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Robyn Frisch & Benji Frisch: A Child Becomes Orthodox

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Rabbi Robyn Frisch—a Reform rabbi who works with interfaith families—and her son Benji—who now identifies as Orthodox and learns in the Mir Yeshiva—about the rewards and challenges of religious diversity in the family.

Robyn is a Reform rabbi whose organizational work relates to interfaith families. Though she didn’t raise her family Orthodox, her son Benji was drawn to Orthodoxy in high school, culminating in his attending Ner Yisroel and now the Mir Yeshiva. Each one loves the other and ultimately makes compromises when necessary, but the road to their current relationship stability was not easy.

  • When did Robyn and Benji realize they had significant religious differences?
  • What did this realization feel like?
  • How did they ensure their relationship would survive this obstacle?
  • And what advice would they give to others in similar situations?

Tune in to hear Robyn and Benji reflect on the key years in their religious divergence, as well as the lessons this divergence taught them.

References:
The World of the Yeshiva by William Helmreich
Hasidic People by Jerome Mintz

Scholarly Mentions:
Rav Asher Arieli
Shaul Stampfer

Robyn Frisch (mother) is a Reform rabbi based in Philadelphia, where she is the director of the 18Doors Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship. Robyn and her husband, Seth, co-founded the Lerhaus Institute of Jewish Studies in Abington, Pennsylvania. Benji Frisch (son) is currently learning in the Mir Yeshiva, after learning in Ner Yisrael in Baltimore for high school. Robyn wrote about her experiences as a mother of a son with very different religious views in a moving article at The Forward which you can find here.

David Bashevkin:

Hello, and welcome to the 1840 podcast, where each month we explore a different topic, 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 intergenerational divergence. I’m almost chuckling a little bit because somebody texted me right after we announced this topic and was like, “I don’t know that I’m the target audience for you because I don’t understand any of these words.” And it’s a fair point. It’s a mouthful. What we’re basically talking about this month is families that, between parent and child, have different religious identities and how families negotiate those differences. And we’ve called that intergenerational – different generations, parent and child – divergence. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those ideas in Jewish life that maybe cause a little bit of dissonance, a little bit of friction, and exploring and navigating how to build meaning even in conflict. So be sure to check out 18Forty.org, where you could find videos, articles, and recommended readings.

As many of you may or may not know, I work for an outreach organization called NCSY, which used to, a long time ago, stand for the National Council of Synagogue Youth. We dropped that acronym because you stopped going to the synagogue. So we just call ourselves NCSY, and much of what we do is trying to reach out, inspire the next generation of Jewish teens. And I’m so proud to work for NCSY, but even as I do, I am aware and very conscious of the fact that when you reach out to teens, there is a sense that you can often reduce somebody to who they are religiously. And that’s one of the drawbacks that I think all institutional outreach organizations need to deal with. And I think one of the things that I’m most proud of in working for NCSY is that by and large, the type of outreach, the type of religious commitment and inspiration that we do really leads to healthy religious growth.

That’s something that I emphasize over and over again with our staff. Something I emphasize over and over again in everything that we do: healthy religious growth. Which, not everybody even likes that phrase, like, “What do you mean? Can religious growth be unhealthy?” And frankly, my answer sometimes is yes, it can be unhealthy. It can be unhealthy because you’re turning kids against their parents. You’re taking too many steps before you have the capacity or capability to process them and build that rhythm, that long-term rhythm in your life. I think one major area where outreach in general has changed is in the way that we think about the family unit and the family structure in the process of outreach. We all have room to grow, and outreach organizations are looking to cultivate religious growth and religious commitment.

Which is why this conversation that we’re having today I am so excited about, because it really gives you an eye for the larger family structure and what happens when one child ends up becoming – and I want to be really careful of my words here, because I don’t like, I’m a student of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in this respect. I don’t even like the word “kiruv,” which means to draw somebody close, because as the Lubavitcher Rebbe would often remind people who worked in outreach, “Who says you’re so close and they’re so far?” But when somebody becomes more ritually observant, I don’t even know if I like that word either. Let’s take it again. Let me try one more time. You don’t have to delete any of this. I’m talking to my audio engineer now, and you’re all listening to me talk to her as well. Let’s take that one more time.

When people become more Orthodox – let’s call a spade a spade – when people become more Orthodox, an Orthodox outreach organization which brings somebody into Orthodox Jewish life, which is so beautiful and so wonderful and so inspiring, there can be a family unit, when the rest of the family is not Orthodox, is affiliated with a different Jewish denomination, there are family considerations to consider. And we can’t dismiss them. And I think one of those big changes that the outreach movement in general has gone through is being more sensitive, aware, considerate, and more in partnership with the family, whether or not they are personally Orthodox or not. And I think that that’s something quite beautiful, because religious growth, in my opinion, should not and does not have to be at the expense of one’s familial identity. And that’s in many ways the conversation that we’re having today.

I read, maybe three months ago, it was the end of December, an amazing article by Robyn Frisch that was entitled, “Reform, Conservative, Haredi — it’s all in the family”. Robyn Frisch is a Reform Rabbi. She runs an organization that deals with intermarried couples. And her son Benji, and I’m going to be honest, I’m going to come clear. I was suspicious, she describes Benji as haredi yeshiva. I’m like, “Okay, what happened? He started wearing a yarmulke? How yeshiva haredi is this kid already?” I’ll be honest, I fell into my own stereotypes. My parents always say that, “98.6, what you consider normal, it’s just what you’re doing, and it’s not really any sort of objective measure very often.” So when I originally saw the title, I said, “Okay, there’s a mom whose son, I don’t know, went on a couple NCSY shabbatons or whatever it is.” He happens not to be affiliated or involved with NCSY because he is actually yeshivish in a very real way. Her son Benji, both of whom are lovely, both Robyn and Benji, who we’re going to listen to shortly, are absolutely lovely. And Robyn, a Reform Rabbi, has a son, Benji, who, as a young teenager, decided to become more involved in the yeshiva world and is now learning in the Mir Yeshiva.

And to me, this is a story both about the larger familial unit and how that should be considered in the stories of religious development and everyone’s personal religious path. And it’s also a story, and almost a window of sorts, a window from mother to son and from son to mother, about how denominations look at one another. I think very often the way that we look at other denominations is through the window of television or public pronouncements from organizations, it’s very often on the institutional and communal level. It’s very rarely on the individual level, because we don’t really have that opportunity to interact. We each have our own synagogues and Jewish institutions and we don’t always have that time to interact and have a window on that personal level. But when you have one family, which is somewhat rare, and we have something similar in our family, but it’s not in our immediate family. When you have an immediate family, parent to child, who are in different denominations, who are active in their respective denominations – Robyn Frisch is a Reform Rabbi, as I mentioned, and Benji is, again, not just an Orthodox Jew, he’s learning in the Mir Yeshiva, very serious.

And I have to I apologize to our listeners beforehand, because those of you who know the Mir, this was the real deal. I had to wake up extra early. I think we did this interview with them together at 6:30 in the morning. It was earlier than I’ve ever done an interview, and that made me so, so nervous. And it was the only thing time that Benji was available, on Friday when he normally calls his mom. He didn’t want to miss his normal say or the time of learning that he had in Yeshiva. And of course we accommodated him. And he called on a flip phone, he didn’t have a whole process and zoom and recording devices. He didn’t have anything. He’s got a flip phone in Israel, he’s the real deal. She was not kidding. And he’s learning in the Mir now in a small group that learns together, known as a chabura, and he learns in Ner Yisroel, my alma mater from Baltimore. He’s an absolute gem, extraordinarily sweet, and the window that this family has for what we normally have only on institutional and communal level, which I think makes some of our differences more intractable, a little bit more stubborn, and deliberately so. That’s how we need to operate on the institutional level, communities negotiating values and boundaries.

That’s been happening for centuries. When you have a window inside of a family, there’s what to learn both in the differences in your own family, both in terms of the capacity to reach out and treat others as decent dignified human beings, and finally, it offers something in the way that we think of religious growth and our familial connections and making sure that the growth and the direction of our individual religious stories, even when it’s different than the families we came up in, even if it’s in a different direction, in whichever direction, however you want to conceptualize it. Even when it’s a different direction, it can still be in concert and amplify the connections and the identity we have from within our family.

