A Baal Teshuva’s Father’s Perspectives

By “David Shub”

As the father of two BTs, the first words of advice to parents of other BTs is to say that you cannot make it a power struggle. Not only is it not a power struggle, but it is not a “fight” of who is right and who is wrong.

If someone had told me these words twenty years ago, when my older child was becoming “frum,” I would probably have become angry. Years of adaptation, adoption, and understanding have softened my initial view points.

Twenty years ago, my wife and I did not understand what was happening to our 14 year old child. The child was raised in a rather non-religious household. (I was raised in a secular Jewish household where religion was often mocked as the “opium of the masses,” but Yiddishkeit was an understood value.) We did join a Reform synagogue so that we would be able to give our kids whatever it was that we were not exposed to. When our daughter studied for her bat mitzvah, she displayed such a passion for Judaism that we thought we had a rabbi in the making. After her bat mitzvah she decided she wanted more, so we allowed her to enroll in a local Sunday Jewish High School that was run by an Orthodox principal and Orthodox teachers. The student body was comprised mostly of children from Conservative and Reform households.

The first “shock” to us occurred when I went one Saturday night to pick up our daughter after a Shabbaton. I walked into the basement of the Orthodox shul, and the students and teachers were sitting in a circle, chanting a strange tune. Periodically, during what I later learned was termed a “kumsitz,” individuals would stand and explain what the Shabbaton had meant to him or her. All I saw was “cult.”

As parents, we did not know where to turn. We knew that we could not deny our daughter’s attraction to this life because she would do things behind our backs. We sought advice of our Reform rabbi and congregation. Better she would have contemplated conversion than to adopt the Orthodox lifestyle, they intimated

High school became difficult for us. Our once athletic child now placed Shabbos before a game. She was going across town to spend Shabbos with friends. We made, what to some seemed a ridiculous decision, to Kasher the kitchen. If your child will not eat at your table, the family unit is destroyed. I remember a family member said to me when she learned what we were undertaking, “No one will come between me and my shrimp!” How foolish a statement.

I will pass over the fights, the arguments, the fears…just to say that we adapted ourselves to what we could no longer fight. Our daughter attended Stern College, a place which we felt was not nearly as academic as she was capable of handling. By the time she turned 21, she had met her “beshert” and had married in a very traditional Orthodox ceremony. I cannot say we “loved” the thick veil, the maheatza, the separate dancing, but we adapted.

Now, there are five grandchildren…and they all sit at our dining room table.

Our son, four years younger than his sister, tolerated much of the arguments in the house while his sister was straying from our path. He honored the Kosher kitchen, he honored the lights and phone restrictions on Shabbas, but he went his own way. He also attended the Sunday Jewish High School, but was not swayed by them. He graduated high school and went on to attend a very prestigious four year college. He graduated with high honors, and moved to Brooklyn where he housed with his college friends. He was the only Jewish boy. He worked in the financial area in New York. When he was around 25, he started to become interested in religion. He also met his “beshert,” although he could not believe that she was Orthodox. Unlike his sister, she was dressed in short sleeves and pants. But there is Modern Orthodox, as well as “black hat” Orthodox. They married in an Orthodox ceremony, with a modern touch. Probably because our daughter paved the way, we were less “stressed” by his route. And, of course, Modern Orthodox is easier to comprehend than the more extreme route.

What do we all want for our children? We hope that they will have married the right mate, and that they will have married into a family that loves and supports them. Our children have done that. Now, we have eleven of us at the dining room table, with a recent high chair with the twelfth addition to the family.

What has been the most difficult aspect to understand? For me, it is probably the covering of the head. Why camouflage beautiful hair with beautiful hair? I still have difficulty understanding that nothing, nothing at all interferes with the observance of Shabbos. I am not totally comfortable with the role of the woman in the family. I am baffled by the laws of “sneis.” I am not comfortable with the Yeshiva education where the secular studies program takes a secondary role.

When my oldest grandson tells me, “Grandpa, you should really wear a kippa,” I respond that “I know…” When my six year old grandson asks me why I drive on Shabbos, I try to explain to him that there are all kinds of Jews.

And when my kids come for Shabbos, we leave the lights on, we do not answer the phone, we make cholent, and leave an urn of water on the counter.

My son-in-law asks me, “Dad, are you thinking of becoming frum?” I respond, “No, not yet.”

In the long run, the Reform temple was wrong. It would not have been better if my children had converted. We have adapted, we have adopted, and we try to understand. It is best that they are Jews and that we sit at the table as a family.

Grandpa of Six (in 2006)

First Published February 7, 2006

53 comments on “A Baal Teshuva’s Father’s Perspectives

  1. Don & Sylvia,

    You have reason to be upset, but, considering that many kiruvees do not cut off their families in this fashion, some other factors may be in play here. So it might help to think about what these factors might be.

  2. Our BT child cut off her entire family. She does not reply to emails, phone calls, letters, text messages, invitations – nothing. I think I will join the ranks of OTD sites fighting kiruv.

  3. Ruth, it’s nice that you’re thinking about how you can possibly accommodate your son. You should have nachas (good things) from him and you’re entire family.

  4. I am the mother of a BT (Lubavitch) I have thought of koshering our kitchen but there a re insoluble problems. We have non Jewish friends who come biweekly for music and a pot luck, bringing food with them. Then also the Lubavitch lifestyle seems to have so MANY rules more than regular Ortohodox (for example no fish with meat, meat only from a Chabad shochet) that contemplating it gives me a headache! Also I cannot stand waste it would involve getting all new pots etc So for now he eats from his own pot and uses his own hotplate.

