Bris Info for Baby Boy Ecker

Mazal Tov to Beyond BT contributor Aryeh Leib Ecker and his wife Anna on the birth of a boy today. The Shalom Zachor will be held in Rabbi Savitsky’s shul in KGH after 9:30 PM.

Aryeh Leib invites everybody to the bris this Thursday at Machzikel Hadas (Rabbi Savitsky’s shul) 147-30 73rd Ave. Davening will begin at 8:00 with the bris to begin at about 8:45.

More Tough Questions from Family: Thoughts or Actions

Last year I wrote a post on a question my mother asked me on shomer negia and why some Orthodox Jews hold to these laws more strictly than others. This post generated some really good discussion and I’m hoping that this next post will do the same.

The question I am about to pose came from my father this time. I guess my mom took a break : ) After we got home from Kol Nidre last Yom Kippur, my dad asked me if G-d prefers someone who observes all the laws of Shabbas and kashrus yet acts immorally in dealings with people, ie in the workplace, or someone who is a good person, acts ethically in business, yet does not observe Shabbas or kashrus.

This question reminded me of a discussion that took place in a class I took at my shul a couple years ago. The topic we discusses was whether a) G-d prefers you to observe mitzvos but have no faith in G-d or to b) believe in G-d in your heart but not observe mitzvos. Initially, you would think that it is better to believe in G-d but not observe mitzvos. I know that is what I thought 2 years ago. The rabbi said the first option is better; he stated that even if you start out observing mitzvos and not believing in G-d, eventually your heart will catch up.

This is what I had in mind when my dad asked me that question. I explained that first of all, there is no easy answer to that question. I told him my opinion that G-d judges each person based on his/her potential, there is no comparison to your neighbor. I summed it up to my dad by saying that he should do the best he can with his potential, and not to worry about what goes on in other peoples’ backyards (I know, easier said than done). My parents mentioned that they would like to start lighting Shabbas candles consistently.

To summarize, I am grateful that I am able to have such honest discussions with my parents on religion. One of my main concerns about becoming more observant was that my relationship with my parents would undergo some major friction and that our relationship would suffer. With a little work on both my part and my parents’ part, it is not a concern anymore. In fact, I find that becoming more observant actually improved my relationship with my parents. It is okay to pave your own path and you can do so in a way that is true to yourself and also honors where you came from.

Thinking of relocating? – Emerging Jewish Communities Event on April 6

Observing that picking a new community comes up often on Beyond BT, Charnie emailed us this upcoming OU event.

Thinking of relocating?
Looking for an affordable Jewish community?

On Sunday, April 6, 2008, at New York’s Grand Hyatt Hotel, 12-6 pm, the OU will showcase fourteen growing Jewish communities from around North America where you could relocate. You will meet community representatives and learn directly from them about:

* synagogues, day schools and yeshivot
* kosher stores and other Jewish communal resources
* exciting and lucrative job opportunities
* affordable housing
* close-knit and warm communities
* Torah atmosphere in which to raise children
* rewarding retirement opportunities

Register online!

Meet these communities face to face!

* Bay Area: Oakland
and San Francisco, CA
* Charleston, SC
* Columbus, OH
* Dallas, TX
* Denver, CO
* Edmonton, AB, Canada
* Houston, TX
* Indianapolis, IN
* Memphis, TN
* New Orleans, LA
* Omaha, NE
* San Diego, CA
* Seattle, WA
* Vancouver, BC, Canada

More info here at the OU Events:Emerging Jewish Communities

Preparing for an Emunah Enhancing Pesach

Preparing for Pesach goes beyond ridding our homes of Chometz. Our seforim teach that the opportunities for spiritual growth on Pesach are huge, but we need to prepare ourselves for that opportunity.

The principles of Jewish Belief broadly fall into three categories: belief in Hashem, belief in a G-d given Torah and belief in reward and punishment. Each of the three Jewish holidays emphasizes one of these: Pesach is Emunah, Shavuos is Torah and Succos is reward and punishment. So our focus on Pesach should be on strengthening our Emunah.

How do we define the Emunah we are trying to strengthen? Emunah is clearly not just a yes answer to the question, “Do you believe in G-d?”. Emunah is a knowledge-level clarity that there is a Creator, Who created and runs the world. But as Bilvavi and others point out, this knowledge has to go beyond the intellectual and reach the experiential.

Experiential knowledge is knowing something with a certainty beyond what our intellect can bring us to. For example, philosophers have shown that it is impossible to prove without a shadow of a doubt that we exist. Perhaps we are experiencing a dream-like illusion. Yet each one of knows with absolute certainty, that we do exist. Another example: do we have to prove to ourselves that we have a hand? No, our experience of moving and controlling hand leaves no doubt.

It is possible to reach that same level of experiential knowledge of Hashem. It should be clear to us that we have quite a ways to go in this matter, as how many of us can say we experience the reality of G-d in the same way we experience the reality of the existence of our hand.

Pesach gives us the opportunity to significantly increase our experiential knowledge. The Torah commands us to re-experience and re-tell the story. And Chazal through the seder and it’s 15 steps provide us with additional tools to experience G-d in even a deeper manner. Every single step of the seder (and all seven days of Pesach) provide the potential of experiencing Hashem in a deeper and clearer manner. If done with foresight and focus, we can each reach the next rung in our spiritual growth ladder.

