Jump Starting The Teshuva Batteries

We are taught that although there were Seven Days of Genesis, still all of Creation is constantly being re-created. If at any moment, chas v’sholom [Heaven forfend], Hashem should so much as cease affirmatively desiring His ongoing Divine regeneration of the whole universe, all of it would immediately revert to tohu u’vohu — the primordial state of total entropy. All of it, all of us, and any thought, memory or mark of us, would simply vanish; the best metaphor is that the plug would be pulled on an entirely electric Universe. And yet in His ongoing kindness Hashem does will our ongoing existence and that of the world around it, because it matters to Him; because this world has purpose; because He loves it and he loves us. So for these reasons, which amount to no tangible benefit to Him (“benefit” as typically understood being, to the Omnipresent, axiomatically impossible), Hashem goes through the “trouble” of powering all existence, from the Leviathan to the tiniest mote, from the hidden saints to the most wretched vermin, from the crashing waves to the smallest, stillest voice, continually into being.

And we can barely sustain kavonah [concentration] for the first three brochos [benedictions] of Shemona Esrei [our daily prayers]!

But it is only human nature to forget gratitude and enthusiasm, isn’t it? Most of us are not able to imitate Hashem and constantly burn with spiritual energy. In the Tefillah Zakah [the prayer of forgiveness] we will all be saying in about a month, we confess: “My strength was insufficient to stand up [to the Evil Inclination]; the burden of earning a livelihood to support my household, and the weight of Time and its vicissitudes have befouled me…” Who thought when he began the journey toward religious observance that factors as mundane as punching the clock would blow a fuse on our zeal to go and to grow as new Jews? Yet who among us, who has felt the press of that weight extended over time for years and decades now since first turning that corner, doubts that these seeming trivialities can ground a potentially soaring spirit down low, and hard? As we get older and this pressure only increases, we begin to appreciate the magnitude of achievement of the spiritual giants of our people who lit of up the world of the spirit even as their own material existences flickered?

Still, shouldn’t “balei teshuva” be different? Shouldn’t we have something, somewhere, that we can draw upon to uncover that burning Jewish spark that fired our motors and got us on this road in the first place? Where can I go, then, to plug in, for a fresh infusion of energizing electrons from the spiritual grid?

The answer came for me this week. I followed my nose.

The time had come to freshen up my supply of tzitzis, and I bought three new pairs of round-neck cotton ones — two “regular,” and one with the heavy strings to wear “out” on Shabbos. I dutifully, which is to say rather thoughtlessly, removed the labels, and placed two of them in my drawer. Then I opened up one of the new ones and prepared to say the brocho which those of who wear a tallis godol usually do not say; but here I was putting on a new pair of tzitzis in the middle of the day. And then it hit me.

The smell of a new set of tzitzis, which for some reason I had not remembered though I had bought and buried scores of sets of them over the last 22 years, hit me right in the face. It was the smell of that moment when I crossed the line to becoming a Torah observant Jew. For a yarmulke is almost meaningless, or was for me — I used to wear them when I went to shul, and wearing one all day, though qualitatively different, was not a shock. But putting on tzitzis — now that was different. That was something that, simply, only orthodox Jewish men did. And once I put these on, I would be one. Forever — this I knew. It was frightening. Electric.

And the smell now, 22 years later, was the same. And I put them on again, not with a thumping heart and a cold, sweaty brow, no; but at least with a vivid and visceral recollection — a personal besomim whiff — of that moment, when I crossed that line, made the commitment, acknowledged the truth, and began creating my world and participating consciously in the spiritual sustenance of the Universe as a whole. It was the electrons that jumped off that cotton cloth, via the simple expedient of static charges, that plugged me in then to the direct current of Creation. And if in light of the burdens of worldly obligation and the taut pull of Time I have not spent the last two days in a spiritually electrified state, I think now at least I remember where the outlet is.

With God’s ongoing help, and with the reminder of the fringes I carry around like a battery pack, I hope I can increase the voltage over the coming weeks of introspection, and that I can do my part to break free of it all and that I can ask for God’s continuing generation of all Creation, and of blessing for us and all of Israel, as we approach the Birthday of Creation. I know I need a jump start, and I know I’m not alone.

Originally Published Aug 22, 2007

The Complexities of Eating Kosher at the Family Time Share

I am writing this from the condo, having just polished off the kosher dinner that I cooked and shlepped to the annual time share vacation that we participate in every year with my parents and brothers and their wives and children. The family rents the time share location for a full week but we ( me and the kids) come for the Sunday – Tuesday of the week – after Shabbos, and returning on Wednesday so that a) I have time to prepare for the next Shabbos at home, and b) because it’s too onerous for me to even think about preparing all of the food for the family for longer than three days.

Over the years, we’ve become accustomed to bringing our own kosher food and trying to ignore the non-kosher food the rest of the family brought, or buys, and eats alongside of ours. Over time, I’ve more often elected to cook so much food, everyone can eat kosher and we don’t end up in this weird divided place with the “kosher eaters” and “the non-kosher eaters.” It also gives me a small degree of pleasure to see my family eating kosher food, which isn’t the case the rest of the year.

This year I was placed in a particular dilemma, which I thought I’d share with you, because I bet many of you will relate.

I just celebrated my 50th birthday. At the time share, the family got together and decided to offer me the gift of everyone being taken out for dinner at the local kosher restaurant that was within a few miles of the time share.

