Some Thoughts On Kiruv By Non-Kiruv Professionals

I was recently asked how likely it is that a non-Kiruv professional will help a non-observant person become observant?. Well, after a Shabbos afternoon (3 hours) of watching my 6 yr old daughter and her friend at the park, I have a few thoughts.

My view is that helping a ‘person become more observant’ doesn’t always mean that the person will become frum. I know that this is a very unpopular view, but with intermarriage out of control, and plenty of bad press in the news about Torah observant Jews, any positive connection or view of our Torah lifestyle is a major ‘win’. I know that the pressure of being able to help someone shomer Torah u’Mitzvos, is in fact, the major reason that most non-kiruv ‘professionals’ don’t think that they can ‘do kiruv’. Perhaps that’s one of the goals of the current kiruv seminars (from Project Inspire) that were scheduled in the NYC area.

When I worked for 7 yrs for NCSY, there was always this inner-debate about quality vs quantity of NCSY advisors. One opinion was that only certain people had the ‘skills’ and ‘sechel’ to really be ‘good advisors’. The other view was that because different NCSYers had different types of personalities, we need a larger staff so that each NCSY had an opportunity to connect with someone they might make a kesher with.

As I look back today the advisors who were viewed as having kiruv ‘skills/sechel’ were sort of the ‘kiruv professionals’ and everyone else were the ‘non kiruv pros’. I think that each has their place.

Whenever I read or end up taking about kiruv I always think of a great story about the Chofetz Chaim and one of the early Aguath Israel meetings. It’s online here:

Many years ago I was privileged to hear the ‘Magid of Yerushalayim,’ Rav Shalom Shwadron Shlit’a. When he began to speak, he said over a Moshol of the Chofetz Chaim, which he had heard from Rav Teitelbaum zt’l, who heard it from the Chofetz Chaim.

The Chofetz Chaim was speaking at the K’naisia Gedolah – The Great Assembly (of Agudas Yisroel, where the Torah leaders of the generation gathered together to discuss the spiritual status of Klal Yisroel). The Chofetz Chaim spoke once in the morning, and then strangely enough, he requested to speak again later. Naturally, they let him speak. He pointed out that he spoke in the morning requiring everyone to spread Torah in different places, but that he was not happy with the reaction. The people were saying that of course the Chofetz Chaim is right, but who am I to go and spread Torah among others? I’m far from perfect; The Chofetz Chayim’s address was referring to those who have already have perfected themselves; they have a right and obligation to work on others. As chazal say (Baba Basra 60b) ‘First adorn (work on) yourself, then adorn others.’

The Chofetz Chaim continued, ‘I want to tell you a moshol – a parable about the feudal system. During that period the lords of the manor had the power of life and death in their hands. One of these lords came for a visit, and naturally they made a big reception for him. At the end they gave him a glass of tea, but since the water system wasn’t so clean, the tea was very muddy. When the lord tasted it he spat it out. They explained to him the problem of the water system, so he made a new law. From now on no water may be used unless it was sterilized and cooked first. Some time later the lord heard that this town burned down. When he came to see why they couldn’t put out the fire, they told him that they tried, but as the new law required, they had to cook the water first, and by that time the fire had burned down the town. The lord was furious, and he told them, ‘You fools, when you want to serve tea then you need to sterilize the water first, but when there is a fire burning, you are not choosy as to what kind of water to use; you use any kind of water.’

‘So too, when are you choosy about who should spread Torah? When there is no fire of ignorance burning, but currently there is a fire raging out there, this is not a time to be picky. Anybody who knows something, even if he is not perfect, should try to give it over to others.’
Rav Shalom said that even though he is not worthy to speak, he uses this moshol of the Chofetz Chaim as a license to speak. I too certainly have to rely on it to be able to speak.

This is the situation today (I should really post that story online). We are losing Jews left and right everything from inter-marriage to, sadly, very effective marketing by both the reform and conservative ‘movements’.

