Learn Torah for a Refuah Shelaimah for Rabbi Noah Weinberg

Rabbi Noah Weinberg, the founder of Aish HaTorah was recently diagnosed with a serious illness. This article on Aish.Com suggests:

This is an opportunity to galvanize everyone who has benefited from the work of Aish HaTorah in prayer and spiritual action for the sake of Rabbi Weinberg’s recovery.

Here’s what you can do:

First, pray for the complete recovery of Yisrael Noach ben Hinda.

Beyond this, each of us can show the Almighty that we want and need Rabbi Weinberg’s continued guidance by taking one of his core teachings and committing yourself to grow in that area. Every physical action in this world is responded to in kind by the Almighty. Therefore the collective spiritual development will add to the merit of Rabbi Weinberg, and impact the Heavenly scales in his favor.

Here are some of the fundamental principles of Rabbi Weinberg’s teachings that have inspired so many people. Pick an area in which to grow. Whether you work on changing something small or large, every mitzvah performed makes a difference. The key is to make a genuine commitment to change for the better, on behalf of the recovery of Yisrael Noach ben Hinda.

Here are some of the fundamental principles of Rabbi Weinberg’s teachings that have inspired so many people. Pick an area in which to grow. Whether you work on changing something small or large, every mitzvah performed makes a difference. The key is to make a genuine commitment to change for the better, on behalf of the recovery of Yisrael Noach ben Hinda.

1. Focus on your priorities in life.

2. Increase your learning of Torah.

3. Love the Jewish people; fight for the Jewish people.

4. Life is gorgeous; live with joy.

Rabbi Weinberg helped me focus on the importance of the Six Constant Mitzvos. Here is Rabbi Weinberg’s Torah on the subject.

1 – Know There is a God

2 – Don’t Believe In Any Other Power

3 – God is One

4 – Love God

5 – Fear God

6 – Don’t Be Misled By Your Heart and Eyes

Please learn for his sake and yours.

Are More Jews Ceasing to Be Observant than Starting?

Let me state at the outset, I have not taken a survey. But lately there seem to be more and more books appearing on the shelves hinting at the enormity of the problem, sort of like the tip of the iceberg, to use an overworked cliché. The one that springs to mind is “Off the Derech,” by Faranak Margolese, but there are several others. Certainly, as the frum wife of a non-observant husband, I’ve noticed that there are many more books on the topic of going off the derech than there are for “mixed” Jewish couples like us.

As a former single mother, I’d venture a guess that one large slice of the off-the-derech population has got to be single women (who may or may not be moms) in my Baby Boomer age group who either cannot find a husband because of the unfavorable demographics, or don’t want to be married again because of bad experiences in a former marriage. (For just one example of a single woman who has been looking and looking, and who mentions the possibility of women in that situation going off the derech, see Season of Isolation.) With no “representation” in shul, a single woman is more likely to drop off the radar than any other segment of the population; I concentrate on this because I have been there, although I’m sure other segments have their issues (and I would like to hear from them in response to this article).

There is no doubt, observance is a hard road. I have no firsthand knowledge of what it is like to be FFB and go off the derech, because I am a second-time BT. I went off the derech once, then came back. So I can only speak for BTs who have gone off. If they are still off, then they probably don’t have the benefit of a supportive community like the one I have; and/or, they don’t have the benefits of being married, however atypical that is in my own case.

There is a norm in Judaism. It is the traditional family – husband, wife, and children. To the extent that an individual’s life differs from that norm, I believe that is the potential weak link in their connection to Jewish life. To differ from that norm, I believe, has as much potential for isolating the person as a physical handicap. Although B”H I have no firsthand knowledge of what it is to be physically handicapped, I can offer a snapshot anecdote: As a single mother, I was once asked if I wanted to be introduced to a man with one foot. Evidently the “handicaps” in each of us were deemed equivalent.

I recall a long time ago reading a book by a former BT who had gone back to his non-observant life; the two catalysts for his giving up his observant lifestyle seemed to be his appetite for non-kosher foods, and his attachment to a former non-Jewish girlfriend. There is no doubt that each of us has his or her “pull” to the past. And when the going gets tough, sometimes the less-tough get going…off the derech.

When I was becoming observant the first time, I read Herman Wouk’s lovely book “This Is My G-d,” and one thought this gifted writer used has stuck in my mind – that with all the restrictions of an observant life, it is a wonder there are any Orthodox people left. Certainly, when I look at a book on Judaism published in 1914 that is in my small collection of old books, all indications seemed at that time to be that Orthodoxy would disappear. Yet, as a river flowing uphill, it has come back and flourished.

But in our own BT world, it is easy to overlook the people who are leaving Orthodoxy. Maybe not enough Orthodox people are involved with kiruv, or not involved enough; that is a topic for another article. Or maybe we just want to shut our eyes to the problem, or deny that it even is a problem at all. Some of us are so starry-eyed at our own return, that we cannot comprehend that anyone would want to leave.

So why are people leaving? Is it the lifestyle restrictions? Is it the temptations of the larger society, beckoning that the “good life” means eating and dressing and engaging in everyday activities just like the Gentiles do? Is it singleness and devastating demographics?

I think that for each person, it is a different reason. Each individual has his or her own personal struggles, and some do not succeed in overcoming them. Some leave and then come back, as I did. I have had several rabbis quote to me the Possuk, “The Tzaddik falls seven times and gets up.” At any given point, we have no way of knowing what the future of an off-the-derech person will be.

