When you’re the child of a rabbi, who are you?
September 7, 2017
The already difficult pressures of being a teenager can be even greater when you have to meet the expectations not only of your parents, but of a whole community.
Junior Yakir Kanefsky felt this especially in his early teen years. Coming into Shalhevet was hard for him.
“Everyone knew who my dad was, but no one knew who I was,” Yakir said.
Yakir, whose father Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea on Pico, said when he realized people were labeling him as “Rabbi Kanefsky’s son,” he began trying to shake that title so he could create his own autonomous identity.
He felt the best way to shed people’s presumptive perceptions was to rebel directly against them, so he pretended to be into hip-hop and rap. Some of these things ended up being actual interests of his.
“There was a time I tried being the opposite, because I didn’t want people thinking I was going to be a rabbi,” said Yakir in an interview. “I started listening to hip-hop, acting rebellious — things people wouldn’t expect from a rabbi’s son.”
As his freshman year went on, people started to look at him as Yakir. These days, Yakir is just focusing on what he is interested in — which includes music, hip-hop, sports and art. But it took some time.
“I don’t think whether or not my dad’s a rabbi, I just think about myself, so people will look at me as myself,” he said.
“Now I’m just trying to be a combination. At this point I don’t even have that on my mind, I don’t need to be rebellious or try to be a rabbi’s son, I’m just in between.”
Having a parent who is a religious leader, it seems, creates several pressures and identity issues, though there can also be upsides, and some say they are unaffected by it. In interviews conducted by the Boiling Point, it seemed at minimum to be a sensitive subject, at worst a problem, and at best something helpful and wonderful.
But always — something.
“If the preacher’s kid isn’t behaving in the way people would expect, there’s a little more of people whispering about that,” said Judaic Studies teacher Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg, whose father Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg was the leader of the shul where he grew up. “People are a little more surprised about that. And it’s not that they’re judging the rabbi or the family differently, but it’s more of a topic of discussion than if someone else is not going to shul, or not wearing a yarmulke.”
Senior Noa Segal, whose father Rabbi Ari Segal is also Shalhevet’s head of school, feels pressure because people often associate her actions with her parents.
“I feel like in Town Hall if I’m going to make a comment, it has to be a very valid point, and it has to be a perfect, clear point, that both sides can agree with, not too controversial,” said Noa, whose mother Ms. Atara Segal teaches Gemara at the school.
“If I say something, people might look at what I say and generalize that as the Shalhevet philosophy or my parents’ philosophy,” Noa said. “I have to make sure that I get great grades, that I do well in all the Judaic classes. I have to make sure I don’t answer a question incorrectly, that I say smart philosophical things and I have great new ideas.”
She says meeting people’s various expectations is not difficult since she isn’t a troublesome kid anyway, and often sees both sides of an issue.
But it can make it difficult to connect with her peers. Even though her dad tells her it’s not her job to justify the administration’s actions, she still feels that weight on her shoulders.
“Whenever I walk into a room, kids will just stop talking,” Noa said in an interview. “And I’m like, I know you’re either talking about me, my dad, or my mom, or there’s something you’re doing that I shouldn’t know about.
“Like on the Shabbatons, we were walking to the bunks where some kids were on their phones,” she continued. “And the second I walked in all the phones went away. And I’m like, ‘If you’re gonna do it, you may as well do it and not try to hide it, because I know it’s going on.’”
According to PulpitAndPew.org , a website that publishes research on pastoral leadership, so-called “preachers’ kids” — “P.K.’s” — who join the clergy themselves statistically feel less satisfied with their “general effectiveness” and spiritual lives. It seems they put more pressure on themselves to be competent both religiously and as leaders.
A study of 799 Protestant ministers’ families found that ministers’ children “were more active, on average, in church and church youth groups; they felt called to ordained ministry somewhat earlier; and, until recently, they were ordained at a younger age than non-P.K.s.”
Tracking the church attendance of kids at age 16 supported this view. According to the polls, 97.3 percent of P.K.s who became pastors attended church two or three times a month as teenagers, whereas only 81 percent of future pastors with parents in non-religious occupations attended church at the same rate or more.
Ilan Bouskila, whose father Rabbi Daniel Bouskila currently heads the Sephardic Educational Center, said he’s more engaged in Judaism because of his dad.
“It’s really nice that my dad’s a knowledgeable Jew because Judaism is really important to me, he’s the kind of guy that I can talk to and he’s really open-minded, and he knows so much about Judaism and the Jewish community,” said Ilan. “It’s been good for my upbringing, that there’s been this focus sort of on Judaic studies but it hasn’t been forced, I’m just interested in it because of my dad.”
There are also some challenges that comes along with being a rabbi’s kid. Yakir and Rabbi Schwarzberg, whose father led Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park, N.J., have both heard jokes about their fathers, who are and were the more forward-thinking Orthodox leaders in their communities.
“I do hear a little bit — like ‘Oh your shul is Conservative,’” said Yakir. “I don’t really mind it that much but after a while it can get annoying.”
Rabbi Schwarzberg said he heard most of the jokes about his father’s synagogue in elementary school.
“It was tough that I once heard a couple of my teachers poke fun at my dad’s shul,” Rabbi Schwarzberg said. “And there was definitely a feeling at times that our shul could be the whipping post for people who don’t appreciate some of the progressive elements of Modern Orthodoxy — and not only from teachers. From kids who didn’t get it, or just saw anything different as weird.
