WordPress Is Good To BTs

Last week we upgraded to a new version of our WordPress software. Our hosting provider Dreamhost has this great feature called one click installs which enabled us to do the upgrade by pressing a button and waiting about a minute. It worked like a charm, B’ezras Hashem.

One of the major advantage of the new software is its new spam filter Akismet. It seems to be working incrediblt, bli ayin hara, catching over 1300 spam comments in five days (and that included a slow national holiday ). At the same time, it is letting through most of the real comments. We are still looking through what it flags as spam, but we might stop that at some point. So if your comment ever disappears into cyberspace and it’s not in moderation, please email us so we can try to de-spam it.
Wordpress is among the best blogging software products on the market and it’s free. It is part of a software trend called Open Source Software. We are thankful to WordPress, Akismet and their founding developer Matt Mullenweg for providing us with these great tools to help build our Beyond BT community.

Thanks to Matt, WordPress and DreamHost.

Every Today is Another Chance to Get Things Right

I saw this slogan on a bus while walking to work. Often, you don’t find interesting slogans like this on a bus. Where did the quote come from? You might be surprised if I tell you it’s from a TV show. The TV show is called ‘Daybreak’ and recently premiered on. The premise of the show is that the main character is framed for a murder and his family is in danger. Every morning he wakes up and has to repeat the same day and has to find out who framed him for the murder and he has to keep his family safe. Until he solves the mystery, the day will keep repeating itself.Upon further reflection, this quote is a great way to approach tefilla. After almost 5 years of taking classes at various Jewish outreach groups in the city, I made some breakthroughs this year and decided it was time to take some steps towards becoming more observant than in previous years when I had balked at such an idea (perhaps this will be the subject of a future post). One of the things I did was go to Israel for two weeks in July and learn at She’arim, one of the wonderful womens’ seminaries in Jerusalem. It was a transformative two weeks and the only regret I have was that I wished I had stayed a little longer. After coming back from Israel, I started davening twice a day. Before Israel (BI), I prayed for 15-20 minutes in the morning, semi-rushed because I slept in until 8:00, sometimes 8:15 and I needed to be at work at 9:00. After Israel (AI), I find myself getting up at 7:20-7:30, and davening for 30-40 minutes (my mornings are so much calmer now) and also davening Mincha. Read more Every Today is Another Chance to Get Things Right

Judaism in a Blogshell

This past Rosh Hoshana, I wanted to be able to give over the general framework of Judaism in a short time. So, I wrote this piece. Thanks to David and my brother-in-law Bruce for their editing efforts. Please help me further enhance this piece with your questions and comments below. Thanks.

The Plan (Derech Hashem)
– The nature of one who is good is to give.
– G-d, who is the ultimate goodness, created man in order to give to man pleasure.
– The greatest gift possible for man is to have an awareness of, and a relationship with G-d.
– In order to increase the value and pleasure of this gift, G-d wanted man to develop this awareness and relationship through man’s own free will.

The Environment and Means (Mesillas Yesharim)
– G-d created man with an eternal soul, that is the part of man most G-d like and most capable of goodness.
– G-d also gives us a strong sense of self in the intellectual realm and strong sensory facilities.
– G-d created the physical world as the place in which man would develop the soul.
– The goal is to increase our awareness of G-d and develop our character/soul through our choices and mitzvos.

The Problem (Avos: Three things take us out of this world…)
– Our sense of self and accomplishment often makes us honor ourselves instead of G-d.
– Physical pursuits mask our awareness of G-d and lead us towards a physical existence instead of a spiritual one.
– Self-centeredness makes us envious and possessive and inhibits strong personal relationships by focusing us on ourselves rather than the other person.

The Solution (Avos: The world stands on three things…)
– The Torah and the mitzvos enable us to go beyond physical egocentricity towards a spiritually centered existence.
– Acts of Kindness help us focus on other people thereby reducing our self-centeredness.
– Prayer reduces our self-centeredness by giving us a G-d centered orientation.
– The Jewish people were chosen to implement the solution at its highest level with the 613 mitzvos.
– The rest of the nations have 7 mitzvos to best develop their G-d awareness.

Implementation (Six Constant Mitzvos)
– We must align our thought processes with our emotions, since the emotions are the prime influence on actions.
– We must increase our belief in G-d, not believe in other forces and realize that “good” and “bad” both come from G-d.
– We increase our emotional connection to G-d through love and we increase our respect for His greatness through awe and fear.
– When our emotions are properly aligned, our actions will follow suit and we will fulfill our personal and global missions.

Fundamental Beliefs (Rambam: 13 Principals)
– G-d, the Creator of the universe is: complete, total unity, non-physical, eternal and the object of all prayers.
– G-d communicates with man. Moshe’s prophecy was unique. The entire Torah was given by G-d and is unchangeable.
– G-d knows our thoughts and deeds and will reward and correct us appropriately. The Messiah will come to help bring the world to its completion. The dead will be resurrected in a new world of physical and spiritual perfection.