But we can reach out, we can make a difference in the life of just one Jew, and then perhaps we will smooth their way back to Judaism. Who knows who Hashem’s Shaliach will be in the life of any Jew? We can only try to do our part, individually and as part of the communities to which we belong.

Originally published here on January 30, 2008

Dealing with Marital Issues Arising from Differing Observance Levels

A Beyond BT contributor was contacted by email from a woman in the NYC area who is having major marital issues that have arisen due to conflicts around the decision to be observant, or not, and to what degree. she asked if anyone could recommend an Orthodox Rabbi or marital counselor in the NYC area who has experience with marital conflict arising from religious differences, or differing desires for observance?

If you know of a good Orthodox Rabbi or marital counselor with experience pn this area, please leave the name in the comments or email us at beyondbt@gmail.com.

We’ve had a number of posts about this topic in the Shalom Bayis category.

If anybody has insights into this issue, please share them in the comments.

Davening-The User’s Manual for the Siddur

Mordechai Kramer wrote a 16 page booklet which explains the basic structure and use of the siddur. It includes charts and simple explanations of how the prayer service (Shacharit, Mincha, Mariv, Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh ) is performed in shul. It is a virtual life savor for the BT. Rabbi Berel Wein has commented that it is excellent.


It can be happily said that much has been written about Jewish Liturgy. Commentaries concerning the depth and meaning of the Jewish Prayer Book are abundant and of good quality.

This booklet will undertake a different task. It will attempt to serve beginners as a Users’ Manual for the siddur (Jewish Prayer Book) in a brief and straightforward manner, so that anyone wishing to participate in synagogue prayer can do so.

The material herein is found in the traditional codified volumes of Jewish Law and ritual; however, these sources are not easily accessible to everyone. This inaccessibility, plus the language problem and the unfamiliarity many have with the siddur, makes Davenning a very formidable obstacle for most of the Jewish people. Overcoming this obstacle is the purpose of this work.

We will use as our model The Complete Artscroll Siddur, version Ashkenaz, since this is the most common siddur in use among the majority of English speaking Jewry. The Users’ Manual is compatible with every other siddur that follows the Ashkenaz version, but the page numbers would need adaptation.


In this booklet, the accent is on the most obligatory parts of the prayer service. “It is better to say little with devotion, than to say much without devotion.” If you feel that the burden is too heavy, it is better to wait until the service becomes more familiar before deciding to fill in what you have omitted.

Let’s start Davenning:
Read more Davening-The User’s Manual for the Siddur

Letting It All Hang Out

Nope, although the title might imply it, this post is not about tzitzis. It’s about how we respond when the question of one’s BT-ness is brought up. This issue can arise by way of a direct question but more likely it will come up as a result of an inquiry like: Where did you learn? Where did you go to High School? Where did you go to camp? Where did you go to seminary?

I attended public high school at Forest Hills High School. A few times when I’ve been asked where I went to high school and I respond “Forest Hills High School”, people have said “Oh, Chofetz Chaim” (Forest Hills was the home of the main branch of. Chofetz Chaim for many years). Well, not quite.

How do you respond when the question comes up and why do you respond that way? Are you straight foward, simply answering “I’m a Baal Teshuvah” or “I didn’t grow up frum”. Or do you go for something a little less direct like “I came late to the game” or “I’m a late bloomer”. How do you feel when the issue arises: proud, insecure or something else? What are some of the interesting responses you have gotten when you’ve told someone you are a BT?

Back to Basics

It had been a somewhat emotionally, rhetorically exhausting couple of weeks for active BT bloggers. Or, at least, for this one. Let me explain it this way: I’m a member of a little chevra who email each other on a weekly basis talking about what they’re doing in terms of outreach. (Yeah, an Aish thing. I know.) Not usually having much to say, I finally cooked up a corker of an email talking about my Jewish blogging work of late. It ended with this paragraph:

This is time-consuming work, and I doubt that I will be able to keep up with all the mischief. It is also very depressing, and tremendously challenging; I am not a kiruv professional, after all. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have over 20 years of being frum and learning in my pocket and thank God a good bit of dialectical and analytical skill. It’s really important to balance this sort of swim in the muck with a healthy dose of Jewish family life, davening and learning — because it does not provide the kind of feel-good chizuk you get from a Partners in Torah chavrusa or the like. I sincerely welcome any sort of suggestions or support . . .

Well, how nice for me. In fact, I didn’t get any “suggestions or support” from the group. No one responded to my email. In fact, a few people on the email list whom I met within the next week told me I was probably wasting my time. They thought getting the email addresses of strangers on airplanes and secretaries’ Jewish boyfriends was a better use of effort. Maybe they’re right. It’s hard to tell if anyone’s listening, especially when people you think perhaps are listening the hardest — the intense, brilliant, conflicted friend who introduced me to this blog, for instance, and who recently announced a jump off the deep end of frumkeit — are not moved at all.

Thank God for Shabbos.

Shortly before Shabbos we got a call from the new Aish yeshiva that opened a few blocks from my house. Could I help shore up the minyan erev Shabbos? I have never davened there. I… don’t like BT davening, okay? I worked hard for years so that I could sit at the adults’ table. I now pass for a lifer wherever I go, and I traverse the Internet with my “brilliant,” purple-tinged encomia to and defense of frum life, a self-appointed dean of orthodox Internet polemics. But of course I couldn’t say no; there was a need and I was duty-bound to do what I could to meet it. (My eighth grade son begged off.)

I got there and my heart sank. It was exactly what I thought I’d left behind. Gosh, have kids forgotten how to put on a coat and tie since the mid-80’s? These haircuts! Where do you even get a hat like that?!

