Mission Accomplished (although I am not wearing an air force jumpsuit)

Dear Beyond Teshuva Readers:

It has been far too long since I have posted on this website, but I do visit the site regularly and I am proud to have had a small part in facilitating the rich and meaningful discussions on Beyond Teshuva a number of years ago when Mark and David were launching the website

I am pleased to inform you that I recently a skills-based Chumash workbook that some readers may find helpful in terms of gaining a better understanding of lashon hakodesh (Hebrew).

Although it is designed for classroom use at the entry level of Chumash learning, many parents of Yeshiva Darchei Noam students — both “lifers” and ba’alei teshuva — have found it to be helpful to them in their own learning (we used a black and white version of this program for the past 13 years). In fact, if you have a look at this promo DVD here, you can listen to an FFB parent in our yeshiva discuss how it helped him.

For many years now, I have been writing columns on the importance of teaching these skills to children (click here “………. To review 3 essays I published in Mishpacha Magazine several years back), and our master first-grade rebbi Rabbi Yosef Rawicki and I created this program to provide a tool for children and their parents that is simple to use and attractive to the eye.

Kindly click here to review the post on my website, and here to download an 11-page sample, and on the link above to view the promo DVD that explains the philosophy and practical use of the workbook.

I hope that you find this to be helpful.

All the best

Yakov Horowitz
Monsey, NY

Are BTs Better or Worse Equipped to Navigate the Lonely Place of Faith?

In the introduction to Doubleday edition of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s classic, “The Lonely Man of Faith”, Dr. David Shatz highlights man’s dual nature of conquering, creating, dominating and controlling the world on one hand and his thirst for redemption, self-discipline and submissiveness to G-d on the other.

Man’s task is to integrate this dual nature through Halakha (Torah), as Rabbi Soloveitchik says “the Halakha believes there is only one world, not divisible into secular and hallowed sectors”. Secular society strongly rejects the transcendental and religious society often withdraws from the secular, so the man of faith faces intense loneliness in his quest for integration.

As BTs we’ve lived in both worlds and perhaps because of this, we face additional challenges of integration and loneliness. As we try to establish our roots firmly in the spiritual world of faith, we both reject the world we left and face rejection by those we’ve left, even as we attempt to integrate these two worlds.

Do you think our experiences makes us more lonely?

If our experience has led to better integration, why have we failed to positively influence our fellow secular and religious Jews on this path?

What thoughts and actions can we use to make this process better for ourselves?

The Ascent to Haute Boro Park

This post was written in response to a Tablet magazine piece posting a slide show of a women’s change from jeans skirts to jeans.

Dear Ms.Umansky,

If you can run an entire piece plus a slide show on Dvora Meyer’s evolution (devolution?) from jeanskirt wearing into jeans, than I’d like to propose the opposite side.

Unlike Meyers, I grew up in a traditional household and attended Ramaz back in the sixties and seventies when the word “tznius” was hardly spoken.

Back then the girls dress code was simple–skirts only and I think some minimal kind of sleeve (the wifebeater t shirt was still decades away). I remember the more rebellious members of my class sneaking jeans under their skirts, hurriedly changing in the locker room before the first period bell rang or ripping out the inner seams of their jeans to construct somewhat bizarre looking skirts.

Then came college–at Columbia University. Seminary had not yet been invented and no one in my class even considered applying to Yeshiva University .On campus anything went, even streaking–remember that?

Bye bye kipa, bye bye tefillin and of course, bye bye skirt.

In my mid-twenties, I gave skirt wearing a second chance.

Maybe this part of the story will be of interest to Meyers. Fed up with the prospects of a permanently single life–that’s how it seemed to be heading, Prince Charming was off my radar, I headed off to Israel in hopes of finding my bashert. And of course, I ditched my pants, You can’t show up at a shadchan’s office in khaki’s.

And so it’s been. Over the decades, I’ve transitioned from Bis Denim to maternity denim–to when my daughter entered Bais Yaacov (in hopes that being “in the system” would save her from singledom ) to no denim.

