Hollow Children

Hollow Children

BY RABBI SHMUEL GLUCK

Hollow children: Part 1 – The Email

Throughout the years I have become painfully aware of how difficult the challenges that parents, and organizations like Areivim, face with our teenagers. After all these years, it is rare that I encounter any incidents that shock me to the core. My most recent eye-opener is daunting because of how far our children have fallen, and the large number of children that this problem affects.

I recently spoke to the parents of a mainstream teenager who, when woken up by his parents on Shabbos morning, was found to have fallen asleep with his earphones on. Several teenagers have recently related to me how they were surprised that they didn’t feel any remorse when they first turned on a light on Shabbos. These teenagers are in our Bais Yaakovs and mainstream Yeshivas. Being M’chalel (desecrating) Shabbos is not an exclusive weakness found only in those who hang out on the street at 2:00 A.M. This Chilul is not the result of anger or rebellion but is rooted in apathy.

This surprised me because Shabbos is not an Aveiroh (sin) of passion. The frum community, throughout the generations, has always had a difficult time with theft and Aroyos (immorality) as they are Aveiros of passion. How can one have a strong desire to be M’chalel Shabbos? How can apathy so permeate our teenagers that Shabbos, the pillar of the Torah, should be ignored?

What makes this even more daunting is that there is no ready solution. The goal of this article is primarily to increase an awareness of the problem so that parents can prevent it.

What makes this even more daunting is that there is no ready solution. The goal of this article is primarily to increase an awareness of the problem so that parents can prevent it. Solving this complex problem can’t be properly addressed in this article.

When introducing the root of the problem I am reminded of a book I read. It described how the U.S. economy is not sustaining the average middle-class family. Instead, families will increasingly find themselves either wealthy or living in poverty. Our communities appear to be evolving in the same manner (very frum or not frum) at an alarming pace.  

Many parents pride themselves on being “balanced” and bringing up their families “in the middle”. These two terms, “balanced” and “in the middle”, have opposite meanings with dramatically opposite results. Balanced is defined as a total commitment to Torah values, with an understanding that we must incorporate the Mitzvos that are Bain Adom L’chaveiro (between man and man), Bain Adom L’mokom (between man and G-d), and have a Rebbi direct us when to be “frum” and when to be practical. If we don’t have this, then our Torah perspective is not balanced. Compromising leads to an unbalanced situation. What we are doing is giving away parts of the Torah.

“In the middle” is defined as a family that would like to have both worlds, a Torah lifestyle intertwined with a secular one. Today this middle-of-the-road approach is almost impossible to achieve.

The myth of two goals being of equal importance is shattered when these two primary goals are in conflict and a decision must be made between the two of them.

This is true because individuals must live their lives with a mission. They must have a primary goal and one or more secondary goals. Two primary goals cannot be sustained. A primary goal is your main purpose, in your life, career, or anything else. When there is a conflict between goals, it is the primary goal that overrides all other goals, interests, and desires. The myth of two goals being of equal importance is shattered when these two primary goals are in conflict and a decision must be made between the two of them.

Many parents would like to believe that they have found the right balance between the Torah lifestyle that they believe in, and the rest of their lives. In some families, this may be true. In most families, the Torah, given great importance during isolated times of the day (davening) and week (Shabbos meals) is understood by children as something whose importance is isolated. Since the Torah time is limited, it becomes impossible for them to appreciate the fact that it is the primary goal in your life and should also be the primary goal in theirs.

How much of your time is dedicated to secondary goals? That probably depends on how many secondary goals you have. The main difference between past generations and our generation is the number and types of secondary goals. With our lives being so complicated, with large families, large houses, multiple cars, and overly busy schedules, we cannot offer our secondary goals the amount of dedication that they require. Therefore, only our primary goal is given sufficient attention within our lives.

For teenagers, this problem is more severe. Teenagers enjoy music to the point of obsession. For many of them, music is therapeutic. Movies, friends, hanging out, boy/girl/friend relationships, are just a few of the things that teenagers give too much value to. Is there any room left for Torah values?

What results are individuals who have no room for Yiddishkeit. Those less rebellious teenagers continue to act properly in public and many keep their attitudes a secret from everyone. Privately, though, they have no Torah values. There is no guilt, no remorse, and little chance for Teshuva (repentance).

