This series is sponsored by our friends, Daniel and Mira Stokar.
In this episode, we discuss parental alienation. In some way or another, almost all of us struggle with alienation. Who among us doesn’t feel too far from someone that we love? The meeting points of religion and family in religious communities can make navigating change in the family unit difficult, sometimes leading to alienation. As we approach Yom Kippur, we spoke to five people who have lived through the stressors that lead to alienation. These guests are people that might be your neighbors, your rabbis, your siblings, or your parents, talking about the cost and challenge of keeping family close, no matter how hard it might be.
In this interview, we discuss:
— How does parental alienation start, and where might it lead?
— What can someone do to avoid or rectify alienation?
— What can we learn from those who have struggled with familial alienation?
First interview starts at 12:53
Thank you to each of these guests for sharing their stories with openness, vulnerability, and honesty, and thank you to Eitan Katz for permission to use his song, Ki Karov.
Toldos Support Group for parental alienation
Hello and welcome to the 18Forty Podcast where each month we explore different topics, balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month we’re exploring teshuva. This series was sponsored by our dearest friends Daniel and Mira Stokar. We’re so thankful for their generosity, friendship, and support. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy Jewish ideas. So be sure to check out 18forty.org. That’s 1-8-F-O-R-T-Y.org where you can also find videos, articles, and recommended readings. Where does 18Forty begin? I think it really depends who you ask. If you were to ask my partner Mitch Eichen, who I love, he would tell you 18Forty was started to really address the most difficult theological questions. But I bet if you pushed him a little bit more and if you dug a little bit deeper, what’s really animating 18Forty is the story of a family, is the story of how we negotiate familial differences, how we negotiate children and parents who have radically different religious sensibilities than one another and being able to draw, whether it’s a child or a parent, back into the fold, so to speak.
And this isn’t a new problem. In many ways, it’s a very, very old problem. You can read Jewish texts dating back hundreds if not thousands of years of the prayers and the hopes for parents to have children who follow in their footsteps. On Erev Yom Kippur, we say a prayer called V’zakeini. V’zakeini is traditionally said from parents to children on Erev Yom Kippur. And the words are, “v’zakeini l’gadel banim u’bnei banim,” I should merit to raise children and grandchildren. “Chachamim u’nevonim,” who are wise and intelligent, “ohavei Hashem,” who love God. “U’yirei elokim,” who fear God, “anshei emet,” people of truth, “zera kodesh,” from the holy nation, “b’Hashem devekim,” who cling to godliness. “U’meirim et haolam,” and light up the entire world, “b’Torah u’maasim tovim,” with their Torah and good deeds, “u’bchol milechet haboreh,” and with all matters in the service of their creator. It’s one of the most moving prayers that we have.
It was made into a song. But it is strange that we don’t say it more often. We specifically say it on Erev Yom Kippur. And I think in many ways it relates to why we have centered parent-child relationships, not only in 18Forty, but specifically in this topic. And not only having anything to do with 18Forty, but at the center of our lives. At the center of the teshuva process itself is the relationships that we build with our own family. And that as we head into Yom Kippur, there are so many prayers that we can say, but at the heart of it is a prayer for family. Cause I believe at the heart of the teshuva experience, at the heart of how we transform and redefine ourselves and embody these very lofty goals, we’re gonna be better Jews, we’re gonna be better people. We’re gonna daven more. We’re gonna keep Shabbos better. We have this really lofty, idealistic list of self-transformation. But I think at the heart of everything is how we treat our family. How that very specific love of family is articulated, how it is said. And I know for myself that the litmus test that I want to be judged by, and I think the litmus test that Yiddishkeit judges us by, there are a lot of mitzvahs and there are a lot of things that we want to do better in. But the ultimate barometer of our religious lives is how we’re able to connect and reconcile with family, with those closest to us. With those, sometimes were the easiest to take for granted. And I think this stands at the center of teshuva because it is at the center of our religious lives. The Vilna Gaon famously commented on a verse in Pirkei Avos and said something that it’s almost not believable that the Vilna Gaon said it, but the Vilna Gaon said, I’ll read it in Hebrew then of course I’ll translate.
“Lo yered adam l’olam ela l’shaber middos raos,” a person does not descend onto this world… The main mission is to correct, to fix, to address your bad, your difficult characteristics and qualities to become a mensh, to become a decent human being. And I always wonder, like in our religious lives now, now our modern religious lives. We are faced with so much more choice. We are faced with so many more possibilities. The winds of transformation descend in one generation. What would’ve taken many, many generations centuries ago. We have children who look radically different than their parents. Parents who look radically different than their children. And sometimes that’s seen as an obstacle for the religious lives that we want to live. Sometimes that serves as a barrier between the idealistic lives that we hope to live. And I think that this prayer V’zakeini reminds us that our hopes and aspirations for our family are at the heart of what teshuva is.
And the way that we treat one another is the entry point, is the doorway into self-transformation, into our religious lives. Our family lives, the way we treat those closest to us, can never be seen as a barrier to what we want to become religiously. But it is the barometer of what we want to become religiously. The kodesh ha’kedoshim, the inner sanctum that the kohen gadol enters on Yom Kippur, is in many ways an analogy for our family lives. The kodesh h’kedoshim of our religious lives is our family and the way that we treat our family. And I know many of our listeners, I am sure have wonderful relationships with their families. But I think centering this issue and the issue that we’re going to talk about today, which is parent and child alienation is a larger analogy. Not just for your immediate family but for those closest to us.
And I think in a much deeper and greater sense, it’s the family of amcha Yisrael, the family of how we treat one another in Jewish peoplehood. And like my rebbe in Ner Yisrael, Rav Zvi Einstatder, used to say before his students, before Yom Kippur, he would remind them that the greatest merit you can come into Yom Kippur with is not how much you daven. It’s not how well you keep Shabbos, it’s not how careful you are with mitzvahs. Those are all very important. And anybody who’s ever met Rav Zvi Einstatder, who literally runs to davening still like a 19 year old, knows that he does not take those things lightly. But he would always tell his students: The greatest merit that you have on Yom Kippur is your Jewish identity. And the way that we accentuate, the way that we do teshuva, so to speak, on our Jewish identity, is not by wearing a Magen David necklace. The barometer for how we treat our Jewish identities is how we treat the family of the Jewish people.
And I think it’s with that, that it was so important to center specifically this issue as we enter into Yom Kippur, which is the alienation of parents to children and the alienation of children to parents. There is a story that hangs on my wall that I come back to every single year before Yom Kippur. I reread it but it’s on my wall the entire year because in many ways it is the lens through which I approach religion itself. It’s a story that’s written by somebody named Richard Pindell. And I think many of our listeners, if you haven’t heard it from me, you’ve probably heard it secondhand from somebody else. Maybe at a Shabbaton, maybe you’ve heard it third hand, somebody giving it over. Very few people have read the original story. But this story by Richard Pindell, called “Somebody’s Son,” was shared with me by my dear friend Rabbi, Dr.
Simcha Willig who found it in a collection in the Carteret library when he was learning in yeshiva there. And he shared it with me and it moved me to my core. I found the original issue of American Girl Magazine, which I think was a magazine for Girl Scouts. And I went online and I bought the original and I have it sitting on my wall. And it’s a story I always come back to because it’s a story of alienation. And the story begins with a letter by a child named David, like myself, who writes a letter to his mother following some alienation that we’re never told all the details of. But he writes a letter to his mother in the hopes of some measure of reconciliation with his father. And this is the letter as written in the story, “Somebody’s Son.” “Dear mom, if dad will permit it, I would like to come home. I know there’s little chance he will. I’m not going to kid myself. I remember he said once, if I ever ran off, I might as well keep on going. All I can say is that I felt leaving home was something I had to do before even considering college. I wanted to find out more about life and about me and the best way for us, life and me, to live with each other.” That sentence has always stuck out, always struck me as a very painful sentence, a very real sentence. A sentence that I have struggled with, the notion of learning how to live with life. “I wanted to find out more about life and about me and the best way for us, life and me, to live with each other.” And the letter continues, “Please tell Dad. And I think I’m going to make him soar all over again. I’m not certain that college is the answer for me. I think I’d like to work for a time and think it over. You won’t be able to reach me by mail because I’m not sure where I’ll be next. But in a few days I hope I’ll be passing by our place. If there’s a chance Dad will have me back, please ask him to tie a white cloth to the apple tree in the south pasture. You know the one, the Grimes Golden beside the track. I’ll be going by on the train. If there’s no cloth on that tree, I’ll just quietly and without any hard feelings towards Dad, I mean that, keep going. Love, David.”