At nearly age 52, my wardrobe is haute Boro Park.

Do I have regrets? No, I don’t eat pig either even though it probably tastes good, nor do I flick light switches on Shabbos. This is how Hashem wants it, how my ancestors have done it and how I hope and pray my descendents will too.

If you are a Jewish magazine, then please respect and honor those of us who show fealty to authentic Jewish culture ie our holy Torah.

Anxious Ima

A Quest for a New Type of Yeshiva

Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer is in the process of starting a new Yeshiva based on the principles of Torah Im Derech Eretz and ideas addressed by Dr Nathan Birnbaum.

Below is a 1927 address by Dr Birnbaum with comments by Rabbi Bechhofer regarding how he hopes to implement these ideals.

Organized Orthodoxy is obliged to come together and create societal tools that will teach:
1. How to deepen our awareness of Hashem out of love for Him [Da’as].
2. How to dedicate ourselves to love our fellow human beings [Rachamim].
3. How to pursue modesty [hatznei’a leches] as a manifestation of the glory of our Hashem [Tiferes]…

We must admit that cold intellectualism has penetrated our relationship with Hashem. Following through with that metaphor, Ha’Olim cannot remain at ease with this frigidity. They must toil until within their societies, within each of their groupings and within each of their members there arise divine hislahavus and inner spiritual feeling.

To achieve aliya in Da’as Hashem there float before my eyes the following ideas:

1. Torah study in a more profound manner: Every “Oleh” is required to expand and deepen his knowledge of Torah and Chochmas Yisroel. Before all else, if he does not possess basic knowledge, he must acquire it upon entering the society. The society must constantly supervise its members to ensure that they are fulfilling this obligation. It must provide the opportunity to learn and grow through shiurim that it will conduct within its circle. The society shall campaign among its members, their children and their students to convince them to embark upon a term of study in a yeshiva or under a renowned talmid chacham for one to three years.

[Rabbi Bechhofer’s comments:
Although this first clause was primarily directed at the German-Jewish milieu for which it was written, it is readily translated to address the crying contemporary need of the day.

Good boys, who may do well in other subjects in high school, are often miserable when compelled to learn Gemara. They may have never had a Rebbe who gave them a geshmack in the profound analysis of a Rashi, the minute dissection of a Rambam, the intellectual challenge of a Tosafos, the scientific approach of Reb Chaim, or the philosophical profundity of Reb Shimon.

Some yeshivos teach from an axiomatic religious imperative; others from “subject among other subjects” – albeit, under the best circumstances, a “first among equals” – approach bereft of specialness. And so fine talmidim can go through twelve years of traditional Chinuch with but the most fleeting glimpses of the areyvus of Gemara, of its hod v’hadar, of that which makes one exclaim: Ma ahavti Torasecha!

Particularly in the T.I.D.E. milieu that Yeshivas HaOlim promotes, a solid one to three years Kodesh la’Hashem out of Simchas HaTorah, is an essential cornerstone for life-long exciting and uplifting pursuit of Talmud Torah k’neged kullam.]

2. Festive gatherings of Charedim, for spiritual purposes (such as the introduction of the Eastern European Shalosh Seudos, etc.).

3. Special instruction in the history and development of Hislahavus and Dveykus in Israel and its practice.

[Rabbi Bechhofer’s comments:
The davening in many contemporary yeshivos needs improvement. In some places, there is somewhat more of a sense of tzurah, of decorum. But ha’tzad ha’shaveh is that for all too many talmidim, davening is “down-time” – for shmoozing, at best for sleeping and/or sleeping.

Yeshivas HaOlim will strive to make davening meaningful and uplifting, and to ensure a talmid is not just “acting,” but knows and means what he is saying. This can be accomplished by shiurim and va’adim in Emunah, in the power of davening, and biurei tefillos.]

4. Great emphasis must be placed upon a stipulation that every Oleh to refrain from any excesses or immodesty in speech, clothing, deed and from any competitive sport or gambling.

