Reb Gedalia Miller became a game changer in the way frum parents relate to their children, no matter how far they’ve gone
Gedalia Miller has been in the insurance and financial services industry for nearly three decades, and with all due respect to his affiliated companies, MassMutual and Guardian Life, today he’s involved with another kind of life insurance policy: He’s helping turn the darkness and isolation faced by so many in this generation into light, by changing the way parents look at their struggling, at-risk children.
While Reb Gedalia, a Bobover chassid from Boro Park, is an award-winning salesman and recruiter, social engineer was never on his CV. But then he faced the challenge of his life when his own child began to struggle with religious observance — a challenge he calls the “nisayon of the dor.” Shocked and confused, he and his wife sought guidance, pushed through their pain, and realized they could bring light and hope into that dark, frightening, lonely, and baffling place where so many in our wider community are now finding themselves.
As he navigated his own journey, Reb Gedalia became an address for advice, guidance, connections, and support. Eventually he created Kesher Nafshi, a support organization for parents of at-risk children that brings them together several times a year for extended-weekend shabbatons that give families the tools not only to survive, but to heal and thrive during these incredibly challenging trials. And none too soon: After just four events, participation has swelled to over 2,000 parents — primarily from the chassidic and yeshivish kehillos — and that’s without advertising.
There’s a veritable underground network of these parents, and many are ashamed to reach out and ask for support or build connections with other parents going through similar ordeals. But that support can be a crucial game changer for a parent lost in an unfamiliar new world.
“So many kids today are coming back because the parents are changing the way they’re looking at their children, embracing them with love and understanding and realizing that this isn’t chas v’shalom some kind of punishment from Hashem, but the nisayon of the generation,” Miller explains. “The nisayon is the nisayon, but how we deal with it is in our hands. Our aim is to keep these kids at home and in a loving relationship, helping them to heal, and empowering them to make the right choices.”
Reb Gedalia stresses that he’s not a trained therapist. He’s a facilitator and resource person, directing parents to experts in the areas of addiction, rehab, and other professional services. Even so, he’s a sought-after baal eitzah in his own right, and a natural when it comes to human connection. He’s had training from the top guns in the business world of recruitment, marketing, coaching, motivating, negotiating, and sales, and has weathered the waves of volatile financial markets over the past 25 years.
Then, in 2015, when his own daughter made a lifestyle switch, he harnessed all those skills to keep his own family intact.
It wasn’t your typical 16-year-old teenager in crisis, though. His daughter Sara was already married with two little children when her marriage broke up and she opted out of frum life.
“It was such shocking new terrain for my wife and me,” Miller remembers. The pain is still there in his voice, but in hindsight he’s grateful for the Divine kindnesses along the way — like the fact that Sara’s husband granted her a get right away, and the immediate guidance they got when they were quite lost. Their first stop was the Krule Rebbe in Williamsburg, a very wise and compassionate leader known for his ability to understand and empathize with kids at risk or those who aren’t exactly toeing the line the way their parents want or expect of them.
“Among other things, the Rebbe encouraged us at the outset to stop wallowing in our own parental guilt, and instead to work on building back a relationship, even from a child who’s been so far away,” he says. Sara, it turns out, was really quite alone. She was living in Monsey, had a three-year-old and a baby, no money, and no job. “So we paid her utility bills and took the kids every Shabbos. Then she decided she wanted to move back to Boro Park. So we fixed up our basement, made her a comfortable kitchen, bought new furniture and a big-screen TV. She had free food and babysitting — and most important, we were told not to say a negative word about her situation, just give love and support. Eventually she pulled herself together, went to therapy, got a job, and was able to move out on her own. She hasn’t become frum again, but she knows we’re there for her.” (Today Sara is a successful events planner, and was actually the party planner at Kesher Nafshi’s last shabbaton.)
Because, he says, the root cause for most young people’s struggles isn’t rebellion — it’s that they’ve been hurt or have suffered trauma. And that’s why a loving, supportive environment, even if it seems counterintuitive, is the first step in helping them heal.
