Teshuva, Kiruv and BTs

By Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky

This wonderful group is devoted to discussing issues that are important to ba’alei tshuva. And we are now in the season when everyone should be attempting, each in his or her own way, to grow to higher levels through teshuva. There are two Halachoth that the Rambam includes in the laws of teshuva that are addressed to everyone involved teshuva, and which I think should be highlighted for ba’alei tshuva who are struggling in their growth and commitment to Judaism.

The Rambam (Hilchoth Teshuva, Ch. 3, Halacha 3) writes: Anyone who reconsiders the Mitzvoth that he has done, and in place of the meritorious deeds he has done he says to himself “What have I accomplished by doing them? Better that I had not done them.” This person has lost (the merit of) all of them. No merit is remembered for these [deeds], as it is written (Yechezkel 18:24) “And the righteousness of the righteous person will not save him on the day of his evil.” This refers to none other than one who questions his original actions.

This Rambam is based on a Gemara (T. B. Kiddushin 40b) which teaches as follows: Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai said: Even a person who was fully righteous his entire life, and rebelled at the end, loses the original [righteous deeds], as it is written “And the righteousness of the righteous person will not save him on the day of his sin”(Yehezkel 33:12). And even a person who was evil his entire life, and repented at the end, we never remind him again of his evil, as it is written “And the evil of the wicked person – he will not stumble over it on the day of his repentance” (ibid). (The Gemara asks) Let this person (the righteous person who rebelled at the end) be considered as one who has part sins and part meritorious deeds (since he did both good and bad deeds during his life)? Reish Lakish answers [that we are speaking about] one who questions (regrets) his original (good) actions.

I believe the implications of this Gemara, and its incorporation in the Rambam as a Halacha, have significant lessons for individual teshuva, as well as kiruv methods and goals.
Read more Teshuva, Kiruv and BTs

The JHC After 25 Years – These are the Things Which Have no Shiur

This past Shabbos my wife and I had the pleasure of celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Jewish Heritage Center (JHC) of Queens & Long Island with 300 people at a Shabbaton in Sommerset, NJ. Many of the people there have been close friends over the years. Some have moved from the JHC’s home base of Kew Gardens Hills, to other BT centers like Passaic, the Five Towns or West Hempstead, but on Shabbos it felt that we’re still all together. Twenty five hours of Shabbos was way too short to appreciate and enjoy the bonds we’ve built over these past 25 years.

The JHC was initially the idea of Dov Wollowitz. He wasn’t hampered by resource allocation questions, to him it was clear that bringing people back to Judaism is something that must be done, and he convinced three of his friends to pony up some serious money to bring that idea to fruition. He approached two young Smicha graduates from Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Moshe Turk and Rabbi Naftoli Portnoy to co-direct the endeavor. And as they put it, the rest was just not normal, event after event, miracle after miracle, Hashem clearly shined His countenance on this holy endeavor.

When I looked around the dining room at the couples and families, who are only a fraction of the 1800 people the JHC has worked closely with over the years, it became even clearer that there is no way to measure the ROI (return of investment) that the founders, and the JHC staff, who have dedicated their lives to helping people like us, have received. When it comes to matters of the spirit, and the spiritual accomplishments of entire families, there is no measure. There is no exchange rate from the physical to the spiritual.

On the BT side, this BT crowd had no buyer’s remorse. That doesn’t mean it’s been easy. Everybody has had trials and tribulation in at least one of the major areas of finance, health or raising children. And the lack of a family support network and the inevitable plateuaing has made things even harder. But as a close FFB friend said during Shabbos, it’s not really a sacrifice that we’ve made, these struggles themselves are essential to our spiritual accomplishments.

A final point that became clear is to step back when evaluating our Kiruv coaches and mentors. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to encourage more pro-active follow up, or treatment as true first-class citizens, or more resources for later stage BTs. What it does mean is that we have to look beyond the less than perfect aspects, and see the individuals who have literally invested a piece of their souls in us. They have often sacrificed their own growth to water ours. They care about us more than we will ever know and for that we owe them a spiritual debt which can’t be repaid in this world.

So on behalf on my wife, myself and the collective souls of any BTs that wish to participate, WE GIVE THANKS TO THE JHC and ALL THE KIRUV PROFESSIONALS for all you’ve done and continue to do for us!

Financial support of kiruv – a categorical imperative. Right?

For years after I first became observant it was obvious to me that I should devote more than a token amount of my tzedakah money to kiruv organizations.

Live and learn.

I have lived a lot since that proposition was obvious to me, and I’ve learned a thing or two, too.

One reason for the shortfall is the fact that, sadly, my actual ability to give tzedakah turns out to be a lot more “token” than I had once thought it would be by now. That’s not only a matter of not having become a millionaire at age 30 (never one of my goals, actually — and there you have it!) but is also a product, of course, of the charming reality of how expensive it is to support a medium-sized frum family in the New York area, a topic that has been discussed at length on this blog.

Contrary to what I might also have thought, the size of the pot available for donation, in turn, affects the percentage.

The reason percentages of tzedakah allocated to kiruv are not necessarily “scalable” implicates the second factor that has affected my thinking about this: A lot of those donations are sort of stuck at what we might call hard numbers. For example, for each educational institution educating our children that requires a journal “donation,” there is a minimum size ad required in order to attend the dinner — and we are, of course, expected to attend. Then there are the dinners for the shul or shuls where we daven [attend services], the local yeshiva, the bais medrash where we learn or perhaps our kids do, the chesed organization we’re involved with — and then all those “honors” being bestowed on family members and friends, in turn.

Yes, we have to make decisions, establish priorities, draw the line somewhere. We must and we do. But as a young newcomer to observant Judaism, I would never have understood that as you go through life in the frum world you will accrete innumerable relationships to institutions and to people — and in turn, albeit indirectly, to the relationships those people have to other institutions — and that this geometry of relationships simply implicates a certain amount of charitable giving among those who can do so at all.

Indeed, to the extent that proportion does anything here, it probably works precisely the opposite from how you would think except perhaps for the very wealthy. The percentage of tzedakah money available for supporting kiruv institutions probably shrinks as one’s income increases, because steady economic progress is usually accompanied by steady growth of one’s social and, in the case of frum Jews, religious affiliations. In turn this results in more “obligatory” dinner appearances or eat least journal ad “greetings” — such favors, after all, being expected to be returned when one is himself the honoree at some event.

Moreover, which Jewish educational institution that is educating our children is not in dire financial straits almost all the time? The very fortunate few who can — and do — pay full tuition essentially flag themselves as not-literally-destitute by doing so. That means a warm visit from the hanhola [management], which will make a compelling case for some degree of additional assistance for the institution that is educating your children. Now. Today, and probably for years to come.

We have to make decisions, establish priorities, draw the line somewhere. We must and we do. But drawing these lines concerning the people, institutions and communal needs that directly implicate you and your family, now, is not easy.

What, after all, have the kiruv institutions that got me here done for me… lately?

