A more extensive version of this article is now available at https://mishpacha.com/how-do-we-connect-with-those-whove-left/.
“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 lessons 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 into their adult lives. I had been involved with this particular student professionally, who after a number of ups and downs had finally called it quits and left her community of origin. Hence the question. This teacher had asked before whether or not it makes 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 to which there seem to be no easy answers.
Some answers, though, or at least hints to them, are relatively simple.
In order to reconnect, there has to have been a connection on some level. What often happens is that well meaning individuals will reach out to the person in question with the best of intentions, hoping to bring them back into the fold. By and large, this will not work. There’s no prior relationship with the person reaching out, at least not on a personal level. The initial connection we have with others is based on what they represent to us. If all Rabbi So-and-so represents to me is the community I’ve rejected (for any number of very good reasons) 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 from before, the relationship was one developed as between a mentor and 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 is one banking heavily on whatever positive feelings the student may have had back then. Seven years is a long time. People change a lot over the course of seven years. 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 if you’re trying to reconnect, there are a few guidelines. Approach the person with non-judgement, curiosity, and compassion.
Non-judgment is obvious. If I’m someone who’s left the community, I may have a knee-jerk reaction 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 which 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-judgement, 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.
This brings us to compassion. You can be non-judgemental 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.
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 with non-judgement, curiosity, and compassion. By adopting this mindset, we can connect honestly with others, and invite them to honestly and safely connect with us.