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Finding comfort in P.O.R.K., a support group for parents of newly religious kids

The world of the newly religious is not always so black and white. (Illustrative photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
The world of the newly religious is not always so black and white. (Illustrative photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

“My children have suddenly become ultra-Orthodox. What do we do?” Ron and his wife ask their rabbi, Barry Woolf.

“Well, it’s nothing a little pork can’t take care of,” he says with a smile.

Not exactly a conversation you’d expect to hear between a rabbi and Jewish parents, yet this is exactly the the sort of interaction you would find should you stumble upon a meeting between the 73-year-old rabbi and members of his Parents of Religious Kids Support Group, better known as P.O.R.K.

P.O.R.K. was formed almost a decade ago in Minnesota when Woolf realized there was a great need for families to have a place to vent and seek comfort. When relatives transition into a more observant lifestyle, families are usually left adrift.

Rabbi Barry Woolf delivering a prayer for the 'lost and troubled' in the Minnesota Senate, 2011. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Barry Woolf delivering a prayer for the 'lost and troubled' in the Minnesota Senate, 2011. (photo credit: Courtesy)

P.O.R.K. is a labor of love for Woolf. When he arrived in America from his native London in 1968, his first job was working with troubled teens from broken homes.

“It was then that I was inspired to get into the chemical dependency field and to better understand its effects on families in the Jewish community,” he says.

His interest in addiction led to other career ventures: he was a chaplain in prisons and mental wards and then he added guarding the dead to his resume. Woolf currently works for the local Jewish Burial Society, where he sits with the deceased most evenings.

“Crisis usually brings most Jews to call me. It’s just a fact of my life,” he admits. His phone is constantly ringing with stories of death, sickness, substance abuse or addiction.

‘Calls started coming in of young men coming home with kippas and tzizit, refusing to eat in their home kitchens and of young girls refusing to sit with boys in school’

Until one day, when he received a different kind of call, from distraught parent Ron, whose daughter had suddenly become extremely religious. “Calls started coming in of young men coming home with kippas and tzizit, refusing to eat in their home kitchens and of young girls refusing to sit with boys in school.”

Ron, who has known Woolf for over 25 years — initially in his care for addiction recovery — helped organize the first P.O.R.K. meeting in Minneapolis.

“The point was not to influence or change our kids, but to become more accepting of their choices,” Ron says. “The first 15 minutes of the meetings would be mostly bitching and moaning. ‘I can’t believe my daughter came over and threw out my cheese because it wasn’t Chalav Yisrael. She didn’t like the hechsher.’ Some things just made us meshugene!”

Ron recalls how conflicts at home began to erupt one by one. “Religion is supposed to bring families together, not split them apart.”

Woolf responds with what he believes is one of the most consoling perspectives he has to offer. “Would you prefer your kids were doing drugs or interfaith dating instead? The alternatives could always be worse.”

Ron’s daughter and many others are part of the growing ba’al teshuva movement in America. A ba’al teshuva is a secular Jew who decides to “return” to religious Judaism.

According to Chicago-based Dr. Sharon Jedel, Psy.d., “Teens and college students will be drawn to anything that provides them with a strong sense of identity and community.”

She argues that in today’s age of social networking giants Facebook and Twitter, “younger people would be more inclined to thrive in an environment where a strong community is available, and Orthodoxy provides that,” Jedel says.

According to Rabbi David Lehrfield, the Florida liaison for the Israeli Rabbinate, the reasons a person would choose to become a ba’al teshuva are mostly random. “Many people have a void in their life and you can’t really determine what would make someone decide to be suddenly religious. When I ask converts why they decided to switch to Judaism, I never get the same answer twice and it is the same for ba’al teshuvas,” he says.

‘Kids in high school and college are approached on campus by a kollel rabbi, who tries to show them the Jewish way’

He does admit that an increased Jewish outreach on high school and college campuses is fueling the fire, and Woolf agrees.

“Kids in high school and college are approached on campus by a kollel rabbi, who tries to show them the Jewish way. It starts out with 20 students, eventually dwindling down to two or three.”

That was the case for Minnesota residents Cliff and LeeAnns’ 22-year-old son, Justin.

“A kollel rabbi approached Justin and convinced him to start a Jewish group at his high school,” LeeAnn remembers.

Justin managed to gather 25 Jewish students for a group discussion with the rabbi; snacks were provided.