So it is my absolute pleasure – and let me just announce beforehand, because the connection was so bad on the phone what I did was is I first called up Mommy Frisch and spoke to her, Rabbi Robyn Frisch, and spoke to her first one-on-one, and then we’re going to introduce the conversation following with all of us together with Benji Frisch as well to allow all of us to have that introduction with a little less of the flip phone, windy, Yerushalayim on a Friday. So it is my pleasure to introduce first my conversation with Robyn Frisch and then followed by our conversation with both Robyn and Benji altogether. Our conversation begins now.

Hello and welcome all to the 1840 podcast. This month we’re talking about intergenerational religious change, how families negotiate those changes that we have, and that we all confront in ways big and small, in ways parents differ from the religious identities of the children. And we’re doing something a little bit interesting today because we already recorded the conversation with a mom and her son, Rabbi Robyn Frisch and her son Benji Frisch, who got together on the phone and we’re going to play that full phone call. But as we’ll talk about, the phone quality was not great. So right now we’re doing a second thing just with Mom, who is in Philadelphia, and it is my pleasure to introduce Rabbi Robyn Frisch.

Robyn Frisch:

Thank you. It’s great to talk to you.

David Bashevkin:

So thank you so much and this really means a lot. I know this is a second take because we already recorded with your son Benji. And it was really remarkable. Again, real credibility that he’s a real Yeshiva student because he’s just got his flip phone in Israel. He’s standing in wind tunnels in Yerushalayim somewhere. So I wanted to reach out again. And we had spoken even before that, that we were going to let Benji speak as much as possible, because we knew this was our moment. We woke up early, but I want to talk with you before we play that conversation and talk a little bit about how you negotiate. You work, you’re a Reform Rabbi, correct? And you work in an organization called 18Doors that works with interfaith couples, and your son Benji is learning in Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim, the Mir Yeshiva. And clearly, if you’re in the Mir, there’s a good chance you do not identify as Reform. He is Orthodox.

Robyn Frisch:

That is, yes, very true.

David Bashevkin:

That is correct. Yeah. So maybe you could start with, set us up from the beginning. We met Benji. He’s now in his twenties, I assume, early twenties.

Robyn Frisch:

He just turned 21 in January.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. So we met Benji on the phone, but Mom knows all. And maybe you could begin from the beginning of the story, he dove into it really quickly. But you are a Reform Rabbi. Your husband, if I remember correctly, is a Conservative Rabbi.

Robyn Frisch:

That’s correct.

David Bashevkin:

How did your son become so close to, and decide to become Orthodox?

Robyn Frisch:

I have to say, and I used to say this when he began the journey, if there were any child on earth we would have expected to go on that journey, it would not have been our Benji. It was interesting to me when you asked him when it began, and I remember this very well, he said, “The first time I saw the Kotel in Yerushalayim when I was 10.” And I do remember, we went to Israel as a family, my husband and I were studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute. We took our kids and we had this amazing summer, and Benji loved Israel and was super positive, but it’s very interesting, each of our perspectives. I don’t remember that at all as the beginning of his journey to a more traditional life. I remember that as, he had a really fun summer and thought the Kotel was really cool, but nothing much more than that.

Whereas for him, whether it was, what I’ve come to learn as a mom is, whether it was at that time or later, for him, it became that. Whether it was then or not, that became part of the story and his journey. For me it’s something that started later. And to be perfectly honest, he was at a pluralistic Jewish day school – well he was there because I had always wanted to go to Jewish day school. I went to a Quaker school, wanted to go to a Jewish school. My parents insisted and said, “Stay at the Quaker school.” So my kids were at a Jewish school. But I always promised myself I’d be really in tune to the fact that just because I wanted something doesn’t mean they want it, and that I would keep an eye out, and if it weren’t the right school for them, that we would find, they’d go to public school or somewhere else. And Benji, I remember thinking, I’m not sure this is the right school for him Jewishly. I’m not sure he’s there.

But it was smaller and I thought that was good for him. It was almost like, we’ll keep him here despite that it’s a Jewish school and we’ll figure things out. And in my perspective, I don’t remember him having this strong love of Judaism until he was a little bit older, and it really started in about 9th grade, and I don’t know how. He talked about it. But it happened very, very quickly, as I think I expressed maybe a little more gently when he was on the phone with me, in a way that really scared his father and I. I think I mentioned referring to it as a phase. Maybe that was to comfort myself at that point, but I think also because I believed it. At one point he had been really into cross country running, and I thought, “Okay, this is his new thing, it was running and now it’s traditional Judaism.”

But it became more and more intense very quickly. And I think he might’ve shared, this went from one school that was a co-ed yeshiva in the beginning of 10th grade to an all boys yeshiva, by 11th grade was at Ner Yisroel boarding school. And from my perspective, my biggest fear was always losing my son. And I’ve seen that happen with people I know, not well, but people whose children have become baalei teshuva, become very Orthodox and having a very strange relationship with their parents. And that was something I think from early on my husband and I never wanted.

And, you know, he’s my kid, and I love him. And it’s been hard at times, and it still is hard at times, but – he’d probably disagree, but I would say from my perspective we do 99% of the compromising because he’s my kid and I love him and I’ll do anything. I’m sure he’d use it when he comes home and we’re not as kosher as he would like, and he probably sees it as he makes a ton of compromises, but where I hope we would agree is, we all love to see each other, and we all love each other, and that’s why we make the compromises.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, no, that’s been a recurring theme, as we’ve spoken before, how we’re talking to different parents and children and how they negotiate those religious differences. And a lot of parents almost feel that it’s hard because even the feeling of keeping track, of keeping score, who’s compromising where and when, is a hard thing. And I have children. They’re not quite as sophisticated to keep track, but my wife and I do, like, do we have to give in again? And embracing somebody with a very different identity than your own can be difficult. Do you have a turning point for you where you were able to reconcile, or not be as anxious about, the fact that your son was becoming Orthodox?

Robyn Frisch:

I don’t know if there was a moment in time, but I actually think it took, part of it just took time on my own part. But I remember, by the time he was at Ner Yisroel and going to visit there and seeing him there –

David Bashevkin:

I’m sorry to interrupt, that’s Ner Yisroel in Baltimore?

Robyn Frisch:

Yes.

David Bashevkin:

Where I went. I love that. I love that. Your son and I went to the same yeshiva.

Robyn Frisch:

And seeing him there and how happy he was, I think that’s really what did it, is saying, this is what God wanted for him. Honestly it’s not what I wanted, but this is real, and he is so happy, and he just is thriving.

David Bashevkin:

Now I’m curious to explore a little bit more and to branch out in how this applies to other families who are negotiating this. The first way I would phrase the question, and I might phrase it again after you respond to this one, is, you’re involved in an organization that’s involved in interfaith couples, which clearly has to negotiate a lot of this, and in this world. Did you find that the advice that you’re so often giving to others was helpful to yourself? Did you learn about the negotiations, about family and religious identity, when you’re talking to others, how it might be different when it’s now happening in a different way, and there are people for a thousand reasons will be offended by this analogy. I’m not equating anything here. But just the commonality of families coming together and learning how to bridge differences. Now you were in that seat. So did you find your advice helpful? Or you were like, “Oh, that’s what it means.”

Robyn Frisch:

I found it 100% helpful. Many would say it is the most ironic thing, but I think the fact that I had worked as a Rabbi for Interfaith Family for several years ironically made it easier to accept my son’s decision to become so traditional. And I do not obviously work with anyone nearly that traditional in my work at Interfaith Family. But this advice of talking to parents about negotiating, accepting children’s choices, learning how to accept people for the choices they’ve made, and especially talking to parents, and I think the unusual thing about Benji’s situation is, which looking back, I’m like, “What were my husband and I thinking, that we let him do it so young?” Most baalei teshuva do not begin their, at least their out of their house journeys, maybe personally they do, in 9th, 10th grade. Most parents would not allow them, probably, to go as far as we did.

