One of the most precious dreams of girlhood is to be a mother and bring up a family together with a devoted husband. A girl may imagine welcoming her husband and son home after shul on Friday nights and staying at home on Shabbos mornings with her cute babies, while her husband and sons leave for shul together. But life does not always turn out as expected, and some women, although mothers, end up raising their children alone, either because of divorce or death. There are many problems and issues that have to be dealt with in this scenario, but one that is unique to religious families is the lack of a father to take the boys to shul for davening and learning.
An expectation in our society is that fathers and sons go to shul together and sit beside each other. A young boy going to shul alone and sitting by himself will feel awkward and different. And seeing all the other boys sitting with their fathers just accentuates his loss. This may be the case even when the father lives with his family but does not have the ability or desire to learn or daven with his son.
Many shuls have father-and-son learning programs; when the father is missing from the equation, the program falls flat. As Aliza,* a mother of three boys, recalls, “It was so hard for me when my son wanted to complete the Chemdas program at his school. His father did not learn with him or find people to test him (as the program requires). It fell on me to make all the connections so that my son could feel equal to the other boys.”
“My son is already a teenager, but it is still not easy for him to go to shul alone,” says Fayge.* “He goes on ordinary Shabboses and ordinary days by himself, but whenever there is a special occasion, and the davening is a little different, he doesn’t know what to expect and is reluctant to go.”
The approach of Rosh Hashanah is a great time for new beginnings and new approaches to this ongoing problem. The lack in the lives of some of the children in our community is a wonderful opportunity for families to reach out to those who are alone and ease their burden.
Rachel,* a divorced mother of a few children, who initiated a discussion on Facebook about this topic, describes the problem as it affects her family and her friends: “I have a very large circle of friends who are single parents, and I am part of an online support group for them. We often discuss issues that are unique to the frum single-parent community, and as it is almost Rosh Hashanah, plus the new school year, it would be an ideal time to start a long-term shul relationship with a chaperone/mentor. I thought that if I publicized the issue, we could try to find direct matches for children and raise awareness for people to look beyond their own daled amos and notice the children lingering uncomfortably at the back of the shul, not knowing where to sit or what to do. I can only imagine it to be a horrible experience.”
Programs That Can Help
Before discussing new ideas, I decided to explore what resources are already available.
Mrs. Bracha Goetz, director of the Jewish Big Brother Big Sister Program (JBBBS) of Jewish Community Services, explains: “Our program matches up boys and girls in the community with men and women. The matches spend time with each other twice a month or once a week, as their time allows. We currently have more than 50 matches of mentors and children whom we call ‘Bigs’ and ‘Littles.’ Some of the matches have lasted for years. We actually have some ‘Bigs’ who used to be ‘Littles’ and have returned to our program as mentors.”
Bracha tries to meet the needs of the particular parents and children who call her. “Some mothers call our program specifically to find someone to take their sons to shul and/or to learn with them,” she says. “Sometimes a mentor will pick up a boy from his home and bring him to shul, attend learning programs with him, and encourage him to take part in school-wide learning contests. Even if a man cannot make a commitment to be an actual Big Brother and spend time with his ‘Little’ consistently, a person can still make a difference by forming a connection with a particular boy when he sees him in shul.”
Jewish Community Service’s JBBBS program provides free passes to many local attractions, including the Science Center, Goldberg’s Bagels, Orioles games, and even the JCC, so that matches can enjoy these activities together if they are interested. Mrs. Goetz is always looking for more volunteers; she can be reached at 410-843-7453
Rabbi Shalom Weingot is the director of B’nainu, an organization that, besides its other services, also provides mentors for children. Unlike Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters, the mentors in his organization are given a stipend. “Sometimes the parents are able to pay the mentors, and sometimes B’nainu raises the money to pay them,” Rabbi Weingot says. “I prefer to work with people who are getting paid, because they tend to feel more responsibility to the job.” Rabbi Weingot researches the people he gets to mentor the children and keeps an open line of communication with them. The mentors and the children can discuss any issues that come up with him. Rabbi Weingot can be reached at 443-690-4418.