The story has always moved me deeply because I think so many of us have written similar letters, letters in the hope of reconciliation, whether we’ve actually written them or just kind of like scripted them out in our head, a letter to a parent, a letter to a sibling, a letter to a child, a letter to somebody who was close in our lives.
And sometimes we’re too cowardly, we’re too scared, we’re too scared of what the response is going to be, that we never even send a letter, we never even send it out. But we think about it and we think about it specifically during these times of Yom Kippur when we’re trying to figure out the best way for us, life and me, to live together. The best way to take ownership of the narrative of your life. And you superimpose it and you see there’s a piece missing in my sense of self. A family member, a close friend, we lost touch, we broke apart. We’re fighting with one another. And you think of writing one of these letters and asking for some sign, for some white cloth that you could tie onto a tree to know that there’s some hope, some glimmer of reconciliation still possible. And I think in the process of teshuva, this is in maybe one sense what it means when teshuva is described as “ki karov elecha hadavar meod,” it is a thing that is exceedingly close.
You know, in one sense we always talk about teshuva being exceedingly close. And we spoke about this previously, like it’s really easy, it’s you. I think “ki karov elecha hadavar meod,” might also mean it’s not just exceedingly close, it’s with your krovim, it’s with those most close to you. Doing teshuva is about thinking about that reconciliation and reaching out to connect to people in your lives, those closest to you, those who are karov meod to you, your krovim, your literal relatives, family members, perhaps childhood friends and asking for some hope, some sign of reconciliation. I began the interviews for this episode with someone who was doing incredible work in the field of child alienation. A family that has for whatever reason, very often religious reasons, felt that a child can’t be in the home anymore, is gonna have negative effects. There’s too much fighting, there’s too much hoping that the child changes right away.
And there’s an incredible person named Gedalia who started an organization called Kesher Nafshi. Kesher Nafshi, which means an intimate connection. And this organization, Kesher Nafshi, which began in the Hasidic community, does incredible works. And I’ve heard them from many of our guests that we’ve had in the past that this is their lifeline. And what the organization does is provide training and help for parents who are struggling with children who are have different religious identities than their own and try to provide the support and the training and the perspective to ensure that families never cut off a child. And Gedalia was kind enough to join me in conversation to talk a little bit about the work that he does in Kesher Nafshi, why he felt this organization was needed and how it address struggles in his own life. This was what Gedalia told me
About seven and a half years ago, I found myself with my own challenges, my own children where they took their own path. At that time there was nothing out there for parents and we were looking for a place with to better understand our children and… extremely challenging. As we say, I wouldn’t wish it on my biggest enemy. When you put so much effort into your own children over the years and then later on find out that they’re going on their own path for various reasons and not understanding what they’re going through and why they’re going through what they’re going through. It’s extremely challenging. Um, there are different stages of what the parents go through in the beginning. The shame, blame, the guilt. Where’s your family going? What’s happening? What’s gonna be with shidduchim? What’s gonna be with your status with your other children? Especially if somebody has a larger family. Baruch Hashem, we have a family of 10 children. So we had nowhere to turn to. So at the time there was only two names that I heard over and over again was the rebbe in Williamsburg. His name’s the Krula rebbe, that we can go talk for guidance.
Can you say that first rabbi’s name again?
Krula rebbe, his name is the Krula rebbe. He’s a son of the previous Spinka rebbe, Rav Hershel Spinka, zecher tzaddik l’bracha. And he has a good understanding of these children and go speak to him. Being that I’m not a Krula chassid, I’m a Bobover chassid, so I didn’t know what to do. But I needed somewhere to call. They gave me another name, but the name Avi Fishoff… at the time, about eight years ago, Avi Fishoff’s name was not very well known. I looked up online this name and I found that he gave out MBD Gold different album, Solid Gold. And then I saw some picture something with mask, but that’s about it. That’s why he gave out a book on um, GPS. Something about Shabbos or whatever, but authentic Yiddishkeit. So I went, first I bought the book and I thought maybe I’ll find some secrets over there and I didn’t , that’s basically it. So I called him and I reached out to him and in a nutshell, he didn’t want to take my case. So I said it’s difficult cause I was dealing way with a married child with two children at the time.
If you allow me to interject your case, which there’s a beautiful article in Mishpacha magazine about it, is someone in your family, we don’t have to talk in euphemisms, was no longer observant. But this family member of yours, it was after they were married with children, correct?
Right. So he was not at that time taking any cases where there is a married child going off the derech, or on their derech, as we call it. But he gave us two hours of his time. My wife and myself, was like from 11 o’clock to one o’clock in the morning going over and over and over again different scenarios and different situations like understanding what’s happening, what’s really these kids are going through. So having had that understanding, so first of all, instead of being angry or trying to fight it or trying to find different ways how to get my child to change, I realized that we have to change, we have to have compassion for them. We have to understand what they’re going through, even unbeknown to me what they’re going through, which is something that’s still puzzling, but at least we had an understanding. It’s something on the inside that’s going through some turmoil that I don’t understand.
Instead of being proactive like many others in the beginning and they try to do all different types of ways to change your child, to bribing them or threatening them or punishing them or cutting off, which was never my… bichlal with my children. I mean I’ve had, I have six boys so some of them gave me run for my money in Yeshiva. There was never thought of cutting off with any of your children at any time. As Rav Shimon Russell says, define me more than I can love you. That’s become a motto. Try to define me more than I can love you.
Try to define me more than I can love you. Wow.
Yeah, because sometimes you think your children are being rebellious and trying to fight with you and it’s really their own pain. So Avi said to me, I’m a trusted Flatbush guy. You’re not gonna listen to me anyway. Go to the Krula rebbe, maybe he can help. So basically Avi didn’t give us a mahalach what to do. He just gave us an understanding of what my children are going through. So we went to the Krula rebbe and he has no idea who I am or my financial status. I left the message on his private voicemail, this is the situation, this is what I’m dealing with. And within an hour he called back, gave us two hours or an hour and a half, my wife and myself, in a seforim room in his library and really connected on an emotional level. Ki imi anochi b’tzara.
So he showed us that he’s there with us. He wasn’t lecturing, he wasn’t being logical trying to tell us logical things from the Torah. He was more emotionally connecting with us and giving us an understanding of how we should look at our children. How Hashem looked at us in Mitzrayim, mem tet sha’ar of tumah, told us that time, bni bechori yisrael. Hashem knew at that time we’re not ready for any mussar, we’re not able to accept anything at the time of any other source than love. And that’s basically what we got to understand in that meeting. You know, I’ve been challenged many times since then, Baruch Hashem, that you know, when you have the fifth sense, when you get to understand that the child is not being bad, it’s a child that’s hurting, it’s only natural for a father. If they don’t have their gaava in the middle or their haughtiness to say, you know, what’s me before you? Then they can put things aside. You know, if the parents would say to themselves, What’s really going on here? What are we dealing with? We’re dealing here with a child that’s in pain and they’re going through something. I don’t have to know what that is. And when we see that, then we understand that it’s easier for us to relate to the child.
I found it extremely moving what he said, try to define me more than I can love you. Try to define me more than I can love you. I hope in some way, whether it’s a child or somebody close in our lives that we’ve had some brokenness with or whether it’s in our very relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu that we’re able to embody that try to define me more than I can love you. To have that capacity to be able to love even in the face of brokenness, even in the face of a fractured relationship. I asked Gedalia about the specific challenges that he had as someone who grew up in Chassidishe community of remaining connected to a child and exactly what perspectives are needed in order to maintain that connection despite the very real differences.
So what we’ve seen is the reason the people that are going through, they’re going through what they’re going through is every person has their amygdala, which is the alarm system for fight, flight and freeze. So if chas v’shalom, you are in an accident or a bear is coming at you, you have three options. You can either leave, try to fight or you freeze. But if your alarm system doesn’t go off, you’re in constant awareness, heightened awareness, hypervigilant all the time. So you can’t really sleep, you can’t really concentrate. You go from zero to 100 in three minutes or somebody says something to you. We call that going offline and that’s what happens. So now if somebody’s offline you’re trying to have a logical conversation, you’re not really going to be able to have a logical conversation. So it’s not a time when you’re trying to debate somebody.
If they’re offline, there’s nobody to talk to me. Like I say, the lights are on, there’s nobody home. So what we realized is the more you can connect, the more you can show that you are there for them, the more you can give them fun, the more you can take them out, the more you can get them to relax and give them the comfort they need, you bring them back online. When you bring them back online, the person yields to a certain extent on their own enough to figure out after a while. Sometimes it can take a couple of years, but after a while they say they want help. And hopefully with Hashem‘s help you find the right person. Many times you can’t find the religious person… in the beginning because they’re so anti or for whatever… they had their experience in the past from somebody that was religious that really gave them a run for the money as we speak.
