'Parents feel their kids are being brainwashed'

While much has been made of the yotzim b'she'ela (becoming secular) trend among young adults, less attention has been paid to hozrim b'teshuva (newly religious). But for parents of the newly religious, their children's new way of life often seems daunting. "My son used to be just like any other 17-year-old, interested in soccer and girls and excited at the prospect of joining the army," explains Sara, a mother of three who declined to give her real name. "Last time I gave a newspaper interview my tires were slashed shortly afterwards. I'm convinced that those responsible were connected with the people influencing my son." Today Sara's son spends his time studying in the synagogue and no longer talks about the army, instead expressing a desire to enroll in a yeshiva after graduation. "I feel as if our family is breaking up," she says. "My son refuses to go anywhere with us on Saturdays. He talks about things that are foreign to us and has no interest in the life my husband and I aspire for him." Gila (not her real name), whose teenage son recently became Orthodox after friends encouraged him to attend a religious seminar, echoes these sentiments. "We spend all our time arguing with our son," she complains. "He has no interest in university or a career and has said he won't even eat in our house unless we make our kitchen kosher. We feel as if he's slipping away from us." Both women are resentful toward the groups involved in their sons' transformations. They believe Arachim and Shofar, two organizations that promote religion among secular Israelis, are responsible. "These organizations shouldn't target teenagers," Sara argues. "They're too young to know what they really want. When I talk to my son he sounds brainwashed, I hear the rabbis speaking through him." Sara's biggest grievance is against the Orthodox envoys who approached her son outside his school, triggering his interest in religion. "It seems wrong to me that young people be accosted on their way to school," she says, "particularly as we live in a completely secular area and these people take it upon themselves to come to our neighborhood and influence our kids." Neither family was contacted by the organizations. "No one got in touch with us to see how we were coping with our son's sudden rejection of our values," Gila asserts bitterly. "When my husband called them, they maintained that my son had seen the light and while they offered to set up a meeting with us to explain things in greater depth. We got the impression they were more interested in influencing us to become religious than actually taking our concerns seriously." Clinical psychologist Carmella Gottleib, who counsels parents attempting to come to terms with their children's new lifestyles, identifies Sara and Gila's reactions as common. "Parents often feel that their children are being brainwashed," she explains. "Especially if they are teenagers who are easily influenced. They express concerns that these organizations are taking advantage of their teens' insecurities and sometimes stormy relationships with them." Such concerns, according to Rabbi Daniel Nassi, a lecturer with the Jerusalem branch of Arachim, are unfounded. "Becoming religious is a decision that has to be made rationally," he says. "As such it cannot be a product of encouragement but the result of free choice. At Arachim we do not encourage people to become Orthodox, but rather provide a forum for them to ask religious questions to those who are knowledgeable in these areas." Nassi also maintains that Arachim representatives do not approach young people on the streets. "We're not missionaries," he asserts. "We only work with people who attend our seminars or classes, which they generally hear about by word of mouth or through advertisements." He concedes, however, that the organization does not have a policy against working with children under 18, arguing that each case is different and depends on the maturity of the person in question. His sentiments are echoed by Rabbi Nasan Maimon, a teacher at a Jerusalem-based center associated with the Bratslaver hassidim. "We wouldn't necessarily turn away those under the age of 18. We judge each situation individually, but we do exercise caution when dealing with a young person," he says. Maimon emphasizes that, like Arachim, they do not canvass on the streets. Rabbanit Ora Yitzchak, who runs Shofar with her husband Rabbi Amnon Yitzchak, stresses that this principle is one adhered to by her organization, but acknowledges that tapes and videos of her husband's speeches are sometimes purchased by members of the public and distributed at large. "Anyone can buy and give out these recordings," she says. "Many people see it as a mitzva to do so." Asked if she considers the dispensing of tapes an attempt to exert influence on potential candidates for religion, some of whom are likely to be teenagers, Rabbanit Yitzchak argues that people are not forced to accept the recordings. "In any case," she adds, "those who hand out the tapes are not directly affiliated with our organization and therefore we aren't responsible for what they do." All the organizations maintain that guidance is available for parents who request it but acknowledge that they themselves don't approach parents. They insist, however that preserving good relations between parents and children is of paramount importance to them. "We believe in harmony in the family and encourage it at all times," stresses Rabbi Nassi. "Honoring ones parents is one of the foundations on which the Torah is based and is not dependent on one's parents' religious status."