When Jewish kids become more religious than their parents, a Toronto support group steps in

When Jewish kids become more religious than their parents, a Toronto support group steps in

(Image: yarmulke: LWYang/Flickr; torah: J. Nathan Matais/Flickr; hebrew text: Guido Heitkoetter/Flickr) (Image: yarmulke: LWYang/Flickr; torah: J. Nathan Matais/Flickr; hebrew text: Guido Heitkoetter/Flickr)

Back-to-school time means it’s almost the holiday season for Torontonians in Canada’s largest Jewish community.

Synagogues of all denominations advertise their Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur services on signs that line the Bathurst Street corridor from St. Clair Avenue West up to Richmond Hill. These two holidays are what are known, in Judaism, as the “High Holidays”—the most religiously important ones of the year.

Rosh Hashona is celebrated with two festive meals, where families gather to commemorate the Jewish New Year. Bonnie Rodak, from Thornhill, knows that she’ll be enjoying the first meal at her daughter’s home. But she knows with equal certainty that she won’t be asked back for night two. That’s because her daughter made a mid-life conversion to Orthodox Judaism, which demands a more rigid adherence to Jewish law than Rodak has ever practiced or been comfortable with. Her daughter can’t formally invite her back for night two because Rodak would need to drive in order get there, and driving—or asking someone to drive—on a Jewish holiday is totally off-limits for Orthodox Jews.

How do secular parents like Rodak learn to celebrate the holidays with their Orthodox children? They get a taste of PORK—a support group whose trayf-ish initials stand for Parents of Religious Kids.

Increasingly in Toronto—and also in other Jewish communities around the world—young men and women who were raised by secular Jewish parents are reclaiming the traditional laws and strictures of Orthodox Judaism. The movement, known as baal teshuva, dates back to the 1960s. Many of the young people who join the movement completely change their lifestyles. They begin observing the many strict weekly prohibitions associated with the Sabbath, and they begin following Jewish dietary laws, which forbid not only pork and shellfish, but also a wide variety of other foodstuffs and food combinations. Men don skullcaps, and women swap their jeans for long, modest skirts. For parents, it can start to seem as though the children they raised have become strangers—old-country stereotypes right out of dusty family photo albums.

Rodak started PORK almost three years ago with Linda Lerner, another secular Jewish woman with an Orthodox son. Their hope was to meet and bond with other parents struggling to understand their newly religious kids and their restrictive new eating habits and Orthodox dress.

“It was really important to me that there was some sort of support group,” Rodak said.

The two women held the first PORK meeting at Rodak’s home in Thornhill. And, according to Rodak, the group keeps getting bigger. “We were reaching out and we had about 15 people at our first meeting,” she said. “And it’s grown. We get about 25 to 30 people at our meetings and we do them around every six weeks.”

PORK members take turns hosting meetings. Most are held in living rooms in Thornhill, North York and Richmond Hill. Some parents commute from Guelph and Hamilton to attend. There are parents of university-age kids, and others that are already grandparents of six.

While they munch on kosher snacks, parents gather around on couches and armchairs to chat about the challenges they face while trying to maintain relationships with their offspring. At one meeting, a few members with newly religious kids sought advice because their children were uncomfortable eating in their non-Kosher kitchens. More experienced parents chimed in, offering solutions and strategies to manage this common dilemma.

“It’s not a bitch group,” says PORK member Mindy Berchansky, whose eldest daughter became religious at university. “It’s a group of people coming together trying to understand their children.”

While it’s easy for parents to sit around and complain about their childrens’ new and unfamiliar lifestyles, Rodak is diligent at clearing out naysayers from the group.

“When the meetings first started, we wanted to weed out all the disgruntled parents,” she says. “We want parents that are very positive, that love their children, that want to walk through this journey with their kids.”

With the High Holidays looming, Rodak knows that the next meeting will be a “biggie” for most parents, but PORK, she thinks, can help these families make it through unscathed.

A leader from the Orthodox community speaks at each meeting. Rabbi Bernie Moskoff, director of Ohr Somayach Toronto, a Jewish yeshiva and outreach organization, was a guest at one of the first sessions. He had no idea what he was getting himself into.

“I was kind of intimidated. Like, what’s PORK? It’s a very offensive word to a Jew,” he said. “It went exceptionally well. The entire evening was beautiful.”

“Let’s put our differences aside and build families that connect,” he added. “That’s really what it comes down to. It’s not rocket science; it’s really not that hard.”