They don’t want to see a religious person try to help them in the beginning. So they have to get comfortable with that as well. So our job is to get them really to get the right help, get them online, get them comfortable enough to be able to be at a Shabbos meal, even if they’re not dressed properly, get them to be in the family, Come to family simchas, even if they’re not dressed the way your family wants them to be dressed, make them comfortable. Invite them to all your simchas. Invite them to be open about it with your family members. They should all know what you’re going through, the hardest part in the beginning, but the earlier you are able to get over that situation and get more people around you, you’re going to need a lot of support. Hiding it is not helping you. I mean I have a family member, it’s not my family. I have one family that because of what they’re going through, they completely shut down. They’re not calling back their friends, the family, their relatives-
The whole family shut down.
Yeah, mother and the father shut down completely and they’re professionals and they don’t know how to handle it. So what really happens now is all of a sudden the parents are shut down, the kid is shut down, the siblings are shut down. Where is this going to go? So the earlier you can, as I say, make shalom with the matzav and go out and reach out for help. There’s so much help out there today. You listen to the class, everything is online for free. You’re not even charging any money. Keshernafshi.org you can get everything for free, can download from Torah Anytime the audio on your phone and listen to it in your privacy.
And then Gedalia told me a little bit about how important this work is for the Jewish people and for building familial relationships that can endure despite the difficulty, despite the defiance.
You first have to have a deep understanding of your child. That’s the first thing about it. If you are gonna continue to look at your child as a rebel and you are doing it because somebody told you to do it, then don’t do it. I’d rather you not do it. I had a family by me three hours, all they wanted the child should come home. The child ran away for seven months, eight months. I said, I’m not letting you take your child home. Child, 18 year old, 17 year old, until you are maskim that you will not say anything about his dress code. You’re not gonna say anything about religion. You’re not gonna say anything to hurt your child then otherwise he’s better off not being at home. Yeah, but, but, but I said I’m not interested in any buts. If you’re not willing to accept your child where they are right now, don’t bring him home.
Yeah. “But all my kids, the kids are are missing him.” I said fine, but he ran away from your home cause you kept telling him what to do. Stop telling him what to do. So basically the first part is you have to be able to work on yourself, you, your wife, spouse, whatever you wanna call it, they need to work on themselves. It’s not easy. It’s very, very, very hard. That’s the first part. Second part is when the person is ready, that’s when we start the real work. Which means, for instance, going to a theater. I don’t go to a theater. I’m dealing with a child that’s older that was also not comfortable going with a father and the mother on chol hamoed Pesach to a theater… But we were told, da’as Torah said, you need to do something to connect because at that time this is what we needed to do. So we went, and I’m not ashamed to say this in public. Yes, we went to a theater.
A movie theater, correct?
Yeah. Not to drive in. We actually had to go inside. Yeah. Basically it wasn’t comfortable. Happens to be, it’s a place we were told there’s nobody there. I don’t know how they pay their bills, there was nobody there. But… I guess they built it only for us. Bottom line is the end of the day, you have to go out of your comfort zone if you wanna connect with somebody that’s hurt. We always say like this, if your child is pikuach nefesh, your child needs to be in an ICU. So we build the ICU in our home. The only great thing about us is we get to sleep in our own bed. But the fact of the matter is, you’re in the ICU if your child is pikuach nefesh24/7, you really need to be vigilant the whole time not to hurt your child, not to say the wrong thing.
It’s a lot more to work on than just going into their world explaining to you that the groundwork that needs to happen, really groundwork in order for them to be ready. I don’t expect the parent that when I meet them, sit with them and talk to them a few hours. But tomorrow they’re going out to buy a 55-inch TV and they’re dressing all the like Abercrombie and Fitch. I’m saying you gotta work on yourself to get to that level. To be able to go to the mall, to go in there and buy the stuff that’s really cringing to you and to your family and who’s gonna see her and who’s gonna see him or whatever. That’s gonna be the ripped jeans. And you know, like one grandfather said, “You’re so poor that you’re wearing ripped jeans?” They didn’t know that this is the style. So basically at the end of the day, you have to get to their world. We’ve had parents that bought crazy, crazy stuff with their child to get the child back and it took years. I’m not gonna go onto everything they did. And basically they had the things that they had backing for it. But I’m not talking thing against the Torah but I’m saying it’s, it’s uncomfortable. So–
It’s embarrassing. I think that’s the word that I haven’t heard you mention, but you’d agree that there’s an embarrassment in all this. Like a busha.
It’s very embarrassing. You know, I once went to a theater next to Monsey with my daughter and she’s a party planner. So she did a bar mitzvah for somebody and she comes with me out of the theater and it was actually sefira time and we actually watched some kind of a movie that was acapella. The whole movie, I don’t know what it was called… was full acapella.
I’m so curious about what movies you’re seeing. I’d love to, do you remember?
It’s very, it’s really seven years ago. So I haven’t, like I said, she was old and she said you guys don’t go to movie, stop. So we only went twice and I don’t miss it. But the bottom line is the second time around we were watching something and there was acapella something about acapella. So I said to my daughter, it’s sefira now, it’s great. She was laughing, she got it. But when she walked out with me, she said, all these boys were by the bar mitzvah party that I just did for a client of mine. They were all walking into the theater. It wasn’t easy, you know, people know who I am, but I’m saying you gotta go out of your comfort zone. I have a very big speaker and a very big person that had his challenging child and he promised his child, at that time he didn’t know the mahalachs but he knew his child was into either baseball or football and he promised the child he is gonna go with his child to a game.
He said, thank God it was raining, Nobody was there and the cameras didn’t focus on me, otherwise I’d have been all over on TV. And everybody would see that this Rav/speaker is on TV at a game. You know how that… but the person did it. We’ve had had one couple, actually a Litvish couple, that child was into one of these I think basketball players and somehow through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, I think it was, got in touch with one of these top, top basketball player and got tickets to the game and got box seat and everything that this son, that was offered there, got an opportunity to actually meet this top player. And he actually signed a ball. Can you picture how far this person went? He’s a real choshuv Litvishe person that that went and did that. So I’m just saying people do go out of the comfort zone as long as willing to give up. You know it says, “anochi omed benei u’benechem,” the anochios, it’s you that’s really the-
Ego stands between you and and the other in the relationship.
It’s really what’s happening. We really have to look away at our ego. It’s not easy, but this is what we have to do. It’s bein adam l’chavero, which is between you and your child that you really have to look away.
You know, our audience is not primarily Chassidish though we have many Chassidish listeners and families, many in the yeshivish community and Chabad-Lubavitch and and non-Orthodox listeners. And the common denominator in every single community is the pain of a parent, the embarrassment of a parent when their child goes on a path — whether a religious path, sometimes it’s a professional path — when your child has a radically different identity than that aspiration, all the hopes and dreams that you’ve been looking at this child since you were raising them as an infant. That pain crosses all borders. I mean, one of our most popular interviews was actually with a Reform rabbi whose son became yeshivish. He actually just got engaged, mazel tov to him, the son became like a real Yeshiva man. And it was so interesting to hear how different families negotiate with this pain.
Sometimes the pain is your child gets a profession you find embarrassing. “We’re all doctors and lawyers and you’re gonna become a blue collar worker. It’s not what we do.” And obviously the deepest pain is when it’s a religious commitment and a religious identity, which is so essential and part of who you are and has the element of this is what HaKadosh Baruch Hu, what God wants from you. You know, the pain almost stands alone. You know, berumo shel olam, in the highest stratosphere and the work you’re doing to center the family unit is really some of the holiest work. And the only thing I would say is that this is not bein adam l’chavero, this isn’t interpersonal, this is the ultimate bein adam l’makom, the ultimate expression of your connection to HaKadosh Baruch Hu is the way that you’re able to build capacity and connect to your own children. It’s a part of it. It’s not veering from it, it’s a part of that relationship to HaKadosh Baruch Hu in the way that you relate and connect to your own children. And of course for somebody who’s done so much work with families, with children in keeping them together, it was so moving to have some pre-Yamim Noraim blessings from Gedalia.
Thank you, David, I appreciate it. And Hashem should give you koach to continue your holy work. Your family should be well. You should only see nachas, bracha, hatzlacha, harchavas hadaas in all that you do. Ksiva v’chasima tova.