But little by little I melted. It just started to feel right. They asked me to daven kabbolos Shabbos, and — for Heaven’s sake, yes! — in no time at all there they were, dancing in a circle! Dancing in a circle! I would have run for the door if I were in their place — but they didn’t! They were so enthusiastic! No one was making them do it. It was spontaneous excitement, and dancing was something they knew how to do. They were young, they were full of, yes, spiritual energy. They had gotten here themselves, they could walk out any time they wanted, but they were spending Shabbos here, and I was at the front of the room leading them.

All the nasty remarks, the cynicism, the blackness of the Internet attacks and the angry emailing; all my coiled up responses, triangulations, rationalizations — this is what it really is: People who want joy in their lives, want to get closer to Hashem, want to be better people. They are not interested, not today, in the anger and bitterness of those who have left this behind and are aghast that others could find it satisfying… the politics of frum institutions, and not so frum ones… the battles of virtual egos in the ether… the hunger for scandal, hypocrisy and failure. And I am not merely pointing fingers at other people’s “bitter” blogs. I generate plenty of this myself. What percentage of my contributions here is angry, disappointed, cynical? How have I gone from enthusiastic beginner, to perfectly presentable professional BT, to scowling, tired old cynic? Is that progress?

These young guys were pounding the table with excitement and joy and love because with the help of Aish HaTorah they were getting the chance to reconnect with something good they knew was in them and that they wanted passionately to let out and to live. They may have had disappointments ahead, clashes with reality, dashed expectations, broken hearts. But that’s not about becoming frum. That’s about life. But a life with all these things, yet with meaning, and hope, and spirit, and a relationship with one’s Maker — that’s a life, with all its reversals, that is worth living.

In fact, the one thing I got right in my email was that it is all hopeless — all the blogging, all the crossed pens, all the melodrama — if you can’t or won’t log off and live a real brick-and-mortar Jewish life. Living it in the moment, turning off the hyperspace drive, taking in what Hashem has given to me, is in fact my hardest challenge.

And sometimes I try so hard to write something special, something by which I hope certain readers will be touched and affected. Yet from time to time the work and the strain and the artifice show through in the piece, all too readily. I want those people to cry when they read it, but that does not work.

It only works if you cry when you write it.

Tu B’Shvat Chag Lilanot

The 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, a holiday for the trees

The month of Shvat has the constellation Aquarius associated with it, and in kabbalistic astrology implies an outpouring of wisdom to those who want it, at this time. Water is often a symbol of wisdom in the ancient commentaries. Just like we need water on a daily basis, we need wisdom on a daily basis. Wisdom is a basic necessity, but unlike water, most people don’t realize how crucial it is.

It’s a curious fact that the most important things people tend to try and wing it. We all want a happy marriage, wonderful relationships with our parents, siblings, and kids. A friend recently related to me how a disagreement with his manager ended up spiraling out of control until the manager not only fired him but asked him not to set foot in the office. That’s pretty extreme. There must have been a very bad dynamic for it to end up like that. It seems they are both decent people who ended up in a tit for tat. Of course hindsight’s 20/20 but I wonder what would have happened if after the first altercation he had gone to a few people for advice.

We all get into situations in which we aren’t being successful, and the right advice from an objective person can often change things for the better. But are we humble enough to ask advice? At least reading a book on the subject can be of help. Being a human being is fraught with challenges. For every major challenge we need to read at least ten books on the subject. For an accounting degree you need to read a lot. For happiness, you need to read even more. Many more people can successfully complete an accounting course than can achieve a pleasurable amount of happiness. And humility, not meekness, is one of the character treats that lead people to seek advice or answers to their dilemmas.

This, the sages say, is one of the most important traits for acquiring wisdom. Just like water flows downward to the lowest spot it can find, so too the spiritual rules of the universe that the Almighty designed allow wisdom to flow to a humble person, provided the humble person appreciates, desires, and seeks wisdom.

Similarly, fruits are a symbol of God’s love since they are delicious and sort of a natural dessert. Tu Bshvat is when the sap starts to rise in the trees which will eventually cause the fruits to grow. It is a day of “judgement” on the trees, i.e. on us to see if we appreciate God’s blessings for humanity, and if we are using them in a way that is beneficial for us.

A divine flow of wisdom is waiting for us. And a spiritual source of blessing hangs in the balance. They are both two sides of the same coin.

Monday night, the 21st of January is when Tu B’Shvat falls out this year. Some people have the custom of eating fruits, especially the ones associated with Israel from the Torah, i.e. wheat, barley, grapes (wine), figs, pomegranates, olive (oil), and dates. We make blessings, show our appreciation to God, and remind ourselves that He loves us.

Eat, drink, and be mystical.

Happy Tu B’Shvat!

Max Weiman
Kabbalah Made Easy, Inc.

How to Find a Shabbos Friendly Employer?

Thanks for all the good advice on moving to Philadelphia. I have another related question.

I’ll be looking for a new job. I could use advice about finding a “Shabbat friendly” employer. When in the interview process do I bring up the topic of not working during Shabbat? Are there any other tips thats would be helpful. Up until now I’ve been working at jobs where this wasn’t an issue.

Spiritual Gridlock

A proposed solution for New York traffic echoes the ancient wisdom of the Talmud

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to end traffic congestion in Manhattan. However, as sympathetic as New Yorkers may be to Mr. Bloomberg’s vision, his proposed method is most likely to produce madness.

