Am I More Judgmental of the Non-Observant Since Becoming a BT?

Am I more judgmental of the non-observant since becoming a BT?

This was a question posted by David & Mark to BeyondBT contributors. It’s a good question. One that I constantly ask myself. I feel especially sensitive to this question because before I started becoming more observant, there were several people (both BTs and FFBs) who I felt were judgmental towards me and it was a definite turn off. At one point I even sent in a letter of resignation to an organization I was working with when the coordinators sent me what I felt was an extremely insulting e-mail about my eating at a non-kosher restaurant after an event was over. After that incident, and a few other interactions with people in an orthodox environment who questioned me and put me on the defensive, I pretty much ruled out becoming more observant, in fact, I became almost non-practicing (e.g. High Holidays and Passover only). I didn’t want to be in an environment where I always felt judged.

It wasn’t until years later when I began dating the woman who would become my wife, and being welcomed by her Modern Orthodox family that I again thought of being more observant. This time most of the reaction was positive. Her family never flinched when I made a mistake, or when I spoke of things I did that were not things an observant person does. I also began going to my local Chabad and was welcomed with no questions asked, and no patronizing lectures directed at me. I was told that when I was ready to move up, they were there to help me, and when the time really did come, they were the ones who did help. There were still a few incidents where someone else (usually not in the family, or in Chabad) would overzealously push me before I felt ready (for example, keeping kosher outside the home, which I was working up to) but by this point I had learned to tune them out. I honestly think if others hadn’t made me feel so judged in the past, and instead had helped me to feel welcome and worked with me, I would have become more observant earlier in life. I still regret those years in-between that were full of wasted opportunities.

Now on the occasions when my wife and I have non-observant friends, or family over, I sometimes feel that they are waiting for me to start judging them and tell them what they are doing wrong. However, after my experiences when I was the one being judged, I could never do that to another. Instead, I simply try to make them feel as welcome as people had finally made me feel. As Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man.”

15 comments on “Am I More Judgmental of the Non-Observant Since Becoming a BT?

  1. Ora,

    Hi there. I do not live near a frum community at all and I am afraid that I will be judged in a negative way. It just bothers me that I have had negative experiences and I have became very jealous of the frum world. Thanks for the advice. I really appreciate it.

  2. Tevya–
    95% of the new faces in most frum shuls are just ffbs coming in to see family. So people aren’t really in the habit of asking everyone new “Hi, do you have a place to eat?” Like MG said, it’s best to ask the rabbi or a regular member of the shul if there is some kind of hospitality coordinator or if they know someone who could host you. It could be that right now you just fit in a bit too well–you look just like anyone else who comes to shul, so it doesn’t occur to anyone that you’re feeling out of place. In my experience, whenever I went to a frum community looking out of place (not necessarily not religious, but not part of the crowd) people went out of their way to help me, but now I usually just fit into the crowd, and if I need help I have to ask for it.

    Finally, if you are afraid to reach out to frum people and find them unwelcoming, they could be picking up on that vibe. It’s not easy to walk up to a stranger and start talking, even if you’re frum, and it’s even harder if you sense that the stranger has reservations about you.

  3. Tevya,
    It sounds like you may be getting lost in the crowd. If you can find a smaller shul, that might suit your needs better. It is easier in smaller environments to notice who is new so that introductiosn and invitations can be made. Also, some shuls have hospitality coordinators whose contact information is listed either online or announced in shul. Going through that route could be a good way to get to know some of the people at a shul.
    Good luck in working into a community. And may we all be sealed for a year of achdus.
    Have a good yom tov, all.

  4. JDMDad,

    Hi there. I am a 30 year old single male in NYC. I understand completely what you are talking about. I have started going to Chabad in college and it was nice. It was after college it was very tough. I tried to beoome more involved with the NYC/NJ frum community with no luck. I feel so judged. People do not welcome me. People do not invite me to Shabbat or Yom Tov meals. Nothing! And I am afraid to reach out to frum people because I feel I will be judged by them and they are not welcoming. And I am afraid of being judged and rejected. I have gone to frum shuls on Shabbos and no one comes over and says do you have a place to eat or are you new. It is disgusting. I feel like a complete outsider and it hurts. I want to learn more about Torah and I do not know where to turn. Because I do not want to go to a shul and not be invited for a meal. I hate it when people go home and I am excluded. You do not treat your fellow Jew that way. Anyway, thanks for listening. Chag Sameach!