Normally, I would have snapped up the opportunity to get a paid-for kosher meal I didn’t have to cook. But this time, before going to this time share, I went online and found mostly very negative reviews for the only kosher restaurant that was a realistic alternative. It was way over priced, and service was notoriously slow. So, now I had a big problem. If we went out as a family (a whole lot of us) and my father treated everyone to the meal ( as would happen), the bill would be enormous. If the food was just okay and not amazing (which is what online reviews said), and the service was terribly slow to boot, I would be feeling responsible for the quality of every bite they ate, and every nickel my father spent, worried that he’d be thinking, “Geez, if I have to spend all this money for it to be kosher, does it have to be this bad?”, or, “You know, if I didn’t have to take the whole family out to a kosher meal, it would have been a third of the price to just order pizza!” Although I appreciated the offer for a meal out, instead, I insisted that I had brought enough food to amply feed everyone ( true) and we could use his money for other purposes.

I wonder about the experiences of others who are reading this essay. Have you ever felt that you were defending all of kashrus when going out to a kosher restaurant with non-kosher eating relatives? Do you shlep along enough kosher food for not just you but for the rest of the family when you go to a mixed family vacation? Do you think there’s anything to be said for the one or two kosher meals that you manage to get your family to eat when the rest of the year they are eating trafe? Does it give you pain to see your family eating non kosher food without a second thought? These are the thoughts on my mind this evening

Fresh from the trenches –


A kosher Jewish mother and wife, and also a daughter, a sister, a sister-in law and an aunt to those who are not. . . . complicated business, isn’t it?

Azriela Jaffe

Nationwide Webcast – Are you worried about your child?

By Dr. David Pelcovitz

Priority-1 presents a first-of-its-kind nationwide program that will give serious advice and real answers to parents concerned about their child’s behavior.

This program is for caring parents who are determined not to give up. You can help your child overcome his challenges and succeed.

Defiance, Depression, Low Self-Esteem, Cynicism, Learning Disabilities, Distrust of Parents or Teachers, Disillusionment to Yiddishkeit…

If your child is challenged by these issues, this program will give you real answers.

Wednesday, August 26th, 8:30 pm, EST
Watch the Webcast here

You can also listen live by phone at
308-344-6400, Access Code #562029

Solutions to the “I’m Bored” Problem

The period between camp and school highlights the perennial problem our children’s boredom. For some the normal boredom fillers such as TV, Movies, Internet surfing, Video Games are not available, further increasing the problem.

What solutions have people come up with to try and alleviate the problem?

Did we have the same problem when we were young or has the availability of so much “excitement” put our kids in the state of boredom when they are not being highly stimulated?

BT Syndrome

By R. W.
University of Texas

I suffer from something
Maybe you’re familiar…?
You see, I’m not from around here.
Saturday morning cartoons and Micky D’s after Volleyball

You played sports? YES I played sports (well, sort of)
These hips do more than pushing babies
Facebook pictures in tank tops. Pants. At The Beach.
Can I leave those up? Isn’t there some kind of Heter for that? Like married women who still have pictures pre-sheitl? No? Oh…

I know what bacon tastes like! Oh, And Cheeseburgers
Eh, yall aren’t missing much…. but waiting 6 hours?
That’s a lot to ask.

My artifacts: cursing, 7 old pairs of jeans, tube tops.
My racey bucket list.
Ex boyfriends (their artifacts)
The crowd I used to own now baby mamas, tattooed, trash.

Yeah, I have a past.
The Mishnah (like I remember which one) tells others not to ask
Kidding? I love this subject.
Me, me, sin, light, Israel, me, sem, me. etc.

On Saw You at Sinai, you can indicate preferences to date only FFB‘s
What are we, Muggle-born?
Are you kidding? We have a lot more fun.

Virtual Chabura for Ahavas Yisrael for Women

Hi- I’m starting a virtual chabura for Ahavas Yisrael for women, similar to others that are being started in various communities. I know there are others like me who are BTs who don’t quite know where we fit it yet. After all, most BTs don’t just pop up in crown heights or boro park. We are out bamidbar trying to see where we would fit in best and where we should move our families.

When I learned about the chaburot, I thought it might be a great opportunity for BT women in various places, but in search of the right fit community to join together to work on Ahavas Yisrael in a virtual group.

If there are women in BeyondBT who would like to join or would like more information, please contact me, Sheindy, at sheindelbasesther@gmail.com. The link below will give you information about the Chabura Ahavas Yisrael.

All the best in your journey,



Awaken – Your Lover is Calling You

Eliyahu Shear

We are taught that in the month of Elul, G-d rekindles His relationship with us – and likewise, we rekindle our relationship with Him. In Song of Songs (6:3), King Solomon states, “I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me.” Our sages point out that the initial letters of this verse, “אני לדודי ודודי לי” spell out the word Elul – אלול – to teach us that it is especially in the month of Elul – the month that precedes the month filled with the main Jewish holidays – when love rules supreme.

As we approach the upcoming festivals in which we rekindle our love for G-d, we spend an entire month engaged in understanding what true love is all about, a far cry from the image presented to us by the modern world and modern media.

Chassidut teaches two approaches to the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people – an awakening from below or an awakening from above. Throughout the year each of us experiences these fluctuations at various different times. Sometimes it is we who wake ourselves up to serve G-d, and He returns to us – awakening us further. At other times we may not feel as enthusiastic. G-d Himself then wakes us, so that we should awaken and realise that He continues to love us and that we should now reciprocate.

