A Tough Question

A Tough Question

Being the only observant Jew in my immediate family, I get asked many questions about Orthodox Judaism. Some are very straightforward questions about keeping shabbat and kosher and other questions are more difficult to answer. The last time I visited my parents, my mom asked me why there are some observant Jews that are very strict about keeping shabbat and kosher but not so strict about keeping the laws of shomer negia.

My first reaction about hearing this question was “Do I really have to answer this?”, I don’t like being put into the position of spokesperson for Orthodox Judiasm, especially since I am very uncomfortable labeling how I practice Judaism.

After that initial thought, I decided to give it a shot. First I mentioned to my mom that people are putting off marriage for a variety of reasons, wanting to establish careers, live on their own before being married, etc. There is less of a stigma in society these days when it comes to premarital sex and living together before marriage, ie the popularity of “Sex and the City”.

When you get married young, you don’t have to struggle so much when it comes to shomer negia, although there are different struggles to be faced. In my neighborhood, I see people who are single well into their 30s and 40s and even though times have changed, the urges for physical contact have not changed. Everyone gets lonely, even in the city that never sleeps. It takes a herculean amount of self-discipline and self-confidence in order to remain shomer negia. When you live in a city with so many options at your door, it is a wonder that any adults are shomer negia today. I summed up the discussion by saying that some people are stronger at controlling these urges and are able to wait until they get married. Regardless, no one has the right to judge. We all have our own struggles to deal with and it is better to focus on yourself and how you can be a better person rather than tearing people down.

Has anyone ever had to answer these type of questions before? How would you have handled the situation?

The Night Hashem Did the Rest

By Ruby Ginsberg

My son had a Rebbe in first grade who used to tell the boys “You do your best and Hashem will do the rest”. At no time has this credo been more meaningful to my family and me than on one summer night three years ago.

With the kids back from sleep away camp, we were getting set for a family vacation to Montreal. Aside from fun and family togetherness, a good family trip should have its chinuch aspect as well. Towards that, we took upon ourselves, as best as we could, the challenge to daven three times a day with a minyan while on the road. Together with finding accommodations and attractions along the way, our planning included mapping out the minyanim across our route.

And so, on day 1 we headed north, and after spending the afternoon at Howe Caverns, we made sure to arrive in Albany shortly before sunset to catch mincha and maariv. And on day 2 after shachris, we drove through the Adirondacks. After marveling at Hashem’s wonders at Ausable Chasm (“The Grand Canyon of the East”) we made sure to arrive in Montreal in time for mincha and maariv. Once in Montreal, with its vibrant Jewish community, davening with a minyan was not difficult.

For Shabbos, we found a chalet in Mont-Tremblant, an hour north of Montreal, in what was somewhat similar to the bungalow colonies of the Catskills. Yeshiva had already started for the children of Montreal, so we barely had a minyan, but a minyan nonetheless. The upside of that was that everyone packed out on Sunday morning, leaving our family with a private lake for swimming and boating. You don’t give up something as rare as that so easily, so we stayed well into the afternoon. We packed up and headed back into Montreal for an “early” 6:00 P.M. mincha. And then we were faced with a dilemma.

The first maariv in town was at 8:00 P.M. If we were to wait, then we would complete the 6.5-hour drive to Queens close to 3:00 A.M. One of our sons had his first day of Yeshiva the next day, and subjecting him to that was just too irresponsible, even for me. So we set out for home at 6:15.

I immediately started making maariv calculations. Albany? We get there close to 10:00 P.M.– too late. Queens? After 12:30 A.M. — too late. Not looking good. Somberly, I informed my wife that we were about to lose our perfect streak. Her response is the hallmark of the akeres habayis: “There is no way”, she replied “that you are going to miss the last tefilah b’tzibur after missing not a single one till now. Figure something out.” Whoa.

So I thought for a while until it occurred to me that Monroe/Kiryas Yoel was somewhere near Thruway exit 16, which we would pass around 11:30. I had never been there before, and I certainly don’t know their minyan schedule, but the Satmar community must have a minyan factory that operates well past midnight, right? A bit short on the details, but a plan was in formation.

10:30 P.M. New Baltimore rest area. Time for a rest stop. As we waited for the ladies to finish powdering their noses, I noticed a chassidishe fellow standing by himself. Great! A chance to flesh out The Plan.

“Sholom Aleichem. Are you from Monroe?”

“Yes”.

“Would I find a minyan there in about an hour or so?”

“Sure. Even later. You’re looking for a minyan? There’s a heimishe oilam here. We could probably pull one together now.”

HERE??? In Yennemsville, N.Y??? At 10:30 at night? How could that be??? But sure, enough, within minutes a minyan had gathered, and we davened tfillah b’tzibur in the corner of the parking lot in New Baltimore, N.Y.

The joy that I felt davening that maariv under the stars, completing our perfect streak, is indescribable, and something that I will remember for the rest of my life. Hashem had sent us a gift. He delivered us a minyan. We had tried our very best. And Hashem did the rest.

Do BT Parents Risk Kids Off the Derech?

I knew I was in trouble when the reporter for a Jewish publication started off his interview with me as follows: “So, you wrote “What Do You Mean, You Can’t Eat in My Home?” because you became religious and your family is not, right? We had one orthodox relative, my mother’s brother, and he refused to come to my wedding even though I was marrying a Jewish girl. Ridiculous. My mother hasn’t spoken to him since.”

Well, now I understood where the reporter was coming from. Throughout the interview, his anger towards the BT/secular family tug of war oozed out in his questions. And then, he really nailed me with this one: “You see how much pain you caused your family when you became religious. Do you ever wonder how you’ll react if one of your children grows up to follow a different religious path than you want for them?”

Subtext of his question — “are you prepared for pay back time when one of your kids does to you what you’ve done to your parents?”

Ouch.

Of course I’m not prepared for this possibility — chas v’shalom! My husband and I have given up financial security, family vacations, the pleasure of a big suburban house and a yard, never mind all the relaxed get-togethers we could have had with our family, and the non kosher restaurants we no longer visit. If it were not for paying yeshiva tuition since preschool, we could retire at age sixty, with enough money to be comfortable. Now my husband figures he’ll be working till age 90, because there IS no retirement fund. These sacrifices we would make again in a heartbeat, because look at the rewards! Priceless! But after all this, what do you mean, they might choose another religious path?! Impossible!

I gave the reporter the answer he was looking for — “I would, of course, be devastated. I hope, if that event should ever transpire, that we would be able to communicate about it in such a way that we remained a close family.”

The interview came to a close, and I have been thinking about his question ever since. I read in frum publications like the Yeted, Jewish press and Mispacha all of the angst about frum kids off the derech. I reassure myself into magical thinking that our children have grown up with the kind of exposure to yiddishkeit we never had, and two parents who role model a committed frum life. They couldn’t possibly leave this behind. . . could they?

And then, I remember. It still shocks me. My children are FFB. They are as much at risk as any frum family doing everything right. Even when we’ve given every ounce of our resources towards pointing our children on a torah-observant path, there is no guarantee to BT parents that reads: “Given the financial and emotional investment you have made in your children, and the price you have paid in family upheaval, you are guaranteed frum grandchildren and plenty of nachas.”

Our children are shaped by us, but not in our control.

So, this is my honest answer to that reporter’s question.

I hope that I would NOT get bent out of shape if my second-born daughter married a real mensch who happens to wear a knit kippah and jeans instead of the black hat and white shirt her father wears, or if my first-born daughter falls in love with a Hassid who won’t eat my cooking unless I buy meat only from his butcher when they visited. I’d like to believe that if my exceptionally bright son announces to me when he’s all grown up that he wants to go directly to college after high school instead of the expected year or two of yeshiva in Israel, that we could find a “kosher” way for him to follow his professional dreams. Are my children still committed to the basics of Torah observance? Do they love being frum and do they look forward to raising children who will be? Do they love Hashem, and do they believe that Hashem loves them? These are the questions I hope I would ask. My job as their mom was to provide the foundation of a loving, Torah observant home, and a yeshiva education, from which they will carve their own journey.

