Safe Children, Safe Communities

Let’s not mince words.

The future of our charedi community is quite literally in existential danger as the tension in Beit Shemesh plays itself out in the international media.

On a purely pragmatic level, this disturbing publicity has already placed the charedi community in Eretz Yisroel at greater risk of losing its financial aid to Yeshivos and Kollelim at the very least. In all likelihood, there may be far greater ramifications, as this could generate a tsunami of support among secular (and many religious) Israelis for a complete separation of church and state, which has the potential to end state support for all non-public schools in Eretz Yisroel.

However, the far greater danger is that we will be losing our souls should we fail to condemn the horrific actions, however isolated, of people who dress like us threatening women and children with violence, taunting them, and calling them all sorts of horrible names. And we will justifiably lose the hearts, neshamos and even lives of our children and grandchildren if we, rachmanim b’nei rachmanim (merciful people), cannot muster the righteous indignation and join forces to protest the appalling actions of these so-called kanoim.

Our community is just now coming to grips with the painful reality that is child abuse, and the ravages it leaves in its wake. We must now realize that there is communal abuse as well, from which we all continue to suffer. And just like we have come to understand that prosecuting and convicting child molesters can prevent future abuse, so too, we must make sure that these kanoim who are rodfim in every way, be stopped in their tracks.

As Rabbi Aryeh Deri clearly stated in an interview earlier this week, the only solution to rid our community of the depraved kanoim who are wreaking havoc on our community is to demand that they be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Child safety has been our highest priority at Project Y.E.S. for the past few years, and we recently launched several initiatives designed to help keep each and every one of our children safe and secure[1]. With the chesed of Hashem, our efforts, and the efforts of the Los Angeles based Aleinu school program and others like it, are creating a paradigm shift in how parents deal with the issue of child safety[2]

However, this entire enterprise took an enormous step backwards over the past days and weeks as our children rightfully wonder if the adults around them can keep them safe.

There are four basic messages that children need to internalize in order for any abuse prevention program to be truly effective:
1. Your body belongs to you
2. No one has the right to make you feel uncomfortable
3. No secrets from parents
4. Good touching/bad touching
We have long maintained that corporal punishment by parents and/or educators dramatically decreases and often negates the critical messages of abuse prevention (see Spare the Potch, Protect the Child for more on this). Well, how much more destructive is it for our children in Beit Shemesh to see their peers and even the adults in their lives shrug their shoulders and allow this sort of deplorable behavior by a group of radical adults go on unabated? How about its effects on Jewish children worldwide who see reports of this through the 24/7 media coverage, or hear this discussed this in school among their friends?

My dear friends, it has come to this. We have two choices. We can continue to blame the secular media for its campaign against our charedi community or we can admit the painful truth – that we collectively have allowed ourselves to be abused for many years now by a small and violent group of uncontrolled kanoim.

For the sake of our children, we need to collectively do everything in our power – everything – to put an end to the abuse immediately.

[1] As part of our Karasick Child Safety Initiative, we released a 33-minute DVD of our parenting seminar “Speaking to Your Kids about Personal Safety” this past June and our child-friendly picture book, “Let’s Stay Safe!” – both designed to give parents a comfortable and modest way to discuss personal space and safety with their children.

[2] Click here for more safety resources: The Karasick Child Safety Initiative of Project YES – Links to Safety Resources for Parents. Contact Project YES at (845)352-7100 ext. 114 or at to arrange for a personal safety parenting seminar in your community, or to purchase bulk quantities of “Let’s Stay Safe!” for your school, shul, or organization.

How Would You Make Good Kiruv Even Better?

We (David & Mark) will be speaking at this year’s AJOP Conference sharing what we’ve learned from and through the Beyond BT community over the past six years.

Our sense is that most BTs are very thankful to the people who have taught them and helped in their Teshuva process, but there’s always room for improvement.

If you could offer one or two pieces of good advice to outreach professionals, what would it be?

NCSY and the Sweet Sounds of Gratitude

It always happens to me during mussaf of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. On a good morning it will hit me during Hallel. On a recent Shabbos, I thought about it while an excellent baal tefillah was davening the kedusha of mussaf.

What plagues my mind at these odd times? Basically that I am thankful to NCSY (the youth movement of the Orthodox Union). Ok, I said it.

