What Do Orthodox Jewish Kids and Teens Do for Fun?

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Dear Jew in the City,

I am a 21 year old Jew born and raised in New Jersey.  I went to Hebrew school and had my Bar Mitzvah at a conservative temple.  My parents are secular, and I’ve been living a secular life.  Over the past three years in college, I’ve become close with a number of Rabbis at a local Orthodox youth organization on campus, and my interest in Judaism has grown significantly.  I’ve celebrated Shabbat with Orthodox families in an Orthodox community, and I’ve seen what appear to be very happy people — husbands, wives, young children, and children my age.
I’ve internalized to a certain extent what I know to be the mindset of a Torah life, and I feel like I understand where a lot of this happiness comes from. However, considering how grand and true I feel this happiness could be, I know I must continue to probe and question it for falsehood.  Recently, I’ve developed a question that I’m sure you can answer honestly.  What do orthodox children (aged 6-18) do for fun by themselves, with other children, and with their parents?  I only specify these ages because I assume children under 6 have fun with their parents and adults can live adult lives, but the people in between are often stuck with a lot of time on their hands, and this is when a lot of the more “sinful” fun-searching, identity-searching, and thrill-seeking occurs.  When I was younger, much of our family time was spent in front of a TV or at the dinner table, and my time with friends was spent watching movies, playing video games, playing sports, and, in high school, occasional drinking, smoking, and hitting on girls.  I’m sure my past and my living outside of an Orthodox community have much to do with my inability to conjure up possible alternative ways to spend my free time, but nevertheless I’m stumped.

Thank you for reading, and I look forward to your response!

Sincerely,
Allen

Dear Allen,

I totally understand where you are. Looking from the outside in, you’re very moved by what you see, but at the same time you’re trying to figure out if you could BE one of those people since they still seem kinda…different. Before I get into specific ways Orthodox kids and teens spend their time, I need to clarify a point. Orthodox Jews are a more diverse group than you might realize. Although it seems like you haven’t been exposed to it yet, there are Orthodox kids and teens that do much of the stuff you grew up doing, but within a Torah framework. (There are unfortunately some Orthodox Jews who do things outside of a Torah framework, but for the purposes of this answer, let’s just stick with one could do within the boundaries of Jewish law.)

In terms of the “non-sinful” things you did, like watching TV and movies and playing video games and sports, all of these things could be done in a kosher way. There’s a divide within the Orthodox world about how to treat secular knowledge, media, and past times. There are some (those in the “ultra-Orthodox” camp) who believe that only specifically Jewish information and media should be consumed and there are others – people in my circles, Centrist  Orthodox, also known as Right Wing Modern Orthodox – who believe that as long as you’re discerning about the movies, TV, books, video games, etc., there is acceptable and even valuable  media and information that we can take from the larger world. (In terms of monitoring what shows and movies kids watch, our family, and many others in our circles don’t have a TV, but instead let our kids watch selected shows and movies on the computer.)

In terms of sports, Modern Orthodox kids and teens play tons of sports, they just don’t play on them Shabbos. (Ultra-Orthodox boys play some sports as well, but Chasidic boys generally avoid things like football and basketball. More on that later.) The only other halachic issue with sports could be modesty. So swimming is done separately, and for girls who take dance classes or gymnastics, once they reach the age of dressing modestly (in our circles, it usually begins around 5) they would only wear a leotard around other girls or women.

But how about the camp within the Orthodox world that doesn’t believe in partaking in much of the secular world? How do those kids and teens spend their time? To tell you the truth, I had to look into this issue myself because the friends and acquaintances I have who are “ultra-Orthodox” I usually only see on Shabbos, so I wasn’t exactly sure what down time during the week or vacation looks like to them!

I checked in with a Chasidic guy I know and this was his response: “Some enjoy [board] games, others recreation [I asked him to clarify what this meant and he said “art”], others museums, etc. I know parents who got musical instruments for their children to spend their leisure time on. Book reading [he’s referring specifically to Orthodox Jewish fiction books and magazines] and bicycle riding are also very common. Also keep in mind that in more Chasidish and Yeshivish circles, where families tend to be larger, children tend to spend a lot of time playing with (and taking care of) their siblings. During the summer, children commonly go to either sleep-away camp or a local day camp. In both cases, there are loads of activities and recreations, including swimming, sports, rafting, mountain climbing, and the list goes on.”