And again, for any parent who’s looking to understand more about this notion of child alienation, of how to remain connected to a child, the work that he’s doing with Kesher Nafshi and all of the shabbatons that they’re running along with Dr. Shimon Russell and Avi Fishoff. It is really incredible work that regardless what community you come from, I don’t think this is a problem in the Chassidish community. I think this is a problem of having very real essential desires for what our children turn out to be, which is natural and normal and the pain that we go through when it unfolds differently. But it’s not just child alienation that I think haunts our community. I think there are other issues, and there’s another issue in particular, which I would call almost the flip side of this, and it’s not child alienation, but parental alienation.
Parental alienation is when during the course of discord, very often divorce, one parent deliberately distances the other parent from their children. I’ve seen this with people I know and love and I’m close to. And I think all of us have been at weddings where we’ve heard whispers that there’s only one parent walking the child down to the chupah. I think we’ve seen families where there’s one family member that’s not in the picture. I want to make, of course, an important disclaimer that this discussion of parental alienation is not talking, God forbid, chalila about instances where there is imminent physical or emotional danger, where God forbid there are instances of actual child abuse, where you need to remove a parent from the picture in order to keep children safe. And obviously those are very real instances where medical professionals and communal leaders need to be involved. And the number one priority is always the physical and emotional health of a child. But I know of instances, I know of instances, real instances, and I’m sure you do too, where a parent is no longer in the picture and they’re not the embodiment of evil that maybe they’ve been painted out to be. And I spoke to somebody who runs support groups specifically for fathers who have been alienated from their children and he shared his own experience of being an alienated father.
I am an alienated father of four amazing daughters. I’ve been alienated from my daughters for close to eight years now. Now just to explain a little bit about parental alienation. So I got divorced from my first wife. I gave the get at the end of 2008 and we were legally divorced in the middle of 2010. The divorce itself was really not so bad. The alienation came before I got remarried. You know, I had a great relationship with my girls. I’m remarried now and when we first got married, my wife probably could have gotten “stepmother of the year” and things were going very nicely. I think that generally speaking, people understand that there’s such a thing as brainwashing, that sometimes when couples get divorced that one parent is going to brainwash the children against the other parent. And when that brainwashing gets taken to a particular level of extreme that it leads to like a complete cutoff, that is parental alienation.
There’s plenty of cases such as mine where there was no violence, there was no abuse. But rather it was this very extreme and malicious brainwashing of my daughters against me and my wife to the point where it’s been almost eight years now, almost eight years, that like I can’t even reach out to my daughters Erev Rosh Hashanah, Erev Yom Kippur, give them a bracha, ask mechila. And none of this. My oldest daughter is 20 now and I assume that she’s dating. I’ve heard from people, they said, “Oh, we saw your daughter at one of her friend’s weddings recently. She looked great.” You know, and like, not all these people who bring me back these reports know all the details of what I’m going through. And on the one hand, I’m glad to hear that my daughter looks good and she’s, you know, living some semblance of a normal life. But at the same time it hurts terribly because what it leads me to think is like, I don’t even know that I’m gonna be able to walk my daughter down to the chupah. I don’t know that I’ll ever meet my eineklech from these daughters. How do you explain? I can’t, I can’t put into words, I’m sorry… I can’t put into words what the pain of alienation is like because people don’t get it.
And this became such an issue in the community that this alienated father began support groups for other fathers.
I’ve done a lot of research into this topic and I’ve become part of support groups and I even started a support group because I needed it. You know, first I found support groups that were not specifically for Orthodox Jews. And then saw that there was a need for Jews to have a, a support group to go to people who would understand what it’s like to not be able to give your kids a bracha and ask forgiveness around Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, what it means to not have your kids at a seder. And I reached out to rabbis and no rabbi — outside of you, I wanna thank you for this opportunity to talk about this topic. But most rabbis, they don’t want to touch this stuff. They don’t wanna get involved. What, what can they do? What are they gonna do?
The name of his organization is called Toldos, which are support groups for parents who’ve been alienated from their children. And it’s a really, really powerful reason for why he called it Toldos.
You know, I mentioned that I first joined support groups and then I later created one for myself. It’s called Toldos. And I really, I like this name Toldos for this support group because you know, perhaps you can think of “Eileh toldos Avraham, Avraham holid et Yitzchak,” right? Toldos reminds us about children, but Toldos also reminds us about outcomes, consequences. And I think it’s really important that we need to think of our children and we need to think of the outcomes and consequences of our decisions as related to our children.
It’s a really sad network that exists of parents who no longer have relationships with their children. And this father that we just spoke to connected me to somebody else who was almost alienated from his children. His name is Shloime and he lives in the Chassidishe community and he was almost alienated from his children. But now he has a wonderful relationship, not only with his children, but also with his ex-wife. And so much of his work is helping families avoid this parental alienation and find that healthy reconciliation in their own lives. And I asked Shloime where does the breakdown begin? How does parental alienation unfold? This is what he said.
What confuses the child is when the child starts to see that the parents are using them against the other parent. So one second. So you don’t really love me, you’re just holding on to me so you can use me as a bullet against that child. And this is something that children from three years old are able to realize. There are many people that I know who are grownups now, have families, businesses, successful people, very, very successful people who are children of divorced parents where there were no fights. I was at an engagement party last week. The girl had no relationship with her father. Whatever over there happened. I don’t know. The boy didn’t have a relationship with her father for 16 years. They’re both not frum. And this is an simple result of them growing up without their biological and their real parent in their life.
It’s a given. There is no question about it that the reason they have a certain hate, a resistance to Yiddishkeitand to normality and to their path of what they grew up and to just follow along is the emotional abuse of not having the relationship with their parents. I was at a bar mitzvah two years ago of a child that I educated his mother on how to deal with things and how to go about it in the right way. So I got invited to the bar mitzvah. So both parents are remarried. It’s blended families on all sides. It’s a beautiful bar mitzvah, a big bar mitzvah. The mother calls me over to the mechitza. I go over to the mechitza, standing over there, the mother and her new husband, the father of the boy and his new wife. They were all thanking me for one thing, for opening their eyes and for educating them and for guiding them. I was guiding them for almost a year. They were calling me every move. “He said this, how to react? They said this. They did, he did this, she did this.” Everything I was kind of teaching them. So she was telling me that if not for the way I educated her on how to deal with the situations, her children wouldn’t have been normal by now. This whole thing was eating away at them to a level that the kids were not functioning. The kids started to hate her. It was on a terrible level.
And I asked Shloime me like, why are we talking about this now? Why is this such an important issue and Shloime who’s so sweet and so wonderful shared with me the following,
The relationship was by me. It wasn’t entirely and completely broken because there was very little lapse of times that I didn’t see my children. When I did see my children, I always made it count. I was always doing something fun with the children, asking them what they wanna do. It used to be every Sunday we used to go ice skating. I got onto the ice with them. I wasn’t sitting in the side and watching them ice skate. I was on the ice with them. We went to Kids in Action in Brooklyn. Everybody knows what Kids in Action is, jumping around on the slides and the balls and everything. I was in there with them having fun. I used to come out barely breathing.
I’m imagining you in ice skates right now.
Yeah. I I ice skate very well. My daughter had a teacher who was teaching her how to ice skate. At some point, the school had a problem with it. She was in a Chassidishe school at that point. She still is. But uh, she was in a very, you know, a typical Borough Park school. They had a problem. So I called them up and I explained to them, I said, Look, I have three hours a week that I spend with my children and I’m going to make it count. And we’re not going to a beach here. We’re going to a place where everybody’s bundled up in coats over there. It’s, it’s more tznius that place than on 13th Avenue, anytime in the summer. The school gave in on that. They were okay with it. And my daughter loved it. She had her own skates. She had a teacher who was teaching her how to skate.
She mamesh, she lived up, she used to be on this, on the rink for two hours straight, like skating and skating and skating. She loved it. And I was there with them. I was hands on with my children. I was very in tune to them. I never went on vacations. If I did have to tRavel away somewhere and miss a visitation, I would talk to the kids already about it three, four weeks before that. Either I’m gonna make up the time or I’m gonna buy them a gift. So it wasn’t something that ooh, Tatty didn’t show up. There was no such thing ever that I just didn’t show up to my kids. I was always there. I haven’t tRaveled. I’m single for eight years. I could have tRaveled or could have done so much to enjoy the fact that I’m single. I didn’t do it because I knew I have children and it’s way more fragile.
