I’ve been learned in Eretz Yisrael for years, both as a bachur and since my marriage six years ago. My younger brother came to learn here this year. He’s always been laid back, and doesn’t do well under pressure. Unfortunately, my father pushed hard to get him into the same prestigious yeshiva where I learned as a bachur. I flourished there, but it’s an intense place, and I couldn’t see it being good for my brother. I told my father so, but he wasn’t willing to listen. Sure enough, almost from the get go, my brother’s been floundering. There isn’t much I could do about his yeshiva environment, but I make sure to provide a warn refuge. He comes often for supper, and for Shabbos. I give him good food, and let him relax.
Recently, my brother’s situation has worsened, and he’s in a slump – getting up late, not learning full sedarim etc. He’s a good kid, and not doing anything actively wrong, but he’s not performing well either. My father senses something is wrong and he keeps calling me and my brother. As the older brother, he expects me to play the role of mashgiach, staying on top of my brother’s schedule. I feel like this is the last thing my brother needs right now – he needs someone accepting and supportive in his life. In addition, my father wants me to give him all the details of how my brother is doing. But knowing their relationship, and my father’s chinuch methods, I don’t feel that hearing the full truth would be good for either of them. What should I do? Is there any way I can actively help my brother? And what should I or shouldn’t I be telling my father?
Rabbi Nesanel (Volvey) Rand is a rebbi in Mikdash Melech Yerushalaim since 1991. He is a certified family therapist who counsels couples and yeshiva boys in private practice, specializing in anxieties, OCD, and depression. He is also the director of the Yeshuos Yaakov Hotline, a free service for mental health advice and referrals.
Rabbi Yisroel Fabian MS, CPC, CGE is a therapist, personal and executive coach and consultant in private practice. He cofounded and served as one of the roshei yeshiva of Orchos Chaim in Jerusalem for sixteen years.
Rebbetzin Shoshana N. Perr LCSW, has practiced family and adolescent therapy for over three decades. She supervises social workers at Counter Force, teaches the “Tuesday” adult class in the Syrian community, and is the Program Director of Camp Bnos.
Rabbi Nesanel Rand
You ask what you should do to help your brother. The answer is: everything you can— one needs to help a Jew in need as much as possible. However, help is only effective if it’s healthy.
There are three people involved here – your father, your brother, and you. From your letter, it sounds like you’re all part of a triangle – your father is pressuring, your younger brother is in distress, and you’re trying to help.
However, there’s so much we don’t know. If the letter had been written by either of the other members of this triangle, chances are it would sound very different.
What is your brother’s academic history? How did he succeed in previous yeshivos? How much awareness does he have of the fact that this yeshiva may not be a good match for him? Would he want to be somewhere else? Who are his friends and what are they doing? While you think he’s not being productive, he may feel positive about his situation, simply due the fact that he’s in a “brand-name” yeshivos. As surprising as it sounds, the advantages of being accepted into a top rate yeshiva, with all its side benefits, such as social acceptance and good shidduchim, may be considering success in his eyes. Bottom line – he might not be seeing the same picture you’re seeing.
Moving onto your father, in your description he comes across as overly controlling. But we have no idea what his position is, what his concerns are, and what he really hopes for your brother. It sounds like you have some tension with your father, so it may be hard to view him objectively, but chance are he cares about your brother and simply wants him to succeed.
Last but not least, we come to the third player in the triangle – you. You describe the scenario as something you’re observing from the outside, but it’s critical to realize that you are part of the dynamic. You’re trying to help and provide your brother with a safe haven. However, is it possible that your brother views you as your father’s successful son, and feels that he can never measure up? It’s may be that while the two of you were growing up, you played what you now realize is a “mashgiach” role, reporting on him to your father. If this is the case, it’s possible that you never wanted this role, but felt responsible to take it.
You don’t understand your father’s chinuch methods, but we don’t know what he’s thinking and how he perceives the situation. And truth be told, your brother’s chinuch is in his domain, not yours.
What stands out here is that there needs to be clarity of everyone’s roles in the family. Your role is to be a concerned brother. This will include being available for him when he needs you. It may include alerting you father if necessary. But it’s certainly not your responsibility to raise him.
Ideally, if your father is interested in the wellbeing and productivity of his younger son, he should get information from the school, or through whatever avenues he’d use if you weren’t in town.
In summation, what is the best way you can fulfill your responsibilities to your brother? Tefillah is always helpful in these situations. In addition, I would suggest that an optimal way of fulfilling your responsibility without crossing boundaries would be to enlist the help of a third party. This could be done by finding an avreich who can learn with your brother every day, and serve as his confidant. He can find out from your brother what he’s truly feeling, discover what his goals are, and then help him achieve them. He can also be the liaison between your father and your brother. That would allow you to fall back into the sole role you should have, one which you clearly wish to have – that of a caring older brother.
