Losing Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving was supposed to remain a lifeline with my Before Teshuva world. At first, I stubbornly held on to New Year’s, defiantly rationalizing that we live by the secular calendar, too. But in truth, I’d long been uncomfortable with the idea that we kept our dates by their relation to the death of the Christian deity. (That’s pretty weird for a supposedly secular country.) Halloween was no great loss with the introduction of Purim. And, on Fourth of July, I usually serve my family something sweet and patriotically decorated and take the kids to a quiet spot to watch fireworks.

Then I lost Thanksgiving.

Rabbeim have poskened that Thanksgiving has non-Jewish roots. Someone unhelpfully provided us with a pamphlet spelling out the problem. And since no one in the kids’ yeshivas does it, and, more importantly, I’ve lost my rebellious spirit in the realization that no matter how much I bristle, the frum way is usually best, after all…we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving either.

And now I feel a loss on that late November Thursday. I miss the politically uncorrect Pilgrims, stuffing, and pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Milchig.

Originally Posted in Beyond BT’s first month on December 2005

Helping Baalei Teshuva Be Themselves

Many years ago, Rabbi Ben Tzion Kokis, formerly the Mashgiach Ruchani of Yeshivas Ohr Somayach of Monsey wrote an article titled Helping Baalei Teshuva Be Themselves.

Here is an excerpt. Please read the whole article below.

This is one of the most crucial, yet painful, stages in a baal teshuva’s development: the realization that in the world of Torah he cannot follow his own hunches in deciding what is right and what is wrong. The average baal/baalas teshuva grew up in a culture where there were no, or precious few, moral absolutes. Very often, society places pleasure and gratification as the only criteria for choices in life. Even when a sense of moral correctness is sought, the main standard of judgment is the dictates of his own conscience: are you being true to your own sense of justice and decency? Suddenly, having made a commitment to a life of Torah, things are no longer so simple. He may very likely find that compared to the past, he is having a much harder time making decisions, because he no longer can think only in terms of what he thinks is appropriate, but rather what is really right, through the eyes of the Torah.

Here is the whole article:

The gemora tells us a revealing event which took place in the early stages of Rebbe Akiva’s growth. “Rebbe Akiva said: ‘At the beginning of my study, I once chanced upon a “mais mitzva” (abandoned corpse) by the roadside. I strained for four parsaos to bring the body to a cemetery. When I came to my teachers and told them, they said to me, “Akiva! Every step you took was like spilling innocent blood, because a mais mitzva should be buried in the place where the body lies.” At that time, I resolved never to leave my teachers’ side.”

This reaction of Rebbe Akiva to his well-intentioned error is probably familiar to all of us, but especially to the ba’al teshuva. How often the halacha runs counter to what our intuistion would have dictated, and how easy it is to make an assumption about the right way to do things, only to discover that the halacha says otherwise.

This is one of the most crucial, yet painful, stages in a ba’al teshuva’s development: the realization that in the world of Torah he cannot follow his own hunches in deciding what is right and what is wrong. The average ba’al/ba’alas teshuva grew up in a culture where there were no, or precious few, moral absolutes. Very often, society places pleasure and gratification as the only criteria for choices in life. Even when a sense of moral correctness is sought, the main standard of judgement is the dictates of his own conscience: are you being true to your own sense of justice and decency? Suddenly, having made a commitment to a life of Torah, things are no longer so simple. He may very likely find that compared to the past, he is having a much harder time making decisions, because he no longer can think only in terms of what he thinks is appropriate, but rather what is really right, through the eyes of the Torah.

Even questions which would seem to call for a purely subjective evaluation are not left up to the inclinations and preferences of the individual. Defining beauty, for instance, becomes a complex proposition when a lulav or esrog is concerned; the Torah’s requirement of “hadar” is not left up to one’s aesthetic instincts. On occasion, the opposite is true: the esrog which you may consider “pretty” may be barely kosher by the Halacha’s standards, while the real “m’hudar” could be less than dazzling in everyday terms. The more one becomes conditioned to the world of halacha, it would seem, the less valid individual preferences become.

Succeeding in this transition is a milestone in one’s integration of Torah, and perhaps could even be viewed as the watershed event in the whole process of teshuva. However, this success is often accompanied by the seeds of a serious problem, which, if not acknowledged and dealt with, can have a negative effect on one’s entire life. There are areas in life in which it is absolutely crucial that one be very much in touch with his own feelings, and those feelings must be taken seriously. Too often the ability to trust one’s own instincts is a casualty of the transition of teshuva, with the result that even in personal issues the healthy input of internal judgement is not part of the decision-making process.

Consider the (true) story of S—-, a woman in her early thirties whom this writer had occasion to meet. She is a highly intelligent, strong-minded person, who was very proud of her skills and accomplishments as a special-ed teacher. She had taught successfully in an inner-city public school, a fact which spoke volumes about the strength of character which lay beneath her otherwise mild demeanor. She was also the mother of an infant, and had been recently divorced, after a marriage of …less than a month. S—–described how her advisors had urged her to marry a particular young man, also a ba’al teshuva, although she had very little feeling for him as a person. Several years her junior, he was a nice enough person, but just did not have the character and maturity which a woman like S—- expected from a husband.

After a tense few weeks, it became clear to their advisors that there really was no hope for the marriage, and a divorce was arranged. What I found astonishing was not the divorce; rather, the decision to get married in the first place was incomprehensible. How could such an intelligent and independent woman have allowed herself to enter a lifelong relationship with someone toward whom she felt so little? When I posed this question to S—-, she replied that there had been pressure to get married- she wasn’t getting any younger, of course- and individuals whose opinion she respected reassured her that everything would be OK, afterwards it will be different, etc., etc. So, although deep down she had misgivings about her decision, her strength of personality was able to squelch those doubts, and she went ahead with the marriage.

This may be an extreme example. It is clear, however, that such decisions do not occur in a vacuum. They only occur if one has previously relinquished a degree of personal judgement, and developed a distrust of his or her own instincts. This phenomenon may all too often accompany the transition of a young man or woman into a life of Torah, and it is specifically the most sincere and idealistic personalities who are susceptible to falling into this pattern.

Considerable care is therefore required on the part of those who are involved in this area of chinuch. Tremendous sensitivity must be used in order to ensure that the growth of a ben- or bas-Torah not come at the cost of a diminishing of a personality. A clear distinction must be made between yielding one’s judgement in halachic matters, and maintaining a secure sense of identity in personal decisions. And, as was suggested above, the problem is not that the individual is a “weak” personality. Rather, it may be a side effect of the process of teshuva itself.

Conflicts similar to the shidduch situation described above may arise in other areas. Let us examine several more common examples of this phenomenon.

The question of spending significant time in yeshiva and kollel, or becoming involved in the world of parnoso, confronts every ben-Torah to some degree. But the guidance given to a ba’al- or ba’alas teshuva in this regard must take into account that this individual is a product of cultural and educational influences which, for better or for worse, played a great role in forming his personality and attitudes. Both external and internal factors influence a person to define accomplishment in secular terms. Externally, the values of one’s family and friends create certain expectations; even more importantly, an individual learns to gauge his own fulfillment, and accordingly to feel self-worth, in terms of career goals and material success.

When the Hashgochoh provides a young adult with the opportunity to be exposed to Torah, there is a tendency to view the previous years as being irrelevant to the “new” person who is developing in the yeshiva. But in reality, while an individual sincerely admires and identifies with the emes and gadlus of the Torah, and the rabbeim and senior chaverim who have become his role models, this does not mean that he has become a totally new person in the span of a few months. One cannot just slip on a set of attitudes like a new suit of clothes. There are many underlying issues of self-esteem which must also be dealt with, specifically because he is a ba’al teshuva, before a total transformation has taken place. Therefore, there are bound to be a different set of considerations when advising a ba’al teshuva in this regard.

It must be borne in mind that the challenges which he will face will be very different than those facing other b’nei Torah, and less emotional support is available to him, as compared to “conventional” yeshiva or Bais Yaakov students. The latter grew up in a social and educational system which was structured to encourage and facilitate dedication to Torah and mitzvos, and sacrifices made for that cause are generally supported by family and friends. It is so painfully different for the ba’al and ba’alas teshuva!

Several years ago a young man approached me a few days before his wedding. He was close to tears. He had been under tremendous pressure to take care of numerous arrangements for his chasuna, since his family were not able/willing to be involved. He was paying for a good part of his own wedding. In addition, the plans for his oyfruf were being complicated by his family’s insistence that they would just drive in on Shabbos, since they didn’t feel comfortable staying with strangers who had offered hospitality. But this was not what had caused his distress. A kollel member who had in fact been very helpful to the choson as he progressed in his Torah learning, and whom this bochur held in the utmost esteem, had scolded him sharply for being so distracted from his learning in the days before his chasuna…”Your kallah will lose her respect for you!” was the message that he had heard, from someone whose opinion meant an awful lot to him.

How unfair it was to criticize this sincere young man, who was doing his best to make his own chasuna, by applying standards that would only apply to a bochur whose parents are taking care of all the arrangements!

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that ba’alei teshuva shouldn’t dedicate themselves to learning Torah in a serious way. But it does mean that decisions should be made carefully, with full awareness of the specific needs and capabilities of this individual. Many times, peer pressure or a tendency to conform to conventional norms, rather than measured guidance, seem to be prime factors in making major decisions, and nisyonos which could have been avoided are instead created. The obligation of “aytza tova” would certainly dictate that a mechanech should look to the long-range benefit and health of his or her talmidim.

