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When families disagree about Jewish practice


Some people choose to practise Judaism differently than their immediate families. The resulting religious contrasts can cause tension.

It took Marcel Jakubovic, a product of the Orthodox day school and Israeli yeshiva system, a long time to choose his personal happiness over his adherence to Jewish ritual practice.

“In early high school, I had this dissonance going on in myself, where it wasn’t what I wanted to do, but I was a good kid,” the 36-year-old Torontonian recalled.

“It was what my parents wanted me to do, it was what the schools taught me to do… but it never really jibed with me, and it ended up making me very unhappy. I needed to escape and I found avenues to do that. I turned to alcohol and drugs, and so it got to a point where it would be a happy, non-religious Marcel, or a religious, very unhappy Marcel.”

Today, there are innumerable groups of Jews who are finding new and different ways to connect to Judaism, and in some cases, are choosing to practice Judaism differently from the rest of their immediate family, which can cause tension.

For Jakubovic’s parents, his turning away from Orthodox Judaism was difficult for them to accept, and he suspects it probably still is.

“They grew up a certain way and had a vision of what their children would be, but they’ve come a long way.”

He said it was his parents’ discovery of his abuse of drugs and alcohol that allowed him to be open and honest about how he was feeling.

“If you see that your children are happy, you’re going to be happy. So they kind of had to see and believe that this is how our child is going to be happy and then they had to adjust how they think about things and think about me, and they did.”

Matt Reingold
Matt Reingold

He said he understands that Orthodoxy works for a lot of people, but for him, he was turned off by the “can’ts, don’ts, shouldn’ts, and there is a lot of force feeding, which just didn’t work for me.”

Conversely, Matt Reingold, 31, said he began to learn more about religious observance after a challenge from his teacher when he was a Grade 11 student at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto.

“We criticized [our teacher] and told him the Orthodox movement was backward, and his point was that, before you criticize something, you should know what it is. I realized that I was ignorant. I didn’t know what it was that I said I didn’t want to be,” said Reingold, who currently teaches Jewish history at his former high school.

He said that began a process of learning about Orthodoxy and ultimately becoming Orthodox.

“I would say my mom had two reactions to it, and they happened simultaneously. One reaction was, ‘I don’t really like this,’ but at the same time, it was, ‘You’re my son and if I want to continue to have a relationship with you, we need to find a way to make this work,’” he said, adding that his mother made her kitchen kosher for him.

“My mom saw where this was going and said, ‘One day you’re going to get married, and I want my home to be a place where you and your wife and kids will feel comfortable.’”

Reingold’s brother and sister-in-law, who aren’t kosher, also do what they can to accommodate him.

“They don’t want us to feel that we always have to be the ones who are cooking, preparing and buying food, so they’ll say, ‘We’re going grocery shopping and we’re coming over to cook dinner at your place,’ which is great.”

Alison Finkelstein
Alison Finkelstein

Alison Finkelstein, 38, said her introduction to Orthodox Judaism began in 1997 in the months after her mother, who died earlier this year after suffering from Alzheimer’s, walked out on her family.

“Her behaviour changes started and we didn’t know what was going on… My sister was 16 and I was 18… I was very distraught,” she recalled.

“For that following year, I spoke to my mom, but I was lost. My sister and I went to the Reform Hebrew school… I goofed off, and I didn’t learn anything. I started to read stuff and I became more interested so I started to go on websites like Aish Hatorah… my intention was to learn more about religion.”

Finkelstein said she tried to keep Shabbat at home, but it was difficult, because her father and sister were not observant and had no intention of going down that path.

“I would basically just eat a cold sandwich and spend the whole day in my room, so I wouldn’t violate Shabbat. It was hard.”

She said she eventually began spending Shabbat with other observant families.

“My sister was OK with it, but my dad was mad… I remember I wouldn’t eat anything he made, so he told me the chicken was kosher and I only found out a couple years ago that it wasn’t,” she said, laughing.

She said once her father understood that it wasn’t a phase, he became supportive.

“When I visit, he buys cups and plates and disposable stuff. He’ll take me to the kosher market to buy my stuff.”