To curb the number of vehicles entering downtown (which has grown annually by an average of 8000 per day since the 1920s, according to U. S. News and World Report), the proposed law would encourage (or coerce) commuters to rely on public transportation by imposing a daytime tax of $8 per car and $21 per truck traveling onto the island. City officials believe that this “congestion pricing” would reduce traffic by as much as 12 ½ percent.

Whether or not commuters can be persuaded to practice even occasional abstinence in their love affairs with their cars makes for interesting speculation. However, the concept itself is sound. In fact, it has been used for some time on a much larger scale, implemented throughout every borough of the world by the Mayor of the Universe.

The most the dramatic experiment in mass transit came 3320 years ago when the Almighty split the Sea of Reeds, allowing the Jews to pass through and escape their Egyptian pursuers. In contrast to Cecil B. DeMille’s famous recreation, the sages teach that the sea opened up into twelve distinct passageways, one for each of the Tribes of Israel. As they passed through, the water separating the passages turned clear like glass, so that each tribe could see its fellow tribesmen traveling alongside them.

The design of this miracle teaches three lessons. First, the division of the sea into separate passageways demonstrates that there is more than one way to have a relationship with G-d. The Almighty does not want us to be automatons or clones, sheepishly following whoever is in front of us. Each individual is unique, and his divine service should be tailored to the nature of his singular soul.

Second, the water turning clear like glass reveals the lengths to which we must go to master the human ego. Had the walls of each passageway remained opaque, each tribe would have thought that it alone had discovered the correct avenue to reach the other side, and that it alone was traveling in the right direction to serve G-d. When they saw the other tribes traveling along side them, the Jews of each tribe recognized that they were not the only ones who had discerned the proper path.

The final lesson can be learned from recognizing that there were a limited number of paths. Anyone who did not follow one of the twelve passageways was, literally and figuratively, under water. Every spiritual movement does not become legitimate simply because it declares itself so, no matter how sincere its leaders or followers may be. Every self-proclaimed “holy man” is not genuine simply because he hangs out his shingle or attracts parishioners. Natural laws govern the operation of the spiritual universe just as they govern the workings of the physical world. One cannot render those rules null and void simply by wishing them out of existence or declaring them defunct, any more than congress can annul the force of gravity.

There is yet one more insight to be gained from the illustration of the Jews’ passage through the sea, one that is echoed by the New York mayor’s effort to cure his city’s traffic woes.

Consider the car as an allegory for personal autonomy. In a very real sense, we are all control freaks. We want to control our destiny, to chart our own heading, to have our hands on the wheel. Often the greatest demonstration of inner strength comes through humbling ourselves, giving up control and placing our fate in the hands of another. Often this is a concession we are either unwilling or unable to make.

But do we consider the cost? For car owners, the cost is rolled up in the price of the vehicle itself, of gas, insurance, repairs, parking fees, tolls and, perhaps, congestion tax. Public transportation is far cheaper and often more efficient. But still we refuse to relinquish control.

In business, the most efficient workers are those who work as part of a team, who coordinate their efforts with the efforts of others and trust their coworkers to get their own jobs done. Those who try to do everything themselves, or to micromanage others at their work, create confusion, inefficiency, and frustration.

Our relationships, marriages, and families function best when the individuals within them tend to their own responsibilities and allow others to look after theirs. Hovering, ordering, or criticizing before a spouse or child has even had a chance to complete an assigned task breeds resentment and destroys trust.

Spirituality is much the same. We like to think that we are in control of defining our own relationship with the Almighty. We strike out in whatever direction seems right to us, often without any roadmap or compass to guide us in distinguishing good from bad, right from wrong, moral from immoral. We believe that intuition alone will get us to our goal, when we have only the faintest notion of where we are trying to get.

Worst of all, there is available transportation ready to take us to our final destination in the most efficient way. By keeping G-d’s laws and following in His ways, we guarantee ourselves the smoothest possible journey through this world until we arrive at the World to Come.

But still many of us won’t give up control. So the Almighty levies His “taxes,” creating obstacles that make the paths of personal autonomy increasingly difficult. We feel stifled in our jobs, unhappy with our families, and discontented with the direction of our lives. So we seek out “detours,” looking for fulfillment in the least likely places: alcohol, drugs, gambling, or extramarital affairs. We think change will make us feel better, but we usually find ourselves worse off than before.

Rabbi Elyahu Dessler explains that we find ourselves in emotional or spiritual darkness at those times when we have cut ourselves off from the source of spirituality in the world. But when we “look into the darkness,” when we recognize that we have created the darkness for ourselves by distancing ourselves from the ways of the Creator, then and only then will we begin to find our way back to the light. By giving up control over our destiny, we regain mastery over our soul.

Whether taxing drivers will solve New York’s traffic problems remains a mystery. But it is in our hands to solve the mysteries of the spirit by following the well-trodden path of the generations that have gone before us. By retracing their steps, we can have confidence that we are not solely dependent upon our own devices to chart our way out of the darkness of confusion, but that we have a clearly marked path to follow toward the light of true meaning.

This article first appeared in the Jewish World Review.

The Teshuva Journey: An Untold Miracle From The Summer 2006 War In Lebanon

Israel’s war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 left behind many powerful stories, from courageous sacrifices to tragic destruction and numerous miracles. One of the most powerful stories is that of a young Naval sergeant who found G-d on a ship in the middle of a heated battle, as told by Rabbi Lazer Brody.

