The Key To Staying On the Derech is Maintenance

This is a follow up post to my thoughts on the topic of why some BTs go off the derech. The crux of my theory is that sometimes people go off the derech not so much because they are unsatisfied with their frum lifestyle, but rather, because when life’s pressures become overwhelming we seek to go back to the familiar. This is true even when what was once familiar won’t make us happy today. Though we might have evolved into different people, we stubbornly seek out our old habits, while we conveniently forget the reasons why we changed our former lifestyle patterns in the first place.

As an example, an ex-smoker might feel momentary relief in a cigarette during a stressful moment, but the pain of addiction and fear of cancer will be a quick reminder of why they quit in the first place. The drag of a cigarette can never be as sweet as those first puffs taken in ignorance of the consequences. Additionally, there will also be the sting of personal failure ingested with each inhale. Similarly, imagine the frustrations of a chronic dieter who struggles to lose weight, reaches a modicum of success, only to give up the difficult fight and pack the pounds back on. These analogies illustrate why I believe that BTs who go off the derech are never truly satisfied with their choice to revert back to their former lives. I realize that I am likening becoming frum to overcoming an addiction. However, I believe that this diagnosis is correct for many of us.

I knew a boy in high school who was addicted to drugs (I’ll call him Bill). I didn’t really know Bill, except that he was in quite a few of my honors level classes. Bill was first caught with marijuana when we were in 9th grade. Instead of serving time in a juvenile penitentiary, he was sent to an inpatient drug rehab program. When Bill entered the program, his mother asked our Social Studies teacher if she could pick a handful of students, who she felt might be a good influence upon him, to exchange letters with him while he was in the program. The program encouraged the patients to cut off ties with all of their old cohorts and make a new group of friends who didn’t do drugs. Bill’s mother hoped that if he could establish a few friendships with other kids during his program stay, and know that he had new friends waiting for him upon his return to school, it might give him the incentive he needed to stay clean.

I was one of the people chosen to befriend Bill. I wrote him letters and he wrote back to me, grateful for the communication. He said he was ready to give up on drugs, and looked forward to coming back to school and forming new relationships with new friends. When he came back to school, he put his best foot forward. He was participating in class and sought out the company of those who had written to him. Eventually, his former associates started seeking out Bill, just to say howdy. Bill still liked his old friends, and the only problem he had with them was that they still used drugs. Bill decided that it couldn’t hurt to hang out with them, as long as he stuck to smoking cigarettes and not pot. Gradually, he began to skip classes to hang out with these buddies. The boundary drawn between smoking tobacco and weed became blurred and he was back to where he started. Bill’s new friendships faded fast. His single mom was broken-hearted. Bill dropped out of school in 11th grade. The last I heard about Bill was that he had been arrested for possession and selling of cocaine.

So, what went wrong for Bill? In the beginning, he had lots of support. He was in an inpatient program being monitored and given therapy 24/7. His mom was enlisted to help him on the homefront. His schoolmates were enlisted to support him on the peer front. Bill was responding positively to the support. However, after Bill was released from the program, his mom went back to her full-time job, his old friends came around again, and Bill slipped back into his old patterns. He alienated his new friends who did not approve of his drug-enhanced lifestyle. Bill knew he needed to change or he would go down a dangerous path, but he couldn’t stop himself from slipping into his familiar routine.

How does this relate to the BT who goes off the derech? I have seen similar patterns emerging from the kiruv movement to those that emerge from the rehab movement. When counseling secular Jews who are interested in becoming frum, all of the emphasis is placed on the induction process, and not the life cycle process. In the beginning, there is emphasis on providing proof of the divine existence of Hashem, learning about the rituals, experiencing Shabbos/YomTov, becoming socialized within the frum community, dealing with the secular family of origin (or not), connecting with a posek, and more. There is much communal delight to be mekareve a formerly frei yid. The community gets nachas from turning on the light for the formerly blind. However, light bulbs only have a certain life expectancy before they burn out. They must be replaced every so often to keep the lamps burning. This too, is the way of the BT.