“Feeling like I needed to protect the image of my family,” he continued. “That was something that I struggled with, moreso than some shots from friends or teachers every now and again.”
But like Ilan, Rabbi Schwarzberg, Yakir and Noa all said there are also benefits to having a parent who’s a rabbi. Rabbi Schwarzberg said it gave him confidence in his own ideologies.
“I felt like it was already in my blood,” said Rabbi Schwarzberg. “The language of the Jewish community, the behaviors of the Jewish community, by virtue of growing up immersed in it my whole life, and therefore it gave me a certain confidence to not just follow the traditional path of rabbinic students.”
Yakir and Noa said having parents who make important decisions has given them empathy that other students might not have, because they see the process from the inside.
“I know my dad’s always really busy,” Yakir said. “And as a rabbi there’s so much work to do and people to discuss things with, and he also tells me how it’s really hard to work with some people. So I understand how Rabbi Segal or Reb Weissman could have a hard time making a decision that will satisfy everyone, ‘cause you can never really do that with any decision you make.”
That empathy has been a mixed blessing for Noa. She can see the faculty’s point of view more readily than other students, but that can also divide her from some of her peers.
“I feel like I understand more and I’m less accusatory if there’s, let’s say, a teacher who does something I don’t like,” said Noa, “because I know a lot about how the school system works and I know sort of what’s going on. So I feel like I’m less likely jump to conclusions with people or attack someone.”
She believes people should give community leaders the benefit of the doubt more and “cut them some slack,” since they cannot always give all the details behind a decision they make.
Junior Noa Kilgfeld, whose father Rabbi Adam Kligfeld is senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am, did not want to be interviewed for this article, saying she did not “feel comfortable talking about it.”
But like Ilan Bouskila, senior Mendy Mentz said he feels relatively unaffected by his father’s occupation.
Mendy, who was at Shalhevet for ninth and 10th grade and is now a senior at Harkham Gaon Academy, is the son of Rabbi Yossi Mentz, currently the Regional Director of American Friends of Magen David Adom (AFMDA).
Mendy said he didn’t feel any extra pressure because everyone in the communities he grew up in felt compelled to be observant, not just the rabbi’s kids. As a child, he lived in the Long Beach Jewish community, which was “more intense” than Los Angeles’s Hancock Park, La Brea and Pico neighborhoods, he said.
He said he gets some surprised comments sometimes when people find out his father is a rabbi, and he doesn’t mind because overall the experience has been positive.
“Maybe people look at you like you’re supposed to be something, even if you’re not supposed to,” Mendy said. “But at the essence of it, the religion is a beautiful thing, even though there is whatever that’s been melded into it over the last couple years. Whatever politics have been put in it, or judgmental factors added to it, overall it’s a beautiful thing.
“People don’t expect me to be the son of a rabbi,” he added, “and I guess there’s a certain mold I’m supposed to fit in, and I don’t and that’s okay.”
Ilan believes he would have been well-behaved even if his father were not a rabbi.
“I was raised by my parents to be a well-behaved kid,” said Ilan. “I think if my dad was a doctor or something I would still be a normal, well-behaved kid, but because my dad’s a rabbi I sort of have to, that’s all.”
It’s possible Mendy and Ilan were not as affected because their fathers were not rabbis of a shul or school. Mendy’s father was an elementary or middle school teacher or the leader of a shul’s youth group during Mendy’s childhood, and now is the regional director of American Friends of Magen David Adom, the Israeli Red Cross.
Rabbi Bouskila was the rabbi of the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood, but only until Ilan was nine. Now he is heads the Sephardic Educational Center, leads teen and adult trips to Israel and organizes learning events.
One thing that all the rabbi’s kids interviewed had in common was a sense that their clergy parents understood their unusual situation.
“My dad is very open to personality and ideas,” said Yakir. “I think he knows how it could be hard when a lot of people are judging me, and I think he’s doing a good job of letting me be myself but at the same time not too rebellious where I start being immoral.”
He offered advice to both generations.
“If a rabbi has a kid, I would tell them don’t put too much pressure on them and be empathetic,” Yakir said. “Maybe even talk to them if people are talking to them a certain way. For anyone, don’t even think about what your parents are or where you came from, just be yourself, and hopefully people will just go along with it.”
Noa’s parents often remind her it’s not her job to represent Shalhevet.
“When there are tough, controversial situations in the community…I just need to talk to somebody,” she said. “Because I just get very frustrated when something that seems so obvious to me is not understood by the rest of my peers, or the rest of the community.”
“My dad always tells me ‘you don’t need to stand up for me, some people are always going to hate.’”
Rabbi Schwarzberg said this type of dialogue is important for children of rabbis.
“I don’t blame my parents for this, but what would have been a very healthy thing for me to process and talk about when I was younger is that there is qualitatively a different experience, being the child of a preacher,” Rabbi Schwarzberg said.
These days, Yakir is just focusing on what he is interested in — music, hip-hop, sports and art, he says. But it took some time.
“It’s nice when people get to know me, and don’t just refer to me as ‘the rabbi’s son,’” he said.
The lessons Yakir has learned as a rabbi’s son seem to extend beyond the idiosyncratic experience.
“For anyone,” he said, “don’t even think about what your parents are or where you came from, just be yourself, and hopefully people will just go along with it.”
This story won the 2018 Grand Prize in Jewish Scholastic Journalism from the Jewish Scholastic Press Association.