Ask Richard: Orthodox Jewish Parents Block Young Agnostic from Attending University of Edinburgh

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

I’m an agnostic teenager (16 yrs old) and High School Junior. My parents are devout Orthodox Jews, and I have been trying to tell them for over a year now that I have no interest in Orthodox Judaism. In response, they have just laughed it off as teenage rebellion. This would all be okay if not for this one aspect of Orthodox Judaism today: “the off the derech crisis”. The term ‘Off The Derech’ literally means ‘Off the Road’, or has left Orthodox Judaism. Studies performed by Orthodox organizations show nearly 15% of children who grew up Orthodox, not identifying with Orthodox Judaism as an adult. This has caused an all-out ruckus in the community, and Orthodox organizations are spending hundreds of thousands dollars to educate the community on how to deal with this crisis of freethinking.

This all collides head-on with my life, because I want to apply to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland to study Philosophy or History. I have worked hard to achieve the necessary grades, and continue to do so. But the problem arises here: there is little to no major Orthodox Jewish community there, and when I told my parents of my top choice of what to do after High School, they swore to obstruct by not allowing the release of their tax returns for FAFSA, and not contribute anything to my tuition (even though they did for all my brothers).

I really need some advice on how to go forward.


Dear Jacob,

If hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of educating the community about the “freethinking crisis” has produced your parents’ reaction, then the community has not gotten its money’s worth. Your parents’ reactionary, suppressive method to try to keep you “in the fold” will only backfire. Coercion is a very poor way to keep the faithful in the long run. It only drives the more thoughtful ones further away. The leaders have an easier time controlling the more docile members, but their community loses the gifts of the brightest and most creative.

I looked up “Orthodox Jews Edinburgh” and immediately found the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation. This is in their self description:

“EHC may be characterised as a mainstream Orthodox community and conducts its religious affairs in accordance with The United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and The Commonwealth (which is under the authority of the Chief Rabbi). It is firmly committed to ensuring that its young develop a sound knowledge of Jewish heritage, history and religious principles and practice.”

The website describes a very active congregation with many and varied activities. I was hoping that this might help to reassure your parents that you would have at least an adequate spiritual and cultural resource there, and you would not be as a man wandering alone in the wilderness. Whether or not you actually make use of that resource would be up to you.

I looked for the number of members because you said there is little to no “major” Orthodox Jewish community there. How big it would need to be to satisfy your parents is not clear, assuming they could even be swayed at all. But I could find nothing indicating the community’s size, so I emailed Rabbi Rose there, asking him. I didn’t receive a response, and I don’t expect one after this much time. Perhaps you could write to him.

I think you should be careful about declaring your agnostic views and your disinterest in religion too loudly to your family. Another letter I received from someone with an Orthodox Jewish background told a horrendous story of appalling shunning and mistreatment. It seems that your parents have taken your dissent more seriously than just a “teenage rebellion,” or they would not feel so threatened by your attending Edinburgh, assuming the “off the Derech” issue really is their main concern.

There may be much more complex issues that underlie your parents’ resistance to letting you study abroad anywhere, and you should consider the possibility that something as simple, human and universal as being scared about you being so far away might also be a part of it. Even your choice of subject for study might be a problem for them. They might prefer that you study electrical engineering instead of philosophy or history. Talk to them patiently about as many of these possible sticking points as you can.

Finding out what other things make them so adamant may help you to negotiate with them and coax them toward reconsidering. Take in the information calmly and gently, not ridiculing their reasons even if you find them ridiculous. You’re negotiating here. You need to use lots of patience and diplomacy.

Jacob, the sad fact remains that as long as you are financially dependent on your parents for your education, you will have to accept that they can turn down your requests fairly or unfairly. You can try rational argument, and they might or might not be persuaded. You can try arguing that your bothers have received their assistance so you should too, but they might counter that your brothers are satisfying the conditions they set. There are always conditions on financing a young person’s education, and it makes sense that there should be. You and your parents are just disagreeing about which conditions are reasonable and appropriate.

If you end up having to attend some place other than your first choice of university, try not to be bitter toward your parents. Keep a broad perspective. Remember that you are still getting the gift of an education, hopefully in the field of your choice. That is a great deal more than most young people will ever have. Millions your age are hoping for a dowry of a few cattle, or a job in a brick factory.

If you enroll in a school in the U.S., perhaps you can arrange a “semester abroad” at University of Edinburgh some time during your course of study. Your parents might not feel so insecure if you are still officially based in the States.

I think that you should be able to fulfill your educational goals for which you have worked so hard, and I hope that you can. Regardless of your eventual level of involvement in the Orthodox community, a young and earnest scholar who can straddle the gap between the religious and secular worlds would be a benefit to the wider community called humanity. I wish you well wherever your path takes you.


To the readers: If I am to respond to this letter with something of hope and possibility, I could use your help. Once again I call upon the knowledge and wisdom of our British and Anglophile readers who had so many good suggestions for last Monday’s letter. You may know about scholarships or grants that could reduce Jacob’s dependence on his parents, for instance, or the policies at U. of Edinburgh that might be pertinent, or aspects of the local community culture there.

I also ask for assistance from anyone who is familiar with the complexities of Orthodox Jewish culture and traditions. In my ignorance I simply assume that I am overlooking important issues. Your experiences and your insight will be greatly appreciated.

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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