Where have we gone wrong? Is there anything that we can do to prevent this from happening or to stop it from continuing? There are six areas that I would like to suggest to parents in order to prevent Torah apathy from taking root within the home.

Parents must live a passionate life of Torah and not limit their efforts to preaching to their children. Teaching can convey knowledge. Only living the part can convey passion.

  1. Parents must live a passionate life of Torah and not limit their efforts to preaching to their children. Teaching can convey knowledge. Only living the part can convey passion.
  2. Simplify your life. The fewer things with which a person is involved, the greater is the percentage of time for the other things. Music is great, but do you need an expensive sound system? How much time, effort, and money are dedicated to clothing? The list goes on and on. Remember, you only have so much space and time with which to fill yourselves. At some point there is no room for a Torah lifestyle.
  3. Keep the emotional health of the family strong. Unhappy people are selfish people. Emotionally unhealthy people are constantly distracted by their personal issues. If you are distracted, it is much more difficult to internalize feelings for a Torah lifestyle. Once again you only have so much room within yourself.
  4. Parents must be consistent in their own performance of Mitzvos otherwise their children understandably conclude that, “My parents’ observance of Mitzvos depends on their mood and with whom they are. Clearly Mitzvos are not really important in their own right.” Remember that consistency is a sign of importance.
  5. Families are overwhelmed with so many difficult things that everything you do is done in a rushed manner. Parents that teach Mitzvos generally don’t include the whys or the backgrounds. Even when they are included, it is often done in a rushed, “You should know this,” or “I don’t have time,” attitude. Often teenagers are not given a chance to grow into the appropriate standard of Mitzvah performance, but are expected to be Gedolim before their Bar or Bas Mitzvah.
  6. Schools have their own challenges. The large classes and emphasis on grades, or on getting into the right H.S., Seminary, or Bais Hamedrash leave little time for any meaningful discussions. Instead (and certainly not all Rabbeim or teachers do this) students are “given a look” and brushed aside with a generic Medrash, or story of a Gadol and how he solved the dilemma that the student brought to class.   

This article does not mean to be critical of our educational system. I understand how the constraints of finances affect the class size. I understand that personal family issues, which create a huge diversity of needs within the classroom, make it difficult to speak to the hearts of all of the students. I truly believe that despite the fact that our system is not perfect, it is one of the best. When discussing our educational system we should offer some well-deserved credit together with all the criticism.

If you think that the above points have merit, make a commitment to improve. But please remember that once children are hollow these ideas will amount to little more than too little too late. Here are some additional thoughts to consider.

If you want them to appreciate your values they must also appreciate you. The more children respect their parents, the faster they’ll accept their parents values even without fully understanding them.

  • Be friends with your children and make sure that it’s done sincerely. If you want them to appreciate your values they must also appreciate you. The more children respect their parents, the faster they’ll accept their parents values even without fully understanding them.
  • When talking to your children about Mitzvos, avoid the desire to rush through instructions. Notice if there is a lack of understanding on your children’s part. When it emerges, do your best to offer an explanation. At least be empathetic to their confusion. Keep in mind that it’s important to avoid details when the issue is not a lack of knowledge but one of motivation. Insisting that they listen to more and more details of Halacha when there is little interest will only make them more intent on transgressing the Mitzvos.  
  • Don’t push Chumros (extreme performance) and don’t equate Minhagim with Mitzvos. Forcing high levels of Mitzvah performance upon children, and mixing Chumros with real Mitzvos as if they are all issues of capital punishment, turns them into a big blur. The less that children feel they can grasp in understanding Torah, the less they will try.
  • Don’t allow teenagers to think that one must always sacrifice to be a frum Yid. I speak to many parents who will, to make a point, insist the children learn with them even at the cost of playing with friends or other activities that the children want to do. These children see a Torah lifestyle as nothing but a hindrance to their wants and needs.

What scares me is that until now most teens in crisis have been angry. With anger, there is a strong emotional bond, and deep down, anger is a sign of caring. It highlights that, regardless of where they stand on an issue, the issue is important to them. Angry people can, with patience and diplomacy, be brought to our (the right) side.

It is much more difficult to deal with uncaring persons. There is no common ground to debate. Once these persons have decided that the Torah offers them nothing and although there is much subjectivity wrapped in their decision, the road to return is a very difficult one.

I would like to conclude with a point that I mention to young adults preparing for marriage. Today’s generation forces us to make decisions. There is no Torah middle class left. In bringing up your own family you will have to decide with whom you affiliate. Are you part of the Bnei Torah family or not? The balance that we strive for can only be found by offering a true meaningful religious upbringing. Any decision that is not an informed one is not a fair decision. It is only when your children reach their teenage years, having been exposed to a true Torah lifestyle, that they can truly decide how much of a commitment they will make for their entire lives.

Hollow children: Part 2 – Some More Thoughts

In the next few articles I will discuss those teenagers who are hollow; but their attitudes are more than the result of a lack of commitment. They are the result of anger, confusion and disillusionment, with their parents, a past Rebbi/Morah, or some other personal experience. A girl sent us the following email.

    “no prblm!!!!!!!! here goes, Y DO WE HAVE 2 KEEP SHABBOS??? is there a reason that will make me wanna keep it?????”

I never met this girl but have had several e-mail correspondences with her. She was angry and frustrated. Discussing Shabbos would not have done justice to the issue or to her. I sent back the following lengthy e-mail.

“This question must be divided into two parts. The first is a Halachic issue. Is there a compelling reason that a person should keep Shabbos? The second question is one that can only be asked once a person has accepted that s/he must keep Shabbos. The question is: Is there anything about Shabbos that will motivate a person to keep it? Shabbos does cause hardships and inconveniences. Is there anything about Shabbos that a person who is presently not “Frum” will appreciate and can actually make them look forward to having a Shabbos?

Why should one keep Shabbos?

This is a good question but one that can’t be properly answered without having to go one or two steps backward. A person keeps Shabbos because s/he believes in the Torah, and the Torah says that one has to keep Shabbos. Therefore, the first question is: do you believe in Torah SheB’ichsav, (the written law)? The second question is: do you believe in Torah SheB’al Peh (the oral law)?

If you don’t believe that we are required to follow the Torah, or if you are simply unsure of whether one should be required to follow the Torah, then that must be the focus of our discussion. Shabbos will be an outgrowth of this discussion.

Sometimes I’m told “I’m not ready to research this. It’s simply too heavy a subject for me.” If so, then you must be honest with yourself. You must say “I’m not ready to make a commitment to understanding Yiddishkeit. I realize that this will hold me back, to some degree, from finding myself, but I’m still not ready.” If that’s your feeling, then you should move on with your life and revisit this email in a week, a month, or whenever you think that you’re ready.

The reason that I say this is because I’m a great believer in not undertaking anything that one is not ready to undertake. When people undertake things without solid commitments, they end up failing. This alone is not that bad. However, what it causes is a resistance to trying again later. It brings the feeling of “I tried it already and it didn’t work, so why try again?” The reality is that they never tried it wholeheartedly. Had they tried it again once they were ready, they might have succeeded.

If you don’t believe in the Torah, but are ready to discuss it, then the question is whether you believe that the world was created, or that it formed itself through evolution. If you do believe in creation, then the only thing to discuss with you is “why I believe in a Jewish G-d versus something else”.

What I ask of you, though, is to be intellectually honest. If you accept something then admit it, to yourself and to others. If you don’t accept something, be honest about it and let’s first talk about whatever it is you don’t accept.

If you are unsure about creation then we can talk about the theory of evolution. What I ask of you, though, is to be intellectually honest. If you accept something then admit it, to yourself and to others. If you don’t accept something, be honest about it and let’s first talk about whatever it is you don’t accept.

If your answer is yes, and you do seriously believe in the Torah, then why you have to keep Shabbos is simple; you believe. My job, then, is to explain the second question: is there anything about Shabbos that will motivate you to keep it?

“I suspect that you believe in everything, even Shabbos. If you were pressured into being objective, you could tell me, clearly, why each and every one of us should keep Shabbos. We do so to celebrate the fact that Hashem created the world in six days and rested on Shabbos and that Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim.

If I’m correct about that, then your question is not an intellectual one but an emotional one. I don’t think that I have to go through a lengthy explanation of Mesorah (tradition) and Emunah (belief in our Rabbis). The problem is that your experiences with Yiddishkeit have been so negative that it’s hard for you to believe that Yiddishkeit is something positive. It’s probably something like doing a favor for someone who’s just stabbed you in the back. Any person would ask “Why should I do it?”

Since you’re a good person and could not bear to say to yourself, let alone to someone else, that the Torah is no good, you have taken another approach; that of apathy and indifference. By being indifferent you avoid a blatant show of your anger at Hashem, and, here’s the best part, you also don’t have to confirm Hashem. Confirming Hashem would, in your mind, require you to confirm your parent’s attitudes and actions.

The problem that you are now facing is that by being indifferent you are making a statement that Shabbos, and the Torah, are not a factor in your life. This has led to a mixture of guilt, confusion, and a life that is aimless.

The problem that you are now facing is that by being indifferent you are making a statement that Shabbos, and the Torah, are not a factor in your life. This has led to a mixture of guilt, confusion, and a life that is aimless.

We probably have to combine this issue with another problem. Since your parents are overbearing, you have no control over your life. Not having control causes a person to not care and therefore they become indifferent to everyone and everything. (We can talk about this later.)

If I’m correct in my assumptions then there are a few things that I would like you to consider:

Is Yiddishkeit the sum total of its followers?

We often make the mistake of defining Yiddishkeit by its followers. This isn’t fair. The Torah is always fair, even when those that claim to be its followers are not. However, it’s disillusioning and certainly very depressing the first time we have to confront this reality. But it’s still true.

Many times non-religious Jews have stopped me and said “The Jewish religion is fake because I just saw a Chassidic person in a bad place on 42nd St.” I then have to explain to the person that s/he are wrong and unfair. This person on 42nd St. is not bad because he follows the Jewish religion. These people are bad despite their claiming to follow the Jewish religion. In many cases it’s probably more accurate to say that they are not following the Jewish religion but their own religion. They’re only acting under the guise of the flag of Torah.

What do I mean by this? Many people are unable to break away from a need to feel good about themselves. They suffer from a terrible lack of self-esteem. Everything they do must make them feel good, feel important and feel like they are saving the world. To act like everyone else makes them a follower, not a leader, and that makes them feel worthless.

Therefore, they do things to save the world, even at the cost of losing personal and family finances, gains, and well-being. The more extreme their actions are the better it makes them feel. The family and everyone with whom they are in close contact suffers from them.

Due to their need to be accepted and respected by others, they have created a personal lifetime jail sentence for themselves.

My attitude towards these people is two-fold. 1) Although I’m not angry at them, it is very disappointing to see the damage that they are causing. I pity them. Due to their need to be accepted and respected by others, they have created a personal lifetime jail sentence for themselves.

2) This has nothing to do with religion. It has to do with their need to be respected. Because of their upbringing, they have chosen religion as their vehicle to express themselves. Torah and Yiddishkeit is as much a victim of their lack of self-esteem as is their family.

Here are some questions for you: What are your real thoughts and from where do they come? Do you think that much of your bias against, or indifference to, Yiddishkeit, comes from your parents? If so, are my comments relevant? Is it possible for you to separate Yiddishkeit and its followers?

Friends and peer pressure. Where do you belong?

In the same way that I’m asking you to separate your parents from what they represent, I’m also asking you to do the same with your friends. Teenagers survive because of their friends. It’s their friends that offer a lifeline to their self-image and support them whenever they’re down. Therefore, teenagers equate their friends with living life correctly.

It’s natural to believe in the people around us with an “all or nothing” approach. We believe that our friends, who are always there for us, must be living life the right way. Most probably, we say to ourselves, it is their lifestyle that makes them as nice and caring as they are.

There are many people, who, in some areas of life are above average, while in other areas they fail miserably.

However, this is not true. There are many people, who, in some areas of life are above average, while in other areas they fail miserably. There are many successful businessmen who fail as parents, husbands or wives. There are many wonderful fathers and mothers who can’t keep a job.

Your friends may be great and maybe you should stay friendly with them. However, you should not assume that their lifestyle is correct simply because they are great friends.”

Ethics and standards: Who needs them?

As I write this I’m thinking you may be wondering why you should have standards or values. Why should a 15-year-old (sorry, I don’t know how old you are so I just stuck that number in) have to worry about morals and right and wrong? So what if there’s good and evil? What does that have to do with teenagers looking to find themselves and to have fun? “Can’t it wait until I get older?”

Fun doesn’t put us in a good mood. Having fun is an enjoyable distraction from the realities of life. Fun is what we do when we need a break.

