. They then sent their children to the Yeshiva day school, becoming community leaders. During their spiritual journey, they bought an RV to park in the shul parking lot for Shabbat where they stayed with their family, eventually bought a Shabbat home, sold their weekday fancy home to move close to the synagogue, and most recently made aliyah. They may view me as their teacher, but in all candor, I am the student who has watched and benefited from how they and so many were willing to sacrifice to find true meaning in life.

Yes, there are the tragic situations where people move too quickly in their spiritual transformation and in the process crash and walk away from any religious experience. There are families in which becoming observant is a way of ignoring deeper challenges in the familial structure. When those issues are ignored and masked during the years of religious zeal, they catch up with the couple/family and may now be insurmountable - due to the fact that the underlying issues were ignored. There are the families that make changes when their children are older. These are changes that the children do not agree with and they now must deal with the fact that their parents have “flipped out”. There are couples in which one wishes to embrace a religious lifestyle and the other has not bought in to this religious epiphany. Observance should never break a family. When it does it is either due to larger issues that this change is being blamed for or a total lack of understanding of the true role of religion in a person’s life.

The challenge is for our Orthodox communities to be self confident and tolerant, to create gateways of spiritual entry enabling people to grow at their own rate. We don’t “make people religious” – we empower individuals and families to see the beauty of a lifestyle in which Torah is not only studied but lived, helping to navigate the tumultuous moments of everyday life. When the Orthodox community serves as a both a haven and a heaven for its constituents, it is a powerful force which can draw people to become affiliated. This does not mean that all that enter our portals will become observant – nor should that be our goal. Rather, we must serve as enablers to help people find their spiritual wings, showing love and tolerance, educating but never indoctrinating.

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