A Ba’al Teshuva’s Story…or Am I a Ba’al Teshuva?

First off, let me tell you my name. I’m Martin Fleischer, from Kew Gardens Hills, NY, and I’m 46 years old, married 24 years and have 2 daughters, ages 17 and 13. I do know that I feel more Frum than ever before, but I often wonder if I’m a “true” Ba’al Teshuva in the plain sense of the term. However, according to Rabbi Zev Leff in “Outlooks & Insights”, and another source I heard once but don’t remember, in a way, all Frum Jews are “Ba’alei Teshuvah”, each striving to do what Hashem really wants from us.

Here is my story:

I grew up in a “mixed marriage” household. Now, before you assume that it means what you might think it means, my Dad was Reform, and my Mom was Orthodox. However, my Dad almost never went to shul (a Conservative shul where my Zaide served as a Gabbai). Both my Mom & I attended shul pretty much only on the Jewish Holidays ….except when I was in Hebrew School (same shul as above), when attendance was pretty much mandatory, I believe.

At 13, of course, I got Bar Mitzvah (it was just getting called up to the Torah for an Aliyah on a weekday morning) at an Orthodox shul…a few weeks before, my Bubby passed away, and my Zaide made me promise that I would put on Tefillin (which he gave me) every day…..which I did….and continue to do. That’s why I wonder if I’m truly BT. all the way…because so many Jews who weren’t observant but are now didn’t even do that. However, there is a catch: I only said a portion of the morning service for years, even until I was married about 12 years! I only said the page that had the passage containing “thou shalt break its neck”, having to do with first born animals. It was not that much, but it was something!

All this time, though, with very few exceptions, I kept the Shabbos (meaning no work), and always took off the Jewish Holidays. But, I never left early for Shabbos or Yom Tov, all the way from the time I was in (public) high school until winter 1990.

As for going to shul (or not), I did start going a little bit on Shabbos (in addition to the holidays), but soon I stopped again. So, you might ask, what started me on the path back to what I had done in Hebrew School (or even more)? Well, give credit to my mother-in-law…that’s right! Here is what happened:

On Pesach 1989, my (then) 1-year old daughter was sick. She needed medicine, and my wife had suggested that after shul, I go to the pharmacy to get some. My mother-in-law, who happened to be there at that time, must have seen me make a face that indicated that since it was Pesach, I didn’t want to go (I mean, my wife could have gone..but, if your daughter is sick, it takes precedence over all else). She made a comment that I would say “jump-started” my path back. She said, “you don’t even go to shul on Shabbos”, which was true. Well, it really got to me, so, to paraphrase the old Nike ad, I “just did it”. (BTW, I don’t think I went to the pharmacy after all!) Except for when I was sick,(or my wife was in the hospital for the birth of our 2nd daughter), I have not missed going to shul on Shabbos since then. (BTW, it took 1 year for me to start going to daven Friday nights and leave early for Shabbos, 7 years more for me to go to Mincha/Maariv on Shabbos, and 11 years to start going every day to shul)

It has taken 17 years, but, as they say in Pirkei Avos, one mitzvah leads to another, and in my case, it’s certainly true, though I would not say I’m totally perfect (I wonder who is), but I know I’m still trying to be, and that in itself is what Hashem wants.

Presently, in addition to going to shul every day, I read Parsha books to my girls on Shabbos & Yom-Tov, sometimes read the Chumash to them, get items off of Aish & other sites to read with them, enrolled my youngest daughter in a Yeshiva HS for next year (both girls are in PS at this time..my oldest is off to college next fall), go to Shiurs almost every day of the week, daven 3 times a day, have a timer & Shabbos lamps and keep lights on and turn lights off for Shabbos/Yom-Tov…these are recent occurences), read read read books to myself & to my kids NOT about the Parsha, but having to do with being a better Jew, try to read a Blatt of Gemara a day, read Tehillim every day…well, you get the idea.

One last thing….I made sure that my girls had a Jewish education of some sort, enrolling them for Hebrew school, and then (in my oldest daughter’s case), tutors for 4 years, leading up to their Bas Mitzvahs.

Well, there you have it..I hope my ramblings aren’t too confusing and all over the place, but I tend to write what is on my mind as it comes to me.

I’d love to hear from any and all of you on what I had to say. The question remains…am I a Ba’al Teshuva? I think so!


12 comments on “A Ba’al Teshuva’s Story…or Am I a Ba’al Teshuva?

  1. Martin,

    I didn’t mean that you were discouraged. Far from it, you sound truly upbeat. You’re dealing with each new situation as it arises,taking into account circumstances and the direction you want to go. You’re doing great! Way to go!

  2. Sharon,

    Discouraged? Me? No way! As Mark said in another post, “Rock On”!

  3. Marty,

    Don’t worry so much about labels. You’re working on coming closer to Hashem ( as we all should be doing)and that’s the point. That struggle makes it real. Don’t get discouraged. Just keep going along the road,doing what you can and adding to it.

  4. Another comment: Rabbi Lam had said @ the Melave Malka last month that he heard a Rabbi say that of all the Jews who died in the Shoah, 1/3 were children, and that those souls came back here to be given another chance to live a good Jewish life. He was responding to his own question on where did all the Ba’al Teshuvas come from….Let me tell you, in a night of having such a good time learning & laughing with Rabbi Lam, when he mentioned that to us, it really was an emotional moment for me..it really made sense.