It is crucial to note that this is the counsel which gedolim have taught. Take the following incident, for example, as related to this writer by the rosh yeshiva of one of the major yeshivos for ba’alei teshuva in Yerushalayim.

A talmid of the yeshiva had been studying in a prestigious European university, and had a few months to go before earning a Master’s degree, which would virtually guarantee him a teaching position of his choice. However, having become enthusiastically involved in learning, he saw no point in completing his studies, since at this point he felt no desire to ever re-enter the academic world. The rabbeim of his yeshiva expressed misgivings at this course of action, and suggested that he invest the few months of study to finish his degree, and then continue learning, so that his options will be open in case the need will arise at some future date to seek a teaching position. (It is important to note that his field of study was not problematic from a Halachic standpoint.)

The talmid said that he appreciated his rabbeim’s concern, but it was clear to him that he had no desire to be a college professor, so he had no reason to stop learning. His Rosh Yeshiva then suggested that they discuss the issue with Moran HoRav Shach, shlit”a, and the bochur quickly agreed, confident that he would find total sympathy for his position, since Rav Shach’s stand on the primacy of learning over all else is well known. Much to the surprise of the talmid, however, the advice of Rav Shach was to finish his degree, and then devote himself totally to growth in Torah.

What is noteworthy is that this advice was based on a consideration of the unique issues which face ba’alei teshuva, and would not be applied across the board to the conventional yeshiva talmid.

A similar situation exists with connection to something which is taken for granted in the Torah world: that as a young man or woman enter adulthood, it is natural and desirable that they plan on marrying and raising a family. This is no longer a given in the general society, and in many cases, ba’alei/ba’alos tehuva were educated to look with disdain at this way of life. A mechanech cannot underestimate the influence of “yuppieism” and Women’s Lib on the attitudes of his students, and thoughtful attention must be paid to the underlying issues of sharing and responsibility that are so crucial in establishing a successful home. The stamina and understanding that are so necessary for building a strong relationship and raising children, do not suddenly form out of thin air when a young man or woman becomes committed to Torah and mitzvos.

The question must always be asked: Is this individual emotionally ready for marriage? Or is he or she responding only on a mental, hashkofoh level to what seems to be the “expected” thing to do in the Torah community? Again, sensitivity to the personal dimension of chinuch is indispensable, and will do much to avoid later complications and anguish.

An exceptional young man had become religious, and was learning most of the day in an established Yeshiva for ba’alei teshuva, while running a family business for part of the day. He started the shidduchim process, and for approximately a year was meeting young women, with no success. After a while, one of his rabbeim began to wonder: This young man seems to have everything going for him. He’s very intelligent, sensitive, has a good livelihood, a warm personality; why isn’t he connecting with the young women whom he’s meeting? The rebbe had an insight, and asked the bochur, “Tell me something. If you hadn’t become religious a few years ago, would you also be dating now with intent to get married?”

The young man thought for a moment, and said, “No, I wouldn’t.”

“Why not?” the rebbe asked. The young man told him that several years before, he had ended a serious relationship, and had been hurt very much by the break-up. He didn’t feel emotionally ready yet for this level of commitment. “That’s understandable,” the rebbe replied, “but if so, how can you be involved in shidduchim now?”

The answer was, that this is what you’re “supposed” to do when you’re frum! But it was not yet where the young man was in his personal development. Once this point was recognized, he dealt with the issue, and was engaged a few months later, and is building a beautiful home.

We have attempted to describe a few areas in which the integration of the ba’al/ ba’alas teshuva into the world of Torah requires special sensitivity. The common denominator is that young men and women must be taken seriously as people- both by their teachers and by themselves- to ensure their healthy and mature integration into the fabric of Klal Yisroel.

American Holidays – Thanksgiving Survival Guide, Really Short Version

For the last several years I have not had to face being around my family during any of the chagim because I had lived in Israel. Saying no to attending family holidays, for many people it is an extremely difficult burden to face. How do you say no when it is family? But how can you say yes to the Pesach Family Seder that lasts about 15 minutes and the Rosh Hashanah Meal both First and Second Night that isn’t kosher or Sukkot Chol Hamoed Lunch that isn’t in a Sukkah even when it isn’t raining.

It is so hard because we love our family and we bend over backwards not wanting to alienate them from frumkite, chas v’shalom. But lets face it…knowing that the chagim are all about our relationship with HaKadosh Baruch-Hu and we just can’t get “there” to the loftiest of places in a home where there isn’t Kiddusha…or at least the brand of Kiddusha we need especially on a Yom Tov.

So how do you get out of the holiday of Thanksgiving? It never falls on a Shabbat…ok and it isn’t a Yom Tov… no problem there. The truth is, at least for me, Turkey-Day is the one holiday I don’t want or need to “get out of”. This year, for the first time in many years, I was able to and did attend the Family Thanksgiving Dinner. So here is my Survivors Guide, really short version, to spending Thanksgiving (or July 4th, Memorial Day, Labor Day, New Years Day fill in the blank __ Day) with your family.

It is really important that you are able to do the most important thing on Thanksgiving and that is of course EAT. Waking up early on Thanksgiving, my kosher turkey went in the oven. Quickly the house was filled with all the smells of my childhood. I made everything I needed to feel good at the table…

I was able to sit next to my cousins (of course still at the children’s table) and stuff my belly with yummy Thanksgiving delicacies. I even had enough leftovers at home in the fridge to feel very American on “Black Friday”. The mashed potatoes were my “contribution” to the cornucopia feast. Of course they were parve. I couldn’t bring the traditional buttery potatoes to set along side the table of turkey and spiral-cut-you-know-what!

At the end of the evening as we all reclined in our chairs, everyone wanted to know how I made the yummy dilled mashed fluffy stuff. They were all stunned to hear about my secret to make them creamy with out milk or butter (margarine and light mayonnaise). Smiling to myself I thought of my own theory. They tasted so yummy because they were the only kosher thing on the table…of course other than my shiny aluminum pan, double wrapped foil peeled back filled with all the essentials: half a turkey breast, a mini portion of yams with marshmallow, challah stuffing, string bean casserole and of course parve mashed potatoes. FYI … you can follow the Libby’s Pumpkin Pie recipe on the label but instead of condensed milk, replace with soy milk and Rich’s cream frozen.

Originally Posted in the Birth Months of BBT in Dec 2005

An Awesome Place, Time and Soul at the Kotel

On a trip to Eretz Yisroel a few years ago, I had the good fortune to rent an apartment in Kfar David in Mamilla, very close to the Jaffa Gate. I davened almost every Tefillah at the Kotel, except for Shabbos when we were in Ramat Beis Shemesh.

Davening at the Kotel is amazing because it’s a Minyan factory and you get to join together with all types of Jews from the four corners of the world. However, I do find it distracting at Shacharis, between the people collecting Tzedakah and the simultaneous Minyanim going on at a somewhat loud volumne.

On my first Shacharis I went to the Vasikin minyan, which is at sunrise and is the best time to Daven according to the Shulchan Aruch. So here I was, at the best place-the Kotel, at the best time-sunrise, and with a great collection of Jewish souls from around the world. And to top it all off, since it was Vasikin every Minyan starts Shemoneh Esrai at the same time and the entire Kotel would be quiet together.

So I stepped into Shemoneh Esrai anticipating the sweet sound of silence, but unfortunately perfection was not to be found. There was one individual who was davening very loudly well into our Shemoneh Esrai. So there were 300 souls with the opportunity to join in Tefillah at the perfect time at the perfect place, but one person was out of step.

I decided to write three endings to this piece:

1) How does Hashem judge this situation. On the one hand the person was davening to Hashem in sincerity, but at the same time he was disturbing many other people in a situation where total quiet was a possibility.

2) I need to work more on my davening. If I really worked on it, I could daven anywhere without being distracted. Perhaps wanting or needing silence is really a deficiency in my davening.

3) We’re in Golus and even if we’re at the perfect place and the perfect time, it’s our souls that need correcting. That begins with me working on caring about this unknown individual as much before the Shemoneh Esrai as after. He’s a great Yid who made the same journey I did to daven at this awesome place and time. Even if he was mistaken in this one act, I make plenty of mistakes myself and I hope people judge me favorably.

So at the end of the day, maybe it was better that there was no silence. After all place, time and silence are external and davening is an internal act. And becoming a little more forgiving from this incident is probably more important than finding the perfect Place, Time and Soul at the Kotel.

Originally Published February 2010

Telling My Story

When people meet me, and find out a bit of my background – being from Alabama, not growing up in an Orthodox home – they often ask me to tell “my story.” I used to have no problem with this, but lately, the request for my story has started to bother me.

I don’t hide my background; I don’t pretend to be “FFB” (though I’ve been told on more than one occasion that I could “pass” easily). I’m very upfront with my background and the fact that my family is not observant. So why does it bother me to be asked about my story?

I think it’s because I’ve moved beyond my story. I’ve been shomer shabbos for almost nine years now, the majority of my independent life. My “story” occurred a long time ago. I just don’t feel like those events define who I am anymore, nor even my frumkeit.

Many people who become observant go off to a certain seminary or yeshiva and come to define themselves within the hashkafa of that particular place. I didn’t do that – I worked it out for myself, through many permutations until I made it my own. I imagine that it will still change somewhat throughout my life, but I don’t define myself by the organization that mikareved me, so I’m always a little uncomfortable telling people how I got “into” Orthodoxy.

