10 Years of Beyond BT – The State of the Union

We started Beyond BT in December 2005 to offer friendship, support and advice to those who have committed to a Torah lifestyle. The main issues BTs face are still here, and that should be expected. Hashem wants us to grow, so he sends us challenges. Everybody I know, FFB and BT alike, has them. With that caveat, let’s take a quick look at the current State of the Union of the BT.

Demise of Blogs
Changes in Social Media, specifically the rise of Facebook, have lead to the decline in the use of blogs and their longer lasting discussions. That’s unfortunate, because there’s a lot to be gained from connecting and learning from other Torah Observant Jews in similar situations. On the plus side, it takes much less time to maintain BBT, so we’re planning to keep it going with a mix of posts and comments from the past along with new posts.

I may be wrong about this, but from my vantage point it seems like integration has become less of a problem for the typical BT. Perhaps this can be attributed to the growth of Torah communities in America and the ability to accommodate more diversity. This does not mean that BTs will find it easy in all communities and I would still recommend Far Rockaway, Passaic, Kew Gardens Hills and Baltimore as great places for a BT to live.

The Shidduch situation has become more difficult. I think the main reason is that there are a lot more Torah-centered and growth oriented girls than there are boys out there. Perhaps, that’s because the requirements, in terms of becoming less ego-centric, learning Torah and davening, coupled with the need for a good livelihood and man’s greater tendency towards distraction, make it more difficult for men than women to be growth oriented and Torah-centered.

Choosing a High School for boys who are not natural learners has become harder. This is an unintended consequence of the continual raising of the bar of Torah learning, which is a good thing for the community. My advice is to make sure that you choose a high school that does not damage the self-esteem of the B-class learner, and provide supplemental learning opportunities (specifically tutors) if you have a B-class student.

Keeping that growth candle burning is as hard as it ever was. There are no shortcuts and it’s not a communal issue. Chazal have given us the prescription, and it comes down to Torah, Avodah and Gemillas Chasdim/Middos. It’s hard to work on all those things, but they truly are requirements of being higher-level functioning Torah Observant Jews.

Organized Kiruv in America has declined noticeably in the last 10 years. I think that’s primarily because we’re still using the same playbook from 30 years ago–marketing “Torah as a better lifestyle”. After the successful harvesting of the low lying BT fruit, this message in no longer effective, although it’s certainly still true. I think the next stage of bringing Jews closer to Hashem and His Torah will require that we, as a community, BT and FFB together, markedly and noticeably improve our Torah-observant game. The ball is truly in our court.

Here’s to the next 10 years of Beyond BT. Lechaim!

Strengthening the Spiritual Side – A Place Between Latitudinarianism and Orthodox or Bust

Professor Jack Wertheimer recently penned a good article in Commentary Magazine called The Outreach Revolution. Although he clearly read the Klal Perspective’s issue on the subject, he adds much worthy information to the discussion and his extremely positive assessment of the Kiruv enterprise was a refreshing change from KPs gloomier editorial assessment.

By fully including Chabad in the Outreach Revolution, Wertheimer states that 5,000-7,000 Kiruv workers in the US, lead an estimated 2,000 Jews to Orthodoxy each year, which comes to about 1 Orthodox person for every 3 kiruv workers. He also makes the point that Chabad and many other Kiruv professionals don’t consider Orthodoxy the goal of Kiruv, and by assuming that each Kiruv worker reaches about 100 people a year, outreach touches 500,000-700,000 Jews a year, an impressive figure.
Read more Strengthening the Spiritual Side – A Place Between Latitudinarianism and Orthodox or Bust

In Defense of Reform Sunday School Education

I read Beyond BT’s recent article by Azriela Jaffe, Vaccinating Our Children Against Prayer, with great interest. Based on my own reform sunday school and temple experiences, I also felt that those experiences not only vaccinate Jewish children against prayer, but also against any interest in Judaism in general. My theory was that having no Jewish background, rather than a negative background, gives people more of a blank slate when it comes to approaching Judaism for the first time. I theorized that when these “blank slate Jews” do come into contact with frumkeit for the first time, it will be with a more open mind because they had no preconceived notions based on negative Jewish experiences.

But based on later experiences working with a number of Jewish, not-yet-religious college students, I have come to a different, though not mutually exclusive, conclusion.

I worked for three years in a community kollel in the United States. In the “kiruv” portion of my job, I worked primarily with Jewish college students at four different campuses running programs, giving classes, organizing Shabbatonim, organizing trips to New York, and trying to refer students to programs in Israel.

The students I was able to come into contact with were a minority of the Jewish student population at the campuses to begin with. They were a self-selected group of people who were interested in identifying with and participating in something Jewish, but I was never able to meet the majority of the Jewish students.

But within that already self-selected minority, it is interesting to note the Jewish “denominational” background of those minority of the Jewishly identified students. 90% of the these students were identified with either the conservative or reform movements. The remaining 10% or so came from an “unaffiliated” background.

Had I been a greater teacher, I would have been able to communicate with each person on their level and in a language that they understood. However, I was not such a great teacher. I found the conservative students the easiest to speak to about Jewish things. The next easiest group of students to speak to were the reform ones, but they were still harder to connect to, in general, than the conservative ones. And the most difficult to connect to were the ones from an unaffiliated background.

My impression was that the main thing that separated these groups was the extent to which there was any “common language” or “frame of reference” that they shared with Judaism and/or myself. To the extent that these students had any Jewish background at all, whether it be an awareness of the practice of certain mitzvos, certain famous stories in the Torah, or knowing a few common Hebrew words, I had some frame of reference, some common language with which to have some kind of jewish conversation with them.

The other problem with having no common language or frame of reference is that there were few values or morals that could be used as a frame of reference. Even without any specifically Jewish knowledge, someone with some of the values that are, on some level, shared by Judaism, is better equipped to relate to a Jewish message based on values, even if not based on more ostensibly “religious” aspects of Judaism.

So I think that having some Jewish background, even if it involves bad reform or conservative sunday school memories, gives those kids a leg up in two respects.

One, it gives them a somewhat greatly likelihood of having the propensity to expose themselves to occasional Jewish experiences during their lives to begin with. Without at least some jewish involvement, contact with frum people becomes less likely. You have to be in it to win it.

And two, those kids that had some Jewish background were, I think, more likely to have some common language or frame of reference, so that if and when they do come into contact with frumkeit, it enables at least some greater level of communication and connection. with Jewish people and Jewish ideas.

My main point is that even some level of affiliation by non-observant Jews is somewhat better than being unaffiliated. It’s at least a point to ponder!

-Dixie Yid

Report from The Aish Conference

My wife and I spent this past Thursday through Sunday at the Aish Partner’s Conference. The term partner in this context is anybody involved with in Aish in any way. The organization aims to be inclusive and if you want to: help bring Jews back to Judaism; avocate for Israel; or just learn Torah, then you’re welcome.

Many of the people I met there had heard of Beyond BT and the Aish people were supportive of the site. Everybody was approachable and we talked to many of the senior people about a number of issues. The speakers were fantastic and the program was packed with sessions. We attended about 15 different lectures and sessions on a wide variety of topics. They were all of extremely high quality. You can see the program here. My only complaint is that all the great videos they showed in the 2007 Accomplishment session on Moetzae Shabbos awakened my somewhat dormant taiva for Rock n Roll.

But the most amazing thing about the conference is how Aish, under Rabbi Noach Weinberg’s leadership, has taken Baalei Teshuva like you and me and empowered, enabled and assisted them in a wide array of projects that benefit Klal Yisroel. The vast majority of the key staff including Eric Coopersmith (CEO), Nechemia Coopersmith (Aish.Com head), Yitz Greenman (head of Discovery and Aish New York) and numerous others are Baalei Teshuva. Rav Noach recognizes the innovative power of Baalei Teshvua and is helping to unleash that power in signficant ways. We can all take pleasure in what they’ve done. (R’ Noach says: take pleasure, not pride in your accomplishments).

The theme of the conference was very focused on our mission as Jews, which is bringing G-d’s Torah to the entire world. The message is that each one of us can and should have a role in that mission. The conferences had several examples of individuals who have made significant impact through their efforts. Perhaps in subsequent posts I’ll share some insights from particular shiurim, but for now let me just leave you with a few of the projects that Baalei Teshuva powered Aish is accomplishing:

Aish.Com is the most innovative and comprehensive Torah oriented sight on the Web.

Project Inspire is a project to help and encourage Torah Observant Jews to share the wealth of Torah with their fellow Jews.

Aish Exploratorium is a state of the art museum which will introduce 350,000 Jews a year to Torah through the medium of Jewish History when they feel the tug of their heritage at the Kosel.

Hasbara is a program that educates and trains university students to be effective pro-Israel activists on their campuses.

Aish On Campus
brings university students across North America an inspiring, fun and meaningful Jewish campus experience.

Aish Cafe serves a new brand of Jewish learning by bringing the best of education and entertainment straight to dorm rooms on campus.

Media Central cultivates relationships with journalists in Israel and provides them with an Israeli point of view on issues and events in the Middle East.

Jewish Pathways
is for people who need to “catch up,” or who want to learn Torah in a more systematic, comprehensive way, Jewish Pathways courses are built around essential learning components like videos lectures, readings, slide shows and quizzes. Currently all the courses are being offered for free, so it might make sense to try it out today.

We’re big fans of anybody who spreads and supports Torah for BTs and PreTs, but after experiencing the conference (on my own dime) I’d have to say that Aish is firing on all cylinders.

A Fainthearted Salesperson

My mother, of blessed memory, sold cosmetics for over 50 years. She was the proverbial saleswoman who could sell anyone the Brooklyn Bridge. She could convince anyone to do just about anything. Our family still jokes about the household item she put up for sale, that wasn’t the kind of thing anyone would buy, and yet she sold it. At her funeral, my son expressed his hope that now that she was in Heaven, she would convince Hashem to send the Messiah quickly. (I guess that has been a harder job for her than selling cosmetics.)

Me? I’m the total opposite. I’m not good at convincing people to do things; I don’t recall ever being able to sell anyone anything. I’m just not aggressive enough, assertive enough, whatever the correct term is. But for some reason, I feel deep down that a BT is “supposed” to be able to convince other Jews that a Torah lifestyle is best.

A tragedy occurred recently in my extended family. It was not a death; that could happen to anyone. It was a terrible series of events that “should not” have happened in a religious family – but it did. Even now, as I write, I am still in pain, still stunned and numbed by the shock, trying to put my thoughts into coherent words.

Besides the pain and shock, though, there is another thought that keeps surfacing: How will the non-religious people that I know view a Torah lifestyle now? These people were Torah-observant, and yet this terrible thing happened. I have already gotten comments from one non-religious person, to the effect that if they had not followed the Torah’s command to do thus-and-so, then this tragedy would not have happened.

We know that human beings are fallible. Despite the Torah’s prescriptions, we are going to fail sometimes. Some failures will be trivial; some will be as serious as this tragedy. But how can a BT convey that to the non-religious world, while still maintaining that the Torah’s laws are ultimately beneficial? How can a BT even convey it to himself or herself?

We are reading about Avraham Avinu and his many tests. Each of us has tests; but I am not Avraham Avinu, although I am his descendant. My world and my family’s world has been shaken. How to sweep up the pieces?

One Torah benefit I can point to is the supportive communities, both for that part of my family and for myself. When someone has experienced a tragedy, Torah-observant people rally round the person and support them in countless ways. Besides the fact that we are a merciful people, the Torah commands this support.

But for the rest of it, the whys and the wherefores, it is a hard “sell” at this moment.

A “Nifty” Chag

On the first day of Succot we accumulated quite an eclectic group of individuals.

It started when my “yeshivish” daughter and son-in-law decided to come for the chag. We’re always thrilled when our married children come for Shabbos or a holiday.

Next, I received an email from an old high school friend. Her son is here in Israel on a one-semester program run by NIFTY for high school students. She wanted to know if he and a friend could join us for the holiday. (NIFTY is the reform movement’s youth organization.) We used to live down the street from them and I haven’t seen this boy in many years, but knowing his parents, I was confident that he grew up to be a fine young man.
Read more A “Nifty” Chag

Following the Kiruv Tradition of Avraham

I am a baal tshuva of 10 years living in Jerusalem. I have spent time in a number of different yeshivas and kollel’im in various different communities in and out of Jerusalem. I have met and know a plethora of baal tshuvas like myself who have married and integrated into the frum communities in which we live. I know many baal tshuvas that doven neitz, learn all day, behave like menchen and who are raising their FFB kids to be good Jews and are sending them to well established schools. But, I am beginning to think that as utopian as all this seems, something is wrong, something is missing.

Lately I have been doing something that for quite a while I have to admit I have managed to avoid doing. I have actually been listening to the Torah that I am learning. As crazy as this may sound, this has been a life shocking experience for me.
Read more Following the Kiruv Tradition of Avraham

Using BT Passion for Outreach

I had the pleasure of joining the BeyondBT crowd with Rabbi Brody this past Motzie Shabbat. One point he made was BT’s are great at outreach, because they’re always burning with passion.

In his previous post, Rabbi Horowitz notes his surprise at the amount of separation between the religious and non-religious in Israel. This is absolutely the case, with very limited interaction between the two. Except for the BT. Since BT’s come from a wide variety of backgrounds and professions and often continue to work in their field, they’re often the sole bridge between worlds in Israel.
Read more Using BT Passion for Outreach