To achieve this growth we need to prepare. One suggestion is to get one of the great Hagaddah commentaries and start reviewing it today. Try to concentrate on the Emunah enhancing commentaries (suggestions are welcome).

A second suggestion is to work on enhancing experiential knowledge well before Pesach. Perhaps consciously focusing our thoughts on the fact that there is a Creator and He created us, a number of times a day as Bilvavi suggests. Or focusing on feeling and experiencing Hashem’s greatness, might, and awesomeness when saying those words in the first brocha of Shomoneh Esrai.

Real growth takes real effort and we have a tremendous opportunity to achieve real growth in the next month. Please share any experiential Emunah enhancing techniques you have found in the comments.

A Role Model to Emulate

I work at a Jewish newspaper, the Texas Jewish Post, and although it has articles and ads from every stream of Jewish life, it runs a weekly column by the dean of DATA (Dallas Area Torah Association), the “black-hat” Kollel that brought me back to Yiddishkeit again. Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is a model for me to emulate, because he repeatedly emphasizes that observant Jews should not look down on those who are less observant. I know that I myself forget that a lot of times and start to get on my high horse.

DATA, and also Congregation Ohev Shalom in Dallas, to which I belong, are indeed bright signs of change in the Jewish community. Of course I am comparing them with the community in Brooklyn, New York, where I used to live, and New York is usually not noted for its warmth and closeness. Too, I was in a far different personal situation in Brooklyn than I am here. But ever since moving to the Dallas Metroplex over 10 years ago and coming into DATA’s orbit, I’ve felt accepted and embraced as a Jew. That has encouraged me to grow Jewishly and do Teshuva a second time.

I’m sure Rabbi Fried’s attitude of acceptance and humility is a large part of what enables him to spearhead the Jewish outreach that DATA is so successful at. If only I could have such Ahavat Yisrael. At least I have a goal to work toward. My Yetzer Hara tells me snidely that just because I am now observant, I’m “better” than those Jews who aren’t. But the minute I start to think that way, I’m worse, not better.

Since the 1970s, when I became a Baalat Teshuva the first time around, the Kiruv people I’ve come in contact with almost all had the same accepting attitude. I just didn’t see it for what it was back then; maybe I took it for granted, or maybe the few “bad apples” soured me on the whole concept. But now I’m looking at it with new eyes.

You can’t be a true Baal/at Teshuva without Ahavat Yisrael. Derech Eretz comes before Torah. If you’re going to look down on other Jews, you’re defeating the whole purpose of Torah and Judaism. Why am I saying this? Because as I put the words on paper, I’m talking to myself. The more I say this over and over to myself, the more I hope to internalize it until it is my second nature. And, hopefully, it will do some good for my fellow Jews as well.

Fitting Chassidus into a BT’s Life

Dear Beyond BT

Like many BTs, I was mekareved (brought to Torah observance) by a Yeshivish oriented institution. In my explorations on the Internet the past few years I have found many sites with a Chassidic flavor in which the authors are constantly working on themselves and their relationship with Hashem. I find this extremely motivating and it is where I want my Judaism to be.

I wanted to ask the Beyond BT audience, how important they think Chassidus is for a BT?

How would they suggest injecting some Chassidus into their lives?

Are their any obstacles on the path of integrating Chassidus?


Dealing With Insensitivity

By Leah Anderson

Recently, there was an interesting letter to the editor in the Yated (newspaper I get weekly). The woman (a BT) went to a wedding and someone at her table mentioned that she could tell a mile away that she is a BT, even though she has been frum for 15 years. The BT was very upset and hurt, she thought that her shaitel and outfit fit in very well with the “look” that everyone else was wearing, but this stranger was able to tell she was a BT. And she so desperately wants to fit into the community!

This got me to thinking, that although many times BTs are made to feel welcome in the communities we live in, sometimes grave mistakes are made that are very insensitive and hurtful.

My husband (let’s call him Dovid) told me what happened to him once, and has given me permission to relay this here.

When Dovid was first becoming religious, he davened in the way he was taught in Hebrew school, with a havarah sfardit. All the sofs were tofs. Anyways, he went to a friend for shabbos and they went to shul, and no one wanted to daven Mincha (everyone too tired) so they asked my husband to daven. When davening was over a man went over to Dovid and asked him if he was looking for a shidduch! Dovid, who was single at the time, told him “Yes”. So the man said “well, don’t expect to find anyone around here!” My husband walked away in shock, but didn’t answer him. What a callous thing to say, my husband was this new Baal Teshuvah and got such a warm welcome. There is nothing wrong with davening in havarah sfardit, and our shul is very happy to have Dovid daven at the amud, Bli Ayin Horah.

Anyways, I thought that we could all share on this topic some things that have happened that were unpleasant and get support from each other.

More Proof That the Jews Run the World

It’s an oft repeated canard of blatant anti-semites that “Jews own the banks and run the economy”. If this is true, we’re having a bad week, guys.

While no right thinking individual places any credence in such age-old hate, sometimes, the way things happen, even a non-believer might start to think that, even if the Jews don’t run the world, they’ve got a pretty strong connection to the One who does.