But beyond having people try to define me by the specific organization that I don’t align myself with (which I don’t blame anyone for, it’s human nature to want to put people in boxes in order to understand them better), I guess I want to move on with my life, to just be a normal Jew who observes or doesn’t observe particular facets of Judaism. It’s not about blending – believe me, it’s difficult to blend when you are from Alabama, living in the NY area – but it’s about wanting people to look at me for WHO I am NOW, rather than where I came from.

Yes, our current lives are certainly affected by our upbringing and our experiences throughout life, but because the events that sparked my interest in becoming more observant happened so long ago, I’m not that person anymore. I’ve moved beyond it, just like I’ve moved beyond the person I was in junior high school.

So now when people ask me my story, I kinda cringe and give them as few details as possible. Not because I’m embarrassed about it or my past, because I’m not. But because I just have trouble remembering who that person was.

Originally Posted in December 2006

Led Zeppelin & Frum Culture

As a BT, I’ve often felt the clash between the culture I grew up in and the “frum” culture I’ve been living in for so long. One of the areas the clash always made itself evident to me was music. I just never could get into “Jewish music.”

This clash took on new meaning for me years ago when I worked as a manager in a small business that employed Chassidic girls, who loved to listen to music as they did their tasks. One girl, in particular, was really into it. She sometimes asked my opinion of the latest song or album. I tried to feign interest, but Jewish music – especially the type these girls liked – really never did anything for me.

One day she excitedly brought in the newest album and played it. I had to admit, at first, that there was something I liked about one of the songs. It had… a certain….

I couldn’t put my finger on it. But it had a quality that resonated for me. And as I listened to it over the next few hours — she played the album again and again — all of a sudden it struck me:

It was “Stairway to Heaven,” by Led Zeppelin, regurgitated in instrumental form without lyrics.

I don’t have to tell most readers here that Led Zeppelin was a famous hard rock band in the ‘70s. Their concerts were drug and alcohol fests; their music hard-driving heavy metal, their lyrics raunchy. In other words, everything a red-blooded American teenager with a rebellious streak ever wanted.

And everything one would have thought a Chassid, in the real sense of the word, would recoil from. Yet, here were these Chassidic girls really into it.

Of course, they had no idea of the context or the words. Moreover, even if they did, there wasn’t necessarily anything wrong with the denuded elevator music version of the song. Chassidic philosophy, in particular, emphasizes the idea that there are sparks of kedusha all around embedded in the tumah waiting for a Jew to come and extract it. Some of the most inspiring Shabbos niggunim were originally Czarist army marching songs. We are here to convert the matter of the lower world into the currency of the higher world.

Still… Led Zeppelin?

One of the lessons this drove home for me was that if I had any reason to feel inferior because of my cultural upbringing I was a fool. If sparks of kedusha could be had in Led Zeppelin, then the sound tracks of my memory banks were gold mines of potential kedusha no Chassid could hope to duplicate.

But the larger point was the place of culture clash in the evolution of a BT. There is, of course, a difference between real Torah and a culture in which this Torah is expressed. They are not necessarily the same thing. Moshe Rabbeinu did not speak Yiddish or wear a streimel (notwithstanding the Parasha sheets our kids bring home from yeshiva).

Yet, the reality is that when we become observant we not only join a religion but perforce join one of the cultures within it, be it Modern Orthodox, Chassidic or whatever. Judaism is a social religion; it demands we become part of a tzibbur, a kehilla, a community. Therefore, we must make our peace with a community, even if it is lacking or imperfect in our eyes.

And so, we BTs more than others, go about our lives in strange paradox, feeling alienated from the culture we left behind for a religion that makes sense but invariably comes with a culture we may not fit perfectly into.

Somehow we have to find a niche not necessarily made in our image without losing our selves. We have to navigate the choppy seas of a culture sometimes at odds with our memories, origins and expectations while remaining glued to the inner compass that led us to the timeless values underpinning that culture to begin with.

Some of the cultural dissonance is relatively easy to handle but some is not. Often there is no easy solution for the latter – other than recognizing that our task here is not always easy.

That’s a lesson we learned long before we came to Torah. You can’t buy a stairway to heaven.

Originally published March 15, 2006

How the Terms BT and FFB Stunt Our Spiritual Growth

Dedication- I dedicate this post to the URL of this blogsite- BeyondBT. Most simply deconstructed as Beyond Ba’al T’shuva. The implied purpose being to transcend the societal constraints and the sometimes suffocating self-perceptions evoked by the term “Ba’al T’shuva”. In a word… let’s get past it.

Caveat- This post is intended for those who’ve been Torah Observant for 5+ years. Its message is not for those who get ruffled when old axioms are challenged. It is for those who long for their earliest heady days of spiritual awakening and who intuit that there may have been a linkage between the passion for Yiddishkeit that characterized that long-ago-far-away time in their lives and their nascent iconoclasm that allowed them to smash the idols of received wisdom and preconceived notions on a regular basis.

Among the ways of T’shuva is for the returnee …to change his name
– Rambam Laws of T’shuva 2:4

I’ve always been a bit of a stickler about semantics. G-d convinced the angels of Adam’s profound wisdom based on his ability to assign names. The name changes of such great figures as Avrohom, Sorah, Yisroel, Binyomin and Yehoshua signaled momentous, historic metaphysical modifications. The bard may have said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” but his was not a Torah-informed sensibility. I believe that when the words we use to clothe raw concepts are skewed, wooly or unfocused, our conversations become the communicative equivalents of a fashion faux pas. Kind of like wearing gloves on our feet. At best an unattractive look and at worst a recipe for a pair of really sore feet.

In my estimation the acronyms BT and FFB have done incalculable damage to all parties concerned. Here’s why: T’shuva presumes being accountable for ones life and taking responsibility for repairing those parts of our live’s that we have damaged. What the term “Ba’al T’shuva” has meant historically is a person who had previously been an avaryon AKA a Rosha who had undergone the demanding and rigorous service of T’shuva until (s)he had “mastered” it to repair all that was broken. Hence the term Ba’al T’shuva = “Master of Repentance”.

According to the classic Torah literature on the subject the engine that drives T’shuva is sincere, profound and, according to some, lifelong remorse over the sin. In the historical model even the resolution for the future and behavior modification aspects of Avodas HaT’shuva hinges on the depth and intensity of the remorse. Ever tortured by the memory of sin, reminding a historically defined BT of their past sins is considered onoas devorim (insulting and hurtful speech) because it is the verbal equivalent of picking a painful and unsightly scab. According to Rabenu Yonah, the centrality of remorse and taking personal responsibility is also why “shame” (#6) and “one’s sin being constantly before him” (#18) are among his twenty fundamental principles of T’shuva.

While perpetual remorse and shame may not be the way an FFB relates to his/her past it is also not an apt description of how a representative modern-day BT relates to theirs. Nor should it be. How can we regret or be ashamed of choices that we did not make? If our great-grandparents chose to abandon Torah, if we were not afforded the barest rudiments of a Torah education or upbringing, if we were nurtured in a culture that is mostly antithetical to Torah and it’s ideals, in short if we are indeed tinokos shenishbu what, precisely, are we regretting? Is it our natures or our nurtures? How can this be when we were responsible for neither? G-d alone is responsible for the former and He, our parents, teachers and society for the latter. When doing T’shuva are we supposed to regret and be ashamed of what G-d has done or failed to do or of what WE have done or failed to do? This may be the subliminal message of the Rambam in placing the doctrine of human free will in his Laws of T’shuva rather than in the Laws of the Fundamentals of the Torah. He may be trying to teach us that T’shuva= remorse must always be about our own choices and never about HaShem’s providence and his administration of His creation. Far from engaging in a holy Avodah contemporary BTs who place too much emphasis on regret are in fact indulging themselves in a good old-fashioned fist shaking at G-d.

The arithmetic is simple; if pre-observance we were Tinokos Shenishbu but never reshoim, then we can’t be Ba’alei T’shuva in a traditional sense. Of course we can and do modify our thoughts, speech and behavior. We can also regret and DO T’shuva for those of our youthful indiscretions that we already knew were wrong in spite of our non/anti-Torah upbringing. (I don’t think anyone gets a “Tinok Shenishba” pass for shoplifting or harassing homeless people.) But that is hardly unique to non-FFBs. FFBs for the most part do T’shuva as well (at the very least during Elul and the Yomim Noraim =Days of Awe). Some obsess over T’shuva and really work hard, smart and effectively at it. But I’ve yet to meet one who would say that (s)he’s earned the moniker BA’AL T’shuva. Most FFBs are also fully aware of the beautiful Chazal that “Even the completely righteous (tsadikim g’murim) cannot stand in (i.e. attain) the [exalted spiritual] place that the Ba’lei T’shuva stand in”. So, for most everyone, to perceive oneself as a BA’AL T’shuva is at best pretentious and at worst self-delusional. Imagine a fellow fancying himself a Talmid Chochom or even a Gaon having studied only one or two Talmudic tractates or someone practicing halakhic stringency or two considering themselves a Tsadik or a Chosid. When such exaggerated self-assessment is conveyed to others it, unsurprisingly, evokes reactions of skepticism, defensiveness and mockery. These self-perceptions will not earn anyone friends or integration into a society of “just plain folks”.

