Can and Should BTs become Virtually Indistinguishable?

From a recent email from a Kiruv organization

I am of the belief that with proper guidance a Baal Teshuvah can [not must], by proceeding at a very moderate pace, achieve a very high level of integration into the frum community, ultimately becoming virtually indistinguishable from FFB’s even in ultra-Charedi settings. This level of integration requires one to largely dispose of a great deal of his former lifestyle and even many relationships. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that even for one who does wish to attain this level of integration, it is possible and almost always advisable to maintain many relationships from the past, especially familial ones. This is certainly not an easy feat and requires dedication and much finesse, but it is often worthwhile, as I will explain.

Agree? Disagree? Comment.

37 comments on “Can and Should BTs become Virtually Indistinguishable?

  1. I’m acquainted with a non-Jewish Mexican gentleman (he became a U.S. citizen in 2009) who is one of the best Kosher Sushi makers in Brooklyn. (Only in America could a Mexican native prepare Japanese cuisine for Orthodox Jews). Anyway, Mr. XYZ will be working as usual during Passover 2011 for a Glatt Kosher caterer at one of those deluxe Kosher for Passover hotel programs to prepare the Kosher Sushi. When I asked him, “What do you substitute for the rice?” he told me that he uses quinoa.

  2. Introduce your FFB friends and neighbors to the joys of quinoa on Pesach- which is NOT considered kitniyos according to the opinion of R. Moshe Feinstein z”l.

  3. Tell her that with Pesach coming and the iodized table salt being chometz you need to ingest seaweed in order to take in enough normal iodine so your thyroid won’t absorb the radioactive stuff from the West Coast.

  4. When I realize what I gave up to become BT the whole question is moot. I would say to other BTs- never, never give up your basic personality in order to “fit in” Whether its your love of colors or vegetarianism, pets, organic gardening, outdoor tai chi etc. My wife is FFB from what I considered a very constricted background shakes her head in good- natured disapproval as I scarf down portions of seaweed. “Vooos??””

  5. “Agree? Disagree? Comment.”

    Well – I agree that they can almost fully integrate if they’d like to but don’t have to.

    I agree that doing so will require making new friend and disposing of some old ones.

    I agree that it is best to try to keep the family close even they are not BT’s.

    I agree that it’s a difficult feat to accomplish.

    What’s not to agree with above points, may I ask?

  6. To Charnie #29: Thank you for the compliment.

    I just want to add the thought (although I admit it is a bit trite) that where we come from is our ROOTS and where we are going is our WINGS. Kids especially need both ROOTS and WINGS to grow into self-confident adults.

  7. Judy, you say it all so well! The bottom line is that life as a BT has certain benefits. Surely many of you have seen the article and letters responding to it in a recent Mishpacha about guys in kollel lacking emunah. Many responses from (presumably) FFBs were that they felt that BT’s had a cetain insight and enthusiasm taht was lacking in their own lives. Some have started taking their families on Discovery weekends so that they can “get it” too.

    Maybe this is another sign of what goes around, comes around.

    And emphasizes that I both agree and disagree with the initial post. No one needs to walk around with a sandwich board shouting out “wanna hear my life history”, but no one should ever be ashamed of where they came from. It’s where we are now, and where we’re going ahead that counts.

  8. To Chani #25: Right on! Or in yeshivishe sprach, “Yaasher koach!” (I probably got the gender wrong. Oh well, it ain’t just us BT’s who can’t do Dikduk).

  9. Fitting in is not only a BT obsession. Some FFB’s are horrified by any appearance of “differentness” among them, whether or not the specific differences have real Jewish significance.

  10. Chani,

    Works for me too….people do have to be open-minded, you know!


  11. Martin,

    The lady saw the humor in the situation and paid me a nice compliment of some sort. No big deal.

    The irony in this is that I don’t really trouble myself overly much to fit in – I have some friends who are BT who seem to obsess over this. My take on it is that FFB’s don’t worry like this, and so if there’s anything I’m going to emulate it’s going to be that same sense of being comfortable in my own skin. Hashem brought me into the world into a particular situation, and as long as I’m doing my best to be shomer mitzvos now, I don’t think it’s necessary to be ashamed of who I am nor to take pains to hide it.

    Honestly, the people who are so narrow that they can only relate to people who are just like them are probably not the folks with whom I’d invest the time and effort to develop a relationship anyhow. Most people aren’t like that fortunately.

    Works for me…

  12. Of course they were not enthused. It’s like getting the Captain Crunch decoder ring.

    L’mysah (practically speaking), the “email from a Kiruv organization” was aimed at those involved in their efforts, not the armchair, laptop using BTs hanging out at BeyondBT.

    What’s interesting is that, were the senders of this email to take a minute and speak with “seasoned BTs” that are not part of their current Kiruv efforts, they actually realized that the whole “us”(BTs) vs them (FFBs) is partically due to the culture that results from kiruv.

