L’Shana Tova to All

We want to wish everybody who writes, comments or reads Beyond BT, a L’Shana Tova, a good year.

As BT’s we know that even the greeting on Rosh Hoshana can be a challenge. The Art Scroll Machzor lists 4 different depending on whether your greeting a man, woman, men or women and then they have an optional piece in parenthesis.

They are mostly variations on “may you have a good year and be written and sealed in the book of life”. The written and sealed part is a reference to the Gemora in Rosh Hoshana (16b) which says that there are three books open on Rosh Hoshana, the righteous are sealed immediately for life, the wicked are sealed immediately for death and the in-betweeners are not sealed until Yom Kippur.

So this year consider going with the Rosh Hoshana greeting of the Rema and the Vilna Gaon (Gra) who say L’Shana Tova Tikoseiv, may you be written for a good year, because most of us are in-betweeners, our judgment is not sealed on Rosh Hoshana, so we should omit the part of the greeting that references sealed. If someone corrects you, tell them you’re going with the Gra and Rema.

But beyond the pilpul, we wish the best for everybody in the upcoming year.

Shame on Me – An Approach to Approaching Teshuvah

Shlomo HaMelekh, the wisest of all men, tells us: Do not rebuke a scoffer, lest he hate you; rebuke a wise man, and he will love you.

The surface level interpretation of this is simple. A scoffer doesn’t want to hear rebuke and, so, when you rebuke him, he will hate you. A wise person, on the other hand, is always looking for an opportunity for growth. When you rebuke him he will love you since you are pointing out a flaw in a certain area and giving him an opportuniy for additional growth.

The Shelah has a deeper interpretation of this verse, The Shelah explains that the verse doesn’t speak about two different types of people being rebuked, it speaks about two different ways of giving rebuke. One way of rebuking is something like this: “You are disgusting! You have some nerve behaving that way. You don’t know what you are doing. You better shape up.” By rebuking this way, the rebuker turns the one who is being rebuked into a scoffer and he will then “hate you”. The other way of rebuking is something like this: “You are a great person. You are a wise and introspective person with good middos. I’ve noticed something that doesn’t seem to fit with your good qualities. If you work on this issue, you will refine yourself even more.” By rebuking in this manner, the rebuker is making the one who is being rebuked into a wise man and he will “love you.”

Rabbi Hadar Margolin in his HaSimchah B’Moadim (partially available in english as “Crown Him with Joy”) explains that this insight into giving rebuke is just as applicable when rebuking oneself, especially in the pre-Rosh Hashana teshuvah mode. The mishnah in Avos adjoins us: “Do not view yourself as a rasha.” Don’t regard yourself as a scoffer, “rebuke a wise man!” Tell yourself: “I am the grandchild of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. I have good qualities, I’m striving to grow. As such, it is incumbent upon me to improve myself in this particular area.” Such an approach motivates and stimulates improvement. The opposite approach, beating oneself up and degrading oneself can cause depression and lead one to think that he can never improve thereby creating a barrier to teshuvah.

Kesiva v’Chasima Tova.

Transitioning to Shabbos

Jacob Da Jew recently wrote a post about how his brother-in-law recently joined the workforce, and now truly appreciates the “rest” you take on Shabbos.

For me, it was the opposite. I wasn’t Shabbos observant until about 2-3 years ago (I never did mark down the exact day I started). Before that, I couldn’t figure out how people could observe Shabbos. After working all week, I eagerly awaited the weekend to do all the other things that needed doing. Shopping, going out, having fun, taking rides, etc.

When I married my observant wife, she said she accepted me as I was, and would not change me to try to make me Shomer Shabbos, kosher, etc. And for the first year or so, that’s what it was. In fact I used to teach motorcycle classes once a month over the whole weekend. But something happened. I began to miss the Friday night Shabbos dinner. Eventually I made arrangements so I could be home on Friday night, but still teach Saturday and Sunday. But then something else happened. Now I was missing going to Shul! Huh? Where did this come from? I used to only go to Friday night services a few times a year. Now I’m disappointed that I’m not at services on Shabbos? Hmmmmm. Okay, so now I don’t teach on the weekends anymore. But still, gotta have my e-mail! I check it several times an hour when awake! Well, hmmm, I guess I really don’t get all that much email on Saturday. Maybe I don’t need to check that often. You know what, I don’t need to check at all. Let’s just turn the computer off before we light the candles. Give the hard drive a rest from its constant spinning.

