Should Baalei Teshuvas Mainstream?

There has always been discussion in the BT and Torah Observant communities about mainstreaming.

Baalei Teshuva Oriented Shuls
1) are sensitive to the needs of BTs
2) make it easy for BTs to fit in
3) keep BTs segregated in a comfortable environment

Mainstream Orthodox Shuls
1) are not focused to BT needs
2) require more effort to fit in
3) integrate BTs with the larger observant community

Which do you think is a better path? Why?

What are some other characteristics that differentiate between mainstream and BT institutions?

31 comments on “Should Baalei Teshuvas Mainstream?

  1. Re Micha’s comment,number 19 —

    Baalei Teshuvah who began studying as adults in the 1990’s may never be able to learn the same way, or understand the same material as people of the same age who went to Yeshivah since childhood. This is nothing to be ashamed of. If someone chooses to judge me for my learning (not that he or she has the right to do so) let the judgment be based on my dedication and progress in the shiurim (lectures) that I can understand, rather than showing up at a shiur that is beyond my capabilities.

    In another context, even the most dedicated adult who becomes a volunteer paramedic would have a very hard time keeping up with the lectures in a continuing education series for cardiologists.

    Mainstreaming, to me, means that we and our fellow congregants treat each other with warmth, respect and support, no matter which shiur (if any) we go to.

  2. Rachel,

    Well I wasn’t being altogether flip. The “best” organized Orthodox communities, especially in or near big cities, can be cost-prohibitive for people with ordinary incomes to live in. A BT can identify all sorts of “perfect” situations, but finding one’s way into them is no piece of cake. You need a job in or near the good place, plus the income to pay for ordinary expenses there including housing and taxes, plus the extra income to handles specifically Jewish expenses. So people will suggest to you all sorts of wonderful alternatives, but you have to make an on-the-scene practicality check. In the end, HaShem will give you the wherewithal to do what’s best for you, even if the details are not what you expected/wanted.

  3. IMHO, FFB’s tend to choose Yeshiva or Yeshiva Alumni minyanim, or “national organization” shuls (Young Israel or Agudath Israel), or large shuls with the ability to run for various positions of power and kavod, or shuls with very strong Zionistic or “tikkun olam” service components. BT’s tend to choose “rabbi-centric” shtiebels and smaller shuls, “Carlebach” type minyanim, and those shuls which charge low yearly dues. I know this is generalizing. Sometimes an existing shul might host a tinier minyan (our local Young Israel which is Nusach Ashkenaz and davens on Shabbos from 9 am to 12 noon also hosts a much smaller Nusach Sfard minyan that davens earlier on Shabbos from 7 am to 9 am).

  4. I think shuls need to use the vaad format, meaning to add to the shiur or chaburah a commitment to follow through with hands on experiences. Historically, this was how middos were transmitted in the mussar yeshivos.

    Some things need to be taught by experience; getting the ideas from a book, or the kind of intellectual knowledge that /could/ be in a book, doesn’t usually lead to internalization. Ideally those experiences would be part of the culture, but if we need to repair weaknesses in the culture, this is a way out of the Catch-22.

    So, rather than just teaching hilkhos tefillah, or even peirush hamilim (what the words mean), add to that class a weekly assignment — committing to slow down for the prayer being studied. E.g. if learning the 2nd berachah of Shemoneh Esrei, each person in the group should commit that while saying it (perhaps only once a day) to remembering another case where they were in trouble, and through G-d’s help came out the other side.

    I realize this would likely halve attendance. But picture a shul of 80 regulars where four people are working on bettering their tefillah, another 3 are developing bitachon, and a group or 4 or 5 are increasing the honor they feel for and express to others. Such a shul would have an overall culture that would influence everyone.

  5. I don’t think I can agree that “FFBs need exposure to BTs just as much as BTs need exposure to FFBs.” It might useful for FFB’s, good for them and maybe even necessary for them (if we can really generalize that broadly at all regarding FFB’s), but it is surely not nearly as necessary as the other way around.

  6. FFBs need exposure to BTs just as much as BTs need exposure to FFBs. So it’s good for the community as a whole if baalei teshuva eventually, when they’re ready, switch to a mainstream shul with a mix of FFBs and BTs.

  7. Mark- I am sorry for bringing up specific shuls (even though I was highlighting great shuls) and will move over to the other blog you mentioned.

    Steve- next time you are in town, let me know.

  8. Neil Harris-our daughter, SIL and grandchildren are now in Skokie where our SIL is learning in the Kollel in the Skokie yeshiva. We helped them get set up last summer and really enjoyed our stay in Skokie as well as shopping in West Rogers Park, which definitely reminded us of KGH in terms of the shuls and shopping.

