Shabbos Links and Stuff

Beyond BT Passaic Shabbaton July 20-21. Please join us for a Shabbos of chizuk, shared experiences and friendship. Don’t miss this great event. Email us at for reservations, hosting, volunteering or more information. articles on the 17th of Tammuz and the Three Weeks.

Aish articles on Tisha B’Av and the Three Weeks.

Rabbi Noson Weisz on Parshas Balak – The Power of a Curse.

Becoming a Better Jew

For some of us, learning Mesillas Yesharim can a be a challenge. The Ramchal is talking about reaching very high levels of Piety and Kedushah, and many of us feel we’re not in a position to reach those levels. We’re focused on consolidating the progress we’ve already made. We might get discouraged and say that learning Mesillas Yesharim is not for us.

But if we take a closer look, we’ll see that the Ramchal is also teaching us how to become better Jews. Almost every person I’ve met, whether observant or not, wants to be a better Jew. The process of becoming a better Jew involves integrating to some degree, the love and performance of Chesed, Torah and Mitzvos into our lives. This integration is not a simple process, and the Ramchal teaches how to make this a reality.

In the beginning chapters of the Mesillas Yesharim, the Ramchal teaches us the structure. We have to focus on outcome, implement the proper actions and processes to reach that outcome, and measure and assess our progress. In recent years both the personal growth and corporate excellence fields have come to the same conclusion, that outcome focusing, process re-engineering, and measurement are the keys to growth. Although the Ramchal gets his ideas straight from Torah, seeing that non-Torah sources come to similiar conclusions may give us a little more motivation to learn, understand, review, and implement the Ramchal’s teachings.

In chapter 2, the opening chapter on the trait of watchfulness, the Ramchal teaches us to be deliberate in our actions. On a day-to-day basis we should strive to live a life by design and not by default. As human beings, we have the intelligence and capability to live a life of doing what’s right and becoming better Jews. It would be foolish not to take advantage of these capabilities to become better people.

Here are a few questions for discussion in the comments.
– Do you think that Mussar is avoided by some/many/most people? Why is that?
– Are the steps to becoming a better Jew included in the path of becoming a pious Jew?
– Do most people want to become better Jews? Is a plan needed to achieve this goal?
– What key message(s) do you take away from Chapter 2?

Below is Chapter 2, Concerning The Trait Of Watchfulness, from the R’ Shraga Silverstein’s translation and posted here through the genrosity of Feldheim Publishers. Our learning is in memory of Sarah Bas Reb Eliezer Kops.
Read more Becoming a Better Jew

What is Hashem Telling me?

I was in a car accident last week. Or perhaps the right words are, “I caused a car accident last week.” The guy in front of me slammed on his brakes because the guy in front of him did, and I crashed into his car. I didn’t respond fast enough when he suddenly stopped, and now I have a sore body and a car with significant damage and since I live in NJ, I can look forward to G-d knows how much of a bill when you add up tickets, points, and deductibles.

I keep living the accident over and over again, this constant nightmare in my head. I can still hear the crash, feel it in my body, and that sinking “Oh no!” that comes from it. I had plans, an appointment I was on my way to, and so did the other driver. But this happened instead. Now it’s insurance adjusters, and body shops, and chiropractors, and apologizing over and over again to my husband for messing up his car. There is also a renewed and deeper fear of leaving my house, of driving anywhere, of recognizing that every day I don’t know if and when I’ll return to the house — or if my family will — in the same shape they left, or even, at all. This awareness haunts me, terrifies me, makes me cry.

I share this incident with you because I am acutely aware of how being frum shaped the way I responded to the accident from the first minute. I’ll share with you what I mean.

My first response after “OH NO”, was thank you, Hashem, that no one was injured. Even though the accident happened because the guy in front of me slammed on his brakes, I am considered at fault because I hit him. I wish it hadn’t happened. But it did, so I thank Hashem that it wasn’t much worse.

The other guy was rushing to an appointment. The damage to his car was minor. He suggested not bothering with the police, and just trading car insurance info. I should have done that, would have saved me a lot of money in points and insurance increases. But I knew the right thing to do was to call the police, and in that instant, I chose to do the right thing and call the police. (I admit several moments since then of clunking myself on the head and saying, “you idiot, what were you thinking?!!!!”)

At the end of the transaction, I approached the man and apologized to him for hitting his car. Although this in itself was an admission of guilt, and perhaps I should have been taking the stand of, “Hey, this is YOUR fault for putting on your brakes!”, I chose in the moment to just say, “I’m sorry for hitting your car.” He softened immediately, told me it was all right, and asked me what my first name is. I told him, “Azriela, a Hebrew name which means G-d is my helper.” He smiled, and quoted me back a bible verse from his religion. For a moment, we were just two people recognizing that G-d is in charge, and we forgave one another. I wished him a good day and he wished me the same.

Ever since the accident, I keep asking myself over and over again — if this was from Hashem, and I must believe it is, why? Am I being punished for something I’ve done wrong? Am I being warned to stop doing something I’ve been doing? Am I being given a wake up call? Why the expense right now we really can’t afford? Did I come by some money in the wrong way, and Hashem is taking it back from me now? Was this not a punishment, but actually saving me from something? Now that my car will be in the shop for who knows how long, did Hashem take it off the road because if that hadn’t happened, something much worse could have happened while driving it? Does the accident take the place of something so much worse, and I should be grateful for it?

And then, there is the sinking feeling I try to avoid dwelling on, that now consumes me. Life is so fragile, gone in a second, one crash and it’s all over as we know it. I kiss my children goodbye in the morning and pray they will return to me. I hug my husband before he heads off for work and pray for his safe return. Every morning, what is so dear to me can slip through my hands. I can’t hold on to it no matter how much I want to. It’s really all in Hashem’s hands.

And that is, for me, a really scary thought.

This is the moment when I am supposed to take the high road, and increase my bitachon, and feel a sense of serenity in this wake up call that reminds me that Hashem is in control. This is the moment when I should just be concentrating on my gratitude that the accident only resulted in broken metal, not broken bones, and that the guy I hit wished me a good day by the end of it.

And what does any of this have to do with being frum? Simply this.

