Ask Richard: Orthodox Jewish Parents Block Young Agnostic from Attending University of Edinburgh August 19, 2010

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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  • mouse

    For the record, you CAN fill out your fafsa info without your parents’ financials. The fafsa website advices you to make an appointment with your financial aid counselor to explain your situation specifics. I’m assuming that would be impractical since you want to go to school abroad. However, if you choose to go forward with your school apps without the aid of your parents, one option is to start at a community college for your general ed, which will save you substantial money anyway and may even alleviate your parents concerns for that portion of your education. Then you can bring up the situation with a financial aid rep at that campus (looking to transfer to a school your folks don’t approve of, etc.).

    I think, were I in your shoes, I would look at ways to completely separate my financial situation from that of my parents, including but not limited to attending a cheaper school and then transferring and applying for financial aid completely on my own information (which means greater student loans to pay back but I feel that would be worth it). That’s just me though and I don’t know if that’s appropriate for you.

    I hope you work it all out Jacob.

  • Nora

    It is very possible to get an education without your parents paying for it. If you are truly set upon going to the University of Edinburgh, I encourage you to investigate your options and find a way to make it work. Maybe you won’t have money to go out every weekend, maybe you’ll have student loans, but these are things that many people have dealt with and found an acceptable price for their freedom.

    And you can apply for student aid without your parents’ permission or tax info. They’re just trying to manipulate you.

    (If you do decide to forgo Edinburgh, I concur with Richard’s advice to not resent your parents. There are many of us whose parents could not afford to pay for college, and you’re getting a great gift of education from them if they do so.)

  • G

    If I can leave some added advice from one “off-the-derech” atheist to another (or agnostic).

    I was in a similar predicament when I was 17, and the solution I stumbled upon (rather accidentally) was to spend my gap year in Israel on a pluralist/egalitarian program like Young Judea Year Course or Nativ. You get to enjoy a fun and exciting year with absolutely no religious pressure, while doing something your parents would most certainly approve of, especially for an “off-the-derech” son.

    By the time you get back, your parents may feel more open about letting you live in a less Jewish place.

    One small caveat – do not compromise on a one year Yeshiva program under any circumstances…

    It’s really a win-win for everyone, and I promise you will enjoy yourself.

  • Jacob

    First I would like to think Richard for his response. I apologize for the original email being a bit vague, but I was in a hurry at the time.

    I also thought that going far from home might be an issue, but they didn’t stop my brother (in fact, helped) when he went to Florida (where I have no family at) to go to beis medrish, also known as an Orthodox Institution of “Higher” learning”, for an entire year.

    The subject area issue is very interesting, and something I have not thought of. I will have to look into that.

    Once again, thank you Richard. I will definitely use this post as a future reference before I take any actions regarding this issue.

    In response to mouse’s and Nora’s and comments, from the people I spoke who went to Edinburgh from the US, they said FAFSA is fine. UCAS Finance forms are only for UK and EU students.

    I can apply as an independent, but there is a big problem with that. I don’t turn 18 till 3 months after I would hypothetically enroll in college. I would have to file for emancipation over the entire summer (I would likely get it considering I turn 18 in 4 months) which is a pain in the…

    But the problem is not financial. I don’t mind if they didn’t pay a red cent. But why can’t they just make a copy of their tax returns? They are not rich, I would get some financial aid. And Edinburgh offers many scholarships for international students as well, which I believe would require tax returns.

  • Jacob,

    There can be many paths to your desired future. As Richard says, try to keep a positive attitude and make the best out of whatever path you must go down.

    It would probably be best, though, not to expose your parents to the philosopher’s song 😉

    I wish you well.

  • Silent Service


    Start making friends outside your parent’s community, but be very picky about those friends for now. Don’t give your parents ammunition. That will give you social support and a sense of community even without your parent’s approval when you turn 18. When the time comes, apply to whatever school you want, and apply for whatever aide you need. It may be more costly to go to school without their help, but it can be done.

    Other things to consider before college are Peace Corps, Job Corps, or a few years of military service to get your feet under you and out from under your parent’s financial tether. Any of those three plus dozens of other programs can get you on your feet when you turn 18 and help you to establish yourself as an adult. That can seriously help with college entrance programs.

    Good Luck.

  • I third the comments below. My parents refused to let me use their tax information on my FAFSA, so I filed to be considered an Independent status student from then on out. I no longer needed their information. And because I didn’t make much money, I qualified for more grants. That may not be the case in the case of going to Edinburg, but I know for a fact you can file your FAFSA without them.

