Deciphering Off The Derech: Lessons from the Kiruv Paradigm

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By Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin MA

Director: Jewish Professionals Institute
Author: The Second World War and Jewish Education in America Email:

The modern-day post World War Two (1939 – 1945) Off The Derech (“OTD”) crisis is not like the phenomenon that took place in the decades and centuries before the Holocaust. For example in the “olden days” there was no Kiruv movement and there was no such thing as secular Jews becoming Frum that we see and hear about so much in our times. The “olden days” was a time when the Enlightenment and Haskala and various ideologies like Socialism and Communism attracted the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe and Liberalism attracted the Jews of Western Europe.

Today people do not drop out of Judaism because they are attracted to an ideology or that they suddenly want to become more liberal. It is more basic than that, they just do not feel attached enough to the Orthodoxy and Frumkeit of their parents’ homes and the Frum communities they live in. They have been “turned off” and are “put off” by what they perceive is a society that does not love them or care for them. The Off The Derech crowd therefore wants to drop everything and just “be like everyone else” in the surrounding society. True, they are chasing a mirage and fantasy world that does not really exist, but they have had enough and are “checking out” of the Yiddishkeit they have known not for any deep “intellectual” reasons.

Sometimes there are genuine cases where kids or spouses have been severely physically and immorally abused, but that is the minority of cases. Usually it is just a feeling of detachment and disillusionment with what they perceive is a tough system that does not care about them as individuals and they do not have a tight grasp on the correct Hashkofas of Torah true Judaism to stick it out.

Off The Derech can strike at any time and with any age group.

As an example, say a teenager from a Frum family starts to slip in Shemiras Shabbos and not being careful with Kashrus. What happens then when they are part of families and they have Frum parents and Frum siblings? What is the rest of the family to do with this teenage boy or girl that does not want to keep Shabbos anymore and is eating in non-Kosher places and may even come home with small tattoo? Not an easy situation and no one should know from such Nisyones (“tests”).

Unfortunately many times one hears of children who are evicted by their own families and thrown onto the streets. The family may get a “Pesak” (“ruling”) that their errant teen is in the category of “Rodef” (“pursuer”) and is a danger to the other children and the entire Frum family. In Israel there are hundreds if not thousands of such children, known as “Shababnikim” who are roaming the streets. Girls in particular are vulnerable to marrying local Israeli Arabs who take the girls to their villages and then maybe at some point we hear of a Jewish Kiruv organization trying to rescue such girls. In America there are also many such kids on the streets. A friend of mine who has dealt with these type of “runaway” kids has told me that the reality is that life is so harsh on the streets of America that within one year most of such kids will not be alive, R”L !

What can be learned from the world of Kiruv as opposed to the above scenarios? In Kiruv situations, for example, when secular non-religious Jewish teens attend NCSY Shabbatons or similar Kiruv events run by organizations such as Oorah and others like that, many times a child wishes to become Shommer Shabbos while the parents object vehemently to that. Yet very seldom does one hear that such children are thrown out by their families who may hate that their kid is becoming Orthodox yet they somehow come to terms with it even though it goes against everything that that secular Jewish family does or believes in.

In fact as any seasoned Kiruv worker knows these are serious Shaylos (“questions”) in Halacha yet basically the teen who is becoming a Baal or Baalas Teshuva is told that they should not fight the parents on every front and that if the parents force them to do things that are against the Halacha the child needs to find a way to do things with a “Shinui” (“difference”) such as in Hilchos Shabbos.

Yes it is complicated and it takes a lot of Chochma (“wisdom”) and Rachmonus (“mercy”) to Pasken (“rule”) in such situations but everything is done not to endanger the welfare of the life of a teenager who needs the basic protection and care of his or her family since such a kid would never survive on the streets of America if their parents tossed them out of their homes.

I know it is not easy to say or tell people what they should do with these kind of tests that no one should know about! But maybe, just maybe, the handling and fallout and victims from Off The Derech situations would decrease if more was learned from how the Kiruv world deals with people who are not on the same religious level as their families and how they should negotiate such unenviable situations in their lives.

May we hear good news only in this season of Teshuva, Tefilla, Tzedaka. Wishing everyone a Shana Tova and a Kesiva VeChasima Tova, Amen!

To be continued…

{ / Photo by Konrad Baranski}


  1. With due respect to your article, I do not believe that you are being factually and intellectually honest with your readers. In my experience, and I have a lot of it in this field, most off the derech children are the victims of an abuse or disenfranchisement of some nature. No one wakes up one morning with an intellectual argument as to why he should no longer adhere. Your suggestion that they are disenfranchised because they are not loved, is weak and frequently untrue. But I can certainly tell you, that if our Rabbis will lead by example and not by speech, and perhaps act as models in probity, then the rest of us can follow.

    • Teens go off ,whatever their alibis maybe,because they seem to ‘gain’ more than they ‘lose’ by going off

      e.g . Those feel their families are amongst the ‘winners’ in frum social caste system chase (whether deserved or undeserved)rarely go off these days

      those who come from the most
      loving families who they feel their families are are ‘losing’ in frum social caste system chaseare pulled to ‘go off’
      How much could you fully blame them?