If, G-d forbid, any one of my children chose to leave Torah observance all together, as that reporter insinuated could happen? My heart would be broken, just like I broke my parents’ heart when I left their secular derech. We would call in the professionals, pour our hearts out to Hashem, and never give up trying to bring that child back to the derech of Torah observance. I would not easily accept the notion of “as long as it makes you happy” — the romantic ideal of an unconditionally loving mother. I would storm the heavens with my prayers for their return to Torah. I daven every day for the nachas of watching our children grow up to build their own observant Jewish home, with Hashem’s blessings. Am I prepared for anything else? Absolutely not.

Azriela Jaffe is the author of “What Do You Mean, You Can’t Eat in My Home, A Guide to How Newly Observant Jews and their Lesser Observant Relatives Can Still Get Along”, which can be purchased at Barnes and Noble

Grass Roots Kiruv and Inspired Too

Rabbi Shaffier in a recent Shmuz about Kiruv made a great case for Grass Roots Kiruv. He pointed out that a non Rabbinic figure can often make a great impact because he is relating to the person peer to peer. He also pointed out many reasons that we should get involved. The only don’t in Grass Roots Kiruv is judgementalism. He felt that was the only taboo that would turn people off. Perhaps we’ll delve into that issue in a future post.

As you may know, Aish is kicking off the next phase of its Project Inspired, grass roots kiruv program with the premiere of the movie Inspired Too. You can also take part in the latest Purim campaign at the Project Inspired web site.

In Kew Gardens Hills, we’ll be showing the Inspired Too movie at Congregation Ahavas Yisroel on February 10th and February 17th at 7:45 PM and 9:45 PM. Admission is $10 at the door and $5 for advance registration. Click here to see the trailer and for scheduling information in a Shul near you.

In addition, there will be a kiruv training seminar on February 24th at 8:00 PM.

The Ratio of Cows to Grandchildren

I’ve recently picked up the book “The Kiruv Files” by Dovid Kaplan and Elimelich Meisels (Targum Press 2003). It’s quite a good read with chapters on many issues faced by newly minted BTs. It’s also pretty funny. Here is a particularly interesting excerpt:

You may have heard of Yitz Greenbaum, one of the early Israeli Zionist leaders and a man notorious for his antipathy toward Torah and religious Jews. He is famed for his statement “One cow in Palestine is worth more than a million religious Jews in Europe.”

Well, bearing that in mind, read the following story told to me by a Rebbe of mine.

One afternoon my Rebbe was busy with various tasks, overseeing the sundry details of running a large yeshivah, when someone came running up to him and said, “Rebbe, you’ve got to come to the conference room right now. We’re interviewing a potential student for the yeshiva.”

My Rebbe, not grasping the uniqueness of this particular interview, said “Look, I’m kind of busy right now. Maybe someone else can do the interview.”

“But, Rebbe, you don’t understand. This is not just any student. This is Yitz Greenbaum’s grandson!”

“Really?” He exclaimed. “This I’ve got to see. Yitz Greenbaum’s grandson on his way to becoming a religious Jew! To witness how Hashem has brought it all full circle, that is truly a miracle!”. He immediately dropped what he was doing and went to meet the young man.

Another descendant of a distinguished politician of Greenbaum’s era also came to learn in a famous yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael. This boy’s grandfather was a brilliant Marxist theorist and revolutionary, one of the most powerful people in the world, a leader in a country devoted to eliminating religion completely. The country: Russia. The politician: Lev Davidovitch Bronstein, otherwise known as Leo Trotsky, confidant of Lenin and creator of the Russian Red Army.

Yitz Greenbaum and Leon Trotsky, two brilliant, rebellious Jews, each convinced he had discovered the real solution to the Jewish problem–the abandonment of Torah–in exchange for a utopian political system.

Now they and their movements have crumbled in the dust, while the Torah they tried to eradicate is not only relevant and flourishing, but has become the province of their very own [grand]children.

“Mah gadlu masecha Hashem –How great are Your works, Hashem.”

pp. 40-41

The Temptation of the Bekeshe

How do American black-hat “Lithuanian”-style haredim — such as myself, and especially the BTs among us — answer the implied philosophical challenge from the hasidim?

One of the main topics on Jewish blogs concerned at all with religion is the question of “haredism” — a term with very different meanings in Flatbush and in Bnei Brak, but it will do for now — versus “modern orthodox” — also tremendously plastic but, again, let us use what we have. In any event, in the context of baalei teshuva, (talk about troubling terminology!) the question often arises: Why is “haredi” kiruv so dominant? Why can’t there be more kiruv oriented to bringing people to Torah and mitzvos, yes, but without the subcultural accoutrement of the black-hat way of life?

Now because many of those asking the questions are not themselves committed to Torah and mitzvos, I find it a rather disingenuous inquiry, at least from them. But it is not, per se, an unreasonable question. Yet it has been hashed and rehashed in the Jewish blogosphere, and I have no intention of opening yet another thread on it here, but rather to suggest it as a context for the following question: Why aren’t we all hasidim? I think that question is a legitimate one.

I have several answers to the question of why BTs such as myself end up (some faster, some slower) on the “right” of the orthodox spectrum. One of them is that having grown up on a steady and tasteless diet of compromise, we are suspicious of half measures once we decide to make, and understanding the meaning of making, a commitment to being an observant Jew. We also believe that to the extent that modern orthodoxy stands for more engagement with the non-Jewish world, we acknowledge the high likelihood of slippage in our own commitments, considering our previous modes of life. I am asking commenters here not to reopen these issues in the thread that may develop here — my point is a different one, namely: If we claim to eschew compromise, where do we draw the line? Or is the “line’ itself illusory, and are we indeed engaged in perhaps exactly what critics accuse us of — a thoughtless thrust to the right, to the rejection of the old self, to the comfort of the chumra (strict practice) without regard to the merits?

Considering this question, I reflected on what the “Lithuanian” style does for American haredi BTs: It provides us with something of an out. One reason, as petty as it seems, is that the American version of “litvish” or “yeshivish” orthodoxy” tolerates clean-shaven faces. True, this toleration is marginal at best. We beardless ones may not be depicted as Abbas or Tattys in Artscroll or other haredi publications (zeydies are allowed to be clean shaven; still, a R’Moshe-Sherer-style moustache is preferred to complete whiskerlessness). But you will see us getting awards at yeshiva dinners and acting as mohels and presidents of haredi shuls. Combine this assimilation-friendly outcome, now, with the Lithuanian mode of dress — a dark suit and a white shirt — and guess what: Except in those offices where adult dress has been outlawed, an orthodox yeshiva man looks pretty much like a lawyer or an accountant (abstracting from the yarmulke issue, which we will not even touch here), which he is, after all, fairly likely to be. The acceptability of sheitels among haredim in the US extends this flexibility to women as well.

I don’t mean to rewrite my earlier post or the ensuing discussion, on “dress codes” for Jews. Rather, my point is this: Non-hasidic, clean-shaven haredi men and custom-sheitel wearing women can move through the world without that harsh separation from it that hasidim (most of them — and the issue of how Lubavitchers dice and slice these issues is also too complex for this post), with their beards, peyos and usually long coats, effect. Given that the haredi BT has gone from complete assimilation to a philosophical commitment to a distinctly Jewish manner of appearance and a level of separation from the gentile culture, how exactly does he rationalize this rollback of separation, given that to some extent it appears (appears — I am open to suggestion that it is not) to be an accident of history?

