Reviewed by Cindy Mindell
What happens to a family when a child decides to embrace a more religious life than that of his or her parents? Such “mixed” families face a unique challenge to maintain a positive relationship, a struggle that inspired educator and writer BJ Rosenfeld to write “Chameleon in the Closet.”
“I had never met an Orthodox Jew until my older son became one,” followed by his younger brother, she says. Her memoir traces the journey she took as her children worked to find their place in the world and she worked to stay connected with them.
Rosenfeld will speak at Young Israel of Stamford on Tuesday, Jan. 29.
A resident of Albany, N.Y., Rosenfeld is president of Hadassah Capital District and vice president of the Vaad of programming for Hadassah Capital District. She chairs the Israel-European Affairs Committee for the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York, where she also serves on the boards of the Community Relations Council and Women’s Philanthropy.
“The Chameleon in the Closet” opens in 2000, when Rosenfeld’s oldest son went on a first date with the Orthodox woman he would later marry. Raised in a Conservative family, the young man had become more interested in traditional Judaism while pursuing his undergraduate degree at Princeton, and then spent a year studying in Israel. There, the wife of his host suggested that he meet the woman upon his return to the U.S.
Rosenfeld followed the unfolding process in her personal journal, finally self-publishing it a decade later. Along the way, both of her sons married, one settling in Israel and the other in New York.
Both sons were infused with positive Jewish identity early on at Camp Ramah, Rosenfeld says. When the eldest wanted to work at the camp, it was the requisite Judaic-studies course he took at Princeton, taught by an Orthodox rabbi, which sparked his interest in an observant Jewish life.
“He started becoming a lot more serious and stopped coming home,” Rosenfeld says. “I got scared because I remembered Jim Jones and the [Peoples Temple] cult and was really scared.”
Rosenfeld called the rabbi. “I prepared myself for a confrontation and didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “We had a wonderful chat and he was really nice and patient. After all I knew about cult leaders, that was not what he was like. I found out that my son was learning about the beauty of our religioun and that was something I liked.”
Rosenfeld’s younger son began his exploration during the summer before his senior year in high school, when he went to Israel with Camp Ramah and returned wearing a yarmulke. That son went on to the University of Pennsylvania and found his spiritual home with the Orthodox students who attended Hillel events on campus. Both sons studied at the Orthodox Ohr Someyach yeshiva in Jerusalem, the elder going on to the Mir yeshiva and the younger to Shapell’s Darche Noam yeshiva before returning to New York and meeting his future wife at a singles’ Shabbat luncheon.
The title of her book refers to the different wardrobes Rosenfeld began to accumulate and use – one secular, one more modest – once her sons adopted a more religious lifestyle.
After “Chameleon in the Closet” was published, Rosenfeld sent a copy to her older son’s rabbi at Princeton, who shared it with colleagues, one of whom connected her with the Association for Jewish Outreach Professionals. She has also spoken about her family’s experience at Jewish and interfaith organizations throughout the country, as well as Yeshiva University and a seminary in Israel. She connected with the Stamford Jewish community through Rabbi Elly Krimsky of Young Israel of Stamford, who is also program director of National Jewish Outreach Program.
“I knew that my book could help people because I know I’m not alone in this journey,” Rosenfeld says. “It started out as a scary experience. It was hardest at the beginning. But there are always things that come up in families and nothing is always 100 percent positive or negative; what matters is the way you look at those experiences.”
Rosenfeld says that she helps parents stay emotionally connected with their adult children, even in the face of familial tension. “There’s no guarantee that your children will grow up to be the adults you want them to be,” she says. “If you want your children to respect you and if you want to be part of their lives, you don’t want to give them the impression that you’re nagging, you want them to know that they are important to you. Respect doesn’t come automatically: it has to be worked on, and your kids may not respect you if you don’t respect them first.”
Rosenfeld says that she’s learned a lot since her sons began their Jewish journeys, and continues to evolve Jewishly with the help of her daughters-in-law and nine grandchildren. Rosenfeld’s older son is currently studying to be a Talmudic scholar in Israel. “He is very focused and if this is what he wants in his life, I am very proud of him, as I am of both my sons and their families,” she says. “The bottom line is that nothing is going to make me stop loving my sons.”
That’s the bottom line for all parents, she says. “Our kids never outgrow their need to know that we love them. After we’re long gone, that’s what will remain with them. My message is that family and friends are an important part of who you are, and that life is too short to lose those connections.”
“The Chameleon in the Closet” with author BJ Rosenfeld: Tuesday, Jan. 29, 7:30 p.m., Young Israel of Stamford, 69 Oaklawn Ave., Stamford. For information call (203) 348-3955.
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