I wish you much hazlacha in this, and all you do.
Rabbi Yisroel Fabian
Before responding to your question, I’d like to address an issue that it touches upon. The situation you describe, in which your brother is in a yeshivah which was good for you but not for him, is unfortunately an all too common one. What’s beneficial for one child is not always good for another.
Rav Simcha Wasserman zt”l said that the generation gap he witnessed came from the “my-son-the-doctor” syndrome. In today’s frum world, that may have changed into “my son who goes to yeshiva x, or who marries into family y.” This may stem from a parent (or rebbe) using the child to fulfill his own needs, albeit subconsciously, instead of doing what’s best for the child. This is something we all need to look out for if we want our children or students to listen to and respect us; they will sense whether we truly have their best interests at heart.
Now to the question at hand: In general, questions of this nature should be spoken over with a rav who ideally knows those involved and whom everyone knows and respects. The rav will be able to give you individualized counsel and direction, and you will then be able to tell your father that you’re following the rav’s guidance; it is often difficult for a father to accept advice or direction from a child.
Since, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like you have someone that you feel comfortable and confident in consulting with, here are some suggestions based upon the limited information that I have and assumptions that I’m making. There are many details and nuances missing which could have a big impact on the best way to proceed.
You say that your brother is in a slump. The yetzer hara loves a vacuum, and slumps can easily degenerate (if it hasn’t already — do you know what your bother is doing in his free time?). Sit down with your brother and have a heart-to-heart talk. Explain the position you’re in, and your father’s concern – a fact that he is likely well aware of, but hasn’t yet motivated him to change. Ask him if there’s anything you can do to help and try to work out an action plan together. Your true care and concern for him will come through.
You can then be in touch with your father and let him know that you spoke with your brother and that you’re going to be working with him to help him move forward. Do so while respecting your brother’s confidentiality; don’t give your father details that your bother wouldn’t want you to share. Give him a constructive general report, and explain that this will work best if you father can give both of you some space.
If you see that there is nothing that you can offer your brother, or that he doesn’t want your help, encourage him to reach out to someone who could assist him, a rav or a counselor. You should not attempt to be his mashgiach or therapist. Let him know that this situation is not healthy, and it’s not a good idea to let it go on. You may also want to reach out to one of the rebbeim in his yeshiva (who presumably you know having learned there yourself) for assistance. Continue to offer support and encouragement to your brother and let him know that you will continue to be there for him.
You would then need to tell your father, in a general way, that you spoke with your brother, that you are doing what you believe will ultimately be most helpful and that you suggest he consult with someone about how to proceed. You may gently need to resist your father’s pressure. Again, your position will have more weight if you can back it up with a rav’s opinion.
Bezras Hashem, you will have siyata dishmaya and your sincere tefillos and efforts will be successful.
Rebbetzin Shoshana Perr
A parent once said to a menahel, “I gave up on myself a long time ago. But on my son, I’m not willing to compromise even a hairsbreadth.” The menahel looked him in the eye and asked, “If you feel you messed up your life, why does your son have to pay for it?”
Many motivations lie beneath our “chinuch” methods – some we are conscious of and some we are unconscious of. Sometimes we are overly concerned about our own status. Getting our children into the most prestigious yeshivah, we feel, defines who we are, it reflects on us. Failing to do so often yields a wounded ego.
Sometimes this push for our child to be in a specific yeshivah is a matter of pride. I’m great and therefore everything I “own,” including my children, must be perfect.
You seem to be a very special avreich, sensitive and caring. You’re trying to do what’s right and ehrlich. You want to be a good son and a good brother. The two seem to be clashing right now.
Sometimes the path which appears short is actually long and convoluted. Avoiding a confrontation may seem like the most comfortable, easiest way to face the problem all of you are facing, but it will have very harmful consequences.
Your heart is telling you what’s right for you brother: acceptance and support. It’s telling you that a 24/7 mashgiach is the last thing he needs. What’s missing here is communication. Did you speak to your brother directly? Did you ask him how he’s doing and if he’s happy in his yeshivah?
Try to enable him to tell your father how he really feels. Tell him you know how difficult this task is for him; let him know that you will support his efforts, and will back him. If he can’t speak to your father then “in a place where there is no man…” you will have to be the man.
You’ve told your father from the beginning that this yeshiva is too intense for your brother. Now it’s time to say it more emphatically, with more conviction, pointing out the dangers, failures, and harm this can cause your brother, and the grief it may eventually cause your father.
May you have much hazlacha.