The Cowardly Baalas Teshuva

By Yentl Eisenberg
Reprinted from

We were invited to a celebration in honor of my niece’s high school graduation. Just a nice simple dinner at my brother’s vacation home down the shore.
Only there were potential problems.

There are always problems, but this time I really didn’t want to deal with any of it. We are frum and the rest of the family is not. They are really nice about it and try to accommodate our needs. Only, it’s never really good enough.

There are the problems of kashrus, of where to get kosher-enough food.

There is our relatives’ insistence on serving wine to make a toast, non-kosher of course.

And then there’s the complicated family politics, this one won’t talk to that one. That one is too liberal, this one is too right-wing. Further complicated by a diverse array of spouses, the exes, the soon-to-be exes, the “companions,” the children of girl-friends, children of second marriages, significant others, etc.

And then there’s me, the crazy religious one with 10 kids and a zealot for a husband.

In a room full of Jews, they all agree on one thing: nobody likes Jews who think like me.

The questions are insistent and invasive. At first they seem genuinely interested in the answers. But as the hour passes, it becomes evident that I have entered a trap to show how inferior and useless religion is. How can I ascribe to a way of life if I don’t know “why” I am doing these senseless things? How can I live a life of poverty, because as frum people, we no longer have the same material aspirations as them?

And then there is the deeper trap. The obvious glaring difference between a life of material plenty and comfortable religious non-observance vs. our life of material hardship and what they see as overly strict religious adherence. As my grown son said, “I still can’t wrap my mind around the idea that a person can have two houses. One to live in and the other just for weekends and vacations.” We don’t even own one house, let alone go on vacations.

I have kept away from these innocent family gatherings for 20 years. I knew it would be too difficult to gracefully figure out the kosher food thing (with hand washing and bentching, not to mention arranging mincha davening etc…). I stayed away from the parties that were held at someone’s poolside to avoid the bathing suit problems. I stayed away from the vast riches of upper middle class American Jewish success so that my children wouldn’t become tempted by the glitz. I stayed away from the relatives so that I could avoid the intellectual and emotional Inquisitions.

Which today leaves me with a burning question.

I know that I am living the Way of Truth—the Way of Torah and Hashem. I am supposed to be a Light Unto the Nations.

So how come I am such a coward when that Nation is mine?

12 comments on “The Cowardly Baalas Teshuva

  1. One answer to such questions that can bridge the gap is “It’s personal, this is a personal choice I made. It enhances my life. I understand that you don’t want to make the same choice and I respect that. But I am very happy and fulfilled with my life and I only wish you the same. There is really no need to argue about this.”

    Of course, this may not be 100% true because of course you desire that your relatives become more religious and they desire that you become less religious. So both sides are interested in influence. But radical acceptance is another option.

    You do not need to be a kiruv representative to your family. Someone else can do kiruv to your family and you can do that favor in another family where you are less likely to feel vulnerable and attacked.

    It is possible to respect your relatives in their difference and it is possible for them to respect you. Both sides simply need to give up the idea that they know what is best for the other person.

    Do your relatives do no mitzvos at all? Do they never give of their wealth to charity? Are they honest in their business dealings? Are they kind and loving to their children? Ethical mitzvot are real.

    Sometimes, I say, “Everyone does the mitzvot that are easiest for them. The fact that I make brachot before and after meals is probably a sign that I’m deficient in something more important, like kindness.”

    One thing secular people understand is autonomy. They understand having the right to make your own decisions. You don’t need to defend Orthodoxy and be able to answer every challenge. You can simply refuse to engage in those discussions if you wish, because they are not leading to increased understanding or greater love within the family.

    You simply need to say “this works for me”. Even if that is not the entire reason you became frum, it is not untrue and unlike other answers, it is something that every secular person should be able to respect and understand.

  2. Ellen commented in relevant part:

    “I wonder how many of us became BT’s because of someone else’s example, rather than someone else’s instruction.”

    I was inspired and moved by example.Learning Torah, while vitally important, became so once I was committed to being a Shomer Torah Umitzvos and realizing that inspiration without education would not be a lasting solution.

  3. As I was leaving a 12 Step meeting I overheard 2 non-Jewish members having a heated discussion about whether G-d designated a Chosen People. I tried to lighten up the situation by remarking that we Jews often beseech G-d to choose someone else for a change. When I was a novice BT I was anxious to spread my truth to anyone within earshot. I later found it preferable to let people know I respect their choices, I hope they respect mine, and could we please discuss something else. Years after my dad and I were no longer at loggerheads about the issue, and I would even let him know he didn’t have to park a distance away on Shabbos since it was difficult for him to walk, he told me how much he appreciated that we could indeed have a good relationship despite our religious differences because he knew he wasn’t being judged for his practices.

    Having a couple adult children of my own who have gone “off the derech” I found that I had to make similar choices in order to maintain a relationship with them. I texted one of them today that he’s welcome to come to any or all of the Rosh Hashannah meals if he wants to, no questions asked.I wonder how many of us became BT’s because of someone else’s example, rather than someone else’s instruction.

  4. Tuvia, the situation you describe is exacerbated by the feeling that many BTs have that their relatives are acting a certain way in order to upset them. They truly feel that their relatives dress in shorts and tank tops… to upset them. They intermarry… in order to make them really upset. The BT may not realize that he or she is not the catalyst for either normal, everyday actions, or major life decisions made by his or her relatives.