Why, you might ask? Well, not for the obvious “opening my eyes to the beauty of Torah observance” reason (that’s for another time). I have hakoras hatov to NCSY because had I not spent 8th-12th grade as a participant of their programs (and a number of years as an advisor), I probably wouldn’t know 75% of the songs/niggunim I hear in shul during the year and at simchos. I would feel like the odd man out.

I think it’s important for both men and women to know niggunim and zemiros. It helps with inclusion and isn’t something that is stressed enough in the more popular adult outreach organizations. For me, music has always been something I’ve been into. While the current state of popular Jewish music doesn’t always leave me satisfied, I know that music is an important component part of Jewish life. Over the years I’ve been able to find musicians that I like and music that directly goes into my neshama.

If you have kids, eventually they will start singing songs they hear in school, camp, or in carpool. That’s just how it is. Personally, I find being able to sing with my children to be an incredible bonding experience. A great resource that I first saw on BeyondBT is a website called called ShirHalev, , where they have posted downloads of dozens of commonly sung songs. I think you can even submit your own.

As I alluded to at the beginning of this post, on Shabbos the baal tefillah used an old tune from D’veykus IV (1990). It was an interesting moment, because I quickly realized exactly which people davening with me had been around the observant block long enough to know the tune. I did, and I was thankful.

Chanukah: Overcoming Our Greekness

By Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller
Dear friends:

Chanukah is here!

When you think of the victory of light over the darkness that the ancient Greeks tried to spread, you can’t help but think of the world as it is today, sit by the light and know that there is light in the darkest times.

Everything that we think of as “light,” becomes “dark” in a world in which there is no spirituality. The Greeks weren’t so different than today’s “spokesmen”. They saw the human being as the world’s center.

Everything that makes you a member of a unique people demands that you see things very differently. You didn’t emerge as a Jew out of nowhere. G-d promised the patriarchs that the traits that they developed would live in their descendants beyond their lifetimes. Their heritage is reflected in our value system.

The three most severe sins are idol worship, sexual immorality, and murder. Avraham’s dedication to chessed (kindness) gives us the fortitude to resist temptation to the sins of sexual immorality. You can’t be a giver and at the same time an exploiter; the Greeks negated this principle completely. To them, any relationship that gives gratification to the person more in power is legitimate and healthy.

Today the plague of intermarriage is the way secular humanism, an offspring of Greek thought, is still conquering us, not physically but by making our uniqueness as a people irrelevant. It feels like the most normal thing in the world.

Yitzchak’s dedication to G-d was absolute. The ultimate “idol” is human ego. The moment that Yitzchak showed his willingness to give his life to do Hashem’s will, he transmitted the ability to stand up and deny every possible form of idol worship to his descendants.

The Greeks’ obsession with defiling the Bais HaMikdash showed how completely they understood (not necessarily consciously) that it opposed everything they stood for. It was a place of miracles, awareness, depth, joy! The core of all of this was a transcendental, invisible G-d who could never be totally understood even by the greatest human minds. But the heritage that the Greeks left us is the way looking at every religious ritual as something irrelevant at best and contemptuous at worst. The only god they and their descendants still worship is human ego.

Yaakov grasped the nature of the soul and its eternal connection to G-d. He could never justify murder. By definition, murder means killing someone who is of no threat to you. That would mean somehow seeing him as “unnecessary” in the greater scheme of things. Yaakov saw other people as eternal, precious, and attached to G-d. To the Greeks, human life had only relative value. They habitually abandoned deformed infants to die of exposure on their hauntingly beautiful hillsides.

The clash between these cultures continues.

These issues are not new. The Greek exile is very much with us emotionally and sociologically. The issues are still the same.

There is a fourth issue as well, one that you have to take to heart if you want to make a change. The Haftorah (prophetic portion read after the Torah reading on Shabbos) tells us not just about the three grave sins, but also of one that is worse still. It is oppression of your fellow man. In a similar vein, the sages tell us that there are three cardinal sins, idol worship, sexual immorality, and murder, but that lashon hara parallels all of them in its gravity.

Lashon hara means saying negative or damaging things about your fellow Jew for no positive purpose. It reflects disintegration of our sense of peoplehood, and our grasp of the unique spirituality of each one of us. This is the tikkun that we face now more than ever, because “fixing” the other issues is almost impossible without an underlying sense of love and unity.

Yosef epitomizes both. His early revelation of his dreams reflected not (as people think) his ego as much as his sense of responsibility for his brothers. This comes out more when, as the later parshas reveal, he was able to put aside every normal human desire to humiliate them in return for their betrayal. His sense of their significance was based on his recognition of what it meant to be part of the Jewish people.