  9. I’m so uncomfortable talking about individual shuls, because Shuls are imperfect by design.

    It does sound like a good future topic: Inspiration, Intellectualization and Real Growth – The Role of the Shul

  10. Micha, as both know, there is a massive need to get shul leadership behind an idea that their members and communities need a product that offers growth. Ideally one needs to take that enthusiasm from a “BT shul” and give it over to those who are “fighting to keep their lives out of a rut.”

    I would like to think that most shul Rabbis know that while large participation is important in the daf yomi shiur, that’s not the the only means to an end. I am guessing that the lack of inspiring places to daven for the “mainstream” Jew is because
    A) most people don’t want the stigma of going to the local BT shul
    B) its hard for a shul to market inspiration

    Re: Aish Kodesh- it’s uniqueness is partially due to the Rav, the founding members, and the fact that they have a mission/goal.

    Maybe the average shul needs more than having “a commitment to Orthodox Judaism and Eretz Yisrael”?

    I think Cong Ahavas Yisroel (Queens) is pro- Torah, Avodah, Gelimus Chassadim.

  11. I would say a BT should definitely develop the skills to be able to mainstream. There is a program near me where guys who were learning (after work, Sundays, etc..) in the early and mid-90s STILL can’t attend a shiur aimed at yeshiva grads. A BT should try to become able to follow the more lomdus-jargoned discussions on Avodah.

    That makes for two reasons why some people stay within the BT community: hakaras hatov (as discussed on Beyond BT), and never picking up the presumed background knowledge.

    There is a third one — there are programs that rather than teaching a broad smorgasbord of derakhim teach their rebbe’s one derekh. This group then hangs out together as a social group unified by common teachings. (The way YU people hang out with other YU people, swapping statements of the Rav, chassidim find it easy bonding with chassidim of the same stripe, etc…)

    But to lose the starry eyed idealism? It depends on the nature of the idealism. Someone who came in through marketing, who buys into that genre of story in which true believers only miss airplanes that crash mid-flight, needs to also develop a more nuanced and realistic idealism. But then, so do FFBs.

    The real problem is the lack of inspiring shul that isn’t for “greenhorns”, that accommodates people (FFB or BT) who have been frum long enough to be fighting to keep their lives out of a rut. I dream of being part of a chevrah that founds such a shul. (More than I dream of earning enough to be able to live near and attend Aish Kodesh, the one example I know of in the US.)

  12. Bob, yes, I think there are leaders of nearly exclusively BT-oriented congregations who don’t want to let go. It could be for the best of reasons or for less ideal ones.

    Where are they? I for one don’t want to name names because I am not interested in lashing out at anyone in particular, especially people whose overall motivations are laudable and who have usually done so much good for so many.

  13. Steve- I think it’s important to address the fact that some shuls/communities are welcoming to BTs, but only if the BT is willing to fit a particular mold. I have a friend who is in one of the communities you mentioned and he has been totally turned off because he wasn’t willing to fit a mold (and he moved and associated with the BT crowd).

    Rena- Your last sentence rings true to me on a surface level. After some time you shouldn’t be able to tell the FFB from the Bt if they are standing in line at a kiddush or listening to the Rav give a drasha. However, as Steve so wisely said, “a BT should never lose his or her unique passion for Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim-even if he or she belongs to a primarily FFB oriented shul.”. With davening and some mitzvah performance our greatest gift is that feeling of, as Rabbi Efraim Twerski (Chicago)says, “Tischadshus” or NEWNESS. That excitement and fire is something that all too often (for this Jew) tends to lose fuel and is, BH, constanly being recharged by learning and shiurim (mostly mp3s).

  14. I think that one of the purposes of the “kiruv shuls” should be to help BTs integrate into the general frum community. I’m not sure what people mean when they speak of the “special needs” of BTs — page numbers and Artscroll siddurim? Or something else? The purpose of kiruv is to bring Jews back into Torah true authentic Judaism, not to create people who are “religiously retarded” who must spend the rest of their lives in “special ed” settings.

    Normal adults [and certainly even more so their children] are capable of learning enough in a reasonable amount of time to know how to daven and what the basic requirements of Judaism are. After 5, 10, 15, or 20 years one should not be able to tell who the BTs are in shul from those who are FFB.

  15. The West Rogers Park neighborhood in Chicago is similar to KGH and we have at least one shul that is known as a “BT shul”. Many older BT have joined mainstream shuls, successfully.
    The city, however, is more BT geared towards teens, campus kiruv, and a few “young professionals”. I would not dub Chicago a “kiruv city”, though (not yet).

  16. One other point-a BT should never lose his or her unique passion for Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim-even if he or she belongs to a primarily FFB oriented shul. I think that once a BT family has children, the mainstreaming process is eased by finding mentors and friends, and the events re Chinuch and Simchas that comprise the life cycle in the Torah world. Someone asked re communities that are conducive to BTs-IMO, KGH and Passaic are two communities that are exceptionally welcoming to BTs.