Boy, this is really going to be boring. For over 24 hours, no TV, no computer, no driving around and shopping. What the heck will we do anyway? Well, Shabbos dinner on Friday night is nice. Good family time. Saturday morning I get the kids up and let my wife sleep in a little bit. Then when she’s up (maybe with a little nudging from me) I go to shul (the wife and kids will join me later) and I really enjoy davening there. In the afternoon, I play with the kids, or they go to a neighbor’s house and run around wild there, and I get to take something I haven’t taken since Kindergarten… a nice nap. Some dinner, then if Shabbos ends early enough, Havdalah for the whole family, otherwise we put the kids to bed, and a little private time to talk with my wife before Shabbos ends.

You know what? I like this! I don’t miss the Saturday hullabaloo I used to participate in. It’s nice to get a rest in, take a break from the average week. I’ve turned 180 degrees, now instead of being annoyed with Shabbos “interfering” with my schedule, I actually look forward to it and the break it gives me every week.

Originally posted here.

Can a BT Earn the Right to Coast?


I’m frum for about 16 years and I have a close friend who’s been frum for about the same amount of time. We’re both married with families. My friend worked very hard on his Yiddishkeit for many years, but in the last 2 years he has noticeably declined in devotion to his learning and his seriousness about davening. I asked him about it and he told me that after all the years of applying pressure on himself to advance further he decided that he had made enough progress and he thinks Hashem will be happy with him because of the struggles he’s endured to become frum and raise a frum family.

Is it possible that his assessment is not so crazy and he’s earned his right to coast?

If he’s making a mistake how can inspire him to return to the path he was formerly on? The for-the-kids argument didn’t work because he argued that they’ll do fine because his wife does a great job with them.


Announcing the Engagement of Rachel Schallheim to Yanir Edelstein


We are pleased to announce the engagement of our daughter Rachel to Yanir Edelstein of Hadera, a talmid in Yeshivat Kiryat Malachi. The wedding will be in Yerushalayim at the L’Chaim Hall in Givat Shaul on Monday night, Nov. 24. We’d love to meet some of the wonderful people from this site in person. Anyone from the Beyond BT family who’s going to be in Israel is welcome to drop by for the reception and dancing, about 9:30 PM.

All the best, David and Malka Schallheim

Ten Ways To Help Your Children Have A More Meaningful Yomim Noraim

Reprinted with permission of Priority-One .

1) Explain to your children how Hashem actively seeks week to forgive, and will forgive them – even if the best they can do is want to do Teshuva.

2) Remind them that Yiddishkeit is not all-or-nothing – that their Aveiros do not invalidate their Mitzvos or diminish Hashem’s love.

3) Model the virtue of personal growth by sharing your own goals to a improve a particular Mitzvah or Middah, or by working to improve something together with your children.

4) Urge them to privately recall something they wish they could undo, and reassure them that now is their opportunity to erase whatever they regret.

5) Share your personal stories of Hashgacha Pratis with your children to demonstrate Hashem’s direct involvement in your family’s day-to-day lives.

6) Encourage your children to focus on two or three things they truly appreciate as constant reminders of Hashem’s benevolence in their own lives.

7) Sincerely ask your children for Mechilah during the Yomin Noraim to teach that everyone can make mistakes, and is equally worthy of being forgiven.

8) Suggest they undertake a small goal to improve their Yiddishkeit with reassurance that the most proper and efffective way to grow is through small, obtainable steps of self-improvement.

9) Make a special effort during the Yomim Noraim to model Hashem’s Middah of patience, compassion and forgiveness in your interactions with your spouse and children.

10) Show your children that they are the center of your world. Postpone a meeting or ignore a phone call to make time for them so they’ll feel cherished and can comprehend that Hashem, too, considers them the center of His world.

Please visit Priorty-1 for other valuable parenting resources.

This is Our 1000th Post – What Changes Are Needed to Make it to 2000?

We started in December 2005 and today is our 1000th post. We want to thank all our contributors, commentors and readers for bringing us to this point.