In Yosef’s own moment of temptation, when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, what saved him was seeing Yaakov’s image before his eyes. Yaakov was able to pass on to his children what the glory of being a human being is really about. The reason that Yosef resisted her (even though, as the Midrash says, she threatened to have him tortured to death), was that immorality would defile him as a human being. His esteem for his own humanity was the basis of his esteem for his brothers.

Chanukah is the time when you can look at the light of the menorah, and let it reflect the light of your soul, and the souls of the people in your life! Enjoy watching the flames, eating the latkes and/or sufganiot, and have a great holiday.

Love always,


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What Should We Put On A Beyond BT Handout Card?

We want to create cards (business card size, front and back text if necessary) to hand out to tell people about Beyond BT and encourage BTs, Kiruv professionals, Rebbeim and those interested in BT issues to give us a visit and a read.

a) Title: Should the title of the site be referred to as Beyond BT or Beyond Teshuva?

b) Graphic: Should we include a graphic of the bridge? Some other graphic?

c) Tag Line: Our tag line currently says “Beyond Teshuva – learning, growing, giving”.
Should we use that or something else?

d) Purpose: Should we include “Beyond Teshuva is focused on providing ideas, connection and support for Baalei Teshuva in their continuing quest to learn, grow, and give” or something else?

e) Information: Should we include anything informative on the card like “5 Categories of BT Support”?

f) Should we include anything else?

The Phases of the Newly Observant

By Aliza Bulow

A general look at the developmental stages of the baal teshuva

I have spent over 30 years in the world of baal teshuvas, as both an emerging baal teshuva myself, and as an educator and guide for hundreds of other baal teshuvas. Over the years, I have identified several stages and general commonalities in the process of becoming a baal teshuva. Identifying these stages are a way to have a general look at the process of development of the baal teshuva, but it must be understood that each person is individual and each experience as unique as the person. Some will linger in a particular stage, while others will skip it completely. Some will pass through each one in a linear fashion, while others will move back and forth, perhaps several times. The following is meant to be a general guide to help parents and friends, and even the baal teshuvas themselves, understand what might be coming next.

Phase One: The Beginning

There are many reasons why a person chooses to pursue a different pathway in life. A desire for meaning, a search for truth, a yearning for roots, a sense that “something is missing” or that “there must be more to life than this”, a wish for community, or a need for structure can all be stimuli to begin the baal teshuva journey. Sometimes the search is preceded by a trauma, sometimes by a romance, sometimes it is a slow evolution of ideas that have been brewing for years, and sometimes it is a jump into the exciting and alluring unknown.

The first phase is characterized by curiosity and exploration. This phase may have been preceded by curiosity and exploration into other religious or spiritual pathways, so it may not be phase one of a specific person’s spiritual search, but I am calling it phase one for our purposes, with the understanding that a prerequisite to phase one is the choice of a Jewish pathway.

During this phase, one would likely read books, research on the internet, ask questions, attend classes, seek a teacher, and possibly take a short trip to Israel. The goal of this phase is to learn enough to confirm the choice of a Jewish pathway.

Phase Two: Wonder and Awe

In this phase, the person has learned enough to be in awe of all there is to know; they marvel at the vastness, and wonder at the depth. Often, instead of their curiosity being sated by previous study, it becomes even more voracious. This phase is often characterized by a single mindedness in seeking information and educational experiences. It can be very intense for some, and it may be a little trying for those living in that person’s environment.

Phase Three: Trepidation and the Beginnings of Observance

Taking on some of the Jewish practices may have already begun slowly in phase one, or more quickly in stage two. It is characterized by the wary tasting of mitzvah, commandment, and observance. One may begin by eschewing pork or shell fish, or by adding other observances of kashrut, the kosher laws, by increasing attendance at the synagogue, by instituting a regular prayer practice, by dressing differently, by regularly attending a Shabbos, Sabbath, meal, by tithing one’s earnings or by observing any number of other mitzvot, commandments.

The trepidation comes from two main sources. The first is internal: “Do I really want to commit to this? What will my life be like if I take this on? What if I take it on and can’t keep it up?” The second is external: “What will my friends think of me? How will this impact my work/studies? What will my employer/professors/parents think? What if I make a big deal over this and then find I can’t keep it up?”