Those who fail to discern the qualitative difference of the pre-T’shuva states of having been a Rosha and having been born a Tinok Shenishba run the risk of diffusing an even more destructive fallout, one that strikes much closer to home. For many contemporary BTs who fall into this category, having no real sin to regret the focus of the remorse shifts to the putative sinner(s). Conflating the traditional and contemporary concepts of Ba’al T’shuva makes us regret and feel ashamed of people (including ourselves), experiences and friends we have no business feeling ashamed of or about. It leads to tortured relationships with friends and family, to suppressing rather than sublimating our pre-observance education, talents and accomplishments and, worst of all, it causes us to fixate and waste our energies on “passing” as an FFB rather than on becoming an Ehrlicher Yid. To conclude- the mostly inaccurate and hyperbolic appellation, BT, manages the slick semantical and psycho-spiritual trick of being both devastatingly self-deprecating and ridiculously self-aggrandizing.

FFB is hardly a benign word either. The first “F” which expands to “Frum” is never to be confused with “ethical” or “spiritual”. In it’s contemporary usage Frum has, almost exclusively, come to mean a soulless adherence to the letter of the law and a negation of its spirit. There is an innate putdown in the “from birth” portion of this acronym as well. It implies that whatever “religion” (but never spirituality) the FFB does have is an accident of birth. Whereas BTs might fancy themselves self-made millionaires FFBs deserve no admiration or respect because, as the name implies, they were born with silver spoons in their mouths. I’ve actually seen the term retooled on other blogs to “Frum by accident”. The fact is that we are all, BT and FFB alike, JFCs =Jews from (matrilineal) conception. No one is frum from birth. Jewishness=the potential for achieving the sanctity of Torah and Mitzvahs, is our bio-spiritual birthright. For want of a better word Frumkeit, i.e. actualizing that potential, is not. Even those born and raised in Bnei Braq, Meah Shearim or Lakewood are endowed with free will and, as Rav Dessler articulates in his famous Treatise on Free-Will, cultivate their relationship with G-d davka by those positive exercises of free will that they were not predisposed to doing by their parents, peer groups and teachers.

Any FFB that considers the term a compliment must have forgotten the Chazal that reveals the underlying meaning of the name of our evil uncle Eisov. According to the Midrash he was named Eisov (alliteratively Osu =done) because he was “done” and physically complete at birth. On an overt level this means that the newborn Eisov was hirsute and had a full set of teeth. But what it also implies is that he was spiritually/metaphysically finished immediately post-partum. The balance of his life here on earth was an entropic downhill slide toward the grave and represents the dross of his father Yitzchak’s holy middah of being conceived and born in kedusha. An FFB who luxuriates in that name shares more in common with the cartoonish Richie Rich than with any true Oved HaShem. Such FFBs are spirituality’s snooty and spoiled rich kids and about as attractive and inspiring as the socioeconomic kind. As it is in chronology so must it be in spirituality. Birth is the starting gate not the finish line.

None of this is to say that contemporary BTs have not had to work harder than their FFB compatriots to attain comparable levels of observance. Pain exerted to achieve spiritual gain is the main (but not exclusive) yardstick by which G-d determines reward. I may be overreaching but IMO part of this “extra measure” of reward manifests in the incredibly swift strides that BTs make in their Torah Study and Mitzvah observance vis a vis FFBs. BTs are to be admired, respected and celebrated for all the pains they took to become, stay and grow ever more observant. But we run the dangerous risks of hubris and divisiveness when we presume that one group in Jewry has a monopoly on the pain/ gain correspondence or on HaShem’s affections.

Make no mistake there are, in fact, many groups and factions within Jewry and the onus for ending the lingering feelings of otherness and alienation many veteran BTs endure still rests squarely on the shoulders of FFBs. To date FFB culture has done a comparatively superb job of being friendly to their non-observant and BT brethren but not as good a job of actually becoming their friends (or Mechutonim!). That said there are the larger questions and challenges that lie before all groups and factions. Among others: Must BTs forever remain a sub/counterculture in Yiddishkeit? As the Kiruv movement moves into its third generation are we any closer to true integration, equality and unity than we were 40-50 years ago? I believe that positive solutions to these questions will begin with our liberation from the inaccurate, pejorative or pompous labels “BT” and “FFB” and their attendant warped perceptions. I dream of a Jewry in which terms such as these will be considered unacceptable in polite conversation. How about replacing BT and FFB with “late beginner” and “early beginner”? “Observant from childhood” and “Observant from adulthood”? “Having religiously supportive parents” and “lacking religiously supportive parents”? Or, best of all, how about one single term that aptly describes all of us- Yidden! Perhaps then as in the days of yore at Simchas Bais HaShoayva in the Bais HaMikdosh all factions can join together in the exultant dance singing “Lucky are those that never sinned and those that did, let them return and be forgiven!”

First Posted 0n 2/21/2006 with the title: “Crafting a New Nomenclature”

Should I Hide Being a BT?

By “Alan”

I live in a fairly black hat community and it seems to me that many BTs make great efforts to hide the fact that they are BTs. There are people here who are BTs for 5-10 years, who learned for less than 2 years full time in Yeshiva, who don’t even consider themselves BTs anymore.

One person told me that many people hold that being a BT is a negative, although few will tell you that to your face or say it publicly. Being known as a BT effects how people view you, shidduchim, and jobs in certain community organizations, so he feels it makes sense to hide the fact that you are a BT, whenever possible.

My problem is that I think that living this type of charade will cause problems for me and my family in the future. It seems like we are denying a reality instead of dealing properly with it. I didn’t choose to be born into a non-observant family and I feel that the strides I’ve made are significant and I continue to work on my Yiddishkeit. So tell me again why we should hide or deny the fact that we’re BTs?

Originally Published July, 2007.

From the comments:

Ora says:

I’ve never felt that I had to hide my background, but I’ve chosen to do so on several occasions. Mostly for four reasons.

1) (especially when I had been religious for less than 2/3 years) It’s nice to “pass.” It takes a lot of effort to get to the point where you are knowledgeable enough and comfortable enough with Jewish life that those who grew up in religious homes can’t tell that you didn’t. I liked the feeling I got when some girl from seminary who I’d known for months would say, “Oh, your family isn’t religious? I didn’t know!”

2) I don’t want to deal with stereotypes. I don’t know if the people I’m meeting have BT stereotypes, or if they think of being a BT as a positive or negative thing. But either way, I don’t want that one part of my history to influence their opinion of me. This is especially strong when I first meet people. In fact, now I have a pattern of telling people a bit of my story after I’ve known them for a little while, and then the full story comes out after a few months.

To be honest, sometimes it’s more annoying when people are overly positive than slightly negative. I don’t like being told “Oh, BTs are so inspiring, you gave up so much, blah blah blah” when I’m feeling like an uninspired slacker. Also, I don’t feel like I gave up very much to get to where I am, because I wanted so badly to be here that all the other stuff didn’t really matter. So I don’t feel that I deserve the praise.

3) I’m afraid that people will take my opinions less seriously. As in “oh, you’re a newcomer, what do you know,” etc. I have never once encountered this attitude, but my fear of it is still there. I think a lot of BTs who hide their identities do so mostly do to their own fears and not actually FFB attitudes.

4) Ultimately I don’t think it matters very much. So many of my friends who were raised in religious households weren’t really religious until they were in their late teens/early 20s. They might use terms like “raised religious” or “FFB,” but until a certain period in life they were just going with the flow (and then at some point fully accepted Hashem/Torah). Others were seriously introspective and spiritual even as kids, but had a period where their hashkafa grew apart from that of their parents. We’re all pretty much in the same place now. So I don’t see how telling someone “I’m a BT” will give them useful knowledge. It will eventually come out in anecdotes/ when they meet my family/ etc if we’re close, but I feel no need to mention it if the subject doesn’t come up.

From the comments:

Dovid says:

This is a wonderful post and I’m thankful to all who have commented thus far. Integration into a frum community is not an easy process. After all, we’re not talking about our first day on campus at college here. For us, “Orientation” is an ongoing process that for some continues for years or even decades,
depending on what stage in life we are when we become BT’s.

My wife and I became BT’s in our mid 30’s, so we did not have the opportunity to develop over
our younger years like most BT’s that we know. No time studying in Ohr Someach or Aish, etc. during our college years, when most of our BT friends began their BT journey’s. No, for us it was a quicker decision both for ourselves and our children (6 and 3 at the time). We were in an “out-of-town” community with a small shul that had maybe 3 Shomer Shabbos members and the rest of them either non-committed but enjoying the shul. We knew that we needed to move away, because the community presented conflicting values and observances that would confuse our children. For us personally, the “Modern” communities presented an outlook (both outward and otherwise) too similar to the secular lifestyle that we were trying to move away from. We wanted a frumkeit that was so clearly different than the secular life we left, that our children would grow up to feel “uncomfortable” with an outlook that shared the fashion and open-door philosophy we found to proliferate in these communities. After consulting with our Rav and a few good friends, we chose a large and diverse frum community that is essentially black hat, (although their are all sorts of those, and streimlach-a-plenty). Yes, it was a bold move indeed.

We have been here for 7 years now, and as expected, we have found many, many other BT’s here. BT’s seem to gravitate to each other somehow. It has been a great comfort to us that this is the way of things. We can talk and share our experiences together and help each other along the way. We have all experienced the “cold shoulder” from FFB’s who have no clue about what it is like for us, and we don’t blame them personally. They simply have lived such cloistered lives, that they don’t know what to think of folks like us. But for the most part, we have had positive experiences here. I would have to say that even though our children have adapted well, I expect that they will some day likely marry into other BT families. I would be pleased if they married into FFB families as well, but I think that people generally will be attracted to others whose families are similar to their own. There are exceptions of course, but I think it will take more than one generation for our family to more completely meld into the community that we’ve chosen. We do not hide our BT status, and do our best to show our brothers and sisters who are FFB, that we have come a long way to be here (a lot longer trip than driving from Flatbush). Some don’t feel comfortable with that, and others are most welcoming and encouraging. Upwards and onwards…

What Do We Do with Our “Baggage”?

Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz

Firstly, I’d like to thank Beyond BT for inviting me to guest blog. It’s truly an honor and a privilege to share some of my own experiences with my peers. It is also an auspicious time to blog – I’m writing this on the third day of Chanuka which mirrors the third day of creation when Hashem saw it was good twice. Chanuka is also the time for “pirsumei nisa” to publicize and show gratitude for the miracles Hashem has worked.

We live in an age of baggage. Everyone seems to have some to one degree or another. The unprecedented shidduchim crisis is exacerbated by fears – unfounded or otherwise – of the other person’s “baggage”. Similarly, when people undertake a journey towards a Torah life they frequently express concerns about all of their past “baggage”. So what can we do about all this baggage?

I actually began thinking about this theme in earnest several years ago when we were about to move to a smaller house. Suddenly, my “assets” (antiques, oversized furniture, collectibles) didn’t really seem so much like assets any more. After all, I had to build space for them, pack them, pay to have them moved, stored, etc. Perhaps Hillel was on to something when he said “when one increases possessions, one increases worry”. I recalled reading a story about several gold prospectors in the Yukon who hit the mother lode. They sewed the gold into their sleeves and cuffs and got on the raft to go back down the river. The raft capsized and our prospectors apparently drowned under the weight of their clothing while those who had been “less fortunate” swam to safety.

What about the other kind of “stuff”, the spiritual kind? In his seminal work “Tanya”, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi cites a gemara in Yoma which is simultaneously enigmatic and empowering. The gemara quotes Reish Lakish (himself an inspired returnee) as saying that one who does t’shuva out of fear – his sins are expunged, but one who does t’shuva out of love, his sins are converted into merits.

What a radical concept! Imagine an accountant telling the CEO of a major company that the company was about to post a huge loss. The CEO is mortified and asked the accountant for a suggestion. Suddenly the accountant jumped up and said “I’ve got it – let’s carry all the losses over to the profit column!” Reish Lakish tells us that we can in fact do just that with our spiritual ledger. A story is told of the famous Berditchiver, Rabbi Levi Yitchak who went over to a fellow reputed to be a wholesale sinner. “I envy you” he said” You possess such potential spiritual riches.”

By way of a “regel achas” (on one leg) introduction, I’m probably more of the classic type of BT – brought up frum, leaving the “derech” for a long walkabout and then fighting to come back, making peace with what I lost and what I left behind and moving forward. I’ve been in love with pop music since childhood and I can hold my own on the guitar with the best of them! I worked as an attorney in the entertainment industry for many years. Whatever they say about the music business is true and then some. It’s full of shallow, narcissistic, vain people who labor under the illusion that they will remain “forever young” – and that’s the positive side. The seamy underbelly contains a self-destructive force of unbelievable intensity which has claimed numerous victims over the years. I was going through some old industry photos recently and my wife pointed out that I was pretty much the only one in most of the photos who was still alive.

So what do I do with my “peckel” of life experience? I chose to work with Jewish kids. The minute they hear that I knew “Jerry” or hung out with Clapton or Dylan or the Beatles, they’re suddenly open to hear what I have to say. I’m no longer just another guy with a black coat and beard (I still have to convince people that Chassidim had the look before ZZ Top!).

It’s ironic that my credibility has to come from experiences which I’ve largely repudiated but in chassidus one takes one’s Torah where one finds it. When high school kids would come up to the farm where were lived with their guitars in tow, I used to get a kick asking them if I could “sit in” They’d kinda stare at me and say “Rabbi, do you play?” I’d smile and say “Just a little” Then, I’d break out the old telecaster and off we’d go – no hostages taken!

Similarly, in the days when we still had TV, I was a huge fan of the classic TV show “The Honeymooners.” I am a firm believer that the answers to all of humanity’s problems lie within the original 39 episodes. I’m currently working on a quasi-Purimlike work entitled “Tal D’vash” or “Honey Dew” (gematria anyone?) in which the episodes are used to demonstrate everything from the shabbos melachos to the Story of Purim (by way of illustration, one of the episodes had the main character, an oversized, ego-inflated bus driver named Ralph Kramden being asked to make a speech at the annual Raccoon dinner. He thought that he was being given the coveted Raccoon Of The Year award . The speech he crafted echoed his ersatz surprise and false modesty at being the recipient of such an honor. Imagine his surprise when he was given a speech to deliver awarding the honor to his best friend. It’s the Purim story on steroids!)

One year we planted a huge patch of corn on our farm. One day I came down to the garden and the heads of corn seemed to have exploded with gray and black pustules. It looked like something out of a science fiction movie. It was truly frightening. I ran into the house holding one of the misshapen ears screaming “Rivkie, we’re ruined”. I grabbed one of my organic gardening manuals and went back down to the garden to figure out what had gone wrong. I did some quick research and discovered that the culprit was a fungus called smut. The book recommended burning, not composting the plants, not planting in that area again, and to use smut resistant strains next season. It then went on to point out that if there was a gourmet market nearby to sell it as it is considered a delicacy (it is actually related to the mushroom and truffle). I ran back into the house yelling “Rivkie, we’re rich”.

The bottom line – baggage or riches – it’s your call.

Originally published on Dec 31, 2005

The Mechutanim

By Mr. Cohen

This true story happened to me approximately in my 11th year as a Baal Teshuvah.

I used to work in a company owned and mostly staffed by Orthodox Jews.
One of my FFB coworkers, around 50 years old, made frequent phone calls
during work hours and I could easily hear everything she said.

One day I noticed something about her conversations:
The mechutanim this…
The mechutanim that…
The mechutanim want…
The mechutanim said…
The mechutanim did…
The mechutanim own…
The mechutanim know…
The mechutanim forgot…
The mechutanim will…
The mechutanim won’t…
The mechutanim can’t…
The mechutanim over and over and over again, more times than I could count.

I suddenly came to a realization:
Even if I mastered every Torah book that was ever written,
I would always be a disadvantaged contender in the marriage market
of Orthodox Jews, because my traif parents will never be valid mechutanim.

Mr. Cohen invites Orthodox Jews to join his web site for quick Divrei Torah: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DerechEmet/

Will I Ever Fit In? Do I Want to Fit In?

We thought this post by Josh Goldman was perfect for Beyond BT. Thanks to Josh for letting us repost it.

Spending a day in Brooklyn can be a little overwhelming for an out of town Ba’al Teshuva (born-again Jew). There are Jews everywhere. Jewish stores, Jewish signs, even Jewish license plates. It’s a bit much.

But it made me think about the religious lifestyle I lead, and how much it is different from my brethren who have always been frum. Can my own religious lifestyle ever be the same as theirs? Would I want my lifestyle to be the same as theirs?

I have a lot of freedom to objectively observe Jewish Law, independently of how it is commonly practiced. That is good and it is bad. For example, I had to choose my own prononciation of Hebrew words, which forced me to learn what the differences are, where they come from, and how they are viewed in Halacha. I think most Frum from birth (FFB) people just take their parents’ prononciations for granted, not realizing how much depth there is to even such a simple issue. Even if in the end we come out at the same place, I’ve gained so much in my approach.

Of course, there are also the many phases of Baal Teshuvakeit, from testing the waters to utter zealousness. I’ve gone through them all. I remember when I skipped any prayer that seemed remotely optional, even if it just had a smaller font. I also remember when I thought it was frummer to add in every page, paragraph, and bracket into my prayers. But there is a certain maturity that eventually develops.

By its very nature, my approach to Orthodoxy is at the same time fundamentalist and open minded. But can my perspective ever be the same as that of an always been frum person? Could I marry an FFB? I know many BTs go that route, and many stay amongst people from similar backgrounds. A lot of it results from the natural attraction between people of similar experience. But beyond that, can the wide-eyed evaluation of the BT coexist with the cautious eyes of the FFB? Do they balance each other out?

It seems that so much of Orthodoxy is merely cultural norms, not Frumkeit. How do you raise your kids with that open-mindedness, that honest search?

Will I ever fit in? Do I want to fit in?

Originally posted June 2006

Another World

Many years ago I sought the attention of an obgyn doc in Manhattan, Dr. Kevin Jovonovic, for a tricky problem I was having that another doctor was recommending surgery to fix. Dr. Kevin specializes in this problem and although it took me an hour train ride, and then an hour’s walk to his office by Central Park (I’ll walk two miles in the city before I’ll get into a taxicab there!), I was glad I made the visit. He correctly diagnosed the problem, gave me a non surgical fix, and I’ve been coming back to him for annual physicals twice a year ever since; once you’ve found a doctor who is smart, compassionate, and responsive, you don’t let them go over something like a less-than-ideal distance away. I joke with Dr. Kevin that I must be his patient with the longest commute to his office!

I am writing this column on the train back from my visit to Dr. Kevin this morning. When a writer is struck with the writer’s muse, unless it’s Shabbos, she has to write while the inspiration flows in!

Last night I set the alarm for 5 AM, so that I could catch the 6 AM train to New York from my Highland Park, NJ home, and then walk to his office for my 8 AM appointment. I bundled up in layers, earmuffs, gloves, and winter tights for the cold long walk, and donned my best sneakers for the mileage. As I emerged from the train, I was immediately accosted by the sights, sounds and smells of the bustling New York city streets, as every nationality, size, and cultural group whisked by me, rushing somewhere. It struck me how weird it is that I leave my suburban home in NJ, take a one hour train ride, and I emerge on a different planet, an environment so different and unfamiliar to me, with no gradual transition. Off the train, walk a few minutes, and NY City is all around me.