What do we need to do to continue our forward progress?

– Widen the discussion to include more non-BT related topics.

– Be more provocative.

– Focus more on growth related subjects.

– Address topics currently being discussed on other blogs.

Or we can keep on doing what we’ve been doing. The only problem with that option is that it’s been hard to get new contributors and our existing contributors have become markedly less prolific in recent months. So if you think we should keep on truckin like we’ve been, then how can we get and motivate new contributors to write on a somewhat regular basis.

We want to continue serving the Beyond BT community, so please help us help you by sharing your thoughts on where Beyond BT should be heading.

Taking the Next Step in Teshuva

By Micheal Sedley

Elul is upon us and collectively the Observant community is getting into Tshuva Mode.

Beyond BT poses an interesting question which I think applies to many people who are Ba’al Tshuva, or have moved in the level of observance over a period of years:

When I first became a BT, Teshuva was so easy. Over the course of 2 years, I was keeping Shabbos, Kosher, Davening regularly and performing all the seasonal mitzvos.

After 8 years it has become a lot harder to do Teshuva, even at this time of year. When I look over the last year, the changes are much smaller and were much more difficult to make.

Have other people experienced this change in Teshuva?

Are there a different set of tactics and goals at this later stage?

Is there anything special about the Teshuva of a BT at this point or am I now fighting the same battles that a FFB faces?

“Former Teshuva Master”

I think in a nutshell the problem is that the focus of one’s tshuva must change, and the new focus is often more difficult.

Many people going through a transition towards more observance have a list of things that they know deep down they should be doing but aren’t yet. This list may even be subconscious, but come Rosh Hashana time it’s relatively easy to find the item on the top of the list and commit oneself. If last year I didn’t daven, than this year I’ll start davening. If I’m already davening, maybe I’ll increase the Tfilllot I say each day, or attend minyan each day, or be more careful with kashrut, or Brachot, or some other easy-to-identify Halachic obligation.

This type of Tshuva is relatively easy, and it’s a wonderful feeling to look back over the past year and say “two years ago I ate traif, last year I stopped eating non-kosher meat, this year I’ll be 100% kosher”.

The problem is that eventually you find that you’re living a complete halachic lifestyle – there is nothing quick and easy on the top of the list. Sure you could improve your kavana during davenng or cut down on Bitul Zman or Lashon Harah, but these things are hard to quantify, they aren’t the sort of thing that you can put a check mark next to on your list. I think that this is one of the reasons that suddenly a “Former Teshuva Master” can find it very difficult to have a meaningful Elul.

To make matters even more difficult, this question is seldom addressed directly. In Yeshiva whenever there was a talk on Tshuva they always used a simple example like “lets say someone wants a cheeseburger and stops himself, that’s tshuva” – the problem is that most tshuva is not so easy to qualify, and besides I’ve never had a cheeseburger in my life, and don’t have a particular ta’ava for one, so the metaphor really doesn’t talk to me.

Anyway, the article from Beyond BT got me thinking, and I tried to put together a list of things that I really can work on. I probably wont achieve all of these improvements this Elul, it is possible that I wont achieve any of them, but at least if I have a list it’ll be a place to start on this year’s tshuva adventure.

These items are just off the top of my head, if you have suggestions, feel free to leave a comment. Bli Neder over the next 40 days (until Yom Kippur) I’ll review this list, maybe modify it, maybe just think about it, but hopefully this will help give me some direction to move in during Elul, and maybe – just maybe, after Yom Kippur I’ll have at least one measurable improvement in my life.

* I’ll make a conscious effort to appreciate my wife more, especially her non-stop effort to keep the household running smoothly. I’ll identify additional ways that I can help around the house and show additional support for my wife both physically and emotionally.

* I’ll make a conscious effort to spend more time with each of my kids. They all need time with their father on a daily basis and I’ll try to make sure that spending time with them is part of my daily or weekly routine. This could include learning Gemara with my oldest, or practicing reading with the girls (each at their own level), or maybe riding a bike or playing a board game with them – each of them.

* I’ll work on anger, especially with my kids. It is very easy to loose patience with your own kids, but I’ll try to never raise my voice to them and to treat them at least as well as I would the kids of a neighbor (I can’t imagine myself yelling at someone else’s kids).