Something he didn’t mention, but that definitely goes on in all Orthodox circles, is volunteering. Many of the Jewish schools require the kids to devote a certain amount of time to “chesed” each week. So it could be helping a family with a sick or disabled child or helping a mom who’s got a lot of kids and needs an extra hand. In Lubavitch circles, the teens are involved with Jewish outreach, called “mivtza-eem” where the guys go around putting on tefillin on other guys who want to try it out and the girls give out Shabbos candles to women who are interested in lighting.

Let’s deal with the last point you made, though,  that kids between the ages of 6-18 are “often stuck with a lot of time on their hands, and this is when a lot of the more “sinful” fun-searching, identity-searching, and thrill-seeking occurs.”

First off, Orthodox kids probably have less time on their hands than kids from other communities. They attend schools with double curriculums, which means that the school day is extra long and that there’s extra homework to do at night (but on the bright side, they’re extra knowledgeable!)  Orthodox kids also usually come from larger families and are more occupied by more siblings than kids in other communities. And with a weekly Shabbos celebration that occurs in every home (plus holidays that occur year round), the whole family usually pitches in with cooking before and cleaning before and after Shabbos (and holidays). Then there’s Shabbos itself, which is a full of of eating (three festive meals), time spent in shul, Shabbos groups where there’s learning, games, and more eating. Then there’s family time. Families talk, take walks together, and play cards and board games.

The last thing I’d like to say about “identity-searching and thrill-seeking” is that not only do Orthodox teens have less time on their hands to get into trouble, on a whole – the ones who truly internalize Torah values – feel more secure about themselves and their identites. They believe their lives are purposeful and meaningful. They have God to turn to when times get tough and they have healthy self-esteem, as they believe that they were created in the image of God, are filled with a spark of Godliness, and that God is always watching them. These are VERY powerful deterrents from getting into trouble.

Good luck on your journey, Allen, and keep on reading!

All the best,

Allison (aka Jew in the City)

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Comments

  1. Simone Shapiro says:

    What I’ve observed in the circles that my local grandchildren move in is that there is much more face to face group interaction than outside of their community. By that I mean all the kids (girls and boys) seem to have a lot of friends they do things with, sometimes just as simple as getting together and talking, going to the library or out for ices, playing games, and for the girls, going shopping. There is a very strong group support system and the relationships they make continue on throughout their lifetimes. I see it as a beautiful web, much richer than the relationships of the secular world at large – less competition and more support.

  2. Great post. I think the overarching theme is also that during these activities, there are usually adults around. The adults – parents, youth group leaders, teachers and others, serve as role models, as well as guides to our kids.

    While the games, volunteering, cooking, cleaning, learning, family time etc are going on, CONVERSATIONS are also going on.

    Not to say that Orthodox kids are always under strict supervision, but in most cases these adults and kids form deep relationships, and they WANT to spend time together.

    That’s a big piece of where the kids get those Torah values and internalize the drive for a meaningful life.

  3. This is well written!as always

  4. Something I noticed when I lived in ultra-orthodox communities is the way the children are at the same time more responsible and mature than similarly aged secular kids (myself included) they are also more innocent. You’ll see girls playing with dolls, jacks, jump ropes, tag, at a much older age than my friends and I would have done. The peer pressure to be “cool” and give up “babyish” activities isn’t there and instead they do what they like. I pray my daughter will have the same freedom!

  5. Ruchi Koval says:

    Great and interesting post. Well articulated. I’d add two things.
    1. A Shabbat-observant community doesn’t drive on Shabbat. Therefore, they BY DEFINITION live within a mile or two radius of one another. Hence, lots of friends for the kids within waking distance. This. Is. Huge. My kids go outside and play on the block with their friends, which I understand is a throwback (to many secular Jews) of life a generation ago. Each of my kids has multiple friends within a half-mile radius.
    2. In a large family, which is usually directly proportional to how much secular culture you are filtering out, members will find themselves very busy with simchas: bris, baby-naming, bnei mitzvah, engagement parties, weddings. Post-wedding celebrations. Graduations, birthdays, anniversaries etc. Example: my kids have like 40 first cousins. See what I mean?