My children, I wasn’t living with them. So I, I literally had to give them in those three hours, enough memory to think about all week. I walked into Kids in Action once there was a man sitting there and his two kids were playing and he was sitting on the side on the phone. I turned him and I said, “Are you crazy? You have three and a half hours a week with your children and you’re sitting here on the phone, you’re trying to push time, go up there and play with them. He says, “What, I’m a big guy. I’m gonna go up and play?” I said, “Watch me, I’m gonna do it.” And he is like, “You’re not embarrassed to do it?” I said, “Embarrassed for whom? For what? These are my kids. And if this is what my kids need right now for me to do is to go onto the slides, then guess what?
That’s exactly what I’m going to do. I don’t care what anybody’s gonna say.” Yeah, people looked at me like weird. They’re like, oh this big guy coming down the sliding ponds. And all of a sudden there’s like this spiral sliding slide and it’s like the enclosed ones and all of a sudden, big guy, I’m 270 pounds, I’m six foot tall. I’m this big guy. I get to pop out and everyone’s like, whoa, what just happened there? But it’s what I had to do for my son. He was going on those go-karts that was going around around on three and a half miles an hour. And I was standing and cheering him on. Like, “good driver, you’re gonna be the best driver one day. Look at yourself.” My son used to come off that with a smile from here to canarsie. Normal parents when they have their children live with them every week, all day, every day.
It’s important for a parent to spend five minutes, few minutes with a child to give them the quality and undivided attention every day. But five minutes could be enough for a lot of children. Five minutes could be enough. These children don’t have it every day. So when you give them a one sum of three and a half hours of good and undivided attention, it’s what counts and it’s what makes the relationship that when my son had issues in his house with his stepfather, he came running to me to a certain point, at some point that he said, You know what? My life is gonna be better when I live with my father. And guess what? He’s been living by me since February. Both of my children are living with me.
And what I found so remarkable about my conversation with Shloime is that he really understands that there are two paths that every couple battling with divorce is dealing with. It’s not divorce that breaks apart a child as hard as divorce can be. There’s so many people in my life who come from divorced homes. What really breaks people apart is not the divorce but the potential alienation that unfolds after. And he understands why.
People get divorced and the first thing they wanna do is forget about their ex-spouse. I wanna move on in life. I wanna start a new life. And I don’t wanna know of him for one second. You have children with him? Well we’ll deal with that. We’ll see how we fit the children into the cutoff. And that’s when people get lost. And then all of a sudden the kid comes home from visiting the father with the stain on his shirt. “He’s not looking after the kids. He got dirty.” I mean your child came home a half hour before from cheder with a shirt looking way worse. No, no, that’s cheder, cheder, it’s very normal to kids to get dirty. But he went to the father and he got dirty. The father’s not looking. He’s neglecting the children. I don’t feel it’s safe for me to send the children to the father. Now one of the main things that people are not careful, I wasn’t careful at some point. And then I, my son, very smart boy, Baruch Hashem, he made me aware. He said, “Tatty, don’t talk about these things in front of me. I’m not interested in hearing it. I wanna be a child. I’m not interested in hearing divorce.”
Talk about what, what should people not be talking about in front of their children?
Anything that’s related to scheduling the visits, anything that parents have to the… You ever have this situation where a kid comes to ask, “Mommy, can I buy a new scooter?” And the mother says, I’m talking about a married couple, “You have to ask Tatty.” So the kid goes to Tatty, “Tatty, can you buy me a new scooter?” He said, “Did you ask Mommy? He says, “Yeah, Mommy said I should ask you.” He says, “Okay, I’m gonna have later a discussion with Mommy and we’ll decide if we’re gonna buy a new scooter.” Why don’t the parents have their debate right then and there in front of the children? Because then they still understand that things are not to be discussed. Even if it’s as simple as a scooter. He asked the husband or the wife in private, Do you have any objection to a scooter?
Yeah, I don’t want it. It’s not safe. Or whatever. You have the conversation in private and it’s a very normal thing to have conversations in private. When people get divorced, all of the sudden this common sense of not discussing it because now the couple is not married. So what do I care? I’m gonna say yes. “Yeah, Tattycan buy it for you.” When the father was hoping that Mommy would say no. And all of the sudden now it’s putting each other in positions. And then now that when the father is buying it, he’s not buying it because he wants to. It’s because he has to. And when something comes out of some somebody because just because he has to, it’s not as effective as it should be when it comes from, you know, from the wanting position. And it’s just, you know, one thing after the other.
And Shloime really helped me understand the ingredients and issues that bubble up that are the cause to parental alienation and why it’s so important for children to maintain that connection to their parents.
Parental alienation is something that has destroyed, destroys, and will always destroy children. Nobody can argue on that. Nobody can say anything that’s gonna convince me or prove me that it’s not true. Because I have spoken to so many people and it’s not like that. You would find this one guy that, you know with him, it hasn’t had an effect.
And I like that you’re careful. You’re not saying divorce, it’s not divorced. It’s the alienation.
Alienation. I know many people that their parents got divorced, They’re normal, successful. They had… the kids were one Shabbos by Tatty, one Shabbos by Mommy. Then they got married. This Mommy was Mommy Greenfeld. And this Tatty was Tatty Neidenfeld. It was okay. There was respect. The children, when they look at the parents and they’re on the same level, the moment one parent starts to use them, they’re like, one second. How could these two people that are on the same level, they love me and they’re both right under Hashem. How could they do this? Give me one reason I should still believe in Hashem.
No, it erodes your very identity. I believe that to my core. And having a healthy relationship with your parents. It is the mediator, it is the way that we connect, so to speak, with all authority figures. And the ultimate authority, namely HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
So when you come in and you walk into a kitchen, let’s say, right? And there’s milk spilled on the floor and you’re bending down, your back is hurting you because you schlepped boxes today and you’re wiping up and all of a sudden the kid comes in, a three-year-old kid, “Tatty, can I have a licorice? Can I have a nosh?” And he starts nagging you and you can’t turn around and scream at a child, “Don’t you see Tatty‘s wife doing something?” And you have that frustration because you had a hard day at work and you came home and then the four kids are crying and everything. It’s something that takes a person away. You have to remain focused the same way you would wake up in the middle of the night with your three-month-old burning up and fever and take him to the hospital is because this is what we got to do for our children.
The same way you have to say one second, even though I’m burning up right now on the inside, I’m upset, I’m angry, I’m hurt and I’m fuming and I wanna treat my spouse and I don’t wanna know, I don’t wanna deal with that person. One second. There are children here. They have done nothing wrong. These children are innocent… And these are souls straight from the divine, from Hashem. Hashem has sent us… “shlosha shutafim l’adam,” a person has three partners, Hashem, HaKadosh Baruch Hu, and a father and a mother. Now what happens when a business has three partners? Every partner has a different responsibility. One partner decides he checks out, business is gonna go crashing. There’s no such a thing. One person does the sales, one does the bookkeeping, one does the purchasing. There’s no bookkeeper. At some point IRS is gonna come, no purchasing, there’s nothing to sell and there’s no sales you can buy and bookkeep as much as you want.
Same thing is with children. A mother gives for a child the sense of warmth, of love, teaches a child how to love and how to feel loved and how to be loved. A father gives a child a sense of security, a sense of feeling safe. You know your kid saying in school, a lot of times, my father’s the strongest person in ballpark. My father’s gonna… my father this. You never hear a child saying, “my mother’s the strongest person” because a child knows that my mother gives me a kiss in the morning and goodbye. She makes me supper. She makes sure I’m dressed and I’m well taken care of. And my father, he’s the man, he’s gonna protect me. You dare start up with me, my father’s gonna come and he’s gonna show you. This is what we have from the fathers and from Hashem we have the fact that we know Hashem runs the world. And he’s everything. Somebody once said he married off his first child. He thought he was in power, he was in power and he was in control. When he married off his second child, he started to realizing that, you know what, Hashem helps. When he married off his third child, he realizes no, no, no. Hashem does everything. But we have Hashem. We are partners with the master, we have the master credit card. We have a power as parents to build up our children in a way that no teacher, no principal, no stranger can destroy your child to that level. And on the other hand, we as parents have the ability to destroy our own children in a way that nobody in the world can destroy because we are partners with Hashem. The rebbe is already a third party. You know, it’s, it’s an aftermarket thing. The teachers aftermarket, we parents are original. We are original. And again, we’re talking here on a Yiddishe perspective. We are on a much higher level now. The way we view our children is not something that I’m gonna go into parenting here. But one thing we need to remember is our soul and our children’s souls are connected. You take away one parent from a child, it’s like cutting off his hand.
