There is never a good time for a teenager to run away from home.
But the timing couldn’t have been worse when the then-14-year-old daughter of author Sherril Jaffe and Rabbi Alan Lew of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco made an unannounced exodus seven days before Passover in 1995.
At the time, the couple was consumed with cooking and housecleaning. And the rabbi was composing Passover study sessions and writing sermons when their eldest daughter, who for anonymity’s sake will be identified as “Rebekah,” called to say she wasn’t coming home.
The couple dropped everything else, and called the police, school administrators and counselors. But no one knew where their daughter had gone.
Her disappearance was a shock, her parents said in a recent interview, even though by then she had been going through a rebellious phase for several months, was smoking and hanging out with rambunctious friends. She had dyed her hair purple, cut classes and stopped going to services.
Ironically, the sullen youngster returned from her flight of freedom on the first night of Pesach, Jaffe recalled.
“She thought of it as a vacation,” the mother said.
Whether it was vacation or rebellion, Lew and Jaffe realized they would have to use drastic measures to deal with their defiant daughter.
First they took matters into their own hands, with a tough-love approach. When that didn’t work, they sought professional advice. Finally, recognizing that there were no magical solutions — neither in tough love, counseling, religion or the adolescent fix-it industry, they made their separate peace with her.
And while the 16-year-old continues to break curfew at night — her parents say that illegal drugs, sex and violent gangs are not their daughter’s problems, although no one really knows what she’s up to — family relations have improved dramatically and Rebekah’s life seems more focused.
In hindsight, it hasn’t been an easy journey, Jaffe shows in her new book about the ordeal, “Ground Rules: What I Learned My Daughter’s Fifteenth Year,” which will be released Sunday by its publisher, Kodansha International, on Mother’s Day.
Jaffe hopes the book will help other mothers, as well as fathers, to cope with defiant children. More importantly, she wrote the book to reach the daughter who didn’t want to talk to her.
“As I started writing, the events became more intense. I felt totally lost and didn’t know what to do with a teen I couldn’t communicate with,” Jaffe said.
For Lew, former president of the Northern California Board of Rabbis, Rebekah’s 15th year marked a period of spiritual growth that was more profound than his 10 years as a student of Zen Buddhism and his 10 years as a rabbi, he said. He relied on his Zen ability to examine the day to day mishugas, and tested his faith in bearing his suffering along with the sundry burdens of his congregants.
By the year’s end, author, rabbi and teen would grapple with their own identities as they struggled to redefine their relationships to the family.
Rebekah’s parents sounded the first battle cry by revoking privileges.
“We fought like crazy, punished, grounded, all the typical implements of warfare that parents use with their children,” Lew said. “There was a period of six months when she didn’t see a penny from us. We gave her food and shelter, but that’s it.”
Rebekah only rebelled more. She stopped eating meals with the family and continued to run away. It became clear that no amount of punishment fazed the strong-willed teen. And when Rebekah stopped seeing her therapist and dropped out of school, her disheartened parents decided they needed a firmer solution.
Hence began months of seeking guidance from child psychologists and educators, whose advice ranged from sending their daughter to boarding school to disowning her to special disciplinary programs in which young troublemakers are whisked away to the wilderness. In some programs, Jaffe said, the youngsters are roused from sleep hourly during the night and forced to hike for miles with their feces in their pockets.
Though Jaffe and Lew knew families who had been helped by such programs, they felt the draconian methods were a bad match for their daughter.
“Not every kid will thrive in a disciplinary situation,” Jaffe said. “The idea is to break their spirit. There’s a huge tendency in society to take control of kids rather than nurture them…to make us scared that we can’t let our kids go through [growing pains].”
The programs also cost thousands of dollars for only several weeks of therapy, which exceeds the tuition of most private schools, Jaffe said.
“It’s an industry targeted toward middle-class, caring parents who don’t have deep pockets but can get a lot of credit.”
Wagering their choice against the experts’ advice, Lew and Jaffe decided to weather the storm without drastic measures. The girl’s former therapist agreed — Rebekah was too smart for the programs.