Binyamin Klempner writes of the Bostoner Rebbe and Harav Michel Twerski, and their method of ongoing maintenance and kiruv for the BTs in their communities. In his post, there is an interesting quote from Rabbi Twerski’s son:

“In the words of Harav Benzion Twerski regarding keeping our baalei teshuvah strong, “maintenance is everything in kiruv.” When Harav Michel Twerski or the Bostoner Rebbe is mekarev a Yid, they are accepting upon themselves the lifelong commitment of helping not only the baal tshuvah who they are being mekarev, but that person’s children as well. This commitment includes helping baalei teshuvah attain the necessary level of knowledge required to function in the Torah observant world, helping with shidduchim, shalom bayis counseling, advising the couple as to what is expected of husband and wife in a Torah true home, what kind of chinuch is appropriate for their children, and even taking responsibility for their children’s shiduchim; in short, advising on every aspect of life throughout one’s life.”

There is wisdom in these words. Just as some people unsatisfied with their jobs seek relief by abruptly quitting or just as some unhappily married couples immediately file for divorce, such is the drastic decision of some BTs to go off the derech.

How many BTs could be saved from leaving if there were support and programming to help with their doubts and frustrations? I have unsuccessfully tried to find information on the yearly percentage of people who become frum through various kiruv programs (if anyone has knowledge of such a study please let me know). However, whatever the percentage might be, an accurate portrayal would be to follow the study group through the years to see how many remain frum. The key is maintenance.

Originally posted here.

24 comments on “The Key To Staying On the Derech is Maintenance

  1. I think that it is critical to find a rav/rebbe as well chaverim who can serve as role models for a BT in growing in one’s level of Avodas HaShem.

  2. The “elephant in the room” that is not being addressed is that interaction with the FFB world can be heartbreakingly disillusioning.

    With all due respect to other opinions “maintenance” is like having a bottle of aspirin nearby when experiencing chest pain. The aspirin is a palliative that doesn’t really address the underlying problem, or take away all the pain.

    Gazing into the abyss which lies between the values that inspire & motivate BT’s and the social cynicism & habit based motivation of some FFB’s is not for the faint of heart… and many BT’s (and their children) are unable to bridge the gap.

    I’ve been a BT for 40 years and sadly witnessed this phenomenon time and again in many different communities with too many BT’s of various backgrounds and personality types.

    That’s why whenever one of my children was redt a BT one of my questions to the references was always “Have they experienced their “first sorrow” with the Frum community and learned how to survive and emerge stronger from a broken heart??”

  3. Anonymous –

    I was just revisiting this website and my former posts because someone linked to one of my articles here. I was surprised to find a recent comment on this old piece. While my post might be a few years old, I think that the issue of continued inclusion, maintenance, and support within the frum community is more relevant today than when this was first written. I do think that more people, both BT and FFB alike, are going off the derech than ever before.

    I am so sorry that you feel such isolation and lack of support that you are leaving the orthodox community. I have people close to me who are older orthodox singles and their plight is not enviable. I have also known the struggle of living between two worlds – the 21st century coed world of highly educated secular professionals and the “timeless” segregated orthodox society made up of rigid rules and strict gender roles.

    The role of the orthodox “older single” in the 21st century is an entire megillah all on its own. Not to be condescending, but I have the utmost respect for those singles who stay true to their orthodox beliefs and restrictions for years/decades without an end in sight. It takes superhuman strength to stay single and celibate into your 30s, 40s, 50s, etc. despite halachic restrictions. For grown women and men to be referred to as “girls” and “boys” because they are single? Disrespect at its finest.

    Hugs to you and good luck in whatever path you choose to take.

  4. I have to agree with the ‘labeling’ issue mentioned by Jon. Many people that I know (myself included) that are BT’s, only consider going off the derech after years of being treated differently for either being a BT or being single. I, for one, am tired of being treated like a ‘mizegenah’ for these reasons. It’s become so intolerable that I’ve chosen to remove myself from the community rather then continue to be around such close-minded and judgmental people. And it’s certainly not for lack of having a successful life, career, network of friends, etc. It’s just hard to live day-in/day-out being constantly judged and labeled all the time. And for those of us that grew up highly educated and worldly – it becomes virtually intolerable at some point and not worth the trade off.

  5. In the experience of Oorah, a kiruv organization that has been around for about 30 years, maintenance is key.

    Maintenance has never been a formal Oorah program, but rather,it is the entire modus operandi of the organization. Consider all the people who are involved in the development of a frum-from-birth child. He has his parents and siblings, his teachers and rebbeim, his shul rav, his grandparents,aunts,uncles and cousins, neighbors and friends. All of these people provide an inestimable benefit to the child. They create the world that is “normal” to him, giving him — through simple immersion — an innate understanding of what to do and how to do it.