This is never more readily apparent than around the time of Purim where we are taught that if we peek behind the curtain, we will see that nothing is a coincidence. Last year, Starbucks, (whose CEO is Jewish) decided that they would pick one day to offer all of their customers free coffee. Of all days, which day did they pick, shushan purim. I mean, come on, you couldn’t pick a better day for free coffee than Shushan Purim where, if you’re not shaking off the cobwebs of a bit of the Ad LoYadah (the mitzvah to drink), you certainly are quite exhausted jumping straight back into the workweek after a long day of Purim festivities. It’s like they pulled this day out of a lottery and the Jews won. Sound familiar?

This year, Purim falls on Friday. This makes for a difficult time crunch; squeezing davening, megillah, shaloch manos and a seudah into a Friday with concomitant Shabbos preparation is no simple task. No problem, we’ll just have congress change the rules for daylight savings time for the first time in twenty years so that we will have an extra hour until chatzos (halachic midday, the time by which many opinions state the majority of the Purim seudah should be completed) and Shabbos will come in an hour later. You see, when you have connections, everything seems to just fall into place.

Happy Purim to all.

Purim and Science

There are those who have tried to combine Torah and Science, with varying degrees of success. Here is my humble contribution to the literature.

There is something called the “observer effect” which has often been connected, maybe inaccurately, with the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics. Background on this effect is found here, for example:

One section of the above article describes a few of its psychological aspects:

“Use in the social sciences
In the social sciences and general usage, the effect refers to how people change their behavior when aware of being watched (see Hawthorne effect and Observer’s Paradox). For instance, in the armed forces, an announced inspection is used to see how well soldiers can do when they put their minds to it, while a surprise inspection is used to see how well prepared they generally are.”

Now what does this have to do with Purim? After a little wine, this secret might be revealed even better, but here is one example:

My father described his sisters’ attempt to document his mother’s recipe for hamantaschen. Grandma Gussie was a cook from the old school, brought up in Galicia and trained further in cooking by her Hungarian mother-in-law. Nothing was ever written down. Like any artist, she improvised a little in each cooking performance as the spirit moved her. Nevertheless, because her hamantaschen tasted so good, Aunt Ruthie and Aunt Shirley decided they had to get the recipe down on paper. So, Grandma Gussie started making her recipe from scratch, as one aunt took and weighed each ingredient from her as it was ready to go into the mix, and the other aunt wrote down its weight. The result was a batch of hamantaschen that was maybe world class, but not nearly as good as usual. The observers unwittingly spooked the process!

I should wind up here with the actual recipe, but I don’t have a copy, and maybe it’s been lost. At any rate, the hamantaschen used a milchig (I’m pretty sure) dough that was soft but flexible and not crumbly after baking. Not the hard, cookie-like type you buy in stores. The usual filling was prune. The side of each big triangle was around 4 inches long (~10 cm).

While the combination of Torah and Science is often called Torah uMada, or TuM for short, eating many of these hamantaschen never made us need Tums.

Is Learning Yeshivish Important?

Although, I have been a BT for nearly 20 years, there are still times that I feel that I don’t fit in. I can usually handle that but often wonder if my kids suffer because of it.

This shabbos, my oldest son asked me if I would be willing to take a course at the local yeshiva that aims to teach parents how to speak, for lack of a better word, “yeshivish”. Once he asked me to take the class, I knew that he was likely embarrassed that I can’t always shmooze along with some of his friends’ fathers. At the same time, if I take the class, I fear that I will be labeled as a BT which will be embarrassing for me and probably for my kids.

Any advice from your readers would be welcomed.


The Jerry Seinfeld Method Of Spiritual Growth

Over and over again we hear that the best way to make longterm spiritual improvements is through slow and steady work towards our goal. How many times have any of us been told that the surefire way to a BT backslide is to take on too much too fast.

Recently, on a personal productivity blog, I learned of the Jerry Seinfeld method of self improvement and thought it was very well suited to spiritual improvement and Torah learning. Granted, it is not an earth-shattering, ground-breaking method. But nine times out of ten the best way to do things is so obvious it is overlooked.

Basically, the way Jerry Seinfeld became a successful comedian was through self-discipline and a visual method of encouraging himself to keep up the good work. He purchased a large wall calendar (the kind where you can see the entire year on one page) and challenged himself to write one new joke a day. Every day that he wrote a new joke, he got to draw an ‘X’ through that day on the calendar. Once he had a few days in a row with X’s through them, he had a chain and was motivated to “not break the chain.”

Again, this method sounds very simplistic, but I can tell you it is very satisfying to see a wall calendar with weeks worth of red X’s. And this method is particularly well-suited to Jewish learning as so many of our most important texts have already been broken down into segments suitable for daily learning.

I personally have moved my Seinfeld-style chain to a website called ToDoist ( It’s a website that allows you to set up all sorts of “to do” lists and manage large projects. The site’s creator has created a tool within the site meant specifically for the Seinfeld method of self improvement. I’d be happy to explain how to use ToDoist in the comments if anyone is interested.

So why not challenge yourself to learn a little Torah each day and pat yourself on the back with a a visual record of your accomplishment? If you are still growing in your mitzvah observance, this could also be a great way to progressively take on new mitzvot. For example, you could use this method to start saying the bedtime Shema each night, or laying teffilin, or saying the Birkat Hamazon. Seasoned BTs might want to challenge themselves to eliminate loshon hara from their lives; they could mark their calendar every day they filled with only positive speech. The possibilities are endless.

Purim, the BT and Unity

Originally posted on March 1, 2007. We haven’t had many Purim posts on Beyond BT, so if you have something to contribute, please send it in so we can share it with the Beyond BT community.

