Rabbi Harvey Belovski on Kiruv

Rabbi Harvey Belovski recently posted some Hard Questions About Kiruv on Cross Currents. After a number of paragraphs focused on the small percentage of Baalei Teshuva who fall out of Yiddishkeit, he concludes:

I hope that it’s not too controversial to suggest that the objectives of outreach are to help each Jew reach his or her full potential as a human being, ultimately through Mitzvah observance and Torah study. Presumably we should get to know those who seek our guidance: learn to love them as individuals; discover their interests, strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs. Developing a sense that the religious needs of each person we meet differ considerably from those of every other can be difficult, but might we be doing those with whom we work a disservice by adopting any other approach? The Sages teach:

When a man mints many coins with one stamp, they all look the same, but while the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed is He, minted each person with the ‘stamp’ of Adam the First, no one looks like any other. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

If God created us as individuals, it should be the role of those privileged to help His children along their journey towards Him to foster that individuality. Shouldn’t we try to craft a tailor-made religious path for each of our students? Despite the complexities of doing this, it might just enable them to benefit from the wonders of Torah life without stifling their personality or crushing their need for self-expression.

Is it just possible that the multi-chromatic vision of the Jewish world isn’t the common one in the kiruv scene because some of those in charge don’t subscribe to it? Some of us may have come to believe that there is a single optimum way to be a Torah Jew: one ‘correct’ approach to all Jewish issues, one best way of observing halakhah (Jewish law), one ideal mode of living and one supreme authority for Jewish life. May I suggest, perhaps contrary to prevailing norms, that a kiruv operative would see it as a sacred duty to learn about (and hence validate) the range of Jewish possibilities and to incorporate that into his or her kiruv practice. After all, the magnificent system of thought and practice called Judaism really does have a multiplicity of expressions. Finally, might an outreach professional who thinks that it is his or her mission to turn an eclectic group of non-observant Jews into a bunch of religious clones be in the wrong job?

BT 2.0

One summer, 20 years ago, I became Torah Observant. The decision and commitment took place while on an NCSY summer tour right before my junior year of high school. My growth as a Jew after that point was fairly text book, I suppose. Strong participation in NCSY, several years learning in Eretz Yisrael, combined with both a L’mudai Kodesh and secular education for college.

As time went on I became friends with many BTs, like myself, as well as FFBs. Eventually I got married and started a family. As I look back at my ‘life’ as a Torah Jew, I see that something happened.

I stopped connecting on a certain level as a BT. I don’t mean that I denied or hid my own journey towards Teshuva. I simply functioned on a level where I focused more on my learning, growth, and Avodas Hashem and less on my past. About a year and half ago I experienced a massive paradigm shift. I stumbled upon a web project started by two guys from Queens.

I began reading several posts and then posting comments myself. Even after years of being involved in outreach work, I found an awakening in myself and a feeling of chizuk from people with whom I shared a common past.

While I had been a BT for many years, I realized that I could connect with others in totally different aspect. I entered a new phase as a Baal Teshuva. I refer to as BT 2.0. For me, it’s a realization that regardless of geographic location we are all, as clichéd as it sounds, connected.

I just wanted to thank all the participants here for their time and efforts. For even the BT of twenty years, like myself, is never Beyond Teshuva.

Showing Sensitivity to Intermarried BTs

Rabbi Mordechai Scher of Kol BeRamah in Santa Fe post this comment in the recent intermarriage thread:

In much of this thread, there has been a lack of recognition displayed of the complexities at the level of the individual home, and sympathy for their plight. I absolutely *do not* argue with the basic premise that intermarriage is not only forbidden, but possibly far more harmful to us than other forbidden phenomena.

Nevertheless, over the years that I have spoken with rabbanim/poskim about these issues on a *practical* level, seeking paths to deal with real families in real communities, I have been tortured by the pain this issue creates for them. Moreover, all the rabbanim I worked with were pained by the difficulties facing these families in fixing the situation. I have seen grown men cry over this more than once. That pain is evident in writing as well; even in responsa from way back to Rav Eliyahu Guttmacher, or Rav Leifland (author of Gerim V’gerut, posek in Russia and later in the US). Whereas a ‘tough’ approach was appropriate in some communities in some times; this is not universally the case. Rav Leifland writes how he blames himself for an intermarriage continuing because he was tougher (in retrospect) about a conversion than maybe he needed to be.

Like any halachic issue, ultimate judgement and application is on a case by case basis. I am not advocating a touchy feely, let’s all just get along view. I am suggesting that rabbanim who shoulder the responsibility for such dealings tend to invest a lot of effort in understanding a family’s difficulties, and in seeking (not always finding) solutions for them.

Already 20 years ago, I sat in a shiur from Rav Gedaliah Rabinowitz, who questioned if some of Rav Moshe Feinstein’s decisions on these issues would still apply. He noted that it was indeed relevant to consider circumstances, time, and place. He noted how rabbanim like Rav David Tzvi Hoffman (M’lamed L’hoil) took differently nuanced approaches to the same issues, probably influenced by the atmosphere and environment they were working in. One could certainly argue that rabbanim like Rav Uziel took different approaches also because they honestly saw things a bit differently.

Maybe I am so disturbed because I have worked up close with successes and failures in helping families already confronted with the dilemma. Yes, we must prevent intermarriage. Yes, intermarriage is really a symptom of a lack of Torah. But for those families discovering Torah already after the fact, we had better be loving and patient and looking for every *legitimate* way to encourage and help them make a change.