The parents could only hope that, in the previous 14 years, they had given their daughter what she needed to pull through her 15th.
The couple continued to seek new ways of coping with the situation. They eventually took Rebekah to academic testing centers at Stanford and Berkeley, where they discovered that while their daughter has an above-average IQ, she also has an unusual learning disability in deductive thinking. The disability had prevented her from doing well in traditional academic settings, and may have caused the frustrated student to rebel, Jaffe said.
But after months of testing, she was adamant about not returning to school. Her exhausted parents surrendered.
“She spontaneously moderated a life of her own choice,” Lew said. Their daughter went in and out of the family home as she pleased, and stayed with other teens who lived independently from their parents.
According to John Gusman, Marin Jewish Family and Children’s Services counselor, Jaffe and Lew are hardly alone. Many Jewish families have problems with their teens. Especially in observant families, teens often will turn their backs on congregation life in order to establish their identity outside the family.
Unfortunately, Gusman said, many families are afraid to reveal their problems by seeking counsel. By the time they approach JFCS, the problems are so entrenched that they are difficult to reverse.
Lew, meanwhile, grappled with his own perceptions of stigma.
“I felt like a hypocrite. How can I advise people on what to do with their lives when my own is such a mess?”
As his authority diminished in the household, it further eroded his self-image as a spiritual leader. He let go of assumptions about his role as father and rabbi, and gave up on ideals of who his daughter should be, he said.
Unfortunately, the Scriptures offered him little in the way of a quick fix.
“Judaism is not a how-to religion or a self-help cult. What it does is provide a very deep structure of spiritual meaning to your life. It provides a much deeper perspective on what you might be going through.”
“Every minute, I was in an agonizing conversation with God,” Lew said. He recalled asking, “`What’s the meaning of this suffering?'”
The rabbi didn’t get his answer immediately but eventually discovered that the answer was in his grasp all along. When Rebekah returned from her “vacation” in time for Passover two years ago, Lew and Jaffe noted a turning point; they stopped idealizing their daughter and began to look at her honestly.
Family tensions eased when her parents encouraged Rebekah to seek other avenues of education. She enrolled at the school district’s Independent High School, which prepares students for graduation through home study. She also studied with an artist, and completed community service projects and a wilderness survival course through another district program, Urban Pioneers, which provides alternative education to kids who don’t thrive in classrooms.
Rebekah’s sullen behavior subsided as her anger was channeled into action. After getting lost in the wilderness for three days during the school’s survival training, her parents said she became more loving.
But it wasn’t until Rebekah brought home a self-portrait from her art class that her father, for the first time, saw his teenager in a completely different light. In the portrait, Rebekah’s disembodied eyes and mouth are set against the backdrop of cloudy skies. Below the abstract face, a vine cradles a parrot perched at the bottom of the colorful collage.
Lew says he can’t help but gaze at the painting when he walks past the stairwell where it hangs. It reminds him that his daughter is “exactly what I always wanted in a child — deep, honest, creative and strong.”
It had never before occurred to the couple that they bore an artist with an artist’s volatile temperament and sensitivities. But then, neither Jaffe nor Lew followed traditional paths in youth either. Just as her parents had done, Rebekah was questioning her life and seeking spiritual inspiration, Lew realized.
By all outward appearances, Rebekah still defies social convention. She continues to avoid both traditional school and shul, and sports a pierced tongue. Gone are the purple, red and blue hair dye; her tresses have returned to a lustrous natural brown.
The difference to her parents is more apparent; they’ve won back the lovable daughter they had lost.
Jaffe says she broke new ground with “Ground Rules”; she usually writes fiction. But this story is her favorite.
Lew has regained his confidence as father and rabbi. After he divulged the family tsuris to his congregation, members with troubled kids of their own asked for his counsel.
“I had been afraid that people would regard me as incompetent but they regarded me as someone more useful,” Lew said. “They say, `I know that you will be able to understand what I’m going through because you are going through something similar.'”