I still remember my first Purim as a BT. I didn’t drink, reasoning that I didn’t come to Torah observance to party. However I did get to witness a few unbelievable Purim Shpiels at Ohr Somayach in Monsey as Rabbi Lam was a central participant.

After many years I have a much greater appreciation of Purim and its connection to the BT. Purim at its core is about Jewish Unity and Teshuva. Faced with annihilation that entire Jewish people banded together to rediscover their true purpose and reconnect with Hashem and His Torah. As Baalei Teshuva we certainly have first hand experience of the intense Teshuva experience and the power it creates.

On the Unity side, the mitzvos of the day, illustrate this theme. The reading of the Megillah is a public proclamation of Hashem’s guidance over the affairs of the Jewish People. It is often noted that Purim night is the most crowded event at Shul, with the possible exception of Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur.

The Purim Seudah is a unifying experience as are all Shabbos and Yom Tov meals. Shaloch Manos and Matanos L’Evyonim are both mitzvos designed to created closer bonds between Jews. Some Poskim hold that even the drinking on Purim at the Seudah serves to bring us together, as sometimes it is necessary to loosen up to make closer connections.

Baalei Teshuva long for authentic Jewish connections, which is why communal integration is one of our major issues. And as Jews who have been on both sides of the observant/non-observant divide, we have the potential to spur the community to further unification. But first we need to feel in the depths of our hearts that we are all part of one Jewish People. If we can feel that deep connection, many of the divisions caused by judgementalism would fade, as we tend to judge ourselves favorably. Deeper connections would also spur us to collectively work on the crisises of Jewish Assimilation, Financial Pressures, Kids at Risk and Shidduchim. Often we see these as somebody else’s problem, but as integral parts of the Jewish people we need to view them as all of our problem.

Today as we engage in the very communal act of a public fast heading into Purim, perhaps we can focus on the essential mitzvos of these days, working on caring deeply about our fellow Jews and collectively returning to Hashem.

The FFB’s Guide to Being a BT

Originally Posted on
A Simple Jew

Often, one will see Baalei Teshuva (BT) performing mitzvos with much zeal and alacrity, and they actually seem to be really enjoying it. Many who are frum-from-birth (FFB) will be envious of this and, unfortunately, some fools will snicker and make some derogatory statement about BTs, as if it’s strange to enjoy doing a mitzvah. The reason is that they have a complex about themselves not performing mitzvos up to par, even though they were raised in observant homes. There are things that can help FFB’s put some zeal into their service of Hashem, perhaps by mirroring BTs in some manner.

The following is based on the experiences of myself and others that I’ve spoken to. Not everything will work for everyone, but I think much of the following will be useful to many. If anyone has any further ideas please comment.


If I might suggest, perhaps one reason why BTs observe Yiddishkeit with such passion is because they receive some special Siyata D’Shmaya, since Hashem is so happy, so to speak, at these people returning to their Father in Heaven. But remember, teshuva does not belong exclusively to BTs. Everyone, even the greatest tzadik, can do teshuvah. There is always something that needs improvement. If FFBs do teshuva, by improving at least one little thing at a time and making a commitment to constantly try to improve, one step at a time, then perhaps FFBs can also acquire some special Siyata D’Shmaya. After all, who really thinks about teshuvah outside of the months of Elul and Tishrei.

If you don’t know how to go about your own path of teshuva then beseech Hashem to guide you in your path of teshuva. One little thing at a time. Many people, if you look at them compared to a month a go, you will not see much change, but if you look at them compared to 5 years ago you see a different person. Compare them to 10 years ago and they might seem like they’re from another planet. For many if they try to change too much at a time it becomes difficult and they give up. If you take a little step at a time you won’t give up and before you know it you’ll be a different person.

Ask Hashem

Ultimately, all is in the Hand of Hashem, so ask Hashem for help in performing and enjoying the Mitzvos properly. Also, talk to Hashem in your own words. Before you go into a business meeting, ask Hashem to put the right ideas and decisions into your head. Before buying a new car, house, etc., ask Hashem to guide you towards the right decision. And so on. If you ask Hashem for assistance in everything, you will feel a lot closer to Hashem.

Enjoying Mitzvos

For many FFBs, doing mitzvos and davening, turns them into robots. 3 prayers a day, a Yom Tov here, a Shabbos there and so on, as opposed to a BT, who is not used to all this. For him, it is fresh and exciting, as it should be for everyone. Many FFBs might remember the excitement of putting on Tefilin for the first time. How can we get excited about doing mitzvos and serving Hashem? As long as what we do is by rote, the mitzvos may seem boring. Don’t get me wrong, no matter how we feel we have an obligation to do Hashem’s command, but if we enjoy it, this will make it easier and we will be more careful to observe the mitzvos properly. This will bring a lot more “Nachas Ruach” to the Ribono Shel Olam. (Imagine how an earthly king would look at someone doing his commands with as little effort as possible, just enough to prevent himself from being executed by the king.)

