What’s the real BT Impact to the Religious Jewish World?

by Reb Akiva from Mystical Paths

One often wonders, what’s the real BT impact to the religious Jewish world? After all, most of our vaunted institutions are run by rosh yeshvot with yichus (distinguished family heritage), and the institutions are often a generational family project. Similarly the big and famous rabbaim (rabbis), those giving the shiurim, heard on tape or DVD, often are big name “son-of” people. No difference if one enters the chassidic world, the Rebbe’s are all distinguished lineage back to the talmidim (students) of the Baal Shem Tov or the Maggid of Mezirich.

It’s enough to give a BT a complex. Kind of like (l’havdil) arriving at the court of a king, where all the advisers are dukes or barons or what not, and you’re just a guy (or gal). And we see this feeling in religious society as the older BT’s all go under cover. You never hear “oh that’s Rav Ploni (so-and-so), a BT”.

But I’m here to tell those not so far along the path, the impression is wrong. BT’s are spread throughout Jewish religious society, and not in small numbers. Religious schools are swelled with children of BT’s. Professionals throughout Jewish religious society are frequently BT’s. And even in Meah Shearim, perhaps the most closeted religious Jewish community, if one goes to the mens mikvah, one will be surprised at the number of older and old men with a tattoo (forbidden by Jewish law, and I’m not referring to a Holocaust number tattoo).

Some of our rosh yeshivot are BT’s from _their_ teens or twenties. Some of our rabbaim from before or after. Even a known tzaddik is a BT.

So while yes, religious Jewish society remains a bit wary of BT’s, the impact and influence of BT’s is there at all levels, as are the BT’s themselves. For there are no limits in Torah.

12 comments on “What’s the real BT Impact to the Religious Jewish World?

  1. What we see now in America is mass de-civilization, as described in part by Ron above. We as Jews should want to stay off that bandwagon.

  2. DK, if you’re looking for an example of how successful a culture can be if it is unconcerned with antique notions of pedigree and the behaviors that affect pedigree, Western civilization circa 2009 is hardly a compelling example.

    Using U.S. Census data and the responses from a telephone survey of 2,020 adults conducted last spring, Feb. 16-March 14 Pew reports show that the rate of non-marital childbearing has ballooned to 36.8% of all births in 2005, from 5.3% in 1960. As recently as the early 1990s, only about a third of these non-marital births were to cohabiting women; now it’s about half of all out-of-wedlock births. Nearly half of adults (47%) in their 30s and 40s have lived in a cohabiting relationship; among those ages 30-49, about one-third have. . . .

    Teenage unwed mothers, who were often racial and ethnic minorities, made up most non-marital births in earlier decades. Today, experts say, it is white women in their 20s and 30s, who often live with the baby’s father. The Pew study reports that the percentage of births to unmarried white mothers rose from 2.3% in 1960 to 35.8% in 2004.

    Source: USA Today. According to the Guttmacher Institute:

    •Nearly half (46%) of all 15-19-year-olds in the United States have had sex at least once.

    •By age 15, only 13% of teens have ever had sex. However, by the time they reach age 19, seven in 10 teens have engaged in sexual intercourse.

    •Most young people have sex for the first time at about age 17, but do not marry until their middle or late 20s. This means that young adults are at risk of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) for nearly a decade.

    •Of the 18.9 million new cases of STIs each year, 9.1 million (48%) occur among 15-24-year-olds.

    •Although 15-24-year-olds represent only one-quarter of the sexually active population, they account for nearly half of all new STIs each year.

    •Eighty-two percent of teen pregnancies are unplanned; they account for about one in five of all unintended pregnancies annually.

    •Twenty-nine percent of pregnancies among 15-19-year-olds ended in abortion in 2002, compared with 21% among all women.

    David Frum hits on some complicated aspects of these phenomena:

    As the stigma attached to unwed motherhood has diminished, the United States has seen both a huge increase in the proportion of babies born out of wedlock — now reaching almost 37% — and a striking decline in the incidence of abortions.

    In 1981, 29.3 abortions were carried out for every 1,000 women of childbearing age in the United States. By 2005, that rate had tumbled to 19.1 per 1,000 women.

    The experience of the Palin family symbolizes the effect of the pro-life movement on American culture: Abortion has been made more rare; unwed motherhood has been normalized. However you feel about that outcome, it is not well-described as either left-wing or right-wing.

    Yep, all kinds of stuff going on in that shining “Western Civilization.” Good thing they don’t worry about “pegams.”