One obvious problem for kiruv fundraising is that alumni who have moved on, so to speak, don’t “need” them any more — all the more so kiruv organizations seeking to raise funds in the frum community from non-alumni. Seeking donations from very well-off donors is one thing; but how do Aish HaTorah and the rest make the case to me to financially support their programming over the programming of institutions and organizations I am involved with, directly or through family members or direct communal involvement, right now?

Guilt? That will only take you so far; frequently, in fact, it will push the potential donor over the edge entirely.

There are other problems. One is the programming itself. Kiruv is a funny thing; it’s changed a lot in a lot of places over the last generation. I can’t say I understand how and why the money raised by kiruv organizations is being spent. I’m not even so sure I would be so happy if I did understand it. So can I conclude that prioritizing a given program as a recipient of what I can spare is the best use of my tzedakah money?

At the end of the day I give to kiruv organizations to the extent that I can based on very similar criteria to those I employ with respect to other tzedakahs: Mainly relationships and trust. Some kiruv professionals who meant a lot to me are still in my life, and not because I’m anything like a money tree nor because they’re still “working with” (much less “working on”) me; they just are still near and dear to me. That’s a relationship, and that’s an organization I am always going to find some way to help out.

Then there are others where there is no ongoing relationship, and after all I have not necessarily sought one. So be it.

And then there are ones I hear from when they need something from me.

And new ones — how about programs that may be brilliant and effective that I have no relationship with at all?

Chances are, it will stay that way.

Thoughts From a Mekarev in the Field

By Rabbi Meir Goldberg
Reprinted with permission of Mishpacha Magazine

It was with great enthusiasm that I eagerly read the recent edition of Klal Perspectives, kiruv edition. After reading many of the articles and especially the responses by R’ Adlerstein and R’ Ilan Feldman, I was hoping to respond with the some thoughts of a typical mekarev in the field.

The older generation of mekarvim often wax poetic of the kiruv glory days which started sometime after the six day war and ended in the early 90’s. Rav Noach Weinberg’s dream of changing the world was, to a large extent, successful in that tens of thousands became frum and so many more were reconnected in some meaningful way, to their heritage. However, the dream of the first generation of mekarvim, that they would somehow make the whole world frum, was never realistic.

The simple fact is that becoming frum is an extremely hard thing for most people to do. The very same reason why Jews are a tiny minority among the nations is the very reason why the teshuva movement was never destined to become a mass movement. Changing ones habits, surroundings, dress, friends, personal image, the way one relates to ones family, culture, etc, is not for the faint of heart. To be a baal teshuva by definition, means that you are sailing into the wind and that is not something that the masses can do. As an FFB I often ask myself and others if we would realistically ever consider becoming a Satmar Chassid even if we thought that it was what Hashem wanted? To go from secular to frum is much harder.
Read more Thoughts From a Mekarev in the Field

Do We Show Enough Appreciation for Kiruv?

Yes it’s easy to find faults with any Klal institution and Kiruv is no different. But if we stop and think about how much Baalei Teshuva owe to those dedicated to helping people find a path to Hashem and Torah and mitzvos we probably would be much slower to criticize. If we truly realized how much the Klal has benefited from the enthusiasm, growth orientation and contributions of Baalei Teshuva we would probably be much more supportive of the efforts of those in the field.

Do you think people express the proper HaKoras HaTov to those working in Kiruv?

If you think people are not supportive enough, why do you think that’s true?

Is the problem the general negative perspective often held by the Klal or is it something specific for Kiruv?

We can we do as a group to be more supportive if you think that’s the correct perspective?

Healthy Kiruv…Respecting Those Whom We Bring Closer to Judaism

By Zev Gotkin

(Response to “Dishonest Kiruv! The Building of Responsible Jewish Outreach Movements” by Rabbi ShmulyYanklowitz)

Many in the Torah-observant world would likely consider me an “outreach success story.” Coming from a secular background I had little knowledge of Jewish teachings or observance when I entered my first year of college. However, I was open to spirituality and thirsting for truth. Naturally, I found myself relishing the Torah classes provided by the outreach rabbis working on my campus.

In his article, “Dishonest Kiruv! The Building of Responsible Jewish Outreach Movements,” Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, an orthodox rabbi and Jewish outreach professional, criticizes some of the methods and actions of his peers in Jewish outreach. I believe Jewish outreach is probably one of the holiest and most needed pursuits in which one can engage. Although I am pained to admit some of the negative things he discusses do occasionally take place, I am happy he got some of these issues out into the open. As someone who has truly benefited from the tireless work of Jewish outreach professionals, I wish to present what I believe are some criticisms as well as challenges that I believe should be addressed in the world of Jewish outreach.

I am reminded of a teaching in the Ethics of the Fathers that one should emulate Aaaron of the Bible by “bringing [others] close to the Torah.” The Lubavitcher Rebbe highlights that the verse implores one to bring people close to the Torah rather than bring the Torah close to the people. When one presents the Torah observant way of life to fellow Jews, one need not fear that others won’t be interested if shown the authentic version. A person involved in Jewish outreach must not resort to cheap gimmicks or dishonest tactics to water down the Torah in attempt to make it “easier” for their students.

In the spirit of the mitzvah of judging others favorably, let’s take into account the challenges facing those in Jewish outreach before we criticize what some may or may not be doing right. The passionate and sincere outreach professional is charged with presenting Judaism in its purest and most unadulterated form while at the same time making it relevant and appealing to the average non-observant Jew. Those who work with the demographic of college students know that with an intermarriage rate among American Jewry of 47% time is of the essence. After taking the above into consideration, we must acknowledge that those who work in orthodox Jewish outreach are human beings. Some may occasionally fall into the trap of sugar-coating the demanding nature of Jewish commitmentor downplaying the challenges of being a Torah-observant Jew in the modern world. I assume most of this is not done willfully, but rather is motivated by a sincere desire to cultivate interest among students in their heritage. This problem is understandable, but not justifiable.

Interestingly, Rabbi Yanklowitz does not consider himself an ordinary Jewish outreach professional. He is a self-proclaimed “social justice rav” and states that “The best outreach involves…giving to others, social justice work, and inviting others to have an impact on the world.” He adds that all this should be “infused with Jewish learning and conversations.” Social justice, or “tikkun olam,” and community service are all beautiful activities and a part of being a Torah Jew. However, an orthodox educator must be ever-wary of falling into the same trap which the Reform/Conservative/Reconstructionist movements fell into of placing an inordinate amount of time on social justice at the expense of textual study and ritual observance. Social justice activities are good, but they are not activities on which Jews have a monopoly. College campuses and communities abound with secular social justice and community service opportunities in which young Jews can get involved. Acts of chesed (kindness) are not enough to maintain the distinctness and separateness of being Jewish. While some may bemoan the lack of emphasis on social justice within most orthodox Jewish outreach, social justice is not a uniquely Jewish pursuit. However, lighting Shabbat candles, wrapping tefillin (phylacteries), keeping kosher etc. are what keep make being Jewish unique and what keeps us a distinct and “holy people.”