    I don’t in any way mean to dis any kiruv efforts (I am a product of NCSY’s kiruv efforts), but kiruv is as much of a mitzvah as tzdakkah, chessed, and ahavas Yisrael. You never read an email or hear a kinus on “those you love” vs “those you don’t love” or “those who are in need” vs “those who are not in need”, do you?

  13. It was an email and on a previous request they weren’t enthused about us posting it on Beyond BT.

  14. Chana,

    “Bais” (House) Mary’s? Ha Ha Ha!!! (I really don’t mean to be funny, but I could not resist.

    What was her reaction?

    Seriously, I wish people would stop judging like this…like Judy’s experience in #19. That is terrible….a shanda!


  15. Judy, I have a similar story. I was talking to an elderly lady who had come into town for a simcha. She asked me if I graduated from the local (modern orthodox) high school. I told her that no, I had not. She then exclaimed “I knew you were a bais yaakov girl!” I giggled a little and then filled her in that I had graduated from St. Mary’s.

  16. My oldest son married a young lady whose family was involved in the founding of a well-known school for Jewish girls. At the Vort, a woman I didn’t know came over to me and asked if I had graduated from that particular girls’ school. I said no. Then she asked me what high school I did graduate from. I took a deep breath, steeled myself and gave the name of my dear alma mater, a totally secular public high school. The woman fled in horror. Later on, I told my husband the story. He said, “You’re lucky you didn’t go to Saint Agnes.”

  17. It’s all yeshivishe shprach anyway. I finally learned that maalos are good things and chasronahs are bad things. Also the difference between blee ayin harah and blee neder and not to confuse the two. I think I joked on a different post that our English is so steeped in our Jewish identity that it would be difficult for an English speaker from outside our background to understand us. Imagine if I told you that my B’chor won Choson Torah on Simchas Torah at his Yeshiva Gedola by pledging to learn 1500 blatt Gemara. I would affirm on a stack of Chumashim that I’m talking English, but a Gentile from Mississippi wouldn’t understand what in the world I was talking about.

  18. “Despite what people say, there is a difference between a conjugated form of a verb and a gerund. One can’t BE mevaker cholim. One can DO bikur cholim.”

    People are talking all the time about verbs and gerunds!

    Anyway, we may be dealing here with some kind of carryover from Yiddish, comparable to using “by” instead of “with”.

  19. Judy (#9);

    Don’t feel bad about using English! Much of the Hebrew sprinkled into everyday conversation is gramatically abominable anyway.

    Despite what people say, there is a difference between a conjugated form of a verb and a gerund. One can’t BE mevaker cholim. One can DO bikur cholim.

    If one is going to parachute-drop (or shoehorn?) a phrase from one language into another, one should be consistent.

    Listening to the poor English and worse Hebrew in some conversations, I am reminded of Mark Twain’s statement: “It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.”

  20. My comment was solely based on EXTERNALS. I wasn’t advocating to totally reformat your personality hard drive and become a clone of others. R Yaakov Kamentsky zt”l was a strong advocate of BTs keeping their personality. Being able to harness and direct who you intrinsically are towards all levels of Avodas Hashem is key.

  21. Mr Cohen (#8)
    “If you are a Baal Teshuvah, gair or Sephardi, you have an unconditional guarantee that your secret will not remain a secret they’re Sephardi..”?

    What was that comment about? Why would one need to hide the fact that they are Sephardi? Some even say the Sephardic approach is closer to the way things were observed in the times of the Tanach. Yemenites are a perfect example of this since they never left the area (as did others during the diaspora) & therefore were more insulated from outside influences. I hate to break it to you, Mr. Cohen, but a lot of the Ashkenazi/Chassidic language/dress/culture/food, etc. was adopted from NON JEWISH Eastern European neighbors.

    While in shidduchim, I had someone say to me that they would let their son date my daughter if she wasn’t Sephardic. I was so stunned it left me speechless.

    My kids are 3rd generation American & nobody in the family looks particularly Sephardic. It’s not obvious from our last name either. We are too Sephardic for the Ashkenazim and not Sephardic enough for the Sephardim. Silly me, I thought we were ALL there together at Har Sinai.

    This past Shabbat someone came up to my (fair skinned, blue eyed) husband in shul and asked him if he gets confused with the (Sephardic) tefilla. Imagine his shock when my husband told him, “this IS my nusach; I’m Sephardic”. This scenario is not unusual.

    Prejudice runs deep & dies hard.

  22. For some, it’s apparent that they are BT. For others, it’s very difficult to tell. I think it depends on how learned one becomes & how much they hide their upbringing (& their non/less frum relatives–LOL). I have many FFB friends who, although raised frum, took on a more “right wing” approach to Yiddishkeit–their kids even more so (unless they’re OTD). BTs & FFBs alike have at least one person in their family who is either OTD or less frum than they are, so in that way, one cannot necessarily distinguish someone else’s origins.

