Underage drinking, drug abuse, eating disorders, low self esteem and other parental concerns and realities were confronted Sunday when more than 700 New York-area parents spanning Orthodoxy’s ideological gamut convened at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn for the Orthodox Union’s Positive Jewish Parenting Conference.Parents hungry for child-rearing advice with a hechsher attended psychologist- and social worker-led workshops such as “Is My Teen Just Being a Teen? Or Help! Do I Need Somebody?”
“Overcoming Sibling Rivalry” and “Signs and Symptoms: Identifying Different Drugs and Their Effects on the Individual.”Despite some difficult discussions, the focus of the conference, titled “How to Raise a Kosher Child,” remained upbeat as it explored modeling positive behavior, problem prevention and early intervention.
During a keynote lecture, OU Executive Vice President Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb said that parents wishing to pre-empt troublesome behavior must instill in their children senses of self, family, being part of a larger community and a personal connection to God. He also stressed that effective Orthodox parenting means leading by example.
“If you want children to daven on their own, you have to daven on your own … If you want them to be good to their mother, you have to be good to their mother,” he said.Some observers said the high turnout at the five-hour event was emblematic of the Orthodox community’s growing willingness to tackle problems it once refused to acknowledge or believed were irrelevant.
“At one time we dealt with a lot of denial,” said Rabbi Ellis Bloch of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York, a conference cosponsor. “Our community thought that because they had their children in religious institutions, they were insulated from the problems of the rest of society.”Frank Buchweitz, the special project director for the OU who developed the organization’s parenting series five years ago, agreed.“The influence of [secular] society has been so great, and today we are not immune,” he said. “We have to really face the facts. We have to be alert, and we can’t hide our heads.”
Still, Buchweitz inferred that most parents who attended the conference did so “not because they have problems, but because they want to learn.”Odelya Jacobs, a mother of three from Kew Garden Hills, Queens, said increased exposure to secular media has brought the problems to Orthodox doorsteps.
“Slowly the secular world has come into our home — through the Internet, through television — and the problems have escalated like never before,” she said at the conference.“More and more kids are going off the derech,” Jacobs said, using the Hebrew word used to mean “righteous path.
”Until recently, shame, embarrassment and worry that their children would not be considered a suitable match kept many parents from acknowledging or discussing troublesome behavior, said Ruchama Clapman, executive director of Mothers and Fathers Aligned Saving Kids, an Orthodox group serving at-risk children, teens and their families.“The worry was that if someone found out our kid is on drugs, nobody is going to want to marry into our family,” Clapman said.
MASK and FEGS, a Jewish social services organization, were conference cosponsors.In her workshop, “Tips for Preventing Eating Disorders in a Weight Conscious Society,” social worker Shayna Oppen said pressure to get married — in addition to family dysfunction and unrealistic media images –– can spawn eating disorders.“
In secular society there is a pressure to be thin,” Oppen said, “but the standards of measuring thinness and beauty are more lenient than that of the frum society.“Additionally, it is not unusual for a secular person with a larger body to be considered introducible to a potential dating or marriage partner. In our community, people who have larger than very thin bodies have significantly diminished chances of being introduced to potential partners. This has a huge effect on the pressure of women to be thin.”
Oppen urged parents to be aware of their own body image, their relationship to food and the messages they impart, directly and indirectly, to impressionable youngsters.Value systems and priorities specific to Orthodox Jews necessitated a parenting conference relevant to observant Jews, some parents said.“I go by the Torah,” Jacobs said. “I’m more likely to listen to someone who is [Torah observant] than just someone who has a Ph.D.”
Added Chana Rifkie Levovitz of Flatbush, a mother of an infant son, “In the secular world, parents might say, ‘We want our children to grow up to be a successful professional.’ Although that’s important, our main goal is to raise a mensch with midos, who is God fearing.”