That attitude was missing in much of this thread, and I am genuinely surprised at us. We, of all Jews, should know better. That’s why when Joshua Sachs posted here much earlier on, I was so disappointed that hardly anyone displayed any concern or sympathy over his plight. This isn’t just about being right in the argument or convincing someone; this is about caring enough about Jews with a most difficult plight to show them love and concern and encouragement.

Unbelievably Inspirational JHC Rosh Hashana Retreat

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Looking at Intermarriage

Devarim 7:7 – “Not because you were more numerous than any people did God find satisfaction in you and choose you, for you were the fewest of all the peoples.”

Throughout history we have ALWAYS been in the competition for “fewest of all the peoples.”

And yet…

“The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew: all other forces pass, but he remains. WHAT IS THE SECRET OF HIS IMMORTALITY?”

~ Mark Twain, “Concerning The Jews”

The secret Mark Twain is looking for is not such a big secret. The secret is Hashem. It is Hashem’s mechanism for preserving His people. The secret is hard to see only until the secret is revealed. From then on it’s easy to see.

The Jews COULD BE as populous in the world as the Christians or the Muslims… IF our ranks had not been continuously thinned out and held in check by the rest of the world. We Jews have been subject to non-stop hatred and persecution. We have been tortured, and we have been murdered, and it has been neverending though history. That is half of the explanation to why we are few, the physical attacks against ourselves. It doesn’t tell us why we Jews still exist however.

Spiritual attacks are the other half of why we are few. Those attacks come in a variety of forms; forbidding Torah study, davening, Rosh Chodesh, Yom Tov, bris milah, tefillin, and so forth. All this reinforces our paucity, but still doesn’t tell us how we survived as a people.

Spiritual attacks today are not coming in forbidding adherence to Jewish law so much as something else, something far more insideous and more difficult to understand; enticements toward intermarriage and assimilation. These are the “nice” attacks, the “sweet” attacks, the “sugared-coated poison” attacks.

To keep this piece from going too long I will focus the rest of this narrative on intermarriage.

God forbids intermarriage. Nechemya (Nehemiah) 10:30-31 – “…observe and fulfill all the commandments of God, our Lord, and His laws and His decrees, and that we would not give our daughters (in marriage) to the peoples of the land (non-Jews), nor take their daughters for our sons…”

The prohibition against intermarriage is clear, yet intermarriage is now rampant within our ranks. A look at some statistics will be most helpful. For discussion purposes, I will use the “National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) Of Year 2000.” You can view the charts here.

The intermarriage rates stand at around 50% for reform and non-affilliated, around 32% for conservative, and around 6% for orthodox Jewry. At this rate we are looking at the death throes of the Reform and Conservative Movements right now. A generation or two more and they will be gone…poof!

To forstall the inevitable, drastic measures have been taken and more are on the way in order to hang on for dear…(cough) life. For example, the Reform rewrote God in their own image when they decided that patrilineal descent can also keep the children Jewish.

God demonstrates this fallacy in Ezra, Chapter 10, Verses 2-3 – “…We (Jews) have trespassed against our God, and have taken “nashim nachrios” (non-Jewish women)…Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all such women and all that are born to them…and let it be done according to the Torah.”

Jewish men must leave their non-Jewish wives. No “gett” (Jewish divorce decree) is required because God does not recognize Jewish intermarriage. AND, because the women were not Jewish, meaning the children were also NOT JEWISH, the children are being left behind as well. If you think that is harsh, understand that God expects His Jewish Covenant to be adhered to in every respect. God says it is life and death…”CHOOSE LIFE!” (Devarim 30:19)

If it was Jewish WOMEN who were married to non-Jewish MEN, the children would not have been left behind, because, being from Jewish mothers, the children would also have been Jewish.

Likewise, one of the examples of the Conservatives rewriting God in their own image happened when they VOTED that driving on Shabbos was now allowed…so long as they only drove to shul.

God is very clear about being rewritten. Many of the Taryag Mitzvos are dedicated to these kinds of infractions. This subject should be studied in depth from Devarim, Chapter 13. It isn’t pretty.

What is now clearly happening is that the current, less than 200 year old emanation of the Reform and Conservative Movements, are unraveling and on the road to extinction. As in the past, observant Jewry will repopulate the nation, only to begin the self-perpetuating cycle of Jewish collapse and renewal once again. We wait for Moshiach to straighten everything out once and for all, and this time…forever.

Judaism is like a tree with lots of dead end branches. It is our job as Jews to stay on the trunk and not get pushed off onto one of the dead end branches, or a leaf that goes brown and blows away. We need to be on the tree’s trunk, and that is where we want our progeny to be as the final act in God’s play unfolds.

Meanwhile, what is the attraction of intermarriage? Why do so many of us fall to its allure? I am going to throw some additional numbers at you and then make some points.

Jews are 1/4 of 1% of the world’s population. That is, for every Jew there are 400 non-Jews. To better understand what this means, I am going to focus on America, which entertains the world’s largest Jewish population. Still and all, Jews are outnumbered in America by around 50 to 1.

For many of those “50,” CATCHING a Jew is an prize of extreme value. The Jew is sought after for his mystique. He is vaunted for his intellect. They think the Jew is wealthy, and sometimes he is. The Jew is treasured in THEIR minds because he is the one who was chosen by God. Acquiring a Jewish mate for many of the 50 is as good to them as it is to a child acquiring his first bicycle.