Finally, I will raise a few of my own concerns.

1) Don’t push too hard. In their sincere excitement and tremendous caring about the welfare of their fellow Jews, outreach professionals can occasionally push their students too hard and too fast. Mitzvot have to be taken on slowly and carefully. Jewish ideas and concepts take time to be fully integrated into one’s personality. A person who bites off more than they can chew will inevitably choke and cough up everything that was stuffed into their spiritually hungry mouth. Sometimes it is the baalei teshuva themselves who move too quickly or who grow in an unhealthy direction, but nonetheless it is the responsibility of the outreach worker to help guide them and make sure their growth is grounded. This leads me to my second point.

2) Follow-up. It is crucial that a person involved in outreach follow up with their charges to see how they are growing and developing. I have heard many a complaint from a newly religious Jew that once they became observant their former teacher lost interest in them and moved onto the next “victim.” This is wrong. Outreach is about is working with human beings. The job of someone in Jewish outreach is not to churn out cookie-cutter “frummies” like an assembly line, but to respect the individuality and experiences of their students. In a recent article titled ‘When Judaism becomes a Drug’ blogger, Pop Chassid criticizes those Jewish outreach workers who make Judaism seem like a high-inducing drug by “implying that a person cannot be happy or healthy unless they are religious.” In my experience, not all who leave Orthodox Judaism are unhappy. On the contrary many become happier. Yes, as Orthodox Jews we may believe some of their “happiness” is stemming from the opposite of holiness and truth, but using propaganda and scare tactics is not an effective way to reach out to our fellow Jews. It is also important to recognize that while most people who become observant are on a quest to pursue a life of truth and meaning, some may be taking on an orthodox lifestyle in order to get a superficial high or escape painful realities in their own lives. We must be wary of this and make sure those whom we bring close to Torah adjust to their new lifestyle in a healthy manner. Otherwise the outreach worker is guilty of being an enabler. Jewish outreach is not about “making people frum.” It is about returning Torah and mitzvot to their rightful heirs in a spiritually and psychologically healthy way devoid of tricks or sales pitches. A person cannot be “sold” on Torah Judaism. One will only remain connected if one’s desire to connect is allowed to come from within.

3) Respect the background of your student. Finally, I would like to address Rabbi Yanklowitz’s point that some returnees to traditional Judaism are encouraged to resent or hate their previous life. Some baalei teshuva unfortunately disassociate from family or friends, feel excessive shame and guilt over past decisions, give up on positive hobbies or pursuits, or are dismissive of the skills or knowledge they acquired in the secular world. This is often the result of irresponsible outreach. Dishonest kiruv makes people think there was nothing of value in their “past life.” On the contrary, the Chassidic master, the Baal Shem Tov, taught that everything that happens to us in life is the product of Divine Providence. Where we were born and everything we have experienced is purposeful and part of the Divine plan. A Jew who was born “far” away from Torah and mitzvot was not placed where he/she was by accident. Every person is given a unique mission in life to uplift and reveal the holy sparks hidden within their life’s experiences and interactions. Those of us who adopted a more observant lifestyle must be a Kiddush Hashem (a sanctification of G-d’s name), by being a blessing to our families and all whom we meet. True Jewish outreach enables individuals to take whatever skills, talents, and experiences they acquired while not observant and elevate them and transform them into something that reveals G-dliness in the world.

The Importance of Pace and Learning Torah in the Spiritual Growth Process

An important comment by Rabbi Shaya Karlisnky from this post in 2007.

Menachem Lipkin referred me to this wonderful blog. And with over thirty years of experience in teaching Torah to ba’alei tshuvah, I would like to make some comments on this most important thread.

The Rambam teaches (Hilchot Talmud Torah, Ch. 5, Halacha 4): And any student who has not reached the level to instruct, and instructs, is an evildoer, a fool and an arrogant person. About him it is written “She has felled many victims” (Mishlei 7:26). Similarly, a scholar who has reached the level to instruct and does not instruct, is withholding Torah, placing stumbling blocks before the blind, and about him it is written (ibid) “Those killed are numerous.” Those small (unqualified) students who have not increased their Torah knowledge appropriately, and who seek to elevate themselves in front of those who are ignorant and their neighbors, and they jump to sit at the head to judge and to instruct among Jews – they are those who increase conflict and disputes, they destroy the world, they extinguish the light of Torah, and the terrorize damage the vineyard of the Hashem, Lord of Legions. About them King Solomon, in his wisdom, wrote: “The foxes have seized us, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards” (Shir Hashirim 2:15).

It is not coincidental in the Rambam that those who are not qualified choose to teach those who themselves are ignorant – knowledgeable Jews would never accept them as teachers of Torah. From this Rambam it is clear that there IS a downside to sending out unqualified people to spread Torah to other Jews.

While Outreach organizations are justifiably proud of their statistics on how many people that have become observant because of their efforts, what doesn’t show up are all the Jews that are “turned off” by what they hear, sensing it is not authentic, it doesn’t make sense, or the person presenting it isn’t interested in the individual as a person, but rather as another “notch in the kiruv belt.” These people don’t show up in the statistics because they usually don’t fill out the feedback forms at the end of a seminar or program — they just walk out, frequently muttering that they don’t want to have anything to do with this. The other statistic that doesn’t show up is the number of people who are “success stories” for a while, then a couple/few years in, drop it (hopefully before they are married with children).

There is a very important comment of the Vilna Gaon on the following verses in Mishlei (Ch. 19, V. 2-3). “Also, without knowledge, it is not good for the soul; and one who rushes his legs is a sinner. The foolishness of a man perverts his path, and his heart angers against G-d.”

The Vilna Gaon comments on the first part of verse 2 that just as a person who eats large quantities of enjoyable delicacies will still be undernourished and feel hungry if he doesn’t eat the staples, a person who does Mitzvoth but doesn’t study Torah finds that his soul will not be “good”, nourished. On the second half of the verse, the Gaon teaches that “legs” refer to a person’s character traits, his habits (from the word “hergel” which has the root “regel”). But these traits must be improved step-by-step, through steady, slow progress, the way one climbs a ladder. “Rushing the legs” refers to a person who jumps to a level that is not really appropriate for him, which causes him to miss the mark (“choteh”) and he will surely fall.

On the second verse, the Gaon explains: We are taught that a person who comes to be purified merits Divine assistance (TB Shabbat 104a). Sometimes a person begins to study Torah and perform Mitzvoth, and then abandons it because it is too difficult from him. He didn’t get the desired assistance from Above, and he is angry at G-d for not providing it. But the truth is that this was the result of his own foolishness. Every person is required to go in a way which is aligned with his own level, and not jump. This will enable the person to move in a stable way, and assistance from Above will facilitate that movement. But the described person didn’t begin down his OWN path, therefore he didn’t receive assistance. Because the path he pursued was chosen foolishly, without proper thought and contemplation, his path was distorted, he failed and he then gets angry at G-d.

