April 24, 2024
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How to Love Your Children Unconditionally When They Choose a Different Path

The hopes and dreams of a parent for their newborn child begin with the first snuggle and probably start long before. But what happens if the baby grows into a person who takes a different path from the one envisioned by the parents? Two panel discussions at Fair Lawn’s Congregation Shomrei Torah will explore responses to that question.

“Unconditional Love: A Two-Part Series on Cherishing & Protecting Relationships When Family Members are on a Different Path” will take place on October 31 and December 6. Both are part of the program “Inspired by Ilona,” sponsored by the Bravman family to honor the memory of their daughter Ilona who inspired everyone she met by living her too-short life to the fullest, despite the challenges of Type 1 spinal muscular atrophy.

The October 31 event will be a panel discussion about “Supporting Loved Ones Who Identify as LGBTQ+.” The December 6 discussion will be about “Supporting Loved Ones Who Have Chosen an Alternate Direction in their Jewish Observance.” Nancy Bravman, a therapist in private practice, stresses that both discussions are meant to open a dialogue, not to “tackle every problem” or provide families with all the answers. “What Ilona taught us is that the key starting point is cherishing and acceptance of our children,” she said. “There are no guarantees or blueprints when you have a child, and it’s not a child’s responsibility to fulfill parents’ expectations or aspirations. Parents need to work on not projecting their needs or desires onto their children. You raise them within a framework, and they make choices. You embrace them and show them they are loved, whatever decisions they make. Hashem gave you these children; they don’t have to follow in your path.”

The panel discussion on October 31 will include Rabbi Menachem Penner, dean of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University; Rebbetzin Adeena Penner, who started the group Kesher Families; and their son Gedalia Penner-Robinson, an LGBTQ+ advocate within the frum Jewish world. In an email interview, Rebbetzin Penner said unconditional love means “accepting your children for who they are and expanding the boundaries of our comfort zone in order to maintain our relationships.” She stressed that acceptance and approval are two entirely different subjects. “You do not have to approve of or agree with everything your child does in order to love them unconditionally,” she said. “You just need to accept who they are and respect them despite the fact that they might see things differently than you do.”

On the www.kesherfamilies.org website, the mission statement is defined as helping families with an LGBTB+ member maintain relationships in a halachic framework. Torah-observant parents grapple with the fact that their child is choosing a path that can be at odds with halacha.

“We try to access halachic guidance for families when needed and we try to help them view their life situations through a Torah lens,” said Rebbetzin Penner. Support and guidance are at the heart of the organization. When I asked what families seek most when they contact Kesher Families, she said, “They want to know they are not alone. They want to discuss the theological issues that they are confronted with and they often want help navigating family relationships.”

The December 6 discussion on showing unconditional love to children who have chosen a different religious direction will include Rabbi Larry Rothwachs of Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Aaron; Dr. Shoshana Poupko, a mental health professional and rebbetzin of Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah; and Rabbi Menachem Bombach, a Vizhnitz Chssid who founded a network of schools in Israel that provide a solid religious education and secular studies so that Haredi students can obtain their bagrut certificate to continue on to higher education and employment.

Rabbi Bombach wrote a blog post in The Times of Israel in 2021 about his daughter Ruth, who chose to leave the Haredi community in which she was raised. Since then, he has been frequently asked to speak about how and why parents must show unconditional love to children who choose a different path.

“It is human nature to want to leave your values and identity to the next generation,” Rabbi Bombach said in a Zoom interview from Israel. “But don’t forget, your main role is to be a parent.” In the blog post, he relates an anecdote about shopping with Ruth in the mall; he is wearing a suit and she is wearing jeans. The stares from passers-by are obvious. He tells his daughter that even if he was embarrassed by the looks, “you are my daughter, and I love you, and you are more important to me than anything else in the world.”

Rabbi Bombach said there is an increasing number of teenagers in Israel’s Hasidic communities who have been rejected by their families for choosing to be secular, and are now on the street taking drugs, which is a terrible tragedy. The reasons for children opting out vary. Sometimes a traumatic event or instability at home cause children to stop believing. “When someone is suffering, there is no time to serve God,” he said. But too often, their parents are uncomfortable, ashamed or embarrassed. They blame themselves or other people. In the blog, he reminds readers that “our patriarch Abraham loved his son Ishmael and that Isaac loved Esau.” He notes many other examples from biblical through modern times in which leading religious authorities had a child who did not follow in their footsteps.

The key to maintaining relationships is respect and communication. “When my daughter comes home for Shabbat, she is careful not to destroy the harmony of Shabbat in our house,” Rabbi Bombach said. “When you respect your kids, usually your kids will respect you.” He also advises parents that the best way to educate children is to model good behavior but refrain from commenting on the troublesome issues. “There is a time to stay silent. Show love, listen, have empathy. The rest is not in your hands.” He emphasizes that a mistake in the way you speak can cause lasting damage that can’t be fixed.

Parents can be more concerned about appearances than the well-being of their child. They worry about what people will say, or how a child’s choices will affect shidduch options for the other children in the family. “People are bothered more about cultural issues than about facing God,” the rabbi said. He related a conversation he had with a good friend the day before she passed away from cancer. She said, “My kids are always a part of my thoughts, not my neighbors. People waste time on people not interested in them.”

Rabbi Bombach advises parents to get advice if they are having a difficult time navigating the relationship. “Ask for help or guidance if you need it. Don’t give your kid the feeling that ‘you’re not my kid’ or ‘you’re not a good person.’ Just give them a hug.”

The October 31 and December 6 programs will take place at Congregation Shomrei Torah, 19-10 Morlot Avenue, Fair Lawn and will also be livestreamed.

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