This is not merely a matter of clothes, of course, though as I did argue before, the way we present ourselves to the world is always a choice fraught with meaning. I believe that many non-hasidic haredim feel, in their hearts of hearts, that — notwithstanding the difference between what we call hasidim today and the idealized hasidus of the time of the Baal Shem Tov — today’s hasidim demonstrate an undeniably high level of commitment to Yiddishkeit that not all of us can claim we would be prepared to make. Some hasidim say, indeed, they measure the mantel (cover) to the sefer Torah, while others seek to cut down the scroll to their own size Well, we can debate whether their way of life and appearance are more or less relevant today as a matter of service to Hashem than they were in Eastern Europe 250 years ago. But the relative lack of compromise with the host culture and the level of faith in Hashem over one’s life that the hasidic way of life implies cannot be denied. I cannot myself deny that I often feel an implicit rebuke when I am in the presence of hasidim: Why aren’t I at least trying to be “that frum”?

There are two possible answers, each supplied by a different though related haredi philosophy, and neither one entirely satisfactory. One is from the classic Lithuanian — and here I will use the term “misnagdic” — perspective: There’s nothing more orthodox, young man, about hasidim. Truly frum Litvaks, facial hair aside, are virtually indistinguishable from hasidim in religious practice (look at Lakewood), and frankly the outside world can’t tell the difference between us, notwithstanding our short suit coats. A black hat is a black hat, and the hasidim, far from being a “purer” or “truer” form of orthodox Judaism, are merely focused on, some would insist they are even obsessed with, a peculiar mode of lifestyle. It is one that obtained in a certain time and place and which by and large is, for its focus on a central leader in the person of the rebbe or admor, would in the view of a true Misnagid a cop-out, not an improvement, in terms of an individual’s personal obligation to labor on his own in finding the path to service of Hashem.

Another answer comes from Rav Hirsch, whom we discussed here last week. It starts with the Lithuanian answer but takes it a step further: The cultural disengagement by hasidim, which is so extreme that most of them have a great deal of difficulty according what we believe is proper respect to our gentile neighbors as men made in God’s image, is worse than the mere stunting of growth or misguidedness emphasized by the Litvak. It is not at all what Hashem wants from us — as much as we admire the d’veykus, the commitment, the pride, it is nonetheless represents a positive failure to engage the world that God has put us into. It is a guarantee of a permanent level of unsophistication about worldly affairs as well as useful wisdom, and a lifestyle that has many elements that far from raising our status in the eyes of the world, does the opposite.

Two good answers. There are more; it is a mistake to idealize the hasidic way of life. A clean, ebony bekeshe (frock), curly peyos and a shtreimel make a stunning fashion statement, but you still have to wash neigel vasser in the morning.

And yet I am not a Lithuanian, save by intellectual bent; I am a scion, two generations removed, of Gerrer hasidim. And I cannot escape that silent, silken black rebuke.

Integrating Environmentalism and Torah

Recently, Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz, director of Project Ya’aleh V’Yavo, (PYVY) was invited by Robert Gough, Esq., secretary of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy (COUP) and a director of NativeWind.org, a city/tribal partnership towards climate protection and energy independence to participate in the Tribal Lands Climate Conference jointly hosted by the Cocopah Nation and the National Wildlife Federation. The conference was held on the Cocopah reservation on the outskirts of Yuma, AZ. Rabbi Simenowitzs’ participation was made possible through a generous grant provided by the Simon Grinspoon Memorial Fund of the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Western Massachusetts.

“I heard him speak at the Vermont Law School as part of an interfaith panel on faith-based solutions to environmental issues.” said Gough “He just knocked me out with his energy and creativity. But what really amazed me was his ability to seamlessly weave disparate elements of his life – music, law, his tradition, farming, working with kids – into this brilliant tapestry. Also, as a fellow attorney, I respect his ability to transcend the “zero sum gain – I win-you lose” headspace and his relentless pursuit of “win-win” solutions to the thorniest problems.

In his opening remarks, Simenowitz pointed out that in his culture there were no coincidences. He noted that it was no coincidence that the conference was being held near Yuma which he explained meant “Judgment day” in his sacred tongue. Similarly, he noted that it was likewise no coincidence that a conference discussing global warming was held on December 5, the one day a year when the lunar calendar is overlooked in favor of the solar calendar and Jews in the diaspora begin saying the prayer for seasonal rains. He explained that his culture told the story of the man drilling a hole under his seat in a crowded boat. The other passengers asked him what he was doing. He replied “don’t worry – it’s just under my seat”. The crowd was quick to appreciate the implications.

Simenowitz said he was amazed at the similarity between the teachings of the Native American tribal elders and much of the Torah wisdom. “They appreciate the sacredness that permeates the natural world and the importance of our stewardship at this critical juncture.” He noted the two cultures shared a veneration of the wisdom of their respective elders and that both had been persecuted and had suffered immensely.

Most of the speakers began their presentations with greetings in their native languages. Rabbi Simenowitz greeted the crowd with a hearty “shalom” which was met with a rousing “shalom” from the 135 attendees.

At one of the breakaway sessions which Simenowitz led with Dr. Steven Smiley, a noted weather scientist and Vernon Masayesva, a Hopi tribal elder, it was suggested that the Native Americans employ a “new paradigm” in addressing climate change issues confronting them. Simenowitz shared the story about a rabbi in Krakow who had a recurring dream that there was a treasure buried underneath a bridge in Prague. Unable to rest, he traveled to Prague only to find the bridge guarded closely by a watchman. After spotting him several times, the watchman finally confronted him and demanded to know what he was up to. The rabbi told him of his dreams. The watchman laughed and told him that he too had had a recurring dream that there was a treasure buried beneath the stove in the house of a rabbi in Krakow. The rabbi returned home only to find the treasure in his own kitchen. Simenowitz went on to explain that we often seek “new paradigms” when in fact the answers are frequently right under our nose buried in our own rich cultures and traditions.

“Unfortunately, native Americans are getting hammered from both sides” said Simenowitz. “They are inextricably linked to the land. Once the salmon die off, so do the salmon people. Once the bear are gone, so are the bear people”. Moreover, they are fighting to survive internal challenges – from crippling poverty, from disease, from rampant alcoholism and a loss of tribal traditions which are not being transmitted to the next generation.” He found the parallels to Judaism’s fight for survival sobering, to say the least.

One of the more moving moments of the trip came when one of the tribal elders presented Simenowitz with a vial of what he called “living waters” from the pristine Navajo aquifer which his tribe safeguards. The aquifer is reputed to be one of the purest water sources in the world. The gift was especially meaningful to Simenowitz who has long been a vocal advocate of what he calls “halachic water conservation”. In 2005 he received a grant from the Simon Grinspoon Memorial Fund of the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Western Massachusetts to present a paper entitled “Water Conservation and Halacha – An Unorthodox Approach” at the COEJL Conference in Washington, D.C. Simenowitz explained that the sacred waters – which he noted were similarly designated in his culture as “mayim chayim – the living waters” safeguarded by the Native Americans, course through the veins of the earth and ascend through the maple trees as sap. Simenowitz duly presented him with a bottle of maple syrup that he had made.

Similarly, at the end of a slide presentation showing the work done by native American youngsters with groups such as Alaskan Youth for Environmental Action (AYEA), several who attended and spoke at the conference, one of the speakers said he’d like to leave the slide up for a while because he got such a kick seeing his young people engaged in preserving the environment and preserving native American culture. Simenowitz noted with a smile that no one had a monopoly on “nachas”.

There were some light moments at the conference as well. When asked on the registration form for his tribal affiliation, Simenowitz penciled in “10 lost tribes – not sure which one”. Similarly, following his presentation, Simenowitz was asked to pose for a photo with Colin Soto, Cocopah tribal elder. Goodnaturedly, Soto recalled when he used to ask for fifty cents to have his photo taken. Simenowitz replied that in these parts a rabbi should get at least a dollar!

Simenowitz noted that the trip broadened his horizons as to the pervasive nature of the climate change threat and how the maples he stewards in Vermont can serve as an antidote, each drinking up nearly 450 pounds per year of carbon dioxide! He is broadening the scope of his educational materials to reflect the maple’s critical role in carbon sequestration.

Gough and Simenowitz are already planning a series of straw bale building workshops involving native American youth and Jewish teens. “The Talmud teaches us an important lesson about tzedaka” said Simenowitz recently. “Aniyei ircha kodmim” – the people of your own village get priority. This is about helping those in our vast, yet intimately interconnected, global village.