Focus (Avos: Who is Rich..)
– We should become wise by learning from everybody.
– We should consider ourselves rich by appreciating all the blessings we have.
– We should consider ourselves powerful when we rule over our own desires and not when we control others.
– We should avoid honor and instead look for the greatness in every human being and acknowledge and praise it.

Other Ideas(Various Sources)
– We should distance ourselves from anger.
– Our focus should be on our individual mission and we should avoid comparisons with others.
– When we meet any person we should ask ourselves two questions: 1. What can I Give to him/her? 2. What can I Learn from him/her?
– Pleasure comes from our appreciation of the unity, completeness and connection of all the things in this world.
– Happiness comes when we work on completing ourselves and help bring the world closer to its perfection and unity.

The Three Seforim That Have Had the most Impact on Me

I know I’m probably stretching the meaning of ‘seforim’ just a little bit, but I’m taking it to mean any book with Jewish / religious content. It’s a matter of necessity, as the number of ‘traditional’ seforim I’ve read can probably be counted on a couple of hands.

While I love books about Judaism, and I read them voraciously, I just don’t think that my mind is geared towards volumes about measuring what a k’zayos of oreo cookies looks like, or in-depth halachic discussion.

Though I may be stereotyping, I leave that stuff to my husband. And instead, I read books like: Off the Derech and The Science of G-d. These two had a profound affect on me for different reasons.

Off the Derech explores many of the reasons why people leave the faith. It’s a long book, but the main explanation – or at least, my reading of it – is that most people stop being observant because of emotional reasons. Yes, there are a small minority who have difficulties with ‘accepting’ the validity of the Torah, but most leavers come off the derech because they weren’t treated very nicely by people who claimed to be observant.

This really made me sit up and think, particularly in relation to my kids. And it sparked off a real effort in our house to explain the clear separation between ‘looking religious’ and ‘acting religious’ to my five and three year old.

If Off the Derech had a big impact on my parenting, The Science of G-d had an enormous impact, intellectually. Hard as we try to stay above the debate about ‘Creationism’ vs ‘Evolution’, it can be very difficult for a secularly educated, torah-observant Jew to be comfortable about the apparent and fundamental disagreement between science and theology about how our universe began, and then continued.

In ‘educated’ circles, I’d feel ridiculous claiming the world really was created in seven days, for example. In ‘religious’ circles, I’d feel like a semi-apostate for thinking anything else. Then along came Gerald Schroeder, and in a neat, little black volume he happily resolved all these dilemmas. Not everyone agrees with his findings – but then, not everyone has to.

He has a number of incredibly lucid and well-researched arguments which means that if I want to believe in the Genesis version of creation – and I really do – then I no longer have to check my rationality at the door. Schroeder’s book demonstrated that there is no contradiction between science’s account of creation, and our torah.

As well as resolving my personal doubts about the story of creation, it also taught me a very important lesson: if there is a disagreement between what science says and what the torah says, you can bet your bottom dollar that the torah is right.

For millennia, received wisdom was that the universe has always just been here. Jews had to wait 3,250 years for the Big Bang theory to come along and prove that they actually knew what they were talking about.

There are still many, many areas where science disagrees with Jewish theology, but they no longer worry me. Sooner or later the full facts will come out, and there will be more ‘told you so’ moments.

The last sefer is a proper one: Michtav M’Eliyahu, by Rabbi Dessler. The book contains so much that it’s hard to know which parts to highlight. Certainly, the sections on understanding that everything comes from Hashem had a big impact on me. It’s hard to properly motivate yourself when you really grasp that everything does indeed come from Hashem, regardless of our efforts. Finding the right balance between hishtadlut and hisbodedut has been an ongoing effort ever since.

Also, just understanding the level of middot we have to strive to hold ourselves to made me stop being so complacent.

It’s often said that it’s a sign of a good book when you can’t put it down. For me, these three books achieved even more than that: they fundamentally changed my understanding and appreciation of yiddishkeit, and along they way, they also inspired me to try and shorten the gap between what the Torah says, and what I often do.

Looking for Yeshiva Suggestions for a Mature BT With a Passionate Approach to Yiddishkeit

We recently received the followed request for suggestions for an American Yeshiva for a mature BT.

I’ve been shomer mitzvos for about 5 years, and am still struggling to get a foundation in learning. I’m exploring opportunities to step back from full time work and learn in yeshiva. Israel is a possibility that I’m exploring. But it might be best to do it in the States for a variety of reasons. I’m looking for any suggestions you might have about U.S. yeshivot that are appropriate for mature BTs. I’m aware of three possibilities and plan to explore them in the coming months: Ohr Sameach and Kol Yaakov in Monsey, and the Lubovitch Yeshiva in Morristown.

I clearly want a solid foundation of gemara skills, but don’t want to neglect Tanach and m’farshim. And while I have a strong intellectual background (engineering followed by medical school) I gravitate toward chassidus and a passionate mode of prayer and joyous avodas Hashem.

