Parents of Religious Kids – P.O.R.K

Parents of Religious Kids – P.O.R.K




The Caller Kapensteins in L.A.
The Caller Kapensteins in L.A.

In the face of the PEW study and how many of our offspring are losing their Judaism, some of us have reared children (now adults) who are much more observant than any of us could ever have imagined.

[emember_protected custom_msg=”TO CONTINUE READING THIS STORY, PLEASE <a href=””>CLICK HERE</a>” ]

It took some adjusting, but we have arrived closer to them and also more learned.  Yea

rs ago, I scratched my head to figure out what both my older brother and I did in common as far as child rearing.

Was it an emphasis on basic Jewish values? Lighting the shabbas candles (I took them on trips for the hotel bathroom sink)? Or saying kaddish for a parent every day for 11 months? Or why did some siblings in the same home become observant and not others?

What spark (or need) did becoming a baal teshuva fill to be within so much structure (more rules),  a closeness with a Higher Power, the belonging to a tight knit group of like minded peers, the intellectual stimulation of studying with brilliant rabbis, the joy of  visiting and learning in Israel, and the ability to reach out to others with kindness, perhaps not seen when they lived a less religious lifestyle.

After all, before this took place, my son Judd was a Friday night waiter at a five star restaurant where he relished the octopus du jour, but passed on the ham…something within him held back just a little.

For me, his becoming observant was a positive change. In my early zealous days of this process, I exclaimed to Rabbi New, “My son Judd is now the Bael Shem Tov.”

Rabbi New, being the gentleman that he is, said, “I think you have some part of that wrong.”

Bael Shem Tov, Baal teshuva sounds similar, yes?

I use the term baal teshuva loosely to describe those who move from non-observant or somewhat observant lifestyles to highly observant ones. It literally means “master of return,” referring to those who transgress and repent their sins.

Sam Kessler, a doctoral student in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, who himself is more halachikly observant than his parents, notes: “Today the term baal teshuva is often used by those who grew up with little or no torah learning in the primary home and assume a stricter lifestyle. We trace the vernacular use of  baal teshuva to the 19th century, when Jewish communities in Europe began to negotiate the divide been Jews who were or were not observant. They had to find a language that included all Jews while recognizing varying boundaries of observance.”

There are times when I think, “Isn’t this a bit extreme?” Watching my son wash lettuce (searching for bugs), strawberries or broccoli can be an hour long event. He was also featured in the Israeli newspaper when his plane was delayed arriving in Tel Aviv too late to exit on Friday night.

They slept on mattresses for over 24 hours in the terminal where local religious groups brought in food and a make shift synagogue.

Another time he arrived in Tel Aviv too late to get a cab on Friday night, and walked four hours with a suitcase to the rabbi’s house, later to find out that it would have been more  acceptable to get in a cab (with a non-Jewish driver) and not carry the suitcase.

I am glad he told me this story after it happened.  I would have worried; but he seems to always come out of situations with a spiritual lift as if G-d was watching out for him.

There are other new rules. I have a kosher house with two sets of everything. Yet he says if a knife was not used to cut garlic or onions, it could be used for either dairy or meat.

I lose my wallet and cell phone twice a day and cannot be relied upon to remember which knife cut what.  And now some Ashkenazi Jews eat rice and beans on Passover. It’s a lot to keep up with going in both directions.

The bottom line results in a closeness and respect. In law school while he was tuned into Chabad (and I was also because of him), we talked every Thursday night for hours about that week’s parsha.

I began to understand that he had a gift and depth of knowledge; and I could look to him for clarification and spiritual connection. He encouraged whatever small steps I took.

We also accommodated: going to the Kosher Hyatt in Acapulco over winter break (hardly a sacrifice), eating in strictly kosher restaurants, sponsoring a swing year after college in Yeshiva in Efrat, Israel, and ultimately attending his wedding in Yad Benyamin.

When he came for Passover, I relied on Goodfriend’s Catering.  I bought many new utensils and dishes which Judd took to the Chattahoochee River to “tuvel” (make pure thru fresh running water.) We had a hamatz burning session on the deck which defied all County ordinances.

I was complimented (not embarrassed) when an acquaintance said, “I ran into your son at a Dolphins game in Miami; and he suggested we go outside and lay tefillin. Actually it was not something I would have normally done, but it was meaningful.”

Truth be told, some of us parents do share stories. Not derisively, but when asked, “How was your visit with your son?” There are some interesting answers:

“Well, he announced that he became Cholov Yisroel (a higher level of dairy kashruth) and I threw out all my milk and yogurt.”