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, spiritual leader of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation, said he is often called upon to help parents come to terms with children who choose to “go off the derech” or path of observance.

“I don’t like to even use that term because who is to say what the right derech is? There is a derech that works for me and a derech that works for you.”

Rabbi Korobkin said there is no doubt that family members who choose to observe Judaism differently can create tension, but only if you allow it to.

“At the end of the day, all parents and children are looking for is a relationship of acceptance and mutual respect, and sometimes religious differences can exacerbate those desires, but they really don’t have to.”

Rabbi Korobkin said there is a certain “elasticity” to Halachah, and it makes accommodations for certain circumstances.

“Let’s say there is rabbinic prohibition of eating food that was warmed up a certain way on Shabbat. For family harmony, they would tell a [ba’al tshuvah], ‘Listen, if it was already done and you didn’t participate in the warming of it, it’s permissible for you to partake in that food, and don’t make an issue of it,’” Rabbi Korobkin said.

“A person has to be well versed in the subtleties of the different standards of Halachah and has to be willing to be somewhat receptive to compromising on very high standards that they may have learned in the yeshiva becoming a ba’al tshuvah.”

He recently met with a father who came in with his adult daughter who had chosen to abandon her religious upbringing.

“She basically said, ‘These are my choices, and all I ask is that you respect them. You don’t have to agree with them, but I’m asking that every time we speak, every time we get together, please don’t judge me and criticize the way I live,’” he said.

“The truth is, she’s absolutely right. We as parents have to bring up our children to try to guide them in the direction we feel will be most enriching for them… but at the end of the day, we have to resign ourselves to the fact that it doesn’t stick 100 per cent of the time.”

Bonnie Rodak, founder of PORK, and her daughter who inspired the group

For parents who may need some help coming to terms with a child’s decision to become religious, there is PORK – Parents of Religious Kids – a support group founded by Bonnie Rodak and Linda Lerner.

Rodak said her daughter, a graduate of TanenbaumCHAT, began her transformation into an Orthodox Jew after she participated in a March of the Living tour.

“When she came back, she would want to spend Shabbat with families that were shomer Shabbat… From there, she went to McMaster University and got involved with the rabbi and his wife at the Orthodox synagogue [in Hamilton],” Rodak said.

“We never resisted it. We never said to her, ‘We’re not helping you out.’”

She said in the six years since the group formed, she has met with a number of parents, some of whom were angry and resistant to the change.

“They [were] afraid because all of a sudden they can’t come for dinner Friday night, or if you go to them, you have to stay the weekend, and you don’t want to do that, but you want to have dinner with your child.”

Rodak said when adult children get married, there are other lifestyle changes they may decide to make to which parents would have to adjust.

“If they decide they want to be vegan, or live a certain way, or they are more bohemian than you, everything is a compromise, and we are grandparents and we raised our kids a certain way and we see them raising their kids another way.”

Rodak said another challenge that emerged is that her five-year-old grandson is becoming aware of the differences.

“He said, ‘You know, Bubbie, you’re not supposed to drive on Shabbat, and I know that you do.’ He’s calling me out, and I tried to explain to him that we are Jewish and we love our Judaism, but we just do not express it the same way.”

Jakubovic said some Orthodox Jews have an all-or-nothing mentality when it comes to judging whether other Jews are kosher and/or shomer Shabbat.

“Nobody is less Jewish that anybody else… That is what I was taught – that you’re better than somebody if your pants are blacker and your shirts are whiter and wear a bigger kippah. I found what works for me and I’m slowly doing more and more,” he said, adding that he still partakes in the traditional aspects of the religion, and still goes to shul on the High Holidays.

“But I’ll drive there… I do observe the holidays. I like the holidays and I like the religion.”

Rodak said that although Orthodox Judaism doesn’t resonate with her, “I find the kids who become religious embrace every part of it. They love Shabbat. I can’t wrap my head around it as a person, but as a mom I see it makes [my daughter] very, very happy and they have a beautiful family life, so what can I say?”

Rodak said parents interested in learning more about PORK and when they meet can contact her at [email protected].

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