Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Yitzhak Yosef has called for religious Jews to distance their children from secular or merely traditionally Jewish family members, and even to prevent their children from meeting them.
The chief rabbi’s pronouncement is based on the fear that the nonreligious relatives will adversely affect the children spiritually. According to Yosef, observant Jewish children must not be exposed at all to a lifestyle that includes “profanity and television”, lest they become “corrupted” and grow up to be “shebabnikim” (a slang word for youth on the fringes of ultra-Orthodox society).
In one of the chief rabbi’s weekly Saturday night lessons held in Jerusalem, he said, “There are ba’alei tshuva (once-secular Jews who have become observant) with nonreligious families who take their small, 7-year-old, 8-year-old children to visit, and this influences the children.
“Particularly if the second family has non-religious or just observant children, they can talk about all kinds of obscene language or television or all kinds of forbidden things, and they can corrupt them. And they’ll be sorry later, asking ‘How did I end up a shebabnik? Why didn’t you pay attention to my education?’ Every action that you take informs (their development)!”
Yosef further recounted a story: “When our teacher (his father) was elected chief rabbi, a man in military uniform—an Air Force pilot—knocked on his door. He had brought us flowers.
I thought that he was the delivery man from the store. I wondered, ‘What’s this, a ranking delivery man?’ I was about to close the door so that he would leave, as I had taken the flowers.
He looked at me: ‘Don’t you recognize me?’ I said, ‘no.’ (He said,) ‘Cousin.’ (I said,) ‘Cousin? Okay, please, come in and see the rabbi.’ We didn’t recognize him.”
Rabbi Refael “Rafi” Feuerstein, the cochairman of the rabbinical organization Tzohar, criticized the chief rabbi’s approach and said, “The fruits of a disconnected and anxious education are that we treat the secular public with arrogance and contempt, which only keeps the values of tradition and Judaism further away and only increases polarization and hatred in people.”
According to Feuerstein, “the connection to family and to the people is one of the fundamental values of Judaism. Therefore, educating children in Torah and piety passes through their ability to feel connected with their family, however they are, and to maintain their educational identity.”
He added, “Judaism is not transmitted through disconnects and disagreements, and also not through fear and anxiety. Jewish education is focused on creating a spiritual backbone, which allows one to love secular family members and simultaneously preserve one’s ideological and practical identity.”