I think the Vilna Gaon’s commentary serve as a powerful lesson for all Jews, but for Ba’alei Tshuvah in particular. It is almost as if he was directing his comments to Ba’alei Tshuvah, when he describes the person who “begins to study Torah and perform Mitzvoth.” Mitzvah observance that isn’t accompanied with Torah study as a foundation will lead to a sense of “hunger.” And one’s path must be appropriate for him or her, chosen with careful thought, then pursued slowly and steadily.

My experience is that when these principles are followed, a stable and healthy tshuva process is the result. When they are violated…

Teens at Risk and Baalei Teshuva Parents

Back in October, the AJOP newsletter sent out an announcement about a study that would be presented by Dr David Pelcovitz on Teens at Risk and Baalei Teshuva. We wrote a post about it, and speculated about the results.

At the time, I was a little concerned about the study because I thought it would portray BTs in a negative light. I emailed Dr. Pelcovitz and shortly thereafter a had a conversation with him. He told me that this study and another study in Israel found that Teens from BT parents were not at greater risk of having problems than FFB parents.

As it turns out, the study was not focused on who was at greater risk BTs or FFBs, but rather what were the factors for BTs that lead to a higher chance of at-risk teens.

You can see a synopsis of the study. In addition, there is a Power Point of the presentation.

Here are the four major findings of the study:

1) Results showed parents report an adolescent of a baal teshuva family who is poorly integrated in the community will be at greater risk for behavioral difficulties.

2) Results showed that those adolescents of parents who exhibit rigid or chaotic (unhealthy) parenting style are reported by their parents as exhibiting higher levels of behavioral and emotional difficulties than adolescents whose parents exhibit an authoritative (healthy) parenting style, a balance of love and limits.

3) Results showed that adolescents of families that are either disengaged or enmeshed (unhealthy family structure) are reported by parents to exhibit higher levels of behavioral and emotional difficulties than adolescents whose families exhibit a balanced emotional connection (healthy family structure).

4) Results showed that if a parent reported becoming newly religious during his or her twenties or thirties, his or her child was reported as vulnerable for having more difficulties during adolescence.

Dr. Pelcovitz said that there were no real surprises in the study, but finding number 4 needed a little explanation.

A major take away that AJOP presented is that BTs should be provided with more parenting classes. In reality, the fact that FFBs have the same at-risk rate, means that FFBs probably should also strive to be better parents through parenting classes.

I’m glad that BTs were not found to be at greater risk as I originally feared. As a result of emailing Dr. Pelcovitz and speaking to the head of AJOP, Rabbi Lowenbraun, David and I got to present our BT observations at AJOP based on the 6 years of articles and comments from Beyond BT.

We had a decent size audience for both of our presentations and I’m not sure what the impact was. We did however speak to a number of people involved in Kiruv in preparation and we gained some more clarity on the issues facing BTs. We’ll post the summary of our presentation in the next few weeks.

How Would You Make Good Kiruv Even Better?

We (David & Mark) will be speaking at this year’s AJOP Conference sharing what we’ve learned from and through the Beyond BT community over the past six years.

Our sense is that most BTs are very thankful to the people who have taught them and helped in their Teshuva process, but there’s always room for improvement.

If you could offer one or two pieces of good advice to outreach professionals, what would it be?

Why Kiruv Sometimes Fails

By Shira. After getting married, Shira’s husband became a BT. They’ve worked together to patch a semi-frum lifestyle together which includes attending an orthodox shul, keep a kosher home, and keeping shabbos.

As a BT who went off, daughter of another BT who went off, and having encountered more than a few who were BT, went off (or almost did), and some that came back, I’ve come to have a few ideas about why this happens.

Not in any particular order of importance:

1. Kiruv is generally one-sided, hashkafically. Recipients do not necessarily realize that other ‘brands’ are legitimate within Orthodoxy when what they are presented with is the ‘right’ way. Its not that other groups of Orthodoxy are ignored or put-down, so much as never mentioned. Someone says, “This is how you do this,” and a BT hears, “This is the way God wants us to do this.” Hearing, “This is one of the ways that Jews believe God wants us to do this,” would leave more paths open in a BT’s mind for questions of hashkafa. Hashkafa is such a muddy area for a BT to navigate, it should be made clear from the get-go that there are many ways to be orthodox, and one is not lesser or lower than another. In the kiruv environment, a lot of differences in how to do a mitzvah are categorized as different ‘levels’ of observance – and everyone doing at their own level of the moment. This implies that those who seem to do ‘less’ are doing a lesser form, when in fact many cases of differences in observance are based on equal but different interpretations of halacha, rather than instances of leniency and stringency.

2. Seeing immoral actions done by so-called frum people, and even by whole communities, is huge. Who counts as ‘frum’ seems to centre around certain types of mitzvahs, while other areas are neglected. Yes, outward mitzvahs are more visible, so its more easy to judge who is frum by them, but that doesn’t make it spiritually healthy for a community. A person becomes BT and wants to fit in… what seems to help one fit in most is to conform with those outward mitzvahs first. Shabbos, kashruth, etc. This is a problem in the frum world in general, not just the kiruv communities. Judgement of others, whether outright or subtly, needs to change. Emphasis on the good that a person does, the mitzvahs that a person does which are not necessarily ritualistic, should be made more of a priority. Assumptions about a person’s character, integrity, or commitment to Judaism should not be based on the visible trappings that person has taken on. When BT’s are turned off by the immoral actions of communities and community members, they are often given the line “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.” What a shallow answer to such a big problem. Judaism looks more like the Jews, today, than what God originally handed down at Sinai. Real Jews, who made immoral choices as well as good choices, created Judaism as we practice it, Rabbinic Judaism. So, its not so easy to tease out what is Judaism and what is “the Jews.” The answer just does not suffice. A better answer is to recognize that every group in the world contains good and bad people, including Judaism.

3. The Judaism offered by kiruv is most often very shallow. It doesn’t address real difficulties in life, it doesn’t bend for different people. BT’s don’t know enough to realize that there are leniencies and ways around. They don’t know enough to realize there are other streams of orthodoxy which might suit them better. They don’t realize that they can daven less than what the class they attended called the ‘minimum’ and they whip themselves internally for not living up to what they think are God’s expectations of all Jews.

4. This is a tricky one. When a BT is unhappy with how they are living, it isn’t necessarily visible to those around them. Its easy to hide behind the ritualistic day-to-day living and not let anyone know the difficulties that are going on inside oneself, especially if it doesn’t seem like anyone else is having those types of difficulties. If such a BT person does reach out, and ask tough questions, and question the Torah and mitzvahs, and generally express their unhappiness with what they are living, no one says to that person, “Stop doing mitzvahs.” The message given out is to ‘go slow,’ not take on ‘too much too soon,’ etc. None of it is directed to someone who’s already gone too far. No one tells a BT to stop doing a mitzvah, if they look unhappy. No one says to step back, take a break, reflect without doing, do less, try again later. The advice you might get if you are asking for help is to ‘try harder’ or find different ways to get connection out of continuing the do the mitzvahs. For some people, who went too far too fast, it would be better to tell them to stop practicing some parts and give themselves time to catch up with their changes.