    It takes a lot of self-awareness on the BT’s part to understand the dynamics at work. After all, the relatives are just doing what they have always done.

  5. From a secular perspective:

    I have BT family, and I admire their way of life very much (except for the living on government programs part, which winds up being a necessary part of the plan.) But I don’t actually admire the way they discern truth – which tolerates no dialogue with secular outside ideas.

    What happens in family gatherings is we have to abide whatever spoken or unspoken rules there are about what can be said or discussed. We also have to abide their need to often bring up Torah topics.

    In a sense, the more religious person or family gets to control the environment.

    So I don’t see it as cowardice that you stay away from their get togethers. More likely – there is a clash.

    On the one hand there is this sense BTs have of possessing an ultimate knowledge – that extends to every particular of their doctrines, dogma and text. On the other hand, there is the secular penchant for testing and challenging ideas – which extends of course to religious truths, any historic claims, any claims about the Torah, or about any aspect of masorah.

    For one reason or another, BTs and haredi folks are largely unable to engage in those discussions. There are of course serious exceptions. The James Kugels (or Zev Farbers or Prof. Marc Shapiros or Prof. Jacob Wrights of the world), and the left wing modern orthodox, are less against discussing ideas.

    What happens is that no one likes to feel hamstrung in these environments. Imagine if you were Catholic and the local parish priest dropped by – and stayed – for a long time. Eventually, you might get annoyed at having to play by “when the priest is over” rules.

    Same problem here.


  6. bs”d. A beautiful post…. raw and honest and so helpful as I face this so often. Yes, we know to limit engagements to the “safer” times in the year..but when there is a family milestone, such as a graduation or bar mitzvah, it’s hard to limit appearances at these events. I do agree that showing up and being b’simcha for the family is a kiddish Hashem. That being said, when interactions leave the simcha realm and launch into the discomfort zone, well, who among us can predict precisely if and when will this may occur? A hour after being together? 20 minutes? Each encounter is usually just that, unpredictable.
    My usual approach is to plan an exit strategy which works mostly with non -family events.
    When it comes to our immediate family, this is harder to achieve.
    Yenti, may Hashem send you chizuk and blessings for the life you have chosen, and may you be zoche to leave lasting images of the royal bas Torah you are.
    Thank you for writing this post and letting me know that I am not alone.

  7. Bob Miller-Look at it this way-RYBS pointed out that the Torah, immediately after the Akedah, records in very detailed fashion, Avraham Avinu’s relatives who were not influenced by his actions, and suggests that Avraham’s last test was his reaction to his relatives way of life.

    I stand by my post that one can use such encounters as a way of being Mkadesh Shem Shamayim and I agree that there is no obligation to expose oneself to ridicule. Yet, I would suggest that cutting oneself off from one’s family of origin completely is not a decision that should be implemmented without the input of both a rav and a mental health professional.

  8. You’re not a coward dear Yentl. It is very hard to be the “light” when there is sometimes derisiveness, as is my experience.

    I have the same kind of situation, with an ultra liberal dedicated non-practicing mishpocha. I’ve had to step back from social situations because it is difficult — for them and for me. I’m uncomfortable, they’re uncomfortable and we all wish we were someplace else.

    I think the “derisiveness” actually masks a bit of a guilty conscience on their part for doing that which they *know* they shouldn’t be doing, because no one with a true Jewish neshama can blithely go on unaffected … unless they have had NO exposure to yiddishkeit in their lives.

    That is not the case with my family, and I believe they feel a little guilt and doubt underneath the bravado.

    Well, as my husband always says, just be you and be the best you can be. You are a model for them, should they ever choose to take the path of Torah observance. You truly are a “light” even if it doesn’t feel like it.

    It’s hard to do, but it does make sense.

  9. You’re under no obligation to show up to get ridiculed. Are there other situations where you can have a positive encounter with at least some of them?

  10. Do you live in the US? We have found that the best times to get together with other family members are such days as Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Father’s and Mother’s Day . Ask your rav whether getting together with family members and bringing your own bag is a viable option.

    Kashrus is not a problem with our family members, and we studiously ignore politics, religious issues, etc ( unlesss the same are unreasonably raised and discussed) and summer/beach gatherings at the beach homes of other relatives.

    Even if noone else davens, washes or bentches, ( and I would question whether you have an obligation to ask others to do so in such an instance), the fact that you are adhering to Halacha in such an instance and interacting in even a limited manner with relatives whose way of life is vastly different is a huge Kiddush HaShem.

  11. I am so grateful to the BT relatives who invited my not-at-all-frum parents to their Passover seders. Not everything about their lives was appealing, but the level of knowledge these frum relatives brought to the seder made a strong impression on me. Children can be tempted by the riches of a foreign world, and the riches of the frum world can tempt a secular child just as the riches of the secular work can tempt a frum child.

  12. A quote from the Talmud that I’ve found especially meaningful:

    As Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai lay dying, he blessed his students, “May it be [G-d’s] will that the fear of heaven shall be upon you like the fear of flesh and blood.” [Berachot 28b]

    This quote could also be stated as, “May your fear of G-d be as great as your fear of people.”

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