Most of these 50 don’t have a clue that for the Jew marriage to them is a sin before God, and that if they help the Jew commit this sin they have earned a share in this very major transgression. For many of them they see only the opposite. If they can bring a the Jew even an inch closer to THEIR OWN beliefs, they are doing that Jew the biggest favor of his life, and they will be blessed by the Lord. They don’t view themselves as villains creating the means for sin. In their eyes, they are heroes, even saints.

Let’s say that 20% of those 50 would actually make the attempt to snare the Jew if they had the opportunity. Of that 20%, let’s say half at some point find themselves in close enough proximity to a Jew to have a shot at enticing him (or her). For every single Jewish man or woman out there, that means there may be 5 or more non-Jewish men or women after YOUR potential mate.

Think about this 5-1. Who are these 5? Look at it from the point of view of the girls: What is a Jewish woman competing with? These 5 non-Jews are ready to give YOUR guy whatever wants, whatever he is looking for. If he wants SEX, two or more of them will be glad to give it to him. If he wants intellect, one of more of them will have an ample supply. If he wants sweetness and charm, one or more will be there to oblige. If he wants gorgeous, a runway model, one or more will be close enough. Whatever he wants…it’s there, and they are YOUR competition for YOUR potential guy.

What are you going to do about it ladies? Are you going to give him sex because it’s the only way you think you can compete with your nemesis? Is it any wonder that Jewish tznius (modesty) and self worth have plummeted in recent times?

Why do these non-Jews have any capability of competing with you? It should be no contest. They have NOTHING to offer. YOU have everything. The problem is, too many of us have forgotten that we are Jews. To many of us no longer know how Jews are supposed to live. Too many of us have lost the meaning of being Jewish and the importance of our heritage.

This is why reform is intermarrying at 50%, conservative at 32%, and orthodox at 6%. When we stay with what God tells us, we stay Jewish. When we don’t, we get swallowed up like Yonah. It is because we are chosen and because we are the smallest of the peoples, that the today’s world is so divided on what to do with us: Kill us, or love us to death.

Looking for the Signal

By: Gregg Schwartz

I figured out something recently that I would love to share with anyone who rides the subway. LOOK AT THE TRACKS!!!

Sometimes when I arrive at the subway station, I get real lucky and the train is right there waiting for me, it’s doors wide open just asking me to board. On most occasions though, the train is not waiting for me. Rather, there is train congestion and this happens to be the place its signal told it to stop.

Before I dare to enter the train, I look straight ahead. Anyone can see the signals ahead if only they make an effort to look ahead. A red signal tells the train to stay put, and an orange signal tells the train to get ready to move and it is quickly followed by the green signal. One of my favorite things to do is to stand next to the train with one eye on the signal and the other in the train.

You will see people heading up or down the stairs (depending on the station), and their eyes brighten up. Could it possibly be? A train waiting there just for me? Their eyes widen and they go full speed ahead making sure those doors don’t slam before they get in. They will trample anyone in their way. One by one, the train becomes filled with huffers and puffers; and suddenly their agitation sets in, “move already!!!”.

While we don’t always “see” signals that lead us in the right path, G-d does give us instincts to know right from wrong, and life directions that feel right or wrong. They are there, we just need to look for them. It will save us a lot of huffing and puffing.

Everyone’s Meshugah!

I recently read Baruch Horowitz’s “Are you Happy Being Haredi?” To a certain extent, it reminded me of feelings I’ve had regarding people choosing different derachim than mine. Some of my fellow BT travelers will remember the comic bit where a comedian asks the question: “Did you ever notice that anyone who drives slower than you is an idiot… and anyone who drives faster than you is a maniac?” Funny. And true! There have certainly been times during my post-teshuvah life (for lack of a better term) when I could have rephrased this as: “Did you ever notice that anyone to the right of you is a “fanatic”… and anyone to the left of you is an “apikorus”?” While that may be a bit of hyperbole, for me, the concept has, at times, rang true.

Reconciling the fact that one’s chosen derech may not be the best derech for another wasn’t simple for me. After all (I subconsciously thought), if I have chosen a certain derech, that must be THE derech. However, I eventually realized that I needed to focus on the fact that it is not THE derech but actually THE derech for ME. I also found that the area in which I was making most of these judgments was centered around the way people attempted to find the proper balance regarding the level of interaction with the non-frum or non-Jewish world. It seems to me that this is, perforce, an area of extreme importance for any BT. Here is an example: If I had a question about my ability to attend a holiday work party and my Rov advised me to go, I would view a friend’s Rov’s advice that he should not attend as unnecessarily strict. On the other hand, if my Rov had advised me not to attend and my friend’s Rov advised him to go, I would view my friend’s Rov’s decision as being too lenient. It took me a while to realize that my friend’s Rov was making a decision taking my friend’s individual issues into account and advising him within the Rov’s own well established derech.

Much was said about the topic of BTs being judged by FFBs in Rabbi Yitz Greenman on Integrating into the Frum Community. That brought me to do some personal soul searching only to discover that I too can be negatively judgmental of my fellow BTs and of FFBs. (what a BT being judgmental?!) I wonder if this is a wider issue or just my own challenge.

BT Wife, Non-Observant Husband

When I sat down to write this – my first article for Beyond BT – I wanted to phrase it in the plural, as “we,” writing for other women as well as myself. But I don’t know any other women in my situation. Perhaps, as a result of this article, some will come forward.