We need to learn the Halachos, at least on a basic level to know what we are doing. Next, there are seforim that will make you look at davening, Yom Tov, Shabbos and other mitzvos in a whole new light. The best example of two such seforim is Yesod Veshoresh Ha’Avodah and Kav Hayosher (I used these as examples, because they are great seforim, written for people on all levels, and they are respected by Chasidim and Misnagdim, Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Kav Hayashar is available in English.) These seforim will actually help you enjoy the mitzvos. Yesod Veshoresh Ha’Avodah writes the kavanas one should have and says why we should be filled with joy by a particular mitzvah. Similarly, the Kav Hayashar will often times take esoteric teachings and bring it down to earth making it easy to understand. An example of this is how he explains the reason for many of the hidden “Sheimos” in the Megila. This will make you listen to the Megila in a whole new way.

For some an English sefer, might be the way to go. Also, different people enjoy different approaches. Many of the Sifrei Chassidus can give one a totally new outlook of Shabbos and Yom Tov. Perhaps the most famous is Bnei Yisaschor, which these days is often quoted by many non-Chassidic and Sephardic Rabbanim. In the sefer, he will take you through every moth of the year, with the most fascinating thoughts that are sure to change the way one looks at each season. One of the most important things, I believe, is to constantly read more seforim on davening, Yom Tov, etc. This reinforces the importance of all these.

Yom Tov

A good way to get into the right frame of mind before a Yom Tov is to learn the relevant Gemara (at least parts of it), such as Tractate Megila before Purim. Of course, one needs to review the relevant halachos before each Yom Tov. I find that in the basic halacha I will find things that I don’t remember from the year before or that I’ve never seen before. All these are tools to enjoy Yom Tov. For many Yom Tov is a burden, but if you learn the halachos, and perhaps some Gemara and Seforim Hakedoshim (such as the seforim mentioned earlier) on the subject it will be a whole new Yom Tov. You will actually enjoy it. I hear saying how they are so happy that Yom Tov is over, because it’s so much trouble. On my own low level, I have come to love each Yom Tov and hate when it’s over. This came from learning what the Seforim Hakedoshim write on the Yom Tovim. They gather sources from Tanach, Gemara, Medrash, Kabalah, etc. and weave it all together into a beautiful tapestry that puts into one’s heart the essence of a Yom Tov.

Final Thought

The bottom line is that everyone on needs their Avodah “fresh”. Some people can walk into Shachris, everyday, excited. But, for most of us we need something to help us get and keep up the excitement. We also need to improve our emunah, which the Seforim Hakedoshim speak about at length, because if internalize it, then it will obviously be eaisier to serve Hashem. These were a few thoughts I had on the subject. I think I have been at least mildly successful so far, because some people are looking at me in a funny way, since I’m trying to serve Hashem with zeal and alacrity. I think I feel a bit like a BT.

Bronx Boy Takes His Talents to the Holy Land

While most of his classmates in the graduating class of 1986 headed west, south and north to Ivy League universities throughout the USA, Rabbi Daniel Travis traveled East to the land of Israel to explore his heritage and eventually built his life and his family there.

After a number of years of graduate and postgraduate study, Rabbi Travis, who was an honors student and a member of the track team at Bronx High School of Science, received semicha from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

Shortly after the birth of his first child, Rabbi Travis had an experience that shook his life. He was crossing the street in Israel, and a young, newly licensed 17-year-old driver smashed into him. Rabbi Travis’ head went through the windshield of the car, he was thrown ten feet into the air and across the street landing headfirst on the concrete. A watermelon truck coming in the opposite direction came to within a fraction of an inch of running him over. The non-religious driver ripped the shirt off his back and used it to stop the rush of blood coming from his head.

To the amazement of the hospital’s medical staff, tests showed that Rabbi Travis had suffered no major physical or neurological damage. Aside from cuts, bruises and some broken bones, the doctors found nothing wrong. Everyone in the hospital agreed that the hand of G-d had definitely worked a miracle in his case.

Within a short time he had recovered completely and felt that such an experience was an indication that bigger things were expected of him. He decided to make use of the journalistic talents that he had cultivated in high school, where he had served as editor-in-chief of the school paper, Science Survey, and began to write inspiring articles on timely topics for newspapers in Israel and the US. These articles were latter published by Feldheim publishers under the title “Days of Majesty.” In addition, he has published six other books in Hebrew and English on a diverse range of topics.

Rabbi Travis’ articles have gained him popularity in the English-speaking community in Israel. In time, in another manifestation of the gratitude he felt for being alive and able to give to others, he opened his own institution of higher learning, which he called Toras Chaim, “The Teachings of Living.” The institution is growing quickly and has attracted a number of bright young Americans.

Until the age of 16 Rabbi Travis had almost no formal Jewish education and had to struggle to make up the lost years. With hard work he was able to catch up and make a name for himself in the Torah world. Although the learning in Toras Chaim is on a very high level, Rabbi Travis welcomes students who started with a weaker background, recognizing from his own experiences that a late start can give a person the momentum to achieve great heights. In fact many of the top students in Toras Chaim are themselves baalei teshuva.

Rabbi Travis will shortly be publishing his eighth work Shaylos U’Teshuvos Toras Chaim, responsa on modern day issues, many of which have not been touched by current authorities. In many ways it is a milestone work, and has already received approbations from many of the leading rabbis in Israel and America.

Rabbi Travis is seeking dedications for this work. The money will be used towards publication and distribution of Shaylos U’Teshuvos Toras Chaim. All contributions are tax deductible, and all of the revenue will be used solely to support the yeshiva in the upcoming year.