King Solomon says that the month of Elul is all about waking ourselves first, and then G-d will awaken to bestow His love upon us. I am for my beloved – and then – my beloved is for me. It is up to each of us as individuals to make this relationship work. This is the service required of us in the month of Elul.

Chassidut explains that in the supernal worlds above, a revelation of the Kingship of G-d is felt, and automatically the fear of the King falls upon us, whereas below the revelation works by a person accepting upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of G-d.

The Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of the Chassidic movement, explains the concept of the ‘Bat Kol’ – a voice which calls out from heaven at all times. Many Tzaddikim – righteous individuals are known to hear this voice calling and informing them what needs to be done. But the truth is that this voice calls to each one of us – all the time. What good does it do if none of us can actually hear it – unless of course we would all be Tzaddikim? The Baal Shem Tov explains that the soul above hears these voices and through this it draws down the awakening to man below. Even though a person does not hear the voice directly, he does do so through a concept taught that “Even though he does not see, his Mazal (spiritual root source) sees.” And through this, a great fear falls upon one.

Our duty then is to do the barest minimum – to open our hearts to the degree of the point of a pinhead, and G-d will continue the conversation, awakening us to immediately be aware that He is constantly with us. It is then up to us to continue the conversation, making our relationship even stronger with G-d – and through this to allow G-d to once again continue even stronger – with the “conversation” at hand.

I am for my beloved. I express my love, yearning to be united. And my beloved is for me. She calls to me letting me know of her love… But love is a two way relationship. Her voice calls out in the month of Elul, sweetly… silently… gently… but the soul is touched and she is stirred to awaken to unite with her lover. Are we listening well enough? Are we letting ourselves be prepared to listen? We are giving our love to her. Are we now prepared to let ourselves engage in a real lasting relationship? As we progress through this month, let us consider these thoughts. Let us listen to the voice cooing from above, waking us out of our slumber, as she calls out, preparing us for the “Day of Judgment” where we wish for only the best of everything for all – in a revealed, manifest and visible goodness.

Let us see life through the eyes of the Baal Shem Tov, and let us hear the voice which is calling from on High.

Rav Shear writes regularly at:

Do You Have Hometown Pride?

This week’s Mishpacha magazine had a sentence which mentioned the “quiet Queens section of Brooklyn”. Many in Queens where a tad miffed at the hostile takeover of our lovely borough since Queens is most definitely not a section of Brooklyn.

As BTs we have a chance to be proud of our town of birth as well as our current community.

Are you proud of your hometown or your current community?

Are their hashkafic issues surrounding such pride?

The Road to Spirituality: Keep That Head Bowed

Although most of my fellow students in high school were in fact Jewish,only a handful attended the local synagogue, and almost always for social reasons. Some learned the art of feeling guilty from at least one of their parents, and donned the yarmulke inside the solemn sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Really, they couldn’t wait until it was over, but at least they were yotzei. I wasn’t one of them…my parents never went either.

The word “spirituality” was a corny word, and either conjured up images of shaved heads, flowers and tamborines, or gurus on mountaintops (like the ones in Ziggy cartoons, if you’ve ever seen.) Sometimes it evoked pictures of insanely angry preachers who seemed to be attempting to create their own violent thunderstorms at the pulpit, despite the weather being quite nice outside. And once I even thought about the dalai lahma, and wondered if he ever felt he was too old for this stuff.

After I became frum, I realized that spirituality doesn’t just turn on like a switch. There’s no program, and “dveikus” seemed to be a bit subjective. Would I ever experience it? What was it? One day, I came to the realization of what spirituality means to me.

I was at a bris, and I was listening to the new father trying to tie a complicated vort about the parsha into the subject of bris milah. He had his work cut out for him. In the end, it seemed a bit forced, but after, he concluded by showing how we always need to thank the A-Mighty for what we have. I was thinking about his speech, and realized something amazing: Almost every shmooze, vort, speech, words of chizuk etc. which I have ever heard, no matter what the subject, no matter how lumdish or simple, has always included something about thanking H-Shem for something, in some form or another! It’s interesting that even after listening to so many Rav Miller tapes that it took so long to really click. Spirituality and dveikus is about sincerely coming to the realization that every single thing that we possess is a chesed from Above.

It sounds corny until you start feeling it. (Yeah, count your blessings, blah blah….) This is why sprituality is so, so hard to achieve…because by nature, humans don’t like to thank or feel indebted to others. We hate to admit that it wasn’t me who landed the million dollar deal, or dunked the full court shot, or made a friend out of someone I admired. And we take everything for granted, of course. We are warned about this in the Torah a few times, because it’s something we’re meant to work on our whole lifetime. So I decided to work on this everyday.