I keep reviewing the whole accident with G-d in mind. G-d is always in mind. What does G-d want of me? Why is G-d doing this to me? What did I do wrong? What can I do better? Why today, and what does it all mean? Why was this G-d’s plan for me today?

I don’t have the answers, but I do know that it’s important that I keep asking the questions.

Are We Too Obsessed With Integration?

If you look at a person’s music collection or someone’s seforim collection, you can get an idea of what they enjoy listening to or learning.

A quick glance at the “Topics Discussed” section of BeyondBT will show that aside from “Project Notes” the topic with the largest number of postings is “Integration”.

It’s an issue and a concern, there’s no denying it.

I am much happier discussing this topic in the form of ‘comments’ on this website, than with those I daven with or share carpools with.

We want to fit into a community. We’ve changed our lifestyle, our friends, our food tastes so that we can fit in. Yet, there are times when we can’t help but wonder, “Will I ever fit in?”

As a baal teshuva for about 20 years (and I’m only 36) I can honestly only recall a few times that I’ve felt like I really don’t fit into the ‘frum community’.

-There was the time I went to a shalom zachor and didn’t really know any of the songs.

– There was the time that I brought my lulav and esrog to a friends’ house for Shemini Atzeres/Simchas Torah (I’ll never make that mistake again).

– There was the time when I was asked where my father learned and I replied that he wasn’t observant.

In truth, I think, these feelings of ‘not fitting in’ are mostly self-created.

Now, I would not include general lack of a ‘learning background’ as not fitting into the ‘frum community’. We all have educational hurdles and I, personally, have used the excuse of being a ‘baal teshuva’ far too often as a crutch.

I feel that I am the one who doesn’t allow myself to always integrate into Torah observant society.

In fact from my experience that it doesn’t really make a big difference what my background is to the following people:

– Those who need me for a minyan
– The owners of seforim stores, kosher restaurants, and grocery stores where I shop
– The PTA of my children’s school who utilize my volunteer services
– The fellow Jew who I say, “Good Shabbos” to
– All of the of friends I’m make over the years

It’s a difficult issue, I know. Maybe we just focus on it too much?

Shepping Nachas From Graduation

When a son or daughter graduates any stage of the yeshiva system in North America, one should contrast it with what passes for Jewish education in the heterodox Jewish community and indeed shep nachas. As a BT, you should have a great degree of nachas that you have raised a son or daughter who probably has a lot more Jewish textual knowledge and appreciation of what a committment to Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim are all about. For some students, there is no doubt that ideals such as Achdus take on a more real meaning in summer camps, where divisions and cliques that sometimes develop during the school year can dissipate as a child makes new friends that can last for a lifetime.

It is equally tempting for parents to be triumphalistic if their children did well in school and seem well on their way to becoming Bnei and Bnos Torah-especially if they compare them to relatives whose children do not appear to be headed in that direction. However, I think that while such a view may have a temporary and fleeting sense of achievement, IMO, all a BT parent has to do is to realize that there are so many Jewish adults and children whose knowledge of wnat it means to live as a Jew committed to Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim is based upon either urban myths or stereotypes about Torah Judaism.

Much has been written about the role of yeshivos and seminaries in EY in shaping the committment of American Torah committed high school graduates across the Torah spectrum. I firmly believe that while at one time “the year in Israel” may have been indeed a luxury, that it is a necessity. Like it or not, high school across the range of the hashkafic spectrum often is not that spiritual and the competition for grades and who is in charge of various wholesome extra curricular activities can detract from spiritual growth. It is no coincidence that many students who either were barely committed or went through the motions in their school years discover and develop a love for Torah in EY. Even if your child did well in school in terms of developing on the spiritual, academic and social levels, IMO, in most cases, the student who spends a year or more in a yeshiva or seminary in EY returns afterwards with a far greater committment to Halacha, even if his or her hashkafa may be somewhat different than his or her parents. IMO, the key is not how a child appears or acts upon his or her graduation or departure for EY, but rather their demeanor and appearance in the arrival area after landing at JFK. I have long been of the view that parents who visit their children should not just take them shopping or out for dinner in Jerusalem’s malls and restaurants or provide them with R & R in a hotel room. Rather, a parent should sit in on a shiur, chabura or chavrusa and really attempt to see what their child is accomplishing on a spiritual level. IMO, if more parents participated in their children’s education in this proactive manner, we would hear more nachas about our children and less complaints about the so called “slide to the right.”

The Beyond BT Passaic Shabbaton is Coming – Hope To See You There!

We are about 4 weeks away from the Beyond BT Passaic Shabbaton on July 20-21, Shabbos Chazon (the Shabbos before Tisha B’Av). We hope that everybody who can, will join us. Please try to reserve early so that you are assured of a place. The rooms where the meals are held have about a 100 person seating capacity and we will not be able to exceed the limits

The pricing per person for the meals is as follows:

$35 – Adults
$25 – 13-17
$20 – 6-12
$10 – 2-5
$0 – 0-1

Friday night meals will be at the host houses and we will be having an Oneg Shabbos on Friday night. We’ll be having catered meals together for Shabbos Lunch and Shalosh Seudos.

We will find accomodations for anyone coming from out of town.

The meals will be held at Congregation Ahavas Israel -181 Van Houten Avenue, where we’ll also be davening.

For reservations or if you have any question, email us here at

Modest is as Modest Does

Dressing modestly was probably pretty far down on my list of things to do, when I  became frum. It’s not that I dressed particularly immodestly – I wore baggy jeans and baggy sweatshirts all through university; and I never went for tight skirts or plunging tops.

But the concept of wearing only skirts just didn’t appeal to me. It seemed way to ‘old’; and to be a statement that I would never ride a bike or jog in public again.

That’s when I was in my early twenties. I got married at 23, and then another element of ‘tznius’ came into play: should I, or shouldn’t I, cover my hair?

I decided I shouldn’t. Not because I thought G-d didn’t want me too – on the contrary, I knew I should be doing it. But it was just so hard. I have thick, black, curly hair that over the years has become almost my calling card. If I covered it up, I’d have to chop it off or risk passing out from heat exhaustion.

If I covered it up, in the UK workplace, I’d have to wear a wig or risk really standing out from the crowd, which I didn’t have the self-confidence to do. And wearing a wig just wasn’t ‘me’.

