Do As I Do

By “Devorah”

As the child of BT parents who got a strong dose of ‘flaming BT-itis’ when I was a teenager; and the wife of a BT, I’ve had the good fortune, if you can say that, of experiencing Baal Teshuva parenting from both sides.

That doesn’t mean I have a 100% fool proof knowledge of what ‘works’, when trying to bring up religiously-inspired, emunah-filled kids. But I certainly have a fair idea of what doesn’t.

When my parents first got frum, I was 15. We were doing Xmas; we were eating in McDonalds; we were starving on Yom Kippur (without any real idea of why) and avoiding bread on Pesach (again, without any real idea of why) but that was it. It was the worst kind of exposure to yiddishkeit: periodic occasions when we asked to do difficult things with no explanation or context as to why we should, or why it was important.

No Jewish community, or Jewish friends, to speak of. But a lingering sense that we were fundamentally ‘different’ to everyone else, which for a teenager, is probably one of the worst sensations.

It’s a long story which I won’t go into here, but when my parents embraced Judaism, they did it at 5000 mph. All of a sudden, Mcdonalds was out. All of a sudden, we had separate plates, and couldn’t have icecream after our chicken supper. All of a sudden, Saturday became a big long list of ‘thou shalt nots’ – once again, with minimal explanation as to why.

I’m the oldest of five, and me and my next brother down certainly had the hardest time adjusting to the new regime. As teenagers, it felt to us like another ploy by my parents to control our lives – minutely, right down to what we ate, when we ate it, what we wore and even, what lights we turned on and off.

If I’m honest, I think that was part of the attraction for my parents, at least initially.

That was really hard.

But I’m a voracious reader, and as my parents started bringing home more books on yiddishkeit, I started going through them and understanding that despite my parents clumsy attempts to ‘make us frum’, Judaism was actually something worth having inspite of them.

As a lonely teenager, I also loved going to shul. The people in the shul we went to made such an effort to welcome my family – it was the first time ever that we were part of a community, and my first experience of not being an outsider, in a social setting.

The assistant rabbi, in particular, was amazing. He got me out of the house (which I was finding increasingly oppressive) by asking me to babysit; made me responsible for organising children’s activities in the shul (and paid me handsomely for doing it); and his wife really took the time to talk to me, when all the other adults in my life were simply telling me what to do.

They were my inspirations, and really showed me that religious jews – real religious jews – could be amazingly kind, generous and considerate people.

This is a potted life history, so I’m missing a lot of details here. But my experiences as the teenaged daughter of BTs taught me a few invaluable lessons, that I’d like to share here for other BTs with older kids.

Tip one: Include your kids in the journey. Becoming frum requires some enormous life changes and ‘sacrifices’ from every family member. Instead of imposing yiddishkeit on your kids like martial law (guaranteed to turn them off…) talk to them about your growing observance, and why you want to start doing things like keeping kosher etc.

Equally if not more important is to listen to your kids, and their concerns. The teenage years are a particularly sensitive time, socially. It’s asking a lot of a child to either stop going where all their friends go, or to stop eating what all their friends are – they will need an awful lot of understanding and support from their parents to get them through it. And often, ‘new’ friends to help them to make the transition to frumkeit without losing all their social life.

Tip two: Don’t look to your kids to fix your own failings. If you weren’t frum, and you brought up your family not frum, take responsibility for that, and don’t expect your kids to become perfect paragons of observance. This can be particularly hard for boys – my brother was expected to come to shul and pray 3 times a day. He tried his hardest for a year, but as the list of demands got longer and longer, he eventually gave up trying to meet them. Thank G-d, he’s found his way back, subsequently. But if you’re embarrassed by your previous lack of observance – and any reminders of it – don’t take it out on your kids. Your relationship with them has to be based on unconditional love, not on them towing the line in order to spare you embarrassment or discomfort about your previous lifestyle choices.

Which brings me to the last and most important tip: Be prepared for your kids to challenge your own level of observance, and to rip the scab off your own inadequacies. There are many levels to this: On the one level, one of things that used to really rile me up is that my parents, who had happily eaten traif for many years etc etc where now being so strict with me and my siblings’ religious observance.

When my father got frum, he started throwing my ‘secular’ books in the rubbish if I read them on Shabbat; and refusing to buy me jeans (which is where the babysitting money really came in handy…)

I didn’t feel that he had any moral authority to tell me what to do, religiously, having done so little himself for so many years.

Many BTs emphasise the ‘trappings’ like Shabbat observance and kashrut (which are fundamentally important, don’t get me wrong) – but fail entirely to address their own failings.

If a teenager’s parents sit them down and say: ‘We made a lot of mistakes. We got angry a lot. We didn’t always act with compassion and consideration. We want to try and improve ourselves – and how we treat you, our kids – and keeping kosher and Shabbat is part of that process’ – that will make such an enormously positive impact on their child.