“My daughter wouldn’t let the kids play in the front porch on Shabbas because it wasn’t connected properly to the house; but they could play on the back deck.”

“We had a rabbi come over and change out all the mezuzah scrolls.”

“In Israel, glatt kosher restaurants are not acceptable unless they further have a Mehadrin certification.” Many new concepts to us.

The Isaacs Light Up the Garage

Cheryl Isaacs made a decision to keep a kosher home once she had children. She felt that her oldest child David had a spiritual nature and relished the visits back to Wilmington, N.C., to visit his “granddaddy” who was a practicing Jew in her small  home town.

She recalls waking him up at 2 a.m. as a young boy to see an eclipse of the moon. They were both touched by the expanse of the heavens and she wanted him to remember the moment they shared, to fall back on.

David, now an interventional radiologist with five children of his own, went to a high school program in Israel and connected with Rabbi David Silverman here in Atlanta who mentored him.

Off to UGA, he helped run the Shabbat services at Hillel and met his wife Tobi, who became observant along with him.

Cheryl says, “David liked the structure and the warmth of Orthodox communities in Kansas City, Detroit and Cleveland where he did his medical training. So it became a progression for the couple.  (In Cleveland, they were in walking distance to six shuls.) My daughter-in-law went from hair to hat to a sheitel.”

Now that the family has resettled here, Cheryl loves celebrating the holidays with her expanded family. For Chanukah, she went to Costco for kosher latkes, sour cream and cookies to glow in the warmth of her garage set up with multiple sets of menorahs on tablecloths for each grandchild.

On Rosh Hashana, Cheryl sampled for the first time the symbolic foods called simanim: Gourds, pomegranates, and especially the eyes and head of the fish to signify that we should be “as the head,” always looking forward and making good decisions and not the tail. Cheryl is really a trouper as you can tell.

She revels in the fact that these grand children have wonderful manners and morals. “Good Middos” is what they are all about,” beams Cheryl. “This journey has definitely brought our family closer together in a positive way. We celebrate Hebrew and English birthdays which is a monthly event!”

Mother and Rabbi Michael Knopf Run Marathons Together 

Randy Farrow’s son Michael Knopf was raised at Ahavath Achim and attended the secular Woodward Academy as well as the Greenfield Hebrew Academy. He became more connected with USY as international VP where he signed a contract to be observant “to the best of his ability with in the framework of his home life;”

The family had a kosher home, and he did not even go to the mall as a teenager on Shabbas.

Fast forward to after he had attended Columbia in the dual Jewish Theological Seminary tract and as a practicing Conservative rabbi (degreed from the Zeigler School in LA), he is a dynamic community leader.

His mother Randy says, “I am very proud of the adult he has become. I rely on him for spiritual guidance and information with regards to customs and traditions.”

Yes, there has been learning and accommodations. Randy has learned about cooking for shabbas, that food has to be cooked totally before shabbas comes in and then “let to sit”; or that she cannot stir the cholent on Saturday and change the cooking “process.”

Randy keeps it all in perspective.  “What’s fanatical to some is not so to others.”

She was amused when one of his congregants approached her, “Did I always know that he would be such an amazing rabbi and speaker?” She was flattered, but thought to herself, “If you only knew the mischief he got into as a teenager……”

Kentucky Caller Heads Out West

My older brother Steve Caller and wife Susan enjoy seven grandchildren – five of whom are from their baal teshuva daughter in California.  He feels that the religious seeds were planted by attending kosher summer camp, trips to Israel, and growing up in a “waspish southern Kentucky town.”

“We appreciate the chesid (kindness) of our grandkids. They learn mitzvot early on and are noticeably very respectful. We enjoy the specialness of shabbos and holiday meals, and the dialogue about the weekly Torah portions. Even the 8-year-old has sharp observations delivered with enthusiasm and deep belief. Vacations are special times together, especially Orthodox Passover trips.  They live in a beautiful neighborhood in L.A. with likeminded friends who support each other in good and bad times. Generally, their strength of conviction has solidified our practices.

“There have been accommodations – dressing more modestly, spending extra time in the grocery checking ‘heckshers’ (kosher designations), not watching the Masters Golf Tournament on Shabbas for example. But it is the least we can do to honor their dedication.

“My parents and grandparents would be kvelling if they could see them today,” said Steve who set an example by serving as shule president and various national Jewish organizational positions.