Rabbi Brody runs the Emunah Outreach Program which offers classes and a widely-read outreach blog. He grew up secular, served for many years in an elite special forces unit in the IDF and is a veteran of the first Lebanon War. During that war he himself had a miraculous experience in the streets of Beirut which helped him find his way back to Orthodoxy. He’s now known as Rabbi Rambo and speaks frequently to Israeli military units.

In mid-October 2006 Rabbi Brody was on a train in Tel Aviv on its way to Haifa. A young Israeli Naval sergeant entered the car and sat down in a nearby seat. Rabbi Brody smiled at him. The sergeant, whom we’ll call Moshe, sighed deeply and sheepishly asked, “Can I talk to you, Rav?”

“Of course,” Rabbi Brody said and asked him how he knew that he was a Rabbi. Moshe replied that he had heard Rabbi Brody eulogize a fallen friend during the war.

Moshe had the clear look of a fresh ba’al teshuva – a new beard was growing on his face, and the knitted kippa on his head was still stiff from being worn only a short time. After a few moments he began sharing the miraculous story which happened to him during the war.

Moshe had been onboard the Israeli missile ship Hanit on Friday night, July 14 when it was anchored off the coast of Beirut. The evening began as a typical quiet Friday night, but quickly turned into a rollercoaster as the sailors saw the miracles of Hashem’s hand again and again.

“Usually, the crew would eat Friday night dinner in two shifts,” Moshe told Rabbi Brody. “But this time, since we were in a war zone, our three religious crewmen went to Lieutenant Colonel A., the skipper, and begged that we all need Hashem’s help. The first miracle is that the skipper agreed to leave only four sailors on the bridge, and allowed the rest of the crew to pray together. The four sailors were non-Jews and volunteered to allow their crewmates to participate in a proper Sabbath meal. The rest of us piled into the synagogue and said a lengthy Mincha and Kabbalat Shabbat.

“I was bored and wanted to eat quickly and then catch a few hours sleep because I had the midnight watch. But I stayed with the rest of the crew. Then all of us had a Shabbat meal together: 15 different sailors said Kiddush, each in the custom of his fathers. I’m talking about guys that aren’t even religious! The meal was drawn out. I had a headache and was dying to go to sleep.”

Just as the sailors began to bentch after the meal, a Hezbullah missile fired from the shore slammed into the rear of the boat. Flames shot skyward as the entire end of the boat was burned. First the missile, and then the blaze should have sunk the ship, but miraculously it stayed afloat. The missile missed every critical piece of the ship, and instead hit a crane above the chopper landing pad which absorbed the impact. In another astonishing miracle, the nearby helicopter-refueling tank, which was full of fuel, did not explode.

Only the four sailors on the bridge were killed. The rest of the crew should have died as well, but were saved by their Shabbat dinner in the galley.

Moshe had beads of sweat on his forehead and tears filled his eyes as he continued
with his story.

“The newspapers don’t write about the miracles that we all saw. I ran to my bunk on the deck right below the landing pad. It was charcoal; my metal bunk was completely melted down and all my possessions were ashes. If I hadn’t been detained in the chapel and in the dining hall for Shabbat meal, I would have been charcoal too. I haven’t stopped thanking Hashem since then. I’ve changed my life.”

Moshe reported that even more miracles happened aboard the ship that night. The engine room was burned to a crisp, but a pair of Tefillin in perfect condition was found nearby. And in the middle of the destruction the sailors found a Book of Psalms, also unscathed. It was found open to Psalm 124, which acknowledges the unceasing protection Hashem gives us. Among the words in Psalm 124 are these:

“Had not Hashem been with us when men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us alive, when their anger was kindled against us. Then the waters would have inundated us; the current would have surged across our soul.”

Moshe saw Hashem’s hand repeatedly that night. He should have lost his life, but Hashem sent him miracle after miracle to save him.

The Israeli military never expected the Hanit to be hit. It assumed the boat was far enough offshore to be safe, and didn’t know that Hezbullah had missiles of the range to hit it. Within a few seconds, those security misconceptions were shattered. Within those few seconds, Moshe’s many misconceptions about life and Judaism were shattered as well. The many miracles opened his eyes to Hashem’s constant involvement in our lives. Hashem is always with us, usually below the surface, but sometimes He sends a miracle to remind us of His constant watchful presence. Sometimes it takes a whole series of miracles to bring someone to recognize Him.

As Rabbi Brody described it, the Hanit took a direct hit from a Hezbullah missile, but Moshe turned the navy’s military setback into a personal spiritual victory.

Michael Gros is the Chief Operating Officer of the kiruv organization The Atlanta Scholars’ Kollel. The Teshuva Journey is a monthly column chronicling amazing teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. To share a story or send other comments, email michaelgros@gmail.com To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit http://www.michaelgros.com

(published in The Jewish Press August, 2007)

Doing Kiruv on Campus

By Yaakov Weinstein

A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with a college student. This student had just enjoyed an inspiring summer of learning and was going back to college with a new vision for religious activities and events to facilitate his continuing growth in learning. To insure the soundness of his plans, he spoke to a number of Jewish, Orthodox, people supposedly knowledgeable about halachic Judaism on campus. He related to me that one rabbi told him: be sure to serve alcohol that’s the way to attract the non-religious kids.

Disregarding the major issue that serving alcohol to minors is illegal (and the disdainful tone that of course non-religious students would be attracted by alcohol), this led us to a discussion of kiruv on campus. Specifically, should religious kids be doing kiruv while at college? In the following paragraphs I will try to relate my opinion on this thorny (and ill-defined) subject. However, before relating my opinion I would like to note that every student is different. I believe that what I write below is appropriate for the typical student but that there may be students who could and should deviate from my prescription. Also, I ask everyone to read the entire post before commenting.