For more information about contributing towards the publication of this work, his other books and his lecturing schedule, contact the Toras Chaim office at dytravis@actcom or in Israel at 972-57-316-3111. Their website is at Rabbi Travis also writes classes on Jewish Integrity and Prayer on the website of

The Invisible Curtain

“I just can’t understand it!’ my father said as he shook his handsome round face back and forth in bewilderment. He was in his mid 50’s and his luxurious full head of hair had been transformed from jet lack to distinguished salt and pepper. “We sent you to Temple Emanuel Hebrew school every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday for years. ” He pointed his finger in the air to punctuate, ‘and you grew up to become religious!’ Dad sneered and shook his head in incredulity. ‘We tried to raise you right. I just don’t understand how this happened,’ he muttered as if defeated.

Even though I was sitting on in the living room couch of the large comfortable suburban family home I grew up in, I suddenly felt like an alien. Milling about were a dozen or so curious relatives peering at me as if I had grown horns.

‘I like the Lubavitchers,’ one of my aunts chimed in to defend me; ‘they gave us Chanukah candles last year with chocolate coins. That was sweet of them.”

‘I never dreamed that you of all people would become religious. Are you really religious? Come on! I remember you in high school!’ my younger sister could hardly contain her laughter.

‘Well, I think it’s wonderful that she found something that is meaningful for her.’ She spoke as if I weren’t in the room but at least I thought this cousin understood, until she added,’ after all, she was so mixed up and unhappy before, at least now she will do something with her life. I’m glad she found something that’s good for her.”

It was true that I had misspent my early 20’s drifting and wandering in and out of universities without direction, but why did she have to show me pity as if I were a hopeless nebach? None of them understood me.

How could I describe my spiritual epiphany? Could they ever imagine how it felt to discover the joys of Yiddishkite? Would I ever be able to explain that even though I missed the long lazy days at the beach club, my faded jeans, dancing in night clubs, and eating moo goo gai pan, that none of it could hold a candle to what if feels like when my neshoma soars. Suddenly I felt as if I spoke a different language from my family, was living in a different dimension in time and space than them.

“Uh, um….you should see the Rebbe, I mean he’s amazing, a genius…and keeping Shabbos is not a burden at all, in fact it is so relaxing…and I don’t really mind living in a dorm with only girls and not dating right now…..,” my voice sounded as if it was coming from someone else and as I looked at their blank faces I realized they were listening politely, almost condescendingly, without the slightest comprehension of what I had experienced.

That moment I experienced another realization. At that instant I knew an invisible curtain had fallen between me and the rest of my family. It was not an iron curtain of oppression, but impenetrable nonetheless, a result of my choosing to live a life on a different spiritual plane. We didn’t share any common language that could bridge the gap between their modernity and my traditionalism, between their values which were the ones I was raised with, and my new found values, as timeless as they may be. For my family, Torah values were new, foreign, strange and represented an unattractive lifestyle.

Knowing I would have to embark on my new journey without my family was made less daunting by my obsession with running after kedusha. For almost three years I pursued my singular goal of shedding the old and taking on the new. No sacrifice was too great, the materialism of this world become subsumed by my focus on Torah and mitzvos. Throw away my pants? No problem! Give up eating in non-kosher restaurants or my parents’ house! Easy! No more dating, TV, movies, theatre, secular novels, magazines, rock and roll, and even cigarettes. All of it was left behind on the heap of my past personal secular history, shed like a caterpillar sheds its skin to become a butterfly.

Admin’s note. Shoshanna from Melbourne, Austrailia was one of our earliest Beyond BT contributors and we want to wish her a big WELCOME BACK. You can read her earlier posts here.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein – Scholar in Residence in KGH this Shabbos

Just a reminder that the accomplished talmid chachim and co-founder of the popular Cross-Currents web site, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein will be the

Scholar in Residence at

Congregation Ahavas Yisroel 147-02 73rd Avenue in Kew Gardens Hills

this Shabbos, Parshas P’kudei, March 7th-8th.

Rabbi Alderstein will be speaking three times and we invite everybody to please come and listen. Here is the schedule:

“Orthodoxy and Orthodopraxy – Deed and Creed in the Light of the Rambam’s Ikarie Emunah”
Friday Night, March 7th, 2008 – 9:00 PM

Shabbos Morning Drasha (Shacharis begins at 8:30 AM)

“Maharal and Rav Kook’s Views on Aggadah”
Shalosh Seudos – (Mincha begins at 5:10 PM)

The Teshuva Journey: A Shabbat With Springsteen

When a person accepts upon himself a particular religious commitment, for example to observe Shabbat or eat only Kosher food, Hashem may send him a test or two to measure his level of dedication. Although not apparent at first glance, the tests that Hashem sends are always for our own benefit. G-d only gives us tests that He knows we can pass. The purpose is to prove our level of commitment to ourselves, those around us and G-d. The challenges are always very personal, and are in areas that are most dear to us.

For 13 years Jimmy Baron worked as a radio announcer in Atlanta as the Morning Drive Radio host on 99X Radio. When he first began observing Shabbat it was a major step because much of his job revolved around concerts and other events on Friday night. But he was extremely committed to keeping Shabbat and was able to withstand the challenges of his job.

Outside of growing on his path toward observance, Jimmy had one other passion in life: Bruce Springsteen. Jimmy describes himself as “an absolute obsessed Bruce Springsteen fan.” He has traveled around the country to attend Springsteen concerts, spending thousands of dollars and burning up vacation days to see him perform.

