Nearly eighteen months ago at an Agudath Israel National Convention, I was chairing a Project YES session where the featured speaker was my dear friend, Rabbi Noach Orlowek. Fresh off a plane from Eretz Yisrael, Reb Noach spoke brilliantly about chinuch, teens, and parenting matters. After his presentation, there was an extended Q&A segment with questions posed to any of the five people on the panel. At one point, Rabbi Orlowek and I were sharing the podium responding to a series of hard-hitting questions when someone got up and asked us to share with the assembled delegates our thoughts regarding how parents ought to respond to the challenges posed by the Internet. At that time, there was a great deal of discussion in the broader Orthodox community about this subject and an immediate hush passed through the audience as three hundred sets of eyes focused on Rabbi Orlowek and myself. I boldly stepped forward, firmly grabbed the microphone … and passed it to Rabbi Orlowek.
Well, Reb Noach and I are very close friends and we often kid each other about the fact that we seem to always finish each other’s sentences. So, I was very curious to hear how he would reply to that loaded question.
Rabbi Orlowek was quiet for a few very long moments. He then responded by posing a question. What if a diabetic is invited to a fancy wedding where he will be surrounded with food that is terribly harmful to him? Reb Noach responded by noting that the only chance this person has to resist the temptations he will inevitably be faced with at the wedding was to see to it that he had a full and satisfying meal before he left home. Rabbi Orlowek said that we must accept the fact that each generation throughout our glorious history had its challenges and that the explosion of technology-driven temptations that our children — and we — face nowadays may very well be ours. More importantly, he pointed out that we must make peace with the fact that as much as we would like to, we simply cannot shelter our children beyond a certain age. Therefore, the only solution that we have as parents and educators is to see to it that our kids are “full” when they reach their teen years. And “full,” he explained, means having an appreciation and genuine love for Torah and mitzvos; nurturing, safe, and loving home environments; schools that are welcoming and inspire children; and rebbeim/teachers who develop deep and meaningful relationships with their students, in addition to teaching the timeless lessons of our Torah.
Rabbi Orlowek emphatically stated that parents must be very vigilant in protecting their vulnerable children from the immoral content of the Internet and other media venues. However, this defensive strategy only represents one component in our quest to raise observant, Torah-committed children in these challenging times. Moreover, the shelf life of this defensive shield is limited to the time when our children are young and primarily in the confines of our homes. Once they leave the shelter of our Torah homes, they will be extremely vulnerable to the temptations they will face if we have not successfully ‘filled’ them with a deep love of Torah and mitzvos.
I think that in the broadest sense, we ought to be thinking about fundamentally altering our mindset as it relates to the chinuch of our precious children. Those involved in kiruv (outreach) work fully understand that they need to spend a great deal of energy and time marketing their great ‘product’ or their prospective ‘customer’ may not be engaged enough to ‘buy in.’ With our own children, it often seems like we are mistakenly taking for granted they are lifelong customers — and therefore not spending enough time in the critical arena of ‘customer relations.’ We invest an enormous amount of time filling their minds and not nearly enough energy inspiring them and engaging their hearts.
When you think of it, what we really need are kiruv schools for our own children and a kiruv mindset in our own homes. As a wise mother once told me regarding the school experience of her children, “Rabbi Horowitz, my children need salesmen, not policemen.” In today’s climate, however, with so much pressure on schools to “cover ground” and with the exponentially increasing acceptance standards in our high schools, it is nearly impossible for our dedicated educators to find the time to market our Torah effectively to our children.
Rabbi Orlowek was expressing a profound thought in his analogy with the diabetic individual. For when our beloved children enter our schools in their formative years, we are in complete control of their environment. We monitor the spiritual intake of their neshamos — as we well ought to. However, we must always keep in mind that these dynamics will rapidly change, as our children grow older. Like it or not, ready or not, they will be thrust into a very challenging environment where their palates will be tempted by all sorts of appealing — and harmful — products. All we can do is hope and pray that we prepared them well with filling and nourishing meals when that time comes.