Wow – so mum and dad aren’t just emphasising the stuff that suits them, like ‘respect your parents’; they are also working on the stuff that I know must be really hard for them to do.

We all make mistakes. We are all only human, after all. But particularly when we are at the beginning of our journey towards yiddishkeit and Hashem, we have to admit our past mistakes, particularly where they affect our kids, apologise, and then do our best to make real tshuva in every sense of the word.

Kids know their parents inside out: they can spot fake sentiments and phony piousness a mile off. If you want to give your kids the best possible chance of joining you on your journey towards observance, make your relationship with them the ‘test bed’ of your tshuva.

Be honest about your mistakes and flaws, and say sorry for them. It’s hard – and often excrutiatingly painful – but it’s worth it. And as parenting methods go, I think it’s probably the single best thing you can do to show them that being frum isn’t just about appearances, but about living a better, more meaningful and happier life.

Postscript: 17 years on, thank G-d I have a good relationship with both my parents. As an adult child, with children of my own, I can see how religious observance has helped to mellow my parents, and enabled them to have a much richer relationship with their kids and grandkids. I also appreciate, now, how hard it was for them to turn everything upside down in their own lives, and how much courage it took for them to start a brand new chapter.

Lastly, I’m grateful to them for starting me on my own journey towards Hashem. They took some tough decisions, but we are all reaping the fruit of their decision today.

Originally Published on August 29th, 2007

22 comments on “Do As I Do

  1. Regrettably, I’m no longer in contact with the person who first introduced me nearly forty years ago to the beauty of authentic Judaism. Bad feelings arose out of the perception that his reasons for not moving to Israel were valid whereas mine were not. I still owe Mr. XYZ a tremendous debt of gratitude for changing my life.

  2. Thank you so much for your honesty on this topic. I am on this journey right now, and I have a 12 year old daughter. I am so afraid of pushing her in the other direction. Your story, examples, and the comments from others, have helped me tremendously!

  3. When reading this post, it reminds me of something I heard from a Rosh Yeshiva. He said, “it’s possible for a bochur to be absorbed in learning and the beis medrash and not mention Hashem once!”

    When I read this post, it hit me that besides for a natural “thank G-d” reference, there was no mention of Hashem or Torah.

    Isn’t this the ikar when we are talking about neshomos?!

    It can be so easy for us to forget that Yiddishkeit is about having a connection with Hashem, the Borei Olam, The Master of the World! Halacha gives us the way to connect. But before anything, my frumkeit is about satisfying my soul’s yearning to connect to what is eternal- NITZCHIYUS. I think it could be fairly said that if a person doesn’t have that yearning, his halachic observance will be empty.

    Once I internalized that I could speak to the Master of My Destiny and the Knower of All My Thoughts, did my Yiddishkeit gain a new dimension it never had before. Did my davening gain a more emotional aspect it never had. That my learning was about connecting, not just observing. The connecting gave my halachic study more depth and meaning it never had. Before then, it was detail oriented.

    Every halacha, every minhag tov, is to tell and show the Heibishter how much I love Him for how much He does for me.

    The 1st step in bringing children along the road to shemiras Hamitzvos is they should know Hashem is always there to talk to.

    2.They should know the beauty of the actions and behaviors of our gedolim, and if possible, to know that they have a zeyde, or elter zeyde who did all of this and more!

    3.The connection we show our children should be based on our love for Hashem, the pleasure we have in davening to Him, learning His Torah, and the mesora we have as reflected by Gedolei Yisroel, and the rebeim we have who guide us.

    4.Gradual, steady, but consistent learning in halacha and Sefer Hachinuch- to understand the reasons (as much as we can) for the mitzvos is the most important study and what will give a person that lifelong enjoyment of being a Shomer Torah u’mitzvos who realizes that Hashem is all loving and understanding of what His children do to become closer to Him. I think that’s what it’s all about.

  4. Great post!

    I have seen BT parents with older kids push them too much or too fast and more often than not, it backfires.

    IMHO, the best approach in any situation where you have not yet frum family is to conduct yourself with the utmost of derech eretz. If a BT is respectful, sensitive to others, yashar, loving & unassuming you become a walking Kiddush H’. If you try to mekarev the non-religious family, they will start avoiding you. In my experience, the non-religious family is already buying into negative stereotypes perpetuated by the media so as it is you’re swimming upstream. We have to dispel those myths in every way possible. In our extended family, there are some “sticky” issues with relatives, but with enough love we have come to a place of mutual respect.

    The positive example you project may not make others embrace observance, but it will give them a postive attitude toward it. It may even be the deciding factor for someone to seek a Jewish spouse, resulting in the creation of another Jewish family.

  5. I have read many wonderful articles on the BT site, but this one is the one that has really touched my heart. As the only BT in my family (it’s a long story), I need to know that I am not alone.

