Turning 50, Reflecting on 35 Years as a BT

In January my wife invited the family for Shabbat in celebration of my 50th birthday. Except for my dad (who we’re working on), everyone lives here in Israel. (We managed to grab a quick picture after Shabbat). It was truly very special to be surrounded by all these loved ones for this momentous birthday.

As a special treat, my daughter emailed a few of my friends and asked them to write a little something for the occasion. We had a lot of fun over the course of Shabbat as she read the responses and I had to guess who wrote them. One of the responses was from the Rav of my Shul back in Edison, NJ. In part he wrote:

Michael – you have done amazingly well with the first 50 years of your life. You are constantly redefining yourself and becoming a new and improved version. You are a living model of Hachodesh Hazeh Lochem. I think if someone would have met you once a decade for the past 50 years, each encounter would be a surprise because you continuously have changed.

As a person involved in software design, the idea of creating new and improved versions struck a chord with me. Isn’t that what we’re really all about? The Teshuva process, and of course this isn’t just limited to BT’s, involves an effort to constantly create and release new “versions” of ourselves. Some versions are just “patches” while others are major revisions.

Selecting 35 years as the amount of time I’ve been a BT was an interesting exercise. How do you define version 1.0 of a person’s development? Even though I attended a Yeshiva day school through 8th grade it wouldn’t be accurate for me to consider the things I did while I was there as a part of the process since these were things I did just because I was told to. For example, though I wore a Kippa and Tzitzit to school, I’d throw them off the minute I got home.

Even so, much of that early “programming” must have had an impact, as within just a few months after entering 9th grade in public high school I experienced, what I consider to be, my BT starting point. Just around my 15th birthday I flew down to Florida to visit my grandmother in Boca Raton. On the way down I ate the regular airline meal, but on the way back I ordered a Kosher meal. The process had begun.

Over the next year and a half I attended no less than 30 NCSY Shabbatons. During that time, among other things, I began walking 4 miles to Shul on Shabbat. In the beginning I’d actually return from that 8 mile round trip trek and hop in the car with my folks to go to a mall or the beach. But by the end of that period I was pretty much Shomer Shabbat. There wasn’t yet a lot depth to my Frumkeit as, well let’s face it; I was involved in NCSY mostly for the girls. (Something which turned out to be a good thing as I met the girl who was to become my wife during those years.)

My first philosophical epiphany came in my senior year of high school during the course of an anatomy elective. No, it had nothing to do with the fact that the cheerleading captain was my lab partner. It did have to do with the fact that we spent nearly a year dissecting a cat. After becoming so intimately aware of the intricacies of this magnificent creature, it became impossible for me to believe that this extremely complex creation wasn’t “designed”. I now had the belief to go along with my actions.

Yet, still I cruised through college and the early part of my marriage with a very basic level of observance. The combination of the birth of my first child and the death of my mom soon after forced me to confront a couple of key issues. How was I going to transmit the beauty of Torah observance in a “do as I say not as I do” mode? And, if I truly believed that, as part of this religious system I now adhered to, my mom was in an afterlife. shouldn’t I be more consistent and careful in how I approached everything? If this religion thing was for “real” then I had to treat it as such. So I embarked on an effort study and apply as much Halacha as I could.

This led me on a path to the “right”; in the shuls I attended, the schools we sent our kids to, and even my appearance. As, it seemed to me then, that’s where all the serious people were. Eventually, though, I ran into some obstacles. Not the least of which was that I consider myself a Zionist and even in the most laid back of right-wing Shuls this is not always an easy fit. Zionism has always been a core part of my belief system, even since before I was Frum. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that my dad’s middle name is Herzl. Whatever the case, I was finding it difficult to be in a place were people were, at best, neutral to, what I saw as, the numerous miracles evident in the founding of the modern state of Israel. Like in my high school anatomy class, it had become just as impossible for me not to see the “design” in the founding of the Jewish state as for me not to see the design of that cat. I endeavored to tread the line between being to the right and being a religious Zionist. Though this is not easy to do in America, I managed with this tension until we were finally able to make Aliyah.

We arrived in Israel nearly five years ago. Here in our community and Shul in Beit Shemesh I found my ideological home. Our Rav is a major Talmud Chachom, our congregants are very serious about their Yiddishkeit and we are all proud religious Zionists.

