By Jonathan Rosenblum
From Mishpacha Magazine BT Symposium – September 13, 2012
The ba’al teshuva movement, which began to gather steam after the Six-Day War has profoundly changed the face of the Orthodox world in both Israel and the United States. Once one gets outside the New York metropolitan area, ba’alei teshuva and geirim constitute one-third to one-half of the community. The decision of tens of thousands of Jews raised in non-Orthodox homes to choose a life of Torah and mitzvos – some after reaching the top of the secular totem pole – has strengthened the emunah of many born into Orthodox homes.
Besides numbers, ba’alei teshuva have contributed talents – e.g., doctors, lawyers, writers. Ba’alei teshuva coming from sophisticated secular backgrounds were a natural audience for some of the deepest contemporary Torah thinkers, like Rabbi Moshe Shapira. That same secular training provided ba’alei teshuva like Rabbi Akiva Taitz and Rabbi Jeremy Kagan, both talmidim of Rabbi Shapira, with the ability to communicate some of the deepest Torah ideas to the non-religious world in a contemporary idiom. Not surprisingly, ba’alei teshuva play a major role in kiruv work across the globe. And finally, ba’alei teshuva hold the Torah world to its own highest standards – the ones that attracted them.
MY RESPONSE to virtually every one of the questions posed is: It depends; every ba’al teshuva is different. I write, for instance, from the vantage point of one specific ba’al teshuva framework – and likely not the most common — those who had the opportunity to learn for many years in Eretz Yisrael.
Just as our immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents wanted their children to be Yankee-Doodle Dandies, ba’alei teshuva pray their children will not be instantly identifiable as the children of ba’alei teshuva. Exclusively ba’al teshuva communities are not a healthy option.
Still most ba’alei teshuva, even those who are fully integrated into the Orthodox world, tend to gravitate to others who have travelled the same path – often together – as marital partners and friends. Nearly every ba’al teshuva will have at least one good friend with whom he can share cultural references from his past that his FFB friends would either not pick up or perhaps disdain.
I have never denied being a ba’al teshuva – obvious, in any event, at Agudah conventions whenever Yiddish is spoken – nor broadcast the fact. A good friend recently told me that the tilt of my hat and the disarray of my tzitzis gives me away. Had I ever tried to pass as an FFB I would have been devastated. Instead I just smiled. My children can add many more telltale signs, like laughing too loud at jokes.
BECOMING A BA’AL TESHUVA is a long process, even after becoming shomer mitzvos. For most of us it never quite ends – and perhaps shouldn’t. There is a danger of resting on the laurels of having once upon a time made a brave decision. As a chavrusah once remarked to me when I put my head down in first seder, “It’s amazing how much some people give up for Torah, and how little they do once they’ve made that decision.”
Every human being is shaped, and continues to be shaped, by past experiences. To attempt to sever one’s past entirely will usually involve an aspect of self-annihilation. Most old friendships will wither of their own accord as the core of one’s life changes radically. Not so familial relationships. Rabbi Simcha Wasserman’s advice remains the best I have heard: Demonstrate to your parents that becoming a Torah Jew strengthens the bond between you and them. That is hard to do, however, when non-religious parents are asked to financially support children who have chosen lifestyles based on values far different than their own.
Every ba’al teshuva needs a rav to whom he has ready access. That rav must know him well, and be able to respond with sensitivity to his special circumstances. That will rarely be the person most influential in his first becoming religious. Successful front-line kiruv professionals will, over the years, start hundreds on the path, and cannot keep up with all of them.
Nevertheless nothing is more demoralizing for a ba’al teshuva than feeling that he was just another notch in a kiruv professional’s gun. Becoming shomer Shabbos is the type of metric beloved of funders, but it does not necessarily signify stable integration into a religious life.
Unfortunately, many frontline kiruv professionals find their funding dependent on bringing in new bodies rather than taking care of those already under their tutelage.
Besides a rav, ba’alei teshuva need FFB friends and role models who can keep them “normal.” One of the biggest challenges ba’alei teshuva face is setting realistic goals for themselves and their children. I will never forget my rosh yeshiva’s look of astonishment when I complained that my then eight-year-old bechor did not want to review mishnayos over chol hamoed. Even after we have learned ten years in kollel, our sons still remind us that we never learned in cheder or yeshiva ketana and cannot fully grasp their situation. And they are right.
At the same time, it is crucial that ba’alei teshuva not lose the confidence to think for themselves, and that they not become completely dependent on guides to make every decision for them. Not every thought or feeling they ever had is of necessity illegitimate because they were not yet frum, and, in many cases, they have a rich new perspective to add to their new communities.
THE “BUYERS REGRET” that concerns me most is that of ba’alei teshuva when they discover that the reality of the new world they are entering is far from perfect, and that to some extent they were sold an ideal. That “sale” is based on the reality of one’s past life juxtaposed to the ideal of the new one beckoning. Moreover, one is usually exposed at the beginning to the very best that the Torah world has to offer, and to see Torah at its most noble and purest.
Had we known everything we now know at the beginning, we might not have become frum. And that would have been a huge tragedy. Nevertheless, some degree of early introduction to reality is necessary as a vaccination against the inevitable letdown later, when one discovers that no society is perfect.
Perhaps I should be grateful for the Shabbos in the summer of 1979, just after my wife and I arrived in Israel on our honeymoon, spent listening to teenage zealots stoning cars on the Ramot Road. At least we could never say afterwards that we thought we were entering a perfect world.
But we also had Rabbi Nachman Bulman, zt”l, to explain why their actions were a total falsification of Torah. Not everyone is so blessed.