It takes a lot of courage to make a change, especially in the face of unchanging or even disapproving friends and family. Even where one may feel that the baal teshuva’s practices are unnecessary or even foolish, one can admire the courage and character necessary to take on and maintain those practices.

Phase Four: Accelerated Acceptance and Incorporation of Jewish Practice

In this phase, the new baal teshuva seems to be adding new practices almost as fast as they learn about them. Of course, the pace is different for each individual: for some “total” acceptance and integration of observance takes years. For others, it can be a matter of months, especially for those who are participating in a school experience in Israel.

For the baal teshuva, there is often a feeling of exhilaration during this phase. It is exciting, almost intoxicating, to constantly learn and incorporate newness into one’s life. This is true for the sports enthusiast, the mountain climber and the scientist as well. Part of the human experience is the desire to move into the unknown and take charge of it. This part of human nature is uniquely nourished during this phase of exploring and taking on of “new” mitzvahs.

In addition, in circles where the baal teshuva is attaching his or herself to an observant community, they often experience a very high approval rating from that community during this process. Some community members see it as the fruit of their educational efforts—everyone likes to see their seeds blossom. Others feel an affirmation of their own choices when someone “new” enters the fold, and still others are excited by their beliefs that the world is that much closer to its ultimate purpose when another Jewish soul behaves in congruence with its mission. Many baal teshuvas are encouraged and buoyed by the applause and approval they receive throughout this phase.

Variations on Phase Four:

While this phase is characterized by an accelerated and, most often, unabated taking on of new practices and observances, it may have some distinct variations:

Variation A: Naïve Embracing, Submission and Over-Submission

For some, phase four can be like a whirlwind. It can happen quickly, sometimes a bit too quickly. It is during this phase that family members might feel like their loved one is part of a cult. They may see what looks like a blind following of a charismatic teacher and see their loved one changing dramatically almost overnight.

In some of these cases there is a naiveté that interacts with an individual’s emotional needs that can lead to a submission to Jewish law and even to an over-submission. This can be exacerbated and accelerated by the accolades the new baal teshuva is receiving from their new friends or community and by the emotional holes those accolades may be filling.

The antidote to this sometimes worrisome phase is education. The more one learns, the more one develops the intellectual connection, the more one’s emotions can be tempered and balanced. Emotions can catapult one into growth, but only knowledge, perseverance and commitment can sustain it. Lack of appropriate education will likely lead to inappropriate or rigid observance. In time increased education will most often lead to a healthy balance.

Variation B: Missionary, Educator and Enforcer

During phase four, some move from excitement to zealotry. This variation can be quite annoying for those who have to live through it. The new Baal teshuva can begin proselytizing friends and family members. They can be quite passionate about the need for you to change your life. They can become preachy, constantly offering G-d’s point of view about everything from politics to what is in your grocery cart. Often when manifesting this stage, they are undereducated and don’t know enough to share such opinions even if G-d actually did “feel” that way.

Or, they can so admire their teachers, and so desire to be like them, that they fool themselves and believe that they are actually emulating them by (prematurely) taking on the role of educator. Every conversation can be seen as an opportunity to educate. Every encounter is a chance to not only show what they know but to convey the ultimate truth of the universe.

Perhaps most annoying of these three related variations is the Enforcer. This usually short lived phase sometimes occurs when the new baal teshuva learns about the mitzvah of rebuke, tochacha. In the perfect Torah-based society, there are no police. Everyone is accountable to G-d and usually takes their responsibility seriously. For those who fall down on the job, it is the duty of everyone to prop them up, in fulfillment of the dictate that “all Jews are responsible one for another”. This propping up can mean reminding a neighbor of the correct law or its application, correcting someone when they are wrong or, in rare cases, preventing someone from transgressing by force. Only a fraction of these laws can be kept today and the ways that they are kept are few and tricky. Until a new student learns the nuances of adherence to these laws in his or her community, they can make a lot of imprudent and foolish mistakes.

The paths of Torah are pleasant, if the baal teshuva is not behaving pleasantly, they need to learn and absorb more. The antidote to all of the above variations is time, maturity and more education.

A conversation with the new baal teshuva’s rabbi or teacher may also be helpful. If a conversation with your child’s rabbi is not productive, seek another orthodox rabbi with whom you can feel a sense of rapport. An orthodox rabbi, or rebbitzen, rabbi’s wife or female Torah teacher, familiar with baal teshuvas, can give you an important perspective.