Any suggestions?

Steve Brizel’s Eretz Yisroel Travel-blog

Steve Brizel is in Eretz Yisroel and he has been blogging his trip in the comments to this post. We’ve collected some of the comments here, but read the whole thread for the commenting back and forth.

For many of us in Chuz L’aretz, one of the best ways of cultivating and maintaining a love of EY in a physical sense is visiting our children who are learning in yeshivos and seminaries. We visited our older daughter back in 2004 and we are leaving for EY Bezras HaShem for two weeks, this Wednesday night.

Here are a few suggestions for any first time or returning visitor who is visiting a child. First of all, if your son or daughter invites you to sit in on a shiur or chavrusa or chaburah, do so and don’t pull them out of valuable time that could be devoted to Torah learning.You will be inspired by so many young men or women devoting their time to learning Torah.

Read more Steve Brizel’s Eretz Yisroel Travel-blog

Of Wisdom… Secular and Sacred

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz

Chanukah celebrates more than a miraculous victory; it celebrates the triumph of the miraculous over the natural, and the sacred over the mundane and desecrated. We identify this triumph of the miraculous with establishing the preeminence of Torah vis a vis generic wisdom. (Mosarta…zaidim b’yad oskei torahsecha =[and] you delivered… the malicious into the hands of those who busy themselves wit the study of your Torah).

Since at least the pre-Chanukah period of Hellenization of large swaths of the Jewish population, Jews have grappled with the confluence, congruence and conflict of Torah and generic Chochma. In contemporary Judaism this tension is most evident in various debates over the relative quality, quantity and goals of Torah and secular education, in particular higher education. Ba’alei T’shuva, whose own educations typically inverted both the sequence and initial primacy of these two competing/contradictory/complementary branches of learning are generally more conflicted and bring unique questions and perspectives to bear on these nettlesome issues.

Apropos to the Chanukah spirit I’ve translated a brief but profound insight on the topic from one of the seminal Torah thinkers of the previous generation. Due to my great respect for the author O.B.M. and my fear over distorting his message I have refrained from adapting the piece and have attempted what I hope is a faithful, hence quite literal, translation. In so doing the lyricism and beautiful poetic meter of the original has been done great injury and some meaning may have been lost or distorted as well. If it has I hope to clarify the meaning to the best of my understanding and ability in the comment thread. Read more Of Wisdom… Secular and Sacred

You’ve Got To Give A Little

By Sarah Rochel Hewitt
Originally published in the National Jewish Outreach Program’s Bereshith Newsletter.

When I was five or six years old, my parents gave me a scarf for the eighth night of Chanukah. I can picture all of the candles alight on the kitchen table as my dad and brother went to the basement to shoot a game of pool and my mom followed shortly thereafter. Left alone in the kitchen, I sulked over the lousy final present. After all, shouldn’t the last night of Chanukah be the night reserved for the best present? I can honestly say, I don’t know exactly what I was thinking, but I do know that when my mom came upstairs a few minutes later she found me holding the box over the flames. Thank G-d, no damage was done to anything but the box (not even to the ugly scarf).

In our family, Chanukah was definitely about the presents. Blessed with generous parents, my brother and I received something on all eight nights. We waited anxiously for my father to return home from work so we could quickly eat dinner and begin our “Hot and Cold” search. In hindsight, perhaps the best part of the Chanukah gift giving custom was the many lessons I learned from it.

Anticipation is often the best part of exchanging gifts — something I discovered the hard way when I was probably around 10 years old. A few weeks before Chanukah, I stumbled across the place in the basement where my mother would stash the gifts. I knew what I had asked for and was delighted to see a wrapped box of just about the right size. Lo and behold, just my luck, a corner of the wrapping had come loose. Now what would you do? Of course I peeked. It was the Barbie Dream Van for which I had so fervently hoped. I was so happy, but I had no one with whom to share my excitement because no one could know that I knew. I certainly had great expectations of playing with it, but when I brought the large box to the table from its hiding spot that Chanukah, I felt something missing inside. There was no curiosity, no anticipation, no need to shake it to try and guess what was inside. I had spent my excitement before I even had the gift, and I am certain that my parents were well aware of my dampened level of excitement. I can honestly say that never again did I wish to peek at the presents ahead of time. Read more You’ve Got To Give A Little

First Orthodox Jew to be Elected in New Hampshire

A Simple Jew emailed us the following article: Jason Bedrick is the first Orthodox Jew (a Lubavitcher) to be elected in New Hampshire.

Windham – A young man who does not shake hands with women was recently elected to the state Legislature, and the support of several members of the Salem Women’s Club was instrumental in his victory at the polls.

“My faith out of respect for women does not allow contact between unrelated men and women,” said Rep. Jason Bedrick, 23, R-Windham. He said he explains this on a daily basis to female colleagues who reach out their hands to him.

