How Can We Bring Baalei Teshuva and Their Teachers Even Closer

We’re (Mark & David) speaking at the AJOP conference this Sunday, January 15, 2011, at two sessions. There’s also an “Inreach” inspirational conference going on for only $36 at the same location and time which you might want to attend.

We’ve been doing a lot of thinking and discussion among ourselves and with Kiruv professionals about reasonable goals for our sessions.

Through our thinking and discussions we’ve seen and heard the following:

– The Baalei Teshuva we know in the offline and online are mostly very thankful to their teachers for all they’ve done for them

– Supporters of Kiruv understandably want to invest their money in higher impact areas, where people adopt a Shomer Shabbos lifestyle

– Although there are between 3,500,000 and 5,000,000 Jews in America who are not Shomer Shabbos, very few adopt a Shomer Shabbos lifestyle each year

– Kiruv professionals correctly believe that the most or all non-observant Jews will greatly benefit if they bring Torah significantly into their lives

– It is impossible to have all the information available about what adopting a Shomer Shabbos lifestyle entails

– When Baalei Teshuva hit bumps in their spiritual progress they are often bothered by the fact that they didn’t have all the information available at the beginning of their journey

What can Baalei Teshuva do to help this situation?

Keep in mind that most observant Jews correctly believe:
– Torah is true and extremely beneficial when observed properly
– Not all paths of observance are equal
– As human beings, we do not have answers to every question

30 comments on “How Can We Bring Baalei Teshuva and Their Teachers Even Closer

  1. This is an excerpt of a comment by R. Ben Hecht elsewhere on the internet, explaining how there are progressive stages of complexity in hashkafah in general, and in kiruv in particular:

    “Do we only ask these questions because of kiruv? If the answer to that is yes than the evaluation of these questions should be based on what works. If, though, we are to ask these questions because they are Torah questions that need to investigated and studied, then the answer actually should not depend on what works, in fact what works may lead us astray accepting that which should not be accepted.

    In developing my organization Nishma, I found that much of what I was doing was taking questions found in the world of kiruv and trying to truly answer them as questions in learning, just for the sake of knowing Torah. For example, one of the classic questions that became a focus of Aish was: what is love? If you think about it, this is actually quite a good question and the way Aish presented the question really highlighted its importance. Afterall, why would someone be willing to mesh his/her life with another, sharing assets, based upon an emotion? Aish in answering this question with a focus on kiruv gave one defintion of love that, simply, would ‘sell’. The question, more emphatically, was seen solely as a kiruv question and didn’t really surface in the beit midrash (for other reasons as well). What I found, though, in taking this question as a serious question in learning was that there was actually variant viewpoints on the definition of love with major implications on certain hashkafic and halachic matters. The subject was really most complex, perhaps too complex to be presented in its entirety to a kiruv audience. But then comes the big question — perhaps in the first stage of kiruv you need simplicity but isn’t there also the need to deal with these questions within the complex Torah parameters that they deserve?

    We have to get beyond the question of what works, both in the short term and the long term. Perhaps, actually, we have to start recognizing that there is a short term and long term in kiruv and what we really have to start doing is recognizing that what works in the short term to get someone in the door is not going to work in the long term when we also want the same person to be a thinking person within Torah. Then, such a preson has to integrate with a Torah world that actually should be sophisticated in its approach to these questions not because of kiruv but because of our obligation to understand Torah. Sadly that is often not the case, often because our concern for kiruv actually leads many of us to maintain the simplicity because that is what the new ba’al teshuva will understand (and then what is ensured that they will continue to only understand until 120)

    The bottom line is that maybe simplicity works in the short term as a first stage but if, because its success at this level, we are satisfied to allow it to be the accepted approach beyond this first elementary stage we will suffer. There will be people leaving and leaving with a disgust for Orthodoxy. Sadly, also, the people staying, in accepting this simplicity, will lower the future standards of Torah on many levels. The greatest sadness, though, may be in what we do to Torah, allowing simplicity to take the place of the truth of Torah”

  2. Some kiruv professionals have told me that the number of people they bring to teshuva is no longer the goal. The goal, especially among teens/college students/young adults is to give them a pleasant association with Yiddishkeit so they will want to marry (only) another Jew. With the alarming rate of intermarriage (here in CA it’s got to be over 50%), I think that’s a very noble goal.

    Once a parent has given their children the tools to face the world solo, so does the kiruv professional give their students. Kiruv professionals are human and can only be stretched so far. I think it’s incumbant on the BT themselves to integrate into & find a support system within the community. We have many friends, FFB & BT alike who, for whatever reason, do not have family to share the ins & outs of daily living, chagim & sometimes even the simchas. Our friends have become our family as well as our inspiration to grow as Jews.

