Ba’alei Teshuva Parents – FFB Kids (Part I)

The following post is from Rabbi Horowitz’s Chicago Community Kollel Interactive Parenting Column. Rabbi Horowitz recently updated his website, which contains a wealth of material on parenting and other issues facing us.

Rabbi Horowitz,

What is your advice for ba’alei teshuva who are raising frum-from-birth children in terms of making sure that the children are well integrated, healthy and normal frum Jews? As ba’alei teshuva sometimes it is easy to be very strict because of insecurities from our own upbringing and lack of family minhagim. If you can give a few pointers that will obviously need to be explored with our own rabbeim to tailor make it to our own families, it would be helpful.

Thank you!

Rabbi Horowitz Responds

Your excellent question practically answers itself, and leads me to believe that you already have a deep understanding of the opportunities – and challenges – that you face in raising your FFB children. You hit the nail on the head when you noted that you wanted to raise “well integrated, healthy and normal frum Jews.” For that balance is exactly what you ought to be striving to achieve.

If you are a regular reader of these lines, you may know where my suggestions will start – with you and your spouse. One of my mantras is that most of the issues that we face when raising our children are reflections of our own struggles. I maintain that in order to raise “well integrated, healthy and normal frum Jewish children,” you need to start with “well integrated, healthy and normal frum Jewish adult parents.” That means that you adhere to the timeless advice of Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon) and remain on the ‘golden path’ of moderation. After all, if you don’t want your children to be raised in a “very strict [environment] because of [their parents’] insecurities,” the best way to achieve that goal is not to be “very strict [in your personal lives] due to your own insecurities.”

Here are some practical tips:

Grow Slowly

Many meforshim (commentaries) suggest that the dream of our patriarch Yaakov (see Bereshis 28:12) where he envisioned angels climbing up and down a ladder is a profound analogy to our spiritual pursuits. The Torah describes how the legs of the ladder were placed on the ground while its top reached the very heavens. I think that the correlation is an insightful one for everyone – but is all the more relevant for ba’alei teshuvah. We ought to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground – all the while reaching for profound spiritual heights.

I would like to suggest that the reason that the image of a ladder was used in the dream (as opposed to, say, a road leading to heaven) is that you simply cannot run up a ladder.

So, too, spiritual growth needs to be a sustained and steady process (Click here for a dvar Torah on this subject). Which leads me to …

Find a Rav Who Truly Understands Ba’alei Teshuvah Issues

Not all rabbanim have a deep understanding of the complex mix of halachic and social issues where ba’alei teshuva need individualized direction. Finding a Rav who understands them – and you – will provide your family with an invaluable resource. Similarly, it may be helpful for you to find a ba’al teshuvah couple ten years or so older than you who can mentor you as your family passes mileposts and lifecycle events, such as enrolling children in school, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, high school placements, shidduchim, etc.

Be Yourself

I strongly encourage you to read and re-read a terrific article by my dear chaver Rabbi Bentzion Kokis s’hlita (Click here). Rabbi Kokis is an outstanding talmid chacham and his advice is equally outstanding. If I may sum up his thoughts, it is to refrain from jettisoning your personality, hobbies, interests, education, career – and sense of humor – as you embrace Torah and mitzvos.

Ba’alei teshuva may be concerned that they are poor role models for their children since they are observing their less-than-perfect Torah and mitzvah observance. I think not. You are setting a wonderful example for your children by seeking to grow spiritually throughout your lives. (Click here for a stunning Torah thought by Rabbi Shimon Schwab on this subject.)

Distinguish Between Mitzvah, Minhag, Chumrah, and Culture

In your question, you noted that, “sometimes it is easy to be very strict because of insecurities from our own upbringing and lack of family minhagim.”

Well, in order to gain a better understanding of when to be firm and when to be flexible, you must distinguish between a mitzvah, minhag, chumrah, and something that is none of the three categories, but is rather a cultural practice.

