Rabbi Yehuda Zakutinsky
From Mishpacha Magazine BT Symposium – September 13, 2012
WHEN MANY frum JEWS ARE asked to picture the experience of a baal teshuvah, a fairy-tale-like portrait comes to mind, in which the baal teshuvah has experienced Jewish enlightenment and clarity, and complete acceptance and contentment in the frum community. Unfortunately, the reality for most baalei teshuvah is far from a fairy tale.
Their road is at times rocky, lonely, and filled with many obstacles. After the period of inspiration the baal teshuvah experienced, which often occurs in a yeshivah or seminary geared specifically toward incubating the new found love for Judaism of these men and women, baalei teshuvah are plunged back into the new reality of their life, and they now need to incorporate Torah Judaism into their already established lives and relationships.
Parts of the frum lifestyle that we take for granted seem daunting for these baalei teshuvah. Shabbos and Yom Tov can be lonely when there is no family to go home to for these festive times. Shidduchim, which are challenging for even the most savvy of the frum community, can be very confusing for the newly religious individual. Their newfound commitment can at times strain their relationships with family and friends, who are all trying to adjust to their lifestyle change. The spark that was ignited can begin to flicker, or even be extinguished, due to the tremendous loneliness and difficulties of the path they’ve so boldly chosen.
Baalei teshuvah need a venue in which to come together as a community, where they can meet and make friends with others who have walked the same path they have.
When a child comes back from learning in Eretz Yisrael, the scene is generally one of excitement and anticipation. For the baal teshuvah, this reunion can be filled with misunderstandings, disagreements, and at times many tears. While both the baal teshuvah and his parents love and care about each other, the child’s newfound frumkeit can, if not handled with care, create deep rifts. Keeping kosher can create chaos at a family dinner, and keeping Shabbos can leave the baal teshuvah home alone during family time. I have found that with intense, ongoing, one-on-one guidance, driven by understanding, empathy, and concern, baalei teshuvah and their families can often learn how to maintain their close relationships, without compromising the child’s new commitment.
Judaism is a very family-oriented religion. Shabbos and Yom Tov are times when people join together with family and reconnect with them. For the baal teshuvah, who doesn’t have religious family to go to, Shabbos can be a lonely time. At best, the baal teshuvah has the uncomfortable task of inviting himself over to people’s tables, always feeling like a nomad and a guest, and never finding a place to call home. At worst, a challah roll and a can of tuna alone in a basement apartment can be the extent of the Shabbos seudah.
There needs to be warm, loving, nonjudgmental, accepting environments in the frum community where one can always feel welcome. An integral part of integration is for the baal teshuvah to have a network of frum families who will invite them into their homes and into their hearts. It is imperative that the proper “shidduch” be made between host and guest. They become adoptive parents for them, and create an environment where they can be themselves and not be put on display as the “baal teshuvah” in the room.
The process of finding a spouse in the religious community is very different from the one with which the baal teshuvah is familiar, and navigating it requires guidance and advice. Also, without a parent advocating for an individual, the process is that much more difficult. Finding shadchanim who are sensitive to baalei teshuvah is essential, as is the role adoptive families can play to advocate for them, research prospective dates for them, and coach them with the love and care that they need.
The baal teshuvah often feels he is playing “catch up” in his Torah studies because of his late start in Yiddishkeit. To address this, it is important that there are learning programs, shiurim, and chavrusos specifically geared to helping the baal teshuvah learn and grow.
When someone is blessed with a simchah in the frum community, the family shifts into high gear, so to speak, to make every aspect of the simchah as beautiful and as meaningful as possible. But the baal teshuvah’s family is usually unfamiliar with the many minhagim and halachos of a simchah, and this can result in significant friction between the young couple and their families, and leave them with no one to count on to help make their simchah the special occasion it is.
Vorts, aufrufs, sheva brachos, brissim, pidyon habens, bar mitzvahs, and weddings — at every stage of the life cycle there are occasions which the baal teshuvah’s family may not be able to truly be there for them. I have found that this is another time when the Jewish community has the opportunity, as well as the obligation, to step in and create the simchah that these men and women deserve.
Based on more than three decades of working with baalei teshuvah after their return to Yiddishkeit, I know that while the road for baalei teshuvah can at times be rough and challenging, with siyata d’Shmaya and support from the Jewish community, the baal teshuvah story can be a truly successful one.
Rabbi Yehuda Zakutinsky, a musmach of Rav Pam ztz”l, has been involved in kiruv for over thirty years. He is a founder and the director of Hashevaynu, an organization that functions as a support system for baalei teshuvah who are integrating into the frum community.