    I don’t understand why many BTs are paranoid about their past–even the ones whose past is not that “interesting”. Your experiences make you who you are today. It’s where you are NOW that counts & we BTs should be proud of how far we’ve come. Some people forget what Teshuva is all about.

  23. Maybe it is a weakness, but I just can’t get myself to care that much what other people think. I did not become observant to impress other people. And having a recent personal tragedy, I found the people who really came through were from both the secular side and the frum side (BT and FFB!) with no judgements being made by either. I am concerned about my kids’ future shidduchim, but at the same time, if the other side is going to be so judgemental then I probably won’t want any part of them anyway.

  24. I went to a BT yeshiva and then briefly an FFB yeshiva, so if a nonBT asks, I mention the FFB yeshiva.

    People don’t ask so often, but since I teach in a day school, who needs to know? Especially since a teaching professional told me outright that if you’re a BT and want to interview to teach in a regular day school or yeshiva, you have “three strikes against you”. It might be true, but I did it anyway, and who needs to know?

    There’s an FFB teacher in the school involved in Kiruv. He knows my past, and he’s my outlet. It’s nice to talk with him frequently, and he won’t tell anyone.

  25. I may or may not have pointed this out, but many years ago, before I was aware of the term “BT”, I thought everyone in an Orthodox shul was always Frum! I just didn’t know any better. There are plenty of us who you would NEVER, NEVER guess were not Frum at some point in their lives (or not as Frum as they are today). I could never guess, even now!


  26. Like it or not, I’ll never really blend in (even after 36 years of being frum). I still can’t do the “ch” sound, and I still use too many English-language phrases for Jewish concepts rather than the better-known Hebrew, Yiddish or Aramaic ones.

    Basically, everyone should feel “comfortable in his/her own skin.” At a certain point in your life you realize that other people really aren’t spending time worrying about what you do and what you wear and what you are.

  27. How can Baalei Teshuvah possibly succeed in concealing their origins when Orthodox Jews begin every new friendship and casual acquaintance by asking: Which yeshivah did you go to?

    Despite the laws of Shmirat HaLashon, there are always Orthodox Jews with big mouths who say everything they know about everyone they know to everyone they know. These people guarantee that your origins can never be concealed. If you are a Baal Teshuvah, gair or Sephardi, you have an unconditional guarantee that your secret will not remain a secret because of Orthodox Jews with big mouths who just do not internalize the laws of Shmirat HaLashon.

    These big mouthed people sometimes believe they are doing a big mitzvah by revealing information about you that you repeatedly begged them to not reveal. Go figure that one out.

  28. I think that Charlie Hall and Neil Harris are both correct-In some communities, FFBS don’t have a radar about BTs. In many communities, the issue is a parphrase of the words of the Sefer HaChinuch about the interrrelated nature of a person’s actions and sentiments.

  29. If you don’t talk to a person, then you can only make a superficial determination based on looks.

    If you do talk to a person, it’s not too hard to distinguish BTs from FFBs.

    On a surface level you can and probably should look to blend into the community as Charlie, Neil and the writer of the article have stated.

    Below the surface, a BTs experiences and circumstances makes him very different than an FFB. I agree with Shmuel that this is a blessing that Hashem has given every person, in that he/she is tasked with a different mission based on our differences.

  30. I agree w/ Charlie (even though we live in different cities. Let’s be frank. If you are a BT and are “travelling” in more right-wing/”yeshivishe” cirlcles, then everybody looks about the same.

    If you are “travelling” in more centralist/non-right-wing circles, then most people dress however they want to and you probably do the same.

    Either way, its an emphasis on how you look. The bottom line is that you look presentable. I firmly believe that those who will truly accept you will do so based on who you are. Of course this doesn’t mean that I would show up for minyan in a BAD RELIGIONt-shirt, but I would wear on in the house if I was up late doing dishes. This isn’t hypocracy, its just common sense.

  31. I don’t see what the issue is. In my community you can’t tell the FFBs from the BTs from the gerim.

  32. Naturally, one wants to be an individual who is a full participating member of a Torah community in thought, word and deed. And even if one is fully observant now, one certainly doesn’t want to stand out on the basis of his past actions –say because he’s the only one who had a string of girlfriends in high school and college (or insert whatever aspect of one’s old secular lifestyle that may be relevant) and no one else in his community did.

    But one of the gifts that a BT has been given in his path in life is a unique perspective that his journey gives him. To me, the idea is not to erase one’s old experiences through Torah, but rather to come to see one’s old experiences through the Torah’s lens.

    So in my view a BT shouldn’t become indistinguishable from FFBs because he’d be turning his back on an ADVANTAGE that God has blessed him with.

  33. The quoted statement is a well-understood generality. I hope the detail that follows provides useful practical guidance.

  34. Shalom,

    I believe that we should all “blend in”, yet, always remember how it was before you started on the road to being Frum, and, never, never be ashamed of it, so that you can join a forum such as this one.

    Kol tov,

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