* I’ll try to use all my time as constructively as possible. When I’m working I should be 100% at work, when I’m with the kids I should be 100% with the kids, when I’m in a shiur I should be 100% at the shiur.

* I’ll slow down with my Brachot, especially Birkat Hamazon. Does mumbling and skipping words in Birkat Hamazon really show my appreciation for the food that I just ate? Is it really so difficult to make sure that I say ALL of the words?

* I’ll try to start off my day by being ON TIME for shul – how difficult should it be to get to shul a few minutes before it starts to put on Tfillin, recite Korbanot, and maybe even look at Parsha Shavua?

Well, I think that’s a pretty good start, IY”H over the next few days I’ll see how I can further refine this list.

Please feel free to leave comments.

Originally posted here.

Please Consider a Donation to Yeshiva Darche Noam


11 Elul 5768

September 11, 2008

Dear Readers:

I respectfully ask you to kindly consider making a charitable contribution to Yeshiva Darchei Noam, a school that I founded 11 years ago and have served as Dean since, in order to help our devoted faculty members receive the outstanding portion of their summer payroll.

In the first 10½ years since Darchei Noam was founded, each and every one of our payrolls was disbursed on the first of every month. This summer, however, much to my dismay, we fell behind and were unable to meet our obligations for the first time in our history. The downturn in the economy deeply affected our tuition collections and negatively impacted our fundraising revenue – to the point where a few parents in our school who in previous years generously contributed to our scholarship fund were unable to pay the tuition of their children last year and requested scholarships themselves.

The late disbursement of payroll to our dedicated faculty members and office staff is causing terrible hardship to their families. I have been working feverishly all summer to get current with our commitments, and although I was able to make one of the payrolls, we are still intolerably behind in making the remainder of the payments.

We created a segregated account for those who may wish to contribute to this drive and it is being managed and overseen by two Darchei Noam parents; Gud Mayer Adler, madler@gficap.com, and David Koegel dkoegel@gmail.com. You can contribute online with our secure service, or make a check payable to Darchei Noam Payroll Drive and mail it to my attention at Yeshiva Darchei Noam, 257 Grandview Road, Suffern N.Y. 10901. (I will be glad to send a signed, complimentary copy of my parenting book to all donors who contribute $100 or more to this campaign.) 100% of the funds that you contribute will go directly to pay our rebbeim and teachers as these parents are volunteering their time and are underwriting any overhead costs.

Please feel free to email me at my personal address yhdarchei@aol.com should you have any questions or if you would like to become a partner in the work of our Yeshiva.

The non-payment of our employees over the summer weeks is a source of great pain to me, and I will be exceedingly grateful for anything you can do to resolve this. May Hashem repay you for this chesed with hatzlacha in your endeavors and nachas from your children.


Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

Dean, Yeshiva Darchei Noam


By “From Within”

I am going to live forever.

No one told me this. In fact, there have been enough hints dropped, here and there, over the years, to make me believe that not everyone thinks so.

But I know that other people believe they will live forever, too. They say they don’t – sometimes – but really they also believe that they are here to stay.

If we didn’t believe this, we wouldn’t be so spooked when we come into contact with death. It shakes us to the core because mortality – even the mortality of the old woman down the block – moves forever just a bit further out of our reach.

And when the loss is not an old person, who I didn’t identify with anyway, to be truthful because they were old (translation: belonging to a different species than me) – but the loss of a young person (translation: someone like me, with a job, who likes chocolate, takes early morning walks), it feels like someone has changed the rules. She wasn’t supposed to die! She was like me! …Well, at least I thought she was like me, but she turned out to be one of those just-here-for-a-while ones…

What is forever?

I know that there was intelligent life before I became so smart. Because I am proud of my children, I can agree to the possibility that they will continue the chain. But do I really have a concept of what forever is?

I know all the right answers. Rationally I understand that, in the scheme of things, my expected lifetime is just a small fraction of the huge number of years the world has been in existence thus far.

