By Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky
From Mishpacha Magazine BT Symposium – September 13, 2012
WHEN DEALING WITH QUESTIONS of education and kiruv, there is one rule that is always applicable. That rule is: There is no one rule that is always ap¬plicable when dealing with questions of education and kiruv. Each neshamah is unique. Each situation is different. So each question should usually be answered with, “It depends.”
With that disclaimer, I will share some insights based on 35 years of educating baalei teshuvah (both men and women) that can shed light on some of the important questions raised.
First, to the question of integration. Consumers who have “bought” a product can start a “user’s group.” Kiruv should not be about “selling Judaism,” and those who have “bought in” shouldn’t view it that way. Kiruv must be viewed as a process of transmitting our Divinely revealed Torah — both the knowledge and the practice — to Jews who don’t have it. Jews who are committing to a Torah life need to be integrated into communities with a mesorah rooted in the authentic transmission of that Torah. Baalei teshuvah overcome tremendous challenges on their path to Torah observance. But they lack the knowl¬edge and experience necessary to ensure that their commitment is stable, and can be transmitted properly to their children. Integration into appropriate communities should therefore be the goal.
Baalei teshuvah are raising frum-from-birth (FFB) children (unless they become baalei teshuvah after their children are grown). For those children to carry on the Torah life that their parents have adopted, they must be integrated into solid educational systems, the product of existing Torah communities. As decisions about communities are being made, both the mekarvim and the baalei teshuvah themselves must have a long-term perspective as commitment grows and guid-ance is received.
If integration doesn’t work, it is usually because the baal teshuvah was rushed in the kiruv process, or chose an inappropriate community. Not all frum communities can be termed “baal teshuvah– friendly.” Living in a community that only respects people who are involved in the full-time learning or teaching of Torah is challenging for many working FFBs. For most baalei teshuvah, it can lead to isolation, insecurity, and a weakening of their earlier commitment. With over 3,000 talmidim, most of whom are well integrated into existing communities throughout the English-speaking world, my experience is that Israel and America present very different challenges in many directions. Identifying and navigating them requires experience, sensitivity — and its own article.
There is rarely a good response to “buyer’s remorse,” something I view as tragic on a practical level (which too often results in ruined lives), as well as on a spiritual level (see Rambam, Ch. 3, Teshuvah Halachah 3, on the consequences of regretting a decision about doing a mitzvah). The real solution to buyer’s remorse is to make sure it doesn’t happen. This requires that the kiruv process be slow, “transparent,” and that each step is done with proper deliberation. Buyer’s remorse is frequently the result of the baal teshuvah charging forward without listening to advice from his mentors, or having mentors who are trying to “make the person frum,” as opposed to truly caring about the complete welfare of the individual.
Deciding what to retain from the pre-teshuvah days is probably the most complex and individualized problem. Was their past life dysfunctional and hedonistic? Was it refined and creative? Many secular people have lives that are very moral, fulfilling, and inspiring, and their path to Torah observance was paved with positive activities and social connections. We have had students who became clinically depressed because they were told they had to drop activities and interests that were at the core of their creative personalities. For some people, being told that Judaism demands that they drop their involvement in art, music, or sports, will lead to their decision to drop their involvement in Judaism. And if they stay in Judaism without having proper creative nourishment, they are vulnerable to many problems.
The correct decisions in this area require great sensitivity and balance, both to the demands of halachah and to the personality of the individual. All too often, a mekarev will try to transform a person into someone the mekarev would like him or her to be. Instead, one needs to identify the unique needs of the individual neshamah, and developmentally educate and guide the person on a path that will connect that neshamah to Torah in a stable and long-lasting way.
Which leads to the final point that I would like to make.
The allocation of resources between the initial stages of kiruv, compared to those devoted to nurturing and supporting longer term growth and development is seriously out of balance. In allocating dol¬lars for kiruv, much of the money spent on the initial stages of kiruv is directed toward awakening interest of Jews who are not initially interested. When a kiruv professional succeeds in awakening an interest in Torah, that interest must be nurtured over a significant period of time. If in the pursuit of getting more and more new people interested in Judaism, a professional — or an organization — can’t continue to educate and nurture the ones who were inspired, those Jews can end up with a more negative attitude towards Judaism than they had before the kiruv process began.
My formula is that for every dollar devoted to getting someone inter¬ested in Torah, ten dollars should be devoted to nurturing and developing that interest, educating and supporting the individual towards the goal of becoming a well-adjusted, knowledgeable Torah Jew.
Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky was born in Los Angeles, learned in Kerem B’Yavneh and Yeshivas Mir Jerusalem, and has a master’s degree in educational psychology from Temple University. Through the incisive way he penetrates and clarifies issues, questioning students and challenging them to question themselves, he has facilitated the Torah growth of over 3,000 men and women. He is a founder and rosh yeshivah of Shapell’s/ Darche Noam and Midreshet Rachel V’Chaya in Jerusalem.