  6. Thank you for the post, Allison. You’ve really helped me to fill in a gap in the lifestyle I’m trying to envision. I’m happy to hear that even supposed centrist Orthodox Jews allow for the possibility of growth and positive influence from parts of mainstream society. However, as is the case with most Jewish learning, your answer has led me to more questions :)

    One may liken “ultra-Orthodox” children growing up to Amish children growing up separate from mainstream societal influences. The Amish have a practice called “rumspringa” where they allow young adults to go out and experience mainstream society so they can decide for themselves whether or not they would like to remain within Amish culture.

    To what extent are “ultra-Orthodox” children or young adults afforded this opportunity to examine other cultures and to decide for themselves how they want to continue to live their lives? This ability to examine the options early on seems especially necessary for an Orthodox person as they tend to marry at a relatively young age, and once a person is married and especially after she has kids it becomes increasingly hard for her to make an intelligent and objective decision about her path in life.

    A man who realizes he would prefer to raise his family outside of the Orthodox community would undoubtedly cause more damage if he were married (more-so if he had kids) than if he were single and childless.

    This question is directed to anyone who feels they have the knowledge to answer it. Thank you all for your responses so far. They have all been helpful!

  7. Ultra Orthodox families (my own included) are in many ways more similar to secular families than to Amish. The reason being that we wear “normal clothes” (within the boundaries of modesty), have electronics, travel by car, work in many professions, shop at regular stores etc… The restrictions are of a completely different sort; they exist to protect our children’s spiritual nature. Each family decides to what extent they avoid exposure to sexually charged media and interaction with the opposite gender.
    While an Amish teen may benefit from the chance to do regular activities, have the ease of electronics and other modern inventions etc… and then make an educated decision about how they would like to live their lives, an orthodox teen has already experienced most of that.
    If an Orthodox teen want to try something a little more liberal, he/she can explore other Orthodox communities and adopt their looser standards. If he/she wants to find out what the rest of the world has, it’s very accessible.
    While an Amish child can come back to the fold and not be scarred from their foray into the “modern world”, an Orthodox boy who was raised with little interaction with the girls, who then goes out and has sex, can never recapture the same innocence he had before.

  8. Hi Allen,

    I would like to add one thing to Chaber’s comment: Unlike the Amish who will shun their children if they decide to leave the fold, never allowing them to come home for any reason, is not what most Ultra Orthodox families do. Of course, some may be that harsh, but this would be on a more personal level rather than across the board, and I dare say, an exception to the rule. It is my understanding that an Amish teen understands that before s/he goes out into the bigger world to experience life on the outside, if s/he decides to stay out, s/he may never return…for any reason…EVER!!! I would venture to say that this is not what most ultra Orthodox Jewish families would do if their child would choose to live a secular life. It might break their hearts, but most would never shun their children, forbidding them to ever return, under any circumstances.

  9. Hi Allen,

    I’m a secular Jewish woman who is exploring options for a more observant life. One great way to do so is to participate in Partners in Torah. Partners in Torah provides you with a study partner (chevrusa) from a frum community (men for men, women for women), and my experience has been that my partner and I learn a little Torah, but also do a lot of chatting about the differences and similarities in our worlds. I’ve learned a lot this way! Last Spring I spent the Shabbat before Purim — and then Purim — with my partner’s family and met lots of people in her community. It was a great experience. Two things stand out in my mind: the wonderful way the kids played together — as another commenter said, like they did a couple of generations ago — and how busy they all were. The little boys played with toy trucks and figures like little boys outside the community. They all enthusiastically did prayers three times a day (incredible!), and generally seemed very happy and well adjusted. Another thing I noticed was how the pre-teen girls gathered just before Shabbat and strolled down their street together in their velvet Shabbat robes looking like princesses. They were chatting, giggling, and sharing secrets like girls do everywhere. I felt transported to my childhood in the 1960s.
    I recommend that if you aren’t already participating in Partners in Torah, you give it a try. It’s free, and you chat with someone on the phone before they find a partner for you. There’s no pressure to suddenly “turn frum” — in fact, my partner has cautioned me that gradual is best — and I’ve learned more from having a personal relationship with a frum Jewish woman than I could have imagined.
    I wish you all the best in your explorations.

  10. My question was whether dolls are allowed generally or ever forbidden as idolatrous… Thanks….

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