But when I talk to parents more often of grown children, who are engaged and in serious relationships, and I tell them, and the reality is, there’s something about love, which goes both ways, but a parent’s love for their children and that love and acceptance that has to flow downward in a very strong way to the next generation. That when your children are grown up, they’re going to make their choices whether you like it or not. And really, as harsh as it may sound, your choice is to accept it and embrace them and have a relationship with them and your future grandchildren, or not. So Benji, that might not have been true in 9th, 10th grade, but now that he’s 21, certainly, he’s going to live his life. And so my choice is to accept that life. And I know he loves me, but if I don’t accept it, I’m going to lose my relationship with my child. And there’s just nothing worth it. And it could have been who he married of another faith, it could have been his journey to Orthodoxy. I don’t think it’s that different. The irony is most interfaith couples I work with, their parents think that I have a much harder story than they do. Yes, much harder, because it’s much more foreign, honestly, from the world I live in.

David Bashevkin:

They have a point in a way. Meaning, if somebody who is marrying outside of the faith, clearly, their relationship to Judaism is probably a little bit different than somebody who’s now becoming very traditional, or Orthodox, and the culture that they’re bringing in probably has a lot less commonality. I understand that.

Robyn Frisch:

One of the things that I am constantly saying to people when I tell them my story, which usually is just because people find it so amusing, I can say to a bunch of liberal rabbis, “I have a son at the Mir,” and that starts – people feel sorry for me. And I always say, “You don’t have to feel sorry for me. I have a fantastic kid who is super happy. And is it easy? No, but it’s never easy, there’s always something.” And it’s almost hurtful or frustrating, the amount of sympathetic looks I get, or kind of, what did she do wrong that he ended up there.

David Bashevkin:

That’s so fascinating because an Orthodox family whose child went to a different denomination or less observance would probably deal with similar feelings, and it’s just really interesting to see that it’s coming from that side. So there’s two questions that I’m curious to hear your thoughts on. One is advice that you would give to Orthodox outreach movements. You had a son, it doesn’t sound like his story is what we would call yesh me’ayin, out of thin air. He just woke up one day, prophetic, almost. It’s really, really amazing to hear, but it doesn’t sound like his key movements wer through an outreach movement. But still, even Orthodox educational institutions who find themselves with similar familial structures. What advice would you give to them? And then afterwards, maybe you could tell us, what advice would you give to the non-Orthodox world, and talking to yourself also about maybe the misconceptions or the stereotypes that you’ve seen about Orthodox people and Orthodox observants.

Robyn Frisch:

I mean, what I experienced, I think, that made this the most palatable for me in the beginning, when it was really challenging, was that when Benji was a minor, it meant a lot to me that many of the people in the Orthodox community, who I really think, as you kind of implied, he found, they didn’t find him. It’s not like people came out after him. He searched out in the beginning groups like Aish HaTorah and Chabad and other more outreach groups. But I don’t think they prey on minors. I really don’t. I think he found those groups because he was looking for something he wasn’t getting at home. And the seeds, the seed group of these young Orthodox boys who he spent a lot of the summer with, what I really appreciated was those people who called me and said, “Look, we know Benji’s young. Is it okay that he’s coming for Shabbat? Is it okay that he stays over?” That meant a tremendous amount to my husband and I and I think made us much more comfortable. We didn’t feel like, and I apologize for the language, that our son was being preyed on. We felt that people respected us as his parents. Very important. I’m sorry, the second part you asked was…?

David Bashevkin:

The second part was, again, when you talk to your liberal colleagues, and I’ve been in many different rooms, probably, again, I’m pretty proud of the fact that I have some breadth in the rooms that I’m in. I’m very often in rooms where I am by a large margin the most Orthodox, and I’ve been in rooms where I am by a pretty fair margin the least Orthodox. I’m with people from much more yeshiva community, more Mir, where Benji – And I feel connected and comfortable in both circles, but it’s inevitable, in any world when you look at someplace that’s different, you do hear… I don’t even want to use the word “ignorance,” because it comes off too negative, it’s not malicious. Anything that’s foreign sometimes looks different. How would you share with the liberal community, with a more non-Orthodox community, how they maybe should be looking at Orthodoxy differently, given your own experiences?

Robyn Frisch:

I think it works both ways. I think I said this before, or I wrote this in my article, how, or maybe I didn’t, but at one point it had been in there. In one version, how we said to Benji one day, “We’re really worried that Orthodoxy is so judgmental,” and he said, “Well you guys are the ones who’ve been really judgmental”. I think that we all come with a lot of preconceived notions. A lot of, for me and my peers, a lot of how we conceive of that women are treated in Orthodoxy, in more traditional Orthodoxy in particular, and the roles that are different, whereas we’re used to a very egalitarian world, and that’s something very important to us. And I don’t want to say you have to put aside your views or you have to shove them under the rug, and your beliefs, but I think there’s also a lot of beauty in the world, in the more traditional world, that we don’t appreciate. And we have so many preconceived notions, and so many things that we decided we’re uncomfortable with before we even know what they are that we don’t get to see a lot of the really wonderful things and beautiful things about the Orthodox community, and to appreciate it, and maybe say, “I don’t have to be part of it, but I don’t have to judge it in the way I’ve judged it.”

And I think a lot of it is just, we don’t know people. Again, for me, it was getting to know people in a different community, in a different way, and seeing how they took care of my son, but as I said, never tried to become his parents, or never tried to erase our role as his parents. That was what was essential to me. And for other liberal Jews, just to open up their eyes to the Orthodox community, and not to say that we have to be part of it, but that there are nice things we can learn, there are nice things we can see, and there is a lot of beauty to be experienced. We experience things differently, but that doesn’t mean there’s only one way to do things.

David Bashevkin:

And I’ve learned so much, honestly, from you. I reached out, this is I think the third time that we’re now speaking. And I think in our second interview I called you Mom throughout because Benji was on the phone. And that was important to me but I feel like I’ve cultivated a childlike relationship with you also. And I really, really admire the efforts that you’ve made. This might be a little bit of more of a sensitive question, but it relates to the different points of affiliation that individuals have with their religious identity. In our introductory video, I talked a little bit, that’s being released today, I spoke a little bit about how we relate to our religious identity as individuals, as families, and as communities, more like institutional affiliation. And obviously the family relationship can sometimes be the most challenging, but also has the most opportunity, if you kind of put on blinders and don’t think about the very real institutional differences.

And I’m curious what advice, and what you’ve almost done in your home in cultivating that family first relationship, and how that is situated in the very real differences and the very real debates that have taken place over the last 200 some odd years about all sorts of issues. About, does my son look at me as a real rabbi? Do you think our Judaism is authentic? Definitions about who is a Jew, all of this stuff that is taking place on that institutional level. What has been your – I don’t want to use the word “strategy” but here we are using the word “strategy” – what’s the rhythm, what’s the way in which you relate to those differences in your home?

Robyn Frisch:

I’ll be perfectly honest, we’ll have those debates when Benji’s not here more often. I can have a really interesting debate with my husband, my 18 year old son, my 14 year old daughter. We all obviously are going to have different opinions on things and certain details. With Benji it’s much harder. The way I proceeded, I think this is fair to say, he lives in much more black and white of a world without the nuance maybe that the rest of us feel when it comes to our religion and many other things. So I think we have those discussions much more. Look, I know, I’m not clueless, Benji doesn’t have tremendous respect for Reform Judaism. He’s nice about it, he’s very polite about it, and he refers to me as a rabbi.

He actually told me a story once when he was having lunch – I told him when he started Mir, “I’m really secure in what I do, you don’t have to tell your peers what I do. I don’t care. Tell them I’m a teacher, whatever’s comfortable for you. I don’t want you to be looked at funny because of what I do.” But he said, he sat down for lunch at Ner Yisroel in 11th grade, and his friends were going around saying, “What does your dad do?” And he said a rabbi. And all his friends said, “Oh my dad’s a rabbi, my dad’s a rabbi.” And they said, oh, Benji, or Binyomin, or whatever they were calling himm those days, “what does your mom do?” He said, “She’s a rabbi too.” And he said they weren’t mean about it at all. He said they were curious. You know, like, what does she do? Because in their worlds it doesn’t make sense.