Sara got her get the day after the Millers married off a son, and she wanted to go shopping at the Kings Plaza mall to celebrate and maybe buy something for sheva brachos, although her dress code was now not up to Boro Park chassidish standards. Reb Gedalia and his wife took her shopping, but, she told her father, “I’m not comfortable buying these things in front of Mommy.”
“Don’t worry,” Reb Gedalia reassured her, “Mommy’s okay with it.” Then, he remembers, “she couldn’t decide between a few pair of shoes, so we told her she could buy them all. And then I noticed that she was looking at some cheap accessories, a $20 bracelet, a $39 pair of sunglasses, and when she left the store, I went back, bought them, and wrapped them up for her.
“You see, all these small things build a relationship with your child. What I learned was to be attuned to what your child wants, even if you don’t necessarily approve. When you make your child feel happy and loved, it gives them the opportunity to start getting healthy and make the right choices.”
While there are various halachic and hashkafic approaches to how far parents should go to fulfill the desires of their struggling children, Miller states emphatically that he’s not a rav and that “I don’t pasken sh’eilos, I don’t get involved in questions of buying treif, of chillul Shabbos, of taking your kid to get a tattoo. You need your own posek for that.”
Reb Gedalia says he’s grateful that he took the high road, that he was there for his daughter without judgment. “You don’t have to tell them what you want or what you think of their current lifestyle,” he says. “They know what you want, and they know what you think. But because we’re unconditionally loving them and supporting them instead of setting boundaries stemming from our own fear and comfort level, we can build off that.”
Reb Gedalia Miller used his own journey as a torch to light the way for other challenged families. “When you make your child feel happy and loved, they can start to heal and make the right choices”
No Bad Kids
In a society where parents’ self-image is traditionally very enmeshed and entangled in their children’s identities, it’s incredibly challenging to find a dispassionate, measured approach when a child steps out of line. “Say your brother, or your neighbor, has a kid-at-risk, you know exactly what to do,” Miller says. “If he wakes up at four on Shabbos afternoon and knocks on your door, you give him cholent and a cold beer and a hug. But when it’s your child, then it becomes about you, about the family, about egos and hurt and pain and neighbors and shidduchim and getting your kids into the mosdos. These are all things parents are scared of, and should be scared of, because society is still society, and the fear and panic of this child opting out of frumkeit can be paralyzing.”
Reb Gedalia says he’s not a parenting expert and he doesn’t give instructions for one specific approach. He leaves that to others. His mission is more general: to help parents understand that their child is suffering and that they can provide him with the environment that can help him along.
His rebbi, and Kesher Nafshi’s chief advisor, is Rabbi Shimon Russell, a talmid chacham and mental health professional who practiced in Lakewood for many years before moving to the Jerusalem suburb of Givat Ze’ev. Rabbi Russell, considered a primary authority on the phenomenon of kids who leave the derech, believes that the phenomenon stems largely from either abuse or some other deep trauma that has caused the child to feel tolerated at best, undesired at worst.
“I don’t see bad kids. I see good kids who have been hurt,” Rabbi Russell says. And helping them to heal their hurt and pain, without mussar, punishment, or criticism, will free them to make better choices.
After Rabbi Russell spent years working with kids at risk, his own daughter began to struggle. “Maybe there were signs,” he says, “but parents are often the last to see it coming.” After many stops on her journey, his daughter found herself in a small program in Eretz Yisrael. Rabbi Russell, who was still living in Lakewood, frequently traveled there to spend time with her. On one of those flights, he was sitting on the plane with two roshei yeshivah that he knew, and after arriving at Ben-Gurion, the two roshei yeshivah walked out of customs together with Rabbi Russell.
“As we came through arrivals,” he remembers, “I noticed a young woman wearing a skimpy red dress. I instinctively looked away. A moment later, I realized it was my own daughter.” Despite his mortification, he ran ahead of the roshei yeshivah to give her a big hug.
The next day, he met up with one of those rabbanim, who embraced him warmly — with tears in his eyes. “Maybe if I were as strong as you,” the rosh yeshivah said, “my son might come back.”