Usually, that’s the end of the conversation, he says, but sometimes, when he senses the woman isn’t convinced, he adds: “If every man in the world were to keep his hands to himself, would it be a better world for women or a worse world for women?”

Bedrick is the first Orthodox Jew to be elected in New Hampshire, a state that is home to fewer than 10 Orthodox Jewish families and where Jewish people account for 1 percent of the population.

Lessons from T-Shirts

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

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

Shirt #1

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

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

Shirt #2

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

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

My Sister’s Wedding

Baruch Hashem, on Sunday, December 3 in a sunny loft in midtown Manhattan, I was zoche to take part in something very precious – a kosher chuppah between two irreligious Jews, my sister Nora and her new husband Jeff.

As has been discussed here many times before, family simchas come with shailos. Had Nora and Jeff chosen a Reform or Conservative ceremony, I would not have attended. Baruch Hashem, my sister loves me so much, she was willing to accept a Halachic ceremony, and Baruch Hashem, Jeff loves her so much, he was willing, too. But the biggest bracha of all is not that “they gave in to us,” but that in the process, they connected with their Yiddishkeit and they liked it. Jeff’s happy “Harei at mekudeshet li b’tabaat zu k’dat Moshe v’Yisroel” was an awesome moment. Talk about kavanah! His Hebrew school years never served him better.

Of course, most of the credit goes to the kiruv couple who became their mesader kadushin and kallah teacher. They guided my sister and her chosson with amazing wisdom and sensitivity, knowing when to be mekarev and when to let things slide. I couldn’t have done it. I’m too emotionally involved. (The Rabbi and Rebbetzin prefer to remain anonymous on this public forum, but they are available for other couples. Email me at kh@beingjewish.com.)

One of the “slide” areas was Jeff’s aufruf, held in Jeff’s father’s non-Orthodox shul. Jeff’s father told me that all the major life cycle events – the brissin and the bar mitzvahs – took place in that shul, and he was especially grateful that Jeff’s aufruf should be there, too. It was decidedly non-Traditional; my sister participated and got an aliyah with the chosson, but I don’t see how any Rabbi could possibly deny Jeff’s father the joy of celebrating his own son’s aufruf amongst his friends. You see, Jeff’s father is a Holocaust survivor. He is quite involved in educating young Jews about his experiences and speaks at youth groups regularly because, as he says, “in a few more years, there will be none of us left.” He asked permission to show my eldest son his number, and though my husband and I consented, my son shied away. So instead, I was the one to listen to his recollections. As a teenage boy, he was conscripted into hard labor, and he watched the Nazis line people up and shoot them dead, one after another. He was crying as he described it, and it occurred to me: this is zecher l’churban, a real breaking of the glass. But while on one hand, his memories and experiences temper the simcha, they also enhance it. Baruch Hashem, the Jewish people survived, and a wedding, of all celebrations, is a promise of our future.

Admittedly, the mixed dancing made for a sticky situation. After having insisted on a kosher chuppah and kosher catering, I felt it would have been too much of an imposition to insist on separate dancing also. After all, the kosher chuppah was performed so that Nora and Jeff could be married k’das Moshe v’Yisroel, which is to their benefit. Kosher catering – well, that’s a snap in New York City. But I couldn’t see depriving Jeff’s family of mixed dancing just because I can’t do it and my husband can’t see it.

While the wedding was in the planning stages, the mixed dancing compromise was probably the shailah that I discussed most with my own Rov. My “frummer than thou” issues popped up then, too, not so much with the Rov but with my friends. One BT friend didn’t bring her kids to her sister’s wedding specifically because of the mixed dancing. “Their neshamos can’t handle it,” she said. My very Chassidishe FFB neighbor advised me to speak to a chinuch expert for the very same reason. Well, I can’t be such a purist. My kids are very close to my sister, and they were excited about her wedding. Yes, they are far more exposed to outside influences than their schoolmates, but that’s just the slippery slope we BTs have to traverse.

Baruch Hashem, the layout of the hall worked in our favor. My husband and the kids sat in a place where they did not have to view any of the dancing. As for me, Nora and Jeff kindly asked that the first hora be in separate circles of men and women, so I sort of stepped-walked my way around the women’s circle. I did pull my sister aside for a private dance, and though I tried, I did not entirely escape the view of the men. But my sister told me it was one of her favorite moments of the wedding. May Hashem forgive me for that.

As to how to negotiate such simchas within your own families, I don’t feel I can offer much advice. The credit goes to Nora and Jeff for being open-minded enough to consider a Halachic ceremony and to the special Rabbi and Rebbetzin for striking a balance which made everybody happy. But I do have one idea, and we may just be the crowd to pull it off. I’m sure that many of us have single, freieh Jewish friends and relatives. Why don’t we pool our resources and add making shidduchim to the missions of Beyond BT? I know a very sweet woman of 36 or 37 who needs a nice, intelligent guy. Email me if you know anyone.