5. The development of a pure esthetic that will free the architecture of our Shuls and the nature of our music from the influence of other religions…

To achieve aliya in bein adam l’chaveiro I consider:

1. Instruction in the issues of bein adam l’chaveiro and guidance in expanded practical applications. Both modern and classic texts should be employed, with a particular stress on current situations. To develop a greater sense of belonging to Orthodox society as a whole.

2. The obligation of every Oleh to engage in Cheshbon HaNefesh at least once a week, to ascertain if, and to what extent, he has fulfilled mitzvos and refrained from aveiros according to the instruction and guidance provided to him.

3. An outright ban on certain material pursuits.

4. Substantive and apolitical common counsel to resolve Jewish societal problems in the spirit of Torah and Mesorah.

Even if the manner in which we display the public image of our lives does not currently convey our glory as the Chosen Nation, even if we are uncertain how to properly become the glory [pe’er] of the world, Ha’Olim cannot allow the status quo to continue. They must attempt to rectify as much as possible.

To achieve aliya in the manners of creating public lives, I depict to myself:

1. Instruction in issues concerning glory [Tiferes] and its correlation to religion and Mussar… [and] practical guidance in the application of these principles to the creation of appropriate public lives.

2. The development of an independent Jewish social structure following Judaism and Mussar.

3. The development of arts, especially architecture, music and poetry, rooted in the spirit of true Jewish Mesorah, and the establishment of competitions in these areas.

4. The previously mentioned (in the section on Da’as Hashem) ban on excesses.

[Rabbi Bechhofer’s comments:
The Internet is here to stay. There is no way the bulk of Yahadus HaTorah can hide their collective heads in the sand. And if that means that a bachur today – even a “good” bachur – is exposed to pornography, we have to deal with it.

If it means they will be texting constantly, acting inappropriately on blogs and on Facebook, we also have to deal with it. Many of our talmidim are into “goyishe music,” are up on TV and movies (even if we have no TV’s in our houses! even if we have extensive web filters – amazing, right?! Are you aware, for example, of the existence of a site which helps yeshiva kids get around filters!!).

So we have to deal with it. Moreover, but we have hid our faces to our detriment for far too long from the problem that many bachurim with the prohibited behavior that we can delicately call ni’uf b’yad. So we must deal with it.

Part of the problem is that many of our talmidim find a certain sippuk in these pursuits that we are not giving them (in no small part because 75 years ago we failed to implement the vision of Dr. Nathan Birnbaum).

Yeshivas HaOlim will deal with it. (This is not the place to explain how, od chazaon la’mo’ed.)]

As a means of ascent in all three aforementioned areas I consider:

Involvement in the education of young men and young women according to the demands of Ha’Olim – an involvement that will become especially substantial when it will be possible to arrange such education among large groups of Ha’Olim or in their respective communities…

[Rabbi Bechhofer’s comments:
Maharal, Be’er Ha’Golah, end of Be’er 7 (free translation):
When an individual does not intend to scoff – rather only to state his belief – even if these positions stand against your belief and system, don’t say to him: “Don’t talk, seal your mouth!” For then the system will not be clarified. On the contrary, in such matters we should say: “Speak as much as you want, all that you want to say, so that you will not be able to say that were you granted permission to expand you would have spoken further and convinced me with your beliefs.” If, however, you do close the questioner’s mouth and prevent him from speaking, that points toward a weakness in the system.

This approach is the converse of the general impression, which is that it is not permitted to discuss the system, and that thus the system is strengthened. On the contrary! That approach undermines the system!…

It is only by inviting questioning that a person comes to the inner truth of matters… For any hero that comes to compete with another to demonstrate his might wants very much that his opponent muster as much strength as possible – then, if the hero overcomes his opponent, he proves that he is the mightier hero. What might, however, does the hero display if his opponent is not permitted to stand strong and wage war against him?…]

Got Integration?

Integrating into the community is one of the bigger challenges for BTs in larger communities. Included in integration is conformity.

How would you differentiate between integrating and conforming?

In what ways have you conformed?

Do you feel that you are integrated?