To return to the question, I think anytime a Torah observant person makes a Kiddush Hashem we are, at least, planting a seed in the mind and eyes of a non-observant person that our lifestyle isn’t so bad. Being honest in the workplace, a mensch on the subway or LIRR, sending Rosh HaShannah cards or calling your non-frum relatives (something that I really don’t do as much as I should), or being the token ‘Frum Jew’ in the office that people ask questions to brings others closer to the Emes of Torah. A network and community, like that described on the website, has that potential. As you know, there are many things that can light a spark (as Rabbi Shafran wrote) within another Jew. If a kiruv minded person (professional or non-pro) keeps their eyes open, opportunities do come up.

It would only make sense in an age where you don’t need a recording contract to put out a CD, a contract with a national newspaper or publishing house to get people to read what you write (I’m still floored that anyone even ends up reading anything I write), a degree in film making to get people to watch a short video you make, that a ‘grass-roots’ counter kiruv “professional” movement would, and should start up. Aish HaTorah and Chabad have always been at the forefront of outreach, especially as the world has gone digital. Aish seems willing to accept the power of the lay person, and rightfully so.

As most people write, being sincere and non-threatening (yet religiously anchored), is key. Knowing that we don’t have all the answers and being able to consult those more experienced in Kiruv than us is also key. Ultimately we have to realize that we are merely a k’lei, vessel, that Hashem is using to bring another Jew back and, as R Simcha Wasserman z’tl said (and I actually asked R Akiva Tatz about this a few months ago in Chicago), fullfill the mitzvah of Hashavas Aveidah, returning a lost object to its’ owner. In the case of Kiruv, the lost object is a neshama that yearns to be reunited with its creator.

The Other Type of Assimilation

Several months ago I joined an online “social-networking site”. For a while it served as a great way to reconnect with old friends that I hadn’t contacted in years. In fact, may of them were involved in NCSY when I was becoming frum and many others were participants in NCSY when I was working for the organization. Until about 2 months ago, my “friends” from the “social-networking site” were actually about 90% Torah observant and the other 10% were not-yet observant (oddly enough some of them from my hometown and I am probably the only frum person they are in contact with).

Then there was a change in my friend demographics. Due to a public high school reunion coming up, someone from my high school found me online. He became my “friend”. Then other non-Jews that I really hadn’t thought of in almost 20 years started requesting my “friendship”. My demographics when from 100% Jewish “online friends” to about 20% non-Jews and 80% Jews.

During my last two years in high school I was Torah observant. I was also, then, submerged in the whole punk/alternative music scene sub-culture. My life revolved around bands, music, and concerts. In addition to all the outer signs of individuality that I displayed it was almost, to most people, incidental that I wore a yarmulka, didn’t go out on Friday nights, and didn’t eat much food outside my home.

Of course, once I was able to leave my hometown and engage in formalized Torah education many of my priorities changed. Eventually most of my old cassettes/cd from all the bands I couldn’t live without were sold and the money was used for seforim. Like most of us, I have over the years, immersed myself in the “frum” sub-culture. I realized as I started seeing names of friends from high school that I really haven’t spoke to in almost 20 years that I probably come off (via an online profile) as a very different person with different reading and music tastes that the ‘Neil” they once new.

It’s funny, because during my years in a ‘traditional’ conservative Sunday school and Hebrew school program we were constantly told that assimilation is, like, the worst evil. We were told that a Jew should never give up their identity as a Jew. Because the word ‘assimilation’ means to make similar I was raised that as a ‘traditional Jew’ I couldn’t be come similar to those around me. Well, as I examine who I am today, I think I’ve become an assimilated Jew. When I write ‘assimilated’ it is in the sense that I have submerged myself into a lifestyle and culture like that of my fellow Torah observant Jews.

I probably didn’t assimilate the way my old Hebrew school teachers thought I would, but then again, most of us BTs don’t when up where we thought we’d be. As for my friends from high school that have some out of the cyber-woodwork, let them go ahead and look up books like “Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh” and bands like “Piamenta”. This is who I am, someone ‘assimilated’ in Torah observant culture.


As I was making pizza the other night, I was listening to A CLASSIC CASE: The London Symphony Orchestra Plays The Music Of Jethro Tull.