      So neither of you are really
      factually correct

  2. I have family members that are professional kiruv workers, (whatever that means. Qulaifications?) and i watch as they raise millions to get children to go to Jewish day schools and keep shabbos. Great camps, great shabbatons. Mentors and gifts year round. They don’t pressure the kids or their families.
    The idea is to make yiddishkeit fun and enjoyable (also a questionable tactic)
    I am a FFB. I want to tell you a secret. My child would gain immeasurably from a shabbaton and a mentor. A trip and the like. Why are we neglecting those that we have to ensure they remain on the path? I am not anti kiruv, I just don’t understand the money allocation system and which gedolim are drving the decisions being made.

  3. Firstly.
    Of course it would be alot ,lot easier if we would have a form of ‘rumspringa’ for teenagers
    But our religion ,on the contrary,
    obviously holds the opposite.Hence Ben Sorer U’moreh

    Second,although typical of the genre,this is overly simplistic

    An older yerushalmi told me once that of all the so called reason most his friends went off in the early 50s the prime one was .. hefkerus & pritzus being flaunted/adverstised to them
    in the Tza’va ,Tel aviv and kibbutzim

  4. “if the parents force them to do things that are against the Halacha the child needs to find a way to do things with a “Shinui” (“difference”) such as in Hilchos Shabbos.”

    Which Rabbi paskened this?
    I know that Hilchos shabbos overrules kivud av. Im curious why you are saying such things.

  5. We are not dealing with a derech a soul can leave. The sanity suggests the off the derech teen is really either a terror to his real derech or just a different created soul that family and community terrorizes by harder esteem in light of a G-d who they do not understand. In this, I suggest a child may not have entered into terror but the constraints may be his own not feasible noticed difference from paradigms of demonstratable expected yiddishkeit.

    Still, the ones to terrorize family and community with a dangerous hurt allowance of a very strong averra such as a tattoo or orthe very unorthodox thought can be scary and should be people we try to work better to help or just avoid.

    If the child decides he likes heavy metal music, that may be the beginning of a creative mind. Not perhaps anything other than his true derech as his life might be different in the sanity of his inner mind.

    Still, lets hope we treat our children wise so that we do not force hate into the strength of their years deciding that an instantly off the derech child is the systemic terror of the whole family and community.

    Many can probably be saved, helped or seen growing in minhags yet to be discovered by the traditional feeling that gospel made reasoning has for the good of the jewish orthodox world.

    Determine their aggression and continued path to heresy or uncontrolled sin.

  6. Dear rabbi: what percent of OTD are using drugs? I think a lot. Once hooked they don’t care about frumkeit. Marijana is their God and there is no room for judism. Others just see hypotkricy and list for money.

  7. Kids go off the derech because they start failing in school. There is no bigger feeling of helplessness and hopelessness when one can’t keep up in class and sees all or most of his classmates doing just fine. This has nothing to do with abuse. It has nothing to do with being in a family that is too Yeshivish. It has nothing to do with being in a family that’s to Modern. It has to do with not passing their exams in class. It has to do with being taken out of class and put in the resource room. It has to do with being put in a special Yeshiva for dummies. It has to do with great experts in the school giving you a label. Hurray. I’m the dummy of my class. Im the dummy of my school. Even my sibilings are smarter than me. Everyone look at me. I’m a failure. I must be a bad kid. I feel like shit. I know. I was so there. How many times can i be called to the principles office for a conference with the experts who will give me and my parents their daily diagnosis? Yes, I’m lazy and I don’t try hard enough. I have a good head and it’s not being used. Keep repeating it. Enough already. How much can a kid take already. Why don’t you try to give some g-d damn encouragement for once? Say a good word. Give some hope. Give something positive to look foward to. If a kid feels like a failure, do you really think he would want to stay with the program? I mean, really? Let’s stop with all the PC crap. Sorry to be so brash but I’m telling you what is really going on out there. Every normal human responds to true genuine love and concern. Let’s try to say something positive and give a big smile to a troubled youth. Believe me they are dying for it.

    • WHile probably it
      is true that we are have a ‘colder’ system that we used to,
      There are HUNDREDS ,or more guys who have had the same story like yourself

      And where are they now?

      Some are Wonderful businessmen
      Some work in kashrus,etc.,etc.

    • Thanks for the feedback, the first comment that REALLY makes sense!!
      I don’t think that is The only factor, but it sure is a major part.
      If a kid feels accomplished in his community, there will be no reason for him to leave.
      Every kid has some talent in some area, we just need to bring it out and encourage him on it.
      Why aren’t there more Yeshivas stressing on that issue, instead of coming up with all insane extreme curriculum’s that will give them a “good” name.
      Rav Bender has done it – why aren’t there more?

      All I can say is I feel for you, and you should be matzliach in all!

  8. Only where there is no way out there is utter devotion; and devotion is the touchstone of every truth in the world

    Nachman bialik

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