  5. I would suggest that family simchos ( Bar and Bas Mitzvah, Chasunahs) and even getting together on Thanksgiving are huge means for a BT to maintain a relationship with one’s family. I can’t believe that a grandparent would rather stay away than be part of a simcha with a grandchild, especially if offered to play a part such as walking down the aisle, etc.

  6. I wish I got to post before Ephraim, so that I could’ve given him the last word. He and I would probably find a whole lot more in common than one would think. Shabbat Shalom, all.

  7. What Alter Klein and Mark Frankel said. Chazak um’varuch.

    Since Shalom Bais seems to be uppermost in everyone’s minds, I will cease and desist.

    Said pretty much all I had to say, anyway.

    Carry on.

  8. The terms some, many and most often distract from the main discussion. Here’s how I would summarize this thread to date:

    G-d created the world with seeming contradictions which he wants us to work through in developing our relation to Him.

    Jewish Education is the fundamental method to work through these contradictions.

    People usually want to be respected and the lines are often blurred between the respect for the people, their beliefs and the institutions they associate with.

    If we can make our common goal developing a closer relationship to G-d, then perhaps we can create a more constructive dialog between all participants.

  9. I had written earlier: “I’m sure all of our theories are correct concerning some people, and incorrect concerning other people.” Thus, I think both Alter Klein and Esther — not to mention Ephraim, too — are making very valid points.
    Thank you, administrator, for encouraging me to take my contention with Ephraim elsewhere.

  10. Esther,
    You said :”Many people who have chosen not to live Orthodox lives have done so not out of “convience” or wanting to assimilate, but because they cannot reconcile strict Orthodoxy with other knowledge they possess (about history, or science, for example)”

    I must disagree. Most non orthodox Jews have never seriously explored orthodox Judaism and its view to see if they agree or not. In fact, most reformed and assimilated Jews received most of there views on what orthodoxy is by their Rabbi who gave speeches on Shabbat about how “primitive” the orthodox are. I have met many previous or present reformed Jews who expressed to me the hate filled speeches they were given and how surprised they were to meet a “nice/modern” orthodox Jew. In fact many of the BT’s whom I met were reform or conservative Jews who undertook to study about Judaism and then later they became orthodox.

    Ignorance is the main cause for lack of torah believing Jews. Education is the cure.

    In terms of science/physics specifically, there are views in Judaism(Orthodox) that do not clash with science. In fact, many things in the zohar and talmud show how much the Rabbi’s knew, 1000’s of years before modern scientists knew about them.
    Shabbat Shalom

  11. “I know my language was inflammatory. But I can’t help it.”
    “…but there’s nothing I can do about that.”

    Maybe you can’t stop thinking about it, but is it possible to stop writing about it?

  12. OK, let me put it this way:

    I am against Reform Judaism as an institution. I am not against Reform Jews provided that they actually are Jewish (I do not accept the validity of Reform conversions). You may consider this a weasel response, but there’s nothing I can do about that.

    This is a matter of whether the glass is half full or half empty. One can say, on the one hand, that Reform at least prevents large numbers of Jews from simply stopping being Jewish altogether. On the other hand, one can also say that it is Reform itself which originally started the stampede away from Torah and mitzvot and made possible the wholesale abandonment of observance, and the concomitant weakening of the Jewish community, that we see today.

    Would this abandonment have happened in any case once the ghetto walls were breached? Perhaps. Was the Reform reponse the correct one? I don’t think so. Do many Jews who cannot, for one reason or another, remain Orthodox either in belief or practice, go to Reform rather than abandoning Yiddishkeit altogether? Assuredly so.

    At the same time, does Reform teach that traditional observance is not necessary and that abandonment of the mitzvot is Jewishly acceptable? Yes. Does it sanction intermarriage and homosexual marriage? Yes. Is it not demonstrably true that this abandonment of Torah leads to assimilation and the destruction of Jewish cohesion? Also yes.

    So it is a mixed bag. I believe that Reform was probably inevitable and that at least most of the people in Reform are still probably halachically Jewish. However, I also believe that Reform as an institution is fundamentally wrong and that the only way to maintain true Yiddishkeit is to maintain Torah observance.

    So if I’m a little too blunt about that, sorry.

  13. “You seem to think I’m a racist because I used the word “goy” — Nope, I don’t think you’re a racist, and I don’t mind using the word “goy” wisely. Yes, I misunderstood your purpose of bringing the story. Here’s why: You said that it “pretty much summed up your feelings”, but about the only feeling you’d expressed before this point was about how bitter you are about Reform Judaism. Mr. Shub talked about one congregation, and you seemed to feel a higher calling to drag all of Reform into it.

    It is frustrating that you don’t think that the rabbi’s statement didn’t bother me. I’ve made it clear that it does. That he is fostering division and that he needs mussar doesn’t take a rocket scientist. Subtler things bother me more. You may have failed to realize that you’re doing it in a different way. I needn’t rehash my explanation.

  14. Yeah, I figured you wouldn’t get the point of the story. The point is that a Jew can still be a Jew and keep the mitzvot even if he has doubts, and it is the observance of the mitzvot that separates us from the nations. You seem to think I’m a racist because I used the word “goy”, but what, objectively, is the real difference between a Jew and a non-Jew? It is not race, it is not ethnicity, it is not any of that. It is the mitzvot or the lack thereof. The mitzvot are the sign of the covenant between Hashem and the Jews. Any gentile who takes on the mitzvot automatically becomes a Jew, whether he be Chinese, Zulu, Mayan or Swedish. I know plenty of such people, and they are better Jews than many born that way. Jettisoning the mitzvot as Reform has done has serious consequences, as Rachel’s post upthread illustrated. Once the mitzvot are gone, there is very little, if anything, that separates Jews from everyone else, and complete assimilation is not too far away.