And so, every few years the question of dressing more modestly would crop up, and I would gently pat it away, to be dealt with at some point in the future, when I would need to be more consistent in my frumkeit.

That time came when my first child was born, and started to attend an orthodox school where the dress code for parents picking up stated that any woman on school premises had to be wearing a skirt.

A lot of my fellow parents complained about it; but I thought it was a fair request. The school was orthodox, it was teaching an orthodox way of life, and wearing skirts – for girls and women – is an halachic requirement.

At first, I thought I’d wear a skirt to drop my daughter off, and pick her up, and then change into jeans in between. But 3 changes a day wasn’t practical, so what happened instead is that I went out and bought a few more skirts, and started wearing them every day except on Sundays, when it was the weekend.

I have to say I did notice a difference. I did feel less ‘young-looking’ in some ways; but I also felt more feminine and less ‘hard’. Difficult to explain, but I started getting a lot more compliments from my husand. I also realised that shopping was SO much easier, when you were limited to buying longish skirts. I hate shopping, so having my choices curtailed by tznius factors was like a blessed relief.

Then we moved to Israel, and I started to only wear my jeans on the plane trips back to the UK. But something about Israel persuaded me that even that was a stretch to far, and last year, I donated my jeans to the local clothing charity.

But hair covering was still a big no-no. It was even hotter in Israel; it was even harder to do it, in some ways. It was even more of a statement of religious belief. It’s a long story, but to cut it short, I finally realised that it’s what G-d wants; and at least in Israel, I could cover it exactly how I wanted, without standing out from the crowd too much.

But it was still a shock to the system. For the first few weeks, I felt that my (chiloni) neighbours were looking at my new bandana quite suspiciously; it was like wearing a t-shirt with ‘I am properly frum’ emblazoned on the front.

But after a few weeks, both they and I got used to it. That was almost a year ago. Today, I’m only wearing skirts, and covering my hair – although not all of it, but that’s a topic for another conversation entirely.

A few months’ ago, I was talking to my friend, another BT, who had also struggled with maintaining a sense of her own style, when she became frum. As we talked, we realised this must be an issue for a whole bunch of BTs – and so, we decided to do something about it.

We have put together a website,, which sells affordable, fashionable clothes that are modest, but still stylish. We’re starting it on a shoestring, but as it develops, we’d like the site to become a forum for frum ladies to discuss clothes and fashion, and to share tips and experiences. As you’ll see if you visit, we’ve tried to kick things off by discussing what can happen when you cover your hair and you want to go down a water flume…

But it’s a work in progress, and we’d love to get more feedback from the Beyond BT community on it. My friend and I know from our experiences that ‘dressing frum’ is often one of the hardest parts of ‘living frum’. By launching, we’re hoping to make dressing modestly easier and more enjoyable, and also to make the point that dressing tzniusly doesn’t always have to mark such a radical departure from what came before.

A Site of Interest – Ner L’Elef

There’s been a lot of talk about Kiruv in the last few weeks and it seems clear that bringing Jews closer to G-d is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor.

One site that you might want to add to your Kiruv bookmarks is Ner L’Elef. From their Website they state that “Since its inception in 1998, and now with just under 600 graduates in the field, Ner LeElef has established itself as a major force working to stem the tide of assimilation and in promoting Jewish literacy and vibrancy. ”

But the reason you’ll want to visit the site is for the wealth of information they have in the form to links to articles and booklets.

You Don’t have to be in the Middle to be in the Middle

Last February 12, my post titled “I’m back in the middle again” appeared on this site.

It was a follow-up to an earlier post, “It’s lonely in the middle.”

A few people still aren’t talking to me, outraged that I dared to suggest that there’s anything wrong with frum Jews dividing themselves up into smaller and smaller enclaves, despite the strain upon already inadequate financial resources, or that fear of different legitimate hashkofos within Yiddishkeit is symptomatic of the very reason why the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed and we remain in galus.

I was delighted and gratified, therefore, when barely a week later the current issue of Jewish Action arrived containing an article by Rav Emanuel Feldman, in which the preeminent author laments the increasing divisiveness within the Torah community. I urge everyone to read it here.

With his characteristic eloquence, Rav Feldman laments a state of affairs wherein many Chareidim look down on Modern Orthodoxy as essentially irreligious while many Modern Orthodox prefer the company of irreligious Jews to that of Chareidim. Instead of looking toward the vast ocean of halacha and hashkofoh we have in common, we pick on the few differences, magnify them beyond proportion, declare they are symptomatic of some profound spiritual contagion, and keep our distance lest we or our children become infected by the ideological illness of the other side.

Frum Jews to the right or the left of us are not our enemies. Perhaps our children could benefit from experiencing the broadening reality of a multifaceted Torah community in which sincere people can recognize that their differences are a source of strength. A single school might have different tracks, with more gemara for some students and more secular studies for others. Weaker or less committed children would grow from association with more serious students, while stronger students would learn to feel a sense of obligation and connectedness to Jews not exactly the same as they are.

Would it not be good thing for the next generation of b’nei Torah to learn to appreciate other Torah Jews without having to “convert” them to their own hashkofic perspective or else invalidate them for being different? Could we not at least try a little harder to emulate the twelve tribes as they were back in the glory days of the Jewish people?

I have heard Rav Noach Orlowek comment more than once that he recommends families to choose smaller communities where frum Jews on the street say hello to people they don’t know, or to people from other shuls. As one who has lived in both types of community, I know the value of a “Good morning” or a “Gut Shabbos,” or even eye contact and a cordial nod. It’s a travesty that there are communities in which these are rare.

But why are we so afraid to show our children that Jews not exactly like us can still be good friends, good neighbors, and good Jews, beyond the five seconds it takes to say “hello”? Maybe, amidst all the different agendas, a little more mesiras nefesh for achdus should find a place at the top of everybody’s agenda.

It’s Mashgiach, Not Moshiach

Among my regular Jewish activities, I work as a mashgiach. I thank Hashem for the opportunity to work within the needs of the Jewish community, and I involve myself with a considerable amount of kiruv. I’ll give you some examples.