I think I know what forever feels like when I’m waiting in line, falling off my feet, and have been there far too long. I think I know what it sounds like when the baby is crying and the ear infection has been bothering him for two long days now and he just won’t stop. I think I know what forever looks like when I see her davening in shul, still single after all these years. But these are all so subjective! I think…I know…And who am I? Someone who came in during the last act. So what are my thoughts worth?

Oddly enough, the best illustration of forever I can conjure up is in the cemetery – the place that signifies the end to so many. But we call it the Bais Hachayim – referencing it not to death but rather to life – or Bais Olam, where man’s finite existence leads into the eternal..

My great-great-grandparents are buried in Brooklyn. The graves date back to the 1880’s. They were the generation who came to America. Beside them lie the remains of their children, and their grandchildren – one of whom was my grandfather. Visiting these graves as an adult has been extremely meaningful for me. Forever is planted, not buried, in that Bais Hachayim. I saw it there myself, and this I do know.

My ancestors came to the United States from England, and were most likely not frum Jews. There was evidence of growing assimilation on the gravestones themselves; successive generations had less and less Hebrew lettering on the stones – though even the earliest graves had no mention of Hebrew names. Tradition was obviously important to them, but they had deviated somewhat from what came before. By the time my mother was born, there was only a Chanuka bush representing the family tree, and although she grew up in Brooklyn, she never heard the word “kosher” until meeting up with my father.

I pictured the funeral processions. There surely were tearful relatives on hand, sobering moments coming to grips with the finality of all flesh and blood. They said goodbye and left, alone, saddened, and they thought it was all over.

Yet there I was, the first woman in the family in 100 years to cover her hair, right alongside the graves. My husband and children accompanied me. There was renewal, emancipation, right there, as we placed the stone markers, lit the candles, and said some Tehillim. No end, here, but continuity with what had come before. At the graveside, I pray for my children – their children.

I know that I am who I am because I come from them. They are part of me, although even my grandfather was gone well before I was born. Our story is the story of Klall Yisrael as we make our way through this physical existence. Nothing is irrelevant, nothing insignificant. They are links in the chain that connect what was to what will be.


How Would You Navigate this Family Kiruv Situation

Hi guys,

I was wondering if any BBT readers have advice about what I should do regarding my 13 year old cousin. She has made quite a few steps towards becoming frum, and now her mother (my aunt) is sabotaging her.

The other day, my aunt forced her to try on and purchase a pair of jean pants, and told my cousin that she has to wear them to a school dance (with both boys and girls in attendance). This is after pulling my cousin out of a Orthodox day school because she was concerned that my cousin was becoming “too extreme.”

I’d like to support her, but at the same time, I don’t want to over step and make her home life more stressful than it is.

What do you think I should do in this situation?


A ‘Special Conversation': Freud, the Maharal of Prague and Shabbos

Birthright was in Bayit Vegan a number of weeks ago. We were lucky to have two guests for lunch who–like most of the participants–had never been to Israel.

As we were finishing our meal, Steve (one of the guests) asked ‘so what are you guys going to do for the rest of the day?’ I realized that it wasn’t a question about our shabbos itinerary, but rather: ‘are you guys really going to sit at home and do nothing all day?’ In the end, I gave a list of coming attractions: more food (which he found hard to believe), chavrusas (learning partners), a walk around the neighborhood, maybe a visit to family friends. But the unstated question got me thinking back to our first days of shabbos observance. My wife and I lived on 119th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, and though there was a Jewish community life–which centered around the Old Broadway Synagogue on 125th Street–we didn’t then have the network of family and friends we do now. The first year we were shabbos observant, the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, fell on Thursday and Friday–which, followed by shabbos, turned into a three-day holiday. Ernie Banks, the old Chicago Cubs shortstop used to say, out of his love for baseball, ‘let’s play two!’ That year, it was as if G-d were saying to us, ‘let’s play three!'; and we just weren’t ready. Refraining from work seemed merely a pointless non-activity, as Steve’s question implied: ‘just sitting around and doing nothing.’

