When I speak about my dear friend and mentor, Esther, Z’l, I feel as if I am not only mourning the loss of a dear friend, but I am also mourning the loss of the very soul which helped my neshama, and my husband and children’s neshamas, to return to G-d.
When Marsha Smagley, of Highland Park, Illinois, needed help for getting through the loss of a dear loved one, tragically, her Partner in Torah, Esther Solomon, Z’l, could not help her because it was Esther herself whom Marsha mourned, after Esther was killed in a tragic accident while crossing the street in Brooklyn. Marsha, a writer herself, is hard-pressed to find the words to adequately describe the impact that Esther and her husband, Nosson Solomon had on her entire family.
When Marsha started learning with Esther, her husband Norm and children, Jeffrey and Jamie, were trailing behind her in observance, but that all changed in 2004 after Esther and Nosson graciously invited Marsha and her family to spend all 11 days of Pesach with their family in Brooklyn. At the time Marsha had been married to Norm a number of years, and they had recently transferred their children from public school to day school. Marsha was worried that Flatbush would be too intense for her family, but they embarked on the adventure, and Marsha sees this time as pivotal to the religious transformation of her entire family. She elaborates:
“My husband and I have always lived in a very secular Jewish community. He never wore a kippah every day, but when he returned from Flatbush, after wearing a kippah every day in the Solomon’s home, he went back to work in a secular company wearing a kippah every day. Esther and Nosson had a tremendous impact on my husband and it was wonderful for our shalom bayis. They completely warmed my husband’s heart, and he got the chance to see that all of the changes I wanted to make to be more observant were actually normal in a frum community, and they weren’t just coming from me. Esther’s cooking was beyond phenomenal, and our whole family learned how to make Pesach through her example. We spent two entire Pesachs with her and Nosson, and then the Pesach after she was niftar, we all came to help Nosson make Pesach without her. Although it was incredibly sad, I felt Esther’s bracha in the kitchen.
After Nosson remarried in 2007, we joined him and his new wife again for an entire Pesach. When I speak about my dear friend and mentor, Esther, Z’l, I feel as if I am not only mourning the loss of a dear friend, but I am also mourning the loss of the very soul which helped my neshama, and my husband and children’s neshamas, to return to G-d. There are no adequate words to express this incredible gift. I know that Esther continues to shine her blessings upon us every Pesach. The Pesach we came to help after Esther was nifter, I had a dream about her when we were in their home. We were talking happily as if she had never left. I felt this dream was Hashem’s blessing to me, one more special moment with my dear friend. Over the years, Esther helped me with the mitzvah of covering my hair, and she gave me a beautiful scarf (tichel) of hers to wear and showed me how to tie it. I still wear it and feel close to her every time I do.”
Not every BT is fortunate enough to have a long-standing mentor relationship with a frum individual or family to guide them through every difficult passage in life. In December 2005, Mark Frankel and David Linn of Kew Gardens Hills, joined together in a labor of love with Rabbinical Advisors, Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz and Rabbi Label Lam of Monsey, and Rabbi Hershel Welcher of Kew Gardens Hills to launch the website, www.BeyondBT.com. The site provides a forum for the discussion of issues of common interest to Baalei Teshuva and allows Baalei Teshuva from around the world to connect and provide chizuk to one another.
Regular and guest contributors from around the world write posts on relevant topics. The website archives all posts, so any BT with a personal/family issue or challenging lifecycle event can select from close to 1,000 intriguing and provocative topics, including “Who’s Cracked the Code on Frum Finances”, “My Brother’s Big Fat Secular Wedding”, and “The BT Problem that Never Goes Away.” The site draws on the collective experience and wisdom of its contributors and commentators who have discussed life cycle issues such as the Bris, Bar Mitzvah, Getting into Yeshivas and Seminaries, Shidduchim, non-observant friends and relatives, parenting, spiritual growth and many other subjects.
Weekly posts often receive over 50 comments from the between 4OO-500 daily visitors to the site. In addition to the website, Beyond B.T. has sponsored three Shabbatons, and three Melava Malkas, bringing BTs together in support and friendship.
“About six years ago, the local Bais Yaakov high school rejected one of my girls, and my friend and mentor, Chani really was there for me. I honestly don’t know what I would have done without her.”
Even for those baalei teshuvah who forge close relationships with their mentors, twenty-five years would be considered an incredible length of time for such a friendship. Malki* ( name disguised) met her mentor, Chani*(name disguised) when she was young and newly married, expecting her first baby and working as a secretary at the college she was attending at the time. Her friendship began with the occasional Shabbos invitation, and grew to attending shiurim together, and borrowing the right clothing for dates with her now, husband of many years. Chani made her a bridal shower, and found her a kallah teacher. Her parents made Malki’s Shabbos kallah. Her involvement in Malki’s life was never more deeply appreciated than when, recently, Malki was devastated by a tumultuous effort to place her teenage daughter into the right high school. When her daughter, and by connection – she – were rejected by the high school of choice, Malki took it particularly badly. She credits Chani with supporting her when she was at her lowest:
“About six years ago, the local Bais Yaakov high school rejected one of my girls, and my mentor, Chani really was there for me. I honestly don’t know what I would have done without her. Being a BT, I was not prepared for this whole process of getting kids into yeshiva like other FFB’s are. She wrote me a lovely, lovely card and reassured me over and over again that Hashem is always with me and I am never alone. She helped us find the right school for my daughter, and ironically, we were honored as parents of the year there last year, and of course, Malki and her husband were there to celebrate with us. We have another child who unfortunately is not frum right now. When my husband and I had to make the grueling decision that it was time for this child to move out of our house, (for the child’s sake and ours), I called Chani and bawled my eyes out. She was totally with me and shared my pain. Chani is a very busy bubby with a large number of children and grandchildren, and yet, she’s so special, I never once felt that she wasn’t there for me. Our family regularly spends Shabbosim and Yom Tovim with her and her family, and it means so much to me that she continues to daven for our child who is not at the moment, frum. She helped me let go of blaming myself, and to believe in myself as a good parent again.”