The best advice I ever heard which changed my life significantly, was to thank H-Shem in the bracha of Modim for two very specific things for which I should thankful, and try to make it different every day. It’s really hard, but with practice, and by forcing myself to think of two, it gets easier, and it changed me. It could be from any aspect of life: Thanks for making my son’s doctor appt. end up well, thanks for the new suit, thanks for not letting me trip on the ice on the way to shul, thanks for the cop pulling me over at 11PM when it was dark so that nobody could see me, thanks for letting me be inspired by the divrei Torah at the speech last night. (Here’s where Rav Miller’s tapes come in, for every idea including working toilets to steps,to level pavements etc.etc(!) And thanks for letting me be part of Am Yisroel, a nation full of special people, including a shopkeeper who enters his competitor’s empty store, answers his phone and takes an order so that “my brother shouldn’t lose out.”, and a fifth grader who won’t announce where he went on Chol HaMoed so that his classmate, who couldn’t afford to go anywhere, doesn’t feel bad, and a Bar Mitzvah bachur who lains in a terrible voice on purpose so not to embarrass his friend who really does have a bad voice. So spirituality is subjective, especially when it comes to thanking for the extremely challenging stuff, each person on his own level and time frame, because it does take time.

The greatest expression of thanks is completely bowing down, but we can’t do that today, at least on a regualr basis. But there’s twice a year that we can, and this is personally when I feel my most intense deveikus. During mussaf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we get to fall on a paper towel (or a real towel if you remember it from home). I don’t say the correct nusach, though. Instead, I budget my very short time and think about the biggest things for which I can thank. I wait for this the whole year.After the final bowing, I’m almost sad, but I try to remember the experience when I bow my head at Modim during the rest of the year. It’s humbling, as it should be, but it’s wonderful. It helps me in ahavas H-Shem, it drives me to do mitzvas, to work on my pathetic middos, and to sweat over a difficult gemorrah or contradictory Rambam (but not for long, so I still have a ways to go.)

This is what spirituality means to me, and no matter how many setbacks I have, at least I truly believe I’m heading in the right direction.

Consumerism and the Overspent Generation

By Rabbi Shafier

ספר דברים פרק יב

(כ) כִּי יַרְחִיב יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת גְּבֻלְךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָךְ וְאָמַרְתָּ אֹכְלָה בָשָׂר כִּי תְאַוֶּה נַפְשְׁךָ לֶאֱכֹל בָּשָׂר בְּכָל אַוַּת נַפְשְׁךָ תֹּאכַל בָּשָׂר:

רש”י על דברים פרק יב פסוק כ
(כ) כי ירחיב וגו’ – למדה תורה דרך ארץ שלא יתאוה אדם לאכול בשר אלא מתוך רחבת ידים ועושר.

“When HASHEM your G-d will broaden your boundary as He spoke to you, and you say, “I will eat meat,” for you will have a desire to eat meat, to your heart’s entire desire you may eat meat.” – Devarim 12:20

For forty years in the midbar the Jewish people ate mon. Guided by Moshe Rabbeinu, engaged in constant Torah study with every physical need taken care of, the Klal Yisrael lived on a lofty spiritual plane. Now that they were being ushered into a different era – entering Eretz Yisroel where they would begin living in a natural manner – they were given many directives to retain their status as an exalted nation.

One of the points that Moshe Rabbeinu made to the Klal Yisrael is that when they settled the land and followed the Torah, they would find success in their endeavors, and HASHEM would expand their borders. When this would occur, they would desire meat. And they would be allowed to eat it anywhere they wished.

Rashi is bothered by the relationship between the expanding of borders and the “desire to eat meat.” It almost implies that the expansion of borders brings on the desire. Rashi explains that the Torah is teaching us a principle in derech eretz. A person should only desire meat when he can afford it. When HASHEM expands our borders and we enjoy financial success, then it is appropriate to desire meat – not before.

This Rashi seems difficult to understand. What is wrong with desiring meat? The Torah might tell me that if I can’t afford meat, I shouldn’t eat it. If it is beyond my means and purchasing it would create an undue expense, I shouldn’t buy any. But what is wrong with just desiring it?

Pleasures and Passions

The answer to this can be best understood with a moshol. Imagine that you find yourself shipwrecked on a desert island. You haven’t eaten in three days, and you are driven by one burning desire – food. As you hobble along the island, you notice a brown paper bag under a palm tree. You open it up to find a dry peanut butter sandwich that has sat out in the sun for three months. You gulp down that sandwich with more gusto than anything that you have ever eaten in your life.

Here is the question: how much pleasure did you derive from eating that sandwich? There is no question that you had a powerful urge, a very real desire, but how much enjoyment did you receive from that activity? The answer is not much. It certainly relieved your hunger, and in that sense brought a release from pain, but it would be hard to imagine that for the rest of your life you would be reminiscing back to the sensation of the bitter, spoiled peanut butter and dry, cracked bread as it scratched your throat when you swallowed it.

This is a good example of the distinction between pleasure and passion. You ate that sandwich with great desire – a lot of passion – but you didn’t derive much pleasure from that activity. Passion is the pull to engage in a given activity. Pleasure is the amount of enjoyment you receive from it. As unusual as it may sound, most people fail to make a distinction between pleasures and passions.
HASHEM wants us to be happy

This seems to be the answer to the Rashi. While it is true that life is a battle, and exerting self-control is the primary vehicle of growth, HASHEM created us to be happy. If you bring new desires into your world, desires that you can’t possibly fulfill, you are destined to be miserable. You will be constantly wanting, constantly hungry. Your life will become the opposite of a pleasurable existence.

The Torah is teaching us that our desires are things that we can and need to control. If you have the capacity to meet the desire to eat meat, and it is within the parameters of your purpose in life, there is nothing wrong with allowing those desires to surface. HASHEM created many pleasures for man to enjoy, and you should use those pleasures to better serve Him. But if you don’t have the means to fulfill those hungers and you allow them to be present, then you will be living a very uncomfortable existence, constantly hungering for something that can’t be met.

