L ong before my wife and I arrived for a shabbaton at Rabbi Asher Brander’s LINK shul in Los Angeles’s Pico-Robertson neighborhood, we were in a state of high anticipation. Not so much from the shabbaton. I have spoken at LINK before and knew how enjoyable that would be. But rather from the fact that we would be spending Shabbos with two sons of a couple who have been among our closest friends for decades. Both sons spend a large part of the day learning in the LINK Kollel.

The two sons have been on a long journey, first from the religious observance with which they grew up in Israel, and now back again. When we heard the latter news a few months ago, we were dumbfounded.

But we should not have been. Stories of children who have drifted far away and subsequently returned to religious observance, though not necessarily to the same style of their parents’ home, I would guess are more the norm than the exception, if the home was a basically healthy one and the children know that there are loving parents waiting to receive them back. (That’s only a guess.)

But my wife and I were still entitled to be surprised. The older son left yeshivah for good more than a decade ago at the age of thirteen. The second one had never been interested in learning and spent his high school years, prior to leaving Israel, in various alternative frameworks.

But here they were at the Shabbos table, singing zemiros beautifully and with great zest. I would later learn that the younger son lost his job as a locksmith because every time his boss called during morning learning seder, he turned down the job rather than interrupt his learning and deprive his chavrusa. People in need of locksmiths, apparently, need them right away.

He told my wife that when he returns to Israel for Pesach, he plans to start looking for a full-time yeshivah. “I have a lot of catching up to do,” he told her simply.

That both these young men walked into a black-hat kollel — albeit one that has everything besides a bright, flashing “Welcome” neon sign — despite their unhappy experiences with the Israeli chareidi world, still strikes me as a bit miraculous.

Their mother shared with me on Motzaei Purim that one step on the journey was listening to YouTube videos of well-known Torah personalities who offered them more access to the “whys” of Torah observance than they had picked up from the educational system.

BUT I DO NOT MEAN to dwell on their particular journey. First, because I do not know all the details. Parents of a religiously struggling child bear a heavy burden, the weight of which they only become aware of if and when the child returns to his roots and they can breathe fully again. My wife and I had long ago stopped asking our friends about their sons so as not to add to their burden.

And second, because each such journey is unique. The path back for one struggling teenager is not that of another. Nevertheless, it is crucial that we not lose hope that there is a path for each searching Jewish child.

Sometimes the length of the journey may be a measure of the greatness of the soul. A few years ago, I cried as a Torah giant addressed his daughter under the chuppah — a daughter who had her own long journey through no fault of her own. He told her, “Hashem blessed you with a very great soul because He knew you would travel on a long journey and encounter much darkness. And you would need a great soul to prevail.”

Now that the ordeal appears to be over, I did ask the mother what she had learned from the experience. Again, it is impossible to map parental action to a child’s response in some mechanistic fashion. She mentioned that she had traveled from her home in Israel at least twice to Los Angeles to visit her sons, which they knew was a sacrifice for her on multiple levels. And on those visits, she thinks, they saw a side of her — more spontaneous, more carefree — than they were used to seeing growing up.

She stressed the importance of looking for the positive in your children, even when they are not living up to your dreams for them. It is impossible for a mother, she added, to completely reject her child and still feel good about herself.

And she also mentioned the need for self-forgiveness. There is no point dwelling on whether, as a fresh baal teshuvah, one foisted unrealistic expectations on one’s children in order to live vicariously through them. And it will not help now to keep wondering whether perhaps there were not occasions when one should have stood up more for one’s child vis-à-vis the educational system, even though one was taught that one must always back the authority of the rebbi and the school.

Though she did not say so, it strikes me that as long as one is blaming oneself for everything one’s children have or have not become, one is still to that degree alienated from them.

WHEN MY WIFE AND I WENT TO VISIT after Purim, to bring our friends an enthusiastic report fresh from Los Angeles, I noticed an unfamiliar young man in the kitchen, who looked completely at home, and referred to the mother as “Mom.” Upon inquiry, it turned out that he is a close friend of our friends’ third son, now serving in the army as a combat engineer. The friend is learning in yeshivah, and for various reasons cannot live at home. Subsequently, it developed that there is yet another young man, also a high school friend of their third son, who often sleeps at their house.

Who knows if providing a home for two other boys, in need of a safe environment, had not proven to be the best segulah for the return of our friends’ sons. The young man in the kitchen certainly thought so. He once told the mother, “All you have to do is take in a third young man to live here, and all your worries will be over.”

My own feeling, for whatever it is worth, is that the two bnei Torah we met in Los Angeles (for that is how Rabbi Eli Stern, Rabbi Brander’s long-time partner describes them) had to leave their home and Israel in order to return. Any steps in that direction while still at home would have always been tainted by the feeling that they were undertaken to please their parents or to relieve their pain.

Only by going away could they learn for themselves that even surfing in Waikiki is not enough to fulfill the Jewish soul forever. Only Torah and mitzvos can do that.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 702. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com