The Other Type of Assimilation

Several months ago I joined an online “social-networking site”. For a while it served as a great way to reconnect with old friends that I hadn’t contacted in years. In fact, may of them were involved in NCSY when I was becoming frum and many others were participants in NCSY when I was working for the organization. Until about 2 months ago, my “friends” from the “social-networking site” were actually about 90% Torah observant and the other 10% were not-yet observant (oddly enough some of them from my hometown and I am probably the only frum person they are in contact with).

Then there was a change in my friend demographics. Due to a public high school reunion coming up, someone from my high school found me online. He became my “friend”. Then other non-Jews that I really hadn’t thought of in almost 20 years started requesting my “friendship”. My demographics when from 100% Jewish “online friends” to about 20% non-Jews and 80% Jews.

During my last two years in high school I was Torah observant. I was also, then, submerged in the whole punk/alternative music scene sub-culture. My life revolved around bands, music, and concerts. In addition to all the outer signs of individuality that I displayed it was almost, to most people, incidental that I wore a yarmulka, didn’t go out on Friday nights, and didn’t eat much food outside my home.

Of course, once I was able to leave my hometown and engage in formalized Torah education many of my priorities changed. Eventually most of my old cassettes/cd from all the bands I couldn’t live without were sold and the money was used for seforim. Like most of us, I have over the years, immersed myself in the “frum” sub-culture. I realized as I started seeing names of friends from high school that I really haven’t spoke to in almost 20 years that I probably come off (via an online profile) as a very different person with different reading and music tastes that the ‘Neil” they once new.

It’s funny, because during my years in a ‘traditional’ conservative Sunday school and Hebrew school program we were constantly told that assimilation is, like, the worst evil. We were told that a Jew should never give up their identity as a Jew. Because the word ‘assimilation’ means to make similar I was raised that as a ‘traditional Jew’ I couldn’t be come similar to those around me. Well, as I examine who I am today, I think I’ve become an assimilated Jew. When I write ‘assimilated’ it is in the sense that I have submerged myself into a lifestyle and culture like that of my fellow Torah observant Jews.

I probably didn’t assimilate the way my old Hebrew school teachers thought I would, but then again, most of us BTs don’t when up where we thought we’d be. As for my friends from high school that have some out of the cyber-woodwork, let them go ahead and look up books like “Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh” and bands like “Piamenta”. This is who I am, someone ‘assimilated’ in Torah observant culture.

Sometimes I Hate Being a Baalas Teshuva

Hi, I am very upset right now with being a Baalas Teshuva.

I have had it with having no frum relatives who understand what planet I fell off of.

My siblings have married goyim, so that curtails a lot of family functions where my siblings children are coming with their goyish boyfriends all over them.

Now my sister in law wants to come on Sunday with her husband and kids. How to explain that we are fasting this Sunday and not really allowed to entertain?

If a genie popped out of this computer this second do you know what I would wish for? To have frum family! Yes, I am sick and tired of bringing my double wrapped food from noah’s ark to the table.

I want to be able to spend a shabbos or a pesach sedar with frum relatives. And not be
different than everybody else. Is this too much to ask for genie?

Sometimes I feel like an orphan! They think we are crazy frum, and do not really understand us or appreciate that they have frum grandchildren.

I should have gone to the Beyond BT shabbaton and finally spend shabbos with people who understand me!!!

Thanks for listening…-I feel better already!

Dear God, I’m Mad as Hell

Is it permissible to be angry with God? I asked this question in a recent survey and found many people believe it is.

Some people answered that it is permissible because it is part of our free will. This came as a surprise to me because we obviously do not share a clear definition of free will. So let’s start with that. Because definitions are crucial.

I found this out recently when my two year old informed me she had just finished washing something she had in her mouth. Later I saw her swishing something around in the toilet bowl and when I asked her what she was doing she said, “I’m washing it.”