There are also many individuals in the community who have devoted themselves to mentoring young men who are in need of a father figure for various reasons. For example, one man – we’ll call him Rabbi Hertz* – a rebbe in a local school, has many boys with whom he has learned and gone to shul over the years. He has gotten involved with both yesomim (orphans) and children whose fathers are not living at home. Rabbi Hertz tells the boys in his class that they can call him between 6 and 8 p.m., and he will learn with them over the phone. If he accompanies a boy to shul, he asks the boy where he wants to go, and goes to the shul where the boy feels comfortable. Sometimes he goes out to learn with boys on Friday night. He made a deal with one boy that they would take turns. One week they would learn in a shul close to Rabbi Hertz’s house, and one week in a shul close to the boy’s house. Another boy said that he did not want to go to shul unless he could sit next to his father. Rabbi Hertz showed him where it says that a rebbe is like a father, and the boy then felt comfortable enough to sit next to him in shul. “Rabbi Hertz” did not want me to use his name in this article, but if you are interested in speaking to him to see if he can help your son, you can call the WWW, and we will put you in touch with him.
Sometimes the rav of the shul can be helpful in finding a man to mentor a boy who is coming to shul alone. I asked Rabbi Hauer of Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion how his shul handles this situation. Does the shul have a formal arrangement to help these boys? Rabbi Hauer responded to my email question by writing that, although the shul has no formal arrangement to take care of this problem, they have often – but not always – been able to help informally. “There is no question that the community around the mother should ideally initiate this, but if they do not, the mother should not feel like she should wait for that to happen. There are usually many people who, if approached, would be willing to do it. The mother can seek out someone – a rav or rebbi or active communal member – who has a sense of her child and who could thoughtfully help find someone appropriate who would be interested in playing this role.”
Trusting a Stranger
This discussion would not be complete without examining the issue of trust. How can a mother trust an unrelated man to spend time with her son? As one of the Facebook participants wrote, “I would have loved to have someone take my son under his wing when I was divorced. However, there is a tremendous trust issue that comes into play with that. I think that if a man had volunteered to take care of my son, I would have walked with them to shul and sat behind them in the women’s section.”
Some of the other participants in the discussion also expressed their worries about inviting a man to spend private time with their son. How can you know if the person is a good person and will not do harm? Aliza suggests, “I recommend staying within your familiar circle and doing as much due diligence on referrals as we do when checking out a shidduch resume – if not more! Our kids depend on us to keep them safe. We cannot be naïve.”
Aliza elaborates on her own experience: “Every one of my children ultimately found mentors/supporters who looked out for them. In each case, the relationships took time to build, but they did happen. In the early years, I went about it all wrong; I would scan the room and look to find someone. I have one particularly painful memory of doing just that at a simchos bais hasho’eva at yeshiva. It was so awful. And father-son learning? Ha. But, it can and does happen! It means a lot of legwork on your part to advocate for this until you see results. Do not give up. Just because people can seem clueless, it doesn’t mean they don’t care. They just don’t understand.”
I asked Mrs. Goetz how her organization deals with the issue of trust and the fear of abuse. “There is no way to be 100 percent sure that no problems will occur,” she answers, “but we try our hardest to make sure that the mentors are safe and responsible people. We have a very thorough screening process that includes an intensive in-person interview, a home visit, criminal background checks, and even checking of drivers records. For example, we don’t allow a person to be a mentor if he has many points for speeding. Once a match is made, I check in with both sides on a regular basis throughout the match to ascertain how things are going.” Rabbi Weingot also talked about how careful he is in choosing his mentors and how he follows up with them to make sure that everything is continuing to go well.