I search for familiar landmarks to anchor me, and to reassure me that I have not lost my way. The kosher pizza store on Broadway.The three-story high Macys.The glittering billboards of Times Square.The 5-dollar pashimi scarves selling on the corner, and the carts on every corner selling trafe food not for me. The recognizable sights remind me that I am on track to my destination, but all around me, the New York City pandemonium overwhelm my senses. I marvel: How can a trainride transport someone to such a different world in under an hour?

This feeling I had in New York City this morning is as close as I can describe to what I feel like when I spend time visiting my secular family. The landmarks are familiar – old childhood photos on the wall, familiar people, the smells and sounds and language of my childhood. I try to orient myself, so I am not lost, but I am now on an alien planet. I left my home and entered another, but it’s not just another home – it is the home of family who do not observe Torah and mitzvot the way that we do. After over two decades of keeping Shabbos and raising a frum family, I am becoming as disoriented when I visit my family of origin as I feel when I emerge from the train to New York City.

Shomer Shabbos used to be the alien world and I was a visitor from another planet. Now the secular world is strange to me.

I can’t wait to get off this train, and to be back home where I belong.

Azriela Jaffe, www.chatzos.com and www.azrielajaffe.com.Author of 32 books, holocaust memoir writer, novelist, and freelance writer for Mishpacha magazine and Ami magazine. Contact email: azjaffe@gmail.com

Looking Good

Remember “Fernando,” Billy Crystal’s Saturday Night Live character whose mantra was, “I don’t feel mahvelous, but I look mahvelous, which is okey dokey with me ‘cause you know my credo, it is better to look good than to feel good?” Satirical? Sure. But a true word is often said in jest and in this case, it highlights secular society’s obsession with looking good. Of course, since most people recognize that much of what we see is merely a facade, who cares if the popular culture indulges?

Putting aside the propriety of engaging in behavior merely to portray a certain image, permit me to pose the following question: is it better to act your way into a new way of thinking or think your way into a new way of acting? In other words, if a person dresses and behaves as a frum yid, that person may eventually be constrained to live as such. Indeed, we see this in the performance of mitzvos. Chazal tell us that it is better to perform a mitzvah without the proper intention since it will hopefully lead to its performance with the proper intention.
Read more Looking Good

A Webinar Series on a BT’s Guide to Fitting In – Kicks off with Rabbi Horowitz this Thursday 1/10

How do I find a Rav? How do I relate to a Rav? What’s so important about finding the right community to settle into? After being frum twenty five years I still have no idea about how to marry off my FFB children. Should my kids be doing Skype with their secular grandparents, aunts, and uncles? What about attending my secular nephew’s Bar Mitzvah? These are questions asked by almost all baalei teshuvah. The answers to these questions, and others, will be answered as part of the Yad L’Shuv Foundation’s webinar series.

The webinar series being called A BT’s Guide to Fitting In sponsored by the Yad L’Shuv Foundation, will be answering questions and concerns baalei teshuvah frequently have but are either afraid to ask and find answers for. The comprehensive nature of A BT’s Guide to Fitting In will create a sort of compendium containing the essential information necessary for baalei teshuvah to integrate comfortably and seamlessly into the frum world. In the words of Binyamin Klempner, the Yad L’Shuv Foundation’s director and the webinar’s organizer, “The idea for A BT’s Guide to Fitting In has come out of the questions and concerns I’m presented with on an almost daily basis. My thought was to put together a forum in which baalei teshuvah can have these questions answered by leaders of the kiruv and BT world.”

The lineup of speakers includes Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz of Project YES, Rabbi Ephraim Shapiro of North Miami Beach, Rabbi Illan Feldman of Atlanta, Rabbi Eytan Kobre of Mishpacha Magazine, and others.

The first webinar in the series is scheduled to be given by Rabbi Horowitz Thursday January 10 at 8:30 PM EST.

The webinar can be viewed through the organization’s website www.yadlshuv.org

Integrating the Ba’alei Teshuva

By Jonathan Rosenblum
From Mishpacha Magazine BT Symposium – September 13, 2012

The ba’al teshuva movement, which began to gather steam after the Six-Day War has profoundly changed the face of the Orthodox world in both Israel and the United States. Once one gets outside the New York metropolitan area, ba’alei teshuva and geirim constitute one-third to one-half of the community. The decision of tens of thousands of Jews raised in non-Orthodox homes to choose a life of Torah and mitzvos – some after reaching the top of the secular totem pole – has strengthened the emunah of many born into Orthodox homes.

Besides numbers, ba’alei teshuva have contributed talents – e.g., doctors, lawyers, writers. Ba’alei teshuva coming from sophisticated secular backgrounds were a natural audience for some of the deepest contemporary Torah thinkers, like Rabbi Moshe Shapira. That same secular training provided ba’alei teshuva like Rabbi Akiva Taitz and Rabbi Jeremy Kagan, both talmidim of Rabbi Shapira, with the ability to communicate some of the deepest Torah ideas to the non-religious world in a contemporary idiom. Not surprisingly, ba’alei teshuva play a major role in kiruv work across the globe. And finally, ba’alei teshuva hold the Torah world to its own highest standards – the ones that attracted them.

MY RESPONSE to virtually every one of the questions posed is: It depends; every ba’al teshuva is different. I write, for instance, from the vantage point of one specific ba’al teshuva framework – and likely not the most common — those who had the opportunity to learn for many years in Eretz Yisrael.

Just as our immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents wanted their children to be Yankee-Doodle Dandies, ba’alei teshuva pray their children will not be instantly identifiable as the children of ba’alei teshuva. Exclusively ba’al teshuva communities are not a healthy option.

Still most ba’alei teshuva, even those who are fully integrated into the Orthodox world, tend to gravitate to others who have travelled the same path – often together – as marital partners and friends. Nearly every ba’al teshuva will have at least one good friend with whom he can share cultural references from his past that his FFB friends would either not pick up or perhaps disdain.
I have never denied being a ba’al teshuva – obvious, in any event, at Agudah conventions whenever Yiddish is spoken – nor broadcast the fact. A good friend recently told me that the tilt of my hat and the disarray of my tzitzis gives me away. Had I ever tried to pass as an FFB I would have been devastated. Instead I just smiled. My children can add many more telltale signs, like laughing too loud at jokes.

BECOMING A BA’AL TESHUVA is a long process, even after becoming shomer mitzvos. For most of us it never quite ends – and perhaps shouldn’t. There is a danger of resting on the laurels of having once upon a time made a brave decision. As a chavrusah once remarked to me when I put my head down in first seder, “It’s amazing how much some people give up for Torah, and how little they do once they’ve made that decision.”

Every human being is shaped, and continues to be shaped, by past experiences. To attempt to sever one’s past entirely will usually involve an aspect of self-annihilation. Most old friendships will wither of their own accord as the core of one’s life changes radically. Not so familial relationships. Rabbi Simcha Wasserman’s advice remains the best I have heard: Demonstrate to your parents that becoming a Torah Jew strengthens the bond between you and them. That is hard to do, however, when non-religious parents are asked to financially support children who have chosen lifestyles based on values far different than their own.

Every ba’al teshuva needs a rav to whom he has ready access. That rav must know him well, and be able to respond with sensitivity to his special circumstances. That will rarely be the person most influential in his first becoming religious. Successful front-line kiruv professionals will, over the years, start hundreds on the path, and cannot keep up with all of them.

Nevertheless nothing is more demoralizing for a ba’al teshuva than feeling that he was just another notch in a kiruv professional’s gun. Becoming shomer Shabbos is the type of metric beloved of funders, but it does not necessarily signify stable integration into a religious life.
Unfortunately, many frontline kiruv professionals find their funding dependent on bringing in new bodies rather than taking care of those already under their tutelage.

Besides a rav, ba’alei teshuva need FFB friends and role models who can keep them “normal.” One of the biggest challenges ba’alei teshuva face is setting realistic goals for themselves and their children. I will never forget my rosh yeshiva’s look of astonishment when I complained that my then eight-year-old bechor did not want to review mishnayos over chol hamoed. Even after we have learned ten years in kollel, our sons still remind us that we never learned in cheder or yeshiva ketana and cannot fully grasp their situation. And they are right.

At the same time, it is crucial that ba’alei teshuva not lose the confidence to think for themselves, and that they not become completely dependent on guides to make every decision for them. Not every thought or feeling they ever had is of necessity illegitimate because they were not yet frum, and, in many cases, they have a rich new perspective to add to their new communities.
THE “BUYERS REGRET” that concerns me most is that of ba’alei teshuva when they discover that the reality of the new world they are entering is far from perfect, and that to some extent they were sold an ideal. That “sale” is based on the reality of one’s past life juxtaposed to the ideal of the new one beckoning. Moreover, one is usually exposed at the beginning to the very best that the Torah world has to offer, and to see Torah at its most noble and purest.

Had we known everything we now know at the beginning, we might not have become frum. And that would have been a huge tragedy. Nevertheless, some degree of early introduction to reality is necessary as a vaccination against the inevitable letdown later, when one discovers that no society is perfect.

Perhaps I should be grateful for the Shabbos in the summer of 1979, just after my wife and I arrived in Israel on our honeymoon, spent listening to teenage zealots stoning cars on the Ramot Road. At least we could never say afterwards that we thought we were entering a perfect world.