“Of the 25 kids, some came back for future gatherings, others didn’t. There are four kids from his high school that are ba’al teshuvas now,” LeeAnn says.

Justin, contacted for comment, initially agreed to speak with The Times of Israel but later declined, writing, “…At this moment I am not very comfortable responding to the questions…”

Justin’s older brother, 27-year-old Craig, who now prefers to be called Chaim, is also a ba’al teshuva. He fell in love with Judaism on a Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel.

“My journey began with Birthright, when quite simply all of the stories and things I had heard growing up all of a sudden became ‘alive’ and tangible,” Chaim writes in an email. He preferred to write his thoughts down rather than speak on the phone.

“The stories of Rabbi Akiva in his cave, risking his life to teach Torah, became more than a story, when I sat in the cool damp caves myself and saw how true the Torah must have been for him to risk his life for it. I saw simply that Hebrew was not some old archaic language the Bible was originally written in, but a lively language that modern people spoke, joked in and worked with.”

Chaim’s mother remembers very clearly that after her son returned home from that trip to Israel, “within a six-month time period, he went from wearing jeans and a T-shirt to black pants and a button-down shirt,” she says.

Woolf says, “Most parents feel responsible for their children’s’ increased Orthodoxy, claiming that it was them who initiated a Hebrew school education or Sabbath visits to synagogue at an early age.”

“There is an initial resentment… we are parents that sent our kids to yeshiva and then it backfires,” Ron says. “It’s not like Judaism is foreign to us. My wife and I come from an Orthodox background. I sent both my kids to the same Torah academy, my daughter just bought more of what they were selling than my son did.”

“Rabbi Woolf tells us at P.O.R.K. meetings that we as parents gave our children the building blocks and that our kids are building the tower higher,” says LeeAnn.

‘I grew up with an amazing foundation of what it means to be Jewish and a sense of pride in it. What changed was my attitude towards those beliefs’

Chaim agrees. “I grew up with an amazing foundation of what it means to be Jewish and a sense of pride in it. What changed was my attitude towards those beliefs.”

According to Jedel, the psychologist, “Parents feel alienated and experience a sense of rejection, betrayal, abandonment. They see it as isolating, and are likely to feel that they do not understand their own child and that can contribute to isolation and rejection.”

“It took me a while to get over all of the resentment and we are comfortable with it all now,” Ron says. “Every now and then we roll our eyes… We bite our tongue a lot, but we want to maintain a good relationship with our daughter.”

“Other parents make assumptions. We took the time to listen to our kids and then run off to the bedroom to cry. Lots of parents had knockout fights with their kids. We took the high road,” says LeeAnn.

Cliff went as far as to attend Orthodox services and learn Hebrew. “We will never lose our children over this religion. Family comes first, Hashem [God] comes second,” he says.

“Becoming religious had many struggles with my family because we were living together, but with different views on how to practice our Judaism,” Chaim remembers. “Many tears were shed and decisions were made, but I was guided with good advice from my rabbis the whole time, which was, ‘never forget how you got here.’”

“I worry. Will I be able to take my baby granddaughter to see ‘Beauty and the Beast’? When I ask my son Chaim that question, he says, ‘Mom, I’m not sure, I need to think about it.’ To think that I won’t have those precious moments with my grandkids makes me sad and cry,” LeeAnn says.

“These are people who someone they love and care about has taken the plunge and it’s shocking and hurts like hell,” Woolf says.

So both sets of parents interviewed here continue to do the best they can. A class here, a gesture there, a P.O.R.K. meeting, and the knowledge they have Woolf on speed dial.

‘Try and understand what this lifestyle means to your children from their perspective and why they feels such a deep sense of commitment to it’

Jedel encourages parents to maintain open lines of communication, “because if the child feels that the parent is rejecting their lifestyle, that could certainly sever the relationship,” she says. “Try and understand what this lifestyle means to your children from their perspective and why they feel such a deep sense of commitment to it.”

Cliff and LeeAnn seem to be doing just that. They attend weekly Bible study groups so they can be better informed. They are even considering instating a completely kosher kitchen in their home, and find comfort in the fact that their son Chaim never forgets where he came from.

“My parents provided me with support, happiness, love, encouragement to learn more, to grow, to push me to do Jewish things, have Jewish friends growing up,” he says. “It doesn’t mean we didn’t always agree on things, but I was always supported and loved, and respected by my parents, and I only got to where I am today, because of their support.”

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