Tanya Klein, another member of the Facebook discussion, has a wonderful idea that expands on Mrs. Goetz’s suggestions and may help to increase the trust level between mentor and mentee. “Maybe if this could be more like an ‘adopt a family’ situation, instead of just a substitute father for shul, it would be a more natural scenario. The adopting family would be a family that is willing to host the mother and her children for meals on Shabbos and Yamim Tovim. This can be a weekly commitment, a bi-monthly commitment, or whatever both families decide would work for them. How much less awkward would it be if a single mom told her kids, ‘Hey, we’re eating by the Smith’s today, and so we’ll go daven where Mr. Smith davens.’ Of course the father would have to treat the guest boys as his own in shul: making sure their siddur is open to the right place, praising them for davening so nicely, and encouraging them to come over to his shul anytime because he loves to see them davening and it make his Shabbos so much better. And how natural for Mr. Smith to yell, ‘Hey kids, let’s all sit and learn for a few minutes after the meal,’ which would automatically include the adopted children. This would flow into, ‘Hey, let’s all run out for Mincha. Moms, just sit and chat and have fun, we’ll be home soon.’
“Yes, it’s a commitment, but I believe in Am Yisrael. I believe there are many families that would be willing to be part of this incredible project that could affect generations of Jews! Even those few times a month, if the family cannot commit to too much, can make a huge difference in the lives of the boys!
“My sons were not lucky enough to have this kind of help; who knows how different things would be now if they did have a warm relationship with a frum man, or good feelings about going to shul.”
Getting the Child to Agree
There is only so much that the community and the parents can do. The child has to be open to allowing somebody who is not his actual father assume the role of substitute father. It is not something that can be forced, although it can be encouraged. As one mother wrote, “It’s a delicate situation. When my husband died, my kids were young. My son didn’t want a stranger with him at shul. He was eight.”
Rabbi Hauer wrote, “It is definitely the case that sometimes it may be hard to find someone to help, but more often, the child may not welcome it, and sometimes it is simply not the right match. If the first match was not successful, the child may be too cautious to try again.”
Others have had a more positive outcome. Hannah Heller was eager to share her experience and pride in her son: “I must acknowledge that I could not have done it so well alone. The Baltimore Jewish community has been an amazing support to all of us. Starting from when Craig, a”h, was diagnosed with cancer, Rabbi Hauer, Rabbi Landau, and Jewish Caring Network were on the scene constantly asking what they could do for us. So many people reached out to us and continue to reach out to me (now that I am empty-nesting alone) with Shabbos invitations.
“Bracha Goetz of the Jewish Big Brother Big Sister program matched Elliot (my son) with a great mentor. There is a shortage of Big Brothers in the frum community. I am not sure why there are more Big Sisters than Big Brothers, but we were able to get Elliot a mentor, because we were open to having a non-frum mentor. If we had not, chances are Elliot would not have had anyone. Bob was told what the rules are, and he was always respectful. Bob brought so much joy to Elliot’s life as they enjoyed watching and playing sports together. Occasionally, Bob joined us for a Shabbos meal, and he attended Elliot’s bar mitzva and the programs at Beth Tifloh (Chumash presentation in second grade, mitzva program in third grade, and others). But this was not his main role. We had so many other people in the community who could help with religious inspiration, learning, shul, etc.
Rabbi Hauer offered mentors for my son to attend father-son learning together. For the High Holy Days, when the services were long, when my son wanted to be in the shul, he had a seat next to his mentor, Sam Durso, who could show him what was going on. My neighbor, Rabbi Uri Goffin, taught my son how to put on tefilin before his bar mitzva.
“Elliot was very inspired by his Jewish education at Beth Tfiloh and with both Junior and Senior NCSY. He is passionate about Judaism. His interest in sports is not a conflict; in fact, it gives him energy and a way to bond with those who may not share our same level of religious observance. As a young adult, my son has an understanding of what it’s like to not have the ideal situation, and he reaches out to help others. He continues to learn with various friends and mentors when he is home. This summer he is working at Camp HASC (Hebrew Academy for Special Children).”
Elliot describes the experience from his perspective: “Like many bar mitzva boys, I was very excited to learn how to put on tefilin and take a more active part in davening. I definitely appreciated the help. In terms of learning, as my mom wrote, she reached out to Rabbi Hauer, who in turn reached out to the community and set me up to learn with Sam Durso. We learned every Saturday night at Shaarei Zion’s father-son bais medrash for a few years on and off. In truth, I was in it less for the learning and more for the pizza and radio show we listened to in the car on the way there. But simply being in a bais hamedrash filled with fathers and sons learning together absolutely left a lasting impression, and stuck with me when I got more involved with learning later on.”