On Having Married Off Our First FFB Child

Marrying off our daughter was a thrilling experience but one that, as a BT, was not without its challenging moments. But before addressing the challenges, I would like to mention something very positive: my mechutanim (parents of the boy), very established FFBs, were dafka looking for the daughter of a BT couple for their son. This boy, full of talent, middos, and “out of the box” intelligence (OK, I’m biased), was looking for a girl serious about her yiddishkeit, but did not want to be part of a judgmental, restrictive sort of family. So when looking for prospective shidduchim, his parents sought out those in the BT world. Here, in our world, as the shadchan said, they believed they would find the “real deal”: real Torah without the shtick. I take this as a personal compliment, but it is also a compliment to our entire BT community. I mention this in case anyone was worried that all children of BTs will necessarily face an uphill battle in the parsha of shidduchim. You never know. What you think is a liability may turn out to be an asset.

But being a BT “in the parsha” did carry with it a different challenge: mainly the resurrection of all of my parents negative feelings about orthodoxy. They had a laundry list of objections to this marriage and, frankly, from their point of view, I can’t blame them: she was too young to get married (almost 19); she hadn’t been to college yet (she is going now, but it wasn’t our first priority); why do they have to live in Israel (they can’t appreciate the kedushah, only the bombs); they knew each other such a short time (frum shidduch dating); she seemed too subservient to him (she let him take the lead, like a Bais Yaakov girl naturally does). My parents were outraged that he came from such a large family (let’s just say more than 10 children) and feared that she would spend the rest of her life pregnant and washing baby bottles, never “fulfilling her potential.” Her chassan had no “degree” of any sort, and my parents believe that knowing gemora will not earn them a living. “Rabbis are a dime a dozen in Israel!” they accurately screamed. Although they had always been generous with us, they resented the idea of our (even partially) supporting them, stating that if they can’t support themselves or he’s not professionally directed, they shouldn’t get married (they couldn’t appreciate the teaching opportunities he had with his connections).

Basically, they listed all the differences between the secular and the (more right-wing) frum points of view about dating and marriage, albeit in a loud and emotionally charged way. Why did I feel a sense of déjà vu? Hadn’t I gone through all this before, perhaps around 20 years ago?!

The hardest part for me about this parsha, therefore, was reliving all the fights I thought were behind us. Now I am more mature, of course, so I restrained myself much, much more, and I was not nearly as shaken in my beliefs and determination to do what I thought best as when I was young. However, the grief of the ongoing acrimony with my parents accompanied the joy, and it significantly marred what “should” have been a purely joyous time. It also took me by surprise that we couldn’t get through this easily, that my parents hadn’t yet given up and mellowed at all about my “orthodox lifestyle.”

Although some parents do come around, not all do; some BTs experience a wonderful rapprochement with their parents, but others, like myself, have to slog along for over 20 years continuing to fight the good fight. With love, of course, but with heartache.

Yahrtzeit of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch

Remembering the first Jewish warrior for tradition in the modern era.

There is no such thing as an Orthodox Jew.

Or, more accurately, the term “Orthodox” has no basis in Jewish tradition. The appellation was coined by the earliest Jewish reformers in 17th Century Germany to differentiate between themselves and the Torah establishment. In the minds of these newly “enlightened” Jews, the practices of traditional Judaism were, like the Jewish ghettos of Europe, anachronisms with no purpose than to shackle the modern Jewish world in a self-imposed Dark Age.

In those intoxicating times when Jews found themselves with unprecedented freedoms and opportunities, in the midst of their zeal to find acceptance among their cosmopolitan gentile neighbors, German Jews recoiled from the antiquated style of Jewish dress and Jewish speech, from the rejection of secular studies common in formal Jewish education, and from the Torah observance of those who perpetuated the stereotype of the “wandering Jew.” Thousands upon thousands turned away from what they denounced as “Orthodoxy” to embrace the modern Jewish reformation which, they believed, would lead them into an era of enlightenment.

Seduced by the attraction of modernity, observant Jews throughout all of Germany cut off their side locks and cast off their religiosity. Devout but poorly educated parents mourned over children who found little reason not to forsake the archaic customs and rituals of their fathers for the wealth of opportunity offered by the modern world.

In neighboring Bohemia-Moravia, however, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch took notice and could not sit idle. A member of Parliament as well as a rabbinic leader, Rabbi Hirsch left his secure position to accept the post as rabbi in the undistinguished community of Frankfort-am-Main. There he would build his bulwark against the tides of change.

CRISIS OF FAITH
In 1729, almost 80 years before Rabbi Hirsch was born, a brilliant thinker by the name of Moses Mendelssohn had introduced a new approach to Judaism to the Jews of Germany. Believing that he had identified the cause of anti-Semitism as the visible “otherness” of Jews living in gentile society, Mendelssohn’s solution adjured each of his brethren to live as “a cosmopolitan man in the street and a Jew in your home.”

With his extraordinary intellect and the convictions of his own philosophy, Mendelssohn managed this ideological tightrope walk in a way that his followers could not. Four of his six children abandoned Torah observance completely, and within two generations the reformers who looked to him as the father of their movement had forsaken the most cherished and time-honored precepts of Jewish practice.

By the time Rabbi Hirsch arrived on the scene, traditional Judaism was in full retreat. Recognizing the gravity of the crisis, Rabbi Hirsch crafted a response that at once strengthened the traditional community while drawing the teeth of those who sought to dismiss tradition as irrelevant and headed for extinction.

Observant Judaism’s detractors argued that traditional Jewish dress was a throwback to the dark ages, that the pidgin tongue of Yiddish was a gutter language unfit for the modern world, that the traditional community knew nothing beyond their Talmudic tomes and, even worse, wanted nothing to do with the secular world. To the Jews caught up in the excitement of a new age, their indictment effectively equated Torah observance with social leprosy.

FIGHTING FIRE WITH FIRE
Rabbi Hirsch met their objections head on. Within his community in Frankfort, he instructed his congregation to dress in the modern style, to learn and speak High German, to attend university, and to acquire professional positions in the heart of German society. He instructed his community to take on the outer trappings of the secular world, while creating a K-12 dual-curriculum educational system that built a rock-solid foundation in Torah study while providing the tools to succeed in the secular world.

Applying and adapting the philosophy of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yishmoel, Rabbi Hirsch described his approach as Torah im derech eretz, “Torah study and observance together with secular culture.” In Rabbi Hirsch’s vision, professionalism, secular education, and a familiarity with ways of the world pose no threat to the devout and committed Jew, so long as Torah law and Torah philosophy remain both the compass that points his way in the world and the anchor that prevents him from being carried away by the tides of intellectual fad and fashion.

In 1836, when he was 28 years old, Rabbi Hirsch published The Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel, a dialogue between an “enlightened” Jew and his traditional childhood friend. Writing anonymously, so that the personality of the author would not interfere with the book’s message, Rabbi Hirsch articulated the fundamentals of Jewish belief powerfully and concisely. His discourse forced many attracted to reform to look with new respect upon the wisdom of tradition.

Indeed, how could one not respond to words both reasoned and impassioned, to observations founded upon both human logic and the empirical evidence of history, to the inspiration of the divine spirit calling out from the depth of the human heart: “Not to see G-d, but to see the earth and earthly conditions, man and human conditions, from G-d’s pinnacle is the loftiest height that can be reached by human minds here on earth, and that is the one goal toward which all men should strive.”

Over the course of his life, Rabbi Hirsch produced many volumes in which he developed his ideas into some of the most profoundly thoughtful writings in contemporary Jewish literature. His commentary on the Torah is a modern classic, and his insights into the meaning and understanding of the commandments in Horeb are illuminating for laymen and scholars alike. “Dear friend,” writes Rabbi Hirsch, “forget what you know about Judaism, listen as if you had never heard about it — and not only will you be reconciled to the Law, but you will embrace it lovingly and will allow your whole life to become a manifestation of it.”