But we also had Rabbi Nachman Bulman, zt”l, to explain why their actions were a total falsification of Torah. Not everyone is so blessed.


Where Do You Put Your Old Time Rock and Roll?

The death of Michael Jackson was a shocker to some of us, since we all grew up with his music.

For me, I was very taken aback and felt compelled to follow some of it for awhile. I realized that integrating my cultural and societal priorities, then with now, was a continuing process, and that much of the “then” still lurks in the”now”.

For BTs the interaction with celebrity culture and music is not as simplistic as the “chazerish goyim” approach of many FFB’s.

How have people dealt with integrating their musical pasts with their current self?

– Esther

Originally Posted June 30, 2009

Them and Us

By From Within

BTs. FFBs. So much has been written about how different we are, and, at the same time, how similar.

And that’s just it, right? If we were just either one – so similar or so different from one another – there would be no conflict, no comparison. All the attendant feelings, on both sides – and the counter-reactions or defences to those feelings from “the other side” – just wouldn’t be an issue.

Much has been made of the FFB’s failure to understand that as much as we are different from them, we’re also that similar, too. Some FFBs clearly think BTs are from a distant planet in another solar system. Some hide their lack of understanding better than others. Some BTs have a great, boulder-sized chip on their shoulder and scorn all those who didn’t have to take the hard route (as if they had been given any more of a choice than that FFB, that they can take credit for coming up with this character-building exercise, all on their own…).

The funny thing is, I can’t figure out who Them or Us are. And I’m feeling like if we could just crack this problem and see who we are talking about – or talking to – we might be on to something. Maybe we could eliminate the tension. Get rid of the comparisons, for better or for worse. Just stop it all and help everyone get on with it so they can get what they need to advance – because, after all, that’s one goal we can all agree on.

So, who are these mythical Them?

By nature, an epithet like this means they are separate, identifiably unique from Us. So, let’s try to identify the players here:

Ask a conflicted BT and he may say, an FFB is someone who doesn’t have the internal struggles that I do. I’m not sure I really want to be like him but maybe I should be jealous. He took it all in with his mother’s milk and his choices are so much easier than what I deal with every day…

Ask a conflicted FFB and he may say, a BT is someone who thinks every single thing in life has to be meaningful and I can’t stand to hear him go on and on about how much he is shteiging…

Ask a supercilious BT and he may say, an FFB is the guy who never thinks about anything, he just does whatever Tatty and Zeidy did, whether he understands it or not – or ever even bothered trying to understand it…

Ask a supercilious FFB and he may say, a BT is someone who doesn’t begin to understand what difference Mesorah and zechus avos make in your life and that, try as hard as he might, he’ll never have that.

Ask an insecure BT and he may say, an FFB is the guy who helps me in the store who promised that the angle of my hat is just perfect now, he wears his just like that too, and he said he’d never have dreamed I am a BT…

Ask an insecure FFB and he may say, a BT is the guy who seems to always be trying to catch me on a shvere Tosfos, and gives me dirty looks when I talk during chazaras hashatz. Doesn’t he know I learned those halachos way back when, while he was still eating cheeseburgers?…

Ask a well-adjusted BT and he may say, an FFB is the guy who is way far ahead of me in what I know right now in Gemara, but maybe one day we can learn together.

Ask a well-adjusted FFB and he may say, a BT is the guy who’s trying so much harder than I am, I can’t come to his toes in my avodas Hashem. I love talking to him because he injects me with some of his enthusiasm….

And the funny thing is, each one of us can be all of these people at different times of our life/year/day.

So. Where has this imaginary sampling gotten us? How can we expect to understand, identify and agree with BTs if we are FFB – or vice versa – when we can’t even agree with our own reps?

The other issue that has me confused is that the lines are just so blurry. On one hand, both sides of the game seem to agree (while putting this admission on opposite sides of the same argument) that BT or FFB status is not something that can be instantly shed or acquired. BTs feel sad that they can never get away from the label, never feel they’ve finally arrived to some extent, when they still feel so compromised and comparatively disadvantaged. FFBs feel BTs can’t just expect to walk the walk and talk the talk (even with the proper pronunciation) and, presto! – you have been transformed into a kadosh merechem…

But most stunning of all is another little issue that I’m not sure anyone else noticed. I don’t understand why no one else has been talking about it, but it’s pretty major. That is – They are Us.

Take a look around you and for one moment, step back and try to put everyone into one of two boxes: BT or FFB. How easy a task is that?

Ok, well, sure, there will be a couple of easy ones, the people whose backgrounds you know well enough to classify them clearly. And lots of people you think you know…But do you really?

Looking around in my life has netted me the understanding that there are many less pure laine FFBs than many people would have thought.

Many more of us have morphed along the way than you might have thought. For sure, more than most FFBs think…Look again: The woman who teaches your child’s preschool class, the special ed Rebbe, the guy who runs the local kashrus organization – you know, the ones you are always comparing yourself to? Well, they sat next to me in day school.

The BTs of my school years weren’t those college kids-cum-yeshiva students we hear about today. The Discovery Seminars we attended weren’t as condensed as the ones running now – the first segment back then lasted eight years, with another four years as sequel. There was one – count ‘em, one­ – kid in my class whose mother covered her hair. Most weren’t shomer Shabbos. (What a sensation it was when Abie’s bar mitzvah featured a belly dancer, of all things…) And my experience is no where near being unique. There are lots and lots of people like me, whose education Baruch Hashem continued and continues and you may never know whether we wore kippahs or yarmulkas or kapplach when we were your son’s age…How did kids like this get to day school, you may ask? Well, that depends. Hakadosh Baruch Hu had so many different schemes to get us there. Regional differences played themselves out. For our family friend Reb Mordechai, for instance, it was a teacher’s strike in public school that brought his parents to enrol him in the day school. For mine, it was the racial tension in our city, where a little black boy threatened me on the school bus when I was in second grade…

Some of us were yet further blessed and we made our way over to Yeshiva or Bais Yaakov and on. Today, people with educational resumes just like mine and my classmates’ are very well represented in all fields of askanus, and especially in chinuch. Is it that we feel we must give back? That we yet feel that tug, which brought us to where we are, and so must in turn try our own hand at pulling it, too?…

In any case, you wouldn’t know this about me if you had not heard it from me. Try to put me in one of your boxes, and I’m not sure you’d have an easy time of figuring out just where I should go. I know I don’t find it easy.

That’s why I think it’s hilarious when I read all these nice, Jewish Observer-ease articles written for “the greater frum public” (me and you included) about kiruv, where they speak of the topic as if they were approaching it from a point far removed from the actual subject. And every time I read one of these, I wonder – how much longer will everyone – FFBs and BTs alike – still think it’s “us” and “them”???

We are them, and they are us. Period. L’chaim!

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.

Second Class: Not Just BTs

By Ezzie Goldish
(Originally published on Serandez)

Ed. note: Part of why this post has taken three days (!) to write is that there’s both so much to say and so little to say at the same time. When it comes down to it, most people know how to act, are aware that they’re sometimes judgmental, and that they’re not as accepting as they can be. They try hard to correct it, they talk about it, they really work at it – and most people really are decent and good most of the time. Not much is necessarily added by talking about it, though perhaps something is. I also realized that in the process of writing the post, I completely got away from what part of my original intention was, which was to encourage good people – which I think that thankfully SerandEz readers are – to come to the Shabbaton we’re running together with BeyondBT in a couple of weeks (Aug 15-16). So… come! :)

There was recently an article that went around the J-blogosphere discussing the “second class” treatment that BTs sometimes receive. This is not the focus of this post. BeyondBT linked to the piece with a simple question:

In your experience, are BTs generally treated as second class citizens in the communities you’ve lived in?

While the overall answer in the comments was a big, “Well, not really…”, the thread of comments was fascinating. As I noted to Mark Frankel, one of the administrators there:

me: i think that the thread on the Second Class post is one of the best on the blog, ever, and is really what the blog is all about in so many diff ways.
BeyondBT: in what ways is it what the blog all about?
me: fitting in, whether BTs should be trying to fit in, what exactly is diff about BTs in the first place, are those positive or negative things, do they need to be “fixed”, are they treated differently, how are they treated differently, is it because they’re BTs per se, what can be done about it… etc.
that thread alone covered all of those.

Many commenters touched on what I think is an important point. When ba’alei teshuva run into situations where they feel like they are being treated as second class citizens, it often has very little to do with their status as BTs and far more to do with the people doing the excluding. The same issues often will come up among any Orthodox family – for nearly every characteristic a person or family can have, there are going to be those that wish to exclude them for those same characteristics. The issue is not whether BTs or any other grouping (Sephardim, Charedim, Modern, Yeshivish, Black-Hat, Srugis, etc.) are considered second-class, but why people feel a need to be elitist, and why we’re hurt when we’re not in the self-proclaimed elite group.

I don’t know that either of those are particularly “solvable” issues – only issues that can be minimized. Unfortunately, there are always going to be people who wish to be exclusionary and find a need to put down other groups to raise their own. On the flip side, the motto atop this blog (Be yourself, because the people who care don’t matter, and the people who matter don’t care – Serach) serves as a good reminder of how to view such elitism – a frum Jew needs to only follow the guidelines the Torah sets out, not the “rules” that an individual community, or more often, a small subset of a community try to overtly force on its members. There should be no hurt at being “excluded” from an elitist group – would a person truly wish to be part of a group that thumbs its nose at anyone who is not just like them? Obviously not.