    Sorry, as far as I’m concerned, the Reform “rabbi” who told Mr. Shub that it would be better for his daughter to be an apostate rather than a Torah-observant Jew is the one who is fostering divisions among the Jewish people. If such a person calling himself a “Rabbi” doesn’t get your dander up, I think something is wrong. You should direct your mussar at him.

    Finally, I think this story is very uplifiting indeed. Two Yiddishe neshamas were saved and the family was able to come together and draw closer to Hashem in spite of the “Rabbi’s” advice.

    What’s not to like?

  15. Ephraim wrote: “Finally, why is it that Orthodox people are always the ones being accused of “fostering divisions”? The Reform … (some important words skipped)… And we are the ones “fostering divisions”?”

    No, my friend. Who, exactly, is being accused in these postings here? It’s not “Orthodox people”. It’s not “we”. It’s you, Ephraim. Esther’s mussar to you was not: “simply to say that (you) should accept the fact that a lot of people can’t relate to being Orthodox because it conflicts with other beliefs that they have.” It was that /your/ approach fosters divisions. We know that your real goal in your postings is to educate people to “recognize the fact and draw the appropriate conclusions, that’s all.” But it’s probably unnecessary to do that at this particular website (and surely not so many times, to boot.) Either way, some more discretion is needed. And your apikorus story, which could be understood that you feel that Reform Jews are actually “goyim”, doesn’t help your case.
    Ephraim, you’re a good writer. Let’s see some of your insights on the /positive/ parts of Mr. Shub’s essay — like on how to improve our relationships with our parents who aren’t on the same track we’re on.

  16. Actually, I just remembered a great joke that pretty much sums up my feelings:

    Sometime during the Haskalah, an apikores in a rural shtetl hears about the Great Apikores of Prague and about how he has brought masses of Jews to apikorshkeit. So he resolves to go sit at his feet to learn from him.

    He arrives in Prague on Erev Shabbos. When he asks where he can find the Great Apikores, he is astonished to hear that The Great Apikores is leading the davening at the main synagogue. Puzzled, he goes the the shul just in time to see the Great Apikores, resplendent in his finest Shabbos shtreimel, bekishe and tallis greeting the congregation. The apikores greets the Great Apikores and says that he has an urgent matter to discuss. The Great Apikores silences him and invites him to his house as his Shabbos oyrech. Confused, the apikores follows him and finds to his astonishment a house full of guests and ready to greet the Shabbos Queen.

    All through Shabbos, the apikores tries to get the Great Apikores of Prague to listen to him, but every time he tries to talk he is met with “we have to bentch first” or “wait until after mincha. By the time Havdalah rolls around, the apikores is not only totally flummoxed, he can hardly contain his anger.

    Finally, after Havdalah is over, he cannot contain himself. “O Great Apikores of Prague”, he says, “in my little shtetl I have tried my best to teach everyone the foolishness of religion. I smoke on Shabbos in front of the shul, I hand out secular literature to the children, I even eat bacon on Yom Kippur where everyone can see me! Then I heard about you and about the greatness of your apikorshkeit and so I decided that I must learn from a true Master. And yet when I get here, all I can see is that the man I thought was the greatest apikores in the world is just another frummer Yid! What does this mean?

    “Ah”, said the Great Apikores of Prague, “that is where you have made your mistake. I am an apikores. You’re a goy“.

    And so the apikores returned home to ponder the truth of the words of the Great Apikores of Prague.

  17. Reform religious practices are “deviant” in the sense that they deviate from the mesorah. That’s all I meant. If “heterodox” suits you better, that’s fine too.

    I just think that people should recognize the fact and draw the appropriate conclusions, that’s all.

    Esther’s “mussar” directed at me, as you call it, is simply to say that I should accept the fact that a lot of people can’t relate to being Orthodox bcause it conflicts with other beliefs that they have. OK, fine zie gezunt. I don’t drive to shul on Shabbat, but I don’t go around throwing rocks at people who do, either.

    The underlying assumption of her argument, however, is that not being able to believe 100% is a good reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and that fighting a rearguard action is better than giving up altogether. While I know that people will of course keep making the choices that they do, and that there is nothing much I can do about it, I find it hard to intellectually accept the general principle, even though for all practical purposes she is right in her own way.

    I question things all of the time. I’m sure the rabbi is pretty sick of it by now. What I do NOT do, however, is say: “OK, I cannot accept everything I think the Torah says. Since I am sure that I understand it perfectly, and since it conflicts with what I learned in my high school history class, I guess I’ll stop keeping kosher”.

    My point is that Reform as an institution rejects the idea that the Torah is from Hashem and that the mitzvot are in any way obligatory, and it seems to feel that Torah must always be reevaluated in light of “what we know now”. All this means is that it can be changed to be whatever anyone wants it to be at any given time. Thus, the official Reform acceptance of gay “marriage”, for example, is not based on anything in the Torah, but is based on the prevailing zeitgeist in the surrounding gentile culture.