In our world today, where politics and religion are driving a polarizing wedge ever deeper into society, it’s hard to imagine a body of literature more relevant than the writings of Rabbi Hirsch. Unwilling either to negate the relevance of the secular world or to compromise the values that have enabled the Jews to survive two thousand years of exile, Rabbi Hirsch elucidates a vibrant synthesis of the body and the soul, of engaging the physical world in pursuit of spiritual goals.

Rabbi Hirsch passed away on the 27th day of the month of Teves in the year 1888. Through the impact of his leadership and his writings, however, he remains very much alive today.

Originally published at the Jewish World Review.

How was your Relationship with Your Parents in the Beginning

A journalist is writing an article on relationships between fairly new observant individuals and their parents. The writer is looking to conduct fairly quick interviews with people who are going through, or have recently gone through, the initial phase of becoming observant. Please email us if you are willing to help with a short interview and we will pass your information on to the writer.

While we’re on the subject, how was your relationship with your parents when you first started becoming observant?
Was it strained because you made mistakes?
How understanding were your parents?
What would you definitely do differently?
Where do you think you did a good job of maintaining good relationships?

Share your experiences by dripping a note in the comments.

Financial Realities II: The Unwritten Contract

By “Sam Smith”

In retrospect, I’m not surprised that my first article on “Financial Realities in the Frum World” received such an overwhelming response (currently, 240 responses, plus a direct-offshoot article, “Suggestions to Address the Tuition Crisis” of 61 responses). I knew I was touching a raw nerve, because this topic has touched a raw nerve in me.

In trying to understand the reason for the raw nerve I’ve wavered between righteous indignation and guilt. I am outraged at some of the uncompromising positions the whole tuition business corners us into – as individual tuition-payers and as a community — while at the same time feeling guilty that I am outraged by it. The yeshivos are only trying to collect money for teaching our kids Torah, and paying less-than-ideal salaries to usually dedicated teachers. That’s why I feel guilty, because I love Torah, I love the ideals, I love the idealists in our midst. But I hate… I hate…

What?

I had been having a hard time trying to put my finger on exactly what I hate. What do I hate about this situation and why do I hate it and do I have a right to hate it? Then, the other night, I came upon the answer as I was pondering a contract one of my children’s yeshivos had sent me and asked me to sign. And that answer is the “unwritten contract.”

The Unwritten Contract

When I became a baal teshuva I had certain expectations, whether I was conscious of them or not. These expectations were based on the ideals I was attracted to, and the assumption that if I followed through on the ideals, then the community I was becoming part of would follow through on the ideals too. This, in effect, became an “Unwritten Contract” — in my mind at least. The part I hate, or that at least incenses me, is the perception that the community – or, in this case at least, one specific yeshiva – is not following through on its part.

Let me explain myself.

My side of the “contract” was that if I did my best to raise my kids in Torah and be responsible about making hishtadlus in the world (i.e. doing my best to earn a living), while at the same time living as frugally as I could, then the institutions representing Torah would be understanding. That means they would accept my kids and do their best to teach them even if I simply did not have the money to pay full or partial or even any tuition (if I truly did not have the money).

What I didn’t expect, but what I have experienced, from one institution in particular, is this: We will not accept your child in the doors in the first place if you do not sign a contract to pay what we say you need to pay. We expect you to be grateful that we are giving you a reduction in our outlandishly high tuition and other fees. And thou shalt feel grateful even if that reduction is still more than you can afford, even if it causes you to go into serious debt. We will even send you a letter threatening to expel your kids, if you fall behind or become unable to pay what we said you need to pay.

Now, in all fairness, this describes only one of the yeshivos I send my kids to (two kids to the same institution). Others want their pound of flesh, too, but are not going about it in the same aggressive, and, frankly, highly un-Torah-like (IMO) way. It is quite enough to ruin one’s rosy state of mind. Practically speaking, I can’t switch my kids out of this institution now because they are good students, have friends and are happy. We managed to pay partial tuition in years past by going into outrageous credit card debt, which is now an unacceptable and untenable alternative.

In any event, the brutal truth is that, especially now that I have older kids, I am simply overwhelmed by all the expenses, unable to carry all my accumulated debt, and even the partial tuitions I am paying have pushed me to and over the edge of financial ruin. There is no retirement plan in my life, no hidden stocks, no wealthy parents, in-laws or uncles ready to leave me their fortune and rescue me.

After many years and many tuitions I simply didn’t make it financially, at least in contemporary, North American Orthodox-community terms. I didn’t become a doctor or lawyer or businessman. I didn’t marry into wealth.

In my darkest moments, it’s all a great communal hypocrisy. Some people simply can’t pay… even a portion of the partial tuition. Yet some yeshivos, while teaching kids wonderful, beautiful ideals like living austerely for Torah as did the Chofetz Chaim (including large pictures throughout the halls), make their parents feel like shmattas for not earning more than $100-150,000!

This is my “righteous indignation” side.

But then the guilt kicks in: They are only trying to keep the lights on, pay their rabbeim and teachers, overcome their own financial deficits, etc.

I don’t want to be fighting them, to feel that they are the “enemy.” But that’s the corner this situation paints me – and them – into. Parents and yeshivos become adversaries, rather than advocates. It’s a crime. And the toll – the spiritual toll: on parents, children and generations — is incalculable. There has to be a different way of doing this.

What is the Goal of a BT?

Should a BT just try to fit in with the rest of the frum velt? Which branch of the frum velt? What does it take to fit in?

When I was dating, a student in the yeshiva I was in decided that he wanted me to date his sister. I spoke to the boy’s mother about it and she said that she didn’t think a baal teshuva (myself) should date an FFB.
“Why?”
“Well, they’re just different.”
“What makes a baal teshuva different?”
“They’re more sincere.”

I still don’t understand.

In a different yeshiva I was in, an FFB student mentioned that he wouldn’t date a baalas teshuva. “Did you know the shadchan doesn’t have to tell you she’s a baalas teshuva?” I asked him.
Agitated, he asked the Rav walking by, “Would you set me up with a baalas teshuva without telling me?”
To which the Rav quipped, “Only if I thought you were worthy.” And kept walking.

Well, I’m not going to get started on the whole dating scene. But the question still remains, what is the baal teshuva’s goal in life.

One guy I knew was young enough and smart enough to enter an FFB yeshiva without a problem. On a visit back to the baal teshuva yeshiva he said, “Yes, you can make it there, but you can’t compete.” I’m not sure why he wanted to “compete” or why that was important to him.

After attaining the level of learning gemara on my own I spent some time in a top notch FFB yeshiva and sat and learned with a few guys. For me, every word and line of tosafos was a struggle. They could whip through a tosafos like water off a duck’s back. I was envious… Until I realized they hadn’t the foggiest idea what tosafos was really after.

I’m not knocking Klal Yisrael.

Klal Yisrael has kedusha. Klal Yisrael has collective ruach hakodesh, and maybe even nevuah. It’s important to feel and be apart of Klal Yisrael. The inner recognition of being part of the 3300 years of tradition is vital to
the identity of a Jew. And we must feel one with the group of Jews hanging on to Torah observance and values for dear life.

A BT should want to feel comfortable with, and have appreciation for, the good things in any branch of frum Jews he/she meets. A BT should have ahavas yisrael for a Satmar chassid, a Mir yeshiva student, a pajama-yalmulke-guitar playing- funky frum vegetarian, and a frum Manhattan woman lawyer with a $4000 sheitel. With a Sefardi, a Litvach, and a Hungarian. Whoever they are and wherever they’re from.

A BT should also think long and hard about the circumstances of his/her upbringing and ponder why HaShem caused him/her to have those experiences and live that lifestyle for those years.

Nothing is an accident.

We are in 5767, in this important time in history before the coming of moshiach for a reason and a purpose. Is it just to fit in? Are we merely reincarnated neshamas whose only task is to make it back to the fold?