    I don’t understand all of the resentment. Isn’t the point to teach the bird to fly so they can go off on their own?

  3. The conference, IMHO, went very well. We will try to put up a more detailed report in the not too distant future. I also discussed the Azrieli Report with Rabbi Moshe Turk and will try to provide a snapshot.

  4. The conference was good. We weren’t there for the Azrieli report, but Rabbi Turk was there and he said the study said that BT children are not at greater risk. This confirms the same findings by an Israeli study.

    I had spoken directly to Dr. Pelcovitz before the conference and we knew what was in the report, but we agreed not to release it till after the conference. I’m going to try to get an mp3 of the session to hear the full presentation.

  5. Mark and David-how was the AJOP conference? Anything that you can tell us about the report from Azrieli re BTs and their children?

  6. Ross #20: There is a difference between people with busy lives, and mentors who show zero interest in their mentees. I think that Michael Fuerst #6 and I feel sincerely hurt over the perceived abandonment by our surrogate parents. Maybe our mentors truly believe we don’t need them anymore, but that leaves a gap in the BT’s emotional and religious life that is hard to fill.

  7. Ross, don’t worry about a riot. We all know all the reasons, but it’s extremely hard to justify the pain that is caused by the “busy, busy, busy” refrain. And it’s a very frequent occurrence.

    My benefit of the doubt conclusion is: people don’t realize how much pain it causes.

  8. “You’re frum now? Great! Next seeker, please. Move on, buddy – you’re wasting my valuable time”

    I feel pained that some of my mentors also don’t continue to follow up, but I wonder if it’s a bit harsh to express it like the above, or if I’m just being naive.

    Somebody called me a year and a half ago to wish me mazel tov over the birth of my son. I have been meaning to call him back. And after I got married, one of my friends went to…well, I don’t know where he went to.

    It’s sad, but we get caught up with our lives. Mentors are also human. They have their own lives, and sometimes they also need to think about who is priority, just like we do.

    And therefore, there is a problem with follow-up. But I never saw it as being maliciously dumped. There shouldn’t be hard feelings…just a necessity to solve the problem. (I hope I don’t start a riot here.)

  9. I feel like echoing the comment made by Michael Fuerst at #6. My biggest spiritual mentor dropped me years ago, to the point where I don’t even bother sending him Rosh Hashanah cards anymore. Think of the millions of mitzvos he’s getting credit for in Shamayim from me and from my descendants, ad olam, and yet I haven’t heard from him in the longest time.

    As Michael Fuerst said, there’s no followup. Once you don the sheitel (for women) or the black hat (for men) the Kiruv workers lose interest in you and move on to the next project. You’re frum now? Great! Next seeker, please. Move on, buddy – you’re wasting my valuable time.

    Years ago, I dreamed of starting an organization called Second Step, to help BT’s who already had taken on mitzvah observance to acclimate themselves to the frum world. I never did anything to carry out those dreams (like the old saying goes, life is what happens when you’re making other plans). But it really is an interesting phenomenon that our mentors don’t want to be bothered with us once we come on board.

  10. RBM,

    It depends what Neil meant by the word “Mussar”. To me, it means an orientation toward Judaism in which the whole mission of life is to refine oneself into an ever-closer emulation of the Divine.

    For the frum person, this puts the requirements of halakhah into a mission statement, adds meaning. Mitzvos are Hashem’s way of guiding us to be more like Him. (Other systems of thought also can occupy this niche, Chassidus is a popular choice.)

    For someone who isn’t observant, it ties Jewish Tradition to terms he already understands — that we are supposed to be better people. It turns halakhah into a set of Mussar excercises provided by a tradition that is wiser than their guesses as to what they need. Whether or not they believe that wisdom is because the system of thought is dictated or just inspired by G-d can be addressed later.

    In the meantime, they are becoming better people, taking on more mitzvos (if more often in the interpersonal realm, that doesn’t make them less of a mitzvah) and learning Torah with an attitude of being more open to accept what it says rather than judge it on first impression. Any one of those is a sufficient goal to justify the enterprise.

    But to focus on drawing people to Orthodoxy, let me expand on that last factor. Once you have someone looking up to Rabbeinu Bachya’s, the Ramchal’s, the Orchos Tzadiqim’s, the Rambam’s Shemoneh Peraqim’s advice, they are now relating to Torah on a whole new plane. Learning, Shabbos rest, etc… are now realistic life options. As is willingness to believe it actually was given at Sinai. Because we created openness and respect.

    But again, in any case you have people accepting more of being a good person as the Oral Torah defines it, learning parts of the Torah, and doing those mitzvos that fit the “be a better person” worldview more intuitively. Isn’t that teshuvah too?