And they couldn’t understand what a rabbi would do in a woman’s role as a rabbi. But he’s, as far as I know, he’s open about it. But I don’t know, for whatever reason it’s not important to me. I’m secure in what I do, I’m proud, I’m really proud of the work I do with interfaith couples at my synagogue, in other contexts as a rabbi, I don’t – I know Benji loves me, so I don’t feel like I need his approval for my being a rabbi. And he’s nice and respectful about it, but if we do get into a deep conversation about liberal Judaism, he’s honest. If that’s where we are, he’ll say, “Well, it’s like Jew-ish.” Where he’s coming from, that makes sense. So it’s not that he comes in and says it to me to announce it, he’s very respectful, but he’s not going to come to my synagogue, but I’m happy to go with him to visit the Rebbe’s grave. We have a great time when we do things like that. That’s what he wanted to do even though he’s not Chabad –

David Bashevkin:

He went to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s grave, and if you ask… I’m not Chabad either but I guess the Rebbe’s grave, usually –

Robyn Frisch:

But I’ve been there a few times with him, he wanted to go for whatever reason. The night before he went to Israel, my husband, I took them. We had a really fun visit and went to a kosher restaurant in Crown Heights. So I don’t feel like I need his approval for that. I think he approves of me in other ways as a human being and a mom, and there’s some things we’re probably just not going to have productive discussions about, so we don’t go there as much. I did once say to him, and I probably won’t ever again, “Benji, we let you go on this journey really young, because we saw this was sincere for you and who you are. And I hope, when you have kids, if you have a kid and they decide Orthodoxy isn’t for them, you would be respectful of that as well.” And his response was, no way, this is what God wants, you don’t go the other way. And look, I could sit and argue with him. I don’t agree with him but it’s not going to get us anywhere.

David Bashevkin:

And I’m not, I’ll just, in Benji’s defense, not in the opinion, but in the context. When you’re young and you don’t yet have kids, the answer to that question on how you’re going to react is usually not quite as developed as once you have a child in front of you. That’s something that I think any parents, you don’t need to be a rabbi to figure that out.

Robyn Frisch:

But I could fight with him hours about that and tell him why I think he’s wrong, but I don’t think it would accomplish anything. And again, it’s a, as you’re saying, it’s a hypothetical case at this point. And if it ever became reality, we’d deal with it.

David Bashevkin:

And I think that there’s something to be said, I’m curious, there’s something to be said. I have relationships with family members who are so different than me religiously. I’ve mentioned this before, I know my uncle, who sometimes listens to this podcast – Uncle Al, if you’re listening, I love you – he’s a Reconstructionist. He lives in Bennington, Vermont. And there is something that we need to negotiate in allowing us to come together as family, particularly him and his brother and my father. We talk about, there are some issues that can’t be litigated or discussed in a productive way in the lens of family. I have that with my own parents, not even on religious issues. It’s some things where the parent dynamic is, I can’t talk about it with you because a stray glance, or you’ll say something. It hits so much harder when it’s child to parent, parent to child, that these big institutional Judaism issues, there’s too much weight on it. That’s what I’ve felt and seen.

Robyn Frisch:

Yeah. And I do, I certainly think about, nothing, as a parent, nothing’s more important than, well, there are many important things, but one of them is I hope my three children stay really close. And I realize they’re going to be living very different lives. So I can hope, and I can do what I can do, but as you said, right now a lot of it is hypothetical and it’s out of my control. So rather than sit and worry about what it means that Benji’s Orthodox and Noah and Tali are not Orthodox, it’s not going to change anything. So Benji will be home in a few weeks, I hope, God willing, for his Pesach break, we’ll see what’s going on with that. And they’ll be together and we’ll all be together. And hopefully we’ll have a great time. They know if Benji’s home for Pesach we do a much more traditional Seder, no one complains about that. It just, it is. And that’s what we do when Benji’s home. And the future will be what it’s going to be and it’s not in my hands. I have my hopes, but I’ve learned not to distress and worry over them.

David Bashevkin:

I just want to let you know, and we’re now going to introduce the conversation with Benji and with you on the phone, and there’s a lot more there. I just want to say that your capacity and ability to embrace the journeys of all of your children, and what you’ve created – I am Orthodox, I am a rabbi, not congregational – but I find it quite moving, quite inspiring. And it’s something that I hope more families are able to listen to and find a way, even with disappointment. Meaning, it’s not a bad word, even with expectations that didn’t go according to plan, to find the capacity to keep family intact and find a way for love to infuse, even when the journey doesn’t go as planned.

Robyn Frisch:

Yeah. But again, I just want to echo, seeing my child so happy and my child so passionate, I think that’s something you hope for your child, and you don’t always get to pick what it’s going to be they’re happy or passionate about, but to have seen him achieve that has really been wonderful.

David Bashevkin:

And it’s really, really incredible, and it was a joy. I’m so excited to introduce him to our listeners. It’s probably one of the few podcasts where he’d be talking to both audiences, because we have listeners across the spectrum. And I’m so excited to introduce both of you to our listeners, Rabbi Robyn Frisch, Mom, we go by both in this one. Thank you so, so much for joining us. And I am so excited to introduce our conversation with Mom and Benji.

So thank you to both of you. I’m sorry to interrupt your mother-son erev Shabbos call. This is a privileged territory for me to jump in on. We have a podcast called 18Forty where we discuss major issues in Jewish thought, Jewish theology, all of these sort of issues. And this month we’re talking about a topic called intergenerational differences, the way parents and children very often have very major religious differences and how they navigate those differences. So I was so excited, and really moved, actually, by your mother wrote this article in The Forward detailing how she as a Reform rabbi and your father as a Conservative rabbi have a son who’s shteiging and learning in the Mir. Obviously a very different track. And I wanted to almost begin at the beginning, Benji, maybe you could talk about this. Where would you say your journey began, where you realized, so to speak, that I think I’m going to be taking a different religious path than my parents.

Benji Frisch:

Well, I guess it really started when I was very young. I remember being in Eretz Yisrael and being very inspired by being by the Kotel and being by, I guess just being in Eretz Yisrael in general. It wasn’t really an intellectual inspiration, or just sort of, I can’t really describe it. But that really took hold for years, I would say, until when I was probably 16 I started having theological questions. Where did the world come from? These sorts of questions that led me to search more, a little bit more.

David Bashevkin:

Sure.

Benji Frisch:

And then I ended up meeting a rav, and he started learning with me Brachos. And I felt like I was really in the right place.

David Bashevkin:

Brachos like how to make brachos, or Masechtas Brachos, the tractate of Mishnayos or Gemara?

Benji Frisch:

Mishnayos. He was learning Mishnayos Brachos with me a little bit, and then it switched, and then I started getting more serious, and bachurim from a yeshiva in Monsey called Rabbi Lieff’s yeshiva, I don’t know if you ever heard it?

David Bashevkin:

Sure. Sure. Sure.

Benji Frisch:

They did Seed in Philadelphia, so I was just getting interested in going to shul, and they came and they went with me. Then I learned Makkos with them, Gemara, and then I got very into it, and then I ended up going to a kind of yeshiva, and then I did very well so I went to Ner Yisroel.

David Bashevkin:

So I don’t know if you know about me. I learned in Ner Yisroel for close to four years and participated on the Seed program. I don’t think we had an impact like you’re describing, but I’m still in touch with my – I went to Ner Yisroel for beis midrash, so I’m still in touch with so many in the yeshiva. I spoke to Rav Tzvi Berkowitz a few weeks ago, and I’m still in touch with my chavrusa. So maybe I could have your mother jump in, Mom if it’s okay for this conversation, because I really want to understand the family dynamic, and the different paths that you each have religiously, and how you understand one another and connect to one another. When Benji first started, and you see your son, who you raised, and you dedicate your life to a very different set of religious principles, you’re involved in an organization that helps interfaith families. Watching Benji at the very beginning starting to go on a path towards Orthodox Judaism. How did you react internally?

Robyn Frisch:

I was terrified to be perfectly honest, it was very scary. You want your children to be independent and find their way in life, but it was a very, very different way than his father’s and mine and the rest of our immediate family, or frankly for our extended family, and probably our family for many generations. And I worried, I think more than anything, about the distance that was created between Benji and our family, was my biggest fear, that if his lifestyle – Ironically, even though we were both Jewish, and I think I even wrote this, that it’s Judaism that we both love the most, but it’s so different that I worried about the way it would distance us. I wouldn’t even say I hoped, I assumed, talking early on that was a theme. And, you know, Benji had been, as I had mentioned, he’d been a really good cross country runner.