Variation C: Overwhelm

As explained, phase four may bring about a rush of excitement and a quickened pace of adding new observances. In some people, this leads to feeling overwhelmed. While everyone must set their own pace, feeling overwhelmed is a sure sign that the pace is too fast. While one may feel emotionally ready or intellectually convinced that a Torah life is the best choice for them, it still takes time to make the changes. New practices need to be introduced at a pace the individual can digest and absorb.

When counseling people who want to speed things up or who are unsure of the pace they should set, I share with them the advice that one of my teachers, Tehilla Jaeger shared with me. “You should be somewhere between comfortable and overwhelmed. If you are totally comfortable, you can probably push yourself a little harder. If you are overwhelmed, you need to slow down a little bit. Take baby steps.”

Phase Five: Plateau

For the average baal teshuva (as if there could be such a thing) phase five creeps up on them. The rush of conquering new territory dissipates; the hands that had been applauding them so wildly begin to silence. They may feel that Judaism has lost some of its fun. Often they may stumble blindly in this phase not even knowing that they are going through a normal part of the process.

Phase five is plateau. After what is usually several years in phase four, the baal teshuva has become accustomed to feeling a sense of excitement in mitzvah observance. Life is often very rosy when everything is new and fresh. As the new baal teshuva becomes an acclimated baal teshuva, and life begins to settle into more of a normal routine, albeit a new normal, it can become a little more difficult. The daily, weekly and yearly practice can sometimes feel like a grind.

The same community people that offered so much encouragement in the beginning phases now expect the baal teshuva to be able to handle everything on their own. They expect them to tow the community line and integrate, often expecting the experienced baal teshuva to take on the community’s behaviors and attitudes. The community members often forget, or never realize, that the baal teshuva can never totally be like them because they have a different background.

Since this phase usually happens after several years, it is often accompanied by a relaxation of some stringency in Jewish practice. Some confuse this relaxation with “back sliding”, but usually it is the result of increased Jewish education and exposure to varied practices that still fall within the realm of orthodoxy. Finally, the baal teshuva is ready to make some educated decisions about which practices they want to make permanent and which practices may be customs that they choose not to keep.

This is the time of settling, where one’s personality in relationship to one’s education and experience emerges more fully. For many, this is the litmus test. Will they be able to carry some of that newness and excitement into the routine of regular Jewish life? Will there be a freshness in their practice? Do they even want that? What will they look like as they become “normal”?

Hopefully, if you managed to stay connected during the earlier stages, this is where your relationship can become even stronger. Your child or friend can emerge more pleasant, refined, and more at home and confident with themselves within Judaism.

Phase Six: Disillusionment

Not everyone experiences disillusionment, but for some baal teshuvas, this is a watershed stage. It turns out that people are people in every group, even among orthodox Jews. This discovery can be particularly painful for a baal teshuva.

Many baal teshuva are idealistic, thoughtful, careful and tenacious. They often possess these qualities in greater quantity than the population at large and it is often because of these qualities that they became observant in the first place. Also, people often gravitate to those with similar qualities for friendships and relationships. So, many baal teshuvas live in a more idealistic, thoughtful, kinder, friendlier world. It can be particularly jarring, therefore, when an observant Jew behaves contrary to Torah ideals, desecrates the name of G-d and the reputation of the Jewish people. When this happens disillusionment may occur.

There are as many responses to disillusionment as there are causes. The following are five common responses:

Some people struggle to maintain or even let go of observant practices.

Some people remain observant and become bitter.

Some people remain observant but their practice becomes robotic, devoid of feeling but anchored by responsibility.

Some people remain observant and loose the idealistic hopefulness of the baal teshuva.

Some people remain observant and become stronger. They use the experience to learn more about Jews, Judaism and themselves and make a commitment to work harder to bring both themselves and the world to perfection.

The Final Phase: Total Blending

I am reminded of the scene in the movie My Cousin Vinny where Vinny and his girlfriend get out of his car in the sleepy southern town wearing full leather outfits and fashionable dark sunglasses. He tells her to try and fit in. She looks him up and down, looks at the surroundings and says, sarcastically, “Yeah, you blend!”

If you know the scene, you know what I mean. Baal teshuvas can never truly blend. Sure they can dress the part, and they can learn the lingo, and they can set up their homes to reflect their education and values. They can send their kids to religious schools, they can carefully keep TV out of their homes and lives, they can skip movies and other forms of not-so-kosher entertainment, and they can learn Torah. But, at some point in their lives, they still saw My Cousin Vinny, or something like it.And probably not one thing like it, probably a lot of other things too. And all of those scenes, and all of that language and all of that music is still somewhere in their heads.