Living in Israel, however, has brought a whole new set of realizations and challenges. For instance, there are many very Frum and learned people who don’t look the part, at least as we defined it in America. Conversely, there are many who have the “look”, but who are sorely lacking in many areas. There are others who aren’t Frum as we traditionally define it, but who are nevertheless very religious. And there are still others who are neither, yet through their contributions to the nation and its security have earned great merit.

Partly as a result of this exposure, I’ve experienced a shift in emphasis from the personal to the communal. I find that here in Israel, much more so than in the U.S., our individual religious choices impact on the broader community and even the nation as a whole in ways that are complex and far-reaching. This realization is leading me to reweigh my priorities. Even the last 3 years I’ve spent learning in Yeshiva part-time has caused some unexpected shifts in the way I view my role in the Torah world. It’s a work in progress.

So, as my Rav predicted, I’m in the process of changing again. My goal is always to become an “improved” version. With the help of G-d, wonderful Rabbis, friends and family (my beta testers) I will continue to endeavor to do so. I hope to report back in a few years and let you know how version 6.0 is doing.

23 comments on “Turning 50, Reflecting on 35 Years as a BT

  1. I really enjoyed reading Menachem Lipkin’s contribution, “Turning 50, Reflecting on 35 Years as a BT.” I even posted the comment above. Then I happened to read Menachem Lipkin’s comments to the contributions by Daniel Rosenthal and William Kolbrenner. It was jarring to realize that the Lipkins have dealt both with the loss of a baby and with the ongoing challenges of raising their Down Syndrome son, Yisroel Simcha. I wish the Lipkins much future hatzlacha and bracha in meeting all of their challenges, and hope to hear more from Menachem Lipkin in the future.

  2. Happy Birthday, Menachem. I am almost 53 years old and I have been frum for 35 years, so I can identify with you. I believe (although I have not done a scientific study) that there were more of us “seekers” back in the 1970’s. Now the so-called BT yeshivos are enrolling FFB’s who do not fit into mainstream yeshivos. (It’s sort of analogous to all of those former orphanages that have reinvented themselves as boarding schools).

    I am also unhappy about the ideological clash between being right-wing frum and being Zionistic. Although I am not Lubavitch, I respect Chabad very much for their ability to combine a love of Eretz Israel (and the young soldiers who bravely defend it) with love of Torah and mitzvos. Maybe it’s easier nowadays as opposed to fifty years ago when the government of Israel and the IDF were incredibly hostile to religious Jews and to Jewish observance. Yes, I know there are still Chareidi vs. Chiloni clashes and riots and hafganot, etc. However, I think the average secular Israeli, much like the average secular American Jew, correctly sees the enemy now as radical Islam rather than frumkeit.

    I am heartened by stories in the Yated and other frum publications about quietly successful Kiruv efforts going on in Tel Aviv and in formerly anti-religious moshavim and kibbutzim. I hope that as this welcome trend continues in medinat Yisrael, that frum right-wing Jews in the Diaspora will become gradually less anti-Zionist.

    I’ve heard nice things about Beit Shemesh as a great place for religious olim from America, especially from reading the ongoing articles by Shmuel Katz in his Aliyah Diary since July 2006. The thought of moving to Israel scares me because so many people I know who moved there can’t seem to earn a living. I have a married son who is living with his wife and baby boy in Jerusalem while he is learning at the Mirrer Yeshiva, but Kollel families are on a different financial plan from the rest of the world (especially from their parents who have to earn enough money to support them).

    Mazel Tov to you, Menachem, on realizing your dreams, and may you go from strength to strength, always moving onward and upward. Best wishes always, and may you at 60 look back at ten years of incredible achievement!

  3. Hi YM, thanks.

    I understand your hesitancy. That’s why we use the term “Religious Zionist” it adds the dimension to modern Zionism that you feel is lacking.

  4. I don’t believe anyone is FFB. Nobody can be born Frum. One must cultivate a relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu by himself. This is not something that comes with a birth certificate. Everyone has their own journey of faith. Some are born into Frum families and leave the religion. Some come to embrace the religion from nothing. At the end of the day all observant Jews are Balai Teshuvot. Some earlier-some later.