How would you determine if a person has integrated into the community?

What are the objective measures of successful integration?

The Challenge of Introducing Young American Jews to Torah

Ben Moshe’s comment on ‘The ABCD of Young American Jews’.

There are no shortcuts to solving this problem. No matter how one tries to position it, Judaism is prescriptive. It teaches that there are things that one must do, and things that one cannot do; things that are permitted, and things that are off-limits. These constraints do not sit well with a generation that grew up in a multicultural environment, free of social pressures that kept previous generations of Jews in the fold.

As I once heard a Rav say, “In America, every Jew is a Jew by choice.” The only way to get excited about Judaism is to have positive role models who instill love and enthusiasm for mitzvot from an early age, or, like many members of this blog, to acquire the taste later in life.

In previous generations (including my own), American Jews who looked for an alternative to the yoke of the mitzvot tried to find it in political and social movements such as support for Israel, Holocaust commeration, rescue of Soviet Jewry, etc. (see reply #2 above).

These binding ties were “Jewish” because they addressed the plight of fellow Jews and could be presented in the context of Jewishly-rooted concepts such as “tikkun olam” or “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” or “kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh”.

Today, Israel is somewhat more secure, the Holocaust is for many found only in movies and in the Diary of Anne Frank (that some read only because it was a school assignment), and the Soviet Union is history.

Although there are still many fellow Jews who need help, today’s generation tries to define Judaism in the context of causes that are remotely connected to Jewish ideas and to Jewish communities, if at all: Darfur, the environment, homosexual rights, immigrant labor, etc. When there is so little difference between Temple Beth (fill in the blank) and any other “social justice” organization, it is no wonder that young American Jews feel little affinity davka to Judaism.

Thanking our Torah Teachers

I just spent 4 days at the Torah U’Mesorah convention selling, InfoGrasp, my companies School and Non Profit Management Software. It was a great experience, especially on Shabbos when 1,500 Jews shared an amazingly uplifting G-d and Torah connecting experience powered by non-stop talks and lectures by some of the greatest Rebbeim in America. With that background information, I’d like to share an insight I gained over the weekend.

Over 15 years ago at a parlor meeting, a seasoned and well respected teacher related a talk he gave at Torah U’Mesorah in which he pointed out some classroom obstacles which often caused Rebbeim to stumble. He ended his talk at the parlor meeting saying that the people at the convention didn’t exactly appreciate his criticisms as evidenced by the fact that he was never invited back. For many years I accepted his story at face value, and I’ve seen first hand the obstacles of which he spoke.

This year, I asked a few attendees why they were at the convention and all of them included the need for chizuk (strengthing) among their answers. As I listened to the speeches I became more sensitive to the plight of our Torah teachers. They’re paid very low wages. They often have to move to a different city. They have to teach to a wide ability-range of students in the classroom. And many or most of our schools don’t have the financial resources to provide them with the support that almost all other teachers, public and private, receive.

The speeches focused on the wonderful task the teachers were performing, despite the above mentioned obstacles with many techniques of how to become better. There were sessions on a wide range of topics and the teachers listened attentively and questioned in their attempts to become better transmitters of our Mesorah. They were encouraged not to be discouraged and one of the last Shabbos speakers sounded these echoing words, “Please don’t go into the business sector, Klal Yisroel needs you”.

The whole event turned around my view of the parlor meeting. Yes there’s room for improvement, yes mistakes are made, but at their core, our generation of teachers have dedicated their heart and soul to teaching our children Torah and we must stand up, recognize and applaud them. The teachers at the convention didn’t applaud themselves for their efforts, but they really do need our support and we should try to make is vocal. At least once a year at the convention, there needs to be no constructive criticism and the talk is about the good and the trying to be better.

So next time you see a teacher, perhaps you can muster up the strength to thank them. Surprise them and thank them with no follow up request or constructive criticism. It’s a very tough job they’ve chosen and they’re truly are built up by our appreciation. The more we stengthen them, the more they can endeavor in the Jewish people’s most important mission, teaching Hashem’s Torah to every Jew.