Several years ago Springsteen announced that his tour schedule would include a major concert in Atlanta on a Friday night. Jimmy had been keeping Shabbat for only six months and was still growing in his observance, so he was very tempted to go.

But if that wasn’t enough of a challenge G-d had something else up His sleeve. A few days before the concert, a friend of Jimmy’s who works in the record industry called him to invite him to go backstage after the concert and hang out with Springsteen in his dressing room.

This was a dream come true for Jimmy. He had never met Springsteen and he knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. But how could he turn his back on his religion and his commitment to keep Shabbat? He was torn, but he gathered up his strength and told his friend that he would be unable to go because it was on Shabbat.

“You did hear what I said, right?” his friend asked.

“Yes, I heard you, but this is my life now. I’ve made this commitment,” Jimmy replied.

“Jimmy, G-d will forgive you,” his friend said.

“Boy, you must have some inside knowledge.”

For Jimmy it was a powerful moment. Passing that test made him realize the depth of his commitment to Shabbat because he was able to make the decision so quickly.

“It was a real landmark in my Jewish growth, choosing between my commitment to Judaism and what I just wanted to do,” Jimmy said. “The satisfying thing was not only being able to make the right decision, but being able to make that decision without even thinking about it. Six months earlier I would have been at that concert.”

Jimmy acknowledges that it took a lot of strength to overcome the challenge, and he attributes that strength to have come directly from Hashem. For others faced with similar tests, he says it is important to look beyond the moment and measure how you will feel about the choice in the future.

“If on that one night I would have made an exception because it was Bruce and went to the concert, I know I would have regretted it for the rest of my life,” he said. “You have to look within yourself and think is this something tomorrow, or next week I will be happy about or beat myself up about.”

The Friday night came and Jimmy and his wife were at a friend’s house for Shabbat dinner. Jimmy’s spirit was uplifted even more than on a typical Shabbat because he knew he had made the correct decision and had demonstrated his commitment to Shabbat. Jimmy’s friends knew how significant his choice had been so they ordered a special cake with the words “I Missed Bruce Springsteen For Shabbat.”

Jimmy was touched. Years later he still has the top of that cake in his freezer as a testament that he passed his test.

A few years after that Friday night concert, Jimmy received even more clarity that he had made the correct choice. Springsteen was in Atlanta recording a new album and Jimmy happened to be at the bar in the hotel where he was staying. Springsteen came in by himself and Jimmy asked if he could buy him a drink. The two talked uninterrupted for 30 minutes, which was far longer than he would have gotten in the dressing room after the concert.

As King David wrote, “Favor and glory does Hashem bestow, he withholds no goodness from those who walk uprightly.” (Tehillim 84:12) For Jimmy, making the correct choice earned him tremendous rewards.

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
To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit

(published in The Jewish Press December 12, 2007)

Nullified by the Majority

Those who know me will not be surprised to learn that on my birthday, there is widespread celebration, no tachanun is recited, and a lot of normally level-headed people get seriously intoxicated with joy — because my birthday is on Shushan Purim. But this year’s Shushan Purim will be more significant for me, because it is the birthday at which I feel confident saying I passed the “halfway mark.” At age 45, I will have spent more than half of my life as a self-described orthodox Jew.

I have anticipated this milestone for years, but now that I am upon it I am not quite sure what to do with it. I was wondering, however, if we can consider the principle we have in halacha called bittul b’rov, or nullification by the majority. Where one treif piece of meat is mixed with two kosher pieces of meat, we say that in theory at least you can eat any of them: Because the majority are kosher, it cannot be said any one of them is treif, and if none is treif, all are kosher, even though we “know” one is not kosher. (Married men: Do not try this at home.) The halacha of course is complex as applied to different situations, but that is the concept. We “round up” from 50% plus.

So do I get the benefit of bittul b’rov now that I have lived more than half of my life keeping Shabbos publicly, and holding myself out as an orthodox Jew? After all, I have been “frum” longer than I was not frum. Assuming we can compare a mixture of unlike objects to a mixture of unlike minutes, am I mostly frum, hence all frum?

Of course not. Even assuming a bona fide frum second half of my life — a big assumption — obviously the first 22 and a half years will never be undone. I will always be me. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter taught us that it is easier to learn the whole Talmud than to correct a single bad personal quality! And the mishna in Avos reminds us of the sad truth, that there is no comparison between writing on a smudged slate, and writing on a clean slate.

Smudged? I’m working toward smudged! Each time I bang out the erasers, though, I’m overcome by the rancid dust and have to get some fresh air.

In fact, the … problematic… aspects of the old me will never be buttel, null. Neither can I pretend that what was, or is, treif is actually kosher, merely because it’s hard to pick out of the mix, too. Indeed, the simple rule of bittul b’rov does not apply to a food mixture (as opposed to separate pieces of food) where the forbidden substance adds its flavor to the permissible.

On the other hand, wait. If there is any value in the term “baal teshuvah” (which as is well known is arguably a misnomer when applied to people who have never been frum, who become frum) — if I have ever done a touch of true teshuva, or if I give it to myself as a Shushan Purim birthday present, or if I do it on my deathbed — then we are taught that our transgressions become reckoned as mitzvos. Forgive a smudgy intellect the very mixed metaphor — but we are after all dealing with reckoning mixtures: Here, it seems, we are allowed,after the fact of course, to reckon as “kosher” something that we objectively know to be made of non-kosher ingredients!