Free will is the ability to do something. We have the ability to get up in the morning and nobody wants to stop us. In Jewish philosophy, however, free will takes on a different meaning. It refers to the ability to choose between right and wrong. These choices affect us spiritually and sometimes moral choices affect our future and our afterlife. God gives us free will to choose right and wrong because that makes us more like God. Inanimate objects and spiritual beings make no choices. Animals make choices out of instinct. Only human beings have the ability to make moral choices, and those choices have a way of defining who we are.

(Some sages suggest that the point of free will inside you is the epitome of the soul, the true you. Just in case you need reminding, it says in the Zohar “What then is man? Does he consist solely of skin, flesh, bones, and sinews? No, the essence of man is his soul; the skin, flesh, bones and sinews are but an outward covering, the mere garments, but they are not the man. When man leaves (this world) he divests himself of all these garments.”)

Therefore the ability to do something does not define it as right or wrong. We have the free will to be angry with God, but that doesn’t make it right.

Anger and Happiness

Anger does not have to destroy happiness, but it often does. We generally have a difficult time having two emotions at the same time. That’s why some behavioral psychologists recommend focusing on a different emotion when you want to change the emotion you’re feeling. If you are jealous of your sister’s millionaire husband, one way to remove that jealousy is to remove it by focusing on her husband’s lack of a sense of humor. This elicits feelings of pity which wipe away the feeling of jealousy. Two emotions are hard to hold onto. We can be tired or in pain and happy, like if you just finished first in a marathon. Every bone in your body aches, but you’re deliriously happy. But being tired or in pain is not an emotion. Anger and happiness don’t sit well together.

Are you angry with God for any your “slings and arrows” that you have experienced? Do you feel guilty about being angry with God?

It is only human and natural for us to be angry with God on occasion. If you have never experienced this then you might not be paying attention. When a hurricane causes a flood that displaces the entire city of New Orleans, we all have mixed emotions. Some of us are angry with God. When we read about Darfur, the holocaust, the inquisition, or any of life’s tragedies, we sometimes get angry with God. Whether or not this is appropriate, since it is a natural human reaction, even if it is wrong, the Almighty understands and takes our nature into account. He designed us and knows our failings. He does not look to punish those who are innocent.

Belief in God

A woman once told me that she didn’t believe in God anymore since she lost her son. Something about the way she said it sounded very much to me like she was trying to get back at God. So I said, “I don’t think you don’t believe in God. I think you’re angry with God.” And she agreed.

To be angry at God is actually one of the greatest mitzvot. It shows you believe in the God of Israel. That He is loving, all knowing, and all-powerful. That He is involved with our lives and at arms length to help or heal. If you didn’t believe all these things you wouldn’t be angry with Him.

Of course from a more holistic philosophical perspective, we may come to the conclusion that we are not really angry with God. We are merely in pain. The anger comes from not understanding God’s love. As finite beings, we can’t always fathom the will of the Almighty. After all, we have to admit that if there is an Infinite Being, He must be a little wiser than we are. And He may allow things to happen or even do things Himself that we just can’t comprehend. If you are not a doctor you probably won’t comprehend why cutting someone open and removing a piece of their insides might be the best thing for them. But we’ve seen it happen enough times that we are familiar with it. We’ve seen the positive outcome. The dilemma with God’s will is that we won’t be privy to the positive outcome until one of two things happen: either we die and go to the world of truth and understanding, or God ushers in the final chapter in the saga of life.

Knowing this doesn’t stop the pain of our loss, problem or challenge, but it allows us to move forward without anger. And without anger, the happiness again will bubble to the surface. We may not be able to be angry and happy and the same time. But we can be in pain and still be happy.

In short, we should not feel guilty about being angry with God. A. Because we are human B. It shows we believe in God. But ideally we want to increase our bitachon through meditation on God’s love or reading mussar on bitachon like Shar Bitachon from Duties of the Heart.