Mini Series: On Becoming a Baal Teshuva

Mini Series: On Becoming a Baal Teshuva on Web Yeshiva

Course Description

Join Allison Josephs, founder of jewinthecity.com, as she shares the story of her journey of spiritual growth.

Part 1: “Why I Did It,” (experiencing an existential crisis in childhood pushed me to find purpose before it was too late). Part 2: “How I Did It” (how do you persevere when faced with obstacles preventing spiritual growth?). Part 3: “How I Kept It” (so many ba’alei teshuva revert to their old ways eventually – how do you make teshuva last?). The series will take place on Monday, May 23rd & 30th and June 6th. While this mini series is complimentary, there is a suggested donation of $10 for the session.

About Ms. Allison Josephs
Allison Josephs is the founder of jewinthecity.com which aims to break down stereotypes and misconceptions about Orthodox Jews and Judaism through the power of new media. Allison was raised as a proud Conservative Jew in a small town in New Jersey. As a result of a childhood existential crisis, she spent years searching for the meaning of life. At the end of high school she started looking into Judaism, and saw that there was much depth and beauty within Orthodoxy, but realized that it was an option that so few Jewish people ever consider, as public opinion of Orthodox Jews is so negative. Allison has been involved in the field of Jewish outreach for a dozen years, teaching and lecturing in cities across America, and has worked for Partners in Torah, Sinai Retreats, NCSY and Stars of David. She has also written, directed, and produced videos for Aish.com and has seen her writing published in the Jewish Press, the Forward, the Washington Times, and many other publications. Allison received her Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University in Philosophy and lives minutes from the George Washington Bridge with her husband and four children.

Lives My Father Told Me

I just said my last kaddish for my father A”H until his yortzeit. So this is as good a moment as ever finally to commit to writing the post I had meant for so long to write, and said last year I was not writing then, and that so many of us have in us. It is the post about how a non-religious parent earns so much merit for so many religious descendants. And while I alluded to these issues almost a year ago, when I first wrote about my father’s passing, naturally over the course of the year of avelus [mourning] I have come to understand so much more.

I could write a book about this topic — and certainly about my father. But here I will offer little more than bullet points. The purpose of doing so is not merely to remember him a little more, and a little more publicly, at this juncture. Rather it is to offer other BT’s hints, reminders and appreciations of how their parents, knowingly or otherwise, have helped them get to where they are today — whether or not they would like to admit that, or even if they wish it were not so. Or even if the influence was a negative one, as in, “I don’t want to be like my parent.”

It’s best of course if one is fortunate enough not to have that last case in one’s life. In my case, I am glad to say the influence of my father (and there was influence from my mother too, and plenty, but that is not this article) to value being Jewish and to act on that feeling was a positive one.

Some of the things my father did that added up later were subtle; some overt. The quality they shared the most was the sincerity and, well, what seems on reflection to have been a sort of simple faith, really, though my father was neither simple nor, in his mind, particularly “faithful.”

But these, sincerity and faith, are the stuff souls are made of. This sincerity was the quality of my father that was most admired by those who knew him. Today we call this quality what our grandparents called it — ehrlichkeit. And my father, well, was also known for underestimating himself. In the area of faith, in fact, he gave himself far too little credit, as you will see.

Now, my father’s Jewish education was poor. He attended a Talmud Torah or “Hebrew School” in the Lower East Side and “graduated from [organized] Judaism” at his bar mitzvah. But he took no pride in this non-achievement. Indeed it was precisely his lack of Jewish learning that motivated him to ensure that we had a more thorough Jewish education than he did. “I’m not religious,” he would say — not just to us, but to some of our more ideologically anti-religious relatives when defending his choice to send us to Hebrew school. “But that’s out of ignorance, not choice. I want my kids to make their choices based on understanding.” And so we did.

Thus being poorly educated in Jewish matters did not stop my father from making what he understood to be the best effort he could at doing the right by us and God as he understood it.

