My Two Cents on BT-Ness

By Bob Miller

By now, it should be clear that anything a BT writes about BT-ness strongly reflects his/her own life experiences and personality. This has led to confusion and even acrimony in Beyond BT discussions, as each commenter knows deep in his/her heart what the teshuva process “really” is, while each reader or later commenter has some alternative reality. This, anyway, is my reality, as revealed somewhat in an interview with myself.

1. Q. Did some teshuva/kiruv operative or organization find you one day and straighten you out? A. No.

2. Q. Did you have some unusually depressing or inspiring moment that sent you headlong into a new life? A. No.

3. Q. Can you point to one particular mentor you always use as a guide? A. No.

4. Q. All right, already! What got you into teshuva mode?

A. It’s like this:

From college onward, I kept observing movements in action whose adherents and essence were clearly phony (Communism, Anarchism, an assortment of weird eastern religions, Reform and Conservative Judaism…). At each turn, it became clear to me that these were inferior to real Judaism in every way. But it took a long while to make the logical decision to take real Jewish learning and practice seriously enough to do them wholeheartedly in practice.

Even then, there was no sudden makeover. Incrementally, I began learning this and doing that, with great support from my wife. It’s great when a couple can be moving in the same positive direction. Since we were married, we have lived in seven different cities (plus, I was working away from home in New Hampshire for several years and commuting back monthly or so—a story for another time). In each of them, we met great Jews as neighbors or rabbis. We learned a lot from them and often still correspond with them. We are still works in progress, as Jews should be, and fit no pat paradigm at all.

The upshot is that I can’t be totally skeptical about any teshuva path suggested at Beyond BT, because they can all probably work in the right place at the right time for the right people.

There is a fine line between righteousness and self-righteousness. We want to distinguish ourselves from the wild and crazy members of general society. We want to connect with the true Mesorah and its practitioners and disconnect from the lies and the liars. On the other hand, the temptation exists to classify even some halachically valid forms of Orthodox Judaism as irretrievably over the line, because these don’t appeal to us or match the path we’ve taken. There is enough pain in the world that we shouldn’t amplify it by taking in-crowd-ness to a laughable level well beyond principle.

19 comments on “My Two Cents on BT-Ness

  1. Bob, great post! Funny, but when I came back from a year’s study in Israel (like you, not precipitated by any epiphany or sudden see the light syndrome), I wound up for a small period of time at my parents’ house in Wantagh, and the Young Israel of North Bellmore was a quick 1.8 mile walk from my house as well. Rabbi Gorelick and his wife (already grandparents then, their kids were my age) were quick to invite me for a shabbos meal, and the congregation was very warm and welcoming. As married folk, my husband and I returned again from Israel and again wound up at my parents’ house for a brief period of time, and he also felt welcomed by the new rabbi at the YINB. Those little out of town shuls shouldn’t be discounted!

  2. Hi, Albany Jew…I recall being in Albany many years ago and enjoying kosher pizza at the shop operated by the Chabad house downtown.
    The pizza and the people were terrific. The
    only other shul in town is this…correct?

  3. I still remember the first person who befriended me at the first Orthodox minyan that I davened at regularly (in the basement of the Shelter Rock Jewish Center). It made a big difference. Thanks Sam R.

  4. When I was a kid, the shammas in our family’s shul would greet everyone coming into the men’s section during Shabbos services by smiling and handing him a siddur open to the current page.

  5. I agree with the smaller community sentiment! I should make it clear that this experience was not in Albany (we don’t even have a Young Israel!)

  6. AJ, I wasn’t being facetious! I really do endorse it. When I first came back from Israel after that “turning the corner” moment, I essentially landed in Chicago. I was always grateful that I started out “out of town” and not in a major metropolitan frum neighborhood. In Chicago I got lots of attention, warmth and tender, loving care — starting in no small part with those greetings and inquiries when I showed up, like a lost chick, at a strange shul in a strange place with a strange thing on my head.

  7. Yes, obviously Ron, but I actually mean beyond just Shabbos and Yom Tov services. One of our first experiences with Orthodox Judaism was going to a Young Israel to sell our Chumatz. We were chastised for not including perfume on our list! We knew nothing about it, but were very taken aback (hurt even?) by the experience.

  8. Great post Bob! We have a very similar story. No great life event, and even though we did get immeasurable help from the Jewish Heritage Center, we had already started the process before we went there.

    Regarding post # 4, has there been a discussion about warmly greeting new people at a shul no matter where they are holding? To me that is an essential part of average guy kiruv. My wife and I have been warmly greeted and not so warmly greeted at times and this directly lead to steps forward AND backward inn the early years.

  9. I do need to point out one important if not cataclysmic event. The Conservative temple we attended for a time on Long Island was far more suburban than Jewish. Everything was “plastic” and superficial. My wife was offended during an adult class when their rabbi made an dismissive remark when she offered an explanation by Rav SR Hirsch ZT”L, whose works we had begun to read. I was also ripe for an alternative. It turned out that the Young Israel of North Bellmore was within a 1.8 mile walk of our apartment, so I decided to try it out and walk there one wintry Shabbos. I guessed what time the morning service would start and got there way early. Freezing outside, I wondered if/when anyone would show up. When they finally did show up, I was welcomed in with open arms. Joe Polansky, in particular, helped me to get comfortable. This reception and later events there overcame our apprehensions about joining an Orthodox community.

  10. I had some background from eight years in day school but only began to learn about Judaism on an adult level in the early 1970’s. The apathy in between would have been much less if I could have found an Orthodox peer group locally while I attended (and after I graduated from) day school. Hard as it might be to visualize now, Orthodox life on Staten Island in the early 1960’s barely existed. The day school student population was tiny and largely Conservative or even Reform, although the administration and Hebrew studies faculty were both very Orthodox. At the time, it seemed as if I would have no social life whatsoever if I really followed all they taught in school. Paradoxically, I had no theoretical objections to Orthodox Judaism at all.

    In many respects, I started keeping Shabbos in the mid-to-late 1970’s. However, I was reluctant for too long to ask for flex time so I could leave work early on Fridays. I finally got past this shyness (!)when I accepted a new job offer and we moved to Allentown, PA. This was in 1983. I also took the opportunity then to start wearing a kippa to work.

    The change of job and locale made these two transitions, which I really should have done earlier, easier for me.

    These were more effects than causes. That is, commitment had to come before action.

  11. Bob, nice post and it certainly fulfills (for now) the Bein Adam L’Chavero Teshuva requirement for asking us to correct spelling and grammar errors in your comments.

    How many years into your learning about Judaism did you start keeping Shabbos? And was that was a key turning point?

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