Beyond The BBT/SEZ Shabbaton

The Shabbaton is over. It was great and we want to first thank everybody who participated. There’s a slight let down that invariably comes after being so involved in planning and executing an event like this. Rabbi Tatz teaches that happiness is a result of moving towards completion of something meaningful. The greatest joy is right before the time of completion, but afterwards there is a decline on the happiness meter. To recalibrate the happiness we need to reframe completed events into steps in the continuing projects of perfecting ourselves, our communities and the world.

From a logistics point of view, things went very smoothly. We had the right amount of people (about 90 for lunch) for the facilities we had. The food was good and plentiful and the meals were relaxed and friendly with lots of good conversation. We added a Friday night communal meal this year, which made a big difference. David and I would like to thank our wives and families and the Greenwald family for the amazing job they did with the planning, serving and cleaning up. Thanks to Congregation Ahavas Yisroel for providing the facilities. A special thanks to Serach and all our hosts for their amazing home hospitality. Finally, thanks to all the speakers for their thoughtful words on individuality, integration and inspiration.

The Melava Malka was well attended with a number of people coming in after Shabbos. Chaim Linn served up some great music, including a live version of Davy Pray, with a special cameo from one of our KGH friends, Richard Maisel, singing a tune he wrote about Yerushalyim many years ago. We also had the pleasure of listening to Jameel at the Muquata talk about the need for us Americans to keep continually connected to Eretz Yisroel. He’s in America to blog about Nefesh B’ Nefesh who have scheduled a live and online Jewish blogger’s conference this Wednesday.

The Serandez (SEZ) people were terrific and friendly, despite the slight age gap between the BBT’ers and the SEZ’ers. However, all the Dvar Torahs were growth focused and that was the common bond on which we planned the event. I’m reading a book by Clay Shirky called “Here Comes Everybody – The Power of Organization without Organizations” in which he describes a Small World network pattern in which small densely connected groups sparsely connect with each other. In our situation, Beyond BT and Serandez were each a densely connected group with similar interests, sparsely connected primarily through David, Serach, Ezzie and myself. If you want to understand the changing social phenomena going on in the Jewish blogosphere and the greater Internet community, this is a good book to read.

One note of interest was that quite a few of the Sez’ers that I talked to had a least one BT parent. The Shabbaton gave me a greater appreciation that our FFB children have quite a different world view than us BT parents. I don’t think we’ve really explored this enough here, so if any child of a BT is game we would really appreciate a post on the topic of FFB children of BT Parents (we’ll put it up anonymously if you want).

In terms of the larger picture, the Shabbaton was planned for the attendees benefit and many expressed appreciation of the great group of people assembled and how wonderful it was to be comfortable just being ourselves without fear of judgment. A meeting like this also sensitizes us to the needs of others – people need places to live, new jobs, shidduchim and often just a listening ear.

One of the projects I’ve been marinating and mentioned at the Shabbaton is called Beyond Kindness or Beyond Chesed. It’s goal is to make us more aware and proactive in our Chesed. For our own sakes and for Klal Yisroel, we need to go beyond doing kindness when it smacks us in the face, to becoming true Baalei Chesed by seeing and seeking out the opportunities around us all the time. G-d willing we’ll flesh this out more in the next few months and perhaps we can collectively take a step towards becoming a growing community of Torah and Chesed pro-activists.

The Shabbaton is Almost Here

It’s been a busy week here at Beyond BT and Serandez as we prepare for the Shabbaton.

If you can’t make it for Shabbos, try to stop by for the Melava Malka.

Here’s the schedule: All activities are at Congregation Ahavas Yisroel (CAY)

7:05 – Mincha/Maariv
8:00 – Friday Night Meal
~3 People speaking (7-10 minutes each)
10:00 – Oneg

Shabbos Day
7:25 – Daf Yomi
8:30 – Davening at CAY or other local Shuls
11:00 – Light Kiddush
12:00 – Lunch
~3 People speaking (7-10 minutes each)
Afternoon – Rest, Walk, Shmooze
5:00 – Gemora Shiur at CAY
6:00 – Mincha
6:45 – Shalosh Seudos
~3 People speaking (7-10 minutes each)
8:20 – Pikei Avos Shiur at CAY

Motza’ei Shabbos
8:51 – Maariv
9:05 – Havdalah
9:30-11:30 – Melave Malka
Featuring Beyond BT Jam Band in Formation

We do want to mention that due to logistic considerations we’re having salad instead of soup on Friday night.