  5. JDMDad, thanks for elaborating. Wow, I can sure understand how that first approach would have turned you off. Who knows, there may be people out there that would welcome such an approach — but I’m not one of those people either. It sounds like the overriding characteristic that you responded to in your wife’s family and in Chabad was RESPECT. They clearly saw you as a person first, with the ability to make your own good choices and to determine the pace of your growth as a Jew. Kol Hakavod to them and to you.

  6. Ilana, good point. I didn’t put the specific issues that I felt “pushed” me because I didn’t want the write up itself to sound like I had an agenda against anyone, even the ones who pushed me away. But I’ll try to give a few examples here.

    I was involved in a group that is advertised to be open to all Jews, but is a subpart of an orthodox organization. (I’m purposely trying to be vague here because I don’t want to point fingers at specific people or organizations).

    At one outing, we were at an amusement park. Because I had a long drive home (I didn’t live near the “central base” of most of the people in the organization) I grabbed a hot dog and fries while at the park. Another person in the organization happened on by, came up to me, and scolded me for eating treif.

    At another outing, the plan was that after the event, we would set up a car – convoy, and go to a specific kosher restaurant. I asked if there was a map or directions available, but none were. Since we were going through Queens or Brooklyn (I forgot which, but a crowded urban environment for sure), I had a feeling this would not work out well, and sure enough, everyone got separated about 2 blocks from the start point. I stopped at a gas station and got directions and went to the restaurant. Turns out it was closed! I didn’t see any other kosher restaurants, and did not know the area to know if there was another one nearby. I waited about 15 minutes. A few other people showed up and decided to eat at the non-kosher restaurant across the street. I waited another 15 minutes. The group leaders still had not arrived. Since I had a 5 hour drive home, and it was already getting to be the late afternoon, I gave up and went to eat in the non-kosher restaurant. After my food arrived (about another 10 minutes), the leaders FINALLY showed up. When they saw us at the non-kosher restaurant, they came in and started telling us how we should not have entered. I told them that since everyone had been separated (some people never made it, they gave up and went home), and it was over 30 minutes of waiting, that I considered the event over, and needed to eat before heading home. Later I received a long e-mail from them saying that the difference between man and animal is that man has the ability to overcome his desires, etc., basically saying I should have kept waiting, and comparing me to an animal. I felt very insulted, to say the least.

    The rabbi who is associated with the group also did not work well for me. His thought process is “This is the way it is. You do it this way, period.” No shades of gray, no work your way up to things, etc. It was all or nothing. Even though I was not orthodox (since the organization was supposed to be open to all) he expected me to know and uphold all orthodox standards. I saw him recently, and he still continued to grate me wrong. When he asked how I was doing and all, I mentioned some new things that I was doing, continuing to increase my observance. But it still wasn’t good enough, and he found plenty to poke holes in and push me on. Since I have been at the local Chabad for a few years at this point, I finally understood why I was so turned off by this approach. I’ll explain more at the end.

    Now, to contrast that with my wife’s family and Chabad: Here are a few examples.

    I used to teach people how to ride motorcycles on the weekend (once a month). Friday night, all day Saturday and Sunday. The family knew it, and the folks at Chabad knew it. Nobody gave me a hard time over it, no one made me feel bad about it. Instead, what happened was that Shabbos became such a beautiful thing to me, meals with my family, and davening at shul, that I realized I no longer enjoyed teaching over Shabbos. I haven’t been doing so for over a year now. Instead, I now cover for some instructors when they can’t teach on Sunday, and have done a few weekday classes.

    I used to keep kosher at home, but not outside of home. Nobody made me feel bad about it. But by observing them, and thinking about how my kids would view things, I eventually decided to keep completely kosher. (just passed my 1 year anniversary too!).

    When I really ramped things up last year, my wife was concerned I might burn myself out and drop everything. So I went to the Chabad rabbi to talk with him. I explained all the new things I was doing (davening more often, using tefillen, wearing tzitzits, etc.). He asked me about how I felt about the pace, if I felt pressure, or if anything felt forced, etc. He then told me I was doing okay, and reminded me that pacing myself is a good thing. I truly felt he was listening to everything I was saying, and spoke to MY needs, where as the other rabbi would take my points and use them to try to push me further, faster, to where HE wanted me to be, making me very uncomfortable and feeling like I should just give up the whole thing.