  17. IMO, shuls that welcome BTs will thrive. Those that focus on the needs of the FFB world and view BTs as freaks from another planet have no appreciation of how BTs can energize their world.

  18. You’re right Mark. Note, though, that members of a “mainstream” community and shul can often get direct or electronic access to mentors in other organizations. For example, there are kollelim devoted to outreach who have members available to learn with. Also, the mainstream shul member can take still classes or find a chavrusa at a BT-oriented shul.

  19. There would seem to be two aspects of mainstreaming:
    1) How integrated you feel in your community
    2) Whether your community views as being integrated with them

    One measure of integration is whether you can reach the standards of the overall community. Those standards are obviously community dependent.

    One important area of standards for men is in regard to Torah knowledge. In some places basic halachic knowledge is the standard. In others it’s learning Gemora at a Daf Yomi level. And in others it’s learning Tosfos with achronim like Rabbi Akiva Eiger. Your first target is to reach the learning level of the (above) average person and many BTs (and FFBs) feel comfortable coasting from that point on, but many Rebbeim I know feel that you should keep on striving to higher levels in your learning.

    Besides the learning aspect, some “successful BTs” have stayed in BT shuls providing chizuk and chesed to other BTs, while achieving integration through active community service.

  20. “I have a funny question. Where are these BT oriented shuls? neighborhoods?”

    Possibly in places you can’t afford to live in!

  21. BT shuls and institutions are good for beginners and serve the important cause of creating community and a welcoming and educational place for all Jews. But BTs should be encouraged to move on after awhile. Someone who is frum already 5 years should not be davening exclusively with a BT shul. There should be movement, and if it’s a man who is learning to “learn”, then he should move on to a more established yeshiva after a few years at the BT yeshiva, as well.

  22. I think that part of the issue of fitting in is that most people who become frum tend to view affiliation with a group/Rav as showing Hakoras Hatov (gratitude) and that keeps them at the BT-type shul.

    Now, I don’t think that’s so bad, but as I initially wrote, you can need to view and be part of the larger frum community (and I don’t mean by paying tuition to a yeshiva/day school).

  23. Ron,

    Doesn’t it seem as if there are “BT advocates” with an agenda to keep BT’s of various types separate and alienated from other Orthodox Jews? It reminds me of American Interest Group Politics.

  24. Ultmately a BT is doing himself and his family a disservice by not eventually transcending the “special needs” environment.

    His children want to be “normal.” His children’s prospective spouses are looking for “normal.”

    Now “normal” is really loaded word. But riding with training wheels after 10, much less 20 or 30, years of keeping mitzvos is not “normal.”

  25. There are many levels of where a BT is holding. I have different needs than someone who needs the page numbers of the haftorah announced every week. Also, a BT shul makes it easy for people to fit in–into a BT shul. But life isn’t just BT shuls.
    This all gets back to a previous post of looking for a shul. Look for the right Rav.

  26. I don’t like the title. Baalei t’shuvah should not do a “peula” of mainstreaming. But they should work on themselves so that they are fully comfortable and self-assured in a mainstream environment. I agree with Neil’s framing of the issues. Go to the BT shul once in a while to re-touch base with one’s roots, but don’t make that your makom kavuah, if possible.

  27. As if we don’t have enough designer shuls catering to designer tastes already! (Same way for schools) I grant that these can be helpful to some, but there is real value in having a broad-based kehillah taking care of all traditional kehillah functions—if possible. But if such a kehillah happens to be mainly BTs because that’s who lives there, so be it.

    In general, Jews of different outlooks and backgrounds can’t spend their whole lives in cozy cocoons without compromising the whole idea of Klal Yisrael.

  28. This is one of those times that I wish I had a fancy blogger name like “Frum Punk Abba”, but I don’t, so I’ll be as general as I can.

    I think both paths are important, but I have often seen that BT shuls, while strong in building a community within the shul, also tend to make some members feel that they can’t exist without the shul and function on the “mainstream” side of the street.

    The Mainstream shuls tend to, as noted, “require more effort to fit in”, since your average BT has less in common with the average mainstream congregant (such as attending same day schools, yeshivos, camps, etc).

    By default, the BT-type shuls are more sensitve and into kiruv and they tend to be more open to “Shabbos guests”. Mainstream Orthodox shuls, I feel, are more sensitive to the causes and issues within the larger Jewish community (like citywide frum organizations and local Jewish Federations).

    As I said, I think both are important, but I’d like to see more BT shuls looking at things outside their own walls and I’d like to see more mainstream shuls opening their doors to the not-yet-observant communities.

    Great post and I hope this tread develops.

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