This Shabbos I oversaw a luncheon in a non-observant (conservative in this case) temple. Here I want the people to notice that I will attend to the kashrus of their center, but they will never see me in their sanctuary during a service (that’s also kiruv). When I’m asked by the curious, “How do they conduct a bar (or bas) mitzvah at this conservative temple,” I reply that since I won’t enter their sanctuary during a service, I don’t know the answer to their question.”

While working such an event, I consider it one of my personal missions in life to help the Jewish attendees realize that Jews are to wash “al netilas yadayim” before eating bread. In this vein I make sure the caterer always prepares a complete and noticable washing station. I also place an easy-to-read sign that I made on my computer that contains the rules and brachos (in Hebrew, English, and transliteration) for washing.

At most conservative events, usually very people wash, and sometimes nobody washes at all, but at least people see the washing station, can read the informative sign, and can wonder about it all (that’s kiruv too).

At this particular Shabbos event no one at all was washing. I was disappointed. I actually get a thrill when I see a non-observant Jew wash before bread. That may not be YOUR definition of excitement, but for me it’s as good as a Disneyland adventure.

So no one is washing on this day, when suddenly a young girl, 12 or 13, began walking in a beeline toward the washing station. I was impressed with this young lady, as she was even carrying HER OWN empty cup. I observed from across the room as she stopped at the washing station, peered at the sign, took the water pitcher, and filled the cup she was carrying. Then she lifted the cup to her mouth, took a drink, and walked away. I was devastated.

Another of my favorite mashgiach activity, when in conservative temples, takes place with most Saturday lunches. The host or hostess of an event will usually ask the caterer to pack up any unused food for them to take home. They expect that they will put the food into their cars as soon as the event is over and drive it home.

NOT on my watch however. They are welcome to whatever food the caterer wants to give to them, but that food is not leaving the building until SHABBOS (not the event) is over. If the people want that food, they’ll have to come back for it.

Sometimes they become somewhat angry. That’s okay. To me, it’s a Kiddush Hashem, as well as an important teaching opportunity. The hosts might say, “Why are you letting us take the flowers home if you won’t let us take the food?” I answer, “I don’t have any control over the flowers, I only have control over the food. If I could stop you from taking the flowers, I’d do that also.” Or I might have occasion to say it somewhat akin to: “If you wish to violate Jewish law, that’s your personal choice, but I’m not going to participate in that choice by allowing you to take that food before Shabbos is over.”

I remember once someone called the headquarters of the kashrus agency where I work to complain about me. When informed of the complaint I asked, “So what did I do this time?”

“They said you helped their grandfather make the bracha over washing and motzi and he was greatly embarrassed that he needed the help.”

Well, I realize that it is a big aveira to embarrass a Jew, and I do attempt to be low key and tactful when I try to assist, but somehow I just don’t think this is the kind of embarrassment Hashem had in mind by this prohibition. (See Vayikra 19:17)

I also practice kiruv to the orthodox. It is my own opinion, perhaps the only such opinion in the world, that orthodox Jews need kiruv as much or more than non-observant Jews, and that includes the so-called FFBs.

I remember requiring at an orthodox event that a group of orthodox men desist from opening or using Canadian Club Premium scotch whisky. Oh they were MAD at me, but I stood my ground and they yielded…begrudgingly.

“All scotch is kosher,” they would say.

“Canadian Club Premium is a blend. Single malt is just scotch, but a blend has addititives, and in this case part of the additives include non-kosher wine,” I would respond.

“But Rabbi Moshe Feinstein allows up to 20% of non-kosher wine in a mix,” one man retorted (these are orthodox Jews remember, and much better equipped to look for argumentative ways to try and defeat me).

“Rabbi Moshe Feinstein made that teshuva about a mix of water containing up to 20% non-kosher wine. If you want to substitute scotch for water, then you had better ask Rabbi Feinstein, because I think it’s a stretch…unless there is more to the teshuva I am not aware of. Water damages the taste of wine which I believe is the basis for its Rabbi Feinstein’s bedieved acceptance. Do you really think that the scotch also damages the taste of the wine, or might the scotch even improve the taste?”

Do not now go out trying to figure ways to drink non-kosher wine. Halacha is a very technical field only to be decided by the experts. Consult your rabbi first and I hope he chews you out.

These guys weren’t finished with me yet. After all, Jews are a stiff-necked people. They named another kosher certifying agency that they said ALLOWS ALL SCOTCH, even when blended with non-kosher wine.

Here’s what I answered: “Gentlemen, whether that is true or not, this synagogue is not under the hashgacha of the certifying agency you are mentioning. This synagogue is under a different hashgasha that DOES NOT
permit such a blend.”

One of the main areas (not the only area) where kiruv is desperately needed amongst even orthodox Jews is that of accepting authority. Often we are too zealous to challenge rulings we don’t like. Rulings can be investigated and studied, but there is a process, and Jews need to be patient and pursue their ideas in a correct fashion, and swallow their pride if they don’t get their way.

All of this brings me to the one person who needs kiruv the most, in my humble opinion. It isn’t the non-observant, and it isn’t the observant, it’s ME, just ME. I’m always feeling inadequate in my Judaism and I know I need to search for ways to improve. My wife, Leah Hudis Esther, is tactful, but not shy in letting me know if she thinks I could or should be improving in one way or another. That is my definition of looking out for me, and I like her for that. I’d like to think that others are looking out for me in that way as well. That’s kiruv.

Let me make myself the subject of scrutiny for the sake of understanding. I think I am sometimes in danger of getting a swelled head (what, ME?). I think it’s fair to say that I usually (not always) have the upper hand when debating and discussing much due to the knowledge and experiences I have gained over the years. Although fair to say, it also places me at risk of being arrogant, condescending, and lacking in proper humility.

Hashem also does kiruv. It is no accident that I am a mashgiach. I am fully aware of Hashem’s guiding hand hidden in the background. Occasionally, I find myself washing and checking lettuce for bugs. For a mashgiach, it goes with the territory. Deep inside me however, I have an awareness that I consider this kind of work to be beneath me. It isn’t beneath me, and that’s the point. I feel it is, but I know it’s not, and this part of the job is a great help in reminding me that I am nothing more than a humble servant before Hashem. I cannot stress how important it is for us to understand this.

When I realize how valuable this activity is for my personal development I smile and thank Hashem for HIS kiruv.


