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.

Humpty Dumpty Had a Great Fall…..

By Little Frumhouse on the Prairie

Dixie Yid wrote an interesting post entitled, Where to Focus When Adults Go Off the Derech. The post was in response to Harry Maryles, who wrote about a few men who went off the derech. One of the men was a Talmud Chacham who lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh. Despite being a respected scholar and authoring several seforim, he recently went off the derech and is no longer religious. Both Dixie Yid and Rabbi Maryles presented their arguments for why adults go off the derech.

Dixie Yid feels that certain negative personality types – the glass is always half empty – are prone to this type of disengagement. This negative tendency not only splinters their relationship with the Jewish community, but also with family, friends, coworkers and any other relationship that requires compromise, patience, and being dan l’chaf zchus.

Rabbi Maryles feels that the frum community is at fault when an adult goes off the derech. He touched on the issue of poverty in the frum community as being an issue that can challenge faith. When the Ramat Beit Shemesh Talmud Chacham was desperate to feed his family, the only advice he was offered was to sweep doorsteps to earn a few shekels. Another man was consumed with loneliness, and took no pleasure in Shabbos or Yom Tov without a family to share it with. His isolation was so great that he felt he would get more satisfaction and concrete results from working on Shabbos and Yom Tov than simply sitting in shul and davening for parnassah.

Rabbi Maryles feels that when a frum person reaches out to leaders/teachers/community members with questions or statements that can indicate a growing lapse of faith, instead of being taken under wing, leaders/teachers/community members chastise the person or attempt to silence them. A person who asks such questions could be a bad influence on impressionable people within the community. Better to have that “bad apple” go off the derech instead of taking the risk that they might rot the whole bushel. In a way the sacrifice can be seen as pekuach nefesh – sacrificing the unbelieving rodef for the good of maintaining the believers. Whether this is an acknowledged systematic approach or simply the inability of the frum community to deal with the questions that arise from a crisis of faith, the result is the same.

Both Dixie Yid and Rabbi Maryles raise interesting arguments on where to point the blame when a frum yid goes off the derech. I think that their theories apply to those who are frum from birth, but I think that the baal teshuvah (BT) angle differs. Of course, personality type, poverty, and community support or lack thereof, can also have a tremendous effect on whether a BT stays committed to yiddishkeit. However, sometimes none of these things determine someone leaving the fold.

As a BT myself, and as someone who has known quite a few BT’s who have both “stayed the course” as well as those who left the frum lifestyle, I offer a different perspective. Obviously, this is just one type of perspective. The illustration I offer below is a generic compilation of experiences from some of the BT’s I have known who decided frumkeit was not for them. While some people turn to yiddishkeit precisely because their origins were abusive or unsatisfying, I am offering the viewpoint of the opposite.

Picture growing up as a non-frum Jewish girl.
Read more Humpty Dumpty Had a Great Fall…..