Now, again, my father was not a “simple man.” He was pretty sharp, in fact. He was great with numbers, a talented investor and money manager, quite well spoken, and read a lot. Of course he enjoyed Star Trek and the Yankees and the Knicks, but back in the day he also found time for fairly serious science fiction and what in retrospect seems pretty esoteric material for a payroll clerk and benefits administrator who described himself as a “dropout” (he meant college, though). I even remember him telling me as a young child that he had just read — where?, I wonder now — that while we certainly don’t have to believe this, Sigmund Freud theorized (he liked “theories”) that Moses was an Egyptian! Even I knew this was ridiculous; the movie explained quite clearly how silly that idea was.

Yes, my high-school-educated dad read books and articles that raised ponderous issues, even existential ones, though he would not have used that word or likely even read works that did use it. But my father was engaged with cosmological issues, in his way, and he engaged us about the things he read. And from this we learned that questions such as why and how were questions worth asking and whose answers were worth seeking.

And we knew that he valued being Jewish, and the Jewish answers to these questions were, in his view, presumptively entitled to a very serious hearing. But he knew very, very little Torah. My father was more than a sincere man, however; he was a humble man, as I said, and readily admitted what he did not know, and never considered ignorance either a point of pride or a positive heritable trait. So when we were very little but still too young for Hebrew school he bought a book called The Children’s Bible.

It had pictures, and he knew this would interest us, and that’s why he chose this particular Bible. And my dad would read it to us at night, as he sometimes read us entries from Tell Me Why, which we loved.

And when he read us this Bible on the yellow living room couch, our tan little legs sticking to the plastic slipcovers in the sweaty Brooklyn heat, I remember how my father would pronounce the name Avrom, which was spelled “Abram” in this Bible, as “A-brum” — a logical pronunciation deduction from “A-braham,” after all.

As I think of this now, I remember that I used to get Abram, whose name was changed to Abraham, tangled up in my mind with the company Dad worked for. It had the name “Abramowitz” in it, and even though that was pronounced “Uh-brahm-uh-wits,” it was spelled like “Abram.” Somehow this association bound up our Father Abraham, born as Abram, with my father who worked for Abramowitz in my little head.

Which was hardly inappropriate, in its way.

I also remember the picture of Noah’s Ark in that Bible. The tevah looked to me like a giant brownish autumn-time leaf fallen from an impossibly giant tree (yes, trees grew in Brooklyn), shaped as it was in the illustration and with its keel looking life a leafy “spine” running its length and the beams radiating outward from it to form the Ark’s hull. This sure didn’t look like anything I’d seen afloat at Sheepshead Bay! I found this more remarkable than the fact that God, my father read to me, told Noah to get all those animals into the thing. Well, if my father says God could do that, and that God in fact could do anything, I had no problem with that. But that leafy ark?

Now, one thing. If you clicked that link, you’ll see that the Children’s Bible had, um, “both” “testaments” in it. So Dad told us not to look at the back part. “We don’t believe in that.” And we believed Dad, because every word he told us was believable. So we didn’t look. Except, well, I did kind of peek but didn’t read anything. And I saw “theirs” was much smaller than ours. So, “heh,” I thought. Nothing going on there, obviously.

Well. When I started this piece I was going to lay out bullet points, I said. I intended to mention how he kissed the mezuzah when he came in the door — well, we thought it was a mezuzah; it looked like one from outside. I was thinking about how he insisted on having us eat matzah instead of bread during Pesach. There are lots of little things like that.

And of course there were big things, values things. There was his understanding of how he was responsible to help out other Jews, and how he acted on that as if it were simply an axiom of human decency to get a few dollars into the hands of a needy fellow Jewish person, even if he didn’t have so many spare ones himself. And I could never forget how ashen-faced he was when he told us on Yom Kippur in 1973, as we woke up in the convertible bed in our grandparents’ living room overlooking Brighton Beach, that the Arabs had attacked, and how bad it looked. He was so upset — so scared. That, I had never seen.

These events in that far-off place that he had never really talked about with us must, it turns out, matter a lot.

As I said, I could write a book.