5. BT’s expect more of themselves than perhaps the religion expects. Much of the kiruv experience focuses on how to practice Judaism… and the BT doesn’t encounter examples in Jewish history of characters who were ‘less than.’ Hasidic stories about about seemingly perfect rabbis. Efforts are made to interpret the ‘mistakes’ of the forefathers as ‘not really mistakes.’ There is a lot of guilt for a BT in not living up to what is perceived as the base-line. It doesn’t help that the idea of “If you aren’t moving up, you are moving down” is common. Sometimes the effort of staying in just one spot, or just even slowing one’s descent, is more than a person can do. The idea that you must keep striving for better is damaging without more context. And especially this idea is very dangerous because it is often mixed up with the idea of ‘levels’ of practice, and differences of hashkafa.

Of those who I became frum with, who remained observant over the past many years, I’ve observed that they did so because they were able to reframe and find new reasons for continuing on, even when sometimes not completely satisfied. I think such people are less likely to be perfectionist, and give themselves much more leeway in making mistakes. They are people who are good at forgiving themselves, and believing that God forgives them. The BT’s who left, that I have encountered, for the most part seem to be people are are extremely deep thinkers, who have a very high sense of morality, who look for integrity in Judaism, who set high standards and ask very difficult questions.

I’m not really sure how kiruv people could even identify the type of person I was, in order to slow them down or give warning, or teach differently. I was the person who knew every answer in the kiruv classes, who conformed in most every way, who always had astute questions to ask, etc. I looked like a model student.

I also wonder how successful kiruv really is. How many of those who are brought in, stay?

Another thing I’ve noticed, which I didn’t see as a BT, was that even the most observant people I’ve met don’t necessarily put on and tie their shoes in the correct halachic order. The most pious Jews still have areas where they don’t know or don’t bother. Every Jew I’ve encountered who I categorized as ‘very frum’ turned out to have an area of halacha which they chose to ignore the fine details of. A blind spot. Something they’ve chosen not to find out more about, for fear of needing to change, or from lack of interest, or other reasons I can’t fathom. But its interesting that BT’s feel obligated to pursue and ‘do correctly’ any new halacha they hear of, while others who are long-time frum (BT or FFB) seem able to just turn a blind eye to some areas.

Can’t You See the Truth?!

In order to fulfull undergrad credit requirements, I once took a course in classical music, and was bored out of my mind. As announced in the beginning, our final exam would be to identify the composer from records which had been played throughout the term. In the end, I was still bored, but at least I aced the exam. (I cheated. As the class progressed, I noticed the color of each record label and and wrote down the corresponding artist.) To this day, I still moan about 18th century Top 40. However, there are certain Mozart violin concertos and Bach piano pieces which touch me in a way that I won’t leave my car until they’re over. Go figure.

I also refuse to step foot in an art museum. What is everyone “Oooh”ing and “Aahhh”ing about? Yet, a Monet scenery painting in a dentists office will make me pause. Quite nice. Would others of different tastes say to me, “How can you not like Beethoven’s Fourth” or “Modern art is so cool, don’t you see it?” It’s never happened so far, because we understand that each person is hard-wired differently.

Even though some “proofs” of Torah are presented on an intellectual level, we’re still partly emotional beings, and to a nonreligious person, not everything will click, no matter how logical it sounds. I once heard Rabbi Orlofsky discuss evolution, and he mentioned that even if you present the odds of a Big Bang making an orderly universe (say, one in megaquadgoogolmillion), a listener might still shrug his shoulders and remark, “So, it happened.” End of “proof”. Ok, so this didn’t go. If you continue to argue the point, maybe something will happen, or maybe not. This isn’t what hits the person. Just move on.

Some aren’t swayed much by the mesorah arguement, for example. My great(x100) grandpop was at Har Sinai? And there’s an unbroken chain? I didn’t find it in the archives (yawn). G-d revealed His rules to everyone and not just one person? Do the other religions know this? Why aren’t they converting? There’s something strange here, thinks the red-faced kiruv rabbi, it’s just not clicking with this guy. Because you haven’t found the spark inside. But there is one.

My personal “proof” of Torah is that in my mind, it is impossible for a set of man-made laws which could produce a Chofetz Chaim, or a Moshe Feinstein. It would never make demands which are detailed in the laws of loshon hara, or say that we need forgiveness from the lowest person in society if we accidentally step on him. Now, if I present this to someone else, he might shrug his shoulders and say, “Yes, it could.” End of “proof”. Howver for me, this “proof” hit me like a Mozart concerto, or a Monet painting. My spark was hit, and all of the other proofs would later be strong supports to what originally got me on track. The idea that I could point to someone and say, I truly believe that G-d wanted us to live life like that (and how did he get there?) really got me rolling.

Organizations such a Partners in Torah are so successful, because when you are learning with someone, the nonfrum person can digress and ask questions about what’s really bothering his neshama. In that way, they find the spark which begins the growth process.

If the intellectual proofs don’t always do it, try to get to know a person first…see what makes him tick. So…what worked for you?

Three on Kiruv and Ba’alei Teshuva

By Jonathan Rosenblum

This year’s Association of Jewish Outreach Programs (AJOP) convention included a broader than usual spectrum of kiruv workers across the Orthodox spectrum. For instance, Hart Levine, a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, described in one session a project he initiated while an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania of Orthodox students on the Penn campus inviting fellow Jewish students for Shabbat meals, Sedarim, to learn Hebrew and text study. Since graduating, Levine has worked to spread this initiative on nine other campuses with a significant cohort of modern Orthodox students, with day school backgrounds and often one or two years of post-high school learning in Israel. As campus kiruv becomes an ever larger slice of the overall kiruv budget, Levine’s initiative raises the question of whether and how the student efforts could be combined with those of full-time kiruv workers on campus.

One of the featured speakers at the AJOP convention was Rabbi Steven Burg, the national director of NCSY. He told a story of tracking down a blogger who was consistently posting highly critical remarks about Orthodox kiruv. The young man was thrilled that anyone had taken note of his complaints, and told Rabbi Burg that he had once been a student in a ba’al teshuva yeshiva. As long as he learned in the yeshiva, he related, all he heard from his rabbis was how great he was. But when he decided to leave because he was not yet prepared to take on a life of full observance, he was dropped like a sack of potatoes (or at least that’s how he perceived it.)

As far as that young man was concerned, the message was: You are only of interest as long as you seem headed in the desired direction. The effect of such an attitude is to turn the would-be ba’al teshuva into the chafetz shel mitzvah (the object with which the mitzvah is performed) of the one who seeks to draw him close to Torah. No one wants to feel like someone else’s chafetz shel mitzvah.

