A Baal Teshuva’s Letter to His Parents – Part 1

By Rabbi Benzion Kokis

It is often very difficult to have a calm discussion with family and friends about the changes a ba’al t’shuva has made. There is too much emotional baggage, too many sensitivities that can be hurt, to expect a rational dialogue. On the contrary, it is much more likely that the discussion will be a catalyst to dredge up old resentments, and result in more, not less, acrimony.

What has proven to be much more effective is communicating through the almost forgotten art of letter-writing. Granted, in our day of mobile communications and instant messaging, the thoughtful articulation of ideas on paper seems almost quaint. But in this context, it has a tremendous advantage, because it creates the opportunity for a message to be gradually absorbed at an emotional distance. There is no need for immediate give and take, and there is time for much more than knee-jerk reactions.

We would like to present here a letter that was written by a ba’al t’shuva to his parents. He was traveling home to England for the first time since becoming religious, and anticipated a lot of turbulence and hurt feelings. One of several brothers, he had been given a “traditional” Jewish upbringing, meaning a secure sense of being Jewish, but only a smattering of knowledge, and token observance of Shabbos and holidays.

Along the way, we will spotlight certain facets of the letter that reflect, sensitive and skillful communication. We will present this letter in three parts with comments in parenthesis.. Here is part I:

My dear parents,

I hope this letter finds you all in good health. I am going to be home on the 24th of July, and I am looking forward to giving you both a big hug. I am not the best letter-writer in the world, but am now putting my best pen to paper. I feel that it is very important to share with you some of my thoughts and feelings before coming home. I want to have a close relationship with you, and a letter is the easiest way for me to give you an awareness of where I am religiously.

(An emotional tone has been set. He is communicating because he loves his parents, and, realizing that the changes he has made could cause problems, he hopes to avoid this by having a mature discussion before coming home. He has made it clear that far from being oblivious to the family connection, he seeks to maintain that warmth, and let it be a vehicle for enhanced understanding.)

In America the question, ”Where are you holding?”, is asked by religious people to those like myself who are becoming more observant. The question is where are you, on what stage or level, and implies that there are many levels one can be on.

I would like to share with you where I am “holding”, and show you what a positive thing it is for me. I would also like to allay some of your fears about a “religious lifestyle”, and your role in my life. I would love it if you could, but I don’t necessarily expect you to understand why I am becoming religious.

(He acknowledges his parents’ trepidation about the impact his becoming a ba’al t’shuva may have on the family, without blaming or indicting them. In addition, their understanding of his life changes will be welcome to him. In other words, in the emotional sense, he is still very much their son, whose parents’ validation is significant to him.)

My becoming more observant is a testimony to the upbringing which you have given me. The values you taught me are all part of a Torah way of life. You gave me a Jewish education from the beginning of my schooling: King David, classes at shul, Givat Washington, and Carmel College. You even encouraged me to go to Manchester Polytechnic rather than to St. Andrews University. You have given me nothing but support and encouragement all the way along. You laid the foundations for my religious observance.

(Telling his parents that he views his rather dramatic life changes as a continuum of his upbringing, and not a radical departure, reassures them that he is not rejecting them. Their relationship is intact, although many details may have shifted.)

So, why am I writing this letter? My difficulty is where I am “holding”. In a sense, I now know too much to go back to the level of observance I held before coming to America. I am concerned that you will feel that I am becoming too religious, and going too far.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I feel you have always wanted for your boys. Let me paint what I see as your ideal picture:

We would all marry nice Jewish girls; be happy, successful, and live comfortable lives; have children (2-4); go to shul every Shabbos, keep the same level of kashrus, traditions, etc., that we grew up with; give to JNF; join the Masons; and look after you when you are old and gray.

Ideal scenarios rarely occur exactly according to plan. I would like to focus on what alternatives would be fair for you to expect, given our upbringing. I am going to look at three scenarios:

1. Your sons marry non-Jewish girls;
2. We adopt your ideal scenario;
3. We become more religious.

Part II is scheduled to be posted tomorrow.