There are some inspirational stories in Jewish literature about religious women whose husbands are not on as high a spiritual level, though such women are, seemingly, nowhere to be found in our present-day world. There’s a classic story from Beresheet Rabbah (17:7) about a pious man and woman who divorced because they were childless; each married a wicked mate. The pious man’s new wife made him wicked, while the pious woman made her new husband righteous. The moral of this story is that “everything depends on the woman.”

Or, there is the story of Devorah, the Judge of Israel. Her husband, according to Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (chapter 9), was not learned. So Devorah would make wicks and send her husband to deliver them to the Temple, so he would be exposed to the holy surroundings and perhaps, by osmosis or by interacting with those present, be influenced. She is given the credit for assuring that her husband would thereby have a share in the World to Come.

Through a series of events which would be off-topic to detail, I married my husband 15 years ago. We are an older couple, so some things that would be serious issues for (hypothetical) younger observant/non-observant couples are not relevant to us. But there are still challenges aplenty.

Our kitchen is unique. My husband loves to cook and putter around in the kitchen; I’m probably one of the few women who wishes her husband would leave the kitchen entirely to her. But he has his area of the kitchen (non-kosher), and I have mine (kosher). I don’t know what I’d do without aluminum foil, plastic wrap, and the two self-cleaning ovens I’m fortunate enough to have. My husband likes to joke to people that “we have three sets of dishes: meat, milk, and mine,” or that with our three microwave ovens, anyone with a pacemaker would get zapped if they walked in. Seriously, though, we can’t have any of our observant friends over to eat because I would not want to put them in an awkward position of having to refuse due to doubts. We have been their guests many, many times, but we can’t reciprocate.

Shabbat is unique. I make a point of preparing an elaborate Friday night dinner for just the two of us, and my husband puts on a yarmulke and eats with me at the candlelit Shabbat table – but on his own dishes and with his own placemat. Lately he has even been washing for bread (my homemade challah). I guess for him that’s a giant step; I can’t realistically expect that he will ever sing Zemirot or even Eishet Chayil.

Our house is full of timers. Thank G-d for technology! But, he goes his merry way and puts on lights (and TV and computer and so on) for himself as he wishes. Saturday is his favorite shopping day – did I mention that he likes to shop as well as cook? Meanwhile, every Shabbat morning I am in shul, davening to Hashem. Many of the prayers have extra meaning for me: “Return us to You…” and so on.

It is because of my husband’s love for me that I even have a chance to be in shul at all. For many years, we lived far away from the Jewish community. As I came back to Yiddishkeit, I longed to be near an Orthodox shul. Finally, he moved us to the wonderful community where we now live – even though that meant he would be commuting to and from work a total of 100 miles a day. We are around the corner from my shul of choice, one of five Orthodox shuls within walking distance. To me, that is as great a miracle as Yetziat Mitzrayim, and I often think of my own personal Exodus during that part of the prayers.

But it is only rarely that my husband comes to shul. Most of the time, there is a “black hole” for me as I peer through the Mechitzah and see that he is not there. The husband of one of my dearest friends says a Mi Sheberach for my family whenever he gets an Aliyah; it is usually the only way I will have that blessing. As each of my friends sees her husband get an Aliyah, I embrace her and wish that she will have as much joy from her husband’s Aliyah as I would if it were my husband.

When my husband does come to shul, my prayers really come alive. The words seem like they are leaping off the page in flames of spirituality.

The community has welcomed us with open arms. My husband enjoys the company of many of the men when we are someone’s guests. But, so far, he has not adopted their lifestyle.

He is wonderful to me, thoughtful, considerate, loving and funny. He’s everything a woman would want, but he’s not observant. In fact, one of the “problems” I’ve had was how to stop him from buying me flowers on Shabbat!

Most of the stories on the standard Jewish Web sites have happy endings of how this or that person became a BT. We never hear about the ones who don’t. I constantly hope and pray that my husband will become observant – after all, doesn’t it all depend upon the woman? – but, only Hashem knows, and I have to have faith that this is all for the best.

Teshuvah, Marriage, and Revelations of the “Past”

By “Michael”

My wife and I are both ba’alei teshuvah, although I grew up in a religious environment and she comes from a secular background. We made the decision to get married based on a brief, romantic, and miraculous period of very “frum” dating. We were both mutually inspired by and committed to what we saw as a true opportunity from Hashem to rebuild our lives together. Marriage has certainly had its inspired and beautiful moments, and of course still offers its luminous potential to give both of us the opportunity to raise a Jewish family (iy”H) that we so desired. We both continue to feel that we are meant for each other and that this marriage is in fact a gift from above. However, there has been this one issue which has from the beginning threatened to derail us, and I was hoping that others might comment on this from their own experiences. It is the issue of the past, and in particular its role in our life together.