  • Putting on tefilin every day is a daily mitzvah (a mandated commandment) incumbent upon all Jewish males above the age of thirteen.
  • Refraining from dipping matzoh in liquids on Pesach (commonly referred to as “gebrokts”) is a minhag (a custom – one only observed in some communities).
  • Not using an eiruv that has been approved by the vast majority of your city’s rabbonim is a chumrah (stringency) that many accept upon themselves.
  • Wearing a black fedora is a cultural practice prevalent in some communities.

It is of utmost importance that you fully understand the difference between these categories of Jewish practice – in your personal life and as you guide your children.

More on this – and other practical tips – next week.

© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

Two notes to readers:

1) I strongly recommend the BEYOND BT website for ba’alei teshuva men and women. I serve as one of the rabbinic advisors of the website, and it has provided advice, camaraderie, and spiritual guidance for ba’alei teshuva around the world over the past twelve months.

2) In 2001, I wrote an article in The Jewish Observer on the subject of “Lifecycle Support for Ba’alei Teshuva Families” (Click here for link).

3) I also posted an article “Of Eagles and Turkey” on the Beyond BT website one year ago Click here for link) on the important subject of conformity to communal pressure.

I hope that you find these helpful.


9 comments on “Ba’alei Teshuva Parents – FFB Kids (Part I)

  1. “I also felt that this was an excellent article. Distinguishing between mitzvah, minhag, etc. is vital for everyone, not just BTs.”

    I couldn’t agree more!

  2. Jen,

    I understand Rabbi Horowitz to be saying that there are specific instances for strictness in one’s own practice and those of our children. You seem to advocate across the board strictness. Could you elaborate a bit.

    Thanks for commenting on an old post that you encountered in your browsing; by commenting on it, you brought a very useful article to the attention to many new comers to the site.

  3. Great article; thank you for posting it. I am newly pregnant with twins, my first pregnancy. This was the first time I realized, “I’ve got future FFBs inside of me! I’d better think about that!”

  4. Important topic, good article! In a way, the BT with children emulates what used to be called “The American Dream” (which is the aspiration of Americans to have their children live better than they did did) except in a much more meaningful context. Just how to accomplish this is the issue. Any help offered is appreciated!

  5. I also felt that this was an excellent article. Distinguishing between mitzvah, minhag, etc. is vital for everyone, not just BTs.

    It terms of the original question about raising kids I would add something to what Rabbi Horowitz wrote. I think it’s vitally important to be mechanech each child L’fi darco. (Literally, teach each child according to his way.)

    Though you may have chosen a hashgafa that works well for you, it may not for your children. Naturally, most people tend to send their children to schools that reflect their own hashgafic choices, but one must always be vigilant to make sure that those choices suit the child as well.

    As long as child remains within the broader Torah framework we must accept the idea that our children may find a different, yet valid derech more suited to them.

  6. This is a great article. May I suggest that R Y Horowitz’s articles on this and other issues be featured as a weekly link?

  7. I think that this was a well written article as well. I also think that what Rabbi Horowitz said about finding a Rav who really understands people who did not grow up frum is extrememly important. Many Rebaim are not familiar with this group of people. From my experience if you as a question to a Rav who is not familiar serious damage can be done. An example of this is Kashrus when dealing with family members. Someones kitchen might be kosher to the minimum standards which is a kitchen you would not want for yourself but it might be ok for you to eat in if you ask a Rav with experience with these issues. if you ask an everyday Rav this questions, many times they will tell you not to eat in this kitchen. It is issues like this that make it so important to ask a Rav with this type of experience. Shalom Bayis can be saved or lost because of issues like these.

    I enjoy being able to explore and learn about various minhagim and choose the ones which I feel the most connections to rather than just taking on minhagim of a certain community or a certain Rav. understanding different minhagim and the reasons behind them is whats important. When raising children, they are always going to have questions and you need to prepare for those questions by understanding everything that you do.

  8. This is one of the best articles to have appeared on this site! I’m off to forward it to some friends…. This is a subject that hasn’t been discussed often enough (although yours truly has occasionally touched upon it) – the danger of trying to “over frum” our kids as compensation for our not having been raised frum. If anyone were to do a survey on this blog of the most prevalent theme, I’d venture to guess that it’s moderation in all things, as opposed to zealousness.

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