While looking for stories and personalities who have dealt with this issue, I was speaking to somebody about a totally different issue, somebody who is in Jewish communal work. While I was talking to this person, she mentioned an issue that she was having that I could be of help with, with her own child. And she started to share a little bit more about what was going on in her life. This is somebody who, when speaking to her, the serenity, the calmness, the generosity of this person was always clear to me. And when she began to share more of her story, I began to realize and eventually saw with incredible clarity that this person is a modern day superhero. And I say that without an ounce of hyperbole. This is somebody who stands at the heart of a hurricane and a tornado of familial discord and refuses to let go and refuses to let go of her own siblings, of her own parents, has an ex-husband and a child. And I realized that of everybody I’ve spoken to, this is the hero and this is the perspective that moved me most. And I asked her to share her experience. Her own parents had gotten divorced and tore apart her own family and how she keeps it all together. This is what she told me.
I come from a fairly middle of the road yeshivish family, grew up out of town, yeshivish family. And my parents went through an extremely contentious and messy divorce when I was a teen. And I had quite a few siblings, the youngest of which was around two at the time of my parents’ divorce. The oldest was around 15. And unfortunately what happened with my parents’ divorce was that there was a tremendous amount of religious tension and pressure from extended family on one side of the family who were very religious and rabbis and other religious figures that got involved in the divorce. And it spiraled out of control very quickly. And whereas it started relatively calm and with somewhat of a degree of dignity and menschlichkeit very quickly became extremely ugly, horrible things, restraining orders, fighting, court, legal battles. And really at the root of all of it was a religious battle with one side of the family believing that in order to, so to speak, save my siblings from going off the derech that they needed to remove these siblings from the other parent’s life and that that was the only way that they could save them.
And they really went to some really extreme and horrible lengths in order to try to accomplish that goal. Awful things that are difficult to even believe that people could even do such things in the name of religion. And unfortunately it backfired because fast forward about 20 years and all of those siblings that were involved in that part of our story are completely and totally not religious. Several of them are married to non-Jews and the ones that aren’t already will be maybe and have nothing to do with Yiddishkeit because they were so turned off. And also regarding the alienation that backfired as well in a large way because those same siblings have an extremely close relationship with that alienated parent, the one that is less religious and they don’t have any relationship whatsoever with the religious parent. There was also alienation attempted on some of my other siblings, which was successful.
And I do have two siblings that haven’t spoken to one parent in approximately 22 years. And one of them for around three years. So I really have had that experience from all of the sides. The attempted alienation part, it failed with some people, it succeeded with others, but at the end of the day, everybody lost because the ones that were in fact alienated, so obviously the other parent lost because they don’t have a relationship with those children and the children don’t have a relationship with that parent. The grandchildren don’t even know that that grandparent exists and everybody lost on the other side because the ones that were not alienated in the end don’t really have a relationship with the parent who tried to alienate, which obviously is a loss for that parent and are completely not religious, which obviously is also a tremendous loss for that same parent.
So everybody lost also causes extremely complicated relationships between the siblings. I have siblings who don’t talk to each other at all because of those religious differences. There was even a point once where the parent that there was the attempted alienation against, got sick, had cancer, thank God it was something that was caught very early and after some treatment and procedures is now fine, is in remission, but not even something like that really got the child that didn’t speak to that parent to be interested in speaking to that parent, knowing what was going on, knowing if that parent was okay, they were recovering, things like that. I also have a lot of experience from my own story because I too am divorced. I got divorced when my child was four. And because I witnessed what happened with my parents, I swore that I would never alienate my child against her father, even though according to people who, so to speak, believe in alienation or feel that there are sometimes justifiable reasons, I definitely could have qualified according to many people, but I saw what horrible results it had in my family and I know that it always backfires, doesn’t work.
A child feels a pull toward their parent no matter what. And that’s something that needs to be respected and needs to be taken into account very carefully and with a lot of sensitivity. And in addition, I also had a similar situation because I am far more religious than my ex-spouse. And even so I still did not feel that it would ultimately achieve my goal if I were to try to alienate my child against him, you know, by saying things like that. Like he’s not frum, you know, you’re not allowed to eat in this type of restaurant. It’s not kosher, things like that. I knew better because I saw what happened. I followed guidance of my Rav dozens of times. I called him over the years asking what I should do about particular situations. And in every single case he told me the same thing over and over again, which is that all I can do, all I should do, is focus on my own house, literally focus on creating a home full of warmth and really show this child of mine that you know, that a frum way of life is a beautiful way to live and not ask so many questions about what goes on there and not try to get her to not do something because it’ll backfire anyway.
And the truth is that now she is 17 years old and although she’s not necessarily living the religious lifestyle that I would choose for her to live today, she is an extremely healthy person, has a healthy outlook toward religion overall, and I think in the long term wants to grow and has an extremely healthy relationship with me and with our household, which is quite frum compared to where she’s holding in her life. So I really have learned my lesson from watching what happened with my own family and I’m very careful not to make those same mistakes. I also personally am involved in very severe case of alienation with my own husband and his children, my own stepchildren who we have not seen in eight years. That’s not a religious-related alienation though, that’s more just out of spite and hatred. So also not very religious ideals, but it’s not coming from a place of religious alienation specifically.
I was just beside myself listening to her story and kind of the calmness, the very cadence of her voice, of how she’s able to keep it all together. And I’m still in awe. I’m still in awe. And I asked her like, what gives you the strength to do this?
Something that’s very important to me is maintaining the relationship, the relationships with all of my siblings and both of my parents. And this is something that while it may seem like a simple thing and almost like an obvious thing, obviously you would speak to your siblings and your parents, but in my case it is so enormously complicated that there are some days where I don’t think I can do it. There have been some major bumps very recently. A brother of mine married a non-Jewish woman. My mother didn’t even know about the marriage until after it happened. Although he had been with her for approximately seven years. It caused a major upheaval in my family. Several years ago, one of my siblings got married and the complications from that caused also a massive upheaval. And throughout all of these times, many relationships were lost.
As of today, there are many of my siblings who don’t speak to one parent or another, and quite a few of my siblings don’t speak to each other. I’m the only one who speaks to all of my siblings, at least on some level or another. And the only one who speaks to both of my parents. And the reasons why this is very important to me is because I feel that there’s been so much loss in my family. And when it comes to relationships with siblings and parents, these are relationships that are for life. Family is, you know, there’s really no way to describe it in words, how important it is and how deep those connections are. And even though my family is, to say that it’s fractured is really an understatement. It has imploded multiple times. It’s destroyed, it’s ruined. But in spite of all that, I feel that it’s crucial for me to maintain those relationships.
And for me, being a religious Jew, believing in God, believing in the Torah, believing in everything that it stands for, there’s nothing really more important to me than trying to maintain some level of shalom. And even though there’s really not a whole lot of that in my family, but I do try to do my small part, I feel that ending a relationship is really a horrible thing to do and should only be done in very, very extreme and very rare cases. I believe that when it comes to immediate family members, there’s always some sort, there’s almost always some sort of a way to have a relationship, even if it’s with boundaries. But to completely cut off family members is just, in my opinion, a terrible thing to do. And I think it makes God cry, whatever that really means. But I think that the last thing God wants to see from us, the last thing Hashem wants to see from us is parents, siblings, children not speaking to each other at all.
I think it’s just the worst thing possible. So for me to cut somebody off would go against my own personal morals and values just as a human. And I also feel that it just would go against the Torah, I think that it’s not what Hashem wants from us at all. Also, when it comes to being in contact with my non-religious family members, that’s even more important because not only does that first reason apply, but it’s also a tremendous kiddush Hashem. These are people that have been hurt terribly by the frum world in various ways and I’m pretty much the only person in their lives and my husband as well. My kids who are frum and who are warm and pleasant and always happy to see them and welcoming and love them and care about them and are in touch with them. And not only does it also have the side perks of, you know, when they come to my house, they’re eating kosher and they come to my simchas they’re involved in things like that, which is beautiful as well.
But even just having relationships with these people who have been hurt, I don’t believe that Hashem wants us to say to a sibling, “Oh, you’re not frum so I can’t talk to anymore.” Or to a parent or to a child. I don’t think that’s what Hashem wants from us at all. We do have a concept of kiruv, even if it’s not active kiruv, I’m not actively trying to make anybody frum again, that is really their journey with God and to work through their things that, you know, that have happened in their lives. But I believe that I have an obligation, and a responsibility and a huge opportunity that anytime I’m able to, to see the family members that are not frum or less frum than me, I’m able to show them the beauty of what goes on in our lives. I had a baby boy seven months ago and one of my brothers who’s completely not religious, his lifestyle has absolutely zero connection to Judaism in any way, shape or form.