While I was dating my current wife and throughout our engagement, I was never counseled by any of my religious advisers to inquire too much about my wife’s past. I allowed myself to internalize the idea that her past was irrelevant, and all the more so if I wanted to be able to put my own mistakes behind me. Yet two important factors made that all but impossible: I am an extremely curious person and my wife, G-d bless her, is the proud owner of a big mouth. This combination of her “slips” and my curiosity has led to the revelation of a host of unpleasant discoveries about her life (the details of which are of course not relevant here) which, although she has solidly put them behind her, threaten to erode my level of respect for her as a person and comfort with her in this marriage. To further complicate things, I neither want this to be the case nor do I feel the “right” to be bothered by the past, yet the feeling just seems to come up in all kinds of situations whether I want it to be there or not, the feeling that there is something unsavory about this person who I love and am committed to. I spend a great deal of my emotional and intellectual resources trying to overcome this feeling of revulsion or antipathy, convincing myself that teshuvah renders all these things irrelevant, that people change, that my own past has been less than stellar… but the underlying feelings persist. For a time I resented her (and the Rabbis and counselors who advised us before our marriage) for the fact that I couldn’t make an “informed” decision before we got married. But I have come to accept and understand that we are soulmates and that if any of these revelations were made before marriage they probably would have given me second thoughts and if not prevented the marriage altogether, at least distorted my frame of mind and not allowed me to enjoy it.

So here we are, married and with a kid iy”H on the way, and I am more or less stuck in this limbo state, accepting on an intellectual and religious level that my wife as a ba’alat teshuvah is not the container of her past experiences, but on a psychological and emotional level being mostly unable to deal with them. I am trying to find coping strategies that will work for us because I do not want these issues to be present between us once our children iy”H are in the world. I want to be able to see my wife solely as they will see her, as a proud, intelligent, committed, and beautiful frum wife and mother, and as nothing besides.

I’m writing this in public (anonymously, of course) because I can only imagine that there must be other ba’alei teshuvah struggling with these issues of the proper understanding of the past, whether one’s own or that of someone close to them and especially as it relates to marriage and the need to get on with our work down here in this world and not be chased down by ideas or images from long ago. I hope that this will lead to an honest and productive discussion. B’vracha..

Am I More Judgemental of the Non-observant Since Becoming a BT?

Mark and David asked in their suggested topics: Am I more judgemental of the non-observant since becoming a BT?

Often times when we are becoming frum, we are at just about the most judgmental times in our lives. When it comes to non-frum friends and family one thinks, “If I could see the truth, why can’t they? They have no excuse!” On the other hand, we think about the frum people, “How can they talk during davening? How come he goes so fast through davening that when I’m starting “Ata Chonein,” he’s taking his three steps back?! How can people sleep through their Friday night seuda without any Zmiros?”

Of course, when Yiddishkeit is new and exciting, it is easy to get overconfident and judgmental about others. However, I would make two comments. One is that we all know that after a few years go by and things are not so new anymore, we start to understand our frum friends a little better, as we become, or are inclined to become, more like them. Once the davening becomes fluent and we aren’t excited by it anymore, there’s a desire to speed through it to things we want to do more. It becomes, then, easier not to judge frum people because we are more like them now.

When it comes to judging non-frum people, I think it’s good to step back from yourself and ask the question, “Why did I become frum to begin with? Was it because I was the only one who was intellectually honest and searching, examing all the evidence with disinterested objectivity?” No! I, at least, became frum because I was inexorably drawn to it, once I began learning about it. There was an inexplicable pull that caused me to incredibly fascinated with Torah and Yiddishkeit. I reflect on the fact that I know dozens and dozens of people who were exposed to the same people and teachings that I was exposed to. Yet they remained unmoved, while I was blown away and drawn after it.

I cannot explain this difference in reaction by any natural means. I can’t say that I’m the only deep thinker that I knew. That would be ga’avah and it would be false. The only explanation I have come up with to explain this phenomenon is Siyata Dishmaya. It may sound strange but I don’t put my teshuva in the context of a truly free-will decision for me. I was drawn. Others are unmoved. It seems to me that the hand of G-d plucks out certain Neshamos, for his own inscrutible reasons, and brings them into the fold. (For more on limitations on free will, see Mei Hashiloach Parshas Vayeira, D”H “Vatitzchak Sara,” and Parshas Pinchas. See also, Tzidkus Hatzadik 44.)

I think that we can avoid the feeling of ga’avah and judgmentalism by meditating upon the fact that you and I are only zocheh to be here because of the kindness of Hashem in bringing us close, and not due to any personal intellectual or spiritual greatness.

May Hashem bring all Jews closer to Him soon in our days!

Reasons To Practice as a Jew

R’ Gil Student recently pointed to Dennis Prager, writing in Moment magazine about reasons to practice as a Jew. (link) Although many may have seen it, we thought it merited a post here:

1. The Jews are the Chosen People. There is no other rational explanation for the centrality of the Jewish people in history and in the world today. Even anti-Semites—indeed, especially anti-Semites— recognize the pivotal role of this tiny group of people on the world stage. That is why “world Jewish conspiracy” is such a common phrase, while one never hears of “a world Chinese conspiracy” or any other group’s “world conspiracy.” If we are not the Chosen People, there is little compelling reason to raise one’s children as Jews. After Auschwitz, and with significant parts of the Muslim world today advocating another Holocaust, it takes a powerful reason to do so.

2. Just as people need an instruction manual for a camera, they need an instruction manual on how to lead a good, holy and meaningful life. Judaism provides the best one ever written: the Torah.

3. The Torah is a divine document. No book comes close in influencing the world and changing the way human beings behave and think. “Divine” means that God is, ultimately, the Torah’s author. Whether it was given all at once, whether it was dictated word for word, whether it was divinely edited from documents—none of that matters.

4. Understood properly and lived authentically, Judaism is a religion of moderation. Judaism’s approach to animals, for example, teaches reverence for them to the point of including a day of rest for them in the Ten Commandments. Yet it also teaches that human life is infinitely more valuable: humans, not animals, are created in the image of God.