When HASHEM grants you abundance and you can afford luxuries, then you will desire meat – but not before. The Torah is educating us into a higher form of living. When you enjoy the pleasures and control your desires, you use this world for its intended purpose, thereby living b’ shleimus – complete, not lacking.

Consumerism – a national culture of competitive acquisitions

This concept is very applicable in our times. Economists refer to us as the consumer generation. The word consumer is a derivative of the word “consume,” which means to eat, to use up. And it is very telling. The culture we live in breeds the need to consume, whether it be food, clothing, appliances, electronics, cars. . . These products aren’t acquired. They are used up – and at an ever-increasing rate. It has been said that progress today can be measured by the speed by which yesterday’s luxury becomes today’s necessity.

But it is more than simply being cultured into the need to acquire material possessions. Spending has become the vehicle to establish social position. For many people, their personal identities are tied up in the type of car they drive and the brand of clothing they wear. Their entire sense of self is based on an image sold in the marketplace.

We are the Chosen Nation – expected to live above the rest of the nations. Unfortunately, that sense of living at a higher standard can become perverted into materialism, where the expectation is that for people like “us,” nothing less than the best will do. And so our weddings, our wardrobes, our homes, and our cars have to be the best. The way our children dress and the types of toys that they expect are nothing short of top-notch. And we find ourselves with an ever-increasing cost of living. When barely surviving in our communities means that we are expected to earn three to four times the national median household income, something is wrong with our lifestyle.

But what can we do about it? We can’t be expected to live with less than everyone else. And so we find ourselves caught in this ever-increasing spiral of earn and spend, earn and spend, until no matter how much money we make, we never seem to make ends meet.

While only a Navi can define for us why HASHEM does what He does, when we witness “market corrections,” and a general sense of “we must cut spending” arises, we might conjecture that it is a great chessed to us. It teaches us to enjoy what we have without creating new desires and expectations – to break out of this culture of spending, and the baggage that it brings.

We live in times of mass prosperity where the average person is rich, but to enjoy that great bracha, we must maintain control. The Torah’s goal is for us to be live an exalted life, to be the Chosen Nation, to be happy and satisfied in our existence. Everything in this world was created for man’s use – but it must be used properly, in balance, in the right time, and in the right measure. When man does that, he enjoys his short stay on this planet and accomplishes his purpose in Creation.

For more on this topic please listen to Shmuz #156 Get out of Debt

To receive the Shmuz views weekly, or to listen to any of the Shmuz, please visit www.TheShmuz.com – All FREE- All the Time

This Shmuz sponsored: Li Ilui Nishmas Shayna Necha Bas Shalom. To sponsor a future issue, please contact Sponsorships@theShmuz.com

My First Encounter with Orthodoxy – Shlomo Carlebach and NCSY Circa 1960

By Rabbi Leonard Oberstein
Baltimore, MD

I grew up in Montgomery,Alabama in the 1950’s. Today I am an orthodox rabbi and father and grandfather of a large family. However, my first experience with orthodox Judaism really came about because I went to one single NCSY National Convention a year after my Bar Mitzvah and that inspired me to go to Yeshiva University High School in New York.

Prior to our shul becoming officially Conservative, there was no youth group. There was AZA and BBG, which were sponsored by the Bnai Brith and attracted youth from all congregations, but these had no semblance of religious commitment. Our new rabbi, Joseph Reich founded the local chapter of USY (United Synagogue Youth). This group met at our shul and attracted a lot of teens. We had programs of various types, and religion was a part of the package. The highlight was going to other cities for conventions and meeting Jewish boys and girls. I remember going to a convention in Birmingham and another in Columbus, Georgia. On the application to the convention you were asked if you preferred or required a kosher host home and whether or not you would ride on Shabbos. I was told that I was the only person in the region who both demanded kosher and wanted to walk to shul. There was a drawback: our chapter advisors themselves did not keep kosher or Shabbos themselves. In the context of the times, though, this was not seen as the main point. The parents just wanted Jewish kids to hang out with Jewish kids and to meet Jewish kids in other cities so that they would eventually marry a Jew. I have only good memories of USY; its influence was positive. Had I continued on that path, however, I would have gone to the summer camp program, and who knows what that would have led to. But that was not to be, because after only three years, the rabbi left, and the shul hired an Orthodox rabbi, fresh out of YU. In those days, mixed seating, nominally Conservative shuls often got rabbis from YU. It was a different world.

Rabbi Aaron Borow took me to one of the first NCSY conventions, the national convention in New York. That made me one of the first NCSYers in the country. I loved every second of that convention. It was a life changing and life enhancing experience. Orthodoxy was finally waking up to the challenge and not conceding the youth to other movements.

Let me describe NCSY through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy from Montgomery who never saw anything like it in his life. I entered this big room and didn’t know a soul. I gathered up my courage and walked up to a guy and introduced myself and said I didn’t know anyone. He introduced himself and said he, too, didn’t know anyone. His name was Arthur Saslow, and he came from Saratoga Springs, NY. I couldn’t get over that the males wore yarmulkes in the street! We toured Jewish New York, and then they took us up to a hotel in Monsey.

Friday night, Shlomo Carlebach davened Kabbalas Shabbos. Now, I was very familiar with the way we did it in Montgomery – with some Hebrew, some English, some responsive reading, and some singing. It was lovely. But it didn’t compare to Shlomo Carlebach. I was uplifted, inspired, and invigorated by his davening and his singing over the weekend. The sincerity, the passion, and the spirituality were new and enticing. The dancing was so much more lively. You don’t have to have aThe dancing was so much more lively. You don’t have to have English responsive readings if you see real kavana (intent and meaning). Even if you don’t understand the words, the Orthodox service gets its message across, at least, when you have someone like Shlomo davening.

The sessions were also much different than USY’s. It opened up vistas, and I returned home inspired. It was this experience that spurred me to go to yeshiva. NCSY was new and experimental in those days, but it helped thousands of kids like me to be turned on with emes (truth). Rabbi Pinchos Stolper had just been hired, and I met him at that time. He went on to become the long time national director, and led NCSY to great accomplishments. Years later, I thanked him for what he did for my life.

How Can We Mitigate the Effects of Wrong Doing By Religious Jews?

There are few Jews in the world, who weren’t pained with the stories and photographs in the newspaper and the live pictures on television showing our rabbeim in handcuffs, stoic faces, being marched off the bus and to court. We read every word in the paper and ask ourselves, how could this happen? And during the nine days no less. We try to give benefit of the doubt, but it is difficult. We see the sight of an 87 year old rabbi, the pinnacle of wisdom and holiness, with his head hanging low, being marched off to what might be his ends years in prison. We want it all to turn out to be a big mistake, for our brothers to be cleared of all wrong doing. We cry for the communities who have to deal with the loss of their rabbinic leaders and their trust. It’s devastating.

Since this website is Beyond BT, I want to suggest a new discussion post topic related to this.

Does anyone feel particularly embarrassed because it’s religious Jews, and it’s hard enough convincing your secular family that you’ve chosen the right path, but this doesn’t further that cause?

When the Madoff scandal hit, we were all embarrassed that he was Jewish, but for me, seeing religious Jews in handcuffs, with their long beards and peyos and kippot and tzizzis, it’s all the more painful. And I find myself wondering what my family is thinking, and if they will use this to further their already negative perceptions of religious Jews. Ideally, we understand that every religion has people off the derech, and it doesn’t mean the whole derech is bad. We have peaceful Muslims trying to convince us of that all the time.

So is anyone embarrassed about this latest shanda, as it relates to how your secular family already views religious Jews?

Getting to Know Your Self – Soul Centered Self-Esteem

We’ve talked in the past about the amazing sefer Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh (In My Heart I Will Build a Sanctuary) and the need to focus our lives and our mitzvah performance on constant awareness and connection to Hashem. The author, Rav Itamar Shwarz explains that if we don’t consistently and consciously focus on the fact that there is a Creator, Who created us, and is constantly exercising His providence on all that happens, we might live a life full of Torah and Mitzvos, but we will, G-d forbid, find that we didn’t achieve their intended purpose of creating a close connection to G-d in this world and the next.

In his third sefer, Da Es Atzmecha (Getting to Know Your Self) Rav Shwarz shifts the focus from Hashem to understanding ourselves. His first major point is that a person must view himself primarily as a soul wearing the garment of the body. He proves that without conscious effort to adopt this view, we will live primarily as bodies that have a soul and identify more with the body than the soul. The result will be that we will not live the amazing Torah prescribed life that a soul-centered perspective brings.

One major application of the soul-centered perspective is self-esteem. Rav Shwarz points out that self-esteem in the world of psychology and in parts of the Torah world is focused on praising the person’s deeds, their character or pointing out that their low self-esteem is based on an illusion. This method is based on the fact that a person is a body with intelligence and emotions and the focus is on what the person does with their facilities.

If a person has the proper soul-centered perspective, they will see that in essence they are a Divine soul as we say each morning “My G-d, the soul You have placed in me is pure”. Our soul is holy, positive and perfectly good and when we identify with this perfection that is our essence, we will automatically attain a positive self-esteem.

Another ramification is that when a person does an aveirah they must still see and identify themselves with their perfect soul. More than getting us to sin, the Yetzer Hara wants lower ourselves and self-esteem after we sin. In addition, the more the person identifies with their essential perfection, the less likely the will come to sin.

Rav Shwarz does an amazing job of bringing very esoteric concepts to a level that we can all understand with very practical examples. As with Bilvavi, Mesillas Yesharim and any Mussar classic, the key is not just to read it, but to keep on reviewing it (with the author’s suggested exercises) so that we can begin to internalize it. It has recently been published in English and I highly recommend you purchase it, as there are significant sections added that are not available in the translation on the web site.

Rav Schwarz will be giving a one day intensive workshop in Woodmere on Labor Day in Hebrew. He still has some speaking slots available on his US visit – see here.

The Mitzvas Weren’t Mine

by Bracha Goetz

I got the costume right, but
For years, the mitzvas weren’t mine.
Or, they didn’t feel like they were.
The actions – and the blessings too,
Were awkward,
Then shallow,
But I said them anyway,
Hoping for a day like this.

The deeds, the prayers, even the thoughts
Endured, stiff and inflexible –
But at least not destructive
Like other thoughts, words, and actions
Once had been.

From a very negative point,
I had moved a long, long way up to position

But now, it has even
Inched above that.
Today, a simple blessing spoken
After eating an orange,
Turned into something unspeakably

Sitting by my kitchen table, I
Soared all the way to Yerushalayim
And back again, to reveal the present:
A body and soul that is getting in sync!