  • ftl

    This letter does not mention – why, specifically, University of Edinburgh? With this much money on the line (educations are expensive!), it might make sense to go to a parent-approved university – there’s plenty of good universities that aren’t Edinburgh.

  • i have worked in college admissions for over ten years, including as an admissions officer for the University of Chicago undergraduate division. there are some important steps this young man can take, to make his college dreams come true.

    I have very strong and mostly negative feelings about the FAFSA system, as it punishes young people like this young man, as well as families who are burdened by the Byzantine intricacies of the system. It’s not at all fair.

    Jacob, one very unfortunate truth about the FAFSA system is that even once you reach the age of 18, you will be treated as “dependent” in a financial sense and your parent’s information will still be required.

    However, if you begin *right now* the process of establishing legal, and thus financial independence from your family, you may have enough time to be declared so by FAFSA officers in time to make it to the college of your choice. I am sorry to say it, but most college officials involved with FAFSA applicants are overworked, harried, and unable to help much. What I advise alll my students: take this process very, very seriously. Don’t miss any deadlines. Pay very close attention to every line on every form. If there are mistakes made, no one will be much interested in helping you. I’m sorry, but that’s just truth. This is truly your first big test of proving you are “an adult.”

    Let me advise you further that international admissions are very different than admissions in US colleges. I don’t mean to discourage you, but I would recommend, given the hurdles you’re facing, you consider the simpler process of applying to US colleges instead. Remember, FA is correct to point out abroad programs (many US colleges offer them) and then there is always the option of transferring to your first choice school after matriculating into one here. Remember to keep your grades up at all times, no matter where you are enrolled. Students with weak academic profiles encounter many more difficulties in transferring and applying to abroad programs than those with strong ones.

    But if you’re very serious about this and know it’s what you really want, then you need to begin the legal process in a US court, to establish financial independence from your family. Even at your age, this is possible; albeit a difficult and expensive process. However, I believe your reasons for wanting to do so are Constitutionally protected and a fair judge would probably approve of your suit. Over my years in admissions I have encountered teenage applicants who were able to win this independence for themselves, and the FAFSA process basically treats those people as if they had no family, for financial purposes.

    I wish you the best of luck.

  • Manksteve

    If you wanted to study aboard such as the UK Have you consider the main Manchester Uni, It has a large Orthodox Jewish population largest population outside Israel I believe.

    But there plenty of other stuff near by for you to slip away to follow other activities of your own choosing.

  • I third the comments below. My parents refused to let me use their tax information on my FAFSA, so I filed to be considered an Independent status student from then on out.

    The problem is complicated by not only FAFSA and their general hesitation to grant students independent status, as well as the policies of many colleges themselves. While Micah is not wrong and a good example of how it can be done, Jacob’s problem may have to do with his age. At 16, it’s much more difficult to get approval as an independent than at 18.

    Further, many college recognize that increasingly, parents are trying to “game the system” by pretending or declaring that their children are independent when they are in fact not, in order to qualify for need-based financial aid that the family wouldn’t not normally qualify to receive. (again, I’m not saying those parents are entirely wrong to do so, as the FAFSA system punishes the middle class in particular and denies needed aid to them in favor of the most poor) But many colleges will make it extremely difficult for self-declared “independent” students to receive aid, and sometimes will outright deny admission in order to avoid having to fund another “need based” student.

  • Sally

    As far as I’m aware, there is a much higher population of orthodox jews living in cities further south like London. I’m not sure what it is that made you decide specifically on the University of Edinburgh, but you don’t seem too set on the course you specifically want to study so it may be that switching your attention further south to say, University of Central London, may go a little further to assuaging your parents’ fears and may gain you more support from them.

    Perhaps it’s worth discussing your college/university choices with them and involving them in the process? It sounds like they are (in their own way) looking out for your best interests. I had similar struggles with my parents when I left school, and they’re both atheists. They probably want to be sure that you’re making your choices for the right reason (to get a good education) rather than just to rebel against the way they’ve raised you. If you involve them in your choices, and can explain to them what it is that makes you want to study at Edinburgh they may even agree with you. I would suspect that a lot of their refusal to fund your studies comes from the fear that you’re doing it just to rebel. Do your research thoroughly into both the course and the area and show them that you’re able to make this mature decision based on what’s best for your future, and I’m sure they’d be more supportive. It would probably make them feel better if there is an orthodox jewish community nearby, somewhere familiar that you could go if you needed to, even if you don’t feel you need to. Sometimes being in a strange country without friends and family can make you homesick for your family traditions even if you don’t believe in the orthodox faith yourself.