After shabbos, while mulling over Steve’s question, I was reading Jonathan Lear’s great book on Freud. Searching for a metaphor to describe what he does as an analyst, Lear turns to shabbos: the psychoanalytical encounter, he writes, is like ‘an existential Sabbath.’ This wasn’t so much an Oprah ‘aha!’ moment, but more like a Freudian ‘uncanny’ moment–the experience of the unexpected connectedness between things. Lear turns to shabbos to describe the development of the psyche; but, I thought about going in the other direction: looking to psychoanalysis as a mashal–a metaphor–for shabbos. In a metaphor, Aristotle writes, the ‘unknown or half-known is described and clarified through recourse to what is better known.’ With Tony Soprano in therapy, psychoanalysis, I thought, may help to understand shabbos.

Neurotics (everybody has a friend or relative in this chategory, no?) have a tendency to repeat their behavior. Freud once overheard his father saying of him: ‘the boy will never amount to anything!'; the master of the pscyhe repeated this in psycho-dramas played out through the rest of his life. In Freud’s repetitious behavior, he broke off relationships with colleagues, collaborators, patients and friends, as if to say to them: ‘it’s not me, but you that has not amounted to anything.’ But we don’t need to turn to Freud for examples: we’ve all had the feeling–at least once–that a friend or relative isn’t reacting to what we’ve said or done, but instead relating to us through the lens of another relationship. To which we may respond, ‘hey, I’m not your mother!’ Without being aware of the unresolved tensions that motivate him, the neurotic lives in a world of fantasy, endlessly playing out the same drama.

The ‘sabbath’ of the psychoanalytic session, Lear writes, ‘allows a person to take an hour’s rest from normal life’ in order ‘to experience an interpretive breakdown’–thus allowing for a ‘special conversation.’ Here it seems that any comparisons between shabbos and psychoanalysis should have been put aside. Imagine me saying: ‘you see Steve, the reason we keep shabbos is so that we can have an interpretive breakdown.’ I’m sure that would have done the trick!

But in its way, shabbos does involve its own form of ‘interpretive breakdown’–where refraining from day to day activities, and the habits of mind which accompany them, opens up a space for a ‘new conversation.’ Shabbos cultivates an awareness that the mindset that governs our week, especially our certainty that we are in absolute control over our destinies, is in fact just a fantasy.

The Torah recounts the giving of the ten commandments twice–once in Exodus, and then in Deuteronomy. One of the differences in these separate accounts appears in the fourth commandment: the Exodus version reads: ‘Remember the Sabbath Day'; while the version in Deuteronomy reads ‘Keep the Sabbath day.’ The discrepancy does not cause the Sages to start an Institute for Biblical Criticism, but instead, they explain that the divine utterance included both remember–זכור–and keep–שמור: though there was one utterance, both were expressed. The Maharal explains that though remembering shabbos (zachor) comes first, ‘keeping’ (shamor) is of greater importance. Shamor means refraining from weekday activities; zachor is an active rememberance through, as the Maharal emphasizes, a verbal proclamation (בפה). But without shamor, refraining from labor, the zachor has no effect. It simply get drowned out. You can’t, the Maharal explains, get in the car, drive to the beach, stop off for gas, go to the MacDonald’s at the rest stop, and then take out your kiddush cup to proclaim the holiness of the day. For the rememberance of shabbos to be heard, one has to refrain from weekday activities. [Editors note: there was no beach in Prague; it’s just a metaphor].

The more one repeats, Freud writes, the less one remembers. In his psychological milieu, Freud meant that the more one repeats the same psychodramas, the less one remembers oneself. So with shabbos: one refrains from the endless repetitions of weekday activities to remember that on the seventh day of Creation, G-d rested from his activities. But in remembering G-d, I’m also remembering my origins, and thus remembering what Freud called the psyche, or what we call the neshama, my true self. Once I remember myself, not the self running endlessly between urgent appointments, repeating the same habitual actions with the accompanying habitual thoughts, but the self at rest, then there’s the possibility of that ‘special conversation.’

Shabbos, the kabbalists tell us, is not only a day of rest, but a day of דיבור or speech. Because we rest, and remember ourselves outside of the endless dramas of the weekday world in which we knowingly (or not) are too involved, we have the capacity for a new kind of speech. The proclamation of the holiness of the sabbath day, made possible by refraining and resting, is part of that new and special conversation–with G-d, our families, and ourselves.

Originally posted here at Open Minded Torah.

