Identity Theft of the Biggest Kind

Just about all of us have had our identities stolen from us. I think I lost mine about 53 years ago, but I only realized it last night. Thanks to my husband. Over dinner last night, he pointed out to me that we’d had our identities stolen.

Truth is, it was probably a lot longer than just the 53 years of my life. It could have happened centuries ago, for all I know. But who’s going to notice these things? When our spiritual identities are stolen from us, we don’t panic at all. Because we don’t even know they are missing. And we don’t even know what we’re missing.

Did it begin when crammed boats of us came over from Europe around the turn of the 20th Century?How many thousands of pairs of tefillin were gleefully tossed overboard on the way to the land of new opportunities? That can’t be when our spiritual identities got lost, though. Most of the Jewish people on board were carrying with them an extremely heavy tradition that they, generally, did not understand. They honestly did not know why they should continue holding onto it. Why did so many Jews toss their legacy overboard into the Atlantic Ocean – before even going ashore? They were convinced that their heritage would weigh them down in a land of – freedom.

Today we are mostly free of the Jewish identities that were taken from us. “Why be Jewish?” isn’t even a question anymore for the vast majority of young assimilated Jews who feel that all religions are equivalent and “falling in love” with non-Jews should be embraced. Judaism, if thought about at all, is viewed as a cultural relic, with restrictive archaic traditions. And if we aren’t spiritual beings with a noble mission here on earth, who needs spiritual directives anyway?

In kindergarten, they did teach us to share. Beyond that, it was exceedingly rare for us to be provided with any useful knowledge about our development as spiritual entities – anywhere around us. Not on TV, not in movies, not on billboards, not in Seventeen Magazine – and not even iback n Hebrew school!

Just as with financial identity theft, which basically disconnects us from our financial abilities, spiritual identity theft essentially disconnects us from our spiritual abilities. Here’s one important difference between them, though. With financial identity theft, our identities are used by others. With spiritual identity theft, nobody bothers. Once stolen, it’s tossed in the garbage, like an old worn-out wallet.

Spiritual Identity Theft has an acronym that fits. Spiritual Identity Theft usually causes its victims to sit and do nothing about it. Since we don’t even know what we’re missing, it is so easy to”successfully” cover up the underlying emptiness by going after other pursuits. And if the painful awareness ever does surface, it gets shoved down as quickly as possible with a vast array of distractions from which to choose. Some are harmful, and most are numbing, but even the benign material pleasures just don’t last long enough.

It appears as if financial identity theft is much more important than spiritual identity theft, but before you know it, we’ll have to throw all the Monopoly money back into the box anyway. Even Boardwalk and Park Place too. Soon they’ll all disappear.

And we just cannot accept that nothing will remain from our entire lifetimes. There has to be something permanent in this throwaway society. We know it. Within each of us, there is a still small voice that won’t give up insisting something lasts.

The voice comes from within each empty soul that has had its spiritual identity stolen.

What finally fills my soul, nurtures what has always lined the inner walls of my being. Each morsel of pure nourishment enlivens something that was already present, but dormant. I found morsels of spiritual nourishment in other religions and practices as well, while out searching. But it is only Jewish spiritual wisdom that could fit, like the missing puzzle piece, in my neshama.

I am still peeling off the layers that “successfully”covered up my essence. Through understanding more and more about why being Jewish is vital, I identify more closely with my neshama. Just as with financial identity theft, it can be a long and difficult process to reclaim one’s identity. But as I come to recognize my true self, the pleasures I am experiencing aren’t fleeting and they aren’t shallow. They go deeper than even the Atlantic ocean.

It can take years of work and determination, but every struggle is so worth it. Those credit cards with our Jewish names – they can still be found.

This is what Alan found in the garbage one day:
movie ticket stubs,
crumpled candy wrappers,
a partially eaten ham and cheese sandwich,
yesterday’s newspaper,
empty soda cans,
crushed cigarette butts,
and an old pair of tefillin.

Then Alan suddenly understood why
he had been desperately searching
through garbage
for years and years.
He must have known,
deep down,
that along with the trash,
what still had value, the most value,
was also being thrown away.

Alan stuck his hand into the garbage
and pulled out the tefillin.
for years and years,
in turn,
the tefillin searched desperately,
found its way
through the garbage piled high in Alan,
and pulled out Aharon.

Bracha Goetz is the Harvard-educated author of eleven children’s books, including Aliza in MitzvahLand, What Do You See at Home? and The Invisible Book. To enjoy Bracha’s presentations, you’re welcome to email

6 comments on “Identity Theft of the Biggest Kind

  1. Rav Moshe Feinstein zatzal famously described assimilated American Jews as “tinokos shenishba,” like babies kidnapped and raised without knowledge of being Jewish. So Spiritual Identity Theft is more like us being stolen from our identity rather than our identity being stolen from us. It’s similar to the nineteenth-century Cantonists, Jewish men who were stolen from their hometowns in Russia as young boys and forced into the Czar’s army for twenty-five years.

  2. Years ago, I dreamed of creating an organization for Baalei-Teshuvah and Gairim. I was going to call it “Second Step,” i.e., we had already taken the first step and become observant Jews, now we needed help with the next step (and the zillion steps after that). I never had the motivation to go through with this dream. I would agree wholeheartedly with other postings on this site that complain how Kiruv organizations are not interested in followup once they’ve made someone frum; they simply chalk up one more success and move on to the next candidate. Meanwhile, we may have chosen to observe the Torah, but we still need support and answers.

  3. Nathan, are you thinking of this as a centralized organization or as something each community could implement in its own fashion?

  4. Abe has made a comment I find interesting.

    I suggest creating a new organization dedicated to helping Baalei Teshuvah with anything they need: shiduchim, parnassah, bikur cholim, Shabbat invitations, someone to learn Torah with, etc.

    I realize that with our severely troubled economy, there is not even enough money for existing Jewish organizations, nor is there enough money for established tzedakahs; the tzibbur would have a very hard time supporting the new organization like the one I just mentioned (unless they were willing to sacrifice lots of gashmius).

    But it is hard to deny that Baalei Teshuvah need the kinds of help that I described in this messsage.

    If such an organization actually existed, not only would baalei teshuvah have better lives, they would also be less likely to fall out of Judaism.

    Last but not least, I want my proposal for a new organization to help BTs made into a topic of conversation in Beyond BT.

  5. Let’s not forget that identity theft works both ways — I’m referring to well-meaning kiruv rabbis who encourage impressionable people to rapidly adopt a radically different lifestyle, promising them the world to come, and then, once they are “frum”, abandoning them in this world with strained or broken family relationships, a derailed career, confused hashkafas, and more out of touch with themselves than ever.

  6. I would call it Spiritual Identity Sale. There is no theft – these people freely chose to do what they did. I suppose from your perspective it is a con job – these people gave up a treasure of the afterlife for a few copper coins of ‘freedom’ in this world.

    What is the useful purpose in thinking of this voluntary disaffiliation as theft? Does it inspire you more to do kiruv, thinking of these people (and especially of their offspring) as victims rather than willing participants in a transaction?

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