My son (7 years old) runs into the kitchen as Ian Anderson is going crazy on the flute and says, “Whoa! Abba, is that a new Piamenta album?”

“No, I wish. It’s actually a non-Jewish band and their music is being played by a symphony”, I answered.

“Too bad”, he said.

As I went back to pizza making I got to thinking. How cool is it that my son’s musical references are primarily based on what he listens to…Jewish music?

Just like eating Kosher food and keeping Shabbos are aspects of the only lifestyle that he’s experienced in his long seven years of existence. He has the right perspective.

As I, a BT, raise my kids as FFBs I realize it’s all about perspective.

The truth is that what we value and how we live our lives really forms and defines our perspective on things. This is true for each of us and, of course, for our families.

I have often tell myself and my kids that one has to look for mitzvah opportunities that Hashem sends our way. It’s my perspective.

I’m glad my son could show me his perspective.

Chesed as a Source for Life

In my wife’s pre-school class last year there was an amazing girl, who happens to have Down Syndrome. This girl is currently in her third year in the pre-school. Each year she has a college-aged girl in class with her, as a ‘shadow’ to help her throughout the day.

My wife told me that this girl’s ‘shadow’ just got engaged. It was pointed out to my wife that the past two ‘shadows’ for ths incredible girl also became engaged while they were helping her. It turns out that all three boys were named were named “Chaim”.

When I was told this story, I was speechless. It seemed so clear, in this case, that doing a chesed to help others, was, literally, a source of ‘Chaim’, life.

If I Were Addressing the AJOP Convention

The 20th Annual AJOP Convention is scheduled to take place January 18-22, 2008. The Convention 2008 Theme is: “The Future of Judaism: Setting the Course – A Conference Examining the Relationship of Jews to Judaism”. We asked our regular contributors what they would say if they could address the convention. Here is Neil Harris’ response. You can add your thoughts in the comments.

The key issues I would bring up would be:

Social mentoring with residents in a community

This is very different than being invited to the same home week after week, which is an excellent way to m’karev someone. I think that individuals or families reach a point when they need to see less of a “local view” and more of the “global view” of Torah Judaism. In addition, a loosely structured network of Baalei Teshuva across the country needs to be formed, so that someone moving into a new community with many choices of schools and shuls can start of with a contact who know where they are coming from.

Developing an understanding of achdus and respect of other’s hashkafos

Often we, as Baalei Teshuva, become part of a shul, yeshiva, or segment of a frum sub-culture and for some reason, end up looking down on others. This is totally counter productive to promoting the achdus that we, as Baalei Teshuva would like to see.

Chizuk in times of ‘burn out’ or frustration

Advising the ‘kiruv professional’ how to help build self-esteem and persistence in learning and integration in the observant community is key. Too often, the Baal Teshuva gets to a point where they feel frustrated and people need to know that they are not in it alone.

Teaching not just the “how to” but the “this is why we do it”

Making the slow, gradual jump in a Torah observant lifestyle means learning a barrage of new things like: Kashrus, mechanics of davening, Hilchos Shabbos, laws of family purity, struggling with children’s homework, etc. It’s easy to get caught up in ‘catching up’ with our lack of background and the reasons we do things like keep Shabbos might get washed away by questions like, “Can I heat up a chicken w/ sauce on Shabbos?”

These are just a few thoughts.

BT 2.0

One summer, 20 years ago, I became Torah Observant. The decision and commitment took place while on an NCSY summer tour right before my junior year of high school. My growth as a Jew after that point was fairly text book, I suppose. Strong participation in NCSY, several years learning in Eretz Yisrael, combined with both a L’mudai Kodesh and secular education for college.

As time went on I became friends with many BTs, like myself, as well as FFBs. Eventually I got married and started a family. As I look back at my ‘life’ as a Torah Jew, I see that something happened.

I stopped connecting on a certain level as a BT. I don’t mean that I denied or hid my own journey towards Teshuva. I simply functioned on a level where I focused more on my learning, growth, and Avodas Hashem and less on my past. About a year and half ago I experienced a massive paradigm shift. I stumbled upon a web project started by two guys from Queens.