    Best of luck though! I hope it all works out

  • KaeN

    I am an American living in Britain (Southampton) and am Jewish (Reform). Very few places in the UK have significant Jewish populations. Outside of London, Manchester and Birmingham, a “large” congregation would be maybe 80 families.

    I did a semester abroad as an undergraduate, and it led to me eventually re-locate here. However, you should be aware that there are very little opportunities for financial aid if you wish to do a Bachelors degree in the UK. International (non-EU/UK) students are charged approx 3x the EU/UK tuition and must have a significant amount of money in the bank for “maintenance” in order to get a successful visa. There is no such thing as need-based aid, so you’re talking about having to go into debt probably $80-90k just for the first degree. I would suggest looking for a programme in the US, with the opportunity to study abroad, and then looking at the UK for a postgraduate degree (MA/MPhil/PhD), where funding is more available (though still not great) for non-EU/UK students.

    I don’t know where you’re located, but I would suggest you look into Washington University in St. Louis. There is a sizeable Jewish community (of all stripes, including the purely secular, ’cause what’s life without a little matzo ball soup now and then), the University is great, with good Philosophy and History Departments, the endowment is such as to be able to offer good financial aid, and there are numerous opportunities for study abroad. Plus, they have a good record of successful Fulbright scholarship applications. Downside is that it’s pretty selective (far more so when they let *me* in). However, they excel in teaching critical thinking and logical analysis which may come in handy later.

  • Tikvah

    Just FYI – not sure what sect your family is from but there is a Chabad Lubavitch house on campus at the Univ. of Edinburgh. Perhaps a talk with the rabbi there might convince the parental units that you’re not about to go OTD. Or at least a place to go for Shabbat.

  • Jacob

    To the question of “why Edinburgh?” there are a lot of academic factors involved. For one, it has one of the best philosophy and history departments in the world. Other reasons include personal ones, like wanting to live far from a home where if you don’t put on these black straps on your hands and mutter incantations, you get screamed at.

    Chicago Dyke, thank you for your lengthy repsponse. I am going to research different ways on how to obtain financial aid.

    Regarding the various comments on the motivation of my parents: again, I would understand if this was about them giving me money for school. However, we are talking about sticking papers in a copy maker here.

  • Lisa B

    I don’t know about study abroad, but I do know that your parents refusal to release their tax information for a FAFSA and support you financially cannot block you from receiving US Federal Aid. It’s a painful process, but you can have legal documents made and provide those to your school financial aid office proving that your parents are no longer contributing toward your education and their tax documents are not available to you. I had to do this to go to nursing school after my mother disavowed kinship to me when I was 16 and later refused to provide any information for FAFSA when I went to college. My school guidance councilor was able to help me. At that time, I no longer lived at home or received ANY financial support from my mother, though.

    My mother’s rejection had nothing to do with atheism, though. She is just a very emotionally unhealthy person.

  • Jacob: i’m glad you’re reading this thread. i believe you can see my email, if not, it’s “anheduanna” AT ya ho oo dot com. (i hope you know what i mean, i am just trying to fool the spam bots). contact me if you have the inclination. i’m happy to help you for free. atheists believe in compassion and charity, after all. 🙂

    hmmm. trying again, in case this commenting system ate this comment the first time. sorry if this is a repeat, FA.

  • Brian

    Jacob, I don’t know if this is exactly relevant, but since you mentioned wanting to study philosophy at Edinburgh, I had to pipe up. Yes, it is indeed a fantastic program. One of the professors there, Andy Clark (who writes mostly about consciousness and extended mind theory) was previously the director of the cognitive science program at Indiana University. Having just graduated from that program with a minor in philosophy, I can definitely vouch for it in that it is very enjoyable, challenging, and informative. While it’s no Edinburgh, IU does at least have this notable connection (thru Prof Clark). If you aren’t able to leave the states (although I hope you will manage it!), I’d encourage you to consider IU’s philosophy program.

  • University of Edinburgh student here. Whilst I can’t comment on how active any Jewish congregations might be, I do know who you should speak to. The University has a very active Jewish Society (J-Soc, as it’s more commonly known) which last time I checked had a good mix of both cultural and practicing Jews. I couldn’t tell you how many are orthodox but I think you can contact them on

    You may know that the Edinburgh Festival is happening just now and each day there have been orthodox Jews out on the main street (along with the Korean Baptists, the creationists, the Scientologists…) so they certainly do exist and they’re definitely active.