But then again, this is reality. While in our personal relationships and in our own conduct it is easy to do what is right and what we wish, and not cater to the demands of unreasonable others, the reality is that we sometimes have to face situations such as these. The question becomes how to approach them, and obviously, every situation calls for its own set of guidelines and specific responses.

Most important, however, is that to effect a real change in the Jewish community as a whole these attitudes need to be changed. While it is quite difficult for any individual to effect change on a large scale, one need only to follow the advice of R’ Israel Salanter to do so* – by focusing on one’s own actions first. The more we focus on ensuring that we live up to certain ideals and respect differences as other approaches and not “worse” ones, and demonstrate that, the more the people around us will (and to some extent are forced to do so) as well.

Case in point: A woman called me about a shidduch for her daughter, asking about a friend of mine. One of the questions was how he dressed – ‘does he dress “black and white”, does he wear colored shirts, how does he dress on Shabbos…’ As I often do with questions like this, I decided to make a small point (but nicely) with the response. “My friend wears suits on Shabbos and dresses very nicely during the week. I don’t think he finds whether the shirt is white to be particularly important; he simply dresses very respectably and doesn’t particularly care about that.” After a slight hesitation, she said “Right, that is more superficial bu…”, trailing off as if she was going to say more, but clearly thinking about the concept as she said it, and I cut in simply that “Yes, exactly. [It is superficial.]”

Most people in the Orthodox world who have exclusive views haven’t given much thought to them. They go along with the narrow viewpoints that exist because that’s what you do and because they haven’t given much thought to it. By quietly, and kindly, separating the real stuff from the shtus we help people see past that. By noting nicely the positive impacts and traits a certain group have we help people see those things, and often times, an indirect approach is the best. A lot of people lately have been linking to the now deceased Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” (and the hour to watch the whole thing will change your life in ways that are well worth the hour), and he talks about using “head fakes” to teach lessons. After an hour and fourteen minutes on the theme of the speech, “Living Your Childhood Dreams”, he asks if people realized that that wasn’t really what the speech was about at all. (I don’t want to give it away.) But he was absolutely correct in that the lesson he actually was trying to impart was learned by the audience.

Most of us want to get along with one another, want to see eye-to-eye, and want to appreciate each other’s differences – or at least, want people to do so with us. Instead of announcing “this is my approach!”, calmly explain how your approach is a good one. Bring people into whatever you’re doing and show them how it’s good. Invite people for Shabbos and show them how you live. It’s a lot harder to be judgmental of someone whom you know or someone who’ve you spent a Shabbos with. For example, on a thread suggesting how to “heal the rift within Orthodoxy”, it was suggested to have an exchange program between yeshivos of different types. Whether that is feasible or not does not matter; it is certainly feasible to have at one’s Shabbos table people of all different types, or in one’s shul, or to simply stand on the street and talk for a bit. You don’t need to have a discussion about a controversial subject, and even if you have such a discussion, it can be had while respecting why each side takes a certain view even if one disagrees for themselves.

The best way to effect change in our communities is rather simple: Live it.

…and, uh, oh yeah – don’t forget about the Shabbaton. :)

* “I wanted to change the world, but I realized it was too large of a task for one person, so I tried to change my community. That was also too hard, so I tried to change my family. That was also too hard, so I decided to try and change myself. And though it was very hard, I finally changed myself. And once I changed myself, I discovered my family changed, the community changed, and the entire world changed.”

Conquering Bad Religious Experiences

By Yakov Lowinger

There has been some discussion regarding the reversion of some from religious observance due to a “bad religious experience” (BRE), which seems to cause the sufferer to swear off involvement in organized religion much like a bad omelet will repel one from associating with eggs in a pan for a good while. I personally feel strongly about this discussion and find many of its assumptions to be misplaced, and I hoped to share some of my insights gleaned from inside, then outside, then inside the frum world if I can be so presumptuous.

1. Being rejected is no cause to reject

The problem is that the lovable eggs in a pan that we encounter every day in the frum world, the ones that often drive us crazy and perhaps even give us real indigestion, are our fellow Jews who we are commanded to love and accept. Why are we so concerned on the contrary with their love and acceptance of us as ba’alei teshuvah, so much so that we take their little acts of rejection as proof of the error of our ways? There is a bit of the parable of the sour grapes in an ex-BT who turns away from observance mainly because he/she didn’t feel accepted. You don’t want me? Well I didn’t want you anyway. Unfortunately little of this dance gets either side closer to the questions of finding the Emes that becoming religious was meant to represent. The BT is no less obligated to respect and tolerate those in the community where he lives, as the community is obligated to respect and tolerate him.

2. The derech ha’emes is not contingent on our experiences, good or bad

The story of the aspiring BT who rushes toward ever-increasing levels of observance as long as it feels good, and then backs away once reality (i.e. other people) sets in, has a disturbing undertone. I would argue that Rabbi Jacobson’s comparison to Nadav and Avihu is nice but in the end, there is no distinction between the two brothers’ fate. A more apt comparison is to Rabbi Akiva and R’ Elisha ben Avuya, who went into the pardes together to learn the secrets of Torah. Rabbi Akiva came out unharmed, while R’ Elisha became a heretic and was henceforth known as “Acheir,” the other. In other words, a person’s greatness or lack thereof is defined by how he/she responds to a real challenge to emunah and a genuine exposure to holiness. In the case of the modern day BT, it is in response to a BRE, or even an overwhelming religious experience, that the title ba’al teshuvah is earned or forfeited. It is irresponsible to suggest that the choice between being a Rabbi Akiva or becoming an “Acheir” is ever in the hands of other people, regardless of how insensitively they may sometimes treat us. Those challenges are there for us to use in order to grow, not to become bitter like Acheir, who gave up completely and considered himself beyond repair because of his experience at the pardes.

3. No such thing as an FFB

Unless we take it to mean “filtered from birth”, there is no usefulness to the term FFB as it is generally used. In the first place, as it is meant to be the residual category of BT, it de-individualizes those who happen to have parents who gave them the gift of frumkeit. The argument then almost makes itself – those FFBs are anti-individual – much like saying that anteaters are anti-ant. The term ba’al teshuvah has an exalted status in Torah, considered in some respects higher than a tzaddik. The term FFB in contrast enjoys no comparable prestige, highlights no distinguishing feature of those so categorized except accident of birth, and therefore tells us nothing about those who supposedly bear this title. The label should be discarded, in my opinion, as the terms BT and FFB are in no way commensurable. The former is exalted and laden with meaning, the latter a mere statistic. The term FFB just gives frustrated ex-frum people something to bandy around, some identifier that we all supposedly understand and relate to and toward which we can direct our complaints. By relying less on these labels, we can more easily identify the real source of our challenges, which is more often than not in ourselves and not in those ______s out there.

4. Cluelessness and misplaced meticulousness

That said, it is not as if there are not prevalent problems in certain frum communities that might drive a sensitive person away from strict observance. I will just point out two that I think are important. Compared to what they are used to, BTs are likely to encounter a certain clulessness about the world at large that may make them uncomfortable. The reality is that the strong filters that we grow up with as frum yidden foreclose the possibility of relating to a BT on most things of interest to them, and thus create that familiar dynamic where we look quizzically at the BT as he tells his/her story at the shabbos table and make him/her even more uncomfortable. This would normally lead to some sort of alienation on the part of the BT who just can’t be understood, whereas a healthier approach might be to accept this limitation and even offer to give some background on the topic in question, in a way consistent with the decency implied by a Torah lifestyle, instead of rolling eyes or sighing knowingly. This cluelessness should be treated with sensitivity and understanding, and the BT should take the acharayus to educate his or her new friends and family in a way that establishes the basis for mutual understanding. Those in the frum community in turn should take it upon themselves to listen and learn from the BT. Their strong filters should be more than adequate to the task.

A second difficulty is the misplaced meticulousness displayed by many in the frum community. This goes for BTs and non-BTs alike. In short, it goes like this. I am frummer than you in outward appearance. This causes me to displace my concern for my own frumkeit (what should I do to be more frum, which I may not know) onto you (because it seems that I do know what you need to do to be more frum). I nitpick on your appearance and seeming observance in my head rather than on my own faults which may not be so visible to others on the surface, because it is easier and seems equally valid. The problem is that nobody benefits from this arrangement. I don’t improve and neither do you. If I became as meticulous in my observance as I was in staring down/talking down to the BT on the other side of the shul we would both win. When we self-professed frummies see someone whose appearance makes us uncomfortable in some way, we should see it as a wake up call to fix what’s lacking in our own avodah. Because anyway, I can only be meticulous on my own account, not yours.

5. Living in a frum community requires a thick skin

We are all growing, hopefully, and learning every day. A BT should try to make him/herself sensitive to this and apply it across the board when confronted with the dreaded BRE. Because that BRE is going to happen. And it may even be horrible (I’ve heard some downright Jerry Springer ones — I bet he’s had a few himself). Here’s where the thick skin comes in — tough up and remember that those people responsible for your BRE are having one too. Rather than have it prick at all your sensitivities and throw you off, which in all likelihood it’s designed to do, remember that it’s also put there by Hashem to make you a stronger, more serious and committed Jew. I know people who have actually gone as far as to thank those who threw really terrible BREs at them, because they couldn’t be who they are now without them. Once your done being carried away with all the fun frills of being frum (I’ve heard there are a few), stare down that BRE in the face and become who you really are meant to be. And as for those bitter acheir’s out there, it’s not too late either. I hope there’s something here for all to take to heart.