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Dilemmas posed by children who leave religion were the focus of a conference of rabbis and educators held last week in Jerusalem. The conference was organized by the religious Zionist group Tzohar.

Tzohar is generally viewed as an organization whose goal is to present an enlightened, open form of religiosity to the secular public. But at this year's annual conference, it decided to turn inward and focus on problems affecting its own community - foremost among them the phenomenon of children leaving the religious fold for secular lifestyles.

Other issues under discussion included late marriage ages among young religious Zionists, dilemmas that arise during military service and the rising popularity of the ultra-Orthodox Bratslav sect and Chabad.

Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein, the organization's chairman, said the number of people seeking to attend this year's event was much higher than in previous years, when the issues under discussion were more political, such as formulating a response to the disengagement from Gaza. Some 500 people attended, he said, and 200 were turned away for lack of space.

Prof. Shraga Fischerman of Orot Israel College in the West Bank settlement of Elkana, who chaired the session on children who leave religion, said that about 25 percent of religious Zionist youths "defect" to secular lifestyles.

Fischerman told participants of one encounter he had with concerned parents. "I would describe them as 'religious-light.' But when their eldest daughter became secular, they asked to have her removed from the house, so that she would not influence the other children," he said.

He advised families to take a "practical, not a philosophical, approach," to the problem, for example by identifying early signs of behavioral change and responding appropriately.

'At first, it was shock'

P. lives in a religious community in the West Bank. Two of her five children removed their skullcaps during or following their army service.

"At first, when the first child left, there were no dilemmas, just shock," she said. "Later, the question arose of whether to let him visit us in the middle of Shabbat or not. In our community, there are a lot of families with secular children who come during Shabbat, and some have even been given permission to do so by one of the rabbis here."

"Maybe out of repression of their 'conversion,' I said that it wasn't right," she added. "Either they come for the whole Shabbat, or they don't come."

Still, she said, familial relations remain excellent.

"I got a very moving letter from my second child, who said the upbringing we gave him was wonderful, that he has no complaints. We're on good terms with him and with his wife, but the pain is still great. The thought that he returned from a trip to India and ate just about anywhere there really hurts. Or when we're sitting at the Shabbat table and I think about how he spends his time now, it's not easy."

"One of the hardest things is thinking about the grandchildren, that they won't get to live this way of life - Shabbat, kashrut, family purity, Jewish knowledge - because that is the essence of our lives," she added.

"There are friends who said it happened because I'm very open, and that I myself have many questions about faith," P. continued. "That might be true, if it weren't for the many families in the community with secular kids - some of whom were given a very strict upbringing and others a more open one. So I don't have any feelings of guilt about the open way I brought them up."

Fischerman said that the new willingness to acknowledge problems within the religious Zionist community stems from a realization among some of its members that the upbringing they gave their children is not necessarily perfect.

"We still have to encourage people not to deny or repress things. But at a time when there has been a 'coming out of the closet' in other sectors of society, it's been happening among the religious public as well," he said.