And when Benji got into something, and this is something I admire about Benji tremendously, he gets all in. He goes all in and he goes all out. And just as he’d been into cross country and been really good at other things, I thought, okay, he’s really into ultra-Orthodox Judaism, he’s meeting interesting people. And then we’ll go onto the next phase. And it was actually my middle son – comes after Benji, Noah, my younger son – we have three kids who said to me, when I once said this to Benji, “Ima, that’s really mean. If it is a phase, it’s a phase. But you don’t say that to him because he is taking, he’s serious right now.” You know, obviously I don’t at all think it’s a phase now, and we’ve come a long way, and I’m not terrified, and I embrace his choices for him. But in the beginning it was incredibly difficult for myself and his father.

Benji Frisch:

I would add –

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, Benji, please jump in.

Benji Frisch:

I would add that in the beginning I would have also pictured, because I didn’t really know enough about what Judaism really was, that it would have brought us apart more. It was something I was willing to do because I’m willing to, if you believe in God, you’re willing to go full out for him, obviously. But I think it’s actually the opposite. I think I have more of a responsibility of feeling towards my family because of the Torah, because the Torah requires that of me.

David Bashevkin:

So I want to jump into that. I spoke briefly to your mother before. I come from, again, we don’t quite have the dynamics, my father is a member, I would say, of the yeshiva community. He learns, he’s an oncologist, a retired oncologist, but throughout his career he learned in a kollel, he’d wake up at 4:30 in the morning and learn. But I have a sister who became, who lives in Sanhedria Murchevet and became much frummer, outwardly, certainly, then the rest of our family. And there are always points, because my father himself grew up in North Adams, Massachusetts, and was the one in his family who became ultra-Orthodox, so to speak, whatever term you use. Did you and your parents, did you guys have a formative conversation where you sat down with one another and said, “We need to talk about this, we need to talk about where this is going,” or did it, would you describe that it evolved more organically?

Benji Frisch:

I would say it would definitely have evolved more organically, I think would be a more appropriate description. I was really focused on trying to get my hold in the community, learn Gemara, to be able to get into yeshiva. That was my focus… It’s more a question of my mother, probably.

Robyn Frisch:

It’s such an interesting perspective. I don’t know if you remember, Benji, you wrote a chart, he wrote this unbelievable chart, which he presented to us, why, I think at the point not just why you said you were Orthodox, that was just, it was, but it’s part of why he said to go to a more traditional Jewish day school than the one you were attending. Do you remember that?

Benji Frisch:

Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

I’m just jumping in to make sure I understood that completely. He presented you with a chart, correct?

Robyn Frisch:

He spent hours making a chart.

David Bashevkin:

There is no doubt that he was primed for learning Gemara. If there’s one, charting out something is, he’s probably already knee-deep in learning Brachos at that point. But tell me about that chart.

Robyn Frisch:

It was Benji, Benji’s an artist, and it had all the steps and reasons why his liberal Jewish day school was not the right place for him. And he went through this chart, and of course we disagreed with every argument he made at the time, but he did end up switching schools. So I think there were a lot of discussions, but they were very fraught and we were, I was coming from such a place of non-acceptance, and I don’t want to say anger, I’m not sure that’s the right word, but you weren’t going to convince me. And so therefore, I could see how you didn’t see it as discussions. One thing Benji said that has stuck with me ever since, his father and I said to him, “We’re very scared because the Orthodox community is so judgemental and we don’t want you to be judging us.” And Benji, do you remember your response?

Benji Frisch:

I think I said, “Isn’t it kind of judgy for you to say…” I forget exactly what I said.

Robyn Frisch:

Yeah, you said you’ve been judging me since I started this journey, in some way, you’ve been judging me all along. And that really struck a chord, I think.

David Bashevkin:

Wow. That –

Benji Frisch:

I just want to –

David Bashevkin:

No, jump in Benji, please.

Benji Frisch:

It wasn’t, I wouldn’t describe it as so tense, there wasn’t fighting, I would say just very different opinions of how I should continue with my life.

David Bashevkin:

I’m really moved by this, and I’m wondering, if each of you could go back and could give yourselves advice on how you initially handled this. There are always people who are moving in different religious directions. I don’t like using terminology because anything that’s different is hard for a parent. I’ve spoken, and this month we have parents who are far more yeshiva-oriented, whose kids went in a less yeshiva-oriented direction, and it’s a very similar kind of difficulty. And I’m going to say pain, there’s a pain when a parent sees a kid go in a different direction, there’s a difficulty to that. What advice would you give yourselves, and maybe even one another, to those initial formative stages when you see a child going in a different direction, what’s the right way to react? And how could you have done a better job of accepting one another?

Benji Frisch:

So here’s what I would say for sure, is that you could become, you could embrace a new lifestyle and not despise everything about the previous one. Meaning there’s a [inaudible] from everything. So there’s things, I could not be… I could be Orthodox and my father could not be, but at the same time, I could still learn, I still keep all the lessons I learned from him throughout my entire life. I don’t have to throw them all away. And I think it would have been good to realize that at first, and I realize it clearly now, and it’s something to keep in mind.

David Bashevkin:

I love that.

Benji Frisch:

It helps keep us together. Yeah. It helps keep us together even now because I’m still getting so much from my parents, even though we’re different it doesn’t mean I have to lock out from the community. It means I could gain from them what I consider acceptable, and whatever we disagree about, we disagree about. It doesn’t have to be a fight.

David Bashevkin:

And Benji, can I just, I’m going to go to Mom in a second, but Benji, can I just jump on that a little bit more? Initially, when you first started the path, was that obvious to you? Or was that something you had to come to and realize? Meaning, for a lot of people, who don’t even change their denominational affiliation, people who, so to speak, quote unquote, flip out in Israel, that’s very often a lesson they need to learn. So how did you come to that realization? Unless it’s something you had from the very beginning?

Benji Frisch:

So it’s something I actually thought about a lot. To me, I did not realize at all, in the beginning, and I think it’s something my rebbeim did help me realize, is that my father is an amazing person, my mother’s an amazing person, and there’s so much to gain from them, and a lot of the stuff that they do is purely – I mean obviously I’m not going to take things that are against the Torah, things that are in line with the Torah, but they do it purely… Some of their character traits are excellent, and why would I not learn from them. I mean, it’s the mishna really, “Ezahu chacham? Halomed mikal adam.” It just took time to realize that. I’m not being clear, but sorry about that.

David Bashevkin:

No. I very much appreciate that. And Mom, you already alluded to some of that difficulty. Remember you had called it a phase? What other advice would you have given to yourself in those early points in the relationship?

Robyn Frisch:

I think the thing that I’ve come to realize, I wish I had understood earlier, was that Benji’s not going to stop being Benji. He’s going to practice a different lifestyle, they might call him Binyomin in yeshiva, we call him Benji. The biggest question, one of the biggest questions I get, and believe me there are many, is how does he get along with his siblings? My honest response is, great. He’s still Benji, there’s still no one [inaudible], he comes home. He spends more time in his room studying Talmud than he used to, but when he comes out and he’s interacting with us, he could still be a total goofball with the rest of us and has interests both Jewish and otherwise that he shares with his brothers and sisters – I’m sorry, his brother and sister, there’s only one of each. And he didn’t lose the essence of who he is, he’s just taken on a different lifestyle. And I think that was probably… This is the first time I’m realizing this, as you’re asking the question, is, that’s probably what scared me the most, is that we were going to lose our son, and we haven’t lost our son. We’ve… Benji has discovered a lifestyle that’s different than ours. It has its challenges, and it also has its blessings, and he brought beautiful things to us. When he’s home, Shabbat is different. And sometimes that’s challenging, but sometimes, overall, it’s like, I feel an extra sense of holiness because of the way he experiences Shabbat and views Shabbat. So while things have changed, if I could have known or could have told myself, that doesn’t mean Benji’s going to change. As he is, as a human being, he’s still there. So that’s really, I think, what I was scared of losing more than anything.

David Bashevkin:

Wow. And dare I say, and I don’t know if Benji would agree with this, but I am suspicious that part of that extra sense of holiness is not just from Benji’s observance of the Shabbos, but the familial extension of you going beyond and accommodating for one another. What’s holier than that, two Jews working through their own convictions and differences to accommodate one another. I’m not sure there’s anything greater than that for hasra’as hashechina, for that sense of presence, divine presence in a home, than going through that. But allow me to, again, and at any point, if I ask a question that you feel like is too sensitive, or you don’t want to exactly litigate right now on the phone, you can tell me, 100%. I don’t want to stir the coals, but I want to talk a little bit about those challenges. What would you each say is the biggest challenge that you have when you each come together? And how did you learn how to negotiate through that specific challenge?