    This basic idea underlies all of Reform Judaism. Gentile norms, not Jewish ones, are considered the yardstick by which a thing is measured. This is why a Reform rabbi can say a person would be better off converting to Xianity instead of being frum. Such a person may not be “self-hating” in the sense that he hates Jews, but it certainly seems to me that he has at best a problematic relationship with Judaism.

    Finally, why is it that Orthodox people are always the ones being accused of “fostering divisions”? The Reform say its OK not to keep Shabbat or to keep kosher; their rabbis officiate at mixed and gay marriages; they do not require their converts to keep any of the mitzvot; they say that human beings made up the Torah; and they arbitrarily change the definition of who is a Jew, demand that everybody accept their new definitions with no questions asked, and accuse those who don’t accept what they do of sowing discord among Jews. And we are the ones “fostering divisions”?

    In the final analysis, I suppose none of this matters much. I’ll keep walking to shul, they’ll keep driving.

  18. Ephraim, when you wrote: “I am not sure if anyone is “fostering” these divisions (between Orthodox and Reform) in the sense that they are artifically ginned up by unscupulous power-mongers who simply want to enlarge their little fiefdoms for their own personal benefit.” — you completely missed Esther’s mussar directed at you. In the midst of /explaining/ and /highlighting/ some of the differences — usually quite accurately, mind you — you toss in words that /foster/ them as well, such as the expression “deviant practices”. The word ‘deviant’ is charged word that is benign in its dictionary definition, but it conjures up a notion of perverse or criminal behavior. We needn’t review your previous examples of confrontational word-choice or tone.

    You pointed out other differences, too. You have made a good effort in distinguishing between the Jewish individual and the Jewish institution. Remember the flap a few years back when an Orthodox writer wrote that the non-Orthodox branches aren’t Jewish? Of course, he was quick to stress that the Jews within the branches /are/ Jewish. He knew that distinction, too. But guess what? The second half of the message kind of got lost in the media. Even when the second half did get through, the hammerblow of the first half usually just drowned out the pseudo-comforting message of the second half. The jury is still out whether this author’s writings had a net positive effect. I think you ought to consider this. If the non-Orthodox reader (and I’m not referring to those few co-congregants of Mr. Shub) feels like distancing himself from the Orthodox writer because he feels like he’s being insulted, then it might just be a case of /fostering/ division.

  19. David Kirshner,
    I saw you wrote “The funny thing is though, I’ve always felt that while she loathes traditional observance, the chronic “confict” is precisely over her inability to control when she can visit, where we can eat and why I will not permit her to turn lights on or off, or even answer her phone on shabbos.”

    Honoring your parents is one of the biggest mitzvot in the torah. According to R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, many instances of electricity on shabbat are only Rabbinic laws. Even if you say breaking shabbat is an equally big mitzva, you are not responsible fr your mother’s choices, but your own, and you seem to have taken a pass on the mitzva of honoring one’s mother. Perhaps it would be a valuable torah lesson for your children to see grandma use electricity on shabbat and hearing your explanation that we don’t like grandma using lights/phone/etc but unlike you, Grandma doesn’t know its wrong, and we have to be respectful to her because we love her and she’s our grandma.
    And your mother would see a side of Judaism that isn’t about laws and divisions in families, but is about derech eretz.

  20. Mark:

    Well, of course. That’s a given.

    Of course, nobody likes to be patronized. So Reform and Orthodox people who take what they do seriously are of course going to experience tension in their relationship. People can and should be civil about it, but there is no way that they will ever agree on what is important.

    Like I said, it’s sad, but there really isn’t anything that anyone can do about it without abandoning their beliefs.

    Apropos of this, I was at an Orthodox Sephardic shul one Shabbat, and it was obvious that most of the people there were not observant and that most of them had probably driven there. The Sephardim have not traditionally had this Reform/Orthodox division within their communities like the Ashkenazim, since the Haskalah was almost exclusively a European phenomenon. The only Judaism among the Sephardim was Orthodox. So maybe you didn’t go to shul, but when you did, it was an Orthodox shul, since that is all there was.

    So, anyway, there were all of these clearly not-too-observant people going to an Orthodox shul, becasue it was the only Sephardic one around. So I asked the rabbi there where all these people came from. It was clear to the rabbi that, in my self-righteousness, I was really asking “Why do all of these people drive here when they know they shouldn’t?”, so the rabbi looked me straight in the eye and said:

    “They all walk” (pause for emphasis) “through the door”.

    That pretty much sums it up (taught me a good lesson, too). The Orthodox want everybody to observe properly. But if they have sense they will not turn anyone away from shul just because they’re not frum enough.

  21. Ephaim – That was an excellent analysis and expression of the differences.

    But even on a personal level, what if you really care for somebody, and as a Torah observant person you believe that living a life of Torah observance is beneficial and the essence of life for every Jew.

    Although we recognize that each individual Jew makes their own decisions, isn’t there an underlying hope that non-observant people would become observant (for their own benefit) and shouldn’t it pain us when they reject Torah. So even outside of the institutions there still seems to be a tension of sorts.

  22. I am not sure if anyone is “fostering” these divisions in the sense that they are artifically ginned up by unscupulous power-mongers who simply want to enalrge their little fiefdoms for their own personal benefit.

    There are serious and ultimately unbridgeable religious differences between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox, and we should be mature enough to recognize and respect these differences.

    On a very fundamental level, there can be no meeting of the minds between a Judaism that says not keeping Shabbat, not keeping kosher, and marrying out is perfectly OK and a Judaism that holds the exact opposite. We should face this.