I began reading several posts and then posting comments myself. Even after years of being involved in outreach work, I found an awakening in myself and a feeling of chizuk from people with whom I shared a common past.

While I had been a BT for many years, I realized that I could connect with others in totally different aspect. I entered a new phase as a Baal Teshuva. I refer to as BT 2.0. For me, it’s a realization that regardless of geographic location we are all, as clichéd as it sounds, connected.

I just wanted to thank all the participants here for their time and efforts. For even the BT of twenty years, like myself, is never Beyond Teshuva.

Are We Too Obsessed With Integration?

If you look at a person’s music collection or someone’s seforim collection, you can get an idea of what they enjoy listening to or learning.

A quick glance at the “Topics Discussed” section of BeyondBT will show that aside from “Project Notes” the topic with the largest number of postings is “Integration”.

It’s an issue and a concern, there’s no denying it.

I am much happier discussing this topic in the form of ‘comments’ on this website, than with those I daven with or share carpools with.

We want to fit into a community. We’ve changed our lifestyle, our friends, our food tastes so that we can fit in. Yet, there are times when we can’t help but wonder, “Will I ever fit in?”

As a baal teshuva for about 20 years (and I’m only 36) I can honestly only recall a few times that I’ve felt like I really don’t fit into the ‘frum community’.

-There was the time I went to a shalom zachor and didn’t really know any of the songs.

– There was the time that I brought my lulav and esrog to a friends’ house for Shemini Atzeres/Simchas Torah (I’ll never make that mistake again).

– There was the time when I was asked where my father learned and I replied that he wasn’t observant.

In truth, I think, these feelings of ‘not fitting in’ are mostly self-created.

Now, I would not include general lack of a ‘learning background’ as not fitting into the ‘frum community’. We all have educational hurdles and I, personally, have used the excuse of being a ‘baal teshuva’ far too often as a crutch.

I feel that I am the one who doesn’t allow myself to always integrate into Torah observant society.

In fact from my experience that it doesn’t really make a big difference what my background is to the following people:

– Those who need me for a minyan
– The owners of seforim stores, kosher restaurants, and grocery stores where I shop
– The PTA of my children’s school who utilize my volunteer services
– The fellow Jew who I say, “Good Shabbos” to
– All of the of friends I’m make over the years

It’s a difficult issue, I know. Maybe we just focus on it too much?

Kiruv Models

I look at the different kiruv (bringing one close to Torah Judaism) groups and organizations around I often find that while each has their own derech of outreach methods and techniques there are some striking similarities between different organizations and several successful businesses.

Each kiruv group is a kli (vessel) for Hashem to bring others closer to Torah Judaism. Just as no two people are the same, not every kiruv group, shul outreach program, or community kollel are the same. What works for teens doesn’t necessarily work for college students or for adults with children. The most successful outreach programs, IMHO, combine the best of the models listed below.

The Barnes & Noble model:
Create a warm friendly environment where you can browse, drink some coffee, and sit in a cozy chair and use their products. B & N offers a no pressure attitude towards making a purchase. You can come and go as you please.

This creates a friendly consumer culture that leaves a longing for more. It’s a no pressure environment that is part escape and part food for the mind.

While most people do not purchase something every time they go into a Barnes and Noble, when it does come time to buy a book, the odds are that they make their purchase in a Barnes and Noble and not think twice about the competition.
Possible examples: Youth groups, college campus organizations and outreach programs, Chassidic branches, adult Jewish learning programs or centers, shul outreach programs, various organization or yeshiva websites.

The Starbucks Coffee model:
While Starbucks is similar to Barnes & Noble (this explains why Starbucks has a contractual agreement with B & N) in the aspect of creating an escape from everyday life, yet there are differences.

Starbucks not only sells their own brand, but they sell a lifestyle that goes along with it. It’s the romance of Italy and the ‘everyday luxury’ of coffee house culture.