    Even when a BT is completely up and running as far as halachic observance, the social and cultural mysteries of the frum world can be confounding and frustrating.

    Oorah has been able to lead about 70-80 percent of the children it deals with into full, lasting religious commitment. It attributes that success to its life-long follow-up. As the quote above relates, follow-up is needed throughout life. Oorah makes brissim, bar mitzvahs, shidduchim, enrolls children in yeshiva, gives them a month in summer camp,provides tutors for homework, mentors, people to learn with the parents, money for Pesach — whatever is needed. Not everyone needs this support, but for those who do, it’s essential.

    It’s what FFB’s have built into their lives, and someone coming from the secular world certainly needs it as much or more.

  6. DY (#10)–I agree 100%. The way communities are structured today, especially in America (in all communities), is a huge part of the problem. Most people barely interact with their neighbors, let alone talk to them enough to know if they’re BT, if they might need some help or a place for Shabbos, etc.

    Shunamit (#11)–In my experience its not so much that kiruv groups drop people as that the people move away, and in their new communities they are thought of as “FFB” or at least too frum for kiruv efforts. I know that if I had stayed in the community where I first became frum the community knew me and would have extended lots of help knowing how newly frum I was, but when I came to Israel all the kiruv groups here knew was that I was already frum and they don’t deal with the already frum… It is a problem, but it’s not a problem of “dropping” in my experience.

    In general I don’t see the need for any special kind of maintanance for BTs. Everyone needs spiritual maintanence. And many people need physical help as well (planning events, help caring for many children, etc). Why would a BT need an organization dedicated to finding Shabbos meals or setting up chavrutot or whatever else any more than any other Jew?

    And why would we need a special organization at all–aren’t we as frum Jews supposed to be that organization? In other words, instead of thinking “If only there was a group to help BTs and/or the spiritually drained,” we should be thinking, “How can I help BTs and/or those in need of some inspiration?” I think making a group officially tasked with creating spritual experiences and providing support runs the risk of misleading individual Jews into thinking the burden is off of us, when in fact we are all obligated to be a part of the group.

  7. Charlie: I think you’re right, but the issue that has come up over the past few years is that there needs to be a resource within communites that provides chizuk to those that have lost the ‘taam’.

  8. In my community it can be quite difficult to tell the difference between FFBs and BTs, who daven in the same minyanim, attend the same shiurim, send their kids to the same schools, and eat the same food. I’ve never heard anyone discuss the problem described here. Maybe the best “maintenance” is simply being a part of the community?

  9. I do have friends that participate in Partners in Torah as mentors and they love it. I feel too advanced to be the student, yet not knowledgeable enough to be the teacher.

    As an aside, I think that women have an easier time complaining to each other about difficulties than men do.

  10. I’m might not have been clear. I’m suggesting that those of us “who need maintenence” should learn with those of a lesser background.

    Another issue, maybe the issue, is that there’s a social stigma to admitting that we don’t always enjoy (or even) daven, find simcha in Shabbos, or enjoy the guidelines of ‘modest dress’. While I don’t know if this exact issue was touch upon at the Agudath Israel convention. I know that one of the themes was “Simchas HaChaim”.

  11. A friend told me once of his experience in trying to find a long-range study partner. The contacts he spoke to in various organizations judged him to be too advanced “beyond BT” for them to help out.

  12. Maintenance is key. However by defintion “looking for maintenance” means that one wants to receive it (take). One way that some find maintenance is simply by giving or learning with someone. Parterns in Torah and Project Inspire are just two programs that might help one give to another of lesser background, while at the same time give strength and maintenance to those of us who need it.

  13. Since maintenance and recruitment are two different functions that may call for different skill sets, progressive kiruv organizations should consider adding maintenance specialists or teams as needed. Each function would then be staffed by people who really want to do it.

  14. I agree that “BT” sounds rather presumptious, if not arrogant. How about the more neutral “chozer b’tehuva”, or “mitchazek”, assuming any of you chutznikim know Hebrew…

    I also agree that it is disastrous the way the so-called kiruv movement drops people like a hot potato as soon as their primary commitment seems to solidify. It’s like they’re Commanches counting coup.