Giving and Unity

Every interaction with another person holds the potential for unity. How can that be? Let’s let the author of Bilvavi explain it:

The power of giving can unite a person with all of creation. We may not, G-d forbid, unite with the evil manifestation of anything, but we can unite with the hidden good in all of creation. There is no created being in the world without some spark of goodness. If it did not have a spark of goodness, it would not be able to exist.

Hence, when one gives properly and in the proper place, it engenders unity. The Talmud (Ketubot 105b) states that the word shochad (a type of giving) is a contraction of shehu chad (becoming one), because the giver and taker become one. Superficially, a person thinks, “I gave to that person. That was good, but now, it’s over. I had the thing and then gave it a way. The act took a minute or two, and then we went on our separate ways.” But in depth, as Chazal teach, they become one.

If I gave a carton of milk to a neighbor from downstairs who needed it, or I met someone in the bus station who needed money for bus fare, and I handed him nineteen shekalim, do I become one with him? How can such trivial acts unify people? If one wants to unite, as with a spouse, it is a process of years, as we all know. How can a minor act unify people?

Here is the answer: If you take a magnet and place it next to another one, they will become attached to each other. But if something else is placed between them, they will not be able to join. The moment the intervening item is removed, they will naturally join. This is the deep condition of all of creation. If we would try to create a new unity where one never existed, it would be difficult, and in fact, impossible. But the natural state of people is to be one. All of our souls were contained in Adam HaRishon. There, we were one person. Afterwards, we became more and more divided from each other, until coming to our current state. Unity is not a new state; it is a return to the primal state.

There is a divider that separates us, namely, the body, which has a desire to take, but once one removes that will to take, he will sense a natural unity with other people. If the natural state of people is to be absolutely separate, the avodah to unite them would be very difficult and actually impossible. But since they are essentially one, but each person later fashions his own will and his own concerns and an attitude of taking, there is a separation caused between people. After we have removed this desire to take, and have acted upon the loftier desire by really giving, there is no real need to “create” unity. You must understand this, because it is subtle and deep. Giving, in depth, does not unite; it removes the cause of separateness. After the cause of separateness has been removed, we naturally unite.

From the third volume of Bilvavi, Da Es Atzmecha – Know Yourself which can be read online here.

Mazal Tov to Bob & Sharon Miller on the Engagement of their Son

Mazal Tov to Bob & Sharon Miller on the engagement of their son Dovid to Yael Klagsbrun of Greater Passaic. Dovid has been learning at Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood.

Bob notes:

At Yael’s home, I also met the famed lawyer Ron Coleman, as proven by the attached photo he took with a small electronic device. This reassured us that we both existed independently of the Web.

We’re a little envious that Ron got to meet Bob, but after the Chofetz Chaim Heritage’s film yesterday about Envy we’re working on curtailing the feeling. At the CAY showing in KGH, Rabbi Krohn, who was a speaker in the film showed up to watch it, and told over some stories which hit the cutting room floor. It was pretty cool.

Rabbi Welcher said in his Tisha B’Av shiur that we need to be constantly aware of Chesed opportunities. We have to be proactive in our chesed. Chesed can be something small like wishing someone a Mazal Tov. So we would like to take this opportunity to thank Bob for his active participation here on Beyond BT and wishing he and his wife Sharon a Mazal Tov on the engagement of their son Dovid.

Rabbi Goldson’s Torah Ideals for Tisha B’Av

The insightful Rabbi Yonason Goldson has started his own blog named Torah Ideals. It’s already packed with great articles including Rabbi Goldson’s own odyssey of becoming a BT.