  5. Menachem, a wonderful story. I have a question about Zionism. I would consider myself a strong supporter of Israel, but I feel uncomfortable using the word Zionist, since I think that it means someone who supports the idea of a state where the “new Jew” can live in a nation that is “normal” like all the other nations. I agree that many aspects of the creation and existence of the State are miraculous, but my wish is for Moshiach and re-establishment of the Davidic monarchy.

  6. My chassidish circle is as far from chabad as you can get and we use it regularly, mainly for non-chassidim who become chassidim.

  7. I think “gevorener” is a term used strictly by Chabad to indicate a non-Chabad FFB who became Chabad. I don’t think it’s used by anyone else.

  8. Definition please: has a person who has “shteiged” “become” more or less observant?
    (I can’t figure this one out from context)

  9. As I’ve pointed out once, in Yiddish-speaking circles one who was always shomer torah but has visibly shteiged in yiddishkeit is called (behind his back, of course, like you’d use “BT”) a “gevorener” (becomer).

  10. Maybe, if enough Americans form their own schools and reach critical mass they can impact the Israeli mind set. I doubt it though, it seems the Americans submit to the mind control and total supervision required to join the chareidi world and then find out that they arent really accepted any way. I think the dati leumi world is more tolerant but that also depends which strand of dati leumi and where you live. It is so polarized in Israel.

  11. I turned 63 and I used to think that was old. The “frum” community is a lot less monolithic than it appears to an outsider. There are many advantages to living in Israel but a major problem is the need to pick which group you identify with and stick to it. You must send your children to the right schools, you can’t send one to a Torah Ve Avodah school and another to a Cheder because that is what each needs. You will be ostricized and your daughter won’t get into a good school if her brother goes to a high school with secular studies. The vise keeps tightening.

  12. ah, Nathan. NOW I understand the relevance of this post. Merely another journey… or an oportunity to cut to the core of the BT identity syndrome.

    Rav Bulman, zts”l, whose Yahrzeit is this month, decried the Baal Teshuva label for those who were actually just “late beginners.” He would say that the implications of such a label both romanticizes and subtly guilt trips so many of us who really just need help in making up lost time.

  13. Thanks for the good wishes and happy birthday tzirelchana! It’s not so bad.

    Nathan, I partially agree with you and maybe should have titled this “…since becoming a BT” or something like that. I haven’t felt like a BT in a long, long time. And if you read what I wrote you’ll see that most of it has to do with T and not so much B. :)

    Disagree about labels. They are the currency of human communication. The Torah is replete with labels. The labels aren’t the problem, it’s what we do with them that can be.

  14. Nathan: Just because THEY look down their noses at us at BT’s, doesn’t mean WE need to feel that we’ve arrived when they call us FFB. I understand how you feel, I became frum when I was 16 and kvell when my friends tell me they forget that I’m a BT, I act just like an FFB (whatever that means). But I came to understand that they can propel the girl beyond the BT, but they can’t take the BT out of the girl (and this “girl” celebrated 35 years as a frummie a bit before Menachem). In growing in Yiddishkeit, I have to deal with ALL of who I am and was.

  15. May you always grow in your Yahadus, ad 120 B’simcha v’nachas from your children, grandchildren and iy’h great grandchildren.

  16. After 35 years of Halachic mitzvah observance, WHY must you still be defined as a Baal Teshuvah?

    I object to the current “Frum” system where Jews are permanently defined by their origins, and can never escape their origin-based labels under any circumstances, regardless of how much progress they make and no matter how many decades pass.

    I object to the current “Frum” system where Jews are permanently defined by their origins, regardless of how young they were when they became “Frum.” In my book, someone who became “Frum” at age 15 counts as a FFB.

    We must also strive to stop labeling Jews by which country their great-grandparents came from. Why should any Jew be permanently and unalterably be labeled as a person whose great-grandparents came from Nation X, even though he never saw Nation X, does not speak the language of Nation X, and does not care about Nation X?

    Labels belong on clothing, not Jews.

  17. You are always refining and creating improved versions of you…and you’ve done it at a pace that’s sustainable for you. You see so many people (especially young people) who try to become too frum too fast and it doesn’t last. I’m proud to be counted among your admirers and friends. -Josh

  18. I just turned 50 today so imagine my surprise and delight at seeing your post. So nice to hear your journey shared so openly.There is an old line from a Dylan song that fits in well when reviewing the transitions of a half century of living. “oh but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”Best

Comments are closed.