My kids always wonder how I know all the songs they play in the supermarket (the oldies). They never heard them in our home and at that time, the only music we listened to as a family was classical and Jewish. I listened to them in high school, of course. They were part of my life; I was glued to Casey’s Coast to Coast Count Down of the Top 40 every week. I stopped listening to that at 16, but it’s still in my head today.

And baal teshuvas have different families: non-observant parents, non-Jewish cousins, Zaidies who are Grandpas, “family” customs that come from rabbis and teachers instead of the family. Their families don’t converge on them for Passover, they send Chanukah cards instead of Rosh Hashana cards, they talk about politics in Israel instead of the holiness of the land of Israel. The list goes on and on.

And that history leads to differences. Baal teshuvas may want their kids to have a little stronger secular education, they may feel differently about punishments, they may do unusual things like take their kids camping or have pets. So, try as they might, they will never fully blend. Their kids may, if they want to. And, if they are successful in passing it on to the next generation, the grandchildren will blend seamlessly. The final phase of total blending takes three generations.

Aliza is the national coordinator for Ner LeElef’s North American Women’s Program, and the Senior Educator for The Jewish Experience in Denver, Colorado. She mentors women in their roles as kiruv professionals, and provides consulting for kiruv organizations across the country. In addition, she teaches classes, develops programs and offers individual spiritual guidance that helps fuel the spark of Jewish pride and involvement in people from across the spectrum of Jewish association. She lectures in a multitude of venues throughout Colorado, across the country and around the world.

Sharing the Joy of Others

We’ve recently discussed some of the generalities of which Shuls are right for which people.

Perhaps a sometimes overlooked benefit is sharing in the joy of others and the positive character development that brings in its wake.

There’s a nice story about a “Shlishi to Remember”, on Shul Politics in which shul members experience spontaneous communal joy on a December Shabbos morning.

What are the Major Issues Regarding “I’m Frum, My Family Isn’t”

As the Rabbi of a wonderfully diverse shul, Lincoln Square Synagogue, with a large number of people who have family members who aren’t observant, I am starting a new class entitled “I’m Frum, My Family Isn’t: Halachic solutions to religious differences between family members”

This blog continues to be an excellent resource for Baalei Teshuvah, and I would like to hear suggestions from any readers as to what the most pressing halachic issues that you find yourself discussing with your Rov are.

-For some it is exposing children to non-religious relatives, or questions within kashrus and Shabbat.

-When observant children assume responsibility for their elderly parents care, all sorts of halachic issues arise.

-Attending simchas of relatives in non- Orthodox temples, or non-kosher venues presents their own sets of difficulties.

These are just a few examples of the questions we’re scheduled to cover, and I would love to hear additional suggestions.

With best wishes,
Rabbi Shaul Robinson

PS: for those interested in attending – the class will meet at Lincoln Square Synagogue at 7:30 pm on Wednesdays!

Financial Independence and Success in the T’shuvah Process

By Michoel

I have a feeling that some will read this and their reaction will be “mai k’mashma lan?” As in, “Why is he wasting perfectly good kilobytes on the patently obvious?” But to me, the thoughts contained here were not so self-apparent and I have found them very important. Se even if there are a only few readers who can identify, I feel it is worth sharing this.

Financial pressure is a major part of frum family life. It is quite common for FFBs and BTs alike to solicit and / or receive help from family. I am now, Baruch Hashem, frum for 22 years. Just this year, I have made it my biggest priority to wean myself of familial help. And moving in that direction has already had an enormous positive effect.

There is maamar Chazal somewhere (sorry, I don’t have the makor handy) that states that once a person accepts a gift from another, he is “kanui lo l’olam”; the one who accepts the gift is permanently “acquired” by the giver. It can be extremely unhealthful to have a sense of dependence toward someone that is lukewarm, or worse, toward your values. Even when family is %100 behind the decision to become observant, there are very good reasons to decline offers of help.

Until a few years ago, there was simply no way that I could cover my tuition obligations without a major change in life circumstances. We would have needed either my wife going to work full time, with young children still at home, or myself working at least 1.5 full time jobs. I realize there are many who do such things. But we knew that it was really beyond our kochos. I happen to be blessed with a close relative who is both naturally giving and fantastically wealthy. They are also not frum and fairly secure and confident in their present lifestyle which comes across in various ways. We relied on them heavily.