For Tisha B’Av, Rabbi Goldson has penned a piece called Truth and Faithfulness. Here’s an excerpt:

When we become absorbed in our own agendas, our own projects, and our own priorities, we become passive in the sense that we turn ourselves inward with no concern for the world around us. We become resentful of those around us whom we perceive as impediments to our success as they pursue their own individual goals. This leads to the kind of corruption and divisiveness that brought about the destruction of the First and Second Temples respectively.

However, when we look beyond ourselves,…

Read the whole thing here.

Second Class: Not Just BTs

By Ezzie Goldish
(Originally published on Serandez)

Ed. note: Part of why this post has taken three days (!) to write is that there’s both so much to say and so little to say at the same time. When it comes down to it, most people know how to act, are aware that they’re sometimes judgmental, and that they’re not as accepting as they can be. They try hard to correct it, they talk about it, they really work at it – and most people really are decent and good most of the time. Not much is necessarily added by talking about it, though perhaps something is. I also realized that in the process of writing the post, I completely got away from what part of my original intention was, which was to encourage good people – which I think that thankfully SerandEz readers are – to come to the Shabbaton we’re running together with BeyondBT in a couple of weeks (Aug 15-16). So… come! :)

There was recently an article that went around the J-blogosphere discussing the “second class” treatment that BTs sometimes receive. This is not the focus of this post. BeyondBT linked to the piece with a simple question:

In your experience, are BTs generally treated as second class citizens in the communities you’ve lived in?

While the overall answer in the comments was a big, “Well, not really…”, the thread of comments was fascinating. As I noted to Mark Frankel, one of the administrators there:

me: i think that the thread on the Second Class post is one of the best on the blog, ever, and is really what the blog is all about in so many diff ways.
BeyondBT: in what ways is it what the blog all about?
me: fitting in, whether BTs should be trying to fit in, what exactly is diff about BTs in the first place, are those positive or negative things, do they need to be “fixed”, are they treated differently, how are they treated differently, is it because they’re BTs per se, what can be done about it… etc.
that thread alone covered all of those.

Many commenters touched on what I think is an important point. When ba’alei teshuva run into situations where they feel like they are being treated as second class citizens, it often has very little to do with their status as BTs and far more to do with the people doing the excluding. The same issues often will come up among any Orthodox family – for nearly every characteristic a person or family can have, there are going to be those that wish to exclude them for those same characteristics. The issue is not whether BTs or any other grouping (Sephardim, Charedim, Modern, Yeshivish, Black-Hat, Srugis, etc.) are considered second-class, but why people feel a need to be elitist, and why we’re hurt when we’re not in the self-proclaimed elite group.

I don’t know that either of those are particularly “solvable” issues – only issues that can be minimized. Unfortunately, there are always going to be people who wish to be exclusionary and find a need to put down other groups to raise their own. On the flip side, the motto atop this blog (Be yourself, because the people who care don’t matter, and the people who matter don’t care – Serach) serves as a good reminder of how to view such elitism – a frum Jew needs to only follow the guidelines the Torah sets out, not the “rules” that an individual community, or more often, a small subset of a community try to overtly force on its members. There should be no hurt at being “excluded” from an elitist group – would a person truly wish to be part of a group that thumbs its nose at anyone who is not just like them? Obviously not.

But then again, this is reality. While in our personal relationships and in our own conduct it is easy to do what is right and what we wish, and not cater to the demands of unreasonable others, the reality is that we sometimes have to face situations such as these. The question becomes how to approach them, and obviously, every situation calls for its own set of guidelines and specific responses.

Most important, however, is that to effect a real change in the Jewish community as a whole these attitudes need to be changed. While it is quite difficult for any individual to effect change on a large scale, one need only to follow the advice of R’ Israel Salanter to do so* – by focusing on one’s own actions first. The more we focus on ensuring that we live up to certain ideals and respect differences as other approaches and not “worse” ones, and demonstrate that, the more the people around us will (and to some extent are forced to do so) as well.