He’s a very high level professional in a different state and he flew in for that bris. Why? I don’t know exactly why. He just feels a connection. And he was there and he was in the shul, in a very frum shul at this bris and he was a part of it. It was a very special and beautiful thing. I’m making an upsherin in a couple of weeks. And this same brother plans to again take off of work and fly in for this upsherin and why? I can only assume that he feels some sort of a connection and he feels close to us and he wants to be a part of this even though it’s a religious ceremony that has nothing to do with his life today. But we maintain that relationship with him. And even though we don’t have a lot in common with our lifestyles, we’re close and he loves us and we love him and my kids love seeing him and he’s gonna be there to celebrate these simchas.
And I think that that’s what Hashem wants from us. And I think that that’s what it means to be a good yidand a good person. Obviously I wouldn’t, you know, do things to put my own, you know, Yiddishkeit in jeopardy. But I think that there is always a way to find a balance. And I think that often people who end up in ugly family messes that are related to religious differences, they just get scared and they don’t want to put in the work to find that right balance. And so they just cut people off entirely because they feel that there’s no other way. And I think that, I think it’s tragic when that happens.
It’s hard for me to listen to this person who I know personally and just thinking this is the hero of the teshuva story that we all need to tell. I don’t know what kabalas, what special commitments she makes before the high holidays. I know that she’s considerably more yeshivish than myself, but it’s her commitment to her own family, her commitment to the people who are karov meod to her, who are most close to her that I find so deeply moving and is the story of teshuva that’s at the heart and the center of what I think we all need to reflect on in our own lives. And my final question was just asking her for direction strategies. How do you build the capacity to be able to hold a family together?
I think that often people make the mistake of thinking that it’s an all or nothing thing and that having any exposure to a family member that’s less religious might jeopardize their own religious observance or might jeopardize the religious observance of their children. And I think that’s a terrible mistake. Just again, going back to my own personal story, as I mentioned, I’m making an upsherin in a couple of weeks and I didn’t know if I should invite my brothers that are married to non-Jews because even though I don’t think they’ll come because they live in different states, but on the off chance that they do come, my younger children don’t even know that they’re married. And I don’t really wanna have to explain to my little kids that they’re married to non-Jewish women. So I did what I always do when I don’t know what to do.
I called my Rav and I asked him what to do and he knows the whole story and I told me that I should invite them and that if any of them choose to come, then that would be the time where I would sit down and have a conversation with my children. And he coached me. He told me exactly what to say. So I feel that a big mistake that people make is in cases like this, just using this upsherin as an example, they would say, I’m not inviting these people because I’m not willing to expose my children. Or they might think that I’m condoning their lifestyle if I invite them to my simcha. Things like that. I think those are terrible mistakes because again, even just purely from a kiruv perspective, if we wanna look at it from that perspective, which is no small thing.
Perhaps one of these siblings would come to an upsherin and and it would bring up memories for them or they would find something beautiful or bris or a bar mitzvah, anything and it would bring them back to Yiddishkeit. That in itself would be an unbelievable, tremendous mitzvah and a zechus to have brought somebody close to Yiddishkeit or maybe it will just keep them connected a little bit and somewhere in the future something will happen. I think those things are often things that people don’t take into account or they’re just too scared and they just throw people away. And I think that that that is a huge mistake because again, you don’t know what might happen down the line, but once you end the relationship, that’s it. Like there’s no chance, there’s no opening. So I feel it’s important to always keep that opening.
And I think that that’s a very, again, a very Jewish concept. I can’t quote exact things, but I know that there’s a tremendously important concept in Judaism of keeping a door open, of not giving up on somebody. It’s even right there, you know, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, it says a rasha, even on his last day on earth he can do teshuva and Hashem will forgive him. So, you know, if Hashem‘s willing to do that to a rasha on his last day on earth, then certainly we should be keeping the door open to people who are not reshaim. They’re just, you know, people who were hurt, people who’ve had trauma. You know, for me personally, the strategies or you know, the tools so to speak that I use to not fall into those traps. I think a lot of it just comes from having lived through these sorts of things.
It’s the life experience, definitely seeing the results, seeing the ruin and the pain that comes from people losing relationships and losing contact with loved ones and not having any chance for reconciliation, not being given any opening. Just seeing that pain personally firsthand pretty much does the trick for me. But also just remembering that like what does God actually want from me? Like again, going back, you know, trying to emulate God. I think that’s also a very Jewish concept. We’re supposed to emulate him, we’re supposed to try to think, you know, what would he do? You know, how can we be like him? And for me, being like him, there’s chesed involved. There’s a concept of teshuva, there’s a concept of shalom. And I believe that he wants us to be getting along. Again, I know that sounds a little bit idealistic and I think that I’ve earned my stripes to be able to say that I’m not just some, you know, rose colored glasses idealist who’s never been hurt by anything.
So it’s easy for me to sit here and say that, you know, God wants us all to get along, but that’s not my story. I’ve suffered to be able to get along. I’ve put in blood, sweat and tears to be able to maintain relationships. It’s been hard for me. I’ve worked for it. And so I think, if nothing else, I think I’ve earned the right to say that this is really what God wants from me as a person to try to do that. So whenever it gets really hard for me, you know, I reach out, I, you know, I ask for guidance, but also just remembering that like this is what it means to be a Jew. For me, for me personally, being a Jew is not so much about the length of a sheitel or chalav Yisrael versus chalav stam. It’s really about really genuinely loving every Jew.
And that’s really our job on this earth is to try to love each other and bring each other closer to God. Again, not while sacrificing our own religion, obviously there are boundaries. I’m not implying that anything goes and that anyone should do anything, you know, just in order to, you know, bring a non-Jewish person back. But I think that when it comes to family, there’s a bond and there’s a tie. Again, just like you know, my brother flying in to come to a bris and upsherin and even though he’s not connected to Yiddishkeit in any way, there’s a bond there that lasts forever. And parents, siblings, children, these are bonds that are so powerful. And if we can manage to just step away for a minute from the fear and from not wanting to have to make these types of decisions, sometimes it’s easier to just again, cut somebody off because it’s too hard to figure out what to do.
I think that’s probably the number one reason why people, you know, cut off. They just, it’s too complicated and, and they don’t wanna deal with it. So it’s easier to just say goodbye. But I don’t think that’s what God wants from us. I don’t think that we would want him to be treating us that way when we mess up and make mistakes. I don’t think we want God to say to us, Okay, you know what? You made a bunch of mistakes. I don’t really wanna have to sit here and calculate, you know, how I should handle you going forward so I’ll just drop you. I don’t think we would be too happy if he did that to us. So I try not to do that to other people, especially the people in my own family,
Our community, and I think it’s because of the seriousness with which we take our religious ideals, I think does have a child and parental alienation problem. I think that we can all use a moment to reflect on how our religious commitments translate into the worlds of those most close to us. And whether or not the teshuva, the transformation that is karov meod that is so close to you, is it also encompassing? Is it also including those most close to us? And my final conversation was with somebody who I think many of our listeners may have heard or know of, she runs a very popular account on Instagram, “That’s humor.” It’s very sweet. She does something called Tichel Tuesdays. She’s a former guest of 18Forty and her name is Leah Forster. And Leah is somebody who we don’t speak all that often, but whenever we do it’s with friendship.
But she is somebody who was alienated from her mother who has since passed away. And she reflected a little bit on her own journey and the advice she would almost give to others who are grappling with this, people who are alienated with family, how do they find their way out of it? How do they build the capacity to show love when that love very often is not reciprocated or they live with disappointment? And as somebody who lived through this, as somebody who never gave up and still has not given up on reconciliation with those most close to her, I want to share with you what Leah shared with me.
I would say my number one advice would be, A) take care of yourself first. “Im ain ani li mi li.” You have to take care of yourself first. You cannot give or show up for your family if you can’t show up for yourself. And that requires an intense amount of work to get to an emotionally healthy place. And then like you said, “k’rachem av al bonim,” what it boils down to is rachmanus, total and complete compassion. I feel that I live a life. If I expect something from someone, then I want to be able to offer the same thing back to them. So that’s how I measure my barometer of my expectations. And if I want a relationship with someone in my family that is difficult or someone in my family that has decided that I’m not meeting their standards. If I want compassion from my family, then I need to offer compassion to them.
I am aware that I was raised as a Bais Yaakov girl, following the rules of tznius and following very strict guidelines. That is what my family knows and that is what they expect of me. I know this because I was raised in this very small fundamental world. And so of course I have compassion. When they see me different than them, it’s actually painful for them. It’s hurtful and it’s sad. And I’m not saying this for everyone. I can’t say this was my mother because my mother had emotional issues. But I’m talking about real temimusdik good Jews, my choices in my life are straight up hurtful for them. They feel sorry for me. They feel sorry for my soul and they feel sad for me. So I need to be compassionate to that. How can I be angry? There isn’t anger for people that actually really care about my soul.
