loss

How I Lost My Daughter to Religious Fundamentalism

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I learned that my daughter was engaged not from her, but from our family therapist. 

Later, I learned that several hundred people attended her engagement party, none of them our friends or family. We were also shocked to learn that the wedding was all planned, scheduled to take place in two weeks.

A few days after her engagement, Jenny allowed us to meet her fiancé, a 28-year-old rabbinical student with a neatly trimmed beard and large yarmulke. They looked nice together, smiling and laughing to each other, and, despite the heaviness inside, I felt happy for her.

“We would really like to be involved,” my husband Barney said to them, almost pleading.

Jenny looked away, silent. Her fiancé shook his head. We were welcome to attend the wedding, but we would not be celebrants, only grudgingly tolerated guests.

All I ever wanted was to have a beautiful, close-knit family. Over two decades, my husband and I raised our children with the values important to us: hard work, love of family, and respect for all people. To us, high school sweethearts still in love after 40 years, our children–Jenny and her older brother Mark–were not only sources of pride and joy, but vital to our existence.

“My friends think I’m crazy for saying this,” my daughter declared in a speech at school during ninth grade, “but my mother is also my best friend.”

At the time, I felt overwhelmed with joy, love, and gratitude. Throughout Jenny’s years in high school and college, our bond grew only stronger. She was my closest confidant after my husband, and I could not imagine anything coming between us.

All of this changed when my daughter discovered Judaism.

Not a Judaism we recognized, which taught to respect one’s parents, to value hard work, and to see the good in all people, but a deeply intolerant kind, one that demanded not only that Jenny follow an infinite number of rules, but also disassociate from all who were different. Even from her own parents.

It began during Jenny’s last year of undergraduate studies, when she told me she was selected to take a weekly class in Judaism.

“Selected?” I asked.

“They’re paying me 400 dollars,” she said.

We thought it was a great idea. As a family, we hadn’t been particularly religious, but we wanted our daughter to learn more about her heritage. For a while she’d been dating a non-Jewish boy, and we hoped this class would strengthen her commitment to raising a Jewish family.

When Jenny first started to study about Judaism, we took pride in the fact that she was pursuing her passions. When she told us she wanted to start keeping kosher, we bought her a new set of kitchenware, and set aside one of our kitchen cabinets for her use. We gave her one of the three ovens in our large kitchen, as well as a dishwasher.

After she told us she wanted to start observing Shabbat, we drove her each weekend to the homes of her new friends for “Shabbatons,” gatherings of Orthodox girls who spent the weekend studying Torah, singing songs, and telling stories. When Jenny brought her friends home to us, we turned our home Orthodox–we prepared cut toilet paper and unscrewed the bulb in the refrigerator, and stocked up on paper goods so that she and her friends would not have to use anything from our non-kosher kitchen.

We also got to know her rabbi, gave him money, and donated to him all of our old furniture. We even invited him to our home to hold weekly classes for us and a group of our friends; we wanted to learn about what had so inspired our daughter to take on a lifestyle that was alien to us.

I admit, I was not always pleased with my daughter’s path. Her schoolwork had begun to suffer, and her demeanor turned increasingly severe, as if weighed down by some invisible force, a terrifying God who would crush her for eternity if she did not wholly immerse herself in the practices she was being taught. She began to wear a kerchief over her head, long skirts, and thick, seamed stockings. She had been a talented singer and dancer, interested in music and theater, but she forgot her previous interests. I would come home and find her in her room, swaying over a prayerbook, enunciating streams of strange syllables. I had an uneasy feeling that her new path might come between us.

Still, Jenny was an adult, and I respected her need to find her own way. In return, I wanted her to remain close to us, and respect our way of life.

When my daughter first told me about her interest in Orthodoxy, my husband and I hadn’t been overly concerned. We knew some Orthodox people, and they appeared to live balanced lives. I could respect those who practiced their faith differently. As it turned out, what my daughter was studying was a different kind of Orthodoxy. Her rabbi followed a fundamentalist ultra-Orthodox sect that saw any other way of life as empty and godless. It also taught that in order to be a good Jewish woman, our daughter had to disconnect from her past and everything associated with it.

It began with little things. At first, Jenny would no longer eat any food I prepared, even when I took pains to use only kosher ingredients and her own pots and pans. She soon stopped attending our holiday meals and when I threw a party for my husband’s 55th birthday, she refused to take part, as she could no longer be in the company of people who did not observe Shabbat as she did.

When I objected, she accused me of standing in the way of her happiness.

“You live empty meaningless lives!” she said. But our lives were not empty or meaningless, they had been filled with joy and beauty and the love of our family.

After we invited the rabbi to teach classes in our home, we realized where all her ideas came from. This young rabbi, too, tried to convince us–men and women several decades his senior–of the meaninglessness of our own lives.

When challenged, he condescended, “You can’t understand this, because you don’t live a Torah life.”

I searched the internet and discovered that Jenny’s rabbi didn’t act alone but rather, he was part of a concerted, worldwide effort to recruit non-Orthodox Jews to ultra-Orthodoxy.