Let’s switch gears for a minute, because I think this is a topic you would like to hear about. Checking lettuce has had other effects on me as well. When my wife, and/or myself, prepare a head of romain lettuce, we wash and agitate the lettuce in water with soap. We then rinse each individual leaf thoroughly, both front and back. Finally we check each leaf, againfront and back, very carefully, over a Logan Futura light box that we keep in our kitchen. You see, I have learned first hand that there are bugs in lettuce…often lots of them. You wouldn’t even know many of them were there if you didn’t know what you were looking for.

Knowing about the bugs in lettuce and what it takes to get rid of them has changed our lives in other ways as well. When friends invite us over for a meal, where kashrus is not in question, we will go to the meal. We will eat their main courses and their desserts. My wife and I however will not eat their salad, unless, we know that they know how to properly eliminate the bugs. (Note: Straight iceberg lettuce in bags that have a reliable hechsure would not be a problem.)

End of tangent.

Finally, whilst still on the subject of kiruv, I don’t want to leave out the non-Jewish world. Non-Jews need kiruv too. Call it Noachide kiruv, but it is kiruv nonetheless. Everybody needs kiruv.

BTW, to all those non-Jewish chefs and non-Jewish catering and service people, please be apprised when you are speaking to me that the word is MASHGIACH, not MOSHIACH!

Rational Hedonism – The Jewish Answer To “Why Are We Here?”

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz of the Jewish Heritage Center (and Beyond BT contributor and commenter) recently gave a shiur on the “Man’s Duty in This World” chapter that we are currently learning in Mesillas Yesharim. One thing is for certain, this isn’t your zaidey’s Mussar Schmuz.

Rabbi Schwartz turns some of our assumptions about Judaism on their head in a thoroughly entertaining and educating fashion. You’ve probably never had so much fun learning Mussar.

Download the shiur here. And download the notes for the shiur here.

With this post we’re going to move on to the next chapter. But first here’s a few questions from the first chapter:
1) What does the Ramchal see as the purpose of life?
2) How many levels of human achievement does he discuss?
3) What is the role of physical pleasure according to the Ramchal?

For your convenience, here is the Shraga Silverstein Feldheim translation of the first chapter which can be purchased here.

The foundation of Saintliness and the root of perfection in the service of God lies in a man’s coming to see clearly and to recognize as a truth the nature of his duty in the world and the end towards which he should direct his vision and his aspiration in all of his labors all the days of his life.

Read more Rational Hedonism – The Jewish Answer To “Why Are We Here?”

Mazal Tov to Rabbi & Mrs Gershon Seif

We would like to wish Mazal Tov to Beyond BT contributor and commentor Gershon Seif and his wife on the upcoming marriage of their daughter Shaina to Chaim Zev Aron of Kew Gardens Hills.

We would also like to wish Mazal Tov to Chaim Zev’s parents Jay and Kaila Aron who are friends of ours from Congregation Ahavas Yisroel in Kew Gardens Hills. Chaim Zev’s sister is also a close friend of my daughter.

Please join us in saying Mazal Tov and in a rousing chorus of “It’s a Small World”.

Getting Scholarships to Study in Israel

If you’d like to study at a yeshiva or a seminary in Israel but you’re afraid you can’t afford it, we’ve got good news for you – there are loads of scholarships to help you pay for your studies.

If you’re an American or Canadian citizen between the ages of 21 – 30, here are just a few of the scholarships that you can apply for:

* $500 airfare scholarship from Jeff Seidel
* $3,000 – $4,500 tuition scholarship from MASA
* $500 – $2,500 tuition scholarship from your local Jewish Federation or Bureau of Jewish Education

A new Web site – – lists all of the different scholarships that you can apply for. It also lists the yeshivas and seminaries, FAQs about learning in Israel, and a robust list of resources to help you afford studying in Israel.

Just to give you an idea of what is possible, one of the students profiled on the Web site, Rebecca, raised almost $12,000 for 10 months of studies at a seminary! Another student profiled on the Web site, Daniel, raised $2,250 for 3 weeks of studies at a yeshiva!

So check out the scholarships on We wish you much hatzlacha in your Torah learning in Eretz Israel!

My Sacrifice

Everyone gives up something when he becomes frum. Some more than others, of course. Sometimes precious relationships are breached and, unfortunately, can never be repaired. Other times, people give up lucrative career opportunities or fame or one or another kind of social standing. These are the korbanos (sacrifices) that even the least learned baalei teshuva place on the mizbeach (altar) in their service to Hashem.

Now I, for instance, did not give up a particularly notable “party” lifestyle, including any of the elements you might associate with that; I was always on the square side. Is giving up three hours a day of TV considering giving up “something”? Hardly. As to food, I never liked shellfish. Okay, cheeseburgers, chicken parmigiana — but what serious person can reckon the loss of a particular kind of food, or even the convenience of being able to eat anywhere, serious sacrifices when offered the opportunity of personal and spiritual fulfillment in exchange?

Yes, more subtle sacrifices are the social things attendant to these physical pleasures — the inability to “go out” with friends and colleagues to restaurants, say on Friday nights. These return as momentary blips of the heart, but if a person merits the development of a decently normal frum life in a frum community and is blessed with a frum family, these are easily recognized as pleasures of dubious worth. You simply do not share the values of the people you are not going out with and as nice as all the restaurants and bars in the world look from the outside, they are — aside from the value of fellowship with any decent person, which I refuse to assign a zero value, as transient as it may be — easily recognized, also, as basically empty inside. (I do not even understand what married people are doing in restaurants at 9 PM — don’t they have families? My father was never in a restaurant on a weeknight, or in a bar, ever. Maybe that’s why I’m here with you today.) At least, I, for my part, have gotten past these, and do not struggle, even though there are pangs.

Now, I will tell you, if you agree not to tease me or make a big deal about it, that I used to be a very successful collegiate actor. You will, I hope, entertain me when I say that, back in the day, I could entertain you; that I reached a point in my college stage career that I could, and did, cause a thousand people to erupt in laughter by raising an eyebrow; that I shared the stage with a famous Hollywood star in those days and held my own, and then some. I held audiences in the palm of my hand. But do you think that is what I miss by virtue of becoming an observant Jew? It is not. In fact, even in my callow and “secular” state, I knew how preposterously unhealthy it would be to seek this dopamine rush regularly. This was so not only because the big bad world was not college, but also because I knew that almost no one makes it, or stays made, and that even those who come close get addicted to this sort of ego gratification. Most become — as we see on the gossip pages — horrid shells of people, attention and adulation junkies for whom happiness is always transient and who end up relying not just on greasepaint and hair dye but on the liquid, pill and powdered chemical substitutes for that rush. There’s no business like show business for a reason.