So what I’ve learned is to just say I deserved better. I deserved better, I deserved more. Okay. And once I can wrap my head around that, I can be compassionate and it’s okay. You know, the truth prevails. When I get into bed at night, I know the truth. The truth is that I’m a good person. And the truth is that God loves me very much. And if they can’t see it, I do have compassion for them. Because when I go into shul on Yom Kippur and when I ask God for compassion for all the things that I struggle with, I’m able to offer the same compassion to other people that struggle too.
Children, parents, families. I think we all deserve better and I think we all need better. And that at the heart of our teshuva experience needs to be the type of reconciliation which includes those most close to us. The word for reconciliation, for forgiveness in Hebrew is mechila. It’s a big controversy, that I once got into about the exact origin of the term mechila. It does not appear in the Torah. Long-time readers of Mishpacha magazine may remember that I wrote a column where I said the word mechila does not appear in the Torah. And somebody wrote me absolutely vicious letters to the editor saying, it absolutely was, but it’s not. It’s not a word that appears in the Torah. And it’s a question of what the word mechila means. And I heard a beautiful idea from my dear friend Mitchell Fuerst, who writes fantastic books on Jewish history and Hebrew language.
And Mitchell first suggested that perhaps the word mechila comes from the root word of chalal, which means a space. And that to grant forgiveness, to be mochel somebody means to create space for another. And in our teshuva process perhaps at the heart of what we need to do is to create space for those who are most karov meod, for those closest to us, the family members where our relationships have frayed, the childhood friendships that have disappeared and have been broken. Everybody in our lives who are once upon a time karov meod to us to be mochel them, to create space and to remind them and remind ourselves that there’s still room in our lives to create space in our lives for those others. I began with a letter from that story by Richard Pindell, “Somebody’s son,” that request from David to reconcile with a father that “please ask him,” as he wrote to his mother, “to tie a white cloth on the apple tree in the south pasture. You know, the one, the Grimes golden beside the tracks.” Many of you already know how the story ends, but I want to share it with you. Because I think at the heart of reconciling, of mending the alienation that we find in our lives is really the ending to this story and what I think it means. The story ends with David on a train staring at a window wondering if that sign’s gonna be there to be welcomed back to his home by his father. He couldn’t look, the story ends. “He was too afraid the cloth would not be there. Too afraid he would find staring back at him just another tree, just another field, just another somebody else’s strange place. The way it always is on the long, long road, the nameless staring back at the nameless. He jerked away from the window. Desperately, he nudged the passenger beside him. ‘Mr. will you do me a favor around this bend on the right, you’ll see an apple tree. I wonder if you’ll tell me if you see a white cloth tied to one of its branches.’ As he passed the field, the boy stared straight ahead. ‘Is it there? ‘He asked with an uncontrollable quiver. ‘Son,’ the man said, in a voice slow with wonder. ‘I see a white cloth tied on almost every single branch.’” To stare outside a window waiting for some small sign back after years of alienation. And to look out and see, I see a white cloth tied on almost every single branch. When I read this story. And I think when anybody reads this story about a son being estranged from a parent, being estranged from a father, and we think about Yom Kippur, you know, the normal way to think about this is to put us in David’s shoes, to put us in the shoes of the child. And to think about our relationship with somebody else who’s maybe we’ve been alienated from them.
We ran away. We think about the role of God as the parent, as the father, and we write to God, so to speak, on Yom Kippur, hoping for some white cloth, hoping for some sign that we can be welcomed back.“K’rachem av al banim, ken terachem Hashem aleinu.” The same way that a father has compassion for a child, we ask throughout Yom Kippur for God to have compassion on us. And I think all of us pass by on Yom Kippur, so to speak, looking at our window for some sign from God, from some sign from those that we love, hoping that there’ll be some white ribbon inviting us back. But I think if we’re really, really honest and we’re really, really real. In somebody else’s story, we’re not just David, but we’re also the father. And there are people that we’ve alienated from our lives. There are people that we don’t want to have a relationship with and they’re reaching out to us, so to speak, wondering, is there still room for me in your life?
Maybe it’s a child, maybe it’s a parent, maybe kivyachol, so to speak, it’s God himself. That God, so to speak, every year before Yom Kippur is wondering, is there room for me in your life? Is there room for religiosity, for spirituality, for Jewish peoplehood in your life? Because I think when we think of alienation, it’s wrong to only tell one side of the story. It’s not just parental alienation, there’s also child alienation. It’s not just child alienation. There’s also parental alienation. And in each of our stories, there’s an element of who moved, who created the rift. We’ve created rifts and rifts were created for us. And I think sometimes on Yom Kippur, it’s not just me who ran away, but sometimes it feels like God ran away from me. Going through these lists of all the sins. And I so to speak, look at HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
When I look at God and I wonder like I’m not the only one who messed up here. Where were you? Sins become, distance become a little too easy in life. Why has failure become so inevitable? And our reflection on the previous year, while it centers around our transgressions, but sometimes my mind can wonder, and I’m sure there are others who feel the same way and can also consider HaKadosh Baruch Hu‘s distance and the distance of others who ran away from us that sure, doors were closed during the past year, but were all of them shut by me? Were all of them shut by us? Is there no responsibility, kivyachol, that HaKadosh Baruch Hu has made it a little bit too easy, a little bit too distance? And I wrote about this in one chapter in my book Sinagogue, and I want to share with you how I ended because it’s a chapter about parent-child alienation, but not with actual children, and not with actual parents, but with our relationship to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, with our own spiritual interiority.
And sometimes we feel like the David in the story who ran away, but sometimes in our stories that David is not us, it’s God. And this is how I concluded. “Surely some people in shul today receive diagnoses this past year that made them feel bereft of God’s presence. Surely God could have made it easier for the son to avoid sin, but every Yom Kippur, I look around and consider that it might not just be man who’s doing teshuva. Surely it’s also God. Once a year prayer becomes more instinctual. Once a year his presence, God’s presence seems more attainable. And once a year we imagine God is asking us that we let him back into his world. And as God metaphorically passes by the shul on Yom Kippur, he petitions his people, amcha Yisrael, if you want me back in your life, give me a sign.
And each year on Yom Kippur, we all wear white. So when God peers into our lives wondering if the relationship can still be salvaged, we remind him and ourselves that he is invited back. The whole shul is clothed in white.” And for all of us with whatever alienation we may be dealing with in our lives. And I have no doubt that everybody has some measure of alienation in their lives with somebody. And very often it’s with somebody who’s karov meod, who’s exceedingly close to them. I hope that we all have the capacity when we peer into other windows or when other people peer into our windows. I hope we have the capacity to have that mechila, to create that space, to tie some ribbon on a branch or all the branches that we enter into Yom Kippur, both writing and answering those letters of distance and creating reconciliation in our lives, in the lives of our family and in the lives of the grand family of amcha Yisrael, of the Jewish people, mending fences and tying clothes and bringing those that matter most and that we love most back into our lives where our entire teshuva, our entire sense of self is clothed in white and is a sign for the world and a sign for those who are most distanced and are most hurt saying, “There’s room for you in my life. Let’s reconcile. There’s a white cloth tied on almost every single branch.” Wishing each and every single one of our listeners and every member in our community and all those we love, a gmar chasima tova for a year of health, happiness, and a sweetness hanireh v’hanigleh l’einenu, a sweetness that is palpable, that we can sense, that we can experience in every facet of our lives. A gmar chasima tova. So thank you so much for listening. This episode, like so many of our episodes, was edited by our dearest friend, Denah Emerson. Thank you so much to Daniel and Mira Stokar for sponsoring the entire teshuva series. Their friendship means so much to me. If you enjoyed this episode or any episode, please subscribe, rate, review, tell your friends about it. Of course, you could also donate at 18forty.org/donate. It really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content.
You could also leave us a voicemail with feedback or questions that we may play in a future episode. That number is 917-720-5629. If you’d like to learn more about this topic or some of the other great ones we’ve covered in the past, be sure to check out 18Forty.org. That’s the number one eight, followed by the word forty, F-O-R-T-Y.org, 18Forty.org. And especially during this time of teshuva, you could find fantastic articles on the topic of teshuva. If I could recommend one by Keshet Starr, which talks about the work of families that are going through disruption and going through divorce, please check it out on 18forty.org where you could also find videos, articles, recommended readings, and weekly emails. Thank you so much for listening and stay curious, my friends.