    Okay, as promised, here’s the difference I’ve seen in the “before” approach, and the “after” approach. Before, people used to tell me I was wrong. I shouldn’t do X, I should do Y. This isn’t good enough, etc. But what my wife’s family, and Chabad did for me is rather than tell me things, they showed me things and welcomed me to participate if I wanted to. I was invited to Shabbos meals, I was invited to events, I was told if I couldn’t do the full effort, then what I was doing was a good start, and maybe next time I’ll stretch a little further. And each time I did stretch further. Instead of resenting and avoiding things, I came to embrace them.

    Oy, I didn’t mean to write a whole new essay, but I hope this gave you more insight to what happened to me.

  7. Thank you for a very interesting post. I have been thinking about the same issue lately. As my values and actions shift from where they used to be, I tend to wonder why everyone else around me isn’t experiencing this same transformation at the same time as I am. Of course, I have to fight the inclination to ask everyone why they’re not.

    Can you elaborate on what, specifically, people said or did that prompted you to feel judged, and what Chabad and your wife’s family did or said differently?

    I think that our task of not making other people feel judged is complicated. What makes one person feel judged is different from what makes someone else feel judged. Still, I think that there are probably general guidelines for how to talk effectively with less observant people.

    1. We will probably do better phrasing things in terms of our own feelings than in terms of any possibly deficiency in the other person. For example, “I am not comfortable with that level of Kashrut,” rather than “I can’t eat in your house because it’s not Kosher”. Similarly, we should talk about our own experience, rather than deficiency in general culture. For example, “I didn’t like how I felt in immodest clothes”, rather than “kids in your child’s (secular) school dress too provocatively”.

    2. I think it’s ok to ask people questions and even challenge them, as long as it’s done out of genuine respect and interest. Somehow, I think that saying “I disagree” sounds less judgemental than “you’re wrong”. Saying “you’re wrong” seems to imply that you think you have the right to evaluate them. Of course, some people are more open to discussing these things than other people. It’s important to back off if we’re annoying our conversation partner!

    I would be very interested to hear more examples of things people did or said that brought you closer or further away.

  8. Great article. I don’t think we’re MORE judgmental, in that the things that caused us to become BTs were the very things we were always judgmental about. We were looking, weighing, judging. In a good way, just searching. The family and friends who FEEL judged because YOU are choosing to say no to their lifestyle are merely experiencing good ol’ fashioned Jewish guilt. And, of course, the perfect defense mechanism to not feel guilty is throw the guilt back at the person you FEEL you got it from! Don’t think you’re more judgmental of the non-observant now that you’re a full-fledged observant person. Doesn’t sound like you are. You’re just falling for the old guilt trap.

    And FYI, if you really wanted to find a way to commit to a few months of solid study, you could find a way, either in the US or Israel. There are plenty of programs that could work with you. Like being BT, its what you’re willing to sacrifice. I’m not guilt-tripping you into thinking you have to, but like becoming BT caused you to move mountains, if you want it, you can have it. The question, and its a real question, is if it is worth it, if you could make it work.

  9. When we make a BT decision to abandon some aspects of our relatives’ lifestyle, that objectively is a rejection no matter how nice we are about it. We become a living, breathing example of the thing they don’t want to be. Some relatives are less put off by this than others.

    While we have to ease this transition as best we can, we are certainly not obligated to continue doing the wrong thing so as to not make waves.

  10. Good post! This is something that as BTs, we need to be so careful with. Remember, simply by not eating the food at a family occasion we are judging by default. Not to mention a refusal to attend an intermarriage or other things we must do (or not do). It is us who changed, not our family and friends, and we should be as sensitive as we can be.

  11. Good point Fern. I do not, for a moment, regret anything concerning my wife and kids. (And actually we met several years earlier. While I enjoyed talking with her, I also thought “wow, she’s so religious, it’d never work out!” So that was about 4-5 years of missed opportunities there as well. But then again, our relationship might have needed the time for both of us to grow into who we became individually to make the eventual marriage successful)

    I was referring more to things such as the Birthright program. By the time I really had the desire to visit Israel, I was too old to qualify for the program. Looking back with the desires I have now, I also would have liked to have spent time (like a block of a several months) studying full time. Now with a wife, 2 kids, a mortgage, etc. it’s not like I can just up and leave work for 3+ months, go to Israel, or even a local place, and learn all day. I’m trying to learn some at nights, but sometimes I feel like my 4 year old learns more at her pre-school than I do. But as I said in my last posting, that’s part of the inspiration for me to catch up and learn more.

  12. I still regret those years in-between that were full of wasted opportunities.

    If you had become observant earlier, you might have married someone other than your wife! The way things happened was bashert. :-)

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