What, many parents ask, scratching their heads, happened to good old-fashioned chinuch, setting those boundaries that we’ve been told our children crave? Don’t kids still want mainstream discipline at a certain primal level? If you live in a frum neighborhood, can you tell your son (nicely of course) to please exchange his emblazoned T-shirt for a white button-down?
“Okay,” says Reb Gedalia, “try it and see if it works. You tell him, ‘Look, we live in a judgmental neighborhood, if you don’t mind, this is how we dress.’ If he complies, that’s called chinuch. But if you see it’s isn’t working, if the minute he leaves the house he takes it off and puts on some vulgar, offensive T-shirt, what did you accomplish? Tomorrow, go out and buy him a T-shirt. Traditional boundaries aren’t going to work with this child. Because in our crowd, we don’t do regular chinuch. I’m working with parents who’ve already tried it all — they’ve put down boundaries, made contracts, tried all kinds of bribes — and it didn’t work.
“I speak to parents, and they start telling me about lifnei iver, etcetera, etcetera, and I ask them, what’s your end goal? They say, ‘I want my kid to stay frum, to be at our Shabbos table, not to ruin the rest of the family.’ Sometimes it’s true — they really want to save the kid from himself — but often, it’s more about the parent than the child.
“I have a very good friend whose son, let’s call him Chaim, is still in yeshivah but is pushing the edge with the way he dresses. My son, who’s a year ahead of him in yeshivah, tells me, ‘Tatty, you have to talk to your friend — it’s an off-Shabbos and Chaim doesn’t have any place to go because his father doesn’t let him come to the bungalow colony because of how he dresses.’
“So I call up my friend, we talk, I tell him, ‘You need to take your son to the bungalow colony.’
“‘No way, not happening,’ my friend tells me. ‘I was so ashamed when he came to shul with me Shavuos, everyone saw that I have such a boy. No way can I let him come to the bungalow colony. But don’t worry, I worked it out. I spent $150 buying great food for him for Shabbos, meat, nosh, kugels — he’ll be fine staying home in Brooklyn.’
“I told him, ‘Your son is a leibidige yasom — a living orphan.’
“So on the spot he calls his wife, tells her, ‘I’m here with Mr. Miller, he’s right, we shouldn’t leave Chaim alone in Brooklyn for Shabbos. We need to come home for Shabbos and be here with him.’ I told him, ‘That is not what I said.’ But did he listen? Well, fast forward two weeks later, on Friday night there was a whole party going on in the house — girls, smoking — and not a parent to be seen.”
The Hardest Part
Reb Gedalia says you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realize that if you can’t smell, you can’t taste, and you have fever, you know it’s Covid. So if you have a bochur who comes from a loving, stable home, gets hundreds on his tests, and is considered a metzuyan, and then just “goes off,” you know that some trauma occurred along the way.
“When a child is broken, when he can’t sleep at night, when he’s filled with anxiety and depression, when she tells you she doesn’t want to live anymore, do you think that at that point, if you tell them their button is too low or their skirt is too short or their jeans are atrocious, that they’d better shape up or they can’t come back home, that’s going to change the game?” he asks.
This year alone, he says, Klal Yisrael lost 150 children to drug overdoses. “It’s the biggest problem that nobody is talking about.”
And then comes the guilt piece, the most complex and painful part of the picture: The parent realizes the child was abused or traumatized, and he wasn’t there to protect him. A parent sends a son to shul, and he falls into the clutches of a predator. A mother sends her daughter to school, and she’s bullied and traumatized, maybe even attacked. We send our children out into the world, daven for them, and yes, they can experience deep trauma and suffering. So when that child experiences this pain — say he was abused at 10, and at 15 all that pain comes out, and he stops keeping Shabbos, changes his clothing, and lies in bed all day — sometimes the hardest, most overwhelming part for parents is to face that their child has had trauma. It’s so painful and horrifying that many parents’ initial reaction is to close their eyes and say, “Can you please just get out of bed, put on a white shirt, and be a mensch?”— because they don’t think they have the capacity to even touch that searingly painful place.
When a parent sees his child suffering and realizes that it’s coming from past or present trauma, how can they move forward? You can’t undo the trauma or the abuse, so what can you do?
“The first thing I work on is helping parents get rid of the guilt,” says Reb Gedalia. “You can’t start to help your child if you’re overwhelmed by the guilt of not having been able to protect them. But don’t make the pain worse by trying to get them to ‘do the right thing’ — to wake up on time for zeman Krias Shema, to put on a white shirt — because doing chinuch on a child who’s shattered is self-defeating.
“This is what I tell parents: Someone or something broke your child. Or maybe is still breaking your child. Maybe he’s being threatened and can’t tell you. And chances are, you’ll never know. But one thing I guarantee: The rougher they look on the outside, the more broken they are on the inside. No one is getting a tattoo just to spite their parents. True, they’re hurting their parents big time, but that’s not their primary agenda — because they’re so wrapped up in their own pain, it’s not even their consideration.”
Some parents question the approach of shopping for clothing the child knows the parent disapproves of, or other similar overtures. Doesn’t the child think it’s a bribe or a manipulation? A way to buy love or a relationship?
“They don’t think about it too much,” says Reb Gedalia. “All they know is that it’s soothing that hole in their heart, and every time the hole closes a little bit more, it gives them the opportunity to make better decisions.”
He tells of a conversation he had just last week. A mother called him, at a loss what to do with her 14-year-old daughter, who had been stealing from her parents for years in order to buy gifts for her friends, and buy adoration from them at the same time. This girl is in a lot of pain; she feels that she can’t get any friends unless she buys her way in. And she also has a therapist who is helping her work through her issues. What was Reb Gedalia’s advice?
“I told her, ‘You just be the mother and let the therapist do her job. She’s going to camp? Go out and buy the huge bags of popcorn and potato chips, spend 15 dollars on good quality nosh. Today is Tuesday, send it out UPS ground for five dollars, she’ll get it Friday, and who will be the hero of her whole bunk? Who has the best parents? That will build your relationship with her. And when you have a good relationship, it’s the best insurance that the child will make the right decisions.”
A father in one of the support groups shares how one Motzaei Shabbos before Pesach, his no-longer-frum daughter roused herself from her room and decided to go out to a bar. “Here’s $20 — the first drink’s on me,” he told her. At 1 a.m. she came home and was surprised to find everyone still up. “We’re cleaning for Pesach,” they told her. She had no idea it was Erev Pesach, even though preparations were going on all around her — she wasn’t intentionally being hostile or aloof — she was just too absorbed in her own internal web of pain to notice.
In that place of intense pain, the $20 doesn’t feel like a bribe. It feels like love.
Make Home Safe
The looming, larger question is whether a struggling child should remain at home, or perhaps find accommodations more suited to their new lifestyle instead. Many parents fear that this child will have an influence on other siblings — “How come he gets an iPhone, why is he allowed to eat certain things that we can’t, why can he wear jeans and not us?”
“It’s a big sh’eilah,” Reb Gedalia admits, “and I don’t have a cut-and-dried answer, because if I tell you that the siblings are never influenced that would be a lie. But what I can tell you is that from speaking to many therapists and parents, if your ten-year-old sees you’re throwing your 17-year-old out of the house, he’ll say to himself, ‘They threw out Yanky, when am I being thrown out?’ What’s not being reported is how, when one child is kicked out, the others have anxiety, start bedwetting, develop concentration issues, and other signs of panic. It’s pretty traumatic for them.
“On the other hand,” he continues, “the other kids see Yanky, see that he doesn’t get out of bed, that he’s depressed, that he’s having a hard time. They get it. So when the parents explain to them, ‘Yanky is having a rough patch and we were advised by daas Torah to get him a cell phone even though we have a home of taharah and kedushah and tzinyus,’ they hear. If your Yiddishkeit is strong and your Shabbos table is geshmak, your kids want to be part of it, they don’t want to be in their room watching TV.”
Mrs. Faiga L., mother of a large Satmar chassidic family in which three children struggled with Torah observance, is a fixture at Kesher Nafshi events and runs training groups for such families, teaching tools she’s learned along the way from her own guides and counselors. One of her overarching messages is to learn how to make the home a safe, accommodating place for all family members.
“It’s unconscionable to make a child homeless,” she avers. “Every child deserves a home. On one side of the scale is the world outside, and on the other is your home, which should have a space for your child to thrive in their own way. And if parents feel there’s no way they can keep their child home, then at least support them, pay their rent and utilities, and give them an open bank account so that their needs are met. And go out there with your child to find him that place, making sure he’s never homeless without connection.”
The key, she says, it to love your child unconditionally, just as Hashem loves him unconditionally. “This is not a strategy of manipulation to get them back on the derech,” she clarifies, “but a strategy for healing. We don’t sent our kids to therapy to get them to stay religious, to impose anything on them, but to help them heal.”
Many parents would prefer to just tell their struggling children, snap out of it, it’s all in your head, just get over it and live a normal life like your siblings. What they tend to ignore is that the child would love to “snap out of it” — no one is happy being dysfunctional, no one really wants to waste away their life. But when they’re stuck, traumatized, and emotionally paralyzed, hearing the words “snap out of it” just means their parents don’t understand them either.
And that understanding, says Reb Gedalia, is where the story of Kesher Nafshi really starts.
It was in 2017, and the Millers were participating in a small support group of parents navigating how to best help their struggling children, when they decided to open it up by making an event — a barbeque in someone’s backyard. By the time the steaks were grilling, there were 75 people on the lawn — 75 parents who were trying to figure out this new life. Gedalia Miller knew something big had fallen into his lap.
The next event was a Melaveh Malkah, and this time, 250 parents showed up. Reb Gedalia saw the snowball effect, and decided the next step would be to host a shabbaton — a four-day retreat that would give families the tools to keeps their homes healthy and safe for all their children.
That meant fundraising and subsidies — most parents were stretched to the limit with expenses for their struggling children and wouldn’t be able to pay for a hotel weekend. Although Reb Gedalia claims he’s not much of a fundraiser, he got the funding he needed. And hundreds of parents, thirsting for a better way, attended.
Kesher Nafshi has run four shabbatons to date, and the next one coming up will be at the end of October in the Ukranian town of Mezhibuzh, the hometown of the Baal Shem Tov. In order to protect the privacy of the guests and prevent gaping onlookers, Miller arranged to rent all the town’s facilities for the weekend.
These parents are dealing not just with kids who happen to not be frum, but with all its associated issues: trauma, PTSD, school distress, learning issues, behavioral challenges, and more. Yet with hundreds of people supporting each other and learning from experts, sharing pain and vulnerability, somehow the load becomes more manageable.
Usher Parnes of Lakewood, moderator of the popular weekly Coach Menachem podcast, originally attended his first shabbaton because many of the rabbis and therapists that are his interview material would be there. And then he was hooked.
“All the speakers, all the rabbanim, everyone’s in it together,” says Parnes. “They all have children that didn’t turn out in the cookie-cutter mold. We were sitting together around 4:30 in the morning and all of us were crying, including Rabbi YY, who was saying, ‘the kid you wish you never had, he’s making you into your best self, he’s forcing you to stretch and be the person you didn’t believe you could be.’
“I don’t have the classic kids at risk, baruch Hashem,” he says, “but today all kids are struggling to some extent – it’s really tough for them to stay in a goodie-goodie box, even though we want that perfect image of them, of our families. So for me, it was a real parenting overhaul. I used to be like, ‘nu, nu, run to shul already…’ but today I’m different. You’re there, and you see people totally changing their parenting mindset, saving their relationships with their broken kids, and it has to change you. My kids are typical Lakewood kids, and yes, ultimately we want them to be a certain way, to toe the line, but I don’t go there anymore. Today it’s about unconditional love and not about the kavod my family gives me.”
He believes that Kesher Nafshi, and by extension, Reb Gedalia, have been game changers in the way frum parents relate to their children, no matter how far away they’ve gone, and will do anything to maintain the relationship and keep the door open so that the child will have a place to return to.
