E ric’s was the kind of baal teshuvah story we all love to hear at the Shabbos table.

He grew up in a suburban town and graduated with a degree in finance from NYU. But he soon felt the emptiness in the business world, and — following a hike up the Appalachian Trail and a winter spent skiing in Idaho — Eric became a rafting guide in Utah.

Yiddishkeit was totally off his radar — until a frum tour group showed up for a bein hazmanim vacation and hired him for a trip down the river. After two of the bochurim were grounded with a stomach virus, the trip was in need of one more Yid for their minyan, so one of the guys jokingly asked their tour guide if he was Jewish. “My mom’s mom was,” he responded, and before you knew it, he was tied up in tefillin and part of the daily minyan for the eight-day trip.

A few phone calls from the bochurim back to their rosh yeshivah and a scholarship was put together for Eric to fly to Israel and study at Aish HaTorah. The rest, as they say, is history. He married, began a family, and continued in kollel. Today he’s a tour guide specializing in hiking and rock climbing outside of Jerusalem, and he continues to learn on his days off.

I first met Eric when his symptoms of OCD got bad enough to warrant intervention. But Eric was truly an inspiring guy, and just as he had the wherewithal to turn his life around years ago, he was able to successfully conquer his OCD with a combination of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy.

At this point, Eric was only scheduled for yearly follow-up appointments, so I was surprised to get a request for an urgent meeting.

“It’s not for me.... I mean it’s obviously for me, but I’m fine. I just don’t know what to do about my son,” he said.

Eric went on to tell me about his son Ezra, a 12-year-old studying in a mainstream cheder. Ezra had been at the top of his class for several years straight, but now he just gave up on learning and won’t even go to shul for Maariv. “He hasn’t gone to school the entire week,” Eric told me. “He says he’s sick, but I know he just doesn’t want to go.”

I nodded and kept my ears open for the underlying reason, knowing there must be something that happened to this poor kid.

Eric sighed. “I know I didn’t grow up in the system and now I’m lost. How do I address this as a father? I don’t want my son slipping any further.”

I arranged to speak with Eric in person and help him through this uncharted terrain. But as we continued to analyze the situation, it became obvious to me that something was missing.

“Good kids don’t just stop being good learners out of nowhere, Eric. Did something happen to Ezra?”

“Well,” began Eric somewhat sheepishly. “One day a few weeks ago his rebbi smacked him in front of the class for coming late. But I guess that’s what they do in some schools…”

“He smacked him in front of the class?” I asked incredulously. “Well, that’s certainly not going to make your son respect his rebbi. How can he respect someone who has no self-control?”

Eric responded defensively, “Dr. Freedman, Ezra is in a well-known cheder and this cheder believes in smacking. He has a very seasoned rebbi who must know what he’s doing.”

It was clear to me that Eric was very lost on this issue. “Eric, just because it’s an established cheder doesn’t mean they can whack your kid. That’s not really acceptable in the 21st century, no matter how frum this school is. The rebbi also embarrassed your son in public. No wonder he’s not interested in his learning. What does your wife have to say about all of this?”

“She’s from a family of girls and didn’t grow up frum either, so she said she doesn’t really know. But we agreed that as a father I’m supposed to support the school’s authority and not intervene.”

“Not if your son was violently smacked by a rebbi in front of the class,” I said. “That’s not chinuch. Your son needs you to advocate for him.”

“But I didn’t grow up religious and I want him to follow their path, not the path I took before I started keeping Shabbos. I can’t imagine how broken I’d feel if my son was out in Utah surrounded by Mormons, like I used to be.” Eric looked away dejectedly.

“Eric! Your son isn’t going to go off the derech because you’re a baal teshuvah, and just because your wife didn’t grow up frum doesn’t mean she has to squash her healthy maternal sensibilities either. But your son might go off the derech if he’s getting injured and his parents aren’t protecting him. Why would he ever want to go back to that class? He was humiliated there. Chazal teach that embarrassing someone is worse than murder — a person can only be killed once, but embarrassment lasts a lifetime, and an individual has to relive it each and every time he sees the person who shamed him.”

“So then what should I do? I’m a tour guide and a baal teshuvah, not some big-time talmid chacham — I should just walk into the school and demand that they apologize?”

I thought about this for a few moments. On the one hand, I didn’t want to give Eric the wrong advice by telling him to be too aggressive with the school and making things worse if the situation could be righted. On the other hand, in my profession I’d seen far too many kids go off the derech after being shamed by their rebbeim.”

“Eric, you need to go into the school and tell the menahel that this was wrong. You don’t need to campaign to get the rebbi fired, but your son needs to know you’re relating to the pain of his shame and doing something about it.”

“I should just march in there like that?”

“Or prepare to spend a lot of money on your kid’s therapy. He’s hurt and he needs your support. Show him that the Torah teaches love and respect and doesn’t stand for that kind of behavior.”

“What, I’ll go in there and ask that the menahel to make the rebbi apologize? But I’m just a—”

“Eric,” I cut him off, “you’re just a tour guide and a baal teshuvah, and you’re also a really sincere Yid with a great son who was treated inappropriately. If you don’t stand up for your kid, he’s never going to understand why Yiddishkeit is meaningful. He’ll only hate it because his rebbi used it as a shield for whacking him around.”

Eric agreed and I wished him hatzlachah, realizing that for all the debates related to the evils of the modern world, nothing drives kids off the derech like angry and abusive teachers. I daven that Ezra will find a way to restore his faith in Torah and the Eibeshter.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 686. Jacob L. Freedman is a psychiatrist and business consultant based in Israel. When he’s not busy with his patients, Dr. Freedman can be found learning Torah in The Old City or hiking the hills outside of Jerusalem. Dr. Freedman can be reached most easily through his website www.drjacoblfreedman.com.