No, I do not miss the stage.

I miss the music.

I was not a successful singer the way I was a successful actor. Never solo quality, I also could not make it into the a cappella groups in college; my level of musicianship was simply not there. I was a lead singer in rock bands, yes, but this was more of a piece with the stage acting as was my decent enough “musical comedy”-type stage singing. But I was always good enough, despite my poor training — my voice strong enough, the pitch close enough, the lungs big enough, and the vocal range, by God’s grace, wide enough — that I was a welcome addition to any tenor section. In high school, in college; choir, advanced chorus, freshman choir; university choir — I loved to sing, to harmonize, to make my voice part of a totality of beautiful vocal sound. By the time I was singing in college, too, our choirs were frequently accompanied by the university orchestra. There we stood in a century-old Victorian hall, in white ties and tails, making classical music along with violins, oboes and, for Heaven’s sake, a harp. For someone of my relatively modest social background, this was as much “making it” (I felt at the time) as I could ever dream of.

To me, though, as nice as the setting was, it was the harmony that was a transcendent experience. Singing beautiful music so great it has withstood the ages, masterfully arranged, along with scores of talented singers, transported me. Forgive the clichés, but it is experiences such as these that create clichés. So, yes, I felt aloft in the soaring harmonies of the Mozart Requiem; suspended by the crescendos of Handel’s Israel in Egypt; levitated by Hindemeth’s Printemps . Even more, I truly lost myself in these experiences, and at certain moments became, I felt, part of the beauty of creation, of the brilliance of human creativity bestowed by God on His handiwork. I was not so spiritually numb that I could not fathom in these moments some opening into the Divine.

That some of these moments took place in locations such as the university’s neo-gothic chapel enhanced this spiritual elevation for me. If you have never heard the voices of a chorus echo off of the thick stone walls of a gothic cathedral, you have missed out on something very special in olam hazeh. (Not that there’s anything with that.) But to make that music? Transcendent.

And I do not have that any more.

And there is simply almost nothing like it in my present life that can give it to me. Besides the fact that there is no value placed on fine arts, including music, in the frum world, or perhaps because of it, there are no musically serious choirs for orthodox men that I know of. (Because of the prohibition to listening to a woman sing, I can never again sing in a mixed choir.) I once heard of one kehilla’s famous choir and was eager to hear them sing at a wedding. On hearing, I realized that this was not so much a choir as people who sing together. This can be beautiful, too, but it was not what I was missing.

Last year I thought I had finally found a choir that I could perhaps join. They rehearsed only once a week and performed at times other than Shabbos. Rehearsals were in a church basement on the Upper West Side, yes, but perhaps there was a way around this? It never got that far; the director, eager to speak to a tenor (as choir directors always are) started to tell me the repertoire, and I realized … these are all songs about the wrong deity.

Now I can tell that I am losing it. I used to “vocalize” (work out my voice) several times a week in choir rehearsal, and I had a broad range that enabled me to sing most baritone parts and in my best voice reach a high C over middle C as well. No longer; I do not have the musical ability to practice by myself, nor the time or discipline; nor, hardly, the purpose. Now when I am called to the amud to lead the prayers, as I am from time to time, my vocal chords gradually constrict as I sing and I barely make it through Lecha Dodi without feeling an intense need for moisture in my throat. This happens earlier and earlier in my davening, and so I must sing lest robustly in the beginning in the hopes that something will be left by Vayichulu.

It hardly matters. Singing by myself is fun, and those who hear it do not seem to object; but it is not that thing I miss. Some special Shabboses, a good chazan who knows what to do in a shul with the patience to let him do it will return me, briefly, to that place during kedusha, and I am, for a few minutes, lost again. I improvise harmonies or latch on to ones being sung by others… thirds, fifths, sometimes maybe even sevenths over the melody note; perhaps a staggered syncopation in a complementary line and on those good Shabbos mornings I taste it, with what’s left of a tongue and a throat that feel older than they should, assisted by the remnant of technique that bides me “push from the diaphragm” and “keep the tone out of the throat and into the nasal cavities” … and then, just as it is getting good, it is over. My face is flush, my palate almost aches and, until a brief reprise at musaf, it is done.

I muse that people who leave things they love in their lives in order to serve God can bank on some amount of credit for having done so, and that perhaps this sacrifice remains as principal for them not only in the next world but even allows them to draw from that account in this one. Some of those things can be dear indeed, and when they seemed, prior to their loss, to actually enhance one’s spiritual existence, it can be hard to appreciate the sacrifice. Perhaps merely the knowledge that, despite the spiritual challenges and setbacks of life in general, one has made a stand and walked away from one or another sort of love to prove his commitment, however, can give one strength. And perhaps that is exactly the this-worldly benefit that is bestowed by such a deposit.

As for me, the harmony is my sacrifice, and while it is a trifle compared to what others have left, it is my personal bit of flour and oil. Just as we understand that the senses, in supernal realms, combine and intersect in ways we cannot understand in this world, I pray that my silence in this one translates into a pleasing aroma Above.

I Can’t Be An Observant Jew Because….What Would You Respond?

Say somebody you know tells you they can’t be observant because they can’t see ever giving up a specific activity which is forbidden by the Torah. Let’s assume that the prohibition is Rabbinic in nature. What would you say to the person?:

a) I’m sure you could give it up if it was important enough to you.
b) Take it one step at a time, do what you can do now.
c) You don’t have to give it up to be observant.
d) Focus on the big four, Shabbos (and Yom Tov), Kashrus, Taharas Mishpacha and Davening

Let’s say four years later the person is keeping the big four and they ask your advice about the prohibited activity again. What would you say then?

Do you see the primary thrust of Torah Observance as:

1) Continually striving to increase your general and specific observance levels in all areas.
2) Do as many mitzvos as you can and avoid as many aveiros as you can.
3) Focus on keeping the big four, the rest is extra credit.