Mixtures are one thing; this is beyond metaphor-mixing and verges on the scrambled; but I will serve up what I’ve put together and expect you to pretend to like it. Of course there’s no such thing as “mostly frum” on a time scale. After all, someone can be frum for his entire life and one day, as the old cliche goes, throw his teffilin in New York Harbor. As of that moment, and unless and until he repents, his 99:1 ratio of frum to non-frum life may not look so good if that boat doesn’t reach the dock.

A person can acquire, we are taught, his World to Come in one moment, for good and for bad. The real measure of a Jew’s life is not found on the scale of how many minutes he spent officially affiliated with this or the other religious affiliation, or even how many minutes were spent with a halo as opposed to those cartoon horns on his head. Rather, what matters is what he does with the whole cocktail right now… and tomorrow.

OK, I doubt I will hang up my briefcase and consider a carer in mixology — even though it is Shushan Purim! There is a certain satisfaction in getting past the “halfway point,” I suppose. Most days I get better because of the world I have built, and allowed to be built, around me in the last 22 and a half years. In the moments when I perhaps slip back, or seem at best to plateau, that bulwark holds me from rolling all the way down the hill to 1985. If there is any accomplishment in reaching this point, perhaps that, really, is the one that I can identify. With God’s help, he’ll keep me in the mix for more iterations of 22 and a half.

Concerts, Intellectual Understanding and Rabbinic Authority

Dear Mark/David:

As many in the frum world are aware, there was a commotion recently over a ban issued by our Gedolim concerning attending concerts in general, and an upcoming event in particular. I have multiple reactions to this news, some of it sorrowful as one target of the ban (Lipa Schmeltzer) has provided me with much enjoyment and spiritual uplifting through his recorded music. But more disturbing is the upheaval over how we are to receive the words of a Kol Koreh such as this one, signed by 33 Gedolim.

I was very moved when the producer of the concert, Shea Mendlowitz, gave a statement on Motzai Shabbos in which he made it clear that he and Mr. Schmeltzer are determined to abide by the words of the Gedolim, and if Hashem wants this event to occur, it will, and if not, not. This despite the potential for tremendous financial loss. He also appealed again and again to people to refrain from criticizing the Gedolim in any way, and that this “dangerous” situation should be resolved for the klal, B’Shalom. I am also very moved by reports that came out the next day, that the entertainer had decided to cancel his performance, and in deference to the Gedolim, to overhaul his style to be more in tune with appropriate frum music. And this despite that he is extremely popular, having nearly sold out Madison Square Garden for the upcoming performance, and being one of the most sought after singers on the Kosher Hotel circuit. Some say his retraction was, indeed, the “Big Event”.

But the most unsettling part for me (my husband as well), is that without having an FFB education, in which unquestioning acceptance of such a Kol Koreh was simply understood, we just don’t know how to react. Sure, we try to work on our ability to submit to Daas Torah, understanding full well that we don’t even begin to approach their level of knowledge of what is good for the klal. But we would be insincere if we said we had no doubts. And judging from the NEED to appeal to the masses not to criticize the Gedolim, I guess we are not alone. We seem to want to demand accountability, as we would before submitting to some other types of authority. We seem to expect to understand the process by which the decree was arrived at, and have it make sense to us. We want to know that those issuing the decree are completely above suspicion, and are each well-versed in the facts of the case. HOW DO WE KNOW? And is it just a BT thing to even want/demand to know? And should we not be second guessing with ideas for other solutions, other than an attempted outright ban on all concerts?

I guess another reason I took this incident to heart is because just a few months ago there was a different uproar over the exposure of large numbers of frum kids doing off the derech things in the Catskills, followed by great hand-wringing and some resolutions to provide more kosher outlets of entertainment and stress-release. I thought this type of concert was exactly that, but maybe what is a kosher outlet to one, is off the derech to another?

I know Mark & David have done an outstanding and tireless job to keep this blog unique among its peers as a respectful place to exchange ideas, and perhaps part of that effort has been to stick with more parve topics, so I hope this very sensitive issue will be printable here, as I would appreciate hearing the thoughtful responses of other BT’s.

Thanks, and Kol Tuv



Before we let this go to comment, I spoke to a few great people about this to get their perspective and I will synthesize their comments here.

In Judaism, we are allowed to question, but at the same time we have to respect Rabbinic Authority. Just because we don’t understand a particular Psak, does not mean we are free to disobey it. In the case of bans, the best advice is to talk to your own Rabbi for hashkafic and halachic guidance.

Another point is that we are not privy to all the information that goes into a specific decision. I have seen the Rabbinic decision making process a few times and unless you are inside, you have no idea of all the factors in play. Unfortunately on the Internet, people are hesitant to admit their own lack of knowledge, quick to disparage, and stingy on giving the benefit of the doubt, but we have to clearly see that this is not what the Torah teaches.

In terms of the great Rabbis of our generation we have to recognize:
1) They are people of integrity
2) They are learned in Torah
3) They are committed to helping Klal Yisroel
4) They are faced with very difficult Hashkafic questions on a regular basis

Few people can match up to their stature.

With that preamble, we will open up the comments, but we insist the proper respect be shown to Rabbinic Authority and the Torah that stands behind it and that all comments be constructive.

– Mark