May Hashem continue to bring Yidden together for all kinds of simchas.

Chanukah Insight – Two Sides of the Same Coin? or The Miracle of the Chocolate Coins

Last year I was asked to speak at a small Chanukah gathering for a kiruv organization. The crowd was a mixed one ranging from not- yet-shomer shabbos to fully frum for 15 years. As always, I didn’t know what to speak about until the night before. This is what I said:

Last night my family and I went to my mother’s house for a Chanukah party. We do that every year, getting together with my brothers and their respective families. Even though there is a minhag to have dairy on Chanukah, at my mother’s house we always have meat. (You have to listen to your mother) Everything was going along fine. My mother was giving the grandchildren “the chocolate gelt”, which no Chanukah party would be complete without, and there was a whole tumult. I was in charge of buying the gelt this year because my mother doesn’t drive and she couldn’t find pareve gelt close to her home. I walked over and asked what was going on. They screamed “these are dairy, they’re dairy!” I asked myself “How did I do that?” I remembered when I had bought the gelt that the packaging of the dairy and the pareve coins were strikingly similar. Usually, they put the dairy coins into the blue nylon plastic netting and the pareve ones in the red netting or the gold foil is the dairy and the silver foil is the pareve. But these were exactly the same except for the little writing on them saying “pareve” or “dairy”. I grabbed the gelt and sure enough they were the pareve ones, call me the “Man who saved Chanukah.”

I was thinking about what we can learn from that confusion. We see in the story of Chanukah that there were two warring cultures, the Greek culture and the Jewish culture. We usually spend our time discussing the differences between these cultures, how disparate they were and that, thank G-d, the Jewish culture was able to win that physical war and that ideological war.

What we often overlook is that there is a lot that is very similar between the two cultures. Winston Churchill speaks of how the Jewish people and the Greek people have made the greatest contributions to Western civilization. He says that Jerusalem and Athens were the prime places from which wisdom and knowledge eminated. But we don’t have to rely on Churchill for this point. The Rambam, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers, says that Aristotle, the greatest Greek philosopher, was just a step below prophecy. There is a halacha that a sefer torah can be written in one of two languages. One of them, of course, is Hebrew, the other is Greek. There are many references in the commentaries, especially the Zohar, that speak in praiseworthy terms of the Greek culture and how there is a certain level of respect that must be given to it and that the “ancient Greeks” had a certain level of “emunah” that should not be ridiculed. I was thinking how this is a very interesting thing. I think we find in our struggles, in our daily lives, that most of us are not running after something that is obviously “not Jewish”, obviously “not Jewish”. If there is any type of a question or any area that we personally or communally fall into it’s because it is something that “looks” Jewish, it is something that sounds good, it sounds right. We’re not running out to do something that we know is completely forbidden. What we can learn from that, just like the story of the chocolate coins, is that you’ve really got to look very well at whatever it is that you are interested in incorporating into your life. You’ve got to look to see if it’s pareve, see if it’s dairy, see if it’s kosher. Even if things are packaged exactly the same way, you’ve got to look deeper than the surface.

One of the understandings of Chanukah is that we bring light into our homes, into our lives. Light is exactly what we need in order to distinguish between two things that are apparently the same.

The gemorah (Brachos 53b) states that you cannot make the brocha on the havdalah candle until you have benefited from its light. The gemorah defines “benefit” as being close enough to the light to distinguish between two coins. That is one of the reasons that some people look at the tips of their fingers in the light of the havdalah candle (since the difference between the nail and the skin can be determined by the same amount of light that you need to distinguish between two coins). We need to shine the light of our intellect and the light of the Torah into our lives so that we can properly discern what is Jewish and what is “all Greek to me.”

A Lichtiger (Illuminated) Chanukah to everyone.

Embarrassment and Truth

A few nights ago, I visited the local Whole Foods grocery store with my 9 year old son. The store is new in our neighborhood, it’s pretty, well organized, mostly oriented around organic products, a high percentage of which are kosher. The employees also make a point of being friendly. We browsed through the produce, amazed at the variety of fresh hot peppers and mushrooms. I’d love to say that we were picking out great organic produce, but actually we were there because I’d found they have the widest selection of soy ice cream (brands and flavors) and fruit pops I’d ever seen, most of which are kosher.

We’re passing by the well lit well layed out fish department and I’m pointing out to my son what the various creatures are. See, here’s this fish and that fish, and here’s shimp, treif, crab, treif, squid, treif and yuck, tentacles, scallops, treif. We stopped at the clams, oysters, mussles, and cockles, because they were open access and some of the clams were busy trying to crawl away (and I thought that would be really interesting for a 9 year old boy, and it was.) The friendly fish guy comes over and demonstrates how the clams will close if you touch them, picks out a dead one and opens it up so my son can see the inside, and is discussing his product.