It even goes beyond this. Starbucks hopes that their stores become a ‘Third Place’. A place to spend your time when you are not at work or at home. They have, in fact, made their ‘Third Place’ almost everywhere you go like in grocery stores, libraries, banks, museums, and hotels. Now you don’t need an actual Starbucks Coffee shop to have your escape, you can, as they market it, “bring Starbucks to your home”, by brewing their coffee or even owning one of their self branded coffee makers.

Those who walk into a Starbucks are one of two types: those who know exactly want they want and those who don’t. When you walk in the door there is no one greeting you or directing you. If you want their product then you make the first move and order it.

Possible examples: Chassidic branches, youth groups, community kollel (as branches of yeshivos or independent institutions), branches of yeshivos.

The Gap or Apple Store model:
This model is very similar to the Starbucks model in that what is being sold is solely the company’s own product. Again, there are really two types of customers: those who know exactly want they want and those who don’t. Here is where things get interesting.

As you enter the store (either Gap or an Apple Store) you are greeted by a helpful person. If you know what you are looking for, then you are directed towards the specific product.

In case you don’t really know what you want, but know what type of item you are looking for (iPod or khaki pants for example) you are briefly educated and then give several options of what to buy.

Possible examples: Same as listed above, plus organization that specifically create programs to be run in shuls, kollels, and outreach centers.

The Lighthouse model:
While not a corporate business model, a lighthouse represents a subtle, yet at times, powerful approach to kiruv by the individual Jew.

The lighthouse stands and directs those who see it. It warns those of the dangers around, and gives direction to those who seek.

This is the example that each Torah observant Jew should live by, not just those involved in kiruv.

As we go though our day at the office, driving, learning in the beis midrash, and home with our families, we need to be a lighthouse. Our job is to be a shining example of the greatness of Torah Judaism, a walking Kiddush Hashem.

Pesach Seder Guide

Based on a lecture given by Rabbi Raphael Butler at Holliswood Jewish Center, Queens, NY Erev Pesach 1995
Expanded by Neil Harris
You can download this guide here.

“In every generation one is obligated to see himself as though he himself had actually come out from Egypt.”

Major themes in the Seder and symbolism:

The word Seder means “order”- there is a specific order to the Haggadah. The Haggadah and the Seder are meant to be an educational model to teach our children the importance of Hashem taking us out of Eqypt – to give us the Torah. Hashem has reasons why things happen in a certain order in the world and in our life. If you missed a connecting flight, of course, you’d be upset… but what if that plane crashed (God forbid). You’d be singing a different song then.

Matzah- Why does it have to be whole (not broken)? We want to make the mitzvah complete. Every mitzvah I do creates an angel. If I speed through a mitzvah or purposely don’t perform it properly, then the angel created will be incomplete. Matzah is both the free-man’s bread and the poor-man. That’s why we eat it leaning, to symbolize our freedom.

Maror- The bitterness of life. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (author of Messilas Yesharim and Derach Hashem) states that life is full of ordeals. If we don’t have a Torah and Rabbis to teach us how to life our life fully, then life is bitter.

Egg- Symbolizes the Karbon Chagiggah (Festival Offering) during the Beis HaMigdash. An egg is round and symbolizes life, which is a cycle.

Roasted Meat (shank bone)- The Karbon Pesach (Passover offering)- in place of the lamb being sacrificed.

Karpas- Green vegetable with saltwater. Our tears from 210 years of slavery.

The Seder plate is the framework for our experience tonight. It is a time to talk. Freedom is the main theme that is developed through reading the Haggadah and discussion of its contents. Tell the story of what happened. Engage in conversation about the Egypt experience. Did you know that only 1/5 of all Jews left Egypt with Moshe Rabbenu? 80% of our sisters and brothers stayed in Egypt, victims of the “slave mentality”. What does it mean to be free? Ask each person at your table.

Torah Mitzvos:

Rabbinic Mitzvos:
Four cups of wine

Items to be introduced:

Kiddush-freedom with wine. It’s a drink of royalty. Wine is a symbol of free choice. It can be used for holy purposes (Bris, Kiddush, Wedding, Havdalah), or abused and become an addiction.

Parsley/ Celery- What does it mean? Tears of enslavement. It’s an hor d’ourve. It reminds of that we were slaves and now we are free. Not all life is sweet.