But a few years ago, I found a better paying job. We re-did all the math, and were extremely gratified to find (at least on paper) that we could just barely cover our expenses without coming on to help from relatives. So we davened for Siyata D’shmaya and set hour minds to the task. Our heat is turned way down from where it was. Our food choices have become greatly simplified but still healthful. And we have taken on small parnassa-expanded opportunities. It feels fantastic. If a m’shulach approaches me and I give him a dollar, I no longer suffer from confusion over whose dollar it is that I am giving away. (As in, maybe I should save this dollar and ask my relative for a dollar less next fall.)

I feel so much better about my interactions with my relative. There had always been a nagging undertone in my thoughts that I was devaluing Torah observance in their eyes. “Yes, I am frum and pious, but we both know that I am only able to pull it off on your back.”

My learning has also improved, since there is a greater sense of my time belonging to me.

And one extremely gratifying aspect of all this, is that our kids have completely bought into it in a very positive way. They eat A LOT of popcorn. But they do not feel deprived. Quite the opposite, I would say that the their kibbud av v’eim has improved. This is because, they respect parents that have principles and that are financially organized and self disciplined. But much more than all of that, a truly frugal person is forced to say “no” with conviction. And kids need lots of “nos” in order to grow up emotionally healthful and respecting their parents.

I had been told in my days in yeshiva, that it was a big z’chus for non-frum relatives to allow them the pay for your tuition. This was a classic case of mis-applied-ffb-bt-hyper-religious-gobbly-gook. First, build yourself. Then worry about saving the world. And then worry about saving your family. The biggest z’cus for them is to see frum Jews living in a way that will cause them to respect frum Jews. And you might be the only example they have.

So while I am not advocating starvation, it is well worth it to do whatever you can to assert your financial independence.


Check out Steve Brizel’s Parsha Round Up.

–The Ramban on Vayishlach (Translation From Parsha Parts)

This Parsha was written to make known that HaKodosh Boruch Hu saved his servant Yaakov and redeemed him from a power mighter than he. Hashem sent an angel and saved him. We also learn from this Parsha that Yaakov did not rely on his own righteousness to save himself. He tried to save himself with all his abilities. Furthermore, this Parsha hints to us that everything that happened with our forefather and Aisav his brother will always happen to us with the children of Aisav. It is fitting for us to take hold of this Tzaddik’s ways and prepare ourselves in the three manners that Yaakov prepared himself: prayer, appeasement through a gift, and saving ourselves by means of a war to flee and be saved.

Here’s Rabbi Rietti’s outline of Vayishlach. You can purchase the entire outline of the Chumash here.

# 28 Yaakov’s Dream
# 29 Yaakov Marries 4 Wives
# 30 Birth of Tribes & Yosef
# 31 Yaakov Flees from Lavan
# 32 Yaakov Enters Erets Yisrael

# 28 Yaakov’s Dream
* Yaakov goes to Haran
* Dream – Ladder
* Yaakov Builds an Altar
* Yaakov’s Promise

# 29 Yaakov Marries 4 Wives
* Yaakov removes stone from well
* Yaakov Marries Leah and Rachel
* Leah childs: Reuven-Shimon-Levi-Yehuda

# 30 Birth of Tribes & Yosef
* Yaakov angry with Rachel
* Bilha childs: Dan-Naftali
* Zilpa childs: Gad-Asher
* Doodayim
* Leah childs: Yisachar-Zevulun-Dina
* Rachel childs Yosef
* Yaakov wants to leave
* The Maklot
* Yaakov’s vast wealth

# 31 Yaakov Flees from Lavan
* HaShem tells Yaakov to return to the land of his fathers
* Yaakov confers with Rachel and Leah in the field
* Yaakov escapes
* Rachel stole Lavan’s idols
* Lavan in hot pursuit
* HaShem warns Lavan not to harm Yaakov
* Lavan rebukes Yaakov
* Yaakov’s response
* Lavan “everything you have is mine!”
* Treaty of Gal Eid between Yaakov and Lavan

# 32 Yaakov Enters Erets Yisrael
* Lavan returns home
* Yaakov enters Eretz Yisrael

Why Are Successful Mentor Programs Hard to Establish?