Essential Kiruv Ingredients – Learning from Those You Teach

By Dan Illouz

Once, Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook sent two of his students to a kibbutz. The Kibbutz was having educational problems and wanted to bring people from all different parts of the Israeli Society in order to discover how to fix the problem, so they brought two religious people. As the night went on, the religious students started describing how they learn in yeshiva all day, go to sleep, then learn more. The people from the kibbutz became very interested. The yeshiva bachurim became the center of attention of the night.

Then, a young child raised her hand and asked a question to the Bachurim. She asked: “We have learned a lot from you. However, tell us, what did you learn from us?”

The Bachurim answered: “Well, why don’t you tell us what we should learn from you?” The whole kibbutz didn’t know what to answer and the bachurim went back to yeshiva happy with they night.

The next day, Rav Tzvi Yehudah asked how the night went. They answer: “Very well, everyone asked questions. We even showed them how valueless their lifestyle is since they didn’t know what to say when we asked what we can learn from them”.

Rav Tzvi Yehudah asked: “What? You didn’t have anything to learn from them? You couldn’t learn anything from their self-sacrifice in the army? From their love of nature? From their yearning for social justice? From their intellectual curiosity? You did not have anything to learn from them? So, how can you even start teaching them?”

If you want to teach to someone, you have to be able to learn from them. If not, what you will do is try to give him your whole personality – both your strengths and weaknesses- and through this, you will erase his strengths. By opening yourself to learning from his strengths, he can then also learn from your strengths, and both of you can make each other stronger.

Originally published here at Tzipiyah.com.

Fear of Being a Phony

The other day my mom and I were talking about what personal failures we were most afraid of committing. I told her the thing that worried me the most was that I would turn out to be a fake. That at the end of my life, many people would think I was an observant Jew, a good person, a good wife and mother, intelligent, etc, etc. But that I would know that I was none of those things. Of course my mom being my mom was incredulous that I could think I was anything less than fantastic.

I think this fear of being a phony might be common among BTs. I imagine that people who are frum from birth perform mitzvot as if they were born knowing how. But for me, I always feel I should tell people, “I’m not learning to become an observant Jew, I just pretend to be one on the internet.” Every time I say a bracha or pick out kosher food at the market I feel as if I will soon find out that I have been doing some aspect of these mitzvot incorrectly. In part this is because of my own insecurity in my “status” (somewhere between secular and observant) and incomplete knowledge, and in part because I am disappointed that I have not progressed as far in my observance as I had hoped.

Of course, my mom being my mom, had a wonderful bit of wisdom to share with me. She said, “You’re only fake if your intentions are insincere. If someone assumes you are Orthodox because, for example, you don’t wear pants and you dress modestly, then that’s not your fault so long as you dress modestly for sincere reasons. The fact that you can’t yet completely kosher your kitchen doesn’t mean that you’ve misled that person, it means that you haven’t progressed to that step yet.”

Then I came across this quote from Rabbi Shalom Arush that confirmed that my mom was exactly right:

We must all know one thing: Every setback in life – even a setback that results from our own mistake – comes from above!

Therefore, one should never torture oneself. There’s no room to blame oneself or anybody else for troubles in life, and certainly not to fall into despair and depression. The important thing is desire; falling means nothing, as long as a person maintains a desire to do better. Never abandon your desires, for Hashem looks first and foremost at our desires. The best way to counter a fall or failure is to declare a new beginning and get back up on our feet as fast as possible. We desire to do better! The fall means nothing if we get back on our feet swiftly and with new resolve.

I’m not a fake Orthodox Jew. I am someone who is working towards a goal that I have not yet fully achieved. I haven’t completed all the steps I need to complete, in part because of poor decisions I have made, and in part because of things outside of my control. But I can declare a new beginning because I desire to do better.

How Does Teshuva Change for the BT?

When I first became a BT, Teshuva was so easy. Over the course of 2 years, I was keeping Shabbos, Kosher, Davening regularly and performing all the seasonal mitzvos.

After 8 years it has become a lot harder to do Teshuva, even at this time of year. When I look over the last year, the changes are much smaller and were much more difficult to make.

Have other people experienced this change in Teshuva?

Are there a different set of tactics and goals at this later stage?

Is there anything special about the Teshuva of a BT at this point or am I now fighting the same battles that a FFB faces?