Lauren* (name disguised), a 23-year old frum girl who was raised by modern Orthodox parents who are less observant than she is and not well versed in the ways of shidduchim, is a long way off from concerns about children on or off the derech. She is consumed right now with the desire to find her beshert, and to be under the chuppah. She has turned to a new program designed for someone like her – the Rebbetzin’s program through Oorah. Dina Stern, Manager of the Rebbetzin’s program, www.rebbetzins.org, describes how Oorah hopes to help many baalei teshuvah young men and women like Lauren:
“We have two different kinds of BT’s who might be interested in our resources – young men and women who are raised frum from birth by BT or modern-orthodox parents who are not comfortable or familiar with the shidduchim process, and BT’s raised by secular family who become frum in their twenties or thirties, and then need help getting married to another BT. We’ve learned that BT’s – and their parents – are often very uncomfortable contacting a shadchan, and often, even when they do, they can get lost in the shuffle and become just a number or a piece of paper. We have only just launched the website in the summer of 2008, and already, we have over 200 singles in the database, and sixty rebbetzins involved, and we’re still building.” Lauren explains why she is excited about the new Oorah program:
“I went to Seminary in Israel after high school (modern orthodox HS), and I became much more religious than my family. My parents are very accepting people, and never tried to discourage me, but she hates the shidduch world and thinks that it makes it harder for me to meet people naturally. I chose a certain way of life and I feel that shidduchim is definitely the appropriate way to date, but I just need some help finding my zivug! Most of my friends are married at this point, and I am very grateful to my assigned Rebbetzin for taking a personal interest in my search and me. Since my parents are not comfortable with shidduchim, who can I rely on but my married friends to try to set me up on dates? Now I feel more optimistic.”
Rebbetzin Pammy Amsel from Lakewood, now an Oorah Rebbetzin, has been helping Russian BT’s build a frum life since 1991, when she lived there with her husband, Rabbi Yosef Amsel, for two years, while he opened a yeshiva in Russia (which is still operating today). When they returned to the States, they took a continued interest in their Russian talmidim who often followed Rabbi Yosef to the states for further learning, and eventually, shidduchim. He opened a yeshiva in Lakewood (together with Rabbi Goldshmidt), Ohalei Yaakov, which is specifically for Russian young men, and the Rebbetzin naturally started getting involved in many of their personal needs, especially shidduchim. She has been the shaliach for about 25 young men, with her husband’s help, bringing them to the chuppah, and is well prepared for her additional role as a Rebbetzin for the Oorah Rebbetzin program. She is very enthused about the need for a program such as Oorah’s to help baalei teshuvahs to navigate the tumultuous waters of shidduchim:
“Baalei teshuvahs don’t have the same network as those who are frum from birth — relatives, neighbors, camp, school, and so forth, so they really have trouble accessing potential shidduchim. Also, their parents can not guide them – most of the time, they aren’t even aware of how things work in the normal frum circles so they are at a big disadvantage. A program such as the Rebbetzin program is important to give BTs greater access, and proper research, so that there is a much better chance that if the shidduch is good for them, it will be handled appropriately. There is enough stress in marriage without extra hurdles, so it’s very important that we help the frum baalei teshuvah of our generation to find one another and build a shalom bayis.”
Whether it be getting to the chuppah, or planning the bris, sweating over which yeshiva to send your oldest son to, or needing a shoulder to cry on during aveilas, the baalei teshuvah must rely upon mentors, neighbors, Rebbetzins, Rabbeim, and friends – the truest kind of all, one who is there through the good and the bad times, never judging, always encouraging, and giving chizuk when needed. I may not have a frum mother or sister on speed dial. I may not know how to select the right seminary for my daughters when their time nears. But I do know that I am privileged to live amongst many frum Jews who can help me in the simplest of ways, ( what caterer did you use? Can I have that recipe for your potato kugle?), and the most complex of ways as well (how do I handle my non-frum and non Jewish relatives at the simcha?)
There’s only one slight problem. Sometimes, we BT’s are embarrassed to ask the questions, not wanting our frum neighbors and community to know that we don’t know all that they seem to take for granted that they know. But when we ask the questions, we not only receive the guidance we need, we help to bridge the gap between “Frum from forever”, and Frum since age 34. What really matters is frum now.
Maybe we should get rid of the labels “BT and FFB” and make everyone an FN. I’m frum now. You’re frum now. I need help. Will you help me? Tell me please, what are you supposed to serve at a vort? Only simchas. . .