Case in point: A woman called me about a shidduch for her daughter, asking about a friend of mine. One of the questions was how he dressed – ‘does he dress “black and white”, does he wear colored shirts, how does he dress on Shabbos…’ As I often do with questions like this, I decided to make a small point (but nicely) with the response. “My friend wears suits on Shabbos and dresses very nicely during the week. I don’t think he finds whether the shirt is white to be particularly important; he simply dresses very respectably and doesn’t particularly care about that.” After a slight hesitation, she said “Right, that is more superficial bu…”, trailing off as if she was going to say more, but clearly thinking about the concept as she said it, and I cut in simply that “Yes, exactly. [It is superficial.]”

Most people in the Orthodox world who have exclusive views haven’t given much thought to them. They go along with the narrow viewpoints that exist because that’s what you do and because they haven’t given much thought to it. By quietly, and kindly, separating the real stuff from the shtus we help people see past that. By noting nicely the positive impacts and traits a certain group have we help people see those things, and often times, an indirect approach is the best. A lot of people lately have been linking to the now deceased Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” (and the hour to watch the whole thing will change your life in ways that are well worth the hour), and he talks about using “head fakes” to teach lessons. After an hour and fourteen minutes on the theme of the speech, “Living Your Childhood Dreams”, he asks if people realized that that wasn’t really what the speech was about at all. (I don’t want to give it away.) But he was absolutely correct in that the lesson he actually was trying to impart was learned by the audience.

Most of us want to get along with one another, want to see eye-to-eye, and want to appreciate each other’s differences – or at least, want people to do so with us. Instead of announcing “this is my approach!”, calmly explain how your approach is a good one. Bring people into whatever you’re doing and show them how it’s good. Invite people for Shabbos and show them how you live. It’s a lot harder to be judgmental of someone whom you know or someone who’ve you spent a Shabbos with. For example, on a thread suggesting how to “heal the rift within Orthodoxy”, it was suggested to have an exchange program between yeshivos of different types. Whether that is feasible or not does not matter; it is certainly feasible to have at one’s Shabbos table people of all different types, or in one’s shul, or to simply stand on the street and talk for a bit. You don’t need to have a discussion about a controversial subject, and even if you have such a discussion, it can be had while respecting why each side takes a certain view even if one disagrees for themselves.

The best way to effect change in our communities is rather simple: Live it.

…and, uh, oh yeah – don’t forget about the Shabbaton. :)

* “I wanted to change the world, but I realized it was too large of a task for one person, so I tried to change my community. That was also too hard, so I tried to change my family. That was also too hard, so I decided to try and change myself. And though it was very hard, I finally changed myself. And once I changed myself, I discovered my family changed, the community changed, and the entire world changed.”

Kiruv is Kindness

I’ve taken a number of Kiruv Training Classes the past few years and one major benefit is the resulting awareness of all the kindness opportunities around us.

Kiruv can be many things, teaching Torah, serving Hashem, saving souls, but I think at its root that Kiruv is kindness. In Pirkei Avos it’s taught “Hillel said, be of the students of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to Torah.” From the Mishnah it’s clear that the kiruv of Aharon was the kiruv of kindness.

We believe strongly in the great importance and benefit of coming closer to Hashem and His Torah, and when we bring any person just a little bit closer, BT, FFB or not observant, it’s a great kindness.

So there I was on a Friday afternoon and the following email arrives:

Dear Mark:

First, let me thank you for taking time out of your schedule today to have a conversation with me. As we move forward, I hope that you will view our relationship as a significant investment in your career.

I look forward to working with you. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me….and good luck with the running this weekend!


The only problem was that I had never spoken to Emily. This happened to be the second time that day that I had gotten an email to the wrong Mark Frankel. So I sent the following reply to Emily:


You have the wrong Mark Frankel.