Or are we uniquely designed to play an important role, precisely as a BT at this stage of Jewish history?

Rabbi Weiman’s new book: A Simple Guide to Happiness: From a mystical perspective is currently available at Amazon.

Finding the Right Community – Twin Rivers NJ

Finding the right community is important for everyone, and as, Rabbi Horowitz recently pointed out a BT especially needs a warm and accepting community. In August, Ilanit wrote a great post on her wonderful Houston community. It’s very helpful for people to know what the choices are when it comes to communities, so if you think your community is a good place for BTs (and FFBs), send us a short write up (beyondbt@gmail.com).

Here’s a post from Yisroel about Twin Rivers, NJ.

Having lived in Kew Garden Hills for many years, and been a student of R”Turk, I found that I had to move to New Jersey in order to find affordable housing. What I discovered was that by moving into a small Orthodox community you gain opportunities you never would have if you remained in Monsey, KGH, Boro Park or Passaic. Small communities, while short on shuls and a minyan at anytime, allow you to lain, daven from the amud, start shirurim, and basically grow by becoming an active member in the community, rather than just absorbing what a large community has already established.

There is much to say about this topic. I would like to make people aware of my community, Twin Rivers, NJ. We have an Eruv, Mikvah, Schools, Kosher Shopping, Shirum, and easy transportation to NYC. While 70 miles from NYC sounds far using the express buses you can be in Port Authority in 70 minutes.

We have four and three bedroom homes (town houses), with full basements. Average price for a home is in the range of $220,000 to $250,000. Twin Rivers is ideal for young couples and families.

For more information, please visit the Congregation Toras Emes website.

The Art of Reframing

I was talking to a friend over Shabbos and he related the following story:

He went on an admissions interview with one of his children and the questions being asked were upsetting him. By the time it was over he was really angry. What kind of school was this that would have an outlook like that?

When he got home he headed for the book shelf, picked up Rabbi Pliskin’s book on “Anger” and turned to the section on reframing. After quickly reviewing it he kept repeating to himself: “They’re teaching Torah!” “They’re teaching Torah!” “They’re teaching Torah!” After a few minutes he was able to reframe the institution into it’s proper perspective. Yes, he still disagreed with some of the things they said, but he was able to appreciate the good they were doing and eliminate any anger towards them.

Rabbi Pliskin, suggests that the key to a life of joy is to master this art of “reframing” — to change our negative perception of a situation into a more optimistic outlook. There is a free audio from Rabbi Pliskin on reframing available here. Let me leave you with this description of this simple yet powerful tool from Rabbi Pliskin’s book, “Begin Again Now”:

Reframing means perceiving a situation or event differently than you did originally or differently than it is usually viewed. A person who masters the art of reframing will be the master of the emotional quality of his life. While you do not always have control over external factors, you always have the ability to reframe.

Update: My friend Joe points to this great article by Sara Yoheved Rigler which contains a great story of reframing:

I  sat down at the kitchen table and decided to work this through. My feelings of outrage were bubbling up in my heart like a volcano, but the Torah expected me to process and control my thoughts and emotions as well as my actions. I knew that the way to change emotions is to change the thoughts that I was telling myself. By a gigantic act of will, I “changed the tape.” I forced myself to remember good things about my cousin, times she had been loving to me, times she had been vulnerable.

Read the whole thing, it’s an amazing article.

Ba’alei Teshuva Parents – FFB Kids (Part II)

Last week (click here), we left off discussing the distinctions between a mitzvah, minhag, chumrah, and something that is none of those three categories, but rather a cultural practice.

We gave some examples:

* Putting on tefilin every day is a daily mitzvah (a mandated commandment) incumbent upon all Jewish males above the age of thirteen.
* Wearing long(er) peyos is a minhag (custom).
* Not using an eiruv that has been approved by the vast majority of your city’s rabbonim is a chumrah (stringency) that many accept upon themselves.
* Wearing a black fedora is a cultural practice prevalent in some communities.

It is of utmost importance that you fully understand the difference between these categories of Jewish practice – in your personal life and especially as you guide your children. It may be helpful to think of these categories as spiritual “needs and wants.” Mitzvos are mandatory practices. Chumros need not be observed, especially when one is first beginning Torah observance.

If any of you needed convincing that the lines between mitzvah, minhag, and chumrah often get blurred, kindly read the first post to the previous column (click here), where a reader took me to task for misrepresenting a mitzvah as a chumrah. (As with so many other issues, these are not “ba’al teshuva issues,” these are issues we all face – that are compounded by the fact that many ba’alei teshuva find them all the more challenging.)

As we noted last week, the complexity of these issues only underscores the need to find and maintain contact with a Rov who understands you well and can guide your family with wisdom. (Click here for an article about seeking rabbinic advice.)

Maintain Ties With Your Family

I think it is very important for the stability of your family life and your level of personal menuchas hanefesh (tranquility) to maintain ties with your non-observant parents and in-laws. I am well aware that there are those who advise ba’alei teshuvah parents to sever their ties with non-observant family members for fear of confusing your children with the non-observance of extended family members. However, I think that this thinking is fundamentally flawed in theory and practice.

In theory, what kind of message does it send when you walk away from your parents and siblings once you begin Torah observance? Shouldn’t the Torah teach you an enhanced level of respect for your family members?

In practice, as it relates to your children, I think that severing relationships with your family robs your children unnecessarily of the unconditional love that grandparents have to offer. It will be difficult enough for them to watch their FFB-family friends celebrate their simchos with large extended family members. Why compound the pain by having them feel that they are rootless?

I would like to mention a final point on this subject – one that may not be evident at first glance. When you exhibit tolerance for family members, you are making a profound statement – that family bonds run deep and they override any differences that you may have with each other. Over the years, this unspoken lesson will serve your children well and enhance the respect that they will have for you. For you never know how things will turn out with your children. What if one of them decides to take a different path in life than the one you charted for him or her? If you send clear and consistent messages over the years that ‘family matters,’ that child will, in all likelihood, remain close to your family members. However, if you decided that spiritual matters are grounds for severing ties with parents and siblings, how do you know that this logic will not be used against you in a different context one or two decades down the road?

To be sure, there are many challenges that you will face regarding kashrus (kosher food requirements), tzniyus (modesty), and other matters. But they are very manageable provided that an atmosphere of mutual respect is created and nurtured. Over the years, I have attended hundreds of lifecycle events of ba’alei teshuvah where their non-observant family members were active and respected participants.

Find a Community and Schools for Your Children that are Tolerant and Understanding

It is of utmost importance that you find a community that will accept you with welcoming arms. That means one where you will not cringe with what-will-the-neighbors-think when your non-observant brother comes to visit. If you do feel that way in your community, you may not be in the right one.

As far as selecting schools is concerned, there too, see to it that the school’s educational philosophy is in general sync with yours. Often, I get calls from parents who are put off by certain policies (dress codes, media exposure regulations, etc) that their children’s schools maintain or the culture of the institution (What will the rebbi say about Thanksgiving, and does it match what you feel regarding that subject). And equally often, these guidelines were in place when the parents enrolled their children in the first place. One cannot blame a school for enforcing their stated policies.

Generally speaking, I think that ba’alei teshuvah parents should not enroll their children in Yiddish-teaching yeshivos. I am aware of the cultural reasons that people are inclined to do so, but in the case of ba’a’lei teshuvah, I think that this is simply bad practice – unless you are fluent in Yiddish yourself. It will be difficult enough to do Judaic studies homework with your children as they grow older without compounding matters by adding language barriers that will virtually guarantee that you will not understand what your child is learning, let alone be in a position to help him or her.

To sum up, when raising your FFB children, as with all other areas of life, follow the timeless advice of Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon) and stay on ‘the golden path’ of moderation.

© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

A Brief Introduction to the Works of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

By Rabbi Gershon Seif

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch lived over a century ago, and yet his insights into the Torah and his teachings of the Torah’s view of life remain very current.