Even with the best of intentions it is possible for kiruv professionals to slip into such a mindset. Campus kiruv workers, for instance, who are constantly pushed by funders’ demands to enroll new students in programs, may find themselves shortchanging those who have already gone through programs and denying them the ongoing attention they need.

Whenever one hears the ugly phrase, “I made so-and-so frum,” one should beware of the attitude that those who become frum are notches in the gun of those who helped them along their path. No one can “make” someone else frum, just as there are no formulas for mass producing ba’alei teshuva.

When someone in whom one has invested much effort and developed a relationship does not become fully observant, disappointment is natural. But that does not mean that the efforts were worthless or that one is a failure. For one thing, one never knows what the impact of that investment will prove to be years later. NCSY, for instance, works primarily with Jewish public school students from non-observant homes. Historically, no more than forty percent of those students will become shomrei Torah u’mitzvos. But beyond the fact that it is impossible to know in advance which ones will fall into which group, it is a mistake to feel that nothing was achieved with respect to the other sixty percent. As Rabbi Burg pointed out, NCSY graduates will rarely be found among those Jewish students leading campus coalitions against Israel.

Of course, as in every other field, there are those who are more successful in facilitating growth and those who are less. But the key determinant, over the long run, is likely to be the commitment to sharing Torah with one’s fellow Jews and the ability to establish deep personal attachments.

I once asked a ba’al teshuva from Detroit what was the secret of the phenomenal success of Rabbi Avraham Jacobowitz in drawing close so many Jews over the years. He replied, “It’s simple, he loves every Jew.” Recently, I had the opportunity to spend five days in the home of two others who have that quality of loving every other Jew, Rabbi Doniel and Esti Deutsch. Rabbi Deutsch founded Chicago Torah Network (CTN), together with Rabbi Moshe Katz, over twenty years ago.

CTN is not so much a kiruv organization as an extended family, and like a family those who enter through any of its various portals are members forever. CTN deals in individuals, not numbers. Over the years, I have spent a number of Shabbos meals at the Deutsch’s overflowing Shabbos table. The recent Shabbos meal included a young widow and her high school age daughter, a recently married couple just back from a few years of study in Eretz Yisrael, and two university students at different stages of their religious development and in need of a religious family with which to connect. By the time I returned on Motzaei Shabbos, the Deutschs were already working on their Shabbos list for the next week, just as parents figure out which of their children will be with them the next Shabbos.

It is comforting to know that at least with respect to Chicago there is always an address to which any newcomer to the city can be sent with confidence that they will receive all the love and attention they need.


http://www.jewishmediaresources.com/1422/parashas-terumah-5771-three-on-kiruv-and-baalei

Originally Published in Mishpacha Magazine

He Who Has Sinned Can Teach

By Will Gotkin

In his book, Rebbes and Chassidim: What they said what they meant, Rabbi Abraham Twerski, M.D. quotes the following from King Solomon: “It is better to hear the rebuke of a wise man than one who hears the song of simpletons” (Ecclesiastes 7:5). Twerski writes that Rabbi Bunim of Pschis’che pointed out that this translation of the verse is inaccurate. Instead Rabbi Bunim says that it should be read: “It is better to hear the rebuke of a wise man who has heard the song of simpletons.” Rabbi Bunim explained that when a person who has spent his entire life studying Torah, praying, and pursuing spirituality preaches this as the correct lifestyle others may roll their eyes and say things like “Of course. What can you expect from someone who has never experienced the pleasures of life?” However, suppose someone who has indulged in earthly pleasures has come to realize their futility (Note: The Torah does not advocate an ascetic lifestyle, but it does teach us to utilize everything we do in the physical world for a spiritual purpose, including physical pleasures). This individual can say “I’ve been there and it’s all worthless!” Such a person is more likely to be heard.

A person who has not always been observant of Torah and mitzvos will likely find more of a listening ear among those who are non-observant than a person who has always been a practicing Jew. Perhaps this is one reason why the Talmud teaches that in the place of a baalteshuvah (one who has become observant), those who have been totally righteous their entire lives cannot stand.

This should be an encouraging message to all those who wish to deepen their commitment to Judaism. Our sins of the past should not make us ashamed. Rather, they should give us a sense of pride for how far we have come and remind us that we have the potential to make a big impact on our fellow Jews and the world.

Tzaddikim (those who have been righteous their entire life) can only serve Hashem within the realm of the permitted. However, the baalteshuvah can turn past sins into merits. He or she can serve Hashem in ways those who have always been righteous cannot. I mentioned in a previous article that the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that one who experiences spiritual darkness returns to Hashem with an intensity much greater than that of a tzaddik. Such a person thereby elevates the negative acts they have committed, since their misdeeds become fuel for their return (See “A Perfectly Imperfect World”).

On a personal note, I have recently started my 8-month journey at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, Israel. Many of the bochurim (students) are baalei teshuvim, myself included. It is an exciting and inspiring place and I can only hope that I will be able to take the knowledge I gain out of this experience with me and use it to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

Originally posted here.

The Benefits of Buy In for the Newly Observant

Originally Posted on Orthonomics.

My husband brought home some reading material for me on Shavout. One of the pamphlets available at our shul was from a well known Kiruv group. The first column was regarding setting priorities. The scenario set up is as follows: A man’s tefillin are stolen and he decides to replace his tefillin with a $900 pair. Later that week he receives a call from an outreach yeshiva asking him to sponsor a pair of tefillin for a newly observant Jew through a subsidized program at the cost of $250. The man asked to sponsor the tefillin does not have extra ma’asser funds and if he were to sponsor the tefillin at $250 it would come at the expense of his own purchase.

I’m not interested in reprinting the methodology used to reach the conclusion that perhaps the man would indeed have a responsibility, or privilege, to underwrite his fellow’s first pair of tefillin even at the expense of his own higher level of performance.

The choice that was not given or discussed, is the choice that I think would be the best choice: enabling a newly observant man of limited means to purchase his own (discounted) tefillin.

I don’t believe I’ve ever dedicated a post to kiruv, but I do know that there is both kiruv and a kiruv industry. I’m not sure if it is a recent trend in kiruv to offer so much up “free of charge” or if it is a more recent development (when I was in college, the community kollel charged a small price for the lunch part of the lunch ‘n’ learns, today I am aware that there are incentives offered to students who attend courses), but I’m not sure that it is a particularly productive trend.

Now certainly I would expect a strapped student or even a strapped young professional who is just starting out to have the funds available for a pair of tefillin, especially where becoming more observant comes with some other costs. As such, it is obviously necessary that he have tefillin to don in the meantime. However, from a psychological standpoint, there is something extremely healthy about “buying in”. Chazal recognized this discussing na’am dekisufa [bread of shame] in which it is assumed that a free handout is enjoyed less than what is earned by one’s own labors. I’ve read more than one biography/autobiography of a competitive athlete who believes that taking ownership of his/her career (i.e. footing the bill) has been a great motivation and very transformative. In other words, there is a psychological difference between how something “tastes” when it was handed to you, gifted to you, or purchased by you through the “sweat of your brow.”

While I do believe that the reason a wedding band needs to be owned by the chatan is a legal issue, as opposed to a psychological issue, I think there is great value in a man giving something of value that he worked for and saved up for to his bride. Tefillin is symbolic of a marriage and I think there would be great value to the wearer of the tefillin to pay for his tefillin, perhaps through some sort of work-study or even a loan (yes, I did use the word loan although that wouldn’t be my personal preference).

To sum up this post, I do believe that all things worth striving for, religion especially, requires “buy in”. I have heard it argued that one cannot ask [American students] targeted for kiruv (for lack of a better term) to help share in the any of the costs of dinners or events, and that sometimes you have to attract them with other incentives. And perhaps that is true if you are looking to attract large quantities of students. But, I think that when the line has been crossed from experimentation to growing commitment, helping to facilitate “buy in” would be the best choice of all.

When given two options, I’ve been known to choose the 3rd option.

No Easy Way Out

Dear Rabbi Brody,
I’m not religious, but I get a kick out of your column and your broadcasts, even though I disagree with you plenty. One thing I particularly don’t like is the fact that you’re always hounding Jews about keeping all of the 613 commandments. So what if I’m Jewish? Why can’t I just keep the seven Noahide commandments like you tell the non-Jews to? How come you’re so nice to the non-Jews, and you’re all over the case of the Jews. That doesn’t seem fair. Please explain. Thank you, GA from Ohio

Dear GA,
Diesel fuel is fine for a diesel engine, but it won’t propel a jet engine. The spiritual profile of a Jew differs that of a non-Jew. Therefore, the spiritual diet that can keep a non-Jew healthy won’t get a Jew off the ground. A non-Jew can eat shrimp and lobsters all day long, and as long as he/she observes the seven Noahide laws, he/she is considered righteous. If you eat 28 grams of shrimp, you put a gaping hole in your soul. Whenever you turn on a light bulb with a tiny flick of the finger on the Sabbath, you cut yourself off from Hashem. On the other hand, a non-Jew can do whatever he or she pleases on their Saturday.

If a Jew keeps 612 out of the Torah’s 613 commandments, and willfully breaks #613, he or she is considered a transgressor. Not fair? Consider this – if a grain of sand lands on your hand, nothing happens. But, if it lands in your eye, you suffer excruciating pain. Not fair? A hand and an eye – while both being very necessary parts of the body – are built differently with different strengths and sensitivities; the same goes for a Jew and a non-Jew. While both are Hashem’s beloved creations, they have different strengths and different sensitivities because of their different tasks in the world. Yet, like an eye and a hand, both are vital.

Since you’re a Jew – whether you like it or not – the only way for you to guarantee yourself true happiness in this world and in the next is to keep all 613 mitzvas. There’s no easy way out. We all came down to this lowly world to perform a difficult task, and not to have fun and games. Yes, I will continue to get on your cage for your own good – if that’s so distasteful for you, why do keep on reading the Lazer Beam? I’ll tell you why, GC – deep down, it makes your soul feel good. Think about it, GC. If you add some emuna to your life, you’ll feel great.

With smiles & blessings, Lazer Brody

Originally Published Here.

The Roots of Chabad Outreach

What are the roots of Chabad Outreach? Perhaps the best way to understand it is to hear how the Rebbe himself describes it (from his collected talks, Shabbos Parshas Behar-Bechukosai, 24th Iyar, 5740)…

(The words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe…)

In certain segments of the Jewish community, the expression ‘Kiruv Richokim’ — drawing close those who are far — is used to describe the efforts to reach out to Jews who are presently estranged from Torah and Mitzvos. This expression is improper. Our sages tell us that it is forbidden to tell a convert “Remember your initial deeds.” Similarly, it is forbidden to remind a Baal Teshuvah of his previous behavior by calling him a Richuk — someone who is (or was) far away. It is true that the Talmud comments on the verse “Peace, Peace to the close and to the far,” stating “to the far who drew close.” However, it is improper to address those whom we wish to draw to Torah with that expression. For this reason, the Rebbeim never used such phraseology. They stressed the importance of loving all Jews — even one whom we never saw, — but they never used the expression ‘Kiruv Richokim.’

No Jew is ever Rochok — far away — from Yiddishkeit. The only reason the aforementioned text of the Talmud uses the terminology is because “Torah speaks in the language of men.” From the perspective of man, such an individual may be a Richuk, but from the perspective of Torah, Yiddishkeit is close to him.

Hence, there can be no condescension in the attitude with which we reach out to our fellow Jews. We must realize that “more than the rich does for the poor, the poor does for the rich.” When giving charity, the rich must give with a pleasant disposition, without letting the poor man feel that he is poor. The same principle applies in spiritual Tzedakah. In such a case, we are reinforced by G-d’s promise, “Since you gave life to the poor man… I will remember the Mitzvah you have done… and repay you soul for soul.”

(end of the Rebbe’s words)

When presented in his own words, it would seem rather difficult to disagree with.

In my words, we don’t dump on a Jew or consider him ‘lower’ because his circumstances weren’t as good as ours or have the learning opportunities ours have had. That ‘innocent’ neshama, from the standpoint of never being exposed to Jewish learning, isn’t of any less value than the neshama of the talmid chacham.

To use Rabbi Brody’s language from his shiur at BeyondBT in Passaic a few years ago, was there no room for another neshama in Boro Park or Bnei Brak?

Is that Jew of less value because he wasn’t born in to an observant Jewish home? Frankly, that neshama may be on a much higher level that it can take the challenge, with a chance of success, of being born outside a Torah community and immersed in a non-Torah upbringing and still having a chance of returning and reconnecting to Torah.

So do you walk in looking down on all the poor ignorant masses that you’re about to share your deep Torah knowledge with? You who were raised in Boro Park, served chalal yisroel milk from childhood, licked honey off the alef beis at 3, had rebbe’s and rosh yeshiva’s directing you from the day the sandek held you, or do you rejoice that these neshama’s are overcoming their challenges by coming to you, and be so thankful that Hashem Yishborach has given you the opportunity to help them on their path?

Even thought the answer is obvious, it is something we need to work on internalizing.

Akiva writes regularly at Mystical Paths.

My First Encounter with Orthodoxy – Shlomo Carlebach and NCSY Circa 1960

By Rabbi Leonard Oberstein
Baltimore, MD

I grew up in Montgomery,Alabama in the 1950’s. Today I am an orthodox rabbi and father and grandfather of a large family. However, my first experience with orthodox Judaism really came about because I went to one single NCSY National Convention a year after my Bar Mitzvah and that inspired me to go to Yeshiva University High School in New York.