Be Well

Emily quickly acknowledged:

Thanks so much for sending this back – I realized it as soon as I hit send! (Thinking about it, should have sent a note telling you that…)

Have a good weekend –

That could have been the end of it. A small kindness, followed by a gracious expression of thanks. But I did a little research and took a chance that Emily was Jewish. I thought this could be an opportunity for a small act of kindness. I sent back the following email:

or a good Shabbos.

I’ve gotten 2 wrong emails for this Mark Frankel today, is his email so close to mine?

I thought that the email might elicit a reply and sure enough in about a minute the following came streaming into my inbox:

That obvious, huh? But our four and a half year old daughter informed me in a very excited voice that Shabbat is tonight…and Havdalah is tomorrow night.

So – good Shabbos to you as well.

Wow! Talk about Divine providence. I did one final web-based kindness, the emailing of a link:

My children also motivated me to learn more about Shabbos.

If you’re interested, this is a great site.

Good Shabbos

Emily acknowledged:

Funny how that works with kids – I’ve never celebrated Havdalah before (my husband hadn’t done much of anything growing up), either.

Thanks for the link to the aish site – it’s a good one.

I don’t know what the next steps are or if there will be any next steps. I just thought this was a small opportunity to make a person a little more conscious of their Judaism.

Kiruv is all about kindness and kindness is what Hashem wants of us – the more the better.

We Are Here

We talk about doing mitzvos lishmo and lo lishmo. But what do we say about mitzvos done out of spite?

In my mind I have seriously considered the possibility that even if there were no Discovery Seminar, no Jerusalem Fellowships, no Partners in Torah, no spoon-fed Judaism for restless quasi-intellectual Jewish Ivy Leaguers – that if I just knew how to be as Jewish as possible, as assertively unassimilated, talking- with- my- hands, black- hat- wearing, walking- across- your- town- with- my- talis- on Jewish, I would do it just to spit in the eye of the world that tried to liquidate us all.

That is the blackness that takes up part of my soul as a result of growing up in a Holocaust family — mine and yours. If I G-d forbid did not believe in Torah mi-Sinai (Revelation), in Torah she-ba’al peh and emunas chachomim (the Oral Law and faith in the sages) I just might go through all the motions anyway just to shtokh (poke) the rest of the world. Mir zaynen doh: Here we are. Gag on it!

The more I pore into the reality of what happened then, the darker the black gets. Yes, the spots of light, the edifying Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s Name) moments are compelling, and in relief against the nadir of human history they should shine as brightly as suns. But in the deep blackness of darkest space, and from so far away, they are but little light dots. What there is mostly is the dark, and the cold, and the death. There could be no inspiration for me in the Kiddush Hashem of the Holocaust. “We” were already yotzei Kiddush Hashem mehadrin min-hamehadrin (we had fulfilled it in its highest form).

Did this ebony anger make me “frum”? Did this jolt of bitterness rip me from the fast track in a promising legal career to two years in three yeshivos and a different path?

It may not have been. There were more mundane factors. But I am hard pressed to identify what among them made me any more conscious of my Jewishness, and more determined to resolve my own Jewish Question, than the myriads and thousands situated the same.

I was not the only one from a survivor family in my time and place – and my parents were not survivors, not in the direct sense (of course when the crime is genocide, any member of the targeted people who lives is a survivor). One small branch of our family had left Europe in the ’30’s. But the rest were made dust and ash, and the remnants carried this pain from Poland to Cuba to America. It was soldered to my soul for six years at a summer camp (Camp Hemshekh — “Camp Continuity”) run by remnants of the old anti-religious Jewish Labor Bund, who had incorporated as Survivors of Nazi Persecution — what a name for a group formed to operate a summer camp! — and rebuilt their fantasy of a Yiddish secular culture paradise, where we sang the songs, read the poetry, acted the plays of Gebirtig and Peretz and Gelbart, celebrating a culture and a conception of a people that were no more.

