Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Ghost Children

Hi! I'm a forty-something frum Mom, ffb, who is becoming increasingly worried about the state of frumkeit and its future if we continue down this road. I think that many of us are feeling this way, but we're afraid to speak.

I see ghosts.
Admit it; you see them, too; much as we all would like to deny them.
I’m talking about our children, the ones who have opted out of frumkeit. These are the sons who “went away” to Yeshiva and never seem to come home; the girls who are living “out of town,” who rarely visit. We use the deliberate ambiguity, because we are afraid to admit that our kids have strayed out of the land of frum living by going “off the derech.” Occasionally, we may catch a glimpse of these wraiths as they flit in and out of the “frumme velt.” They come out to haunt lifecycle events, weddings and funerals in particular. You can detect their presence by the knowing looks, the susurrations of scandalized whispers.
“Can you believe she actually went to B.J.J.?”
“I hear that he’s married to a shiksa.”
Used to be that the “oylam” claimed that these apparitions were a rarity- the atypical results of family failure, the begotten of Baalei T’shuva, kids whose backgrounds predisposed them to ”problems.” Can’t call it an aberration any more though. There are too many “at-riskers” with illustrious family names, high on the “yichus” ladder, day school education, yeshiva high schools, two-parent families, many of them with brothers and sisters who appear to function happily within the frum spectrum. I suspect that’s why the “powers- that-be” have finally created a nice, pareve label for it- “at risk youth.” How’s that for creative euphemism? Our kids are getting stoned, pregnant, living on the streets, getting into crime and rejecting Judaism in any form. Yeah, I guess you could say that they’re “at risk.” Don’t want the outside world to know how badly we are botching it here, so let’s minimize the extent of our problem. The hierarchy may have just deigned to notice what’s happening, but this problem been growing steadily for nearly twenty years now.
Want proof? Just stand observe the street corners where the “bad” kids congregate, m’dear. While you’re there, count the ratio of male “at-riskers” to females. Ten to one, maybe? A frum friend of mine in the psychiatric field told me that, from personal observation, she reckons that the frum drop-out rate for boys is about fifteen to twenty percent, for girls, three to five percent. That was nearly ten years ago. Fast forward to today and think about the current shortage of available frum men. Make the correlation. Our daughters' basherts have left the building, hon, and doesn't look like they're coming back.
Ironic, isn’t it? For all of our much flaunted self-congratulation about the flocks of folks who are returning to Yiddishkeit, we are dying of spiritual hemorrhage. Yet, it seems that so much of our communal resources are focused on bringing new people into the fold, not giving our kids the education and love of our faith that will make them want to stay. Our schools are failing badly, graduating an increasing number of kids who are spiritually numb or at worst, hostile to a religion that seems to be a cult of ceaseless strictures to them.
Remember the Mishna about the bed of Sodom? Seems that the folks in Sodom had bed reserved for those who wanted the community’s help. If you were too short, they stretched you to fit it. Too tall? They hacked off your legs until it was just right; the original one size fits all. It seems that’s the model for day school education today. If you’re a boy and you don’t have a “gemara kup” forgettaboutit. Girls who want to be other than a Mommy/morah? Well you won’t get a shidduch if you’re too smart/educated. Just get enough skills to support some young guy in kollel, but don't excel, or you’ll make him feel inadequate.
We seem to believe that by stigmatizing or amputating their talents, we can make them immune the outside world. Keep them ignorant, and maybe they won’t be tempted. Suppress the original, scorn the creative, disparage the gifted, then wonder why they abandon us to wander among the frumdead. We seem determined to homogenize our children into a generation of boors, barely literate and culturally inept. In a way, our ghetto is coming to resemble the inner city ghetto, where secular education is treated with contempt and actively discouraged. You think I lie? Compare yeshiva SAT scores today with those twenty years ago, even ten years ago. Ask long-term secular studies teachers what is happening on the other side of the desk and then stand back because you’ll get an earful. I guess it’s so much easier to put the blame on television and now the internet. Far better to attribute the decline to impersonal outside forces than to confront our own culpability.
Answers out there? I don’t have any. All I know is what I see. There are new faces out on those street corners all the time, friends of my kids, kids of my friends. I see the frum spiritual dead. They’re everywhere and we don’t want to admit that they’re dead. Still, I’ll play the game and keep on pretending. I won’t mention your child, if you keep quiet about mine.
No wonder Rochel is weeping for our children.