  3. As a BT myself, and as somebody who studied at one of the biggest BT Yeshivot in the world (You can figure out which one by reading my blog.) I would say that a lot of the Rabbis there where BTs, or came from less religious backgrounds. It was those Rabbis who could reach us based on speaking from the heart, because they knew exactly what it was like. So maybe they don’t have Yichus, and to most BT’s that doesn’t matter. I’ll take somebody who can take Divrei Torah and relate it to me, over somebody who has Yichus any day of the week.

  4. Of course, if one stays closer to western civilization, these “pagams” and “flawed” yichus trees mean even less.

    Not that I would ever suggest alternatives to the joys of ultra-Orthodox living.

  5. Tha Amshinover, Munkatcher and Stoliner Rebbes today all grew up in “broken” homes. They along with the Boyaner and Skolier Rebbes are all grandsons, rather than sons of, the previous Rebbes. In each case (but the Munkatcher, which was more of an abdication) their father’s were “passed over” for the Admor’s throne.

  6. those giving the shiurim, heard on tape or DVD, often are big name “son-of” people.

    Don’t know what you’re talking about. The vast majority are self-made men. If not outright BTs then the sons of non-TK fathers. Want me to name names?

    No difference if one enters the chassidic world, the Rebbe’s are all distinguished lineage back to the talmidim (students) of the Baal Shem Tov or the Maggid of Mezirich.

    If I’m not mistaken the Ostrovtzer, Ribnitzer and Skuleneh Rebbes along with Rav Izakkel Kaliver and the original Reb Areh-leh (Rav Ahron Roth/Rutta) were all sons of rank-and-file Jews.

  7. That’s a nice point, Nathan. The problem is, however, that yichus is a funny thing. As far back as it goes, it can be ruined in one generation. In technical terms, after all, a mamzer whose parents had stellar yichus is a mamzer. Those who are concerned with the issue of the pegam (flaw or stain) of being a ben niddah can take some solace from having great ancestors, but if one is in fact a ben niddah, he is a ben niddah — which doesn’t seem necessarily to mean all that much anyway.

    But my point is that yichus matters, for the yichus-minded, prima facie in terms of “what have you done for me lately,” and only then in terms of those gaudy ancestors we almost all have.

    That’s why in many respects geirim have better yichus than many born Jews!

    In any event I remember what R’ Mutty Berger said to a small group of us on that Jerusalem Fellowships program I allude to in another thread today back in 1985: “The difference between the FFB’s and the BT’s in terms of yichus is that the BT’s already know about the hashkofah problems in their families and are fixing them!”

  8. That Baalei Teshuvah have no yichus is a myth, not a fact.

    One Baal Teshuvah yeshivah boasted that its students included descendants of the Vilna Gaon, the Baal Shem Tov and many other famous Rabbis.

    I am a Baalei Teshuvah.

    My grandfather was a famous Chazan and his father was the President of a historically important synagogue in Brooklyn.

    My grandfather’s maternal grandfather has was a Rabbi and author of Torah books. He has small street and synagogue both named after him in the Old City of Yerushalayim.

    I trace my ancestry as a kohen to Tanach times.

    Who says that Baalei Teshuvah have no yichus?

  9. There are also some big gedolim in our generation, and in the one just past, whose “not so frum” backgrounds are not so well known. Your post is a good reminder that people should not feel limited by their backgrounds or their pedigrees. “Real yichus starts with you.”

    But either way, Akiva, I wouldn’t want to press too hard on this point, for two reasons.

    One is that it’s a stretch to say that a BT who “does it all” and makes it to the top, say as a talmid chochom, has the same up side as someone with yichus and the same level of accomplishment — despite that fact that typically it is a more of an accomplishment for a BT to achieve “the same level of accomplishment.” There are good reasons for this along with the not so good ones.

    The second is that we should not need to worry about whether we can burst into what is considered the top of the food chain in order to be sufficiently challenged to live up to our own potential and raise children who are yereim and sh’leimim (God-fearing and wholesome). That’s the only real contest that counts, after all.

  10. It’s ironic: To the degree that a given BT really adjusts, that person is not looked upon by others as “a well-adjusted BT” because he/she has become invisible as a BT. Therefore, the general perception of BT’s can become skewed by including an inflated percentage of those BT’s who are less adjusted and thus more visible

  11. What a great post. The comment about the mikvah is priceless.
    If it were not for the efforts of (usually) one person, we (the BTs) would not be observant today. Between work, homework, carpools, and even blog reading, it’s easy to forget about the power of the individual. Especially if that indvidual is us.

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