When the Secular Little Cousins become Teenage Cousins

Fresh from my annual time share vacation with the secular family, I want to write for the Beyond BT readers on a topic that I think needs some further exploration and discussion.

Logic says that the longer we are working things out with our secular family, the easier it gets. Everyone finally realizes that the orthodox family isn’t going to change its mind, and they didn’t really join a cult. They get used to the fact that there are some simchas we aren’t going attend, and they don’t make as much of a fuss ten years into it, as they do the first time you send back the R.S.V.P. with a “sorry, we cannot attend.” You’ve figured out how to eat in mom’s kitchen, or at least, everyone accepts the fact that you’ll bring your own food. Yes, it’s absolutely true that in many ways, on many occasions, it gets easier. So if you’re a new B.T., take heart – you won’t spend the rest of your life trying to convince your mom that you really do mean it when you say that you can’t eat her lasagna with meat sauce, even if she’s the best cook this side of the ocean.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, and here’s one: When the kids and the cousins start growing up and become pre-teen, or teenagers.

Every year we assemble the entire extended family for a week at a time-share in the mountains. It was accepted when we didn’t come for Shabbos and chose mid-week instead. They rolled their eyes a bit when we brought in a wheelbarrow of food because kosher food wasn’t available for purchase, and we didn’t want our kids to feel deprived all week long. They even eventually accepted our rule that sister and brother can no longer sleep in the same bed. In many ways, we’ve worked out a lot of issues, but. . . .

I wasn’t prepared for how DIFFICULT it becomes when the little cousins who once played with each other on the floor, and talked about barney and sesame street, now talk about “hot” boys, my space, and IPODS. When the kids were little, the differences between all of the cousins was not as pronounced, and other than making sure that the kosher kids only ate the kosher food, it wasn’t much of a problem.

Now – my girls aren’t supposed to do mixed swimming anymore, and I caught a conversation between my oldest daughter and her teenage cousin who couldn’t quite believe that my daughter has never had a boyfriend. Now the teenage cousins bring their computers and IPODS and videos to vacation, and none of it is Jewish. Now my 10-year old son’s eyes can easily be diverted by his teenage cousin’s non-tnius dress, or lack of dress.

In the beginning of the week, my kids think their cousins are weird. But after only a few days, they start looking fascinated, and that’s the biggest problem. I don’t think it has ever gotten to the point where they’d want to trade places, but one never knows what can happen when that thought is introduced for even a day or two. And, what really bothers me is that I want my kids to feel really privileged and lucky to be frum Jews. I worry when the “other side” starts looking attractive, and our way of life seems to be making them “miss out.” (Yes, of course we can give the speeches to our children about how the secular kids are really the ones missing out, but hey, kids are normal, and some freedoms in life look very delicious at times to them).

The most challenging aspect of this problem is that it’s not one my secular family would understand. I can say, “sorry, can’t come to the simcha on Shabbos, mid day, an hour’s drive away.” But how can I possibly say, “sorry, I don’t want to expose my children to their teenage cousins, your sons and daughters?” It will never happen. These words I wouldn’t say, other than in a forum like this. Their kids are fine people, just not harmonious in many ways with ours. Those who have taken the stand that they will not allow their teenage children to “be exposed”, if that works for you and your family, amazing. It would never work in our family. My parents, and brothers, and nieces and nephews would be so insulted, there would be permanent damage. All we can really do is talk to our children about it, prepare them, protect them as much as possible when we are there, and then talk about it in the car on the way home. And, like most of you, our get-to-gethers are infrequent.

I would suggest that there be some discussion about this issue on this forum. I’m not writing with a solution, but rather, with an acknowledgment that this is a source of trouble, and unlike many other issues that get resolved over time, I think that this issue gets much more problematic as the kids grow older, not less so. Especially for those of us that maintain a commitment to ongoing connection to extended family.

Best to you all –

Originally published 9/17/2008.

Fear and Loathing in Jerusalem: the Olam Ha’Sheker Excuse

By William Kolbrenner
Open Minded Torah

Spring time in Jerusalem, so yet once more, my wife and I embark on the path of finding a place for our son Shmuel with Down syndrome, this time in a cheder, a pre-kindergarden class in our neighborhood.

So earlier this week, we set up a meeting with the principal of a school around the block from our house. Not only was he cordial, but he had the look of someone who was genuinely interested in helping us with the education of our son. There had not been a child in his school with Down’s syndrome for a generation, but listening carefully to our description of our son, his cordiality turned into what seemed like understanding. He invited us back the following day to meet with a rebbe and an administrator to discuss logistics – and how to integrate Shmuel and his ‘syat’ or ‘shadow’ into the classroom. The teacher of the class which the principal had in mind for Shmuel put it simply – ‘my business is to teach children; and I’d do my best to teach Shmuel as any other child.’ ‘Though I am not a professor,’ he continued with a wink, ‘I do have thirty years of experience.’

As we were leaving – s’yata d’shmaya my wife said – another one of the rebbes, seeing Shmuel, stopped us, and mentioned that he had been a classmate of the boy with Down’s syndrome from years back. To the questions which reflected the principal’s main concerns – ‘will he be disruptive?'; ‘will he be accepted by the other boys?'; ‘will he want to participate in class? – the rebbe answered with reassurance. As Tolstoy might put it, no two children are alike, and no two children with Down’s syndrome are alike, but the rebbe only affirmed what we had told the principal – his classmate had been full of joy, eager to participate and imitiate, not at all disruptive. Shmuel’s affability and good cheer – traits which prompt my wife to wonder what I would be like with an extra chromosome – and his cognitive high-functioning, we explained eagerly to the principal, are what brought us to mainstreaming and his neighborhood school in the first place.

A few days passed. I left some messages at the school, but my calls were not returned. When I finally reached the principal, he suggested I speak to someone else in the school -now a fourth person – who I was told would make the ‘final decision.’ It didn’t sound good; so I pressed the principal instead.

‘It’s a very difficult decision…’ His voice trailed off. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way Rav Kolbrener, and please don’t be insulted….’

Calling me rabbi, I thought to myself, was a bad sign.

‘It’s a matter,’ he hesitated, ‘of considering the mossad.’ It was now not just an elementary school, but an institute.

‘What about the mossad?’, I asked.

‘Its reputation.’

I was silent.

‘We have to think of what other parents will say when they see a child like Shmuel in the class with their normal children. How will we be able to justify it to them? They also have to be respected. It simply will not be good for the reputation of the school.’

I wasn’t insulted, in fact I had heard versions of this before.

There was an undoubtable hint of frustration in his voice – likely I thought that those from whom he had sought advice had a different view of the ‘mossad,’ and were forcing him to do something against his better judgment. So I responded: ‘we both know that what you are now advocating – acquiescing to close-mindeded and sanctioning fear of difference – is against our hashgafa, indeed I continued, any Torah perspective.’ ‘It’s a chilul hashem,’ I continued, ‘a desecration of G-d’s name, to send us away to schools outside of our community – to other schools, and other communities – when you yourself acknowledged that Shmuel could find a place in one of your classrooms.’

‘And as far as ordinary children,’ I went on, filling the silence, ‘we are not children of Esau who find perfection in this world, but the b’nei Yisrael, children of Israel, of Jacob, who acknowledge that this world is a place of lack and imperfection.’ ‘I am a pragmatist,’ I continued: ‘if Shmuel is disruptive or can’t be integrated into the class room, then we will take him out immediately, but if the experience of our home is true, if that of our building is true, of his nursery school are true, then Shmuel’s presence will be a blessing for him, and for all who have the chance to be around him.’

‘Rav Kolbrener’ – again the wrong title – ‘what you say is all emes l’emiso’ – the undeniable truth, ‘k’dosh k’doshim,’ the holy of the holies, but, and I could almost see and feel his shoulders shrugging, ‘we live in ‘olam ha sheker – a world of lies.

Here it was – the olam ha’sheker excuse! I had heard people exclaim ‘olam ha’sheker’ as an expression of frustration; this was the first time I heard it as an explicit excuse. Using the olam ha’sheker excuse, not as a form of self-consolation, but justification for doing the wrong thing, turns Torah into something theoretical – ‘we can’t actually live by the words of Torah!’ So Torah ceases to be a manual for life – a handbook for tikkun olam – the redemption of the world, but an ideal to which we aspire when not in conflict with our prejudices and fears. The principal couldn’t help being honest: so he acknowledged that my words were true, even holy, but from the olam ha’sheker perspective, such truth and holiness don’t have a place in the world. So Judaism transforms into a religion of ideals only. How often is such an excuse – even if not explicitly uttered – used as a means of justifying our laziness, self-interest or even corruption?

Traditions in the West in literature, philosophy and theology – from Homer to Plato to the apostle Paul – separate the ideal, take it out of the world. But Judaism – and this was one of the reasons that I started, years ago, to begin to split my time between the library and the beit midrash – transforms the real into the ideal, elevating the world. Judaism offers the promise of a learning which is not simply theoretical – those earnest discussions I used to have in the seminar room in graduate school – but a learning leading to action and tikkun olam.

Or perhaps this is naive? too idealistic?

First published here

Rav Wolbe Warns Stringencies Can Lead to Arrogance and Sin

Rav Shlomo Wolbe was raised in an secular Jewish home and received his education at the University of Berlin (1930–1933). During his university studies he became a baal teshuva through the efforts of the Orthodox Students Union V.A.D. (Vereinigung jüdischer Akademiker in Deutschland). After university he attended the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary. He continued to study at Rabbi Boczko’s yeshiva in Montreux, Switzerland. He then attended the Mir yeshiva in Poland, where he became a student of the mashgiach ruchani, Rabbi Yeruchom Levovitz, and, to a lesser extent of Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein.

He published his first volume of Alei Shur in 1966, which contains his mussar (“ethics”) analysis on a proper regimented life of a yeshiva student. The second volume published 20 years after the first was an intense glimpse into his actual mussar workshops for developing elevated character traits. The book contains step by step instructions and specific exercises.

Rav Wolbe believed that the student should not rely on habit or emotions, rather they should structure their lives. “The greater the person is, the more organized is his life.” (Alei Shur, Pg. 68)

Rav Wolbe felt that there are four basic areas aside from the regular Gemara curriculum of the yeshiva that the yeshiva student should master:
He must know the Halakha (Jewish law) that affects him through the Mishnah Berurah.
He should know Chumash with the commentaries of Rashi and Ramban as a basis for one’s hashkafah.
He should know Pirkei Avos with the commentary of Rabbeinu Yonah (a cousin of Nachmanides) as a basic primer in acceptable character traits (midos).
He should know Mesillat Yesharim (by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto) which he calls “the ultimate compendium dictionary for midos.” It must constantly be delved into.

(above from Wikipedia)

In the Sefer Rav Wolbe on Chumash, Parshas Chukas, published in 2014, he says:

“Although one must adhere to every halachah, a person should be wary of stringencies. If abiding by a stringency will cause him to become conceited about his high level of spirituality, then he is better of without it. It was because Bnei Yisrael were on such a high spiritual level – they merited having Hashem’s Shechinah reside in their midst – that they became haughty and subsequently sinned.”

The Myth of Self-Actualization

My senior year in college, my friends and I organized a party. Having exhausted such themes as “Come as your major” and “sixties revival,” we hit upon what seemed a novel idea: Come as you will be in ten years. Attendees rose to the occasion, coming as Greenpeace activists or genetic engineers. (For the sake of my children’s shidduchim, I decline to state how I came.)

My favorite costume, however, was that of Keith, who dressed in his usual sleeveless sweatshirt and jeans, adorned only with a name tag that read: Keith — self-actualized.

We used to joke that even after achieving self-actualization we would still need therapy to cope with the loneliness of being self-actualized in a world of chronic and pervasive neuroses. I periodically wonder whether this is not an apt description of the successful ba’al tshuva who has “made it.”

Readers may be familiar with the story of Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva is gabbai of the shul. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva is ba’al tefillah for the Yomim Noroyim. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva fills in for the rav giving the Shabbos shiur. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva is respected by everyone in the community. So why do they still call him Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva? Because Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva still insists on not talking during kriyas haTorah.

How many of us became ba’alei tshuva because the ideals of Torah attracted us by their truth and their beauty, because of the kedusha of the Shabbos table and the exultation of Simchas Torah? And how many of us subsequently came to question why, if the ideal was so inspiring, did the reality leave so much to be desired? How many of us gradually learned to cope by lowering our expectations for the community, and then, inevitably, for ourselves, only to wonder somewhere down the line what happened to us, to our enthusiasm, to our idealism?

And how many of us grew bitter, convinced that if only our communities were stronger, we could be so much stronger ourselves?

Is this self-actualization?

In a series of letters I exchanged a few years back with Rav Mendel Weinbach, shlita, of Ohr Somayach, I repeatedly vented my frustrations with this or that failing of Klal Yisroel. Rav Mendel never told me I was wrong, never chastised me for my intolerance, never ordered me to clean up my own house before I condemned others and theirs.

What did he tell me? Quite simply, he said: We’re in galus. This is galus.

It’s easy to become cynical, and it’s easy to justify our cynicism because there’s so much about which to be cynical. But we gain nothing through our righteous indignation, except to distract ourselves from our real avodah. Indeed, it’s possible that the ikkar avodah of the self-actualized Torah Jew is to accept the imperfections in the world around him, to understand that the world will only be perfect when we have perfected ourselves as avdei HaShem, and that fixating on the shortcomings of others only serves to prolong the galus. On the other hand, by striving to better ourselves we not only shorten the galus but ease our own passage through galus until Moshiach brings it to its final end.

Originally Posted on Jan 16, 2006

Sheryl Sandberg Illustrates New Directions in Kiruv

On June 3rd, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, posted her thoughts and feelings after the accidental death of her husband Dave Goldberg. Here are the first two paragraphs:

Today is the end of sheloshim for my beloved husband—the first thirty days. Judaism calls for a period of intense mourning known as shiva that lasts seven days after a loved one is buried. After shiva, most normal activities can be resumed, but it is the end of sheloshim that marks the completion of religious mourning for a spouse.

A childhood friend of mine who is now a rabbi recently told me that the most powerful one-line prayer he has ever read is: “Let me not die while I am still alive.” I would have never understood that prayer before losing Dave. Now I do.

Please read the entire post as a merit for Sheryl’s late husband.

I think that Sheryl’s post highlights the new face of kiruv going forward. Non religious people are very interested in learning about God and the Torah’s view on purpose, meaning and happiness within the ordinary and extraordinary occurrences in our lives. However if they feel like they are being proselytized to a fully Torah Observant way of life, they will probably back away and lose some interest in learning.

As Rabbi Avraham Edelstein wrote in December 2012

“Kiruv is the communicate of timeless Torah through contemporary vessels and idioms. As such, the kiruv movement is always in a certain state of transition. We are dealing with a moving target, a rapidly changing generation, and almost daily technological innovations. Woe betides the kiruv organization that thinks that it has found “the formula.” Today’s successes are tomorrow’s failures. Methodologies, goals and targeted age-groups need to be constantly reassessed and often reformulated. The kiruv world by its very nature is engaged in transformation. For us, creative breakthroughs are a part of our basic avodas Hashem. Given the enormous implications of this movement in world history, I remain with boundless optimism that we will make the breakthroughs that are necessary to take us to the next level and beyond.”

Bob Dylan and Me

A True Story

St. Paul Minnesota is not a popular tourist attraction in winter, but there I was in December 1984, wandering around the lobby of Bais Chana. Perched atop a hill, in a monastic looking building situated amongst large sprawling suburban homes, would be the place where I would confront myself as a Jewess for the first time.

The Lubavitcher shluchim at StonyBrook University where I had been a student hadn’t told me too much about the place except, that there was a certain Rabbi Manis Friedman there who specialized in answering questions for girls like me, whatever that meant.

Feeling lost and aimless, I tentatively stood in the empty lobby. It seemed that I had been one of the first to arrive for that winter session, and the place was not yet as packed as if would get later on. Few people were around and all was silent.

Then suddenly I saw a figure appear at the front door and I gasped. It couldn’t be real, but it was. Right in front of my eyes stood none other than Bob Dylan. At the time I didn’t know that this was during Bob Dylan’s Torah ‘stage’, and that he had been studying privately with Rabbi Friedman and was a regular visitor to Bais Chana during those years.

There Bob Dylan stood, right in front of me, in all his glory, wearing his signature faded jeans and black motorcycle jacket. “Hi,” he said to me softly, ‘How are you doin’?”

This was all a bit too much for me to take in. Here I was going to a place that I thought would be trying to teach me to go back into time, to become like my grandmother, and here was the king of all things hip and cool, a 1960’s prophet, the master of rebellion against the establishment, right there in front of me, in the flesh.

Despite feeling as if I had been just struck by lightening, I mustered up a meek,’ I’m fine.” Then Bob Dylan came over to me and gave me a gentle pat on my back and said, ’It’s cool, don’t worry, everything is cool. It’s gonna be alright.” And he walked away, through the hallway and disappeared as fast as he had come.

I immediately found a payphone and called my friend David.

‘Bob Dylan is here! And he talked to me”

‘Then that must be a cool place,’ David said, and he later followed me to Crown Heights. After all, if Bob Dylan was there, then David was right, this was a cool place, and I felt better about being there. In fact, I felt like I was in the right place at the right time, and at that moment, I decided that if one of my teen idols was studying there, then I would stick it out too.

Bob Dylan never stayed the course as far as Yiddishkeit goes, he travelled a very zig zagged road, in and out of a number or religions. In a strange way though, one could say that Bob Dylan brought me back, with just a few kind words, when I was facing a fork in the road, he showed me the correct path.

Originally Posted on March 13, 2006

INSPIRATZON – the Process of Transforming Inspiration into Willpower

By Aryeh Goldman who writes at hitoreri.com

The function of inspiration is to give us an insight into whom we are and offer us an opportunity to realign ourselves with our inner purpose. However, when inspiration is not converted into something tangible and real it is wasted and the lost opportunity can leave us feeling empty and unfulfilled.

I have created a new term – INSPIRATZON – based on what my teachers have taught me. In order to make inspiration meaningful, for it to be sustained, we must almost instantaneously make a vessel for it. That vessel, is referred to as Ratzon or willpower. Our Ratzon is the driving force behind all our spiritual movement and development. Once we convert inspiration into a focused and burning willpower, no obstacle can stand in its path. You see, the inspiration usually comes from outside of us, driven by the G-dly intent of redirecting our desire away from physical and temporary pleasures towards a more spiritual and meaningful existence.

We all have our challenges. Mine has always been my weight. My library is full of diet books, my pantry packed with vitamins, meal replacement bars and protein shakes. My cupboards are crammed with juicers, blenders and other diet promoting paraphernalia. I possess multiple exercise machines, sneakers, training shorts, pedometers and sweat bands. My parents, friends, teachers and doctors have all tried to persuade me and I have been inspired on multiple occasions to lose weight. However, my weight challenge will only be addressed once I cultivate an unwavering inner ratzon/willpower to be healthy. Once I commit to that, then all the other tools will be at my disposal to affect the necessary restoration. But until I am prepared to make that commitment, the exercise equipment will continue to gather dust and the unworn running shoes bare testimony to my failure to convert inspiration into Ratzon.

Many of us begin a program of transformation with the best intentions and are highly inspired. However before long we lose the initial excitement and hit a plateau. This is usually when our true Ratzon is tested. At that moment our persistence waivers and we usually just give up. Champions are born out of a resolute persistence, even in the face of adversity. These legends see the moments of stagnation, the plateau, the challenges, as opportunities to draw upon and reveal their inner Ratzon. And in so doing, inevitably bring themselves closer to their goals.

The Talmud (Avodah Zoro, 17b) tells a fascinating story of Elozor ben Dordoi, who was a man with an insatiable lust. He pursued his temptation at great expense, crossing seven rivers to be in the company of one particular lady. While in her presence and defiling himself, she commented that Elozor ben Dordoi will never repent and return to his source. Her words pierced his heart and he immediately withdrew to the fields. He began beseeching the mountains and valleys, the heavens and earth, the sun and the moon to pray on his behalf…to no avail. Finally he realises he cannot shift the responsibility and declares: “I see that it now depends on me.” He places his head between his knees and begins to cry. In a tragic ending to the tale Elozor reaches such a state of purity that he resembles the innocence of a child and his soul leaves his body. A heavenly voice pronounces that Rebbe Elozor ben Dordoi is invited to Olam Haba and hearing this proclamation Rabbi Yehuda begins to cry. Through his tears he says the words, “Yesh koneh olamo besha’a achat – in just one moment of inspiration one can acquire one’s entire eternal reward”.

This is a powerful tale. Elozor ben Dordoi teaches us that we cannot blame anyone but ourselves for our lack of happiness and success. He teaches us not to ignore the inspiration and that if even he, Elozor ben Dordoi, can hear the embedded message, generate a powerful Ratzon and immediately act on it – then anyone can.

Rabbi Yehuda’s tears bothered me for a long time until a mentor explained that Rabbi Yehuda was not crying for Rebbe Elozor. Rabbi Yehuda was acutely conscious of the incredible potential contained within mankind and realizes how critical it is to transform inspiration into Ratzon if that potential is to be realized. He was crying for each and every one of us who mute the call to self-discovery, fail to create a vessel for the inspiration, fail to seize the opportunities inspiration offers, fail to take immediate action or fail to persist when success isn’t instantaneous.

Ask yourself, what are your challenges? What do you willpower more then anything else in the world? It is critical to have a conscious awareness of our desires for our success depends upon it.

Don’t Grow it Alone

We had a wonderful young BT couple over for lunch recently and we were discussing two of the main attractions to Torah observance, the values of the community and the search for truth that a life of Torah entails. However I think I would add a third pillar and that is the pursuit of continual growth found among so many members of the Torah Observant community.

Growth is hard, whether it be emotional growth, intellectual growth or spiritual growth. It is made harder by the fact that a growth oriented person never rests on his or her laurels. There is always another level. You may have successfully worked long and hard on dealing with anger, envy and honor but there’s still another step you can take, and another step after that.

Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford has helped put a growth Mindset on the agenda of the secular world, but it is just a pebble’s ripple when compared to wealth of insights, strategies and nuances that the sea of Torah contains. But it’s not easy. We each have our own individual challenges in we have to find and apply the right prescriptions for our own unique situations day in and day out.

Thankfully the Torah observant world is full of people working on growing. In my little corner of the Torah Observant world in Kew Gardens Hills, I’m constantly surrounded by FFBs and BTs who understand that life is growth and pursue it with a passion. We have our faults. We have our disagreements. We have our struggles. But I’m so thankful to the local and worldwide Torah Community where we Don’t Grow it Alone.

A BT’s Recipe For Raising Good Kids in an FFB World

I recently met the grown son (20-ish) of a very talented rabbi and educator. The father is an overt ba’al teshuva, and the son a regular bochur who attends a top mainstream Israeli yeshiva. To me the boy seemed to have inculcated the best of what the FFB-and BT-worlds have to offer.

As a BT raising my kids in a FFB yeshivish world, I could only wish for the same success with my own sons. I asked the father how he did it, and the following is what he shared with me as his “recipe.” I understand every home, parent, and child is different and parenting isn’t “one-size fits all” and that the issues below implicate thorny hashkafic issues. Nevertheless, having seen the product and judging the recipe on its own merits, I thought his ideas were worth sharing. Whatever our recipe, may Hashem help that we all merit to have wonderful children!

1. Relaxed atmosphere in the home. I want life to be light, not heavy, for them. But light because Hashem loves us and everything is OK, not light from kalus rosh. Light has nothing to do with circumstance. You can have a parent die, a divorce, monetary problems and life can still be light. (This, to me, is probably most important of all and it’s a tricky balance to find. As a wise man I know once said, anyone can be a great gardener in Hawaii – if you have the right atmosphere in the home, children will naturally flourish, even under difficult circumstances.)

2. No shouting, ever.

3. Mistakes are not terrible, they are part of life. I want my kids to feel it’s OK to be naughty – it doesn’t make them bad people. They just need to apologize if necessary, do teshuva and move on. It doesn’t need to be a big deal.

4. Apologize to my kids when necessary. I’m not perfect either.

5. Very little interest in grades at school – middos are all that matter to me on their reports. This is not just words, I believe it – and my kids know that.

6. No labeling – even good labeling. You did a good thing, not you are a good boy. (If you are a good boy because you did good, it implies you are not good intrinsically – there’s another reason, but I want to keep this short)

7. Similarly, praise the act, not the child.

8. No punishment, rather consequences to actions (tricky balance this one and it’s taken a while to get it right – I learned this as some of the other ideas from Adlerian family counselling)

9. Ask them difficult questions as soon as they are ready for them – how do you know God exists? How do you know he wrote the Torah? Obviously, give them answers also.

10. Encourage them to ask the difficult questions that are bothering them. Value and appreciate a question like, why should I keep Shabbos or how can the world be 6000 years old – it’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s a wonderful opportunity to muchanech.

11. You don’t have to be frum if you don’t want to – ultimately, the choice is yours. You would be crazy not to be, but you do have the choice, nothing is forced on you. You don’t do me a favor by being frum. Do it for yourself – because it makes sense.

12. I try to learn through an outline of all of nach and give an overview of targyag mitzvos with each of my kids separately. I give them cash incentives to memorize Taryag or Avos.

13. The frum world may be crazy, but it’s the best society we have – embrace it, but don’t buy into the craziness, maintain your independence. Better a frummer school and we parents are the open minded ones, than a less frum school and we parents are the closed minded ones.

14. Secular people are Jews as much as we are. Goyim are not to be looked down upon, they are created in God’s image. Secular education is important and valuable.

15. You have a responsibility to support your family. That’s the man’s responsibility, not the woman’s.

If you wish to contact the author, you can direct any inquiries on Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt, shaul@tikun.co.uk

Originally published on 8/13/2012

Jewish Guilt

Nearly thirty days ago my mother passed away, quietly in her sleep after a protracted illness, and I wanted to share some of my feelings and experiences, as a baal teshuvah keeping the Halachos interacting with a non-observant family.

An incident occurred at my mother’s funeral that I thought would be appropriate to discuss on Beyond Teshuvah. On my way to the U.S. to attend the funeral, my wife called while I was still in the airport in Israel and offered to call my brother, who lives in a different state than my parents, and recommend he pack an old shirt, in case he wanted to tear kyriah. “Okay,” I said, “why not tell him about it? At least he’ll have the choice.”

At some point after I arrived and we took care of the burial permit and other arrangements at the cemetery, I told my father and my other brother about the Jewish custom of kryiah, and the reasons behind it. I explained that we tear a garment to show that we believe the body is only a garment for the soul. We express our pain in this tangible way, but in a way that comforts us that only the exterior garment is lost; the soul lives on forever.

“Very well, but we aren’t going to do that,” they said. The next day, my brothers and my father prepared black ribbons to wear on their coat sleeves, and put on their best dress shirts. I am not the one to be pushy about religion, especially with my family. I was relieved that at least there was going to be a Chevrah Kadisha involved in the funeral.

That was a big concession by my brothers. When my brother was informed of my mother’s death, he immediately called the mortuary located in the local cemetery where my parents bought a plot twenty years ago. They arranged to send their workers out immediately. Then he called me, in Israel, and I suggested finding a Chevrah Kadisha in L.A. (over an hour’s drive away, without traffic).

I phoned the local Chabad Rabbi, probably the only Shomer Shabbos Jew in town, who I knew from previous trips home, and he got involved. My brother agreed to phone him, but told him that my Mom wanted a Reform ceremony, not an Orthodox one. “This has nothing to do with Reform or Orthodox,” the Rabbi said (I heard later), “this involves the difference between a traditional Jewish way of doing things, with a 2000 year history, or nothing.” My brother took the number of the Chevrah Kadisha, but only reached their beeper service.

Meanwhile, the workers from the local mortuary arrived. In what is to me an amazing display of the pinteleh Yid (the Jewish spark), my brother sent them away and waited for the Chevrah Kadisha to get back to him. He was in my parent’s home where my mother passed away; she was in hospice at home. The nurse was gone, and he was alone with her body. At this point, he told me, he was only doing this for me. He didn’t know what my mother would have wanted, and he didn’t believe it made any difference. The Chevrah Kadisha came a couple of hours later and relieved him of his uncomfortable, uneasy post.

Readers of Beyond BT understand the importance of the meaningful and respectful traditions of Jewish burial—the taharah, purification in a pool of water, tachrichim, burial shrouds, shomer, who watches over the body 24/7, and burial in a plain wooden coffin in the ground. However, my family had no familiarity with these concepts at all.

Afterwards, they extolled the praises of the Chevrah Kadisha Mortuary, who acted with great sensitivity, efficiency, and respect. They really went the extra mile (or 75 miles, at 2:00 am), and made a big kiddush Hashem.

My mother was in hospice; I expected what was going to happen. But still, I was totally unprepared. No one wants to consider these things. But it would be a good idea to have a plan for kosher Jewish burial, some information, like phone numbers and the like, and if possible and appropriate, to discuss the matter beforehand with our family members.

At the funeral, the Reform Rabbi who led the ceremony at my mother’s request, called on the husband and the sons to step forward to tear kyriah, which he went on to explain. I was surprised, but before I knew what was going on, everyone recited “Baruch Dayan HaEmet” responsively after the Rabbi (I mean everyone, even my brothers’ non-Jewish coworkers and friends of the family), and we all tore our shirts.

A few days later, I asked them why they decided to tear kyriah in the end? After all, they wore expensive shirts, and they had the black ribbons anyway. They said: “Rabbi L. (the Chabad Rabbi, who also spoke at the funeral) took us aside and spoke to us about the significance of kyriah. Then he said, ‘Really, it’s a question of what’s more important in the final analysis, a $25 shirt or your mother’s soul?’”

“Yeah, you know,” added my sister-in-law, “Jewish guilt!”

They didn’t seem upset in the least, and when Rabbi L. arranged for minyanim in my father’s home, they put on the shirts with the kryiah.

I have always been apprehensive about “religious coercion,” especially with family members. But if I didn’t get Rabbi L. involved, would my mother have had the Chevrah Kadisha? Probably not. Would my family have torn kyriah or said kaddish during shivah? Definitely not.

What are your thoughts and feelings about using Jewish guilt?

Originally Published Nov 28, 2006

The 60 Second Guide to Shavuos

The foundation of Judaism is that there is a G-d, who is completely spiritual. G-d created both a physical and spiritual world. The centerpiece of creation is man who is composed of a physical body and a spiritual soul. Our collective purpose is to transform the world into a unified G-d connected spiritual world.

To accomplish this spiritual transformation G-d transmitted the necessary knowledge and tools in the form of the Torah. The Torah informs us how to turn physical acts into G-d connected spiritual acts. Every positive act we perform can be G-d connected, but the ones with the greatest connection power are the mitzvos G-d explicitly specified in the Torah.

The holiday of Shavuos is the day that G-d spiritually transmitted the Torah. The entire Jewish nation experienced this transmission and Moses experienced it to a much greater degree. The day is filled with a spiritual energy through which we can deepen our commitment to connect to G-d through the learning of Torah. There is also a mitzvah to eat 2 special meals and in doing so we transform the physical act of eating into a spiritual G-d connected activity.

This was written to try to capture the essence of Shavuos to all types of Jews in 60 seconds.

If you think it’s useful please send it to your friends and family.

The first incarnation of this guide can be found here.

So Another Child Will Learn Torah

From 1997-99, I was one of eighteen school principals who spent three weeks each summer upgrading our professional skills as the first cohort of Torah Umesorah’s Senior Leadership Program.

During the first year of the program, we had the great ze’chus of spending several hours with Reb Shlome Wolbe zt’l who graciously answered our chinuch questions on a wide range of topics.

At one of those sessions, (starting at 9:28 on this promotional video introducing Bright Beginnings Volume One), I asked Reb Wolbe zt’l what we should do if the educational instruction we received at Torah Umesorah indicates that we would improve the quality of the chinuch our students are receiving by modifying/upgrading the teaching methods at our Yeshivos.

“What’s with [following] the Mesorah (tradition) [of the way we were taught by our rebbeim]?” I asked.

He responded that, “Your Mesorah is to transmit our Mesorah to our children and you are all not only permitted, but obligated, to use every education tool at your disposal so that another child will learn Torah.”

With that backdrop, I am thrilled to present to our readers The Marc Schertz Memorial e-Book version of our Bright Beginnings Chumash Workbook Vol. 1 2nd Edition.

It is my humble prayer that this interactive, digital workbook will help countless Jewish children (and adults) learn Torah.

We hope it will help:

Many Jewish families who live overseas and find the shipping costs of our books to be prohibitive. In the three years since the print version of this workbook was released, we’ve received requests from Jewish Yeshivos/day schools and parents in Gibraltar, South Africa, Australia, China, and on and on. In most of those instances, the shipping costs far exceeded the price of the book itself! This e-Book version can be “delivered” effortlessly free of charge.

Children whose parents don’t have the Judaic background to do homework with them. One of the features of this e-Book is that it allows children to email their work to others to review.

Children whose parents are in the office or on the road during the time that they are working on their homework. Here too, parents can be more involved in the learning of their children each evening.

Kids whose attention spans run short when they are doing traditional “paperwork” but are able to concentrate for far longer periods of time when working with digital tools.

I am deeply grateful to my childhood friend and chavrusa (Judaic study partner) Heshie Schertz and his wife Bonnie for their ongoing support of the Bright Beginnings series since its inception, and to his mother Mrs. Gloria Schertz and her children for dedicating this digital edition of the Chumash Workbook in memory of my childhood friend Marc Schertz a’h who recently and tragically passed away at the age of 48.

This digital workbook was converted to the e-Book format by my dear friend and colleague Rabbi Mordechai Smolarcik, one of the most creative and talented educators I’ve ever met. Rabbi Smolarcik has received numerous awards/grants for his outstanding curricular efforts including the 2013 JEIC Innovator Grant for his Torah i-Textbook Project. I am deeply grateful to him for his assistance with our efforts.

The digital workbook is currently only available for use on an iPad. Our sources (read: Rabbi Smolarcik) inform us that Apple is working on an app that will eventually allow it to be used on an iPhone as well. Additionally, we are working to get it converted for use on other platforms as well and will use this email list to inform you of any new releases, print or digital. Please email email@kosherjewishparenting.com or text 22828 and in the message line, type PROJECTYES (in caps) to sign up for our emails so you can have instant access to the information.

Visit www.bbchumash.com to learn more about our popular chumash workbooks designed to give your children the Hebrew language skills to succeed in school.