Trying to Raise Modern Orthodox Kids

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

On Sunday, with God’s help, we’ll be marrying off our first child. And so, for better or worse, I’ve been in the let-me-share-some-life-wisdom mode for the last several weeks. In that vein, I offer the following reflections that our son’s impending nuptials have aroused, regarding raising Modern Orthodox children in a not-so-Modern-Orthodox world.

Though he is different from his parents in numerous ways, our son is a Modern Orthodox young man. He thrills to his traditional learning, and also loves his academic Jewish studies as well as the study of literature.  He is a model of personal halachik observance, who wrote his college entrance essay about the crisis of urban homelessness. He attended a high school with a distinctly yeshivish Judaic studies faculty –  a faculty that cultivated his love for learning, something for which we are deeply grateful. It was also a faculty that often expressed ideas that were very different from our Modern Orthodox thinking. 

We had many interesting, challenging, even exciting family dinners. Our son would often sit down and share opinions and thoughts that had been offered in school that day. Sometimes these were in the form of negative assessments of non-Orthodox movements, or criticism of secular Israelis and their attitudes toward religion, or suspicions concerning the motivations of Orthodox woman who were taking on mitzvot and ritual practices that have traditionally fallen within the male domain. Sometimes these opinions and ideas concerned the appropriate place of secular studies in the life of a Ben Torah, and where in our value system we place interaction with, or taking responsibility for, the non-Jewish world. The opinions and ideas expressed made sense to him, and the message implicit in his bringing them up with us seemed to be that we, his parents, were religiously misguided in our more accepting and open attitudes.

Now, I am not a parenting expert (though, in honesty, my wife is), but I think that the techniques we developed over time for constructively engaging in these discussions with him were generally successful,  and might prove helpful to others. Here are the main tools:

(1)   Honor the Rebbeim

The Rebbeim who comprise the faculties of schools of this nature are sincere and religiously passionate people. They are important role models of mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice) for the sake of Torah and Mitzvot, and our children rightly look up to them. To God-forbid disparage one’s child’s Rebbe is both halachicly inappropriate and, in practical terms, counter-productive.  

 (2)   Don’t Get Mad

Very often, a child is using the dinner table (or whatever forum) as part of his or her process of learning and discovery. The ideas and opinions from school are interesting and compelling, and a child needs to test them through seeing how his or her parents react and respond. The response of anger not only shuts down the learning process, but signals an inability to debate the idea on its merits.

  (3)   Turn the Question Back

Ask your child what he thinks about this idea? Does it sound consistent with other parts of Jewish teaching that he has learned or beliefs that she holds dear? Would the ideas expressed, if carried through to their logical conclusions, result in a better situation or in a less good situation?

(For example: If all the Conservative and Reform rabbis suddenly closed their shuls, would we better off or worse off as a Jewish community?

Do you think that the Jewish people has anything to contribute to the world at-large? How should this be accomplished?  

What might be the consequences of denying opportunities to Orthodox women, when we and they both know that there is no actual halachik reason to do so?)

   (4)   Acknowledge That There are Flaws in Our Modern Orthodox Community

The critiques of Modern Orthodoxy that are implicit in some of the opinions expressed in school are not unfounded or completely spurious. Our community is not as consistent or devoted in its halachik practice as it should be, and maybe this is because too many of us confuse openness with nonchalance.  There are arguably numerous ways in which our intense interaction with the “outside world” has negatively influenced the way we live. One can point to the way we choose to spend our leisure time, to the way that we practice tzniut (physical modesty).  Acknowledging the partial validity of some of the ideas that come from school does not indicate surrender. It expresses to our child that we are – as we say we are! –open and honest in our religious thinking , and that we are secure enough in our beliefs to explore and consider the ideas of others.  (I know that this one proved important, because just recently our son told me so!)

Raising Modern Orthodox children in a not-so-modern-Orthodox world takes effort, strength, passion, and vision. And at least in the opinion of one father (and mother) it takes honor, patience, serious conversation, and honesty.

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