So my son tells him, in a loud voice of course, “well, we don’t eat these because they’re not kosher, not because they don’t taste good, because my father ate them before he became religious and told us that some of them do, but because Hashem says we don’t in the Torah.” Well, I was so proud of him while I was simultaneously trying to crawl away inside myself. Hey, see this guy here with the beard, big black yamulka and long white strings, HE ATE CLAMS.

Proud, because a message that apparently only a BT can testify to had reached my children. They’d come home from yeshiva and were discussing the various kosher versus non-kosher sea creatures, discussing the signs of kosher. As they were discussing non-kosher commonly eaten sea creatures, they were busy saying yuck, disgusting, and so forth. I’d stopped them and said, “You know it says in the Gemora that we don’t eat non-kosher because Hashem said so, not because it doesn’t taste good. Because let me tell you, it does.” And I’d gone on to tell them that many of the non-kosher foods they were yucking were very tasty, some wonderful, and indeed some not-so-wonderful (at least to my taste). So if they go off believing that every non-kosher food is yuck and, G-d forbid, one day get a taste otherwise, they might believe that kosher doesn’t apply. So I told them, loud and clear, “We don’t eat non-kosher because G-d said so, not because it’s not healthy or not tasty, only because Hashem said it’s not kosher.”

My past, at least this one little facet of it, has become a positive message for my children. But OMG, how embarrassing!

Chanukah: Celebrating the Liberation From American Hellenism

We are all familiar with the story of Chanukah – how the Greeks wanted to subvert Jewish life by injecting it with Greek values. Unlike Purim where Haman wanted to destroy the Jewish body as well as obliterate any remnant of Torah learning and mitzvah observance, the Greeks had a much more seemingly innocuous approach – “No, go ahead – learn your Torah, observe your mitzvos, pray to your Jewish G-d but do it with a Greek twistdo it because it makes intellectual sense. As we say in our prayers “to forget Your Torah, Your statutes….”. This was epitomized by the Greeks desire to contaminate all of the oil in the Temple – rendering it halachically permissible for lighting the menorah but defiled nonetheless.

This seemingly insignificant subtlety created a transformation within the masses of Jewry and produced Jews that traded the hallmarks of Jewish identity – Jewish names, Jewish clothing and Jewish speech (which by these distinctions our Jewish ancestors had merited “Yetzias Mitzriyim” [the Exodus from Egypt]) for Greek names, Greek clothing and the Greek language– Hellenists. What began as an enlightened embracement of “modernism” ended in outright idolatrous worship. It was only through the miracle of the “poc shemen” [the Chanukah oil] that brought our nation back from the brink.

Yet how many of us consider that we may have fallen for the same innocuous approach right here in present day America?! While America is a “madina v’maluchus shel chesed” [a nation and government of kindness] where Jews openly and freely live Judaism, its values and cultural message are the same as the former Greek Empire – be a modern Jew; be an American Jew [as opposed to a Jewish American]. You can go to the movies, watch television with theater sound on high definition 36 inch plasma screens, surf the net, go on kosher cruises, choose family planning, have both spouses pursue full-time yet dynamic careers and provide our children with the “best of the best” secular education – yet still be a Torah learning, mitzvah observant Jew.

What seems as pareve [neutral] pursuits are in reality pipelines by which American culture and values are fed to contaminate our Jewish sensibilities. What is the result? An American Hellenist: a transformation of the Jewish masses with names like Joe instead of Yoseph, Abe instead of Avrahom; mall bought fashion that is borderline tznius [modesty] that even when it meets all halachic requirements – still pales to the majestic elegance of women’s “hemishe” [Jewish made] clothing, casual speech instead of refined words permeated with Torah values that befit a prince or princess of Hashem.

This isn’t advocating a shtetl [a ghetto] mentality
. It is no coincidence that this years Chanukah spans Parshas Vayeishev – Mikietz. Yoseph was the only one of Yaakov’s twelve sons with the appellation of “Yoseph HaTzadik”. While his brothers were tzadikim – they were shepherds able to spend their time in isolation and in contemplation of Hashem. Yoseph distinguished himself in his avodas Hashem by being in the heart of the moral depravity of Egypt, glamour of Egyptian aristocracy and potential drunkenness of ultimate power yet maintained his distinction as a Torah Jew.

We do not have to be tzadikim – we just have to be like the Menorah – “a light unto the nations”. By full Jewish names, truly modest dress and words of Torah; by being “un-plugged” from American entertainment/media while immersing ourselves in more Torah learning and mitzvos b’hiddur [performed with the highest of standards] – we can walk among our fellow Americans yet still radiate G-dliness and inspiration; in the world, yet above the world. By having our Jewish purity intact like the “poc shemen” – we look to light every person, place and moment with “…and the pursuit of the world will be knowledge of Hashem”.

Why Do Comment Spammers Hate BTs

As the blog has grown in popularity over the past six months or so, the comment spammers have taken notice. For those of you that are unaware, comments spammers flood blog comment sections in the hopes that you’ll click on their link and improve their Google page ranking.