My niece, Jill Caller Kapenstein, made a very wise point: “It is important that the family not view this as ‘distancing themselves from the child’; but as a better way to connect and find the good in each other.”

An Orthodox Rabbi from the Avondale Magnet School

Kerry and Linda Landis were both community leaders while serving as president of Ahavath Achim and Sisterhood president. Son Pierce (now Rabbi Pinchas Landis) got involved as a teen in AZA (eventually becoming Grand Aleph Gadol, international president)  since “USY was too religious.”

“I get a kick out of that,” says Kerry. Although he was in no way musical or theatrical, Pierce wanted to transfer to the Avondale Performing Arts Magnet school where the students weren’t so “into designer clothes.” 

Pierce became known as “super Jew” and then “ultra-Jew” and started a Holocaust program. He was respected by the gentile parents who brought special food at play rehearsals and was lauded as the “star student” at graduation, which ironically won him a free year of McDonald’s fast food, which he of course would not eat.

Pierce began learning with Rabbi Friedman here (alsKollel) who helped arrange his marriage.

Now he is an Orthodox rabbi in Ohio with four children in Day School. Kerry says, “I have always been proud of him. Judaism is here today (and will be in the future) because of the Observant.

“My attitude has changed from the outside looking in with preconceived notions about Orthodoxy. They live a beautiful life. People tell me what a difference he has made in their lives. I even met a farrier [someone who shoes horses] and steer wrestler who became religious because Pinchas coached him along.

“We do not keep a kosher home. When they come, we kasher the ovens and use plastic cutlery and paper plates. I put on a keepah when I drive up to the house in Ohio and take it off when I get in the car to return. We learn from each other.

“For a gift, we once sent them sterling silver slotted spoons. He was gracious; but said they cannot be used on Shabbas because the slot serves the purpose of separating, where a normal fork could be used since separation was not its primary purpose.

“I have always been supportive. I really only asked two things of him: that he try to always be consistent and non-judgmental. Yes, his observance has made me more tuned in,” mused Kerry. “And we find time for humor by referring to Pinchas as the man formerly known as ‘Pierce’.”

Two out of Three

Dr. Joe Marcus, who also reared his family at Ahavath Achim, has an observant son in Boston and an observant daughter in Seattle, and one adult child who is not traditional.

Joe felt his son was inspired by an Epstein history teacher, and then began walking to shule. He preferred that he not walk in the dark or rain, but let him “do what he wanted to do.”

Joe who has Orthodox roots growing up in Baltimore, visits and “plays by their rules.”

“Yes, it is a little inconvenient at times, so I tape up the refrigerator light on Shabbas. I am proud that he has gone past where we are.”

Joe says, “My daughter who is also Shomer Shabbas is Sephardic and has slightly different rules and customs. So we honor each child in their home environment. They in turn are tolerant that their choices are not ours.”

“Everyone is different with their ‘do’s and don’ts.’ Jewish holidays are a challenge, so the kids visit us on secular Thanksgiving when it is easier and doesn’t involve walking to shule,” says Joe.

“There are practical matters also. Like having many children and raising them in religious schools, involves ‘real money.’ ”

A Class for P.O.R.K.

Thank goodness for every need, there is a rabbi and a class. Rabbi Daniel Freitag, the Director of Outreach for the Atlanta Scholars Kollel, has an ongoing group for couples who face these practical challenges with their kids.

Freitag says, “We offer emotional support for families to learn how to deal with this positively. Kids have to maintain respect for their parents; and the parents have to not feel rejected if the child decides over night he won’t eat in their home.

“Often a person who is raised observantly understands the subtleties and is able to see more middle ground. A newly observant person can be more rigid- ‘black and white.’

I helped kasher a kitchen where the young man refused to allow an OU product which was properly marked; but had a negligible trace of fish. I complimented the parents who were making a tremendous effort to begin with; and perhaps the son was starting out a bit too extreme.”

Out of the Mouth of Babes

Recalling the Wordsworth poem, “The child is father to the man.” Deep down my son says he wishes that his parents would “see the light” and become more religious. Perhaps they do want to change us.

“After all,” he says, “you gave me this beautiful thing (Judaism); and I would like to give it back to you.”

Or as Kerry Landis’ then 7-year-old granddaughter said to her dad the rabbi, “Tate, Grandma and Poppy are not Observant, are they? How did you grow up?”

Answer from the rabbi, “When I was in high school, I found that the more I learned, the more beautiful it became.”

Ayala said, “Why didn’t you tell them?…. I guess you can’t tell your parents what to do.”









read more: