I knew that one day I would just have to explode. Which I did, on the shabbaton
As told to Devorah Grant
Igrew up knowing that my parents were cool. At least, that’s what everyone told me. My friends thought so, and my relatives did, too. And of course, our guests always did. The guests with all their weird and wonderful ways — the guys with their ponytails, earrings, and tattoos. The women with their nose rings, bleached hair, and ripped jeans. Yeah, my family is officially “in kiruv.”
We actually don’t live in some remote location, with cows and goats and sheep. We do in-town kiruv, really in town. How does Central London sound to you? My parents rub shoulders with the bigwigs of the Jewish world, the ones who are rich, famous, and often searching for something deeper. And that’s where my parents come in. With their incredible warmth and cheer, and their loud, welcoming voices, my family is the hero on the scene, learning with them, teaching them, feeding them — both physically and spiritually.
So that’s how I grew up — with people streaming in and out of our home all day, with men learning with my father in the living room and Mom advising women in the kitchen. Not quiet and peaceful, but beautiful all the same. Yet the funny thing is, you know how when you’re young, you think that whatever you experience is “normal”? But then, as you grow up, you begin to notice differences, subtle and not so subtle, between your own family and others’. That’s what happened to me.
When I was very young, the guests were a huge excitement. Shabbos was a massive affair, with 30 to 50 people at each meal, devouring the warm, homemade challah, chicken soup, and of course my mom’s famous apple pie. It was fun to run around talking to the different people, hearing about their lives and how they had ended up in our house and at our Shabbos table, of all places. The guests loved me and my siblings, too. They’d tell us jokes, ask us riddles, and some of the regulars would even tell us a story or two. And all was good.
But then, as time went on, the charm started to wear off.
As I grew older, there were other things I noticed about kiruv which I didn’t like at all. Like the fact that my parents were growing old before their time, trying to balance all the giving to others, with getting enough sleep, enough vacation, some time to themselves. I began to notice how worn and tired my mother got, and how tense it all made my dad. Especially when something big was going on with one of “our people,” the tension in the house became insane. There’d be phone calls and people in and out. My mother hurriedly putting on her sheitel and asking me to babysit while she just “ran over to help out Sandra.” And a half hour would become an hour and a half, my little toddler brother would start to scream, and it would all become too much.
I started to hate the guests, too. Some were too loud, others too quiet and socially awkward. There were too many people, and stories, and lives — it was just so overwhelming. I became resentful about all the serving and cleaning up I had to do and couldn’t stand being on display every day of every week, as the rabbi and rebbetzin’s daughter. I stopped looking at anything other than the difficulties, and I became angrier and angrier. But I bottled it all up inside, not really knowing what it was and how to share it, while each day the stuff inside of me bubbled and frothed until I knew that one day I would just have to explode. Which I did, on the shabbaton.
The shabbaton was one of the annual events that all my friends wanted to be at. Each year one of the big, beautiful hotels in England was reserved for a weekend for kiruv professionals and their families to get together, hear speeches, share inspiration, and have a great time. Usually, the event would be in a beautiful location, with a fabulous caterer and some cool entertainment for us kids, too. Everyone wanted to be there, except me. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the good stuff — I love a 24-hour buffet as much as the next girl — but it was the focus I hated. All about the amazing job we were doing, helping save souls and build our nation. But no one ever spoke about the dark side, which I saw. By that point it was all I saw.
Apart from the kiruv rabbanim and rebbetzins, local teens would come along on the shabbaton, too, to help babysit and provide entertainment for the younger kids so the adults could attend classes. They were usually nice girls who were given a great opportunity to help out while enjoying a Shabbos in luxury, and I had fun getting to know them in-between meals and during their breaks. On this particular shabbaton, I became pretty friendly with a girl named Shana. We met in the hallway on Erev Shabbos, as she stood awkwardly with her carry-on, looking a little lost. I helped her find her room, and we got to chatting. She was my age and had a great sense of humor, and as the kids’ program didn’t start until Shabbos itself, we found ourselves sitting outside my bedroom talking a little while before Shabbos.
As we were speaking, one of the organizers came around. As part of the “treat” of the Shabbaton, the directors always think of something to give us kids to make us feel part of the organization. This time it was a great new book which I hadn’t read yet. I happily took my copy and put it down, planning on resuming my talk with Shana.
“Hey, that’s cool! How come you got it?” Shana asked.
“Oh, they always give us something, us kids of the rabbanim,” I answered, flippantly.
“Ah,” Shana said, thoughtfully. “It must be so much fun to be in kiruv!”
WHAM. I don’t think either of us realized how bad a mistake she had made, until words started flying out of my mouth, without stopping, as if a dam had burst.
“You think it’s cool to be in kiruv? Why, because I get a new book and a nice Shabbos away once a year? If you would spend even one weekend in my house, you’d run away. You don’t know what it’s like to never have your parents home, to always have a stream of guests pouring through your door, to constantly be serving and babysitting and answering phone calls. How does that sound? Do you still think it’s cool?”
I stopped to take a breath. Shana was shrinking into the wall — she looked terrified. Saltwater balloons were gathering behind my eyes, as I realized what I had just done, and then there was a hand on my shoulder. My mom.
Oh my, did she just hear all of that? I thought. And suddenly, I was crying and crying, and Shana slipped away, while my mom led me into the bedroom and just sat there, hugging me and feeling my shoulders shake while tears streamed down my face. When I looked up, she was crying, too.
We had a long conversation then, me and my mom. She asked me questions, let me talk, brought in my dad, sat and heard me out as I finally shared all my grievances, hurts, and fears. And when I’d finally finished, my mom looked at my dad and said,
“Shua, we need to talk.”
The rest of the shabbaton has kind of faded in my mind, after that saga. At some point I embarrassedly went to Shana and apologized, and she said she understood, though I realized she couldn’t really. We awkwardly exchanged smiles for the next few days, but it felt unnatural, and I knew that friendship was probably over before it began.
But other things were going somewhere, even after leaving the hotel and driving home that Motzaei Shabbos. Like my relationship with my parents, which dramatically shifted after I’d expressed how I felt. And my perspective on kiruv, which has been refreshed since we’ve made changes at home, too.
No, baruch Hashem, my parents didn’t stop what they were doing, and we still have many guests each Shabbos, but it’s better. Because since we spoke, Friday night is reserved just for family, and when the guests come for the lunch seudah, I am ready and waiting to serve, talk, and smile. Which makes me realize that I never hated kiruv in the first place, but I did hate feeling overwhelmed. And with my parents on board, we’ve worked out a plan which has made that overwhelming feeling a thing of the past. And I think it’s helped them, too.
Now, as I get older and start thinking ahead to my own future, I guess I’m grateful that my parents took the time to listen and make the changes I needed so badly. And I’m also just glad that I, myself, finally took the time to talk.
(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 806)
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