In order to keep the overwhelming majority of this spam from actually hitting the blog for public consumption, we employ a fairly strong filtering mechanism. On a given day, we filter and delete literally hundreds of spam comments.

Unfortunately, the filter will catch many, many non-spam comments as well. When this happens, the comment will most likely be placed in a moderation queue and will be approved and posted within the hour (yes, we have no lives).

Recently we had certain words cause a comment or two to disappear into the vast infinity of hyperspace, never to be heard from again and some of you emailed us. We’ve removed those triggers, so the worst that will happen to your comment is that it will go into moderation.

We are investigating other means of addressing the spam problem. In the meantime, if your comment does not appear immediately, please be assured that we are not moderating comments and we have not “banned” you from commenting. In life, striking the balance between keeping out the “bad” while letting in the “good” is no simple task. The same goes for filtering out the spam while allowing your comments to be freely posted. Bear with us and, please, keep on commenting!

The Magic Pill for At Risk Behavior

The Magic Pill for At Risk Behavior

By Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch

I know how badly parents want to find a cure for their teenagers’ at-risk behavior and make their problems somehow go away. We live in a pill-oriented society where there are endless, over-the-counter brands of medicines for you name it, and we have begun to expect the same quick fix for all areas of our lives — including parenting.

Just last week, a parent came to talk to me about the trouble her daughter was having in school. This 15-year-old teenager was flunking in two key subjects, getting into trouble with her teachers and hanging out with the wrong crowd. Desperate for a solution, her mother wanted to know if I could give her a pill that would cure her daughter’s at-risk behavior. I told her that the “pill” she was looking for was to start working on her relationship with her daughter.

I call this novel yet remarkably simple idea “Relationship Theory,” which places priority on the power and impact that a good relationship can have upon children, both young and adolescent alike. According to Relationship Theory, the greater the relationship, the greater the ability parents have to connect to their teenager. Another way of stating this is I = QR where the impact (I) a parent can have is directly proportional to the quality of the relationship (QR) that a parent develops with the teenager.

After all, what better present can parents give than that of themselves? Nothing can beat the pleasure of a true and loving human relationship, a factor that is often overlooked in the increasingly complex and pressurized world in which we live.

There is also mounting evidence that building a quality relationship is the key to raising healthy teenagers and responding to at-risk behavior. A comprehensive research brief published by Child Trends, entitled Parent-Teen Relationships and Interactions Far More Positive Than Not, showed a direct correlation between the quality of the parent-teen relationship and the impact the relationship has on a teenager’s life.

The research brief revealed that

* “Good relations between parents and adolescents lessen the likelihood that teens will exhibit problem behaviors.”
* “Better quality adult child-parent relationships have been associated with lower levels of psychological distress among both adult children and parents.”
* “Close relationships with parents during childhood and adolescence have been positively associated with adult children’s self-esteem, happiness, and life satisfaction.”

As the father of a large family, I know that spending quality time with each child is one of the keys to being a successful parent. Although it’s difficult, my wife and I try to schedule time alone together with each of our older children at least once a day. Recently, we even started making “dates” with them. Sometimes we go to a restaurant to eat or take a walk. Other times we just go for a soda at the local convenience store. It really doesn’t matter what you do or what you talk about during your private times together. What matters is to give your teenager a feeling that he or she is the most important person in the world.

A great rabbi once said that parents should spend at least twenty minutes a day thinking about their children’s education. Today we need to spend about twenty minutes thinking and twenty talking. And I’m even willing to bargain: If twenty minutes is too much, try ten – or even five.

If you want to break through to that teenager who is going “off the derech,” here’s my prescription:

Take:
20 minutes a day to think about your child’s special qualities
20 minutes a day to just talk with your child
1 minute to reflect on the fact that you did something great

The most important point about this “pill” is that you start taking it every day. And, unlike certain medicines that can’t guarantee results, I promise that this prescription will make a difference in your child’s life.

Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch is the executive director of Shalom Task Force and author of a new book about parenting teenagers called At Risk – Never Beyond Reach: Three Principles Every Parent and Educator Should Know. He maintains a practice in family counseling and is a popular lecturer on parenting and relationships. You can visit Rabbi Schonbuch on the web at www.neverbeyondreach.org or e-mail questions to him at rabbischonbuch@yahoo.com.

Pre Shabbos Links

Jewish Heritage Center Chinese Auction
The Jewish Heritage Center is having its annual Chinese Auction at the Shaare Tova Ballroom, 82-33 Lefferts Blvd, Kew Gardens, on Saturday, December 9th at 8:30 PM. Admission is $18 (which includes a Free $20 Raffle Ticket) and $10 for children 3-13. It’s a great organization and there is a hot buffet, valet parking and lots of exciting prizes (and there will be lots of BTs there).