So, should college students be doing kiruv on campus? In short, my answer is NO! A students’ primary (spiritual) focus while at college should be his or her own religious well being. This is especially true in light of what we have discussed previously concerning the challenges facing students on campus (link). Thus, I would strongly discourage students from running activities geared solely to attract the non-religious student to halachic Judaism or Hillel, and I strongly disagree that ‘doing kiruv’ is a proper justification for attending a college not run under religious Jewish auspices (there are other justifications as we have discussed) It should go without saying that I despise the suggestion of illegal activity in the name of kiruv.

Why not do kiruv?

No doubt many people reading this post know (or are) people who became frum while at college (I know many such people too). If so why not encourage students who are already religious to actively encourage this phenomenon? The reasons not to encourage such activities are on many levels:

1) chayecha kodem – ones own spiritual growth takes precedence over that of others. I do not mean to get into a halachic discussion of this concept but merely to point out that most students at college are not yet very strong in many Jewish subjects. These years are an especially important time for religious growth (as by this points students are hopefully mature enough to realize the importance of religion, generally do not have to worry about making a living and lack the resposibility of a spouse and kids) thus ones time should be spent on their own learning.

2) The opposite of the above is that when ‘doing kiruv’ one may come across questions they cannot answer. This can lead to doubts about religious Judaism and an eventual exit from the community. I feel this is especially important for those who have come recently to a halacha-based life and may have a ‘proselyizing spirit.’ Those who know the least should not be the ones teaching others.

3) Sometimes suggested kiruv activities may violate halacha. Joining three mechitza dancing on Simchas Torah (one section for mixed dancing) or joining any other halachiaclly questionable activity to show that frum students are cool too is just not a good idea.

What can students do?

The above applies to what I’ll call ‘active’ kiruv or attempting to bring export religious Judaism to others. However, there are many time when kiruv opportunities can come to a student. For example, a non-religious Jew may decide to check out the Orthodox minyan. In such a case kinship to a fellow Jew (not to mention simple rules of kindness) demand that more knowledgable students take the time to ‘show him/her the ropes,’ answer any questions the student may have and just be friendly. Another such opportunity is the ‘study-with-a-buddy’ programs. In such programs students learn Jewish texts together. Those with a stronger background (who tend to be Orthodox) are paired with students whose backgrounds are not as strong. Again in this situation I think it appropriate that a religious student utililze this opportunity to show a students of a weaker background the beauty of their shared religion (note that even this type of program can lead to uncomfortable religious situations, as discussed in my last post, and students should be aware of this beforehand). Notice that in the two cases cited those who are not religious have approached those who are. To make a sports analogy, the situation is on religious turf. The activities I would discourage (though they may take on the guise of a religious ritual) are those where the religious students disrupt their basic routine in order to seek non-religious kids to influence.

Finally, I would like to encourage all students to view their fellow Jews not as kiruv material but in the spirit of kinship. Judging the success of interaction with our non-religious brethren based on their eventual level of halachic fidelity is 1) demeaning, and 2) bound to be disappointing. Most non-religious students will not become religious because of you. Rather, the goals of a religious student should center on perfecting his or her own knowledge of Judaism and character traits. If religious students on campus were to establish a community that was passionate in their beliefs while being honest, friendly, understanding and respectful, there is little question in mind that others would strive to join this community.

If I Were Addressing the AJOP Convention

The 20th Annual AJOP Convention is scheduled to take place January 18-22, 2008. The Convention 2008 Theme is: “The Future of Judaism: Setting the Course – A Conference Examining the Relationship of Jews to Judaism”. We asked our regular contributors what they would say if they could address the convention. Here is Neil Harris’ response. You can add your thoughts in the comments.

The key issues I would bring up would be:

Social mentoring with residents in a community

This is very different than being invited to the same home week after week, which is an excellent way to m’karev someone. I think that individuals or families reach a point when they need to see less of a “local view” and more of the “global view” of Torah Judaism. In addition, a loosely structured network of Baalei Teshuva across the country needs to be formed, so that someone moving into a new community with many choices of schools and shuls can start of with a contact who know where they are coming from.

Developing an understanding of achdus and respect of other’s hashkafos

Often we, as Baalei Teshuva, become part of a shul, yeshiva, or segment of a frum sub-culture and for some reason, end up looking down on others. This is totally counter productive to promoting the achdus that we, as Baalei Teshuva would like to see.

Chizuk in times of ‘burn out’ or frustration

Advising the ‘kiruv professional’ how to help build self-esteem and persistence in learning and integration in the observant community is key. Too often, the Baal Teshuva gets to a point where they feel frustrated and people need to know that they are not in it alone.

Teaching not just the “how to” but the “this is why we do it”

Making the slow, gradual jump in a Torah observant lifestyle means learning a barrage of new things like: Kashrus, mechanics of davening, Hilchos Shabbos, laws of family purity, struggling with children’s homework, etc. It’s easy to get caught up in ‘catching up’ with our lack of background and the reasons we do things like keep Shabbos might get washed away by questions like, “Can I heat up a chicken w/ sauce on Shabbos?”

These are just a few thoughts.

How Do You Choose a New Community?

My husband and I are very seriously considering moving to the Philadelphia area. I’m a little concerned about choosing a community in an area where I don’t know anyone. How does one go about doing that? When moving do people “interview” Rabbis about their shuls/community? If so, what should I ask?