But my father wrote the book, really, that is the lives of all his many offspring k”eh who learn Torah and do Torah and mitzvos with the understanding and utilizing the choice he wanted us to have and which he made sure we had.

He wrote it, really, when he read that Book to us, in his humble way, because he knew as a father — he knew, somehow — that it was his duty to ponder these things in his house, and on his way, and to write them on the lintels of our door, that he was bound too to teach these things in that Book to his children as best he could.

As best as he could.

So when indeed will my merits approach those of my father?

Back In The Ring

Stop in at the Gann El auto repair shop in Atlanta and you’ll be greeted with an ear-to-ear smile by owner Greg Herman. Take a look around the shop and you’ll find plenty of broken cars and the tools to fix them. Nothing in the shop gives away Greg’s previous life, except of course the full-size wrestling ring tucked away in a back corner.

For seventeen years Greg was a professional wrestler. He went by the name Demon Hell Storm and wrestled with everyone from Hulk Hogan to Ricky the Dragon and Sergeant Slaughter. But his journey back to his roots has been more exciting than any match in the ring.

Greg was born in 1964 and grew up in Miami. His mother was one of the top educators in the Reform movement.

Greg always knew he would be a wrestler. He’s five-foot-ten and at the height of his career weighed 265 pounds with only 3 percent body fat. After high school he attended a wrestling school and then signed a contract with the Global Wrestling Federation. Over the next seventeen years he wrestled on TV and for live audiences across the U.S. and around the world.

On the mat he was a match for almost every competitor, but outside the ring he had a harder time dealing with them. Every night he traveled to a different state with his fellow wrestlers, many of whom were former criminals who had become Born Again Christians. On bus trips they taunted him about his religion and tried to get him to become a Christian.

“I felt at that point in my life I needed to know who I was so I could rebut their claims,” Greg said.

Greg grappled for answers, and spoke over his religious questions with his parents. One day as he was approaching his 30th birthday, his parents asked him what gift he wanted. They were shocked at his answer.

“I said I wanted a Tanach. My mom almost had a stroke,” Greg said.

So his parents sent him a copy of an English Tanach and he began pouring over it to look for answers.

In 1996 Greg suffered a career-ending injury: in the middle of a match he tore his bicep and pectoral muscles in his right arm. During his recovery, he fell back on the other trade he knew well: fixing cars. He took a job in a Florida mechanics shop.

A few months later a customer came into the shop. He was dark skinned and something about him stood out. Greg assumed he was a Black Muslim. Greg badgered the man about being Muslim. To his surprise, the man told him he was actually Jewish (he was an Orthodox Jew from Yemen). The man then gave Greg a ribbing of his own.

“What are you?” the man asked.

“I’m a Jew,” Greg said.

“Then why isn’t your head covered?” the man asked.

“Why should I cover my head?”

”There’s a G-d above you,” he said. “And why aren’t you wearing tzitzit?”

“What are those?” Greg asked.

The man briefly explained tzitzit and other concepts to Greg. As he was leaving the store the man invited Greg to join him in shul on Shabbat. Greg declined, but accepted the man’s offer to join him in shul on Sunday morning.

Sunday morning came and Greg met the man at his Orthodox shul. The members were all aging, straight-laced white-haired men. Greg looked out of place.

“You can imagine what guys there thought. I showed up at synagogue, driving a jeep with 40-inch tires, a winch on front, all covered in mud. I was wearing a sweatshirt, but they could see my 200 pound frame. My hair was down my back tied in ponytail,” Greg recalled. “The guys were scared of me! They didn’t even believe I was Jewish.”

Despite their initial reactions, the synagogue members quickly welcomed Greg. He began coming every week and soon began to feel at home. He slowly began keeping mitzvot and learning more about his heritage.

A few years later Greg moved to Atlanta and opened his mechanics shop. He began learning with a local Chabad Rabbi and joined a Young Israel.

Greg’s role models used to be famous wrestlers. Now his role models are the average Jews that he sees on daily basis doing kindnesses for each other.