Nothing drab about this world.
These actions, these words, these thoughts,
They can reveal the essence of everything,
And everybody.
They are making me into who I really am.

For years the mitzvas weren’t mine.
But thank G-d
I guess it takes time and
For thoughts to transfuse,
For words to soak in,
And for stiff, inflexible steps to
Begin flowing into
The most genuine dance.

Children’s Books by Bracha
Aliza in MitzvahLand
What Do You See on Shabbos?
The Invisible Book – do you believe in what’s invisible?

What are the Benefits and Pitfalls of High Walls?

There has been some discussion lately on the blog regarding the issue of “high walls”. For the sake of discussion, let’s define high walls as taking strict measures to keep what’s deemed good in the community in and keep what’s deemed to be detrimental influences outside of the community.

The benefit of high walls seems clear: they help preserve the purity of the community and to keep bad influences out.

It seems fair to ask, though, “are there drawbacks to high walls”?

Some have pointed out these possible drawbacks, high walls may:
1) also keep out positive things;
2) create a less welcoming community;
3) not properly prepare members for how to interact with others with differing perspectives thereby diminishing ahavas yisroel and the potential for kiddush Hashem;
4) stifle those community members that need/desire alternative expression;
5) not properly prepare its members for how to handle a situation in which they are faced with one of the outside influences that the high walls are intended to keep out.

Are there other benefits to high walls?

Are there other potential pitfalls?

Are there ways to decrease the potential pitfalls and increase the benefits?

Heal thyself

How and what should orthodox Jews report and comment on events that affect our world? A few weeks ago I commented here on a post in which discussion turned to broad-gauged condemnation of the orthodox media, as follows:

[W]hat you really object to, and not without justification, is what often seems like simple-mindedness in the haredi press.

This returns me to my point that hashkafa [philosophical outlook] is not a mere abstraction. . . . [It is problematic for publishers] trying to sell (key word) a newspaper or magazine to a population that is very sensitive to issues of loshon hora, hasagas g’vul, mesira and kavod hatorah… and which recognizes, sometimes painfully, certain limitations. These are imposed by the fact that the English speaking haredi world is unfortunately a very intimate community made up of a surprisingly small number of interlocking family-, neighborhood- and yeshiva-based groups. Therefore, much of what we would recognize as good journalism even permissible under halacha may still not be good business, or good humanity, because the subject of such journalism may be the relative, teacher, child, prospective spouse or benefactor of someone else who is vulnerable to the effects of publication.

Unlike the almost abstract limitlessness of the universes covered by the New Yorker and the New York Times, our little world is a very real place. And very real, little places pretty much never have good “coverage,” for these very understandable reasons.

When the BBT Administrators asked me to expand on these comments for a post here, it made me think of another post I wrote a couple of years ago on another blog, called “Asymmetric cultural warfare.” In that article I discussed the profound damage Internet defamation causes because of our inclinations to both encourage free speech and to protect the anonymity of speakers. Although these two values are consistently linked together by free speech advocates, I argued that modern technology has rendered them in fact contradictory.

The asymmetry I wrote of, then, is this: On the one hand there is no longer neither cost nor accountability to publishing. On the other hand what is published is instantaneously accessible to untold millions, and the damage done by it essentially impossible to repair. This is the very realization of the classic “now go collect the feathers” metaphor we apply here to lashon hora.

As I said in that post:

During the entire previous history of humanity until just a few minutes ago, elites — who usually had the stability of society, for good or for bad, as a central goal, as elites will — controlled the medium and the message. And the result was indeed a high degree of stability. You could not easily ruin a man’s life by communicating something false or scurrilous, though if you did it could hardly be undone. And little saw the light of day in print — be it by the hand of a scribe painstaking scratching out sacred writ, as the product of the crudest printing presses or over the air of the oligopoly broadcasters — without being weighed and vetted — no, not always, maybe not even mostly, for truth or neutrality, but at least for cost and usually for effect.

This sense of accountability flowed from the fact of accountability, often in its literal sense. Your quills could be blunted, your press smashed, and in a more enlightened era and place, your assets and good name put at risk through legal process. There was a high cost of entry to the market of expression, and that cost was, especially in unfree societies (as is still the case), often far greater than any true economic assessment; but once borne, this cost provided a counterweight — not a perfect one, but a real one — to the inclination to take no consideration of what costs others might bear as a result of your expression. . . .

In the old days, cranks and complainers and scandalmongers of this ilk used to peddle such wares via stolen reams of photocopy paper or purple mimeograph printouts. Mailed anonymously or pinned up on storefronts they were easily enough recognized as the rantings of marginal people; once pulled down and crumpled up, they were gone forever, and usually rightfully so.

Now we know not to believe everything we read in a blog, of course. . . . But slander has a way of sticking, especially when it is directed to those whose stations or dignity do not make response appropriate or practical. And the virtual eternity of anonymous defamation makes it more insidious than anything that preceded it. Potential employers, spouses or in-laws, business partners — anyone who can work Google can forever gain access to and read the rankest falsehood on the Internet.

The cost to the anonymous hit-blogger, or commenter: Free. The effect on people, institutions, communities: Unfathomable.