“Former Teshuva Master”

Telephone Temptation

Every Jew has a different road back to Orthodoxy and unique events which inspire his journey. For Mark Schwartz*, his journey towards becoming observant was marked by two ironic events – a spiritually uplifting experience which he barely appreciated and a religious test which he failed. Only when he later appreciated the significance of the moments did he realize the impact they had on his life.

Mark grew up in a completely non-observant home. His father had been raised Orthodox, but turned away from it and raised Mark and his siblings with no religious upbringing. However, most of his extended family remained observant. When Mark was a young boy, he was very close to his first cousin Shloimie. The two spent lots of time playing marbles in the streets or in each other’s Lower East Side apartments. Shloimie was descended from a long line of Rabbis and his family was well-connected to the religious establishment of New York.

When Mark was five he was once at Shloimie’s house on a Saturday afternoon. After hours of playing together, night had already fallen and it was time for Havdalah. Mark still clearly remembers being chosen to hold the Havdalah candle, but recalls nothing else of the evening. Years later his cousin told him that two of the biggest Rabbis in America were at Havdalah that night in the apartment – Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Rabbi Feinstein lived in the same building as Shloimie’s family, and was related to Rabbi Soloveitchik. The latter had come to visit him that Shabbat afternoon and the two had joined Shloimie’s family for Havdalah).

Righteous individuals such as Rav Feinstein and Rav Soloveitchik bring a feeling of holiness to their surroundings that leaves an impression on those around them, whether they realize it or not. For Mark the experience lit a spark in him that would eventually burst into a flame to guide him back to Judaism.

For over 20 years that flame flickered silently inside Mark. He grew up, went to college and married a woman named Donna in 1970. They settled in New York. But their lives felt empty and they soon realized they needed spiritual meaning. They started attending a local Conservative synagogue and began taking on some Shabbat practices.

Over the next few years they slowly grew in their Jewish observance and considered becoming Orthodox. For Mark one of the hardest challenges in their growing religious practice was not being able to answer the telephone on Shabbat. Answering machines were not yet prevalent and the Schwartzes did not own one. Mark felt that every phone call was urgent and needed to be answered. Donna tried to persuade him to stop answering the phone on Shabbat but he was reluctant to give it up.

“Each individual phase of our growth took a little bit of self control. But the phone was different. It rang all the time,” Mark said. “You can put your lights on timers and then you don’t have to worry about them. But the phone was always a constant.”

After several years, Donna and Mark decided to move to a community better suited to their changing needs. They were the only young couple in their synagogue, and they wanted a congregation with families their age and that could provide more opportunities for spiritual growth. They were still straddling the fence between being Conservative and Orthodox, but chose an Orthodox community on Long Island.

They eventually found a house near an Orthodox synagogue and applied for a mortgage. It was a stressful time period: they were at a crossroads in their lives religiously, were anxious about their move and were unsure if they would be approved for a mortgage.

A Yom Tov came in the middle of this period and offered a much needed respite from their worries. However the holiday brought a challenge too. On Yom Tov we have most of the same restrictions as on Shabbat, including a prohibition on answering the phone.

Mark and Donna were home in the afternoon of that weekday Yom Tov. The phone rang and Mark could not resist picking it up.

It was the bank, calling to tell them that their mortgage application for their new house had been rejected.

“I looked at Donna, Donna looked at me, and we said ‘enough is enough.’ It was a clear message from Hashem,” Mark said. “That was the last time I answered the phone on Yom Tov or Shabbat.”

After months of trying to wean himself from his dependency on answering the telephone, it took just one big slip to make him stop. Sometimes failing a test is just what a person needs to help him embark on the correct course of action.

“When people decide to go to therapy for help, they decide to go because they finally admit that something is wrong. That call told me, ‘this is the message. You’ve been wanting to stop answering the phone, so just stop it.’ ”

Mark and Donna eventually applied for another mortgage and were approved. Several months later they moved into their new house on Long Island, and within a few years became fully Orthodox. And Mark never picked up the phone on Shabbat or Yom Tov again.

* The Schwartzes names have been changed.
Michael Gros is the Chief Operating Officer of the Jewish outreach 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 May 2007)