    In terms of finance, you seem to already know about the university’s financial aid but you might also inquire at the student’s association ( Email someone there and ask for some advice. The Advice Place is a good place to start but you might also try the eusa President (contrary to what the website says, it’s not Thomas Graham. I’ve been off-campus but I think Liz Rawlings won the election).

    I don’t know what else to say really. Edinburgh is a wonderful place to study and you’re right, the philosophy department is world-renowned. The Philosophy Society also has excellent speakers once a month. If you have any other questions feel free to put them here and hopefully I’ll find them, and if you do come to Edinburgh, look up the Humanist Society.

  • SickoftheUS

    IMO some responders, and Richard, have been treating the parents and their “parental concerns” far too gingerly here. Yes, they’re probably afraid, but a big component of that fear is likely coming from the religion’s stranglehold on their minds, sense of worth and identities. Just like most religions, Orthodox Judaism places a big emphasis on “like father, like son”, I’m sure. One of the big tragedies of religion is how it is transmitted virally through the generations, creating all kinds of damage and cheating young people out of opportunities. This young man’s story is exemplary of that.

    Religion, combined with the exaggerated sense of parental power and control which many parents will unfortunately wield, is a toxic combination.

    Jacob, your parents are acting like assholes, with regard to you and this situation. Welcome to the real world, because most people act this way at times, on various issues. As someone else said, this is a great learning experience and will hopefully give you the ability to assert your independence.

  • Richard Wade

    I agree with your basic assessment of Jacob’s parents’ behavior.

    I’m trying to help a 16 year-old who may be more intelligent than his parents, but who has no power over them whatsoever. He has to basically survive them until he gains some sovereignty. In the meantime, getting something he wants from them requires patience and delicate negotiation. He has already taken some risk by being as frank with them about his agnosticism as he has, and it is causing them to be more restrictive, not less. Regardless of the irrational source of their fear, their fear makes crossing them hazardous.

    Considering how some Orthodox families can react, he is tinkering with a bomb. a “gingerly” approach is highly recommended.

    Yes, they’re acting like assholes. Dismissing them as such or even calling them that will not produce a positive outcome for the young man. In the “real world,” some barriers to our independence are best removed with a picklock rather than a sledge hammer.

  • Robin

    This may be a really difficult suggestion, but perhaps, if religion and control are the biggest issues here, you could try to set up a mentor-type relationship with one of the folks from the orthodox community in Edinburgh. Yes, it would involve lying to that person, instead of your parents, but it might allow them to feel like there was some sort of transfer of powers. And that there was someone there who they felt comfortable with, maybe who would even email them about you and how you’re doing?
    It sounds like you are the youngest child of several, and sometimes parents have a really hard time letting the youngest one go. Your having turned out differently than your older siblings is probably making it that much harder. I always think that one of the toughest things about being your age is the transition from protected to protector. As I told one student of mine, “Now it’s your job to make your mom feel safe.”

  • Robin

    PS I think that the gap year thing might be a good idea too. Especially if you can find a secular one in Israel.

  • I think this is a situation all atheists and secular groups need to address. This is far from being the first time I’ve heard of douchebag parents (sorry Jacob) extorting their children over college tuition due to religious extremism. I honestly have a hard time comprehending how somebody can do something so monstrous as condemn their own child to a life of minimum-wage poverty by denying them an education they could easily afford to fund. It makes me sick that such people exist.

    Someone (Secular Student Alliance seems like an obvious choice) needs to organize and manage a college tuition fund to help young secularists deal with this specific situation. I’m sure it could be paid for by buying a few less billboards telling people to sleep in on Sunday or a few less lawsuits over a city council praying before meetings.

  • Pensnest

    This comment is coming rather late, but it may be useful—I know from a friend who works in university admissions that a lot of American students need to do a ‘foundation year’ before starting on the three-year degree course. If this is the case, perhaps you could do your foundation year locally in the US at a college that would satisfy your parents? It would also (presumably) be a lot cheaper to do so from home rather than in Edinburgh.

    Good luck.

  • Late to the party, but I just wanted to let your reader and others know that there’s a very active ex-Orthodox and secretly-ex-Orthodox blogging scene out there. You can find many links at my place.

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