But unlike the murdered children on whose lives our summers were to be modeled, we had another chapter in our repertoire. We learned the songs sung by the orphaned children and the mourning parents of the Warsaw Ghetto whose names we bear, the poetry of the partisans of the Vilna forests who were the gedolim of my youth, the literature of the rebels of Sobibor and Treblinka who were our models of techias hameisim (revival of the dead).

I thank the Ribbono shel Olam that I didn’t know enough Yiddish at that age to understand more than a few words of what I was saying, or who knows how bent I would be today! But that intense exposure to this tragic slice of Jewish life obviously affected me deeply. I am astonished when people from the “outside world” tell me that I must see this or that Holocaust movie –- don’t they know what I know already, the children’s Holocaust I playacted as a child? Did you ever hear of anyone who went to a summer camp that had its own simulated Warsaw Ghetto Wall, complete with cemented-in broken glass and barbed wire? No, I did not survive the Pit; I lived a soft and easy suburban life and merely spent my languid Catskill summers in Holocaust Camp, where for some reason in August we marched by torchlight at night to the Wall, humming a song we knew was called Ani Maamin but whose words they had never taught us… thought its meaning, somehow, they had. And you want me to watch in Technicolor the hopeless martyrdom that I already “lived” in my formative years?

This was the yesod of my emunah and of my bitachon (this is the foundation of my belief and my trust).

I knew there must be a reason. When the complete possibilities of assimilation were presented to me, I knew I carried around something that must have meaning and which needed resolution. To ignore this was to live in a world devoid of meaning and infinitely harsh.

Yet I saw so much good around me — so much love, so many outlets for creativity, for intellection and expression, for humane achievement; so much capacity for greatness. Still none of these things could outweigh an existential pain. What did I feel in the world that told me there was more, beneath what I knew — some profound good to answer that ultimate evil? Could existence really just be a dark vacuum punctuated with distraction and temporal pleasure?

This did not add up.

Will you believe me when I say that I was not in any other respect a candidate for the Baal Teshuvah “movement,” as popularly perceived? I actually had a pretty good thing going. I didn’t know where it was going, but I was looking pretty good getting there.

But … where was there? Where is here? After the City spat us out with most of the rest of the middle class, I spent the second half of my childhood in a place called Twin Rivers in New Jersey. Ten years before it had been a potato farm. So you will excuse me for not feeling particularly deeply rooted in the “here” of there.

One of the songs they taught us was the Partisan’s Hymn. Its refrain was, mir zaynen doh – “We are here.” The last verse is this, the famous one:

So never say you now go on your last way,
Through darkened skies may now conceal the blue of day,
Because the hour for which we’ve hungered is so near,
Beneath our feet the earth shall thunder, “We are here!”

These Yiddish guys got almost everything wrong. But this they got right. We are here. They may not be, now, and regrettably their offspring may not be, either. But we, their people, are here. And there must be a reason we are here. Does God (of course there is a God, this is not a serious question) want me to charm my way through life, through fancy college and fancy law school, through ballgames and politics and dating and “entertainment” and pizza pies — is that why, after all that, we are here?

This is an absurd proposition. A life infused with such vacuity is little removed from the nihilism that makes holocausts possible. How anyone, any Jew, can argue on behalf of such an existence, given what we know now, is as cold as any existential night I have ever pondered.

If I am here, despite it all, that I had some sort of duty that followed from being here. This meaning must be real, must be achievable. It took little for me to realize that I am here, despite a world’s best efforts to prevent it, for a reason; that without we, I am not here at all; and that without Torah and mitzvos, we are not… quite… really here.

FFB Communal Leader Makes it Clear to BTs – “We Don’t Like You”

NJOP has posted Hillel Gross’ Address at the 10th Anniversary of the Lincoln Square Synagogue Beginners Service on Google Video.

It is probably the best FFB address to BTs in Jewish history.

Please visit the NJOP page for more details about this historic event and please view the video below.
Read more FFB Communal Leader Makes it Clear to BTs – “We Don’t Like You”