“I’ve lived the other life — I like this one a lot better,” Greg said. “You can have a world full of lunatics that are just out to stab each other in the back or a world full of people trying to help each other. Which world would you rather live in?”

Greg now tries to live a life based on the Jewish values he sees all around him. He goes out of his way to help organizations and people in his shop, even when they cannot afford them. He frequently hosts fundraising events for local Jewish charities, including running wrestling tournaments. It’s for those events that he carts out his old wrestling ring.

In the ring Greg still moves with speed and agility. Watching him, it’s easy to imagine him in his former life. But the kippah on his head is an indication that life is just a little different now.

Michael Gros is the former Chief Operating Officer of the outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars Kollel. He writes from Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. The Teshuva Journey column chronicles uplifting teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. More articles at http://www.michaelgros.com

Published in The Jewish Press in July 2010

What is Your Response to Osama’s Death and The Events in the Middle East?

Although the capturing of Osama is important, the events and the regime changes in the Middle East will have far more of an effect on Israel and the Jews.

A short time ago, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky was asked about the significance of developments in the Middle East and he said:

“People come and say that these events are Gog and Magog. We cannot know if that is so or not, but we are certainly being shown that Mashiach is getting closer, and we must do what we can to strengthen ourselves and prepare for that day. Whoever ignores these signs is a fool.”

Have you done any introspection and teshuva work in response to these events?

Can you suggest any introspection and teshuva work others may want to try?

Wearing My BT Badge with Pride

This is a response to the post, Can and Should BTs become Virtually Indistinguishable? I wish I could have seen the entirety of the letter for the Kiruv organization that was quoted. My immediate gut reaction was insult. In a frum community, if all members are following halacha and more or less the same customs, what is the issue with being a little different?

It reminds me of some conversations that I’ve had with the ultra-Orthodox community I studied with as I began to take on mitzvot. I asked why the men would all wear black suits. Where was the individuality? I was told that once you’re in the community and get to know people, you notice little accessories or personality traits that makes each person individual.

There is a lot to be said about conformity and community, but personally, I wear my BT badge like I do my American accent that won’t go away when I speak Hebrew — with pride. I don’t need to flash it around, but I don’t stuff it away either.

Just a few days ago I was at an ultra-Orthodox wedding. Putting on a black headscarf to accompany my black dress and black tights, I certainly looked like I belonged, but it felt a bit like a Purim costume. I wondered if others could see through the veneer. And then, once the party started, oh the dancing. I can’t ever get those circle dance steps right. Could anyone tell I was out of sync? Part of me hoped so. And then, back at the table, I was asked about a family I might know from my hometown. When I didn’t, she asked “You’re not chozeret l’tshuvah, are you?” and I felt a little embarrassed to say “Yes.” Given my outfit, would she know that was not my choice? Why did that matter?

The following day I put on a different outfit for running errands in town – a tunic shirt, cotton skirt, and headscarf, all in bright blues and purples. To carry some of my belongings I had an Israeli army צה’ל bag. I looked the part of a typical daati leumi woman. I felt stares. “Do they know I’m a poser American who would be too scared to actually live in a settlement?”

While I wear a head covering and skirts in part because I want to be identified as religious, I struggle with the idea of being like the man in the suit.

While trying to find a place among the choices of religious communities in Israel, I still hold on dearly to my secular past. I’ll hum zemirot to myself while shopping for Shabbat, but all a friend or my husband has to do is to say a word or a phrase that will send me off into a pop or rap song with the same verse. And when I bust a rhyme, I hope people overhear me.

I agree with the e-mail that “it is possible and almost always advisable to maintain many relationships from the past, especially familial ones.” It is my belief that Jews are not to sequester themselves away from the outside world, but rather to uplift it, and to be a “light upon the nations”. BT’s can be a strong chain in the link between the two worlds. I would argue that, within reason, it’s okay and even advisable to maintain the most precious elements of our lifelong relationships, hobbies, and habits, for they were placed in our lives for a reason, and they too are a badge that reminds us we made a choice.

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