Hannah concludes, “It doesn’t have to be one person who does everything for the widow or divorcee. I would say that the adage ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ holds true. It is very important for families in the community to reach out to children from fatherless households and make sure that they are not alone and that their needs are provided for. The Baltimore community overall, and the JBBBS in particular, do a great job of this.”
Rachel brought up other aspects to this problem on the Facebook conversation: What about a father who is alone with sons and daughters? His daughter may be too old to come into the men’s section of the shul but too young to be left at home alone. Are there women in the community who would volunteer to watch the girls at home while the men are in shul? This is another opportunity to reach out and help someone.
Rachel also mentioned the dilemma of the mother feeling uncomfortable taking such big favors from others. It is never a good feeling to be on the receiving end all the time. As she writes, “I know in my case, there is a wonderful family with a lot of sons, who have offered to daven with my son, but I don’t feel comfortable asking them to pick him up and drop him off, and getting all five of us ready to walk him to shul on time is very difficult. The sad part is that I know that if I asked, they would be so glad to help.”
Another issue Rachel mentions is the tznius factor. Some families may feel uncomfortable with the husband developing a close relationship with a divorced or widowed woman and her children. “What I personally did last year when I had my kids for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was requesting davka a ‘grandfather type’ or an older teen. Aiming for those age groups removes much of the tznius issue, and they are also far less likely to be occupied with their own children. I was, b”H, able to find a wonderful person, arranged for by the shul, to have my boys sit with him, and it was wonderful. Truth be told, I never even met the man!
“I believe every shul rabbi, president, and gabbai should know which families in their shul are in this situation, know the children by sight, and help them find seats, arrange someone to daven with them, etc.”
Opening Our Eyes
The problem of boys without involved fathers is becoming more and more common as the number of divorces in our community climb. Although every family and situation is different, and some children are wary of too much outside attention, we as a community need to open our eyes and see what we can do to help the families around us. As Tova,* another divorced mother, wrote, “I wish our shuls and communities would be close-knit enough that, when a child of divorce walks into shul alone, he or she would be greeted by multiple smiling faces motioning him to come sit with them, and that the difficulty of choosing where to sit would not be ‘where can we find empty seats where no one will notice us’ but, rather, choosing which welcoming person to sit with.”
by Tanya Klein
You’re walking to shul
Little child of mine,
Forlorn and defenseless,
Vulnerable, age nine.
Alone, without father,
You walk down the road.
All I see are your shoulders,
Little shoulders, big load.
Little shoulders that carry
Much burden, much weight.
Little shoulders, big burdens,
Will your loneliness abate?
I stand there, and watch you
Wondering, who will receive
My child at shul doorway
Will he have a reprieve?
Will there be a kind man,
A sensitive soul,
Who will look at your shoulders,
Shoulders that reveal all?
A person with insight,
With humanity, compassion.
A rachman ben rachman,
Helping others his passion.
Will you walk up to my child
his shoulders embrace?
Will you open his siddur
Assist in finding the place?
Or will you be feeling
Uncomfortable, ill at ease?
Will you elect to turn your shoulders away
From the sight of my child alone and astray?
I stood in my doorway
On that balmy Friday night,
Watching little shoulders
Walk out of my sight.
My child has grown now,
His shoulders are broad.
His shoulders are empty,
no tefilin straps hold.
No tzitsis to warm them,
Those shoulders I love.
No tzitsis caress them,
They’re out in the cold.
What happened in shul
To my child, I don’t know,
But you, my dear brethren
Have a chance now to grow.
Little shoulders are walking,
They’re all over town.
Tiny little shoulders
And head hanging down.
They come into your shul
And they sit down alone.
Little shoulders that need you,
Be staunch now, be strong.
Fellow Jews, dear kind brothers,
Please heed heartfelt plea,
And help little shoulders,
Little shoulders in need.