Talk about personal slavery. What do you do to keep your Jewish identity in America? Is having a Seder a way of celebrating freedom? We were freed from Egypt in order to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The freedom we celebrate is the freedom to follow Hashem, to appreciate all that Hashem does for us. We couldn’t do it during the Holocaust. It’s a good thing to be free. We were given the free choice to decide how to serve Hashem, with the Torah as our guidebook.

Kittle-It’s a custom to wear it at the table. White is the color of purity, the symbol of a king.

Separate the Matzah- Put away the Afikomin. Symbol of Moshiach. This is the bread of affliction, not just stomach aches! We had to make it in a hurry. We invite the hungry and needy to our table. This is the only passage in the Haggadah that’s in Aramaic. Why? It was the language of the people. We are all entitled to come and participate in a Seder, it’s a Mitzvah!
Who do you want involved in your Seder? It’s all about dialogue and discussion. What does the Seder say to me?

Four Questions and Answers- Judaism has answers. Searching for the answers is part of being Jewish. Let people at the Seder answer.

Rabbis in Bnai Brak- Different groups of people staying up all night and getting caught up in the excitement of the Seder experience.

Four sons- Diverse personalities. Children are different, even twins!! The real theme with the four sons is freedom. What is our role in the world? How can we help people?

Thanking Hashem:

Develop the trait of HaKoras HaTov (Thanking for the good)
Hashem always saves the Jewish people. Never in history has there been a terrible planned out extermination of a nation of people like during the Holocaust. Yet, we survived. What we think as being man driven is really Hashem driven. Use the Seder to talk about the Hand of God and miracles. What miracles have happened to me? How has Hashem directed my life? Reflect on acts of divine assistance.

Ten Plagues- Miracles upon Miracles. Can you top these miracles?

Dyanu- “Enough”. This is a history lesson. We didn’t deserve anything that Hashem did or does for us. Hashem did 15 steps to help us. We must express HaKoras HaTov. This is a night of appreciation. Hashem sustains us even among challenges and difficulties.

Pesach- Why a lamb? It was the symbol of the main God in Egypt. Hashem command us to destroy it and show that there is only one creator in the world.

Matzah- Poor-man’s bread. Can’t bake for more than 18 minutes. Time is important. How we use time is very important in Jewish life.

Maror-Bitter herbs are symbols of anguish and enslavement.

Quick story by Reb Nachman of Breslov: Two guys, one Jewish and one not Jewish (vagabonds) wonder into a town Pesach night. The Jewish guy says, “Tonight we can get a great meal. After Shul we’ll get invited out and eat a feast.” Well, they each get invited to different homes. The non-Jew sits down at the Seder and is served Karpas with salt water. Yuk!! Then they eat Matzah , pretty dry. What a bad cracker! Then they drink wine and sit and read a book and talk for a few hours. Finally the host announces that the meal is about to begin. Great!! What do they eat…maror!! Guy gets up from the table and leaves.
Later that night he meets his Jewish friend. “What a great meal,” the Jew says. “We had soup and chicken, vegetables, a meal fit for a king.”
“What are you talking about? They gave me salt water, bad crackers, and horseraddish.”
“You fool. If you had stayed two more minutes, then the real meal would have been served”
Lesson: We are too impatient. Our world is a world of instant gratification. This is not the Jewish way. We need to have patience with people and with Hashem. The Seder reminds us that things take time. Good things come to those who wait.

Bentching-Thanking Hashem

Hallel- Praise and reflect on the greatness of Hashem. It’s the highlight of the evening. Most people don’t even get past bentching.

Afikoman- We can’t finish the Seder without it. It’s the dessert and the taste of redemption.

L’Shanah HaBa’ah B’Yershalyim- “Next Year in Jerusalem” This is the final transformation of the Jewish people. Moshiach is coming tomorrow and we must be ready.

A Seder isn’t judged by how good the food was, but by how meaningful it was to us. We should leave the Seder thinking that I want to be part of Klal Yisrael (The Jewish people)! I want to find out more about Judaism and Mitzvos! I want to challenge my mind and my soul.