    I am writing from experience. Few of those non-Orthodox mussar students that I am close to took the step of becoming Orthodox, those that did ended up in Ohr Samayach, Aish, Hineni, and might have ended up in the kiruv system anyway. Of the rest, those who wouldn’t end up in “kiruv programs” (as we usually use the word) most are progressively more observant even in areas less obviously mussar-esque. People who now do /something/ in commemoration of Shabbos, if not halachic shemiras Shabbos. Or who daven every morning.

  11. “Who exactly would staff and fund the “kiruv truth squad”?

    I didn’t mean it seriously; R. Adlerstein seems to frame the issue nicely, as I quoted. Actually, Aish does discuss online and respond to problems within the frum community to some extent.

  12. Neil (14:44),

    Would Mussar activity cause them to realize that mitzvos as a class are essential and irreplaceable and come directly from HaShem to us? If not, what exactly does the Mussar do for them, and is it really Mussar?

    Shades of Gray (14.29),

    Who exactly would staff and fund the “kiruv truth squad”? Who on the squad would dare to publicly challenge any major Orthodox group’s approach or views? Already, Group A will often do a thorough critique of Group B, C…, etc., but that, of course, is for reasons of self-interest and may not be at all objective.

  13. Shimon brings up a point, which, in fact, is a major factor in the “revival” of mussar among those who are non-Orthodox.
    People feel they can get the spirituality and humanism without the “does and don’ts” they associate with Orthodoxy.

  14. I have sometimes wondered whether there should be some sort of “Truth in Advertising” committee in kiruv. In other words, should Aish HaTorah or Chabad have disclaimers on their websites stating,

    “be advised that your exposure to a Shabbos table, or to a particular intellectual aspect of Judaism is only one part of the Jewish living experience, which like life, is actually more complex”

    Perhaps they feel this is obvious to people. Also, R. Yitzchak Adlerstein, in responding to a Jersualem Post article, compared this to a freshman orientation at a college campus, where it is entirely legitimate to highlight the pluses(“Hormonal Judaism”, Cross Currrents, 7/18/08) :

    ‘If there is a redeeming thought in the article, it is in these lines:

    “The Orthodox world they present bears not a trace of dissatisfaction: Never did I ever hear a speaker or trip leader discuss any problems within the Orthodox world. Apparently, as long as they follow proper Halacha, everybody is happy and fulfilled, with neither depression nor repression, money nor domestic problems.”

    The ba’alei teshuva whom I know (and I have known far more than the average frum Jew) find out in due time about the myriad problems of the Orthodox community. They do not and should not learn about them at their first encounter, as long as they are introduced to them at the appropriate time. (Did you ever wonder whether freshman orientation at Cornell, with reputedly the highest suicide rate in the country, includes a tour of the last ten places on campus where a student did himself in?) I, for one, am a great fan of divulging problems (and helping students deal with them) as soon as possible. I make a point of not promising social, intellectual, or spiritual rose gardens. I try to describe the journey from the very beginning as having road blocks and detours. I frequently answer question with what must quickly become a boring response: “I don’t know.” My own experience has been that the candor has paid off for my students.’

  15. Shimon, Many (most) non observant Jews do however, want some spirituality in their lives, although they might not have clarity on what Jewish spirituality actually entails.

    And spirituality is very good for people because it moves their center of gravity away from themselves towards other people and a greater purpose. The more anybody become a master of Jewish spirituality, the more meaningful and purposeful their lives are, but it takes knowledge, understanding, time, and effort to get there.

    I think more money helps, but taking a longer term look at the spiritual mastery process is even more helpful. And of course by spiritual mastery I mean learning Torah, acts of loving kindness, prayer and doing mitzvos.

    And I’ll go out on a limb and say that if the already observant Jews, BT and FFB alike, collectively advance on the spiritual mastery scale, with an emphasis on addressing the financial plight of many of us, we can also make great inroads on the outrageous tuition and cost of living in our observant communities.

  16. Follow up is key, as is finding out why people are not becoming observant.
    My office chair analysis is that people get the feeling that it’s “all or nothing” ie- the hat/jacket/skirt to the ankle etc.

  17. OK as a BT I have some shocking news for you professionals. Most non observant Jews don’t want to be observant. I know shocking but there it is. Try not to be like the US government who thinks continually throwing money at something will change the results. And for anyone actually interested in trying to be observant how bout you mention how damn expensive it is. Yeah shabbos is great and all but 15 grand or more to send your kid to yeshiva not exactly a selling point

  18. I think it’s a two part message: 1) Help Yourself, 2) Help Others Who Need Your Help

    Hillel says, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14

  19. Maybe the moral of the story is that kiruv yeshiva grads, etc., ought to concentrate on finding spiritual helpers in their current vicinity, whenever possible.