To answer that question we must first define happiness. There’s a difference between having fun and being happy. Fun is what we do in our free time. Fun doesn’t put us in a good mood. Having fun is an enjoyable distraction from the realities of life. Fun is what we do when we need a break.

If we try to have fun all the time and it’s not just a break from a meaningful life, then the fun becomes hollow. Fun is an escape. But if there’s nothing to escape from, then the fun is no fun at all. Although you may have a lot of other things to escape from, I mean to escape from work and accomplishing. Accomplishing things in one’s life and having fun in between these accomplishments is a great combination. Accomplishing without fun wears a person out. Fun without accomplishing makes a hollow, and therefore unhappy, person.

The answer as to why teenagers should worry about values at such a young age is because teenagers are people. All people need to accomplish things in their lives in order to feel good about themselves. These accomplishments must center on their core values. Although we may want to deny this, all people gain core values at a very early age. Core values are common in all humans: honesty, fairness, and respect for others are just a few. Other values are those that we are taught: Emunah, Bitachon, and other things that center on Yiddishkeit. The reality is that we can’t avoid our core values.

What they must confront is the fact that every human being wants to be good, to grow, and to live an accomplished life.

Most people’s lives are a blend of doing good things, having fun, and maybe even causing a little trouble. Teens that are within a “system” can keep a balance and delay confronting themselves about how they should take life seriously and look for personal growth. However, those teenagers that have spent a portion of their lives either avoiding these values altogether or deliberately going against them, will also, eventually, be forced to confront themselves. What they must confront is the fact that every human being wants to be good, to grow, and to live an accomplished life.

The response to my e-mail (which I sent to a number of girls) was mixed. Disappointingly, many teens wrote to me, “So what, I don’t care.” The depth of their apathy was unnerving.

There were two types of responses highlighted by the two e-mails below. The first girl described this phenomenon in the following manner:

“Hollow children: I most definitely agree with you that the reason is a lack of passion, (not seeing passion in parents). I don’t think there is too much thought process. A lot i think is just doing without thinking. If you don’t care much for something, you just don’t really worry too much about doing it properly. Not everyone has a rebellious fighting spirit in them, so if they don’t care for it, they just don’t do it, without anyone seeing. I think its like this: My parent’s live like this, and they would be really upset if I did something wrong, but I don’t particularly care for it, so I’ll do what I want when they can’t see. My indifference bothered me. For me, the main difference was: when I saw that I understood Yiddishkeit and believed it from myself and not just because it’s how I was raised that that is what my family did. The next step was I had a teacher who had Yiddishkeit, emunah, bitachon and simcha because of it, pouring out of her. You couldn’t sit in class and not get affected. When I saw the passion oozing from her, I caught it from her.

“…When I saw the passion oozing from her, I caught it from her.”

The second girl wrote: “I don’t care. I don’t feel guilty. It just doesn’t bother me.”

For those who admit feeling guilt (the first e-mail), working on these teens is a matter of attention, mentoring and patience. It is this second (e-mail) category that seems to defy logic. I have seen several commonalities in those that claim not to care. These commonalities below have strongly contributed to the attitudes of these Hollow Teens.

  1. Although they claim to not be angry with religion or anyone, they are angry individuals. Many believe that they have “gotten over it.” However, after speaking with them for only a few moments it’s obvious that I’m talking to very unhappy and angry individuals.
  2. They don’t feel that they belong. The family structure itself may be weak, and/or they have no real friends and sometimes they feel different from their family. They are often popular but feel detached from their friends. They claim that people “don’t know anything about what’s really happening to me.”
  3. They are also failing in other areas of life. Some are failing in school even though they are very bright. Some can’t hold a job. Others have substance abuse problems. Still others have more private issues such as eating disorders, etc. Something about their lives is not in order.

Until their life is put into order I suggest that they don’t dwell on religion. Religion is the scapegoat of their otherwise malcontent life. Therefore, to those that claim to not care about religion, I ask them to self reflect about whether they are content with the other aspects of their lives.

I suggest that the parents of such teens look at these three points as potential symptoms. Help the teens work on these three areas and they’ll be ready to consider their affiliation with Hashem. What’s even more important is to create a household when your children are still young in which Yiddishkeit is not only meaningful but also pleasurable.


Photo Credit: Lynn Greyling from publicdomainpictures.net

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