The challenge of the second night, being in exile, and Judaism is to make it just as meaningful and fresh as the first night.

Posted as a zechus for a refuah shleima for Rivkah Bas Sara Freida

Music Lessons

As I was putting our seven year old to bed the other night, we were trying to decide what CD he should listen to. He was pushing for something lively (a Piamenta Band disc), but I put on something a bit more mellow instead (Jonathan Rimberg’s Kumzitz CD).

When it started playing my son said, “Abba, is this the guy who wasn’t Jewish?”

Puzzled I asked him what he meant. My son said, “You know, the guy who didn’t keep Torah and Mitzvos when he was a little boy, like you?”

I explained to my son that the artist he was thinking of (Yitzchak Halevi) was born Jewish. He didn’t become Jewish like Tzipporah and Yisro did (he had just learned about them a few weeks ago).

I told him that some people like me, just didn’t grow up knowing about Hashem, his Torah, and never had a chance to go to a day school. To say that they were “not Jewish” isn’t the appropriate term.

I then said that The appropriate term is Baal Teshuvah, someone who returns to Hashem and a life of Torah and Mitzvos. The concept wasn’t new to him, as he remembered when my wife and I were NCSY chapter advisors.

My son then said, “Abba, you’re a Baal Teshuva, right?”

I answered, “Yes.”

He then said, “Cool. So it’s, like, Elul and Tishrei for you the whole year, huh? That’s awesome.”

Impressed and moved by his observation, I could only reply, “It should be,” and I gave him a hug and said, “Shluff Gazunt” (good night in yiddish).

Lessons from T-Shirts

Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv (the Alter of Kelm) is quoted as saying that the whole world is a house of Mussar (ethical instruction) and that each person is a mussar sefer (book). If we look around there are lessons everywhere.

Here are two T-Shirt slogans that contain mussar vorts.

Shirt #1

I once was on a subway going from Queens to Brooklyn erev Shabbos. As I was sitting, (yes I got a seat) I couldn’t help but notice the t-shirt of the man standing in front of me. It was a “Champion” brand shirt. I will never forget what it said. The shirt simply stated: It takes a little more effort to make a Champion.

It has been twelve years since that subway ride and I haven’t forgotten. In my day to day life I often find that, as I trek forward with tasks, responsibilities, and spiritual pursuits I sometimes lose momentum. On the rare occasions that I am consciously aware of this (usually it’s well after the fact) I think of that T-shirt. In my life as a Torah observant Jew there are plenty of times when just a little more effort will produce a more substantial result. Whether the effort is applied to getting up 10 minutes earlier, going a little out of my way to do a chessed, or even speaking softly to someone in my own family. There is a fine line between getting by and rising about our own mediocrity. For me, it’s as thin as a T-shirt.

Shirt #2

Last year, while sitting in the Jewish Community Center of Indianapolis, I saw another great T-Shirt. This one was from Nike (the folks that came up with “Just Do It”). It said: You’ve got to start to finish.

This echoes the line from Lecha Dodi: sof ma’aseh bemachshavah techilah translated as “last in deed, but first in thought” or the final outcome has been thought out at the beginning. Often the biggest struggle I face is just starting something. When it comes to Avodas Hashem (serving our creator) it’s easier to be ho-hum about coming up with all the ‘right’ reasons why we should take upon ourselves a new mitzvah, start being a little more careful about a particular halachah, or open up a particular Jewish book. Saying or thinking about doing something is only the beginning. The next step is coming up with a plan and taking action. In order to finish, one first has to actually start.

My Name is Not Neil

I was recently having a discussion with close friend of mine about who we really are and what’s at the core of our personality. As we talked about what mitzvos we strongly identify with and how Hashem identifies with us, we got onto the topic of pasukim (verses) that are associated with our Hebrew names.

