Finding Your Own Way on the Religious Path

A new book seeks to help Orthodox parents and educators to return wayward children to the path of strict religious observance.

Daphna Berman\
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Daphna Berman\

A new book seeks to help Orthodox parents and educators to return wayward children to the path of strict religious observance. Faranak Margolese, the author of "Off the Derech: Why Observant Jews Stop Practicing Judaism, How to Respond to the Challenge," says that after six years of research she has figured out how to respond to the growing phenomenon in religious communities worldwide.

Margolese says it is the religious communities themselves that are to blame.

"The number of people leaving Orthodoxy continues to increase," she says, "and there's a misconception that people are running to the outside world. But really, they're running away from their world and their communities."

"Off the Derech" is targeted at an observant audience, with Yiddish phrases and terms such as frum (observant) or Yiddishkeit (Jewishness), though a glossary is provided.

"I wanted to give parents, educators and community leaders something to help explain this trend," said Margolese, 33, who immigrated to Israel two years ago. "Orthodox parents feel that it is a great failure if their kids don't follow in their path."

Margolese says it was as a single woman in Manhattan that she realized that most of her friends "used to be" observant and knew others who had left strict Orthodoxy. She expanded her research to rabbis, psychologists and community leaders and commissioned a survey of about 600 people who left their Orthodox way of life.

Margolese grew up in Los Angeles to Persian immigrants in a traditional Sephardi home that celebrated Shabbat but also watched television on Friday night. She fully entered the Orthodox world, she says, when she met her husband.

"People who leave Orthodoxy do so more because of negative experience in the Orthodox world than because of their beliefs," Margolese has concluded.

"The problem is that there are rigid visions of what the next generation should look like," she says. "Modern Orthodox parents want their children to be modern Orthodox and Hasidic parents want their children to be Hasidic. There isn't really much flexibility."

Margolese quotes many formerly observant people as calling the religious way of life "hypocritical," "closed-minded" and "intolerant".

"If Orthodox Judaism was lived the way it was supposed to be lived, we wouldn't see these high numbers in our community," she says. "The best way to prevent people from leaving is to really live Jewish ideals the way they are supposed to be lived."

"Instead of looking outside and saying it's TV, internet or the secular world, we need to look inside, at our own communities, schools, and families to make sure that we've created a positive feeling that keeps our children inspired," she says.

While the book's title suggests that there is a single right path, Margolese insists it is not judgmental. "There's nothing wrong with leaving Orthodoxy," she insists. "People obviously need to make judgments about how to lead their life. It is natural to withdraw from something that is painful or uncomfortable in your life. But I think that it's unfortunate for the Jewish people."

"Off the Derech" has received positive reviews from several high-profile rabbis, including Hershel Schachter of New York's Yeshiva University and Zev Leff, a leading ultra-Orthodox figure in Israel's English-speaking community.

Margolese says the religious community has begun to face the phenomenon, despite what she calls the "shame" felt by many families whose children have "strayed."

"Communities are responding, there are far more materials available than before and more organizations are dealing with the problem."

She admits, however, to "resistance" from certain rabbis who asked not to be associated with the book after they were interviewed for it. Margolese declines to provide names.

"There were religious figures who objected to [my suggestion] of giving children religious leeway," she said. "I argued that parents and educators need to address emotional needs before religious needs."

In searching for publishers, in fact, she had to look past traditional houses such as Artscroll or Feldheim. Without the support of rabbinic leaders, she said, the subject matter was deemed too controversial. She settled on Devora Publishing, a small house with offices in New York and Jerusalem.

"The religious community is thirsty for this kind of information," Margolese added. "This is one of the major issues in the Orthodox world and people want answers."



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