“What I now know is that it’s the child’s journey, not the parent’s journey. Sure, there is hurt and feelings of betrayal and anger and humiliation, but if you destroy your relationship because of that anger, where will the child return to five years down the line when he wants to come back?”
Just recently, the Millers received a wedding invitation from a couple who joined a shabbaton, with a letter that read: “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Miller, When we came, we were broken, crying, and sure everyone would look down at us… We came home and started doing things differently with our child, giving our child the ability to make the right choices — today she’s frum, she’s getting married, and we would be honored if you could attend the wedding.”
No Rebels Here
Reb Gedalia says that perhaps his biggest contribution to the community’s new, healthier outlook toward these children was to remove the word “rebel” from the OTD lexicon. “They’re not out to hurt Hashem, and they’re not out to hurt their parents,” he says. “They’re broken neshamos trying to find their way.”
He tells the story of a self-proclaimed atheist who announced he doesn’t believe in Hashem. Another maskil invited himself to the atheist for Shabbos, curious to see how his newfound openness played out, anticipating thrilling theological discussions. Yet comes Erev Shabbos, and the atheist goes to the mikveh. “Ah, geshmak!” he tells his guest. The guest is a bit surprised, but figures Friday night they’ll go to some bar. Instead, the host takes him to the shtibel with the longest Kabbalas Shabbos. Then they go home, have Kiddush, fish, soup, kneidlach, kugel, the works, and afterward, the host shleps his guest to a botteh, where there’s beer and nosh and singing and schmoozing with friends.
The next morning, as the atheist gets up and goes to shul, the guest thinks, “What, davening again?” and the day progresses in a traditional Shabbos fashion. Finally, at Seudah Shlishis, he can’t take it anymore. “I don’t get it,” he tells his host. “Here you have all these theories, but look, you go to mikveh, shtibel, have your seudahs… What’s going on?”
So the host answers, “Let me explain it to you — I enjoy going to the hot shvitz mikveh and hearing the mikveh neias, I enjoy the energy of the davening, I go to the botteh because I love the beer.” The guest presses, “So why don’t you at least light a cigarette on Shabbos if you don’t believe?”
“I don’t smoke,” he answers.
“Yeah, but just to spite,” says the guest, and his atheist host answers, “To spite Who?”
“You see,” says Reb Gedalia, “even an atheist doesn’t want to spite Hashem. Certainly, deep down, neither do these kids.”
Making a safe place for your struggling child and helping him through his pain is a massive journey. Yet even if you manage to get beyond the guilt, anger, and hurt, you still have to pass one of the hardest stages of all — according to Rabbi Russell, it’s the most challenging but the most crucial. It’s where you truly, truly mourn the loss of the picture you once had. You let it go.
“When you had that baby, when you made that Kiddush, you remember the joy, the dedication, the longing and desire to see a happy, fulfilled child,” Rabbi Russell explains. “You had visions of that bar mitzvah, of that chasunah, of what you longed for. But that picture wasn’t meant to be yours. You have to mourn the loss of that picture.
“Trust me,” he promises, “you’ll have a different picture, a wonderful picture, and it can be so special. And it can fill you, and you can have nachas and joy. But you can’t have that original picture, not the way you had it at the Kiddush or the way you dreamed about it in those early years. You have to mourn the loss, let it go. Because it’s going to get in the way, it will undermine you, because you’ll still be trying for the wrong picture. You have to go on the journey with the new picture. But it can be an amazing picture, even if it’s not something you quite imagined. It has different subtleties, different twists than you thought, but you were created for that picture and not the other one.”
Once you let go of the idealized picture and make peace with the new one, he says, then you can accept the situation as it is: deeply, profoundly, lovingly, and nonjudgmentally. “And then you can come to the place where you’ll know, ‘Hashem, I truly accept that this is what You gave me, and I embrace this nisayon with heartfelt love for You. This is why You put me here and entrusted me with this. And I will be Your faithful servant.’”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 869)
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