Ripples on a Pond

I was so excited to see the topics for this week’s Beyond BT, because I am just bursting with pride to share something on point.

When I started making little changes to live a Torah life, my then 16-year old brother noticed and asked me about what I was up to. He attends a Jewish day school so he has a decent basis in Jewish learning. We had some good conversations. When I wanted to look for a shul that fit me, he agreed to go to a different Shabbat service with me each week until I found the “right” shul. I never told him that he should change anything about what he was doing, but I was upfront about where I was with my own spirituality and answered his questions or helped him find the answer when I didn’t know the answer.

Slowly I started noticing him making his own changes. First he gave up bacon cheeseburgers and pepperoni pizza, which I know was difficult for him, because they were things he really loved eating. He also started wearing his kippa all the time. After a bunch of smaller changes (by smaller I don’t mean less important, but just ones that were easier for my brother to make) things started picking up and he asked a local Orthodox rabbi about getting his own pair of teffilin.

Tomorrow my brother leaves for a school trip to Poland and Israel. Last week I took him to get a coffee so that I could spend a little bit of time with him before he left. While we were drinking our coffees, he remarked that next time we should go to a different chain of coffee houses because they have kosher certified cakes and cookies. Then, he told me that he wanted to get a tallit katan while he was in Israel. I was so proud that he wanted to take on this mitzvah and so honored to have played my small part in his taking on these mitzvot.

It’s amazing how much differently things go when you aren’t pushy. I think the best thing we can do to help bring our friends and family members closer to Hashem is to be a good role model and to have honest, non-judgmental conversations about Judaism.

Beyond BT Passaic Shabbaton Scheduled for July 21st

Fire up your Outlook and add an entry on July 20-21 for the Beyond BT Shabbaton in Passaic. Passaic is one of the most BT-populated and BT-friendly communities in the world and it’s great to be holding this event there. But besides the great venue, this is an opportunity to deepen the connections we have made reading, writing, commenting and growing together at Beyond BT.

The pricing per person is as follows:

$35 – Adults
$25 – 13-17
$20 – 6-12
$10 – 2-5
$0 – 0-1

Friday night meals will be at the host houses and we will be having an Oneg Shabbos on Friday and catered meals together for Shabbos Lunch and Shalosh Seudos.

The meals will be held at Congregation Ahavas Israel -181 Van Houten Avenue, where we’ll also be davening.

For reservations or further information, please contact, or email us here at

Although anybody can come to Passaic that Shabbos (or any Shabbos for the matter) we do have space limitations for the meals, so please contact us as soon as possible so you don’t get closed out.

The Teshuva Journey: From The Super Bowl To The Shabbos Table

He’s probably the only observant Jew to own a Super Bowl ring and one of the few Jews to ever play in the NFL. However for Alan Veingrad the journey back to his roots after his retirement was more exciting than any game on the field.

Alan played for five years as an Offensive Lineman on the Green Bay Packers, and then joined the Dallas Cowboys in 1991. It was with the Cowboys that he became the proud recipient of a Super Bowl XXVII ring, from their 1993 win.

After retiring in 1993 Alan faced a problem common to former NFLers: he had a complete loss of what to do with his life. Players in the NFL are constantly on the go and are always surround by teammates, so often have trouble filling their time when they retire.

“You go through this major void in your life,” Alan said. “I know players 10, 15 years out of the league who are still in the void. Where’s my locker, my itinerary, who are we playing next?”

During this period Alan and his wife received an invitation for a Shabbas dinner from a cousin who had become religious. It was their first authentic Shabbas experience, but wasn’t quite the life-changing moment one would expect.

“Throughout the meal he was talking about the parsha of the week. … Each of his four kids were giving over Dvrai Torah that they learned in school that week,” Alan said. “I was eating the Teriyaki Salmon, the brisket in large quantities. I was so focused on consuming food I wasn’t involved at all in the discussion. Nothing inspired me.”

After dinner, Alan’s cousin asked him if he would be interested in attending a local class given by a Rabbi. He accepted out of obligation. The class was held the following week in a mansion close to the Veingrads’ Florida home.

“For the first 59 and a half minutes of the 60 minute class I was so consumed with the location, this beautiful mansion hosting the class. I had never seen a house like this! I kept thinking, ‘Is this house worth four million or five million or six million?'” Alan said. Thirty seconds before the class ended, the Rabbi suddenly began talking about envy and materialism. He said if you let yourself be consumed by jealousy, it will only lead to emptiness and a complete void in your life.

“How did this rabbi know what I’ve been thinking for the last 59 and a half minutes?” Alan thought to himself.

The class ended, and Alan ran up to the Rabbi.

“Hey, I need more information about what you’re talking about!” Alan said. The Rabbi told him to come back the following week for the answers, and after that Alan began attending the class each week.

Over the next several years in the class, Alan began learning about Judaism’s focus on self-improvement and ethics, and especially its lessons for being a better spouse and father. He had always been interested in motivational tapes and books, especially those from famous athletes and coaches. He never imagined that he would find these lessons in his own religion. He always thought the Torah was just a history book, but when he discovered its deep focus on personal change, he jumped at the chance to learn more.

After a few years Alan and his family joined a local Chabad synagogue and were touched by the welcoming members and the warmth of the Rabbi’s family. The people Alan met were truly living the lessons he had learned in his class.

The camaraderie in the synagogue helped Alan fill the void he felt in his post-NFL life, and it would soon play an even more important role. Alan’s father passed away a few months after he became observant, and Alan was at a complete loss of what to do. He didn’t know how to organize a Jewish burial and mourning. The community rushed in and took care of all the arrangements, including providing meals for Alan and his family for the first few weeks.

“No teamwork I had ever seen in the NFL matched what I experienced in that little Chabad house in Fort Lauderdale.”

Throughout his life, Alan’s father had so much pride that his son had played football in the NFL. He carried Alan’s football card in his wallet, and showed it to everyone he met.

A few months before his death, he said something to Alan that would stay with him forever. He said he could really see amazing differences in his son and grandchildren since they had become religious. Because of this he was more proud to see his son in a yamacha than he had ever been to see him in his football helmet. “That was so powerful to me,” Alan said.