The New Year of Chabad Chassidism

The 19th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev is celebrated as the “Rosh Hashanah of Chassidism.” It was on this date, in the year 1798, that the founder of Chabad Chassidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), was freed from his imprisonment in Czarist Russia.

Aish has lots of audio files about Chanukah, most of them can be listened to online for free.


Confessions of a Hollywood Dropout

The religious atmosphere in our home began to change in 1977, the year that Anwar Sadat, the late president of Egypt, made his historic visit to Israel. What seemed to overshadow Sadat’s visit was that of two other individuals—my older brothers. Murray and Gary had spent several weeks in Ireland shooting a television documentary. Since they had never been to Israel, on their way home, they decided to stop by. While at the Kotel, they were approached by Rabbi Meir Shuster, a veritable legend who is responsible for bringing thousands of wayward Jews back to Judaism. He spends hours every day at the Kotel approaching Jewish kids who seem spiritually lost. He met my brothers, and asked them a few of his usual questions: “Are you Jewish?” “Do you know what Shabbat is?” “Have you ever seen a yeshivah before?” Ten minutes later, they were sitting in the office of Rabbi Noach Weinberg, rosh yeshivah of Aish HaTorah, then a fledgling school for newcomers to Orthodox Judaism. After spending a half hour with the rabbi, they decided to check in for an extended stay, joining the fifteen college-age men who made up the entire student body at the time. After a couple of weeks Murray came home to finish the documentary while Gary stayed on, eager to soak up the wisdom of the Torah.


BT Shluchim make for BT rappers

Recently we’ve been witness to a new phenomenon, namely Baalei Tshuvah retaining a part of their former lifestyle. Whether it’s rappers or beatboxers, boxers or otherwise, they continue to supposedly use their talents and “flip it to Kedushah.” That never happened in the old days. In the old days in Hadar Hatorah Reb Yisroel Jacobson made you cut your long hair off and conform to the rules of Yeshivah. Yes, you could keep your musical instrument, but you played Chabad Nigunim and joined a Chasidishe band. If you were an artist you focused all of your energies into painting the Chasidic lifestyle. Today you do what you want, all the while staying frum, of course, and giving the youth the insipid idea that the two go together, and that pop culture will have no influence on their practice of Yiddishkeit.

Good Shabbos!

The Ladder

I heard a beautiful thought this past Shabbas on Parshat Vayeitze which illuminates an important idea for ba’alei teshuva. The speaker didn’t know the original source for the idea, so I would love to know if anyone has heard this before and knows where it came from.

Towards the beginning of the Parsha we read about Yaakov’s dream of angels ascending a ladder to heaven.
Why did Hashem specifically choose a ladder as the symbol of the dream? When one is climbing a ladder, it is necessary to climb slowly and hit every rung. So too for us as we’re growing. It’s essential to take it slowly and reach each stage in our growth in its proper time.

Most of us have known ba’alei teshuva who dive into religious life, quickly throwing off all of their old habits and beliefs, and just as quickly jump back out of being frum. It’s necessary instead to take it slowly and methodically. In the book The Kiruv Files, co-authored by Rabbi Dovid Kaplan about his experience working in outreach at Ohr Somayach, he says when he sees a fresh ba’al teshuva sprouting payos, he threatens to yank them out if the person doesn’t cut them off himself. He notes that there is nothing wrong with having payos, as long as they are grown in the proper time when one’s internal behavior and knowledge have sincerely changed, not just his external mode of dress.

Sincere, internal growth is something that Hashem constantly expects of us, but He demands each change in its time. Remember, it was the slow and steady turtle that won the race, not the speedy hare.

Beyond BT Melava Malka

It was a very nice event. We had about 35 people mostly from Kew Gardens Hills, with Gil Student and Rabbi and Mrs Dovid Schwartz coming in from Brooklyn. Ezzie Goldish was there as well as Beyond BT contributors Steve Brizel, David Kirschner, Marty Fleisher and other Beyond BT readers and commentors whose anonymity we’ll respect.

The inspiration and entertainment was provided by Gedalia from Monsey who described his journey from a traditional Jewish upbringing through a period as a lyricist and musicial performer in clubs in Greenwich Village such as the Bottom Line. A trip to Poland and subsequently to Israel was the beginning of Gedalia’s awakening. He chose the path of immersion in Torah study and has been learning for approximately 10 years, currently in a Kollel in Monsey.

Gedalia interspersed his story with songs that he had chosen from the over 100 that he has written in his life. Gedalia explained that learning Torah now fills the place that songwriting previously occupied, but he enjoys very much performing and giving chizuk to his audiences. Toward the end of the show he answered questions from the audience. He pointed out that BTs and FFBs have the same obligation to learn and do mitzvos. The only difference being the starting point but every Jew, BTs and FFBs alike, have things that they have to work on.

The menu of pizza and ice cream sundaes seemed to satisfy and there was plenty of good conversation both before and after the show. Thanks to everybody who came out to celebrate Beyond BT’s one year anniversary.