  15. i can’t help but think that, like so many other things, the dearth of supportive resources (long term) for BT’s is just another expression of the fact that we don’t know how to support other people, how to really care, how to even notice that they exist, to some seems to be fragmenting us more and more as technology takes the place of a heartbeat. if we were all skilled at doing this, and in the position to give freely, our communities would weather many things more easily. (part of what we need mashiach more – this pain is galus.)

    i know this doesn’t make for a very positive comment. sorry about that. but the truth i think really is that we are all suffering. ffb’s also need things they aren’t getting from anyone…

    Hashem yerachem. we can just try to do our best, that’s all. sometimes feeling the pinch makes us that more able to reach out and help someone else when we recognize the distress signals. it’s character building.

  16. Thank you, I loved your points. I also agree that there need to be better support systems in place. I think it’s really hard to make such a drastic life change without support. I find that converts also suffer without the kind of support you mentioned. I think the onus is on everyone to help each other, it’s just not just to the BT and convert. Perhaps, we should be taught while we’re in the process how to work at maintaining our support systems, not just how to light candles.

  17. I suspect that communities who do not properly do this “maintenance” function for BT’s in their area may also be deficient in other interpersonal areas of Yiddishkeit.

  18. After I read this article I looked at the article under the topic heading finding a Rav. Especially comments 5,6,7 etc. You will find there a girl who says openly she is slipping away and being pulled into a job which will require her to work on Shabbos R”L because she has no support ! I do not have any good answers here but this is a VERY important subject and one which should lead to ACTION and not just words !

  19. Thank you all for your comments.

    Fern – thanks for “getting” what I was trying to say. I realize the comparison between addiction and going off the derech is a harsh one.

    tzirelchana – I don’t have the answer to that. I actually had a brief conversation with Neil Harris and wife tonight at an NCSY event. They told me that NCSY has a fairly new collegiate/alumni division that does events with former NCSYers, although I don’t know if it is simply a fundraising arm or they do events to help folks maintain their frumkeit. LifeCycle Kiruv is what’s needed.

    Jon – I agree with not liking labels, but, after all, this site is called Beyond BT! In real life I don’t go around introducing myself as a BT or others as FFBs. For the sake of making my point in the article, I needed a “lable” to indicate the populations I was talking about. Although in much of the post I wrote in an academic tone, I am writing from the personal perspective of a BT who has seen others go off the derech and who has struggled with my own issues.

    I have been frum for over 15 years, although I think that my level of growing and learning has been stunted the last few years – the old saying that there is no such thing as standing still – you either move forward or backward. I have thought of myself as standing still the past few years, but maybe not. I am trying to redouble my efforts to learn and grow.

    As far as further “statistics” I will be happy to answer any questions you might have. You email me at – frumhouse at gmail dot com.

  20. Thank you for a great post!
    I wonder who can create this support network? Specifically, to what extent can we support each other without having to rely on the frum oilam at large?
    As a Russian-born BT living in the US,I find that my primary support network is a group of Russian-born BT friends, who have similar backgrounds and face similar challenges. (We also make a large Chanukka party and Purim seuda to compensate for lack of extended families and to give the kids the awareness of their own roots.)
    I do not mean to discount the need for the society at large to be involved (it is obvious) – I just feel that there is something that we can do to help each other.

  21. While I understand what you are trying to address, I don’t appreciate the academic, and from afar stance that so many take toward baalei teshuva, making them a “cheftza” rather than a “gavra.” even the term BT to me, is nauseating. Truly. It’s all part of the greater anthropological problem of making one feel better about oneself by neatly labeling everyone and everything and throwing down the mail slots of one’s choice into carefully coded bins. I’m more interested in questions like: what makes you want to write this? Where are you holding? I’d like to find statistics on that.

  22. I think frumhouse’s point is a good one. My husband’s brother is going through a serious problem which has been exacerbated by the fact that he lives 100s of miles away from his family and has no support network where he lives. Everyone needs people to lean on during hard times, for guidance, and to celebrate with during good times.

    BTs are a little estranged from their natural support network because their parents, siblings, family friends, childhood teachers, etc aren’t able to support a frum Jew in all of their life struggles/celebrations. It would be nice if those in kiruv helped new BTs build up a frum support network, but at some point, the BT has to make an effort to build up his or her own network. Just like the drug addicted boy frumhouse knew in school really needed to take responsibility for building up his new circle of friends and distancing himself from the drug abusing group. His mother and the drug rehab group could get him started on the right track, but only the boy could chose to only associate with people who would support him in his new drug-free identity.

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