    At our shul, which is Orthodox, there are people of widely varying degrees of observance, from very strict to what one might call Conservadox. The abolutely crucial thing to remember is that as an institution the shul is Orthodox. The people who attend make their own choices about leverls of observance. For example, some people push strollers on Shabbat even thought there is no eruv. And nobody says anything.

    This is the real reason for the division between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox. Orthodoxy recognizes that each individual Jew will make his or her own decisions about their level of observance. However, as an institution, they cannot officially recognize the halachic validity of any non-Orthodox practice. The non-Orthodox movements, on the other hand, have officially, as a matter of policy, enshrined as acceptable a wide variety of non-halachic practices and made these the standard for their brand of “Judaism”. It is this institutionalizing of deviant practices that is the root of the schism between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox. It is not over personal observance, and it never has been.

  23. After reading all of these posts with great interest, I couldn’t help but find myself distressed at some of the assumptions made here about non-Orthodox Jews. While I completely agree that any rabbi who encourages conversion over Orthodoxy should certainly not be a rabbi, there are REAL philosophical differences among the various branches of Judaism, and to label someone “self-hating” because they might have serious issues with Orthodoxy is extremely arrogant, and only serves to de-legitimize those who may have serious questions–questions that might be better dealt with through genuine, respectful dialogue. Many people who have chosen not to live Orthodox lives have done so not out of “convience” or wanting to assimilate, but because they cannot reconcile strict Orthodoxy with other knowledge they possess (about history, or science, for example). That said, such people often want to remain connected to Judaism and to Yiddishkeit and these other movements have provided (admittedly with varying degrees of success) viable ways of doing that. Could they do it better? Absolutely. But given the tiny size of the Jewish population, who is served by fostering these divisions, except those in power?

  24. Let us acknowledge that some of us here are playing armchair psychologists, trying to pry into the minds of Reform Jews, trying to understand (SOME OF) the people’s antagonism towards Orthodoxy. Is this fair of us? Can we generalize? I’m sure all of our theories are correct concerning some people, and incorrect concerning other people.

    This website is being read by more and more non-Orthodox Jews, passed on by BTs to their parents. I think that’s great. But I doubt they’ll take kindly to seeing BTs trying to read their minds. Orthodox Jews like Abramoff they can deal with. It’s the “intemperate,”
    “inflammatory,” (not to mention unfair, condescending, and irritating) attitude of “I know you more than you know yourself” that’s not going win fans. (I’m including myself in my reproach.)

    On a separate note, here’s a question for the readers: Suppose you’re a BT with FFB children. Your parents give a pretty Jewish history book to your 12-year-old for his birthday. You manage to look through it before your kid sees it and you see that a few sentences are kefira, and the general tone is, well, let’s just say that you wince on every few scans of the book.
    Do you explain to your child that they can’t read it? Do you let them read it, but with your ongoing commentary? Do you ask your parents to stick to an “approved list” of books? Do you try to explain the book’s faults to your parents? If any answer is ‘yes’, then what’s the best way to go about it? (The people at BeyondBT may wish to create a separate posting for this question.)

  25. Rachel:

    Well, um, yeah, my point exactly. Everything you say simply points up the essential correctness of my initial assessment of Reform. Remember, I’m a BT too.


    Point taken. I think that you are probably right about this. The working assumption of most Reform/unaffiliated Jews that I have met is that the Orthodox are exactly like the Xian fundamentalists, just without the Yoshke Factor.

    I think they are quite right in their own way, actually. To say nothing of completely irreligious Jews for whom the whole argument is silly to begin with, it is inevitable that a Judaism which prefers the various secular shibboleths du jour over the Torah will find itself in conflict with a Judaism that believes that the Torah is from Hashem and that the mitzvot are obligatory.

    It is sad, but we should face it.

  26. Ephraim- As far as you being angered by the Rabbi saying that it is better to convert than to become frum, well that’s your right. Everybody reacts to things differently. Growing up Reform, I always saw myself closer to Christians than other sects of Judaism. I was taught that Orthodox meant you are close-minded, and that Conservative was the same way. I went to public school along with Christians, and many people of other religions. We were all friends and got along well, and none of us had any religious boundaries limiting any of our activities. I always thought “Why am I not Christian? Why can’t I be?” It wasn’t until recently when I began to learn about being Orthodox that I understood where Christianity and Judaism split. I mean, if a person is only raised with half of the beliefs of a religion, then all the religions seem alike. They all say not to kill, steal, or lie, and that is the same thing that even the Constitution says. Once you get past that, the fundamental differences become clear. But, if you only scratch the surface, these differences are impossible to see.

    David- It is very admirable that you have adapted to your children, as I hope that my parents will. Thank you so much for writing that article, as it is sometimes important to be able to step back and look at a situation from a different perspective.

  27. Ephraim,
    I too have encountered the attitude among Reform clergy and lay-people of “better Xtian than Orthodox.” You should keep in mind, however, that when people feel this way, they don’t mean that they would rather their children be active, fundamentalist Xtian who believe that you must find “J” to be saved. They mean liberal, wishy washy, nominal Xtianity. The sort of Xtianity that has the same liberal secular humanist trappings as Reform, with a little bit of Yoskha thrown in for good measure. This seems less threatening than Orthodoxy, because it doesn’t involve a major lifestyle change.
    Also keep in mind that although this attitude exists, I don’t believe it reflects the majority of Reform clergy or laypeople.

  28. Phil:

    Like I said, I know my language was inflammatory. But I can’t help it. The idea of somebody who calls himself a rabbi telling a man that it would be better for his daughter to be a Christian than to observe mitzvot just makes me see red. I mean, how dare he say such a thing? Has he no shame? It’s just such a schande.