For each of us, every day is a Super Bowl. The real test is not how we perform for thousands of adoring fans, but how we treat our spouses, our kids and those around us. And while no one will ever receive a Super Bowl ring for this, we all have a chance to be MVPs in our own lives.

The Teshuva Journey is a monthly column by Michael Gros chronicling amazing teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. To share a story or send other
comments, email To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit

(published in The Jewish Press April 20, 2007)

Torah Leads to Watchfulness

Mesillas Yesharim is structured around R. Pinchas ben Yair beraisa which states:

Torah leads to Watchfulness;
Watchfulness leads to Zeal;
Zeal leads to Cleanliness;
Cleanliness leads to Separation;
Separation leads to Purity;
Purity leads to Saintliness;
Saintliness leads to Humility;
Humility leads to Fear of Sin;
Fear of Sin leads to Holiness;
Holiness leads to the Holy Spirit,
and the Holy Spirit leads to the Revival of the Dead.”

I often wondered what does it mean that Zeal leads to Cleanliness,… It can’t mean that you can’t do an act of cleanliness, before you’ve mastered zeal. I came to an answer a few weeks ago, and I ran it by my Rav who thought it was the emes.

There is a difference between an act and a state. For example, any person can do an act of Cleanliness but to reach the state of Cleanliness, a person must first master the earlier states. A person who is in the state of Watchfulness is one who is always watchful, day in and day out 24 x 7. To reach the state of watchfulness one has to do repeated acts of being watchful. At some point the repetition and dedication to acts of watchfulness make one a watchful person. Like many things in the spiritual world, the exact measurement of who is watchful might be hard to define, but to the truly watchful person that is not relevant, as he he is not looking for the title, but rather to serve Hashem by being watchful of his acts.

The value of constantly reviewing the entire book is that a person often has an opportunity to do acts above his level and he should understand what those higher level acts entail. For example, during davening a person should seize the opportunity to cling to Hashem, even if it’s just for the first brocha. This act does not make him a true Chassid (as defined by the Gemorra and the Mesillas Yesharim), but there is tremendous value in every wholehearted act we do for Hashem. However, it makes much sense that a person focus his efforts appropriate to his level which for most of us are the levels of Torah, Watchfulness and Zeal. (I’m thinking that perhaps Watchfulness and Zeal proceed in parallel as they represent respectively the negative and positive mitzvos).

Please take a few minutes to re-review the first chapter of Mesillas Yesharim. We are learning in memory of Sarah Bas Reb Eliezer Kops. Here is Chapter 1 from the R’ Shraga Silverstein’s translation and posted here through the genrosity of Feldheim Publishers. It is available for purchase here.

The foundation of Saintliness and the root of perfection in the service of God lies in a man’s coming to see clearly and to recognize as a truth the nature of his duty in the world and the end towards which he should direct his vision and his aspiration in all of his labors all the days of his life.

Our Sages of blessed memory have taught us that man was created for the sole purpose of rejoicing in God and deriving pleasure from the splendor of His Presence; for this is true joy and the greatest pleasure that can be found. The place where this joy may truly be derived is the World to Come, which was expressly created to provide for it; but the path to the object of our desires is this world, as our Sages of blessed memory have said (Avorh 4:21), “This world is like a corridor to the World to Come.”

Read more Torah Leads to Watchfulness

The Niddah Difference

By Jewish Deaf Motorcycling Dad

Since most of you probably aren’t familiar with Deaf culture, let me begin by explaining that the Deaf community is a very touchy (physically) community. I’ve heard various reasons for this. Part of it seems to be the loss of one sense, sound; so we make it up by using more of another sense, in this case touch. There are lots of hugs, pats, nudges, etc. Another reason for this is that we, of course, can’t hear. Say you need to get by John Doe, but he’s in your way. A simple “excuse me” won’t do much good, it’s noisy and his hearing aids are overwhelmed (or he can’t hear anything at all). How do you get by? Sometimes it only takes a light tap on the shoulder, sometimes it’s a little bit more of a moving of the other person’s body (giving a slight push to the side, or putting hands on the shoulder and moving them over a little). Now, all this isn’t to say that the Deaf are a community of people constantly groping at each other, not by a long shot. But I’ve seen that people who aren’t comfortable with touching are often unnerved when around a lot of Deaf people. For Deaf folks though, this is the norm.

Now let’s add in the Jewish concept of Niddah. Ah, now things become more complex! I see this often with one rabbi I know. He’s a Baal Teshuva, a hearing, religious son of deaf, non-religious parents. But he’s very active in the deaf community. I sometimes see that he makes a slight move, as if he is about to hug someone, then suddenly remembers and stops himself.

That’s the general picture. Now it’s on to my own experiences. Before we were married, my wife (modern orthodox her whole life, also deaf) and I really didn’t get into a deep discussion on Niddah issues; and after the wedding, sort of fumbled a bit to figure it all out. During the times of Niddah, we still touched to alert each other to things, plus a quick hug hello and good bye, and after a, shall we say, heated discussion, to signal that we are okay again.

But as I began to become more religious myself, we started re-evaluating things, and decided to try and completely keep from touching during this time period. There were some small challenges. For example, I could no longer just tap on her shoulder if I wanted her attention and she didn’t have her hearing aids on. Instead, I would now stomp on the floor (for the vibrations), or reach around and wave to her if I was close enough. Those were easily overcome.

No, the place where I noticed it took the most analyzing and adjusting, for me, was the “after heated discussion hug.” I came to realize that I was using this as a crutch to calm my wife (and myself) down. Maybe even unfairly. It seemed that if I hugged her tight enough, or long enough, the tears would soon dry up and she’d be feeling better. But now there were times I couldn’t give the hug. Now what to do??

I soon learned that when the occasional flare ups would occur (nothing MAJOR, just the usual issues here and there that all married couples with active kids face) that I would need to talk and discuss the issue completely in full length and depth until it was truly resolved for both of us, and we were both feeling better. While this approach takes much longer than the “hug-the-problem-away,” I think the solution we come up with is better and longer lasting, not another temporary patch. Now even when it’s not a period of Niddah, we do spend more time talking about the issues in detail until they really are resolved, and only then do we close things up with a hug. (After all, they are still nice!)