This brief essay cannot do justice to an explanation of the times within which Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch lived, his battles, and his worldview. Nor can it provide a real appreciation of his writing which is comprised of commentaries on the Torah, Psalms, Siddur, Ethics of the Fathers, as well as Horeb, an explanation of Jewish Law and the meanings behind those laws, and The Nineteen Letters, Hirsch’s first published work, which serves as an amazing digest of all of Hirsch’s future writings and views. In addition, there are eight volumes of collected writings, mostly culled from his years of writing articles to his community on a wide variety of topics. I highly recommend reading the introduction to Horeb to get a more complete picture of what these works are about as well as appreciating Hirsch’s mission.

Hirsch was the leader of a community at a time in history when change was everywhere. The number of observant Jews in Germany was dwindling as the masses were being swept up with the birth of the Reform movement. Hirsch was the brave warrior who battled two simultaneous battles.

While the older generation of his time was to be commended for its staunch adherence to the Torah, nonetheless Hirsch felt that much of that observance was dry and lacking in depth and meaning. He felt that this was a large part of why so many observant youth had abandoned their faith. Hirsch was an inspired, poetic soul. He saw symbolism in every Mitzvah. He saw meaningful, relevant lessons in every page of history, both Biblical and current. He was forever exhorting the observant community to appreciate the depth and beauty that lies within our Torah.

Those same talents were put to use to stem the tide of Reform. Hirsch challenged those who were abandoning Orthodoxy to have another look. He mocked the Reform’s need for “Up-to-date Judaism”. They needed an education in the beauty and depth of the Torah. They needed to be shown that the Torah is authentic. Symbolism of Mitzvos is only meaningful if they are Mitzvos of God, and if those Mitzvos teach us lessons of how to live, not the other way around. At that time, many were discarding most of the Mitzvos, yet claiming to maintain the spirit of the Torah. Hirsch sought to develop a system of understanding the spirit of the Torah directly from the study of the minute specifics of each Mitzvah. He used his linguistic skills to show profound meaning in every nuance of the Torah’s wording. He wrote many articles debating the claims that the Torah was not God-given.

Perhaps the term that appears most often in Hirsch’s writings is that of Torah Im Derech Eretz. Much ink has been spilled in attempts to explain Hirsch’s take on this Midrashic phrase which became his mantra. Derech Eretz (the way of the land) is taken by Hirsch to mean engaging in the world in a way that will uplift the world and all Mankind. Torah with Derech Eretz means that the Torah guides us through all of our experiences in the world and teaches us how to do this. There are many ways that this manifests itself.

Mitzvah observance is one way. When I keep the laws of kashrus, I sanctify my body and imbue it with all the lessons of the symbolism of that Mitzvah. The Laws of Shaatnez do the same in the realm of the clothes that garb my body. When I make a blessing over wine for Kiddush, the wine becomes elevated, as does the one who makes the blessing. When I buy a home and consecrate the home at the Channukas Habayis, I have elevated the home and myself as well. The family is a further extension of this idea.

Building a community based on Godliness is another way. The Torah gives us a whole body of civil law and teaches us about charity and kindness to sanctify our community life. As Hirsch quotes on numerous occasions when he discusses this topic: “Ikar Shechina B’tachtonim” – God’s presence has descended to this world, and it is our task to raise this world up and allow space for God to fill it.

In this same context, history is understood to be God’s conversation with Mankind. It is our task to understand history and be an active part in that conversation. One needs to understand God’s plan for all of Mankind as well as how and why the Jews are to be a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation – A light unto the world.

Earning a livelihood, expressing oneself through the talents of writing, art and music are all part of Derech Eretz. Of course we must always remember that it is Torah Im Derech Eretz. We are all to study Torah daily, and every community has its “Levites” who immerse themselves in the study of Torah completely. But Hirsch was convinced that for the average Jew on the street, his duty was to live a balanced diet of Torah study, communal involvement, and family life.

Hirsch himself attended a secular university as did many people in his community. Without a doubt, before Hirsch came on the scene, the people were already doing so in Germany. It is wrong to assume that it was Hirsch who introduced this notion into Orthodox living. Having been born into such a society and with his understanding of Torah Im Derech Eretz, he had no qualms advising his community to live by that model. Would Hirsch recommend that for today? That’s the subject of a big debate. I believe he would, provided that the students were well equipped to deal with the many challenges that confront a young, impressionable student that might otherwise shake his or her faith and level of observance.

Inferiority Complex

I was having a discussion with someone recently and he mentioned that one of the problems in the baalei teshuvah mindset is that BTs are often scared to question things they hear, especially from people who grew up religious because they anticipate that their own knowledge base is lacking in comparison. BTs just assume that because someone grew up in a religious home, with an Orthodox Jewish education, they necessarily know a lot more, and should not be questioned in regards to opinions relating to Jewish topics.

I also know from experience that linguistic mastery goes a long way in making a person sound like they know what they are talking about, and that the use of key Hebrew and Yiddish phrases can make a BT feel inadequate and ignorant. It’s a huge barrier to get over when becoming observant; I specifically had, and still have, a very difficult time hearing a lot of Hebrew or Yiddish and attempting to decipher what is being said. This language barrier alone made me feel very inadequate for a long time, until I got the guts to just insist that those talking to me speak in English or translate any Hebrew or Yiddish being said in order that I fully understand what is being said.

This feeling of inferiority in both language and knowledge is often just that – a feeling, rather than reality. And it often cripples a BT from really asking the important questions and clarifying for themselves queries they may have about specific things they hear. It’s important that a BT feel secure in him or herself, in his or her knowledge base, and in the validity of asking questions and thinking for him or herself. Otherwise, they might never come to feel like a real part of the observant community, and will sideline themselves as outsiders and inferior members, a feeling which they will, in turn, share with their children.

Now, I’m not talking about questioning every single thing one hears from a respected rav on the finer points of halachic decisions. But I am talking about having enough faith in one’s own knowledge to challenge what seems to be contradictory and at least ask for clarification when there is a seeming inconsistency, rather than accepting things that disagree with previous learning. And even when there isn’t a seeming contradiction, and one just wants to know more about where a specific halacha or opinion comes from, to have the guts to ask to be shown the source, rather than just accepting that it’s what “it says.”

BTs need to believe in themselves and the learning they have accumulated, whether that has been through formal yeshiva training, assorted classes or a lot of reading. Having the courage to ask questions leads to a better and more solid knowledge base. It leads to stronger convictions and hold on the lifestyle that has been chosen, because it is based on answers, rather than just acceptance of surface-level statements, with a view of the foundation upon which they have built their new lives.

And remember – there’s no such thing as a stupid question.

Do I need to Reconcile Science and Torah?

Most people ask “How do they reconcile science and Torah?” I ask, “Do I need to?”

As a BT, I grew up in the secular, science-based world. I even went to Bronx High School of Science and got my undergraduate degree in archaeology.

You would think the question about science and Torah would be a burning issue for me. It isn’t. Why? Good question. I think the answer is that Chazal (our sages) have answers for us. My main focus in this article is the age of the universe.
Out of the two major answers, science jives better with one of them. However, I recognize what science is and what it isn’t. It isn’t perfect, far from it. Second, it consists mainly of theories that change by the day and I will take Rabbi Akiva over any scientist, any day.

One answer is that the universe really is 5767 years old in “real years” and everything that shows differently according to science is either mistaken or made to look that way by G-d to test our faith. Many of our sages held and do hold by this.

The second answer is that the universe is really 15 billion years old. The Jewish calendar only starts from forming of Adam, which is on the 6th day of creation. The previous days are not “our” days. Rather, each one represents thousands of years. This theory is well explained by some of our sages. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan has an excellent discussion about this in his book entitled “Immortality, Resurrection, and the Age of the Universe”. Professor Schroeder also discusses the issue in his book “The Science of G-d”. Numerous other authors have discussed tgis theory as well.