The magnitude of this damage resonates with particular, and painful, power in the world of online Jewish opinionating, a cottage industry if ever there was one. I avoid reading most “Jewish blogging,” but almost nothing justifies perusing the so-called “skeptic” blogs, works that could hardly be more grossly and misleadingly labeled. These “skeptics” are skeptical of nothing in the nature of claims or reports that reflect negatively on orthodox Jews and orthodox Judaism. Any observer, lacking knowledge of the underlying topics, would readily infer from the heavy sarcasm, negative tone, transparent bitterness and predominance of ad hominem attacks that these publications are presumptively not trustworthy. On further inspection, he would discern the utter lack of accountability on the Jewish attack blogs — for blogger and commenter alike are almost universally anonymous — and, again having no axe to grind of his own, would not waste his time or credulity on this boiling sea of words without speakers.

There is irony here both small and great. The small irony is that the predominant theme flowing through this sewage system is outrage over the orthodox establishment’s supposed lack of “accountability,” demanded by verbal terrorists who refuse to be at all accountable for the blood they shed with their words. They cry out for complete transparency, but only with regard to the lives of those they deem guilty. For themselves, a glatt kosher wall of anonymity behind which to quiver while loosing their righteous missiles is perfectly yosher [straightforward, square].

And the great irony? It is that — anger, ugliness, agendas and the worst of motives aside — the bitter anonymous bloggers and the fungus that grows around them often enough are writing about real problems that really affect real people in the real world — the real frum world that some of them, shockingly, live and work in. But their polarizing, vicious vitriol does more than assures a lack of sincere engagement. By choosing to take the route of personal, adolescent-style attacks and the imputing of the worst possible motives to their targets, any good they could do by using their understanding and insight (which is often significant) to publish measured, humane and respectful criticism is pushed further and further away than ever. This self-perpetuating cycle almost guarantees the worst-case scenarios they are constantly threatening, because their voices lack all credibility and no respectable person has any business listening to them any longer than necessary than to realize they are not to be heard.

As in the case of the obnoxious and deadly behavior known today as “road rage,” the complete departure from social norms by the Jewish world’s very special attach bloggers is possible only in an anonymous order. Few of them would admit to the personal cowardice their anonymity plainly reveals; frequently they will say they dare not reveal their own names out of concern for innocent family members or others connected to them. But when passing loud, public and acute judgment on those they deem blameworthy, they not only abandon any pretense of presuming innocence — then there is no accounting whatsoever for the innocent ones destroyed by collateral damage from their self-righteous, obscene and scurrilous broadsides.

The result is that by the actions of a handful of people with little more than vengeance and lashing out on their agendas, certain Jewish family names have, on the Internet, entirely absorbed the color of the opprobrium slung at them. The mutual admiration society of anonymous hacks has utterly polluted the flow of online discourse. Thus a even a moderately attentive search engine user could only assume that certain individuals whose lives are in fact virtual models for communal and spiritual achievement are scoundrels at best and notorious unindicted felons at worst. Some of the most distinguished people and organizations in the frum world, including many who have sacrificed vast shares of their lives and personalities for the communal good, have become, by virtue of repeated usage at the hands of people whose names will never be known and whose lives are bound for the scrap-heap of history, bywords for the most venal and perverted behavior. They are made punchlines, premises for escalating attacks, stand-ins for entire categories of unproved, disproved or unprovable offenses, thanks to the efforts of nameless nothings whose comments (and, when in some instances they are uncloaked, whose biographies) demonstrate lives devoted not to righting wrongs, but rather to sad attempts to numb the pain of their own failures in the manner known best to the mediocre: Destroying their betters from a position of safety.

It need not be this way, and the fact that it is not demonstrates why such publications are unworthy of anyone’s attention. There are many who write under their own names and unhesitatingly criticize personalities, institutions and trends in our community without resort to the ugliness of the anonymous flamethrowers. We may not always agree with these bloggers — either as to form, substance or style — but at least when an offended party believes one of them has crossed the line that party knows exactly the address to which concerns, or other action, should be directed.

Our world is a small world, and the Internet has made it smaller than imaginable. It has also made it far more ugly than could ever have been anticipated even ten years ago, thanks to these cadres of craven, irresponsible and angry destroyers. They make those who achieve, those who risk and endeavor, and those who care feel the fury of their anonymous impotence. They rejoice at real news of moral failure in our midst, when their hearts should be breaking. Theirs is a real pathos behind the cover of virtual bravura. But they do help us understand three things when we debate the role of Jewish journalism, Jewish historiography, and Jewish publishing.

One is that even where the truth might in fact set us free, half-truths do not make us fractionally more free, and may to the contrary irreparably deprive many of far more freedom than they grant a few.

The second is that while disease may justify invasion, or even surgery, on the intimate, personal and interconnected corpus that is the frum world, not everyone who claims to be one is properly reckoned a healer.

And the third is that no one would license, much less submit himself, to an anonymous physician, and certainly not one whose therapeutic choices are revealed by any objective reckoning motivated by his own sickness, his own pain, and an unremitting anger at those he calls his patients.

For these reasons no Jewish journalism, electronic or otherwise, will ever be worthy of the name if its author is not accountable, his biases identifiable, his humanity confirmable. And while in our free country anyone is legally free to report on, comment on, dissect and even with his words try to kill the frum world, anyone who is not committed to both standing behind his words and openly living in the world he is building or destroying by his works may call himself many things…

But not any kind of man. And certainly not one of us.