Benji Frisch:

So I would say for me, I view Hashem in… The way he is, our loving and caring father who gives us for our benefit. And it’s very, and I believe that he’s saddened by the lack of Torah observance, so it’s very hard for me, even though I grew up like this, to see other people being mechalel Shabbos. Hashem cares about it, but at the same time, I know that I’m calmed by the fact that everyone’s just trying to do what they know how to do. Nobody’s trying to go against Hashem, everyone’s trying to do their best. And we’re each trying in our own way. And I think I Hashem sees that. So that’s, I guess I’m calmed by that.

David Bashevkin:

Is that a more sophisticated way of saying the hardest thing for you was figuring out the level of Shabbos observance when you come home?

Benji Frisch:

Well I guess, since I’ve been in these shoes for so long, it’s like, it’s kind of shocking to see Jews breaking Shabbos without any thought to it, but I understand where they’re coming from and I don’t judge them at all.

David Bashevkin:

And Mom, what for you was the hardest challenge that you still have with working through this?

Robyn Frisch:

I would say it’s kind of the other side of that. And it’s such a small price to pay from my perspective, relatively, but I feel like because Benji has chosen to be very observant – and again, I respect that choice and that’s who he is – I feel like all the compromise has to come from our side. I’m sure he and I, it would be very normal if he notices all the things we do wrong and how we break Shabbat, according to the traditional framework. But from our perspective, if it’s all got to be this way or he won’t be comfortable in our home, that is totally unacceptable to us. We want him to be comfortable in our home to the extent we can do that, and we want to have our family together. We were just talking about him coming home for Passover, and I can’t wait, but I also know, where we always thought we were kosher, we’re Conservative Jews, and we always thought we were Pesachdig, it’s a whole different level. And we make mistakes, and it’s hard for us, and it’s not necessarily things we would think are quote unquote necessary. So of course, where Benji feels like he’s compromising, we feel like we’re compromising, and sometimes that can be, again, more than worth it, but difficult.

Benji Frisch:

I do… I do not like to rely on all of the kulas, let’s say, that I have to rely on when I come, but I’m going to do it, because I think it’s important to be part of the family.

David Bashevkin:

To have those leniencies and be able to have a framework where you’re both comfortable. I very much appreciate that. And you should know, when my, I have one sister, when she comes home, again, we don’t need to kasher or anything, but we absolutely buy a different brand of cheese when she comes. All the cheese is different. She keeps, I think now at this point we mostly have chalav yisrael in the house anyways, but we got to be a little bit more careful.

And yeah, it’s strange for me, especially because I grew up in a home, my father wears a black hat on Shabbos. So when my sister would come home and we still needed to do extra, it was like, what’s going on here. But my mother and father both are a little different than their parents, and I guess it gave them that capacity to do so. So I want to ask two more questions, and then I always have quicker wrap-up questions. And I so appreciate your time on this. Forward-looking, looking outwards to the future. What are each of you most concerned about in terms of challenges not yet expressed, but ones that may pose challenges going forward? What are each of your biggest concerns?

Robyn Frisch:

I guess there are… I guess “concerns” is a fair word, or “fears,” or “worries,” because I do love Benji so much. And because I feel, as we said, there are challenges, but I think this is working incredibly well. If you told me five years ago that we’d be at this point we are, I wouldn’t even believe you. And I’m thrilled at how Benji comes home and Benji calls every Shabbos from Israel. And I don’t ever want those things to stop and I don’t think they will. But I guess my two fears, concerns, are, one, when he gets married – within the next year, probably – that if you marry someone who’s not a baal teshuva, that she won’t feel comfortable in our house, because she won’t have grown up in a home like this, and things will make no sense, and she may never have heard of the things that we do, they’ll be so outside of her framework or experience them.

So that scares me. Nothing would make me sadder than having distance from both their family and grandchildren and my family. The other thing, which might bring up something really contentious, but I feel like, although it wasn’t easy and we weren’t supportive along the way every minute, especially in the beginning, Benji’s made his lifestyle choice and we’ve grown to… I think not only accept it, but embrace it, and understand that… I really believe that, I don’t even think “choice” is the right word. This is who Benji is and was born to be, and he found that, and we’ll respect that. I fear that if any of his kids are more like us, or that’s not the right community for them, that they won’t have that same choice. And that’s hard for me to accept, and I know I have to.

David Bashevkin:

And you should know, and one thing I can tell you, Mom, and I’m not responding to either, I just wanted to kind of hear it, is that there is a very rich tradition in Jewish life, and even in very ultra-Orthodox circles, that when you go to Bubby’s house, God willing, when you have grandchildren, that’s usually the place where you get to play a little bit more. It’s where you get to watch the super bowl. I have a sister, I have another sister, a brother-in-law who’s learning in, he’s a shoel umaishiv. I mean, he answers questions in yeshiva. And when his kids want to watch sports, they go to Bubby’s house. They don’t have a television, they don’t have anything else, but there’s a rich, very sweet tradition of letting your hair down at Bubby’s house, God willing one day. So I don’t know if that’s what Benji is going to allow or be comfortable with, but there is a very rich tradition.

Benji Frisch:

Well, we’ll have to talk about that one later.

Robyn Frisch:

It’s funny you say that, because Bubby’s hair will be down. Although I’ll cover it [inaudible]. To me that’s a small, small price to pay. I’m not all the time, but certainly if you wanted that, when I was with your kids, it wouldn’t, it would be a relatively easy thing to do.

David Bashevkin:

Wow. And Benji, again, I don’t need you to kind of react or litigate to what your mother’s concerns are, but what concerns do you have looking out to your future, having, growing up in the home that you have? I guess for you it’s a little bit different because you understand more of the world that you’re in. So it’s less scary for you, obviously, it’s who you are, it’s where you live. But projecting forward, what are those unknowns and uncertainties that you have about making it work as a family with your parents?

Benji Frisch:

Well obviously I want my kids to grow up in an Orthodox setting, but I, obviously for me it’s very important that they should know their grandparents, and that’s something that’s going to have to, that’s for sure going to happen. Unquestionably. My concern would just be for that to work, but both things are going to have to work.

David Bashevkin:

And I have no doubt that it will, as I said before, I’ve seen a lot of families make it work in very similar circumstances, and there’s something extraordinarily heartening about the way each of you are accommodating one another. And that deep respect, familial, mother-son, familial love for one another, that I think, frankly, more than anything else that any of you are involved in is probably the greatest point of kedusha, of holiness, that I could imagine.

So allow me now, before we get into these more rapid fire questions, talk more generally to our listeners and other families who have this. What advice would you give to somebody who’s going on a trajectory like Benji? There are a lot of families, not every family has parents who are affiliated with the rabbinate of other denominations, but so many families have children who either, because the outreach movement, the kiruv movement, or they’re becoming more and more religious. What advice would you give to families who have a child who is now becoming more committed to Yiddishkeit, to Judaism, in the way that they’re… That’s different than they were brought up? What advice would you give to a child and to parents to make sure that this really works? And this is a question, obviously, for both of you.

Benji Frisch:

I would say to the parents, for sure, you should know that even though whoever it is is heading in a different path, there’s still, most Orthodox people, almost all of them I think, are very normal people. There’s a lot of extremist misconceptions about who they are. They’re not exactly extremely open-minded, but they’re very understanding people, and they’re not, and nobody’s trying to rip anyone away from any family, unless the family is making somebody’s life very hard. I think that’s an important thing to realize. In fact I was encouraged by all of my rebbeim to stay in very close touch with my parents. I think that’s an important thing that they should know. To the kids, I would say just stay firm, just keep learning Torah. That’s the only way to do it, and just keep at it. Keep trying to get close with Hashem.

David Bashevkin:

But Benji, let me push you on that a little bit. What advice, meaning, it’s not always that simple, because you seem like you have a very natural intuition for balancing your religious commitments and the respect, again, it’s not, it’s more than “lomed mikal adam,” learning from everybody. It’s one of the asseres hadibros, that deep respect to have for your parents. What advice would you give to another kid who, maybe it’s on NCSY, or Aish HaTorah, Ohr Somayach or something, or a shana alef yeshiva, a gap year yeshiva. They went to learn in Sha’alvim or in OJ, or wherever it is. They’re becoming more and more frum, and it’s taking them away from their parents in a lot of ways. Just to say shteig, learn Gemara, is not always the answer.