  6. Devorah, I would like to thank you for your extremely informative and insightful August 2007 posting. Five and a half years down the road, this being early 2013, can you add any postscripts? Particularly as your own children have been growing older, and if possibly you now have children in or approaching the teenage years, maybe you can give us some new perspectives from the parenting and grandparenting viewpoints. That is, if you are still reading this blog.

    This also brings attention to a concept so important that someone titled a book after it: Talk So Your Kids Will Listen – Listen So Your Kids Will Talk. [title is copyrighted but I don’t remember who the author is of that book.]

    COMMUNICATION and RESPECT. Not just BT’s, Gairim, FFB’s but for everybody reaching across the parent – child gap.

  7. “Devorah” thank you, that was a great article! I am most in awe of the large number of BT parents (and grandparents!) in our neighborhood who have wonderful children with amazing middos, and I see that it’s a tremendous amount of work, but of course rewarding. The most glaring similarity I see in the family dynamics is that nearly all the kids are completely aware that the parents are BTs, that they know their parents make mistakes, lots of them, and that the parents admit them freely but that still doesn’t diminish the respect they get from their kids. I’m inspired by the blatant honesty that I see the parents display, and I think that’s what contributes to the kids’ having such great middos and being such exemplary people.

  8. Thanks for this post, “Devorah”. I can relate, as we became frum when our children were older, and they experienced the same sudden change of rules as you describe.

    B”H for the assistant Rabbi and his wife in your story. It is a fortunate community that has frum people willing to reach out and befriend the floundering children of BT’s and keep them on track.

  9. “Devora” (and any other children of BTs that may be out there),
    I highly encourage you to try to participate in this blog to whatever degree you can. Your perspective is a valuable resource for the rest of us.

  10. I hate to quote my own stuff (ok, I love to quote my own stuff) but I think this excerpt from a precious post also addresses the issue:

    “Great Expectations and Vicarious Living

    Some BTs bemoan “lost time”, meaning that they feel like they wasted a good portion of their lives doing non-Torah things. A symptom of this “lost time” syndrome is that one might feel, perhaps subconsciously, that since their children were born into frum homes, they will direct their lives in such a manner as they think they would have lived if they were born into frum homes. One might also think that each of his children should be the gadol hador as opposed to being the best chaim or chaya he\she can be, living up to their personal potential and not to our “wannabe” dreams. The result of this vicarious parenting approach is often undue pressure, unrealistic expectations and the squelching of individuality.”

  11. Ron, Why do you say I ask too many questions? And if you say…,I’ll ask you the following…

    I think this goes a little beyond living vicariously in that a person can view it as correcting their own spiritual deficiencies.

    Is it incorrect to measure our spiritual success to some degree on the spiritual accomplishments of our children? Isn’t that one of our spiritual missions, to nurture spiritually oriented children?

    The issue of wanting spiritually accomplished children is is not limited to BTs, although it may be more acute because we may perceive ourselves as having more spiritual deficiencies in TAG (Torah, Avodah, Gemillas Chasadim).

  12. Mark, you ask too many questions!

    Parents live vicariously through their children, unfortunately, in all sorts of families. It’s a fair point that we should look out for that. On the other hand, I know I will never have the benefit of “learning Torah on a blank slate,” as the Mishna in Avos says, and I hope and expect my children to achieve what I did not, and am making a substantial investment in their being able to do so.

    But they are not mini-me’s, and ultimately I can only give them tools, encouragement and, I hope good manners!

  13. At some point the perceptive “tinok shenishba” grows up and frees him/herself from ideological “captivity”, slowly or quickly. The whole methodology of taking one’s spouse and/or kids along for this ride has been underexplored, so this article is very important.

  14. Deborah,

    This is a great article! I can really relate to things you said in it…When you become more Frum as your kids are getting older, it can be a bit tough, but my advice is not to give up, ever. But you have to understand that hopefully, they will come around when they are ready to…just like you, I, and all of us BT’s did!


  15. This is a great column. Open communication, discussion and honesty goes a lot further in creating a healthy home stmosphere and one where Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim are not just taught, but caught.

  16. Great article Devorah. You bring up an interesting situation.

    According to many, most of us are considered Tinok SheNishba, (capitive from birth), meaning that we are not fully responsible for our life choices before becoming frum, because we did not have the correct information to make the right choices.

    On the other hand you point out that we sometimes strive to make our children the paradigms of observance to compensate for our own perceived failure in our observance.

    So do we disbelieve that we are not Tinok SheNishba? Or do we believe that if we were Frum for Birth we would ourselves be the paradigm of observance? Or is something else going on here?

  17. Devorah, thanks for your write up. My oldest is only 4, but she remembers when I used to turn on the TV on Shabbos, or eat non-kosher food, and asks me about why things are different now. I can only imagine how much harder it would be if she were 14.

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