    And, regarding Orthodox mishegoss yes, Jack Abramoff is a schande too. What he did was such a I can hardly stand to think about it. But that is just not the point here at all.

    Actually, I think Rachel is probably closer to the mark. A lot of it is plain ignorance and a total lack of knowledge of the mesorah, which is so institutionalized and of such long standing that most Reform people are just don’t even know it exists. And their institutions have no way of teaching any of it.

    But that rabbi’s attitude is very telling. And I have experienced it many times from assimilated and unobservant people. Very often, actually, it is people who have actively turned their backs on observance that are the most vehement in their protests against it. This often takes the form of “I’ve forgotten more Yiddishkeit than you’ll ever know, you Johnny-come-lately! I grew up Orthodox! What makes you so special?” A lot of this is just guilt over what they’ve done. We remind them of how far they’ve strayed and it makes them uncomfortable.

    But the Orthodox and the Reform actually come by their antipathy honestly. Reform is ultimately based on the idea that being Jewish is OK so long as it doesn’t get in your way as you try to assimilate (or, to be charitable, so long as being Jewish doesn’t really attract any negative attention from the gentiles). All of the problems between Orthodoxy and Reform start there. The Reform rabbi was just being honest about his ideology, that’s all.

  29. Dear Ephraim,

    The attitude of “better convert out than go Orthodox” bothered me greatly, too. No need to convince me of anything there. (As a humorous aside, I once heard a more benign, even if left-handed, comment by a woman whose child became observant: “Oh well, at least he’s not taking drugs.”)

    There were two main issues I had with your first posting. 1. You said that this one congregation suffers from both self-hatred and hatred of Judaism. They probably suffer from something, but this language isn’t fair. In fact, I think what bothers them, besides being bound to Jewish rules and regulations, is not themselves (ie. ‘self-hatred’), not Judaism, not Orthodox Judaism, but a /caricature/ of Orthodox Judaism — a caricature fostered by some of their rabbis, by some of the typical media, and, yes, I hate to say it, but, by the actions and statements of some real live Orthodox Jews. (No denomination of Judaism is immune from mishegas.) What’s the bigger shame, that they possess this negative image, or the fact that we have been unable to reverse this image? 2. In your last paragraph, your phraseology accidentally extended (or ‘morphed’) the case of this one congregation into the attitude all non-Orthodox Jews (like my dad, for instance) whom you said “despise the Torah”. I’m sure you didn’t mean to; what gets written does not always match what one intends. I think you made an attempt to clarify your viewpoint in your second posting, paragraph three. I appreciate that.

    I guess I could make one further point on your posting. You had written: “People know spiritual emptiness when they see it.” This statement is true much of the time, but not all of the time. First, it can be very hard to “see it”, if it’s, say, buried under some very spiritual renditions of Lecha Dodi. And unfortunately, of those who spot it, most [though not us special individuals like you and me, right? :-) ] trade in one form of spiritual emptiness for another.

    For people interested in Wolf’s and Chana’s posting above. The word “accept” is awfully tricky. It’s important for both sides of a conversation to be utilizing the same understanding of the word. Check out “accept” at dictionary.com — and then refine the definition even further for the specific issue at hand.

  30. keep being supportive. hopefully, the example you set will rub off on other parents of bts.
    my parents, who understand the importance of kashrut, and are not at all naive to the basic laws, often refuse to substitute pareve ingredients for dairy during a meat meal (despite the meat being kosher). this causes nothing but stress and anger, and certainly does not lend itself to the cultivation of a strong familial bond. and i’m married with two kids.

  31. In my experiences with reform (which are many as my family is reform and I was) I have learned that reform keeps changing drastically. My mother and grandfather actually went to youth groups in which they studied the depths of Tanach, the only drawback being the lack of the oral trandition to truely explain it all. Without the oral tradition one simply has a bunch of hints without proper explanation, and thus has nothing to follow. And they don’t look to find these explanations because they believe that the Torah is not from Hashem. I, Baruch Hashem, was missing something in my reform education. Those youth groups had all closed, and I had nowhere to learn. Thus I turned to orthodox youth groups to learn, and thus I learned it complete with oral traditions. Reform has also become much more assimilated than ever, thus making my family uncomfortable with the synagogue we had belonged to for seven previous generations, and my moving away from the synagogue more understandable. After not going for about a year, the synagogue got a new rabbi and I had to go out to meet him. Being a friendly and profeesional person he stuck out his hand for me to shake it. After politely explaining why I would not, he was very inerested in learning more. Since our family moved away from the synangogue and we no longer go there I was not able to teach him much, but at least he knows that there is more out there. That, in my opnion, is the main problem: people simply do not realize what is out there and what is missing, and if they are not looking they will not realize it is missing.

  32. (Religious parents must learn to accept children who chose not to follow in their footsteps.)

    Here I disagree. Obviously we must accept what we see in front of us, that is, where the child is at the moment. However, I believe parents should hope and daven continuously for their children’s teshuva, and try harder to address this very customized nisayon for themselves.

  33. I read this story with interest. When parents don’t agree with a child’s decison it leads to a power struggle, disrespect and contempt by the parent for his/her child’s lifestyle choice. The reverse is true, too: Religious parents must learn to accept children who chose not to follow in their footsteps. I think this is ultimately harder for parents to accept. After all, what will the neighbors say and how will this affect the marriageability of other children?