Benji Frisch:

I would definitely say that you have to remember that you have your parents, who love you a lot, but if it’s not working, if it’s not going well, you have to remember that Hashem loves you a lot more than your parents love you, and he is seeing everything you’re accomplishing, and he is taking note of everything you’re doing. And even if it doesn’t seem like you’re getting appreciation from everywhere, you have to know that Hashem is appreciating what you’re doing. And it’s very hard to realize sometimes, but Hashem sees every ounce of effort that you put into everything. And even when it’s hard, it brings more nachas ruach Hashem, and it’s not always the full [inaudible] but later, you could see I’m glad I had that opportunity from that kind of situation to bring nachas ruach to Hashem. It’s a very, even though it’s hard to realize sometimes at the time, but it does console you later.

David Bashevkin:

I’m going to push one more time before we go to Mom. I want to hear more specifics about advice to your par –

Benji Frisch:

And you have to stay committed. To the guys, I’d say stay committed, just don’t give up. And don’t compromise on things that you’re not supposed to.

David Bashevkin:

I want to push further and I want to hear more, because I think sometimes, again, different people have different inner intuitions, but for a lot of people, when you’re in yeshiva, it’s almost easier to stay focused on the learning. I want to hear about the advice your rebbeim gave you about being able to focus and tend to the relationship with your parents. That’s where I want to hear the guidance that you were given. You don’t have to quote any rebbeim by name, though obviously I would be more than interested to know who said what, but important advice that your teachers gave you that you saw in yourself to ensure that that relationship remains intact?

Benji Frisch:

So I think it’s important to realize that forcing things down people’s throats usually doesn’t convince them to be frum, so I think that was an important thing that I learned. Nobody wants to be forced to do anything, usually, especially when it’s not what they themselves think is right. It’s pointless, so definitely no musser, that’s definitely something that I would say. And then see if you’re being a normal guy, and you’re still a normal guy and you’re very serious about what you’re doing, I think that does have an impression on them, and you see that they’ll tell other people, oh, we have a son in a similar situation, that, oh my son is very normal, even if they’re not becoming any more observant, at least you’re respecting something in some way, you have to know that you are doing something. Am I addressing your question or not really?

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. I was actually going to follow up and then I’m going to go to Mom, but did you always feel a sense of responsibility, that knowing the world that your parents live in, that your family is in, that you in many ways are the representative of Orthodox Judaism to the world of your parents?

Benji Frisch:

Yeah, I do feel like that in a lot of ways, a lot of times I’ll get questions from my parents about things, and I do find it a responsibility of mine to address some of the more insane, meaning the absolutely not true misconceptions. I consider it a pleasure, I mean, an honor to be able to clarify certain things for them and help them be more comfortable around Orthodox Jews in general.

David Bashevkin:

It’s a beautiful responsibility, and everybody, it’s a heavy responsibility, because sometimes you just want to be a child in the eyes of your parents, but being that representative, it’s funny. In my family, I’m like, I’m not the frum one in my family. Meaning, I’m frum, but I’m not like the frummie. I’m the representative of the more diverse opinions in my family, I have to explain to my mom and to my dad a little bit more of the breadth of the Jewish world that I interact with and connect with, but it’s a responsibility nonetheless, and a holy one at that. Mom, if we could turn to you for a second and maybe hear some advice, both to parents and to children. You spend, you have a career of advice of helping interfaith families navigate that. In a way, I’m almost curious, like, do you view your own family now as, I want to say the word “lehavdil,” because it’s very different. You’re all extraordinarily Jewish.

Robyn Frisch:

I would say my intrafaith family, and I give the same advice that I give to interfaith families, which is, one, you’re children’s choices aren’t a rejection of you. They are their choices. And two, it really came down to, for me, and this might sound silly, but I don’t want to lose my child. And he’s made this choice and he’s not unmaking it. But I do think, I don’t want to imply in any way that it’s easy, and in particular, I’m talking about when it’s a minor. You know, I think when someone, especially over 18, it’s very different, but Benji was under 18 when this whole process began, and I do think for each parent it’s different, and different things lead to it, and I think that, I’m a big fan in general of therapy and counseling, and I think it’s a lot to accept for parents.

And while you may not, whether it’s a matter of learning to accept your children’s choices, or learning to communicate better as a family, to make choices that are better for the family, I think that’s really important. I think things have worked really well for us [inaudible], but I don’t want to imply that it’s been easy to get here, at least for myself. And it’s difficult when your children live a lifestyle so different than you do. I know many, not many, but some peers of mine, usually people older than myself, who have children who are also Orthodox or Haredi, and it’s very difficult for them in their relationship. And that makes me very sad, but I wish that they would get the professional counseling and professional help that they need to be able to improve those relationships because it’s heartbreaking, and none of them have ever stopped loving them.

David Bashevkin:

If you could just address a little bit more, talk to an outreach professional, an Orthodox outreach professional who has a young child – not a young child, but a teenager – walk into their center, to a shabbaton. They’re excited, they’re pumped up, they want to make this commitment, they want to jump off. What advice would you give them to make sure that their movement towards Orthodoxy, away from the Jewish commitment of their parents, is done in a healthy way? What advice would you give to that educator, to that rabbi? Because it sounds like the rebbeim and the teachers in Benji’s teen years did a good job – it sounds like – of communicating with you. What advice would you give to others to make sure that that process is healthy?

Robyn Frisch:

I think it’s really important to, again with minors especially, to communicate with the parents. And one of the reasons we let Benji – I don’t even know if “we let Benji” is the right phrase because Benji was so determined to do this, but we, as far as I know, when he was with Seed, or when he would find another Orthodox outreach group, they contacted us to make sure, people would say, “Is it okay for him to come here for a Shabbat dinner?,” knowing he’s under 18. And so I didn’t feel like my son was being taken away from me by a cult. Because a lot of people do ask me that, I get asked about that constantly. And the reality was, because people were in contact with me and my husband, it made us more comfortable, knowing that they weren’t trying to change our son in any way. It was him, he was driving the train, so to speak, and this was his decision, but it was no way forced upon him, and that was something that I think offered us… I’m not sure “comfort” would be the right word, but made us more trusting of the people who were being kind to him and were welcoming into the home and were guiding him into a new way of life. It was really his decision, not someone else trying to get him there.

David Bashevkin:

I absolutely love that. I always have quick, more rapid-fire questions before I wrap up. Before I get to those questions, I’ve just been curious the whole time. Benji, what shiur are you in the Mir?

Benji Frisch:

Rav Asher Arieli.

David Bashevkin:

Oh you’re in Rav Asher’s shiur. And I don’t know if you know him, I have a friend from elementary school and high school who I grew up with. I think he’s still learning in the Mir, if you ever cross paths with a Baruch Ritholtz, he has a very robust beard at this point, please send him my absolute warmest. I have a lot of friends and connections. I don’t know that he’s still in the Mir, but I do have a lot of friends who went through the entire machzor in Rav Asher’s shiur.

And there’s something very special about this Mom, if you don’t know about Rav Asher Arieli, the one thing I can tell you is that he is world famous, not just for the clarity of his Talmud class, but he’s world famous for the earnestness, the sincerity, and the sweetness and softness in which he carries himself, and I don’t think that there is class in the Mir that you could be more confident in that is going to emphasize that sweetness, that acceptance, that Rav Asher embodies. That’s really wonderful, and that’s not a slouch of a shiur, I think that shiur is in Yiddish, no?

Benji Frisch:

Yeah it’s in Yiddish, yeah.

David Bashevkin:

Okay, I don’t know if you got the Yiddish from Mom and Dad or you picked that up.

Robyn Frisch:

A little bit Dad. He never [inaudible] has learned. How many, I don’t even know how many years it’s been since 10th grade. So what, like five years? It’s unbelievable.

