Jewish Schools Must Stop Making Children Terrified of God

Of course I believe in Hashem, but he’s the Boogey Man waiting to strike me down. 

These horrifying words were uttered by an attendee at the first Makom shabbaton several years ago during dinner. Where did such an abhorrent idea come from? How could a person possibly have a relationship with God if she felt this way?

Unfortunately, as time passed, and I became more familiar with the people who have experienced Judaism in an abusive way (note: the people who have a healthy perspective on Torah and mitzvos are not coming to Makom), I began to realize how many Jews have been raised with a terrifying understanding of Hashem both in school and at home.

A few months, ago I met a woman who told me that on 9/11, as the soot was entering her school in Brooklyn, the teachers gathered her and her classmates together in order to let them know that their breach of tznius is what caused the Twin Towers to fall. Needless to say, this “lesson” had catastrophic effects on this woman’s life, both as terms of her emotional well-being and her relationship to Judaism.

Then, there was the school principal who told one of our members and her classmates that if they didn’t perform a certain community tradition they would end up like the woman who developed a major disformity on her body

And finally, there was the family who had moved their son to a less “extreme” school, yet at the shabbos lunch we shared with them, their 10 year old son cried to his father, “Tatte, rebbe says that for every aveira (sin) we do, it’s 5 minutes more in gehenom which is one hundred times hotter than the hottest fire. Tatte, I’m so scared of Hashem.” The father tried to comfort his son, “Don’t worry, Hashem is a good guy.” But it was clear that the damage had already been done.

Of course we have a concept of schar v’onesh (reward and punishment) in Judaism, but first off, we do not know why suffering occurs in this world (click here to see more on that), and anyone who claims to know not only is wrong, but has actually gone against Jewish law by saying onas devarim (hurtful words).

When it comes to punishment in The World To Come, again, no one actually knows how the punishment is meted out. While “onesh” could mean being beaten with a stick or being burning in the hottest fires imaginable, punishment could also be understood as a consequence.

How would a loving (sane?!) Parent deliver a punishment in the form of a consequence? If His child is disrespectful and doesn’t listen, while all the other kids are outside playing, His child might have to stay inside and be bored. That is a very different picture of Hashem than too many Jewish children are being raised on.

Perhaps Jewish schools can remind their students more often of Hashem’s 13 Attributes of Mercy which we say on the High Holidays, the time when we are considering the consequences of our mistakes: Merciful God, merciful God, powerful God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth. Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and error, and Who cleanses. (Exodus 34:6-7)

While terrorizing children may cause submission to Authority in the short term, it has a way of breaking a human being in the long term. I recently met a woman who went to a school with heavy amount of fear and guilt, and she confided in me that several years ago she and her friends would have so much fun mocking me and my positivity, but what she realized is that they were all actually jealous of my relationship to Hashem as it was so pure and sincere and not sullied with all the garbage theirs was. She admitted that the opportunity to see Hashem as I do had been robbed from her. (This is not the first time someone has told me nearly this same exact story from start to finish!)

We are cheating countless people out of the very essence of why they were put here on earth! Yes, we are supposed to have a fear (or perhaps awe) of God, but what Hashem wants most is for us to Love Him with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our might. Such feelings are not possible when you are living in utter terror of your Creator.

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  • Avatar photo mark nenner says on January 17, 2019


    Kudos on all of your efforts on behalf of Judaism’s continuity. may you continue to inspire us for many years to come.

    We certainly need to change our method of education, but unfortunately that won’t ever happen until we regulate the types of teachers who speak to the public, particularly, young adults. Many of the “Rock Star” Rabbis who trot the globe as Jewish celebrities – are spreading this poison wherever and whenever they speak. A simple review of some You Tube videos is all you need to see to prove this point. These are charismatic, dynamic personalities, who while they do inspire there audience to get closer to God the damage they do is everlasting..They somehow convey that they have been privy to the Lord’s intentions, and can explain whatever has taken place in the world. They inspire, but do so with fear. Unfortunately, as you alluded to, if the foundation on which someone’s growth in spirituality is built incorrectly, in the end the product will be damaged.

    Someone needs to speak up & call these “prophets out. Otherwise we can keep trotting them out to the hotels on Pesach, for another opportunity to spread the gospel.

    Perhaps you are just the person to do so.

    Thank you for your efforts

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on January 17, 2019

      Thank you! Amen to all of that. Honestly, I am just a baal teshuva who was privileged to become observant from a healthy place and had the chance to learn from rebbeim and teachers with a balanced and (I dare say) authentic hashkafa. Our team here at JITC is doing our best to spread this approach. There are others too. We will continue to use whatever resources we have to promote this kind of Judaism.

  • Avatar photo Yehoshua Feigon says on April 22, 2019

    I would add one more point. A child’s with Hashem is shaped early on by how their parents raise them. A parent who punishes in anger (as opposed to say, calmly giving an appropriate time out or a loving admonition) teaches his or her child that G-d, too, is angry and cruel. I have seen far too many parents justify their own obviously selfish behavior with the claim that they are trying to teach their children reverence. Kids coming from such backgrounds typically emerge either frankly terrorized or, in the best case scenario, explicitly rebellious. I say best case scenario because it is usually people from the latter group who find their way to genuine piety if they are blessed with good teachers later in life. The former are often simply crushed.

  • Avatar photo Footsteps In The Oprah Magazine - Jew in the City says on July 1, 2019

    […] of “being too negative” as they read this and other articles we’ve published on problems in the Orthodox world would understand that speaking about problems in order to fix them is […]


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