  34. I will admit to being intermperate. It pains and angers me to hear that a Jew who went to his rabbi (his rabbi!) for advice on how to deal with a suddenly-frum child was essentially told that it would be better for her to be a meshumad than to keep Shabbat. If the rabbi of the congregation felt this way, I can only imagine how the congregation feels in general.

    I am not sure why you think that these congregants, who seem to think that ceasing to be a Jew altogether is better than being Orthodox, do not hate Judaism. It very much seems to me that they do indeed, if the idea of a Jew observing the mitzvot can make them shake their heads in sadness and basically tell the father that he should sit shiva over losing his daughter to some crazy cult.

    I am sure that most Reform Jews are happy with their denomination. It has been my experience, however, that most of them are also happy with not keeping kosher, not observing the Shabbat, marrying non-Jews and raising children who do the same. They do this because they believe in a kind of Judaism where these things are perfectly acceptable. Since this is what they have been raised to believe Judaism is, they do not consciously hate their brand of Judaism, but it is obvious that they dislike Orthodoxy, and quite intensely so. There is no other way to understand their comments. This may or may not apply to Reform in general. But this story fits in very well with my experiences with “devout” Reform Jews. For whatever reason, traditional observance bothers them greatly.

    Reform’s wholesale institutional abandonment of the mitzvot, to make it easier for Jews to assimilate and acculturate into gentile society, has been so successful that we have come to the point where people who call themselves rabbis can tell a father that it would be better for his daughter to go geshmatt rather than keep Hashem’s mitzvot. I’m sorry, but this is just sad.

    And just because those Reform congregants and their rabbi think it would be better for that man’s child to be an apostate rather than a frummer Yid, don’t think that I would be happier if my children apostatized, G-d forbid, rather than go Reform. To be Reform, all you have to do is just stop keeping the commandments. I would be very upset if my chgildren went that way, but that would be much more fuxable than if they actually got baptized or something, G-d forbid.

    There are levels of forbiddenness, after all.

  35. Ephraim,
    I was following your posting with interest and agreement, up until the last couple of paragraphs, where you begin to morph the extreme case of that one Reform congregation (though I’m sure it was only a few people in that congregration) into the attitude of all non-Orthodox Jews. The insinuation, intended or not, was too much to bear. Reproach only those people you feel need reproachment. Even if you only meant to reproach those particular congregants, those congregants don’t have “self-hatred” nor do they “hate Judaism so much” as you wrote. I’m sure they are quite happy with their chosen denomination. (One wonders whether you would prefer a Jew to convert out rather than go Reform.) I think my Reform-synagogue-going dad, when I show him this entire post, would be quite offended (or amused) to see you accuse him, who learns Jewish topics with his rabbi every week, of “despising the Torah.” I’m sure you just let your passion get the better of you; please be more careful.

  36. This is a very uplifting story. I became a BT later in life, long after I had left home, and so there were none of the “control” issues that you mention. However, my mother and (late) grandmother never really adjusted. My grandmother did her best, but she just never really understood why I had to keep kosher. Since she lived to feed people, this was a real blow. My mother has since made her peace with it. Interestingly enough, my father (who is not Jewish) took it better than either of them, but it has been my experience that assimilated and irreligious Jews have much more trouble than gentiles with unapologetic and obvious Jewishness.

    Anyway, I had one question: you say that “we sought advice of our Reform rabbi and congregation. Better she would have contemplated conversion than to adopt the Orthodox lifestyle, they intimated”.

    What does this mean? You don’t mean to say that they thought that your daughter should become a Christian, G-d forbid? That better she should be an apostate rather then be Orthodox (horrors!)?

    If this is what they meant (and I see no other way to understand this comment) this is just so inexpressibly sad. How can people who call themselves Jews be so alienated from authentic Yiddishkeit that they could think that a Jew would be better off as a Christian than as an observant Jew? The mind boggles.

    And such people wonder why they have no Jewish grandchildren. Such self-hatred cannot help but be passed on to their children. If the parents hate Judaism so much, how can they be surprised when their children either marry gentiles or just decide that having children isn’t worth it?

    As their numbers dwindle, their synagagoues empty and their homes are bereft of grandchildren, the non-Orthodox become more and more obsessed with how to ensure “Jewish continuity”. They should just look in the mirror. Where the Torah is despised, the Jews die out. It might take a few generations, but once the spirit starts to rot, the body is not far behind. No amount of redefining Judaism or Jewishness to make the numbers add up will help. People know spiritual emptiness when they see it.

  37. Great post! Reminds me of my situation and my parents role in assisting my increasing level of observance. My parents, like you, were understanding. I think it helped that we belonged to a Modern Orthodox Synagogue, even though my family was a bit “further to the left” than the synagogue.

    “I cannot say we “loved” the thick veil, the maheatza, the separate dancing, but we adapted”
    My parents,also, didn’t want to have a mechitza at our wedding for seperate dancing. But we had one and everyone told me that they had a wonderful time. I didn’t hear any complaints about how there wasn’t mixed dancing.

    “I am not totally comfortable with the role of the woman in the family.”
    My father also had this as a concern before I married my husband. But one must understand that what you hear and see is just a tiny portion of what goes on in the household and the decision making.

    I am sure that your kids are grateful for all that you have done to make them feel comfortable in your house. And for teaching them the importance of Yiddishkeit.

  38. A beautiful and heartfelt story.

    I know several BT’s whose parents came around after years of struggle — when? When they saw their sweet and precious grandchildren — sometimes, MANY grandchildren — and realized that their peers whose children did not become religious, had few or no grandchildren.