5. Judaism provides immense joy. No religion provides such continuous joy-filled moments as Judaism. I am referring to the weekly celebration of Shabbat and the frequent holidays. Every week I look forward to Shabbat in a way unknowable to non-Jews or Jews who do not celebrate the Sabbath.

6. Judaism provides meaning. What could be more meaningful than being chosen by God to bring humanity to Him and His moral values? Meaning is the greatest human need, even greater than sex. There are people who live without sex and yet lead happy lives. But no person who lives without meaning has a happy life.

7. Judaism provides community. Whether on Shabbat or on holidays, whether in joy—the birth of a child, a wedding—or in crisis or mourning, our religion does not allow us to be alone.

8. Judaism is uniquely preoccupied with good and evil. I have the utmost respect for Christians as the people who made America the greatest country in world history. But their religions are concerned mainly with faith and salvation, and Islam is focused on submission to Allah. Both groups theologically divide the world into the faithful—“dar al-Islam” in Islam and the “saved” in Christianity—and the unfaithful. Judaism, by contrast, divides the world according to moral categories: those who do good and those who do evil. Thus, as the Torah tells us, “the good of all the nations have a portion in the world to come.”

9. Judaism is concerned with the present world. Though Judaism absolutely affirms the afterlife (it is axiomatic that if there is a just God, there is an afterlife), the Hebrew Bible says nothing about what happens to us after death. The moment religion dabbles in the afterlife, it begins to ignore the evils of this life and can even foment evil. The theology of Muslim terrorists and their supporters, for example, rests on a preoccupation with heavenly rewards and a consequent disdain for this life. As Hamas frequently says, “We love death as much as the Jews love life.”

10. Judaism allows, even encourages, a Jew to argue with God. The very name of the Jewish people, “Israel,” means “wrestle with God;” the word “Islam,” to provide a counter example, means “submission” (to God).

Getting Beyond Doubts

One of my first substantive explorations into the Torah blogosphere was with regards to the ban of R’ Slifkin’s books. This essay is not intended either to condemn or defend the ban which many have written about almost to the point of ad nauseum. However, in my surfing of the Torah blogosphere, I was struck by the fact that so many people’s emunah seemed so fragile because of a perceived irreconcilable conflict between Torah and science.

There are a number of approaches available. I use the term “approaches” because IMO, there may not be any real answers that solve every problem relating to one’s degree or level of Emunah. FWIW, this issue is not a 21st Century issue but can be found in Hilchos Teshuvah where we find that the Raavad champions “Emunah Pshutah” or “simple faith” as opposed to a faith based upon a scientifical or philosophical basis. Echoes of this dispute can be found in writings of the Ramban and Rashba. One can postulate that the development and flourishing of Kabbalah under the Ari was in reaction to a rationalistic system of viewing hashkafic issues that had no answer for such cataclysmic events as the expulsion from Spain.

That being said, RYBS commented in many different contexts that our challenge is to be a Shomer Torah UMitzvos despite the presence of doubts. IOW, the challenge is neither to walk away from Torah observance because of the presence of real doubts on many issues or to believe that one’s responsibility is to solve issues that not even Moshe Rabbeinu received answers to such as Tzadik vRah Lo, Rasha vTov Lo..Simply stated,-one should not water down Torah to make it palatable to science and those who believe in “scientism” or water down legitimate scientific discoveries or questions to make science palatable to Torah. There are some conflicts that cannot be resolved. OTOH, many of the books authored by militant athesists such as Dawkins, Gould and Hitchens strike me as displaying less knowledge of Torah Judaism than a graduate of an elementary day school, yeshiva or Beis Yaakov. IMO, such books are hardly a threat to Torah. R D Lamm has an excellent essay on this issue as well where different levels of doubt are set forth. I don’t have the title in front of me, but it is worth reading just on what constitutes a legitimate sense of doubt.

Given the above, I would argue that our responsibility is to gain as much an understanding of what Chazal viewed as the Ikarie Emunah which are set forth in Chumash, the Siddur and Machzor. Basic concepts such as Bchirah Chofshis, Akedah. Am Segulah, Bris Avos, Yetzias Mitzrayim, Bris Sinai, Kabbalas HaTorah, TSBP, Malchuyos, Zicronos and Shofaros and Teshuvah seem IMO the concepts that Chazal stressed in developing a bedrock sense of Ikarie Emunah. As a corollary, I would maintain that a study of the Taryag Mitzvos and how they apply differently to a Kohen, Levi Yisrael, woman and minor would show that our Mesorah presented and demands different levels of Kedusha for different people. From what I have seen, we need to work more on these Ikarie Emunah and to be able to believe in them-even if there is no physical or archaeological evidence that would support them. I strongly believe that a belief that would be predicated solely or primarily on the evidence supporting these events is susceptible to a human challenge.

Guide to abbreviations:
IMO – In my opinion
FWIW – For what it’s worth
RYBS – Rav Yosef Ber Soleveitchik
IOW – In other words
OTOH – On the other hand
TBSP – Torah She Baal Peh

Refining the Rough Edges

“”Tsnius” is a broad concept that encompasses more than just clothing.

We need to be tsnius in thought and demeanor, learning to speak softly and carry a soft stick, modifying how we speak to each other and how we react to those inevitable “event cards” in our lives. How do we learn to be pure in thought and action, G-dly in manner and deed?