Prior to our shul becoming officially Conservative, there was no youth group. There was AZA and BBG, which were sponsored by the Bnai Brith and attracted youth from all congregations, but these had no semblance of religious commitment. Our new rabbi, Joseph Reich founded the local chapter of USY (United Synagogue Youth). This group met at our shul and attracted a lot of teens. We had programs of various types, and religion was a part of the package. The highlight was going to other cities for conventions and meeting Jewish boys and girls. I remember going to a convention in Birmingham and another in Columbus, Georgia. On the application to the convention you were asked if you preferred or required a kosher host home and whether or not you would ride on Shabbos. I was told that I was the only person in the region who both demanded kosher and wanted to walk to shul. There was a drawback: our chapter advisors themselves did not keep kosher or Shabbos themselves. In the context of the times, though, this was not seen as the main point. The parents just wanted Jewish kids to hang out with Jewish kids and to meet Jewish kids in other cities so that they would eventually marry a Jew. I have only good memories of USY; its influence was positive. Had I continued on that path, however, I would have gone to the summer camp program, and who knows what that would have led to. But that was not to be, because after only three years, the rabbi left, and the shul hired an Orthodox rabbi, fresh out of YU. In those days, mixed seating, nominally Conservative shuls often got rabbis from YU. It was a different world.

Rabbi Aaron Borow took me to one of the first NCSY conventions, the national convention in New York. That made me one of the first NCSYers in the country. I loved every second of that convention. It was a life changing and life enhancing experience. Orthodoxy was finally waking up to the challenge and not conceding the youth to other movements.

Let me describe NCSY through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy from Montgomery who never saw anything like it in his life. I entered this big room and didn’t know a soul. I gathered up my courage and walked up to a guy and introduced myself and said I didn’t know anyone. He introduced himself and said he, too, didn’t know anyone. His name was Arthur Saslow, and he came from Saratoga Springs, NY. I couldn’t get over that the males wore yarmulkes in the street! We toured Jewish New York, and then they took us up to a hotel in Monsey.

Friday night, Shlomo Carlebach davened Kabbalas Shabbos. Now, I was very familiar with the way we did it in Montgomery – with some Hebrew, some English, some responsive reading, and some singing. It was lovely. But it didn’t compare to Shlomo Carlebach. I was uplifted, inspired, and invigorated by his davening and his singing over the weekend. The sincerity, the passion, and the spirituality were new and enticing. The dancing was so much more lively. You don’t have to have aThe dancing was so much more lively. You don’t have to have English responsive readings if you see real kavana (intent and meaning). Even if you don’t understand the words, the Orthodox service gets its message across, at least, when you have someone like Shlomo davening.

The sessions were also much different than USY’s. It opened up vistas, and I returned home inspired. It was this experience that spurred me to go to yeshiva. NCSY was new and experimental in those days, but it helped thousands of kids like me to be turned on with emes (truth). Rabbi Pinchos Stolper had just been hired, and I met him at that time. He went on to become the long time national director, and led NCSY to great accomplishments. Years later, I thanked him for what he did for my life.

Kiruv for the Already Frum

Too often, after a BT has joined the ranks of the observant, he/she is left to work out major life challenges without an adequate support system. FFBs forget that a BT doesn’t come from a family background with frum values, and may need a surrogate family (maybe just one family, but more often in the form of a supportive community structure) for guidance and Chizuk.

Particular attention should be paid to those BTs who are, or may feel, marginalized: singles (especially older singles, and especially those with children); those who become BTs in mid-life or beyond; those who are married but whose spouses aren’t making the Teshuva journey with them. Older singles are particularly at risk for not finding the support they need and, as a result, giving up observance. That happened to me, and I still remember the pain. Thank G-d that after I remarried outside the frum community, we ended up in the orbit of the wonderful community where we are today, but not everyone is so fortunate.

Answering Questions

By Elyah Leboff

As a religious Jew, it is almost inevitable that you will be asked questions about Judaism. There is a tendency to overreact to such encounters, viewing them either as a great outreach opportunity, or as a holy war. Due to this, questions are either completely misinterpreted, or fired at with a machine gun when a water pistol would suffice. What could have been a pleasant encounter often turns into an ugly debate. In this post, I hope to point out some of the most serious errors to watch out for when answering questions

1. It’s okay if people disagree with you. It is a sign of maturity and self-confidence to accept this. Furthermore, it is unrealistic to expect that you can force other people to think exactly the way you do.

2. Distinguish between a question and a statement. Recognize that you are not always being invited to share your opinion. For example, if someone says, “I think Judaism is out-dated,” the most appropriate response would be, “Oh.” Starting to debate would only make you appear hostile and intolerant.

3. Short and sweet. Even when someone asks a question, keep in mind that they might not necessarily have the patience for the most elaborate answer that you are able to present. Start with a simple “yes,” or “no,” you’ll be surprised how often you won’t need more than this!

4. Clarify the question. Asking, “What do you mean?” or, “What do you think?” can be very helpful for doing this. Until you understand the question in very specific and concrete terms, it is practically impossible to give a satisfactory answer.

5. Make sure your answer is appropriate for the questioner. Sometimes a person may be sincere about his question, yet his dedication to Judaism may not be strong enough yet to handle certain information. For example, someone who is not yet capable of being Shabbos observant, yet is asking to learn the laws of Shabbos. Under such circumstances it may be best to politely delay giving a response. The answers, otherwise, are likely to do more harm than good.

6. “I don’t know.” Is okay to admit. The humility to admit your limitations, expressing confidence that an answer does exist, and perhaps an invitation to read something or meet someone who does know, will probably make a favorable impression. On the other hand, fumbling your way though a half-baked answer is not very likely to impress anyone.

7. Dealing with family requires a serious examination of your relationship. If communication has generally been difficult, and support has generally been lacking, wielding the “absolute truth,” is not going to suddenly be a magic spell to win anyone over to your point of view.

8. Answer a person’s other needs. When you take the initiative to provide a person with food, honor, respect, sympathy, and empathy, this is likely to have a much greater impact than answering their occasional philosophical doubts.

Live at the Aish Conference

I’m here at the Aish Conference in Stamford. It’s a tremendous inspiration to be with hundreds of inspired Baalei Teshuva. The conference theme is “YOU CAN make a difference”.

We got here late last night, so we missed the opening session. Rabbi Yitz Greenman lead a discussion on The Greatest Problems Facing the Jewish People. At the end of the session, Rabbi Greenman reduced the 20 problems raised by the participants to primarily 2 – lack of proper Jewish Education and lack of enough leaders. Steve Mantz was at the talk and he gave a nice plug for Beyond BT and the discussion we had on the subject.

Lori Palatnik gave an amazing talk on “Why I Donated a Kidney to Someone I Didn’t Know”. She is an amazing speaker and she showed the tremendous power of giving, on others and ourselves.

Rabbi Eric Coopersmith is talking about steps of learning, listen carefully (plowing), understand the support of what is being said (seeding), make a judgment whether the teaching is true (harvest) and understanding the implication of what was learned (eating).