    Two grandmas meet, two close friends, and they discuss their kids. One has two children — a son who is intermarried and has no kids yet, a daughter who is a professor in her thirties and not married yet. The other has two children, both BTs, and she has seven grandchildren and they make a happy noise and tumult when they come to visit. This is not a joke and doesn’t have a punchline: it is the regular table talk of retired ladies here in Florida where I live.

  39. Mr. Shub;

    Then you are probably progressive enough to remember these:

    “Arbeiter fun alle lender…fareinigt zikh”

    “Der bafraiung fun der arbeiter vent zikh in der arbeiter alein!”

    “Fun yeder einer loit zain koikhis, tsu yeder einer loit zain noit”

    But I know plenty of other Yiddishisms that would resonate for your kids and grandkids. Do any of them know Yiddish?

  40. In response to YD: My parents came to this country in 1920. (I am the youngest of their children, born when they were in their 40s.) I grew up in a Yiddish-speaking house. Religion simply did not exist. We did not belong to a shul; I was not bar mitzvah, yet we were very, very Jewish. All your descriptions are on target, except my parents were left of the Forward.

  41. That was a wonderful story. Halevai that more BTs and their parents and siblings have a smoother relationship than one fraught with difficulties and animosities.

  42. I hope that kids going through similar situations will read this – it’s important to understand what parents are going through.

    Also, I apologize but this reminds me of a joke: A member of a Reform congregation goes to his rabbi. “Rabbi,” he says, “My daughter went off to college, got involved with Chabad, and now she’s orthodox. I sent my son to talk some sense into her, but she convinced him to join her for a Shabbat meal, and now he’s orthodox, too! What do I do now, Rabbi?” The rabbi thought a moment and then responded, “Maybe you should check your mezuzos?”

  43. Kuddos to you and your wife for demonstrating that as long as are alive, we must continue struggling to grow.
    From a child’s perspective, you identify a real epiphany relative to the power struggle. After nearly 20 years of living an observant (or at least trying to) life, my mother is as non-accepting today as she was then. The funny thing is though, I’ve always felt that while she loathes traditional observance, the chronic “confict” is precisely over her inability to control when she can visit, where we can eat and why I will not permit her to turn lights on or off, or even answer her phone on shabbos. Incidentally, there are numerous “control” issues between us having nothing to do with yiddishkeit.
    My mother grew up as you did, with very little if any Judaism. Strangely, my father grew up in a strictly orthodox home and left the path of observance. Yet, upon learning of my returning, he was overjoyed.
    By the way, you’re a wise man to have responded to your son, “no, not yet.” Never say never. The last time I did, I ended up becoming observant.

  44. That was a powerful post, especially the bit about the shrimp. Also I was fascinated that you as a man are disturbed by your daughter’s wig. That’s the hardest issue for my mother, and the author of the book BLACK BECOMES A RAINBOW, also a mother of a BT, said the same thing. I didn’t think a man would feel the same way about it, though.

    My husband and I run a website teaching people about Judaism. It includes an article I co-wrote with my mother about my teshuva and what she thinks of it. Yours is even better. Is it all right if I post a link to your article?

  45. Your post was very inspiring, and it’s good to see things from more of an “outsider perspective” every so often.

    Now I’m wondering if I should show my parents Beyond BT. Up until now I haven’t even mentioned the site to them (or that I’m a contributor). But I bet they’ll like your article.

  46. I’m actually saving this post and e-mailing it to my mom. I think that she can definitely relate to a lot of what you said. My sister and I became frum when we were in high school. It has not always been a smooth ride for my mom, yet she supported us in yeshiva and seminary, and she is very happy now. We are both happily married, have good jobs, and we have a great relationship with her. We make Shabbos in her house all the time.

  47. Whether or not you ever become an “opium” smoker you are a smart and holy man. A “Yiddisher Kop” and a “Yiddisher neshuma”. By the way when you wrote “but Yiddishkeit was an understood value.” did you mean ethnicity/ not marrying out, the prophetic tradition of social justice (and voting democratic), or reading Sholom Aleichem I. B. Singer and the Forward? Were your folks American or European born and if the latter were they Holocaust survivors?

  48. Thanks so much for sharing your beautiful approach to accepting differences. You could be a role model for starting a website geared to parents of Baalei Teshuva.

  49. If more parents were like you – they too could enjoy the beautiful relationship you have with your children and grandhildren who will always love you and respect you. I salute your willingness to actually grant your child what makes them happy rather than just preach about it. It couldn’t have been easy and many parents view it as a rejection of what they stand for but you’re obviously big enough to see it for what it truly is: your children absorbed everything you taught them and built upon that.

  50. Thank you for this post. I’ve been wondering lately what it’s like for the parents of BTs, and though your experience isn’t everyone’s, it’s a good one to know about.

    I especially applaud your willingness to speak about what baffles or distresses you about the BT lifestyle…and your simultaneous willingness to bend (e.g. making cholent when your kids come for Shabbos) and inclination to stand your ground (e.g. explaining to your grandkids that there are all kinds of Jews).

  51. Thanks for your beautiful story. I think your advice of not making it a power struggle or a fight is so important for both the parents and the children. Sometimes it is easier said than done, especially at the beginning of the journey, but hopefully we get better at it as we grow wiser from our life experiences.

  52. You are an inspiration! I can relate to so much of your experience; many of us wish our parents had your values, and kept us, instead of the shrimp. Enjoy all of the nachas!

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