Confessions of a BT Wannabe

By Charlotte Friedland

It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I’m not a ba’alas teshuvah (BT). As I was born to observant Jewish parents, the outreach networks dismiss me as an “FFB”—a “frum from birth” specimen, not worthy of attention. The term itself suggests staleness. After all, an FFB arrives in a world where traditions and education are clearly outlined, and from that moment on, it’s same ol’, same ol’.

So there are no special Shabbatons, no charismatic rabbis seeking me out, no books written about my kind—except those describing us as smug, spoiled and spiritually indolent. But that’s not all: the fact that our families held onto religious Judaism renders us likely to indulge in excessive triumphant bleating. And nobody invites a triumphalist to parties.

Thus it is written, and thus it is believed. Lord knows, I’ve tried not to be triumphant, curbed my pride in rabbinic ancestors, lowered my voice in shul. Yet the image persists. To remedy the situation, I’ve been hanging out at outreach events, skulking around, trying my best to look lost. One must appear to be searching, that’s the key.

Usually, in fact, I am searching for my keys, but no one seems to care about the small stuff. Everyone is so busy describing their personal epiphanies, so full of that glowing exuberance over critical life choices, that they can’t hide their disappointment when I confess my lineage. “Oh, an FFB,” they mouth politely, “how nice,” and then move on to that fascinating individual who just entered the room, fresh from an ashram.

No, I don’t remember my first Shabbos. I never struggled over reading Hebrew, nor had a defining moment of truth. But I’ve had a few good cries on Yom Kippur, really, and once in awhile I think to myself, “If I weren’t born religious, would I be doing this?” And then my mind clicks off, unable to fathom the question.

Trained to think in Biblical terms, I look for guidance to the first FFB in history—Yitzchak. After all, his father and mother had grown up “out there.” He was born after they had mastered Shabbos zemiros and correct hemlines, and he was raised to be a perfect Jew from day one. Granted, it appears that he has no trace of his folks’ flair for convincing people of an invisible God. Kind of withdrawn and sullen, he seems—and I think I know why. He probably felt out of place at his parents’ “Judaism 101” weekends. There he is, the first FFB, standing awkwardly among all those repentant pagans, struggling to empathize with their turmoil, while his father works the tent, cheerfully spreading his light.

He nods dumbly as the caravan driver describes to him his disillusion with idols, his attempts to find meaning in camel racing, his sixteen failed marriages, his forty-three children who “just don’t seem to have any values, no values at all. That’s why, I’m here. I’m told that Abraham is onto something big, something that could change my life. You know what I mean? Did you ever wonder ‘what’s it all about?’” Abraham’s son shifts uneasily. “Yeah, sure. I know. I have a brother like that….” But his voice sounds hollow, his tone unconvincing. Better to leave kiruv to the professionals.

The outreach pros in my life have told me how lucky I am. I should be part of their army, they say, marching (but not too triumphantly) along with them. I should be descending upon the secular world with the light of heritage glowing in my eyes. Dunno. Like most FFBs, I’m scared silly that someone will ask a basic question that I can’t answer. I’m not an authority, just a plain Jew.

At least I could invite somebody for Shabbos now and then, that’s true. And the fact is that whenever we do have “late starters” at the table, I always learn something from them. They ask questions that never entered my mind; they marvel at the easy-going confidence with which we roll through the rituals—–to the point that even I take notice. And they make me feel blessed because I have never been without a hearty, meaningful Jewish life, the kind of life they want so badly it hurts.

I think it was the Bluzhover Rebbe—who so valiantly led others through the Holocaust—who once commented that the “ruach teshuvah,” the spirit of awakening rippling across our world today, is the spiritual outcome of the horrific war years. The problem, he mused, is that only secular Jews are taking advantage of it, though it is meant for all of us.