I’m sure you’ve seen those lines in small print in the last paragraph of the Shemoneh Essrei, right? Where you have the option to turn to page 924 in the back of the Artscroll siddur and insert the appropriate Hebrew verse for your Hebrew name. How many of us have actually taken a look at the verse for our own name?
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Family Feud

Fighting is never fun. I remember being in a fight with my younger brother once. It went on for days. One trend I’ve noticed after reading blogs for over a year is the constant in-fighting between the (and I really don’t like labels) “Modern and Charedi” world. The truth is that it’s a feud that exists outside the confines of a computer monitor, as well. We see it with our FFB children who attend day schools. We see in when we meet someone in our own cities and they give us a “look” when we mention which shul we affiliate with.

Often people in the frum world are quick to condemn others who won’t hold by our views, yet at the same time, demand that people accept our minhagim and hashkafah.
My wife always says, “If you want respect, you’ve got to give respect.” The funny thing is, as BTs we should pave the way for Achuds and tolerance within our communities. If anyone knows what it takes to navigate through relationships with family, friends, and co-workers, is it not the Baal Teshuva?

A Baal Teshuva wants others to be tolerant of his lifestyle choices. It is only fair that we should set the example of tolerance within Orthodoxy. We have been described as “pillars of religious conviction” and as “people who are passionate about their Judaism”.

We also have, hopefully, learned how to co-exist with our parents, in-laws, and friends who do not share our views on religion. If I wear a black hat and the guy across the street wears a knitted kipah, then so what? It’s time we look for common ground among our fellow Jews. Tisha B’Av is behind us, but the reasons why we mourn are still present today. Rosh Hashanah is around the corner, and soon we will be judged. How we choose to act towards our fellow “Modern” or “Charedi” brothers and sisters could be one of the greatest contributions of the BT movement to orthodox society. The choice is ours.

What’s So Important About the Number 316?

What’s so important about the number 316?

I find sometimes that it is difficult for me to mourn and feel the natural sorrow that I should for the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. Of course, this year we are all more sensitive to how much we truly rely on Hashem. Our thoughts, televisions, radios, and web browsers are all turned towards what’s happening in Israel.

As each day brings us closer to Tisha B’av, I think about what I, as an individual, and we, as a people, are missing without the Beis Hamikdash. Several years ago it was explained to me what’s missing. The number 316.

Based on the Chofetz Chaim’s Concise Book of Mitzvos, 316 is the number of mitzvos we, as a people, cannot perform without the Beis Hamikdash. Another way to look at it is that there are 297 mitzvos (including 26 mitzvos pertaining directly to the land of Israel) that we can perform today.

As we all know, mitzvos are ways that we can directly attach ourselves to Hashem. But if we only have the ability to perform 297 mitzvos today, without a Beis Hamikdash, then there are 316 ways to attach to Hashem that we are missing. This is what makes me sad. I know there are times when I feel that I’m very far from Hashem. With a Beis Hamikdash things would be different. Wouldn’t it be great to just go stand outside the Beis Hamikdah? Feeling the presence of Hashem would be an automatic spiritual recharge.

But I can’t. We, as a nation, can’t. We are missing 316 more ways to get closer to our creator. I hope this Tishah B’av will be the last one I spend mourning.

Remembering Where You Came From And Where You Are Going

Several weeks ago, on Shabbos, my 6 year old son said, “Abba, I’m bored. What did you do for fun when you were my age on Shabbos”? I wasn’t sure what to say.

To answer my son truthfully, when I was 6 years old, I had no clue what Shabbos was. I wasn’t exposed to a true Shabbos until I attended an NCSY shabbaton in 8th grade. My son’s question made me think back to what it was like for me when I started my Teshuva journey. Like everyone, I had challenges and struggles along the way towards my current level of observance. I started keeping Shabbos right before I entered 11th grade. As the only frum teenager in my city, I kept Shabbos pretty much by myself until I graduated high school and went on to yeshiva.

My son’s question really got to me. If he associated Shabbos with being bored, then in some way, I felt it was a reflection on my own personal level of yiddishkeit. Had my life as a frum Jew become mundane? My wife and I have given our children what we hope is a nurturing home full of Torah and Mitzvos. We want our kids to have positive memories of growing up frum, not the opposite. This is one of those things that I, as a BT, feared…becoming like “everyone else” whose Mitzvah observance is on cruse control.
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