I’m pretty open-minded when it comes to “denomination,” I’m mostly concerned
about finding a community that would be welcoming of both me (still learning/growing in my observance) and my husband (who is not presently observant).

Confessions of a BT Wannabe

By Charlotte Friedland

It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I’m not a ba’alas teshuvah (BT). As I was born to observant Jewish parents, the outreach networks dismiss me as an “FFB”—a “frum from birth” specimen, not worthy of attention. The term itself suggests staleness. After all, an FFB arrives in a world where traditions and education are clearly outlined, and from that moment on, it’s same ol’, same ol’.

So there are no special Shabbatons, no charismatic rabbis seeking me out, no books written about my kind—except those describing us as smug, spoiled and spiritually indolent. But that’s not all: the fact that our families held onto religious Judaism renders us likely to indulge in excessive triumphant bleating. And nobody invites a triumphalist to parties.

Thus it is written, and thus it is believed. Lord knows, I’ve tried not to be triumphant, curbed my pride in rabbinic ancestors, lowered my voice in shul. Yet the image persists. To remedy the situation, I’ve been hanging out at outreach events, skulking around, trying my best to look lost. One must appear to be searching, that’s the key.

Usually, in fact, I am searching for my keys, but no one seems to care about the small stuff. Everyone is so busy describing their personal epiphanies, so full of that glowing exuberance over critical life choices, that they can’t hide their disappointment when I confess my lineage. “Oh, an FFB,” they mouth politely, “how nice,” and then move on to that fascinating individual who just entered the room, fresh from an ashram.

No, I don’t remember my first Shabbos. I never struggled over reading Hebrew, nor had a defining moment of truth. But I’ve had a few good cries on Yom Kippur, really, and once in awhile I think to myself, “If I weren’t born religious, would I be doing this?” And then my mind clicks off, unable to fathom the question.

Trained to think in Biblical terms, I look for guidance to the first FFB in history—Yitzchak. After all, his father and mother had grown up “out there.” He was born after they had mastered Shabbos zemiros and correct hemlines, and he was raised to be a perfect Jew from day one. Granted, it appears that he has no trace of his folks’ flair for convincing people of an invisible God. Kind of withdrawn and sullen, he seems—and I think I know why. He probably felt out of place at his parents’ “Judaism 101” weekends. There he is, the first FFB, standing awkwardly among all those repentant pagans, struggling to empathize with their turmoil, while his father works the tent, cheerfully spreading his light.

He nods dumbly as the caravan driver describes to him his disillusion with idols, his attempts to find meaning in camel racing, his sixteen failed marriages, his forty-three children who “just don’t seem to have any values, no values at all. That’s why, I’m here. I’m told that Abraham is onto something big, something that could change my life. You know what I mean? Did you ever wonder ‘what’s it all about?’” Abraham’s son shifts uneasily. “Yeah, sure. I know. I have a brother like that….” But his voice sounds hollow, his tone unconvincing. Better to leave kiruv to the professionals.

The outreach pros in my life have told me how lucky I am. I should be part of their army, they say, marching (but not too triumphantly) along with them. I should be descending upon the secular world with the light of heritage glowing in my eyes. Dunno. Like most FFBs, I’m scared silly that someone will ask a basic question that I can’t answer. I’m not an authority, just a plain Jew.

At least I could invite somebody for Shabbos now and then, that’s true. And the fact is that whenever we do have “late starters” at the table, I always learn something from them. They ask questions that never entered my mind; they marvel at the easy-going confidence with which we roll through the rituals—–to the point that even I take notice. And they make me feel blessed because I have never been without a hearty, meaningful Jewish life, the kind of life they want so badly it hurts.

I think it was the Bluzhover Rebbe—who so valiantly led others through the Holocaust—who once commented that the “ruach teshuvah,” the spirit of awakening rippling across our world today, is the spiritual outcome of the horrific war years. The problem, he mused, is that only secular Jews are taking advantage of it, though it is meant for all of us.

Imagine that. Spiritual growth is not limited to those born on the outskirts of Jewland. You can live your entire life as an Orthodox Jew and still have room to emerge as a ba’al teshuvah. Could that be the challenge? I wonder if there are other people like me—BT wannabes who are beginning to think that maybe being an FFB is deceptively simple, that our goals have been set too low.

Are there enough of us to launch a new era? Dare we raise our banner as FFBBTs, create our own chat room, gather at conventions?

Who am I kidding? In my heart of hearts, this generic Jew knows that the title doesn’t matter and never did. It’s a question of direction. Let’s face it: clawing your way up from being 85 percent frum to 86 percent is a real struggle, even if it doesn’t earn accolades, even if it has no name. There’s no dramatic story, but you have the quiet satisfaction of knowing that you live your Judaism as genuinely as the BT next door.

I suspect that it’s time for us all to drop the labels and move on.

“Reprinted with permission from Jewish Action – Winter 2007, the magazine of the Orthodox Union. “

© 2007 Charlotte Friedland

Charlotte Friedland is a former editor of Jewish Action and also served as book editor at Mesorah Publications, Ltd. She recently established her own writing/editing/consulting firm in Spring Valley, New York.

We Need to Be a Little Kinder

A paraphrased comment from out there in the blogosphere:

I’d love to see the perspective of someone like “Esther” at Beyond BT, but I personally would hate to see someone who is more of a moderate be vilified and maligned.

Based on some of the more vocal and vehemently opinionated comments I’ve read on the (otherwise enjoyable and interesting) BBT blog, that is what would likely happen.