Imagine that. Spiritual growth is not limited to those born on the outskirts of Jewland. You can live your entire life as an Orthodox Jew and still have room to emerge as a ba’al teshuvah. Could that be the challenge? I wonder if there are other people like me—BT wannabes who are beginning to think that maybe being an FFB is deceptively simple, that our goals have been set too low.

Are there enough of us to launch a new era? Dare we raise our banner as FFBBTs, create our own chat room, gather at conventions?

Who am I kidding? In my heart of hearts, this generic Jew knows that the title doesn’t matter and never did. It’s a question of direction. Let’s face it: clawing your way up from being 85 percent frum to 86 percent is a real struggle, even if it doesn’t earn accolades, even if it has no name. There’s no dramatic story, but you have the quiet satisfaction of knowing that you live your Judaism as genuinely as the BT next door.

I suspect that it’s time for us all to drop the labels and move on.

“Reprinted with permission from Jewish Action – Winter 2007, the magazine of the Orthodox Union. “

© 2007 Charlotte Friedland

Charlotte Friedland is a former editor of Jewish Action and also served as book editor at Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

8 comments on “Confessions of a BT Wannabe

  1. I liked this article very much – thank you!

    “the title doesn’t matter and never did. It’s a question of direction. Let’s face it: clawing your way up from being 85 percent frum to 86 percent is a real struggle, even if it doesn’t earn accolades”.

    You’ve got my vote for reaching 88! And then coming up with a new school for strivers for 90.

  2. I suspect that for many BTs, one sees a conscious attempt, at least, to introduce into their Shmiras Hamitzvos,many of the key elements that had the most impact on their religious growth-such as Divrei Torah, learning with their children, Zmiros and guests at their Shabbos tables and alwasys being having a sense of gratitude and friendship, which knows no end ,to those that helped shaped their lives. IMO, to do otherwise, would be more than a denial-it might be even the opposite of chesed.

  3. I think there are areas where the labels are not important and there are areas where we need to be well aware of the labels.

    One area where the labels are not important is in our common purpose of getting closer to Hashem.

    However, the labels are important in that we need to be aware of where we came from and where we need to go based on our past.

    We were running an event in Passaic once, and a friend who had been frum about 10 years said that he was no longer a BT. I had a decent idea of where he was holding in his learning and his Avodah. I think that having the “I’m not a BT attitude” made him unaware of how far he needed to go and thus less likely to reach his destination.

    At another event, a BT who was now a Rabbi expressed some thoughts which he would not have expressed had he spent at least 7 years learning the Nesikin and Nashim masechtes in a Yeshiva Gedolah after 10 years of Yeshiva Katana education. Another case of where lack of awareness of BT-based knowledge deficiencies will hold him back.

    Of course FFBs also have knowledge gaps and there own sets of obstacles.

    So we need to know where we came from, where we are going and before Whom we are standing. And being an FFB or a BT is a key part of that knowledge.

  4. Kiruv programs can double as battery rechargers for others that are past, or never were in, the beginner stage but it might be a question of resources as well.

  5. Perhaps the identity crisis becoming a BT (sometimes) causes makes otherwise kind and stable people go a little nuts. They are reeling a bit so they start trying to quantify everyone around them in an attempt to figure out who they are. Adolescents do this all the time- no insult intended to either group. I suspect many of these people will look back and laugh at their behavior when they have mellowed out a bit, in much the way we look back on junior high and cringe. It’s natural and we must be patient. But, for people brave enough to show up at an Orthodox shul (or even a website like this to participate in a discussion) it may just take one awkward/negative experience to send them packing.

  6. No one is generic; we’re each put here with a unique mission irrespective of our popular label or lack of label.

    The article reminds me of what happened to a friend of mine. He had turned his life around years earlier to become Orthodox, but he was still looking to enhance his Yiddishkeit. Some BT-oriented organizations rejected him now from participating in their activities because they felt he was already past that stage and their mission scope did not include him. Even if someone like him was a card-carrying FFB, those types of organizations should not have been shutting doors.

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