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.