We mentioned 5 categories of support for BTs a few weeks ago:
1) Teachers of fundamental and advanced Torah topics
2) Rabbis who can rule on halachic questions
3) Mentors who act as surrogate parents and help with major topics like Shidduchim, Parenting and Shalom Bayis
4) Friends who act as spiritual coaches and tell us to slow down and inspire us to move up
5) Spouses who are soul mates on our spiritual journey

The one category that is rarely found in abundance are mentors who act as surrogate parents.

Have you seen any mentoring programs be successful?
What was the key to their success?

Why do you think mentoring programs aren’t successful?
a) Not a lot of qualified people to be mentors
b) It takes a lot of time to do the role correctly
c) BTs are hesitant to rely on a mentor
d) Other

Bright Line

I think one of the fundamental challenges or complaints of baalei teshuva is that there is no bright line that defines what is “enough.” And there isn’t.

When we stumble, or as the case may be when we stride purposefully, through the Teshuva Portal, we are encouraged every step of the way to the effect that “any” increase in our interest, knowledge, commitment and observance is good. Not just good — great.

Then when we’re solidly inside we come to understand the difference between being a dilettante about this business and making a real, whole commitment to it. And those of us who are still reading this “got” that, too.

But little by little it dawns on us that there’s no “enough.” And herein lies the criticism of kiruv from the Modern Orthodox point of view. It may not be a very powerful criticism, but there is some resonance to it. Yes, it is a point of view about compromise, but — don’t most of us, all of us, ultimately compromise at some point? Do we have to be all in knots about the fact that we do?

On the other hand compromise is not much of a goal. And it has its own internal wicked logic: You never know when compromise is “enough,” either.

I have written often here about how fascinated I am by the lives of the great men of Judaism of the last century. The more I read — again, especially in the newer, denser biographies that have come out in the last five or so years — the more amazed I am at just how great a person can make himself.

I am inspired. And yes, I am also somewhat discouraged each time I put these books down. Yes, we’re all very special in our special way. But the distance between me and these special, special people is approximately infinity.

No, they can’t tell you at the Teshuva Portal that there’s really no end to how much the Torah eventually asks you to ask of yourself. If they did, a lot of us would never walk through, and we would be cheating ourselves of that challenge. It is a good challenge, a proper one, a wholesome one.

It is a hard one. No one told me how hard it would be. And how it would, contrary to everything I expected early on, actually get harder, not easier.

That’s a hard truth. I’m living it, because it is the truth. But, hard it is.

Parshat Vayetze Torah Thoughts

#28 Yaakov’s Dream With the Ladder
In Chapter 28 it says
20) And Yaakov made a vow, saying: ‘If G-d (Elokim) will be with me, and will guard me on this path that I am going, and will give me bread to eat, and clothing to wear,
21) and if I return in peace to my father’s house and Hashem will be my G-d (Elokim),
22) and this stone, which I have set up for a monument, will become a house of G-d and all that You give me, I will surely give the tenth to You.’

The commentators ask are the words in pasuk 21) “and Hashem will be my G-d (Elokim)” a part of Yaakov’s request or are they a promise by him?
If this is a request, what does it mean?
If it is a promise, why should he make a promise conditional on the request he made in 21-22?

#29 Yaakov Marries 4 Wives
In Chapter 29 it says
25) And it came to pass in the morning that, behold, it was Leah; and he said to Lavan: ‘What have you done to me? did I not work with you for Rachel? Why did you deceive me?’
26) And Lavan said: ‘It is not so done in our place, to give the younger before the firstborn.’

Points on this chapter include:
Why did Yaakov choose the younger Rachel over the older Leah?
Lavan’s statement of not giving the younger before the first-born is brought down as the basis for halacha by a number of rishonim and achronim?
What the exact trickery of Lavan was is a discussed among the commentators.

#30 Birth of Tribes & Yosef

#31 Yaakov Flees from Lavan
In Chapter 31 Yaakov says:
6) You know I served your father with all my strength.

The Rambam, the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch learn directly from this Pasuk and not from a Chazal in the Gemora that one has an obligation to work for his employer will all his might.

In Chapter 31 it says:
19) Now Lavan was gone to shear his sheep. And Rachel stole the teraphim that were her father’s.
20) And Yaakov stole the heart of Lavan the Aramean, by not telling him that he had fled.

The commentators question why Rachel stole the teraphim and what they were.
The commentators are also bothered by the use of the term “stole the heart. Should Yaakov have told Lavan he was fleeing? And if he didn’t tell him, was that “stealing the heart”?

(See Studies in the Weekly Parsha by Yehuda Nachsoni for more discussion of these points.)