For me, either answer is valid and assuaging. If you “need” science and Torah to match then you have an answer. If you don’t, you also have a possibility. Yes, I lean a certain way, but if in the end of days I find out the answer was the other one, no big sweat. Hashem existed before anything, designed the world as he saw fit and that is ok by me. G-d is all powerful, so he could definitely make some rocks look older than they really are. G-d help me if I base my emunah (faith) on what scientists tell me.

Let’s remember that Moses received the Torah from G-d and Mr. Scientist received a grant for his research from so and so foundation. I know whom I trust more.

Why was this Shabbos different from all Others?

By Bayla S. Brenner

As we walk through each day, we carry the history of our lives in memory. We are, after all, living documents of our experiences. Every moment breathed in becomes us. The anticipation we felt at dusk when we heard the chime of the Good Humor truck — so long ago — remains intact, alongside the manifold yearnings born over the years. The streets we’ve walked, the people we’ve affected and the ones who have touched us have all altered, but our encounters with time remain and continue. As each Jew reacts to personal circumstances, he shapes his own life, in turn, shaping the life of the Jewish people. If we choose to share these experiences with each other, we are teaching history.

I learned about the Holocaust by virtue of being the daughter of two who lived the nightmare. I don’t think I could have had a more effective education about that agonizing period of Jewish history. The following story captures a moment in time of three Jews, my parents and I, struggling to move forward while carrying the weight of the unspeakable.

My parents and I are separated by the typical strains. Because of their history, the parental expectations and disappointments affect me more intensely than most. It all resurfaces after every call. I sit with a painful hole on my side of the phone click. But still I try: not to make them happy (I’ve realized that that is an impossibility), but to help them see who I am. Where there is talk, there is hope.

Every winter, I visit my parents in Florida. I make reservations at the last possible minute in an effort to postpone my anxiety about seeing them. I arrive feeling somewhat strong, with my ego intact. It always happens, though. By the third night of my four-day-visit, I am a broken and empty shell lying on the guest couch trying to find my pieces in time for the flight back to New York. It was on a recent trip down there that I decided that this would be the visit, after which I would leave the way I came. I didn’t. I came back better.

I arrived Friday morning. The Florida sun felt oppressive as I made my way through the crowded waiting area. I had no trouble spotting my parents. I could almost hear their waiting. We hugged hello, put my luggage into the car, and we were off. My parents live in a neighborhood where the palm trees bend low like the people who live there. Red-yellow-orange flowers blaze, driveways are lined with sleek pastel cars, and blood-scarred Holocaust survivors parade in Nike sweatsuits, Adidas sneakers and leather faces.

I showered, washing off the travel soot, and I was ready to prepare for a Shabbes meal that I never experienced as a child. My parents watched curiously as I set two candelsticks down. My mother placed two of her own beside mine, something I had never seen her do. I lit the candles, covered my eyes and recited the traditional prayer welcoming in the Sabbath. “I’ll say my own prayer,” my mother said with mock indignation. My father hurried out of the room and returned with a faded blue yarmulke in his hands.

“That’s really something, no?” my father’s eyes glimmered. My father’s eyes rarely glimmered. “This is the first time I’m using it since…” He lifted the yarmulke closer to my face. “Look at the writing inside,” he urged softly. My father’s Polish accent cracks me open every time. I tried to make out the chipped white letters inside the rim. Through squinted eyes, I read: “Jeffrey Kahn’s Bar Mitzvah…”

“I was just a kid when you went to that bar mitzvah,” I said.

“A pipsqueak!” he added. I vaguely remembered the boy. He was the son of one of my father’s childhood friends in Europe. My father sat at the table and carefully placed the frayed cloth on his head. He gave its sides an awkward tug. The shiny cloth bowl seemed to fill with air and rise above his bald spot.

My father was about to make Friday night kiddush for the first time in our lives together. I didn’t trust this moment. I knew that on the other side of the levity crouched pain. “I found some old Manischewitz in the closet. This should be good, no?” My father was trying so hard. It hurt me to watch. He recited “…borei pri hagafen” and drank. I wanted to tell him that there was an introductory prayer, but chose to keep my mouth shut. I didn’t want to rustle the tension between us.

My mother stood in the hallway watching us. She crossed her self-imposed barrier only to drop two plates of chicken on the table, then she quickly resumed her huddled position in the dark hallway. Her husband had chosen to tread upon this dangerous territory and seemed to be having too good a time to stop. He bit into his chicken leg and in mid-swallow said, “Mala, come sit with us!” I wasn’t sure I wanted her terrified presence at the table. I was having enough trouble with my father’s unusual amiability.

“No, no, I’m all right,” she said. “You want some gefilte fish maybe?” She retreated to the kitchen, and it was my father and me again. “l’d like to go to the synagogue tomorrow. Are there any around here?” I said to my father in the most matter-of-fact voice that I could manage. “You want synagogue, too? Shabbes is a day of rest. Rest with your parents. You’re only staying five days.”

“Four,” I corrected.

“Okay, four! More reason you should stay with the old folks”.

“Let her go to synagogue!” came a voice from the hallway. My father crossed his arms and held them tightly against his chest. He was containing something more than his arms could hold. “You came to Florida to spend in synagogue? To light candles, to aggravate your mother” — his hands swept the air above the table — “to make…to force on us, this?” The anger took control of his face.

“Please, Michael,” my mother left her refuge to pull him away from the smoke. It was too late. He stood above me and choked on his next word. I couldn’t make out what he said, but the power of his rage shook the room. I had trespassed on forbidden ground. It was a cold, black, scary place, and I was stuck. His finger drilled the air in my direction. “Get out then! You want to leave, so go!” My mother could not stop or slow down my father’s hurricane of emotion. I don’t think she wanted to. He was also speaking for her. She leaned against the front door and wept without tears. My father’s eyes were locked open, dry with fury. I sat behind my plate of cold chicken, 117 pounds of guilt breaking a hole in my chair.

This was no ordinary Shabbes meal. The pretty lace tablecloth, the smell of boiled chicken, the red wine and the yarmulke mirrored a very old vision for my parents, more acute than the one in the dining room. My parents’ memories of Friday nights before the war are buried far away from the light of consciousness, fixed in another time. By creating this scene, had I set my parents up to make them confront these buried feelings?

That night, I forgot how to sleep. The power of pure regret drove through the center of my stomach. I was helpless to free my parents of their pain. I took little comfort in the fact that what had happened that night was, indeed, not the source of their tragedy. I had banged hard on the steel door to a room that only the two of them occupied. A misty room with four trembling eyes, anguished and vulnerable. Why did they yield this time? Maybe they were caught off guard or just succumbed to my pressure, as if to say, “If you really want to see this, then look, but don’t stay long.” Pushing my cheek into my pillow, urging sleep, I heard the sound of my parents’ muffled voices rise and fall down the hallway. We were all trying to resolve something. As a palm leaf shadow on my wall finished its concerto, the realization crept in that I was finding fulfillment in a life-style that my parents felt betrayed by.

The next morning, we said little. Mostly, we shared warm bagels and silence. The silence stood near us, protecting us, drawing us closer. When one understands so completely, there are no words.

The days that followed held dreamlike calm. Our movements and words were careful and deliberate. We were very much in present tense, which was a treat for me and a relief for them. On the day of my departure, we kissed goodbye at the airport and held each other. For the first time, I felt like a grown-up in their arms.

Over a year of Sabbaths have gone by, and my parents continue to walk the streets of their sunny neighborhood. A change had taken place that night. We learned to respect one another. They showed me a part of themselves that the rest of the world would never see. I now understand the need for the soft Floridian blanket with which my parents drape their lives. My father asks me how my holidays are. My mother sends me kosher treats. She writes: “Betty, we miss you.”

My life as an observant Jew has made me aware of the depth and beauty within the moral example that my parents taught their daughter. My mother and father saw beyond their remembered sorrow that night. They saw me.

Bayla is currently working on an article on Baalei Teshuva whose parents were Holocaust survivors. If you fit that description please email Bayla at BrennerBs -at- ou.org or contact us a beyondbt@gmail.com and we will connect you to Bayla.