For a reconnection to work, there has to have been a prior connection on some level
"So, what do you think?” asked the teacher. “Should I shoot her a text or not?”
As with many of the questions I field, this one was more complicated than a single text. The teacher works in a local school. Aside from the actual classes she teaches, she’s gained something of a reputation as a beloved mentor figure to many of the girls who pass through her 11th-grade classroom. Some even keep contact with her long after they graduate and move on to their adult lives.
I had been involved with this particular student professionally. After a number of ups and downs, she had finally called it quits and left her community of origin. Hence the question. This teacher wanted to know whether or not it made sense to reach out.
It’s a tough question, and I said so. “It’s hard to say,” I answered. “It really depends on what your relationship was like beforehand. If there’s even a hint of a religious agenda on your part, it could completely backfire.”
She considered. “I wouldn’t stick anything in to do with religion or the community, just a matter of saying hello. She doesn’t have to answer unless she’s ready to.”
I tapped my chin. I do that when I’m thinking.
“Even so, it really depends on what your relationship was like before,” I said. “Unless the two of you were actually close, it may well come off as having an agenda, even without anything overt. I really can’t say without knowing how the two of you got along before.”
“I’m going to send the text,” she said. “Could it really hurt?”
I shrugged. “Out of curiosity, what are you hoping to accomplish?” I asked. “What do you have in mind?”
“I want to give her an opportunity,” was the answer. “An opportunity to reconnect.”
I don’t know what happened in the end, whether or not they reconnected, how the conversation did or didn’t go. It got me thinking, though, about how we connect in the first place, especially with teens, and especially with those who have made life choices with which we disagree.
It’s a big question in the Orthodox Jewish community. “What do we do to reconnect with the people who have left? How can we ensure they keep at least some modicum of a tie to our way of life so that they can come back if they want to?” It’s a question for which there seems to be a lot of discussion and no easy answers.
Some answers, though, or at least hints to them, are relatively simple.
In order for a reconnection to work, there has to have been a prior connection on some level. What often happens is that well-meaning individuals will reach out to the person in question, hoping to bring him back into the fold. By and large, this will not work. The one who left had no prior relationship with the person reaching out, at least not on a personal level.
That initial connection I have with others is based on what they represent to me. If all Rabbi So-and-So represents to me is the community I’ve rejected (for any number of what I feel are very good reasons), and now he’s trying to pull me back in, I’m not going to feel valued, respected, or understood. I’m going to push away, just as I did when I originally left.
Let’s say, then, that there was a prior relationship. What was the nature of that relationship? In the situation we described above, the mentor had developed a relationship with a high school senior. They kept in touch sporadically over the next couple of years. They haven’t spoken in about seven years or so. The relationship the teacher wants to rekindle now is banking heavily on whatever positive feelings the student may have had back then.
People change a lot over the course of seven years. It’s a long time. Trying to reconnect with a relationship from what basically amounts to a lifetime ago has to be done carefully. The person this teacher was connected to back then may not exist anymore, or may be very deeply buried under whatever life experiences have piled up since last they spoke.
Whether it’s a new relationship or someone you’re trying to reconnect with, there are a few guidelines. Approach the person with non-judgment, curiosity, and compassion.
The importance of being non-judgmental is obvious. If I’m someone who’s left the community, I may have a knee-jerk reaction leading me to feel that those still inside look down on my decisions. They obviously disagree with me, and feel my life course is incorrect. They may feel my morals are lacking. It’s hard to connect with someone if I feel that’s how they look at me. If you’re going to approach someone, you need to not just act in a way that shows you’re not judging. You have to actually not judge. I’ll be able to tell if you’re just playing a role.
Curiosity is key in any relationship. If you’re approaching me and your agenda is anything besides reconnecting with me on a personal level, I’ll be turned off. I left your way of life already, and as I am, I’m not interested. Maybe I’m even at peace with myself now in a way I never was before.
When you approach me without genuine curiosity about me, my life, and how I’m doing, I’ll sense that you’re out to bring me back to somewhere I don’t want to go. As with non-judgment, this can’t be an act. It has to be real, honest curiosity. Your “How are you doing?” has to be just that, and can’t be loaded with vibes of wanting to save the person. You can’t connect with someone without honestly wanting to get to know them.
This brings us to compassion. You can be non-judgmental and curious. If your compassion is lacking, there will be no connection. I need to feel that you actually care about me, that you respect my experience, my choices, and my life path. There’s something that’s led me here. I’ve made the choices I’ve made for a reason. It’s not because I wanted to be a “bad person,” or because I wanted to be “rebellious.” I chose what I chose because it made sense to me, for whatever reason. The reasons are mine, and mine alone. You don’t need to be privy to them.
A while back, I was speaking with someone who had left Orthodoxy, and returned years later to a different part of the community. The conversation came around to his experience leaving, and how he had made his way back.
“You had your reasons for leaving,” I said. “What made you decide to come back? Did those reasons just disappear?”
“Some of them are still there, actually,” he answered. He described having had many problems about different aspects of the community, which ballooned into a crisis of faith. “There was a lot that really just bothered me,” he said, “and I didn’t feel I had anyone I could really talk these things through with. No one I trusted, anyway.”
This makes a lot of sense, and I told him so. Logically, I wouldn’t be interested in sticking around to work through a deeply personal crisis or issue with someone I though was going to be looking down at me for having a hard time.
“So what brought you to where you are now?”
“It was mainly acceptance,” he answered. “I’m in a place now, with people I trust, whom I can vent frustrations to. I can talk about the parts of my life and community that I’m not so happy about, and I’ll be heard. I won’t be looked at badly. I can live with things I’m not thrilled with, even if I don’t get answers. I just need people who will give me that kind of space, and then I’m good.”
This anecdote doesn’t represent every situation. One thing, though, is a constant. People stay where they’re understood, accepted, and valued. They stay where they feel cared for. If someone’s already left, that’s obviously not the way they felt. You’ll need to authentically give them that feeling in spades if they’re to even consider reconnecting in a meaningful way.
These guidelines are true in any relationship, not just outreach. The person may be a friend you disagree with. Maybe it’s your spouse, with whom you’ve hit a huge bump in the road. It could be your son or daughter. It might even be you. Regardless of who it is, the way to approach anyone important to you is non-judgmentally, with curiosity and compassion. By adopting this mindset, we can connect honestly with others, and invite them to honestly and safely connect with us.
Yeshaya Kraus, LCSW, is a therapist in private practice in Far Rockaway, New York. He specializes in relationships, both those we have with others and with ourselves.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 860.
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