The 7 Minute Solution

In the moments that we aspire to take our davening seriously, we are often confronted with the fact that davening with a minyan requires compromises as to the speed of the davening.

What is perplexing is that the davening seems to speed up in the wrong places. Brachos are said at a relatively slow pace, then things pick up some speed in Pesukei D’Zimra and then between Borechu and the start of Shomeneh Esrai the speeds sometimes approach that of the Japanese Bullet trains.

It’s clearly the work of the Yetzer Hora as he wants us to go fast as we enter Shema and Shomoneh Esrai, so that we don’t have the piece of mind to even attempt to say the six words of the Shema and the first paragraph of Shomoneh Esrai with kavanna.

If you try to expand the time of your minyan you’re usually fighting a losing battle as people have to get to work and are generally on tight schedules. So let me propose instead trying to institute the 7 minute solution. Try to establish that between Borechu and the start of Shomoneh Esrai there is 7 minutes of elapsed time. That will enable you to say the words at a reasonably slow enough pace to have the piece of mind to pause for a few seconds before Shema and Shomoneh Esrai to catch some kavanna.

Your minyan is probably taking between 5-6 minutes for that stretch now so you only have to reallocate 1-2 minutes from the other parts of davening. If you want to davening Berachos and Pesukei D’Zimra slower you can get to shul earlier. And you can daven Shomoneh Esrai as slow as you want and use Shomeah K’onah to listen quietly to the Sheliach Tzibbur to fulfill your Kedusha requirements. You can also try to institute the 7 minute solution at Maariv when there is a little less time pressure.

Talk to your Rav or Gabbai and see if you can convince them that this makes sense. Let us know if you meet any success.


Aish has a new video on their site called Blueprint which shows various interesting people extolling the virtues of learning Torah. Give it a look and perhaps email the link to someone who might find it of interest.

While you’re there, you might want to take a look at this video which humorously captures our fears in the early days of our BT experience and introduces Aish’s new advanced learning site, Pathways.

The Parental Shidduch Crisis

By “Reuven”

Let me make something clear from the outset. The crisis I’m addressing is not “out there.” It’s very alive within ME. There’s a very definite, if not controlled panic that is building up within my kishkes. The kind that slowly but surely weighs down the whole system til it becomes effectively dysfunctional.

Oh, I still eat decently (though inconsistently) and socially interact with aplomb. But a growing sub-experience is smoldering anger, bitter disappointment and at times just plain mental cracking, which naturally gets in the way of my learning seder and employment searches, responses to “how’s life?” and ability to pray seriously without breaking down in a sob. And let’s not even speak of my sleep!

But please don’t misunderstand me. This is not a classic religious crisis. I have no doubts as to the Alm-ghty’s existence. Rather I feel as clear about His reality as Avraham probably would have after ACTUALLY doing the Akeida! It’s a sense of betrayal, on the highest level.

You see, I’ve come so far. Left so much for His sake. Worked so hard to clarify the theological and moral imperatives for serving Him. I invested valiantly in raising an exemplary family; in encouraging the kids to go all out for r-e-a-l-l-y living the truth of Torah. And they came through. They’ve truly made us proud, in the best way. The problem is that the older ones are now reaching the age of independence…

And G-d said: “Thou shalt find them Shidduchim!”

Well not exactly. In fact I didn’t hear Him say that at all. Actually I heard him whisper the opposite. Way back when I found my beshert without any third party. And G-d seemed so very, very pleased. So what in the world is this very spoken about unspoken rule about me having to find my son’s Shidduch??

Oy, the irony. The worst part of my crisis is that the kids are all such fine “catches.” The Rebbe and their teachers and our community members all tell us that. And I don’t doubt it. Bla”h, they excel in school, exude diligence, interpersonal sensitivity, humor and faith. Most importantly they each, in their own way, strive to be as Jewishly pure as possible. So, you see, I can’t just pair them up with the child of the BT next door.

They need “real” shidduchim!

Do I sound cynical? I’m trying hard to. Because while I could easily speak of all the wonders and grace in this holy system, I’m literally getting sick and tired of it. Just last month, after having seen tremendous signs of Hashgacha (Providence) in how the father of the same girl that my 17 yr. old daughter recently noted seemed like a perfect match for her older brother (and we quickly confirmed upon a little investigation), just “happened” to ride a bus with him and was so impressed by “speaking in learning” with him that he insisted in speaking with friends of ours about considering him for a chassan. But now the word is that his hands are tied since his wife insists on marrying her daughter to a miyuchas (nobly descended) family!

Believe me, that’s just the last straw. It’s been building up since we began to settle in to established Yiddishkeit. So that’s why I chose to write this. It’s a pressure release. Call it airing out my dark side…

Doesn’t G-d realize this “religious” ethic of parents-must-find-their-children’s-soulmate is torture for idealists? It was one thing to want the best of the best in search for my wife and Rebbe. But now also for these so precious, young Yidden about whom I most definitely am handicapped in taking the bull by the horn? People say “you must compromise.” Very nice when you’re speaking for yourself. But what if I steer my boy wrong? Maybe the couple needs to experience the wonder of stumbling upon one another. Maybe he needs to exercise that manly sense of hunting, stalking and catching his prey. Maybe they need to cry a little together in uncertainty over when exactly to tie the knot.

But of course all these thoughts are totally against the rules.

Did I say rules? Hmm. I guess that’s what I mean by crisis. It’s starting a dominoe effect. I’m now beginning to critically review so many other rules in this holy society that just don’t seem to be, dare I say, so holy.

Please help me, dear friends, if you have any insights / words of encouragement.