  20. From the information that Michael reported, he does know that they weren’t there for the talmidim in the tough times, like Rav Bulman was.

  21. Michael #6:

    “They felt that they could not bear so much of the emotional burden of their talmidim “children” and needed to create a barrier to protect themselves personally. And then there was Rav Bulman Z’tzal who lived next to the Yeshivah and played the role of the “father of orphans.”

    It’s nice what you wrote, but do you know that for sure about why they lived far away? Maybe they lived there first and then took the job.
    Still, an interesting thought.

  22. In many ways I feel tremendous gratitude to the people who helped me along the way in my early days of discovering Yiddishkeit. However, now that I’ve left town, went to Israel, got married, built a family etc etc I feel like none of those involved in the process really cares what happens to me ! I don’t mean to say that if I visited my hometown and bumped in to these people that they wouldn’t be glad to see me and say hello as I am sure they would. However, no one has ever made any attempt to “follow up” and make me feel “wanted.” I think every BT thinks of the Rebbeim he became close with as surrogate parents. People who will take pride in his growth in Yiddishkeit and be the “cheerleaders” that everyone needs in life to feel valued. Unfortunately I don’t have that. I did make some efforts in the early days to keep in touch and I appreciate that these people are really busy. However, the fact that they seem content to do without Shepping Nachas from the family I have built due to their Kiruv, even if it is just to call or write once in a blue moon and prove that I’m not just another notch on their rifle so to speak.

    When I was at Ohr Someach in Jerusalem it always struck me that most of the Rebbeim lived far away from the Yeshiva, in particular the Roshei Yeshiva. This was not an accident. They felt that they could not bear so much of the emotional burden of their talmidim “children” and needed to create a barrier to protect themselves personally. And then there was Rav Bulman Z’tzal who lived next to the Yeshivah and played the role of the “father of orphans.” He was the one that all of the middle aged BT’s went to 10 20 years down the line when life got serious and the idealism starts to fade.

    Not simple ! Whatever happened to the Mitzvah of Areivus ??

  23. “My theory is that the number of BTs is pretty much fixed by the number of people who are spiritually exploring.”

    The concept of kiruv seems to be that there is a mandate to reach as many people as possible–even more than those who are exploring. Also, how does one measure if the satiation point of reaching all seekers has been acheived?

    I’m guessing that the approach won’t change in terms of allocating resources. What is just needed is an adjustment in follow up and support(this factor is perhaps also relevant in the FFB world); this can be done without changing allocation of resources, ie, through leveraging volunteers, the same way kiruv itself can be done in this manner.

  24. Something I picked up during informal chatter at last year’s AJOP conference.

    Funding for kiruv in the US doubled over the ’00 decade. The number of BTs only increased margianally.

    My theory is that the number of BTs is pretty much fixed by the number of people who are spiritually exploring. Once you are available to every potential BT, pouring in resources doesn’t help. The margianal gains are those spiritual explorers who now met someone who otherwise didn’t have someone to bump into.


  25. What can Baalei Teshuva do to help this situation?
    Steve very nicely wrote what I was going to say.

    I think the power of non-professional kiruv is very important. Also, I often find that when shuls or outreach programs promote events by stating something like:
    “Come learn how to approach your non-frum neighbors and view a video by Project Inspire”

    This, in fact, implies making someone a “project”. Kiruv m’Ahava is often put on the back burner.

    I think Project Inspire does a good job of giving one the tools needed to approach someone, but like everything, follow up is needed. If the numbers of those becoming Shomer Shabbos are very low, then those who can, must step forward.

    Recently I signed up for my second Partner in Torah, based on an email I got from the director of NCSY alumni. Had I not gotten an email, I wouldn’t have entertained the idea at all.

    People (laypeople/BTs/FFBs) want to be involved, but it seems we are waiting to be asked.

    Maybe kiruv-professional should start gathering lists of local people who are willing to help them out… a la “See you on Shabbos”?

  26. IMO, BTs who are acclimated into their communities can be far more than “role models” or kiruv organizations to trot out for awards at dinners. They can and should be resources for BTs who are progressing mitzvah by mitzvah, who have doubts, or who are seeking chavrusos, information or even more importantly chaverim bdeos-friends with similar POVs. To paraphrase PM Clemenceau of Franc when he replaced a Chief of Staff during WW1, at times, I am sure that kiruv is far too important to be left solely to the “kiruv professionals.” IMO, BTs offer a unique perspective for any would be BT who is advancing mitzvah by mitzvah or seeking gto become further acclimated into the Torah world., regardless of hashkafic outlook.

  27. After a good kiruv professional has been in the field for a number of years, he’s liable to have built up a long list of current + past students who increased their Torah study and mitzvah observance. At what point are there too many former students for him to stay close to? Maybe we have to look at gradations of closeness.

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