Integrating the Ba’alei Teshuva

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.

9 comments on “Integrating the Ba’alei Teshuva

  1. I am a ba’alat teshuvah married to a BT Kohen for many years. In our case, there were older members of the community who remembered my husband’s grandfather (& his father before him, etc.) being called up to sefer as “Kohen” even though he was not shomer mitzvot.

    Over the years we have heard of a few BT Kohanim who had their Kahuna “possuled up” because their status as a Kohen was not truly verifiable even though their father/brothers, et al, always identified as Kohanim. This was usually to allow the Kohen in question to marry someone forbidden to Kohanim.

    My question is, in such a case, if one brother in a family has his Kohen status made “possul”, what does that do to the Kohen status of any brothers, father, grandfather, paternal uncles, etc. Seems to me that an entire family’s Kahuna would have to be made “possul” for the “unidentifiable” logic to work.

    My husband has 3 brothers, one of whom is “married” to a non Jew. It’s a 2nd marriage so having kids is not an issue. He understands that even if his “wife” converted “Orthodox”, he would not be able to marry her al pi halacha. He’s obviously not shomer mitzvot so it’s a moot point but academically speaking, if he were to have his Kahuna made possul in order to marry a (halachic) gioret, what would that do to the Kohen status of the other 3 brothers?

    I’m not asking for a psak halacha, just curious.

  2. To Mr. Cohen #6:

    Start a popular Internet site and sell it for a couple of million dollars.

    Once you have that much money, it won’t matter whether you’re looking for a BT or an FFB or the FFB daughter of a BT or the Kohen-eligible daughter of a Kohen married to a properly Kohen-eligible wife. All the shadchanim will come running with plenty of suggestions.

    Gelt confers yichus. Lots of gelt confers lots of yichus!

  3. I have commented on this issue before, but I remain convinced that a rav, friends who can serve as mentors, and the selection by the BT of the proper community for his or her needs are paramount considerations. Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim and one’s committment are and have always been the yardstick, as opposed to Am HaAratzus posing as frumkeit.

  4. Judy Resnick, your idea is brilliant!

    Other than you, nobody ever suggested that I try the FFB daughter of BTs.

    If only I received that advice 20 years ago, I might have been married a long time ago!

    Why did the many shadchanim and Rabbis who I spoke to never suggest that idea?

  5. The Kohen BT searching for an appropriate Kohen-eligible shidduch could consider the FFB daughter of a BT couple, or a female BT who was inspired at a very young age, prior to dating, through NCSY or a different Kiruv program.

    Understandably, meeting the right woman will be tougher as the Kohen gets older, but as FFB single never married women get older they might be more willing to consider a Kohen BT they might have rejected years before. Also there might be young widows in the pool of prospective shidduchim.

    With so much imbalance between the number of decent men out there, and the women desperately hoping to get married, a Kohen BT with a parnasa and no drink/drug/disease issues should be able to find a shidduch.

  6. For some, people’s “different” cultural habits, even when consistent with Torah, are convenient ways to help decide whom to shun.

  7. One observation about the article, with no judgment for good or bad implied, but rather with the hope that awareness will be help us think about these issues:

    The author says that BTs hope and pray that their children won’t be instantly identifiable as children of BTs. He then lists various things that identify him to others as a BT: lack of knowledge of Yiddish, tilt of hat, disarray of tzitzis, and laughing too loud at jokes.

    Each and every one is a sociological or cultural –and NOT a religious– factor. (I’ll grant that in some communities one can’t function without knowing Yiddish, but the author has been a fully functioning member of an orthodox community for many years so that isn’t relevant to him. And with regard to laughing loudly, I feel strongly that it has nothing to do with “lo yimalei s’chok piv ba’olam hazeh” but rather is a cultural factor.) That is, not one of them has to do with Torah-based conduct or knowledge.

    There is a lot of emphasis on sociology/culture in the orthodox community today. I have no idea whether this is good or bad, or whether it is even possible to change should someone think changing it would be a good idea. But it is important for a BT to be aware of this, since it can affect one’s development and self-esteem. One may desire to fit in culturally in his chosen community, but the cultural fitting in is NOT what makes him religious. In always has to be secondary. Say a person wants to be oved Hashem and he thinks such and such community is the place he can do it best. Say that coummunity demands or prefers cultural conformity (hat tilt angles and such), or he’ll feel more comfortable if he conforms, or some other reason that makes a positive difference in his life. So he’ll conform and his hat tipped correctly, etc. But it is important to keep in mind that that stuff is NOT avodas Hashem.

  8. great article. It hits on all the major points very nicely. However, I doubt his 1/3 to 1/2 figure. Baltimore is a very BT friendly community and the number is probably closer to %25.

  9. Who is the baal teshuvah kohen supposed to marry?

    A baal teshuvah is normally expected to marry a baalat teshuvah, but 95% of baalat teshuvah girls cannot marry kohanim, and there is no reliable or nice way to find the 5% of baalat teshuvah girls who kohanim can marry, because the 95% often falsely claim to be members of the 5%.

    Adding to the confusion is the fact that the laws of kohen marriages are misunderstood by most shadchanim and even by some Orthodox Rabbis.

    The result: the baal teshuvah kohen is stuck in a shidduch nightmare, unable to marry FFB or non-FFB.

    Around 20 years ago, I spoke to a few kohanim who decided to “solve” their problem by marrying women who are forbidden to kohanim, and then falsely claiming that their sons are kohanim, when in truth their sons are challalim, and their daughters are challalot who kohanim are forbidden to marry.

    Many “Frum” people suggested that I “solve” this problem by claiming that a baal teshuvah cannot be a real kohen, but that is simply not true.

    In my case, I spoke to a prominent Rabbi who knew my great-grandfather who came from the old country, and I am a kohen, as are my first cousins, second cousins and third cousins.

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