The enterprise, known as kiruv, or “bringing close,” stems from the fervent belief that a Jew can only live a true Jewish life by adopting ultra-Orthodoxy. Today, it is executed with corporate-style efficiency. Thousands of “kiruv professionals” work across the U.S. and other countries, on hundreds of college campuses, “reaching out” to non-Orthodox students. Training institutes, both in Israel and the U.S., provide resources to the many Orthodox men and women who choose kiruv work as their life’s passion.

Jenny was swept up in this effort, and I wondered if there was anything in our power to stop it.

“My rabbi wants me to go to Israel,” Jenny said one day. “He says it’s the only way to be serious.”

It was my worst fear. Other parents had told me of their sons and daughters who went off to study at yeshivas in Israel, and their families were never the same afterward.

Furthermore, Jenny was still in school, attending a master’s program in psychology, which Barney and I had worked hard to get her into and we’d spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on tuition fees to avoid her the anxiety of having to repay student loans. Couldn’t she finish school first, and go to Israel later?

“My rabbi says I need to get away from you,” she said. “‘Your parents are torturing you,’ he says.”

What kind of people teach that in order to have a meaningful life, you must shun those who love you most? I wondered.

“You can’t stop me,” Jenny said a few weeks later. She didn’t need our money or our approval. Her rabbis would pay for her trip. They helped her file for a new passport and early one morning, a rabbi showed up in a car and sped off with her to the airport.

Once in Israel, our conversations grew stranger and shorter. There were months when I could not get in touch with her. Messages and emails went unanswered.

When Jenny finally returned home, nine months later, she was nearly unrecognizable. Gone was every glimmer of cheer from her personality, every sign of the affection she had once had for us. Still, she continued to live in our home. We bought her a car and gave her a credit card for her daily needs. Days would pass and I wouldn’t see her. She’d sneak in and out, eat her kosher food alone in her room.

During the times we interacted, she screamed at the slightest infraction against her–our home devolved into a veritable war zone. I knew that she, too, was in pain over the loss of our relationship, but none of us knew how to repair it. When we tried speaking to her about her behavior, she would turn abusive, scream and insult us for being horrible people and horrible parents who stood in the way of her happiness. Once, during an argument with Barney, she slammed a door into him and broke two of his toes, without offering so much as an apology.

“I will never let you know my children!” she screamed at me once during a particularly heated exchange.

She knew how to make her words hurt most.

On the day of Jenny’s wedding, at a basement hall somewhere in Brooklyn, Barney and I, along with our son Mark and my mother–the only members of our family to attend–walked into a room filled with ultra-Orthodox strangers. No one seemed to know who we were. When I asked to see Jenny, I was told she was being prepared and could not be disturbed. “I’m her mother,” I said to the stranger who gave me the information, and was met with a blank expression.

When I was finally allowed to see her, her eyes appeared vacant, as if she couldn’t quite remember who I was. A short while later, we walked her down the aisle to the chuppah ceremony, surrounded by crowds of men in black hats and women in black and white outfits. I looked at the people around me, and felt anxious and small and out of place. My daughter no longer loved me back, and these people, dancing and laughing and smiling, were rejoicing! These were the people who had turned her, who had made her hate us. I tried to find it in my heart to forgive them, but I couldn’t, and couldn’t bear to be there any longer.

No one appeared to notice as I made my way outside. I collapsed into our car and burst into uncontrollable sobs. Twenty minutes later, Barney and Mark emerged, and we all drove home.

For 10 days following the wedding, I lay in bed, nearly comatose. It is hard to describe this kind of grief, something we ordinarily experience only with the death of a loved one. My daughter was still alive, except I had lost her all the same. Until her wedding, I had held onto hope that we might rebuild our relationship, but it was now clear to me it wasn’t going to happen.

After Jenny’s marriage, she rarely called, but when she did I would drop whatever I was doing, desperate for a sign of her old love. It never came. It was usually to go shopping to buy her things, which I did, grasping at anything to spend time with her. But our relationship remained cold and perfunctory, cordial at best.

When I learned she was pregnant, I could not help but grasp onto hope.

“Can I be there when the baby comes?” I asked her. “Please?”

“We’ll see,” she said.

When I finally got the call that she was in labor, I rushed to the hospital. Her husband stood in a corner, swaying and reciting verses from a prayer book. Jenny kept looking to him, as if pleading for him to comfort her, but he could not touch her, as Jewish law forbids a husband from physical contact with his wife during childbirth.

So it was I who held her hand, wiped the sweat from her brow, helped her with her breathing exercises. I was there to witness the birth of my first grandchild, a beautiful baby girl, and it was I who cut the umbilical cord.

I looked into my daughter’s eyes then, and I saw a glimmer of her old self. She appeared weak from the hours of labor but she was smiling, her eyes glistening as she held her daughter in her arms. And when she looked at me, I could see that, despite the distance between us, in that brief moment she finally realized: For some things in life, a girl will always need her mother.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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