For the fledgling BT, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Growing up, I was known as “Foghorn Leghorn” in my family. As the disappearing middle child, I learned how to be noticed by developing a powerful set of lungs. I’m pretty sure I would have made it on the stage were I less shy than I was. In my family, you had to be LOUD to be heard, as rambunctious as we all were.

My aggressive and strong voice reverberates across the miles. People know I’ve arrived before I do. It’s just the way it is.

But just because I’m LOUD doesn’t mean I’m bold and confident. My ebullience masks a mass of insecurities and shrinking violet-itis.

I am a shy person. There you have it. Socially inept, tongue-tied and lacking in confidence, that’s me.

I don’t particular notice FFBs being modest and quiet all the time. In fact I’ve met some wonderfully outgoing and rambunctious characters in my travels – to my delight! I don’t think being a shrinking violet or a mouse is what is meant by being tsnius, modest and G-dly.

I do however need to smooth out the rough edges. I think we all have a desire to enhance our positive attributes while diminishing the negative – refining the nefesh to refine the neshama.

When I became frum, I tore into my wardrobe and eliminated the “not tsnius” clothing, mostly jeans and leggings. That was fairly easy to do. Okay, I admit it was a little hard to give away some of my favorite outfits, but I was never that flashy to begin with.

So now it’s time to overhaul my personality wardrobe.

I confess – I used to have a few swear words in my vocabulary. There’s nothing like a good expletive to make you feel better when you hammer your thumb. It just works.

I’m happy to report that I’ve eliminated these words, with just an occasional minor slip up, like when a pot falls out of the cupboard and hits me in the head. My husband always tells me to thank Hashem for the tikkun.

I’ve been able to successfully replace bad words with less damaging ones like “jeepers!” or “darn!”

I’d like to revamp me entirely though, so my automatic default isn’t anger or a negative behaviour mode when bad things happen.

I’d like to become the kind of person that doesn’t need to vent when things don’t go my way.

I’d like to be the kind of person that takes it all in stride and is comfortable knowing there’s not much I can do about life’s little annoyances, or even major catastrophes, since it’s G-d’s will anyway.

So, how do I do that?

How do I learn how not to let things get to me, to be less cranky when things don’t go my way? How do I quiet the internal road-rage when I hit life’s potholes and traffic jams?

How do I match my personality and demeanor to my tsnius skirts and blouses?

I think it’s by stilling the internal noise, and opening my mind and my ears.

Mishlei 23:12. Bring your heart to discipline and your ears to words of knowledge.

The Effect You Can Have Just Being You

Some short stories that illustrate the point. When my dear wife was a pathology resident at UMass Medical Center, she kept a siddur on her desk. It was there for birkat hamazon, and just as a personal item the same way one puts a picture or other item on their desk to personalize it. Her hair was covered. Every Friday afternoon she rushed to get home for Shabbat. One of the senior attending physicians had an involvement with medicine in Israel, and sometimes they would talk about that. This was her routine, and otherwise she ‘minded her own business’.

One Friday, as she is moving to get home, a colleague says “Shabbat Shalom”. Turns out this person is Jewish. No one knew. They had forgotten all about such things until Dr. Scher showed up. No speeches or demonstrative acts; just doing her thing as a Jewish woman in the workplace. That, however, was enough to get this person thinking and reaching out for Jewish contact.

Similarly, when my wife did Family Practice residency (yes, we went through insanity more than once!) she sometimes had to be at her rural clinic over the weekend. For the sake of shalom bayit, I avoided telling her how to handle this and left it between her and her rav. I did, however, spend Shabbat at the clinic when she was stuck out there. There were other Jewish residents, not so ‘secretive’ as the one mentioned above; but none were overtly very observant. All worked the clinic on Shabbat without a fuss. After a few times, however, we had one fellow join us for Kiddush and a quick bite. Another resident invited herself to our Sukkah. A med student visiting from Israel even made Sukkah decorations for us! All this came about just because my wife didn’t change who she is when she was at work. Jews came up and introduced themselves, invited themselves over, looked for a chance to connect. This can be far more powerful than we suspect. As Shlomo Carlebach would say, “you never know”.

Why did I think of this? The other day I was at a local motorcycle dealer to see about some parts for my bike. I was out in the parking lot by my bike, when a fellow comes striding up, sticks his hand out and says “I’m Ploni, and I can’t believe I’m seeing a Jew with a kippah and tzitzit!” It turns out he had strayed away a bit from the more traditional education that he had (including one year at YU), but seeing an obvious, unabashed Jew at the motorcycle shop struck him. Not many traditional Jews out here in New Mexico, and even fewer with their tzitzit flying in the breeze as they commute on a motorbike.

We spent about a half hour standing there talking Jewish communities, and motorcycles, and finally got around to inviting him for Shabbat. He declined this time, but we traded numbers and there’s a good chance we’ll have him and his wife as our guests some other time.

Years ago a student of mine, Miriam Rosenblatt, complained when I had my tzitzit tucked in for some reason. She said they were there for others to see, too. You never know… J.

Mordechai Y. Scher

galut Santa Fe, for now\


MP3 Shiurim – R’ Welcher, R’ Sammet, R’Schwerd, R’Rosenberg, R’Haber

Here are some recent Shiurim.

The best way to download is to right click on the link and select Save Target As to save it to your PC’s hard drive.