  5. Stepima,

    You’re right….my oldest daughter, Sharon, who just turned 18 over a week ago (her Jewish birthday is tonight..21 Adar) always says what you say..she describes herself as “Jewish”, but I would have to say that what we do in our house is more in line with Orthodox traditions for the most part (sorry for the label again!). I think it had to do with hearing what I believed a Ba’al Teshuva was: someone who was 100% non-observant, and now is on the way back, or is there now, all the way. I guess I was a bit wrong, since, as you say, there are many levels of BT.


    Thank you for your kind words! I think it had to do with having children, and striving to show them the proper derech in life. In my case, as I said earlier, it’s like something just snapped into place for me at that time, because I think I started going to Shul the very next Shabbos! Also, and I’m sure many of you out there feel this way, I start doing things not just because I want to, but there is an inner feeling inside me that is pushing me on the right path in life, whatever I’m doing in regards to religion. Take the post earlier of Jewish music. Now, I still like my Bee Gees, but, would you believe after reading the give & take on the subject, that I almost listen exclusively to JM in the AM on the web @ work? Also, last night Sharon & I attended the Meir Panim concert @ Alice Tully Hall. BTW, we got the $36.00 tix…and my daughter said that next time, we should get the first level (the most $$), because it’s going to a worthy cause….I was really touched by that!

  6. Good for you Mr. Fleischer and your family. I am impressed by your story and your commitment to continue to grow over so many years. Many people would have taken your mother-in-law’s comment and went the other way. It shows your strength of character and drive for truth.

  7. It sounds like you’re asking about semantics… what do the words “ba’al teshuva” mean to you? What does the idea of being (or not being) a ba’al teshuva mean to you?

    Is it a feeling of belonging to a community of “official card-carrying” ba’alei teshuva – that by taking on the label you are somehow defining yourself to others? And you’re worried that identifying yourself that way might be a misrepresentation that would be found out?

    Could it be because you would be embarrassed to take on the title BT because you don’t believe you deserve the “honor” of the title when others came from less and therefore worked harder for it? Or is it a feeling of modesty, that you came from “more” and you don’t want to risk making others who hear you say you are a BT assume you too came from “nothing,” which might somehow diminish the honor of those who did and had to struggle more?

    If either of those are the case, then all you’re worrying about are labels. About do you have the “right” to call yourself a BT? And to that I would answer, of course you do. You have the right to call yourself whatever you want, if you believe it of yourself. There’s no need to feel embarrassed. Because being a BT is all about hearing the need to do more, and choosing to do more. Of rejecting the life you used to live religiously in order to embrace a life truer to halacha and Torah.

    Don’t forget that there are many ba’alei teshuva who are at a lesser level of observance than you right now, who may be unsure whether they can truly call themselves BT’s, because they don’t even keep kosher fully, or shabbos completely. And of course they can, if they are trying and never did before. In my opinion, anyhow, it’s about being on the road, and the road keeps moving forward.

    Then again, maybe you’re like me. I don’t know whether I consider myself a ba’al teshuva either, though I like to encourage it in others ;). I came from a very religious conservative home. We kept shabbos, and kashrut, but with the exceptions allowed within the (right-wing) Conservative movement. So when I moved to Orthodoxy, it was a move in practice, but I don’t know how much movement it was spiritually. I got frummer. I started doing more. But I stayed an extension of who I was anyway. I grew and I stopped growing within the new denomination I was in, where it all made sense and felt “right.” I’m on the road and I still try to do better, but even now I still feel like I always did, even when I was Conservative all those years ago. I don’t reject who I used to be, it just wasn’t right for me and it doesn’t strike me as right halachically now that I know more.. But for my own definition of being a BT, I think it would have had to be a scorched-earth leap forwards, and that’s not what I’ve become or done. For me, I feel that I changed in practice, rather than grew. I was always striving. Other people might say that still counts. Maybe I just don’t like the title BT because to me it has the connotations of going too far, of rejecting everything, and I don’t agree with any of that. So that’s where it’s possible I share your ambivalence, if I’m reading you wrong. But it doesn’t sound like that’s what you’re saying.

    To me it sounds like you’re only focussing on the words “ba’al teshuva,” on the label. As it relates to other people who call themselves BTs, and then how you compare to those others if you slap that label on yourself. And a label is the most superficial thing in the world. It’s what’s inside that counts.

  8. Gershon,

    I can’t always make Mincha, since I work 9-5, and, if Mincha is after, I always something doing…but I do go sometimes (esp. on a Ta’anis). If not, then, you can bet that I daven on my own. I also manage to daven Maariv w/a Minyan (@ Tiferes Bnei Torah events such as the Shmuz), or, if not, again, on my own.

  9. Marty,

    While many Baalei Teshuva find themselves making radical changes within a short span of time, slow and steady is a good thing. Many who go faster find themselves tripping over their own feet as they run.

    I say you’re a bona fide Baal Teshuva and you probably have much to teach the rest of us! My guess is that the things you grew into over the years were quite deliberate and your committment to them is much stronger.

    I wonder who misses mincha with a minyan on a weekday more often, the “grow into it slowly” BT, or the “take it on quickly – as soon as you see the light” BT…

  10. Steve,

    I used to think that I wasn’t, because, unlike many BT’s, I observed Shabbos for the most part all of my life. But, I guess I didn’t observe it the way Hashem truly wants it to be observed…and that goes for all the other things I do now. So, I really DO believe I am a Ba’al Teshuva…and proud of it! I guess that’s also part of growing spiritually…to realize that I am.

  11. Marty-Why would you think that you are not a BT? There is no age or unique path by one is a BT.

  12. I once heard Rabbi Moshe Gorelik emphasize in a sermon at Young Israel of North Bellmore (LI, NY) that we as Jews should all consider ourselves to be Ba’alei Teshuva.

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