David Bashevkin:

But that’s very special and he’s definitely playing in the big leagues, and that’s really special, Rav Asher Arieli, really. I mean that, I’m not just, he’s world famous, not every rabbi is world famous in the way that he is. He is world famous, not just for his analysis, but for his character. There’s a softness that you see as you ever meet him, and Benji, I would encourage you to introduce him to your parents. I think that would be something very special. I’d certainly love to see that picture. If I could, I always close my interviews with three more rapid-fire questions. If you could each jump in, I know it’s erev Shabbos for you Benji, and for all of us, but it’s much closer to erev Shabbos for you. So question number one is, is there a book that you would each recommend for helping you appreciate this familial struggle, a book that helped you appreciate it? It could be a Hebrew book or an English book, but something that helps you appreciate one another and how you navigated this path?

Benji Frisch:

You know it’s interesting that you ask that because I really feel that there’s no book that can teach you how to deal with other people. I think everyone deep down basically knows the correct way to act, the way Hashem wants them to act, and books can help you do that. I think books aren’t the main thing, and I don’t think there was book that really drove it in for me.

David Bashevkin:

I very much appreciate that answer. Mom, given what Benji said, I have no problem with you recommending a book, even if books are not the main thing, which I happen to agree with him a 100% on, but is there something that you recommend in helping families navigate religious differences?

Robyn Frisch:

I wish I had an answer, but I have a similar, there may be some, but not that I personally have read I to be honest, I think my answer is really similar to Benji’s. I’m not sure if the religious differences are so different than any differences in some ways, this is just ways that we’re different and we’ve come to accept each other’s differences and continue to love each other.

David Bashevkin:

I absolutely love that. Which leads me to question two, and I already have a suggestion. My second question is always, if somebody gave you a great deal of money that allowed you to take an uninterrupted sabbatical, as long as you needed to write a book – I usually ask to write a PhD, it doesn’t sound like Benji’s going to a PhD program. But if somebody were to, I’ll give you a great deal of money to write a book of your own, what do you think the title and subject of that book would be about?

Robyn Frisch:

I can answer that initially. I hope my family’s going to be in my book. I, as far as I know, we will be the only family with a Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbi in the immediate family. I don’t think that’s ever been the case before. I’ve always said [inaudible]. So if I get the time and the inclination I think that it would probably be called something on the effect of My Intrafaith Family, you know, playing off the work I do every day.

David Bashevkin:

Mom, I will be the first one to buy a copy. That’s a guarantee. I don’t think I’ll be the only one either, and honestly, it’s a book that the Jewish people could use, and I was hoping that would be your answer. Benji, once your mom’s already writing that book, you’ve got to pick something else, so what do you hope, if you had a great deal of money, totally able to study, write uninterrupted, what would you hope to be able to write about? It could be Hebrew or English, obviously.

Benji Frisch:

I think I would just, you know, there’s a famous, I never would have heard of it, but, being in my family I heard of this book Unorthodox, have you heard of it?

David Bashevkin:

Sure.

Benji Frisch:

I would like to write the opposite of that, basically. I don’t know what I would call it, but something that shows the beautiful side of the Orthodox community, and all of the great things that they do, and the chessed that comes out of, it and the absolute care for every other Jew, without exception, basically. And it’s amazing, and I’d love to show that side. I don’t know how I’d do it yet, but that’s –

David Bashevkin:

Benji, you have a story to tell too, and I think if you and I brainstorm for just a couple minutes, I’m sure we could come up with an absolutely great title. I don’t know that that story will be made into a Netflix mini- series, but we don’t need to decide that right away.

Robyn Frisch:

So when Benji was home, I hope you don’t mind me saying, but when Benji was last home, I watched the series and was reading the book and it really upset him, and I had to put it away. I will say I just finished it. But then Benji, the next book I bought, which I’m actually still in the middle of, is about a guy, a pretty [inaudible] guy who, but he hadn’t grown up yeshivish and spent a year studying in yeshiva, and I’m blanking on the name, but I just want, because Benji said to me, “If you’re going to read that, I want you to read something positive about the traditional community.” So I am.

David Bashevkin:

I absolutely love it. And mom, you know what’s a great book? I want to recommend the book to you that I have found to be one of the most beautiful books about the inner world of, it’s not about the yeshiva world, though there are great books about the yeshiva world that I’m happy to recommend offline. The world of the Shiva by William Helmerich, Shaul Stomper wrote his PhD on the history of the Yeshiva, but that’s not the book I was going to recommend. There’s a book by Jerome Mintz, I believe it’s name is called Hasidic People, and it was published by Harvard, and it has such charming stories about early American Hasidic life that I think you’ll absolutely love it. Benji, I’m assuming you have not read that book. I would recommend it to you also. It’s an absolute joy. It’s a mix of history and sociology. It’s really wonderful, very charming, and great Jewish history. My final question, always, I’m so appreciative of both of your time. My final question always is I, at all points in my life, had trouble sleeping, and I’m always curious to ask my guests, what time do you go to sleep at night, and what time do you wake up in the morning?

Benji Frisch:

Depends. I try to be up by, let’s say 7:30.

David Bashevkin:

And what time do you go to sleep, usually?

Benji Frisch:

Usually try to be in bed by 12:45 for sure.

David Bashevkin:

Okay. In the Mir dorms that’s not always easy, but I appreciate the effort. Mom, what time do you go to sleep? What time do you wake up in the morning?

Robyn Frisch:

I know it’s healthy to be consistent, but if I don’t have a compelling reason to be up early, I stay up until about 2, 2:30 and then I get up at like 930. This morning I was up at 7.

David Bashevkin:

We’re the same Mom. I’m much more in your category, and as we spoke about earlier this week, I was dreading, heart palpitations, this conversation, not because I wasn’t excited to talk to both of you, but because in order to make sure Benji wouldn’t get into trouble with erev Shabbos, I knew I’d have to wake up a little bit earlier. Thank you so much to both of you. I am sorry…

Benji Frisch:

Can I add one thing?

David Bashevkin:

Absolutely.

Benji Frisch:

This is something that I find difficult. If you can’t explain, if somebody who didn’t have a complete clarity in a Gemara, or never really worked on the Gemara and got it very clear, or somebody who hasn’t experienced a good Shemoneh Esrei, you can’t explain that feeling to somebody else. It’s hard for me to explain that, it’s something I really wish I could do. I wish I could give over the thrill of the shakla v’tarya. I wish I could explain it. I mean, it’s hard, because you can’t, so I don’t know what you do with that thought, but that’s something that I think about sometimes.

David Bashevkin:

I very much appreciate that giving over the experiential element, but I think that immersion and the effort that we place into understanding the Gemara, and the levels of interpretation that exist when we approach the Gemara, there are many Hasidic and non-Hasidic leaders that those are the very mechanisms of interpretation that we also need to apply to the soul and experiences of other Jews in our lives, and it sounds like both of you are doing that important work. So thank you so much to both of you. It is an absolute pleasure and privilege to speak with you about your differences, and more importantly, about that deep, familial commonality, respect, and trust that you have for one another.

Robyn Frisch:

Thank you.

Benji Frisch:

Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Have a great Shabbos.

David Bashevkin:

I hope you enjoyed this conversation, and it really made me think: if you are an educator, if you are a teacher, if you are a rabbi, if you are a student going in whichever direction that may be different than your family, I think it’s important to think and bear in mind how the religious identities that we forge don’t have to come at the expense of our familial identities. And that’s not always so easy, it’s not always so simple, but it’s an important thing that we need to emphasize. I remember, my roommate, when I was in Yeshiva in Ner Yisroel, the same alma mater of Benji, he said he went home for Shabbos and his parents asked him to make tea, which can sometimes be a little halachically tricky on Shabbos. And he fumbled because he didn’t have all of the stringencies that you’re normally able to be careful for when you make tea on Shabbos, but he was able to obviously make it in a way that that could have been okay.

And he refused, and he said no, and he came back, and he was almost beating himself up. He says, “I can’t believe it. I had my parents ask me to do something, it’s one of the 10 commandments, and I could have done it without violating the Shabbos. They weren’t asking me to violate the Shabbos” – his parents were very much observant, a family I knew growing up – “and I allowed my commitment to stringencies to override my commitment to one of the 10 commandments of honoring my parents.” And he said this when he was in yeshiva, and we’re still in touch. And it stuck with me, figuring out the contours with which we allow our religious commitments to flourish and grow regardless of the direction, while at the same time not allowing them to fray and impinge on those very precious, important, and I think religious – our family identity is a part of our religious identity – and allowing those to grow together with dignity and respect.

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