Rabbi Welcher on Tisha B’Av

Rabbi Welcher on Pizza, Schnitzel and Apple Pie

Rabbi Welcher on Amira L’Akum

R’ Moshe Schwerd on Bringing Korbanos With Our Lips

Rebbetzin Sammet on Onoas Devorim – Verbal Whammies to Avoid

R’ Yechezkel Rosenberg on Benching on as Kezais and a KeBeitzah – D’Oraisa or D’Rabbonin

R’ Yakov Haber on Birchas Kohanim the 19th Blessing

R’ Yakov Haber on The End of Shemoneh Esrai and some final words on his last shiur at CAY before making Aliyah.

We are extremely pleased to announce that R’ Daniel Stein will be giving the Sunday morning shiur starting August 12 from 8:50 AM to 9:25 AM at Congregation Ahavas Yisroel 147-02 73rd Avenue in Kew Gardens Hills.
The first series of shiurim will be on Hilchos Teshuva.

Cross posted at http://caykgh.blogspot.com/

Rabbi Yitz Greenman on Integrating into the Frum Community

At the Beyond BT Shabbaton in Passaic, Rabbi Yitz Greenman – Executive Director of Aish NY and Producer of Inspired Films gave a shiur on the topic of “Integrating into the Frum Community”.

Rabbi Greenman started off by giving two scenarios both of which he thought were unhealthy:
1) Feeling that you always have to hide being a BT
2) Advertising you are a BT and associating only with other BTs

He felt that a person should find a community where (s)he would associate with people who weren’t BTs and at the same time the person won’t feel that (s)he needs to hide the fact that (s)he is a BT.

After presenting the above position, the floor was opened to questions and a lively discussion ensued.

Many people in attendance felt that the reason that people hide being a BT is because people are judgmental about BTs. Rabbi Greenman was not sure that judgmentalism was the cause and thought that perhaps people sometimes feel that they are being judged, even when they aren’t being judged.

Many thanks to Rabbi Greenman for opening his home to us and taking the time to share his thoughts and to lead a discussion on this issue.

Serving G-d with Joy

My family and I recently returned from a journey that left me thinking about what I learned there long after the bags were unpacked and the pictures downloaded on to the computer.

Fifteen years ago, before I married my husband, Stephen, I was very active in a funky, Reform shul with a national reputation as a very special place. Indeed, this shul is still alive and vibrant with the kind of joyful energy I have been seeking ever since I left it. Shabbos services are packed, hugs are abundant, the singing is joyous, the Torah study before services is stimulating, and the female Cantor has the voice of an angel. Although generalities are dangerous, most of the congregants seem to be happy, both in synagogue, and outside of it in their daily lives.

During our most recent vacation, we paid a visit to a couple we have not seen in fifteen years, since their wedding day. She was a member of the shul when I was there, and I matched her up with a friend of mine. They fell in love, married, and then we lost touch. She “googled me” and found me a few months ago. They now have three kids and a house and a life together, and they are both still quite active in the same shul I long ago left behind.

Visiting with them flooded me with memories of my former life as a Reform Jew. As I listened to them talk with reverence about how special this shul is, and as I remembered for myself all of my own joyful experiences there, I found myself feeling a twinge of regret that I had to leave it behind. I was happy there. This couple seems happy there. Am I really happier now, as an Orthodox Jew, than when I was immersed in my Reform Jewish path?

This question has plagued me since we returned from our vacation. Very serious, committed Jews now surround me. Their learning, and their allegiance to the Torah continually impress me. I believe we are on the right path, the one designed by Hashem for our family. Are we happy? Does it matter if we are, or are not?

Yes, it matters. We are supposed to serve Hashem with joy. That is what He wants. Certainly, if we expect our children to follow in the derech, we better make sure the path is joyful. It was easy to be happy as a Reform Jew, because when I went to shul, I was not really focused on serving G-d with joy. I thought that is what I was doing. Except that I was driving to synagogue, and eating trafe, and ignoring all of the commandments that didn’t give me personal meaning or joy. In other words, I was serving myself, in the context of my religion. It really had nothing at all to do with serving G-d. It was easier to be happy when I didn’t do anything I didn’t want to do, and when I wasn’t paying yeshiva bills and a NJ mortgage and worried about parnussa all the time. It was easier to be carefree when I really believed that all that G-d wanted from me was to be happy and Jewish, and I could decide what that meant.

Now, I am committed to serving G-d with joy, with the emphasis first on serving G-d. Up till recently, I’m not so sure I was focused enough on the “with joy” part of that journey. So concerned have I been with “getting it right” and teaching my children, much of the journey has been quite serious in nature. Sure, there is the attempt to create joy on Shabbos and the holidays, but there is also the stress of preparing for the holidays and figuring out “how to do it” that has lessened the potential joy I could have felt. And, as so many in this community understand, the challenges of being a BT with non observant family has also cast a shadow at times.

I came back from this vacation with a renewed commitment to put more emphasis on the end of the sentence: “Serve G-d with joy.” I have plenty of scapegoats for missing the mark, whether it is the bills, or the lack of confidence in myself, or missing my family. My husband and I have determined that serving G-d is our obligation, and our opportunity. Now it’s also our obligation and opportunity to figure out how to do so with joy, not just during times of simcha, but every day. I can be happy when my religion and synagogue and practices exist for the sole purpose of entertaining me. Can I also be happy when my focus is on serving my Creator? I would hope that the joy and nachas I find from the observant path is of a different and more profound nature than the self-centered happiness of my previous Reform journey. And if that isn’t so, then I’ve really missed the mark.

I ask you to ask yourselves this same question. “Am I serving G-d with joy today?” If not now, when?