What Changes in Kiruv Have You Seen Over the Years?

The Hamodia magazine ran an article titled “Whatever Happened to Kiruv? – Three Critical Changes in Today’s Outreach”.

Here are the three changes they spelled out:

1) The character of potential Baalei Teshuva has changed from someone looking to find themselves to someone looking to learn more about Judaism.

2) Kiruv is no longer the exclusive province of professionals, but is being undertaken now by “average” Jews.

3) The goal of Kiruv has changed from bringing Jews to full mitzvah commitment to simply keeping Jews identifying as Jewish.

What’s your take on the above mention changes?

What other significant changes have you seen?

Friends, just

Friendship is a funny thing. Or not so funny. They once had a funny TV show called “Friends.” It was about a group of attractive young men and women who were all “friends,” neighbors, roommates. To no one’s surprise, pretty much everyone ended being “more than friends” with everyone else of the opposite sex, at least briefly, by the time the show’s run was over.

But that was fiction. How do we know? Because despite their beyond-friendship interactions, why, they really were still all great friends again right through the end!

Yeah, right.

One of the changes BT’s have to adjust to is that frum men and women really can’t be friends. Like so many things, the extent of sensitivity, or compliance (depending how you look at it) with this principle may depend on your community’s standards. The terminology, too, is rife with vagueness. There’s friendship, and there’s friendship. It shouldn’t be too controversial to assert that an unmarried couple of opposite sexes who are not dating have no business socializing together outside the company of other people, even if they can do so without actually breaching the requirements of yichud, the prohibitions against seclusion with a member of the opposite sex. But if you’re a man, for example, and you’re on a first-name basis with a rebbetzin close to your age whom you’ve known for 25 years, aren’t you, after all, “friends,” even if you never go bowling together? If not, what are you — acquaintances?

Really, however, that case is not our concern; it’s not a change from the previous way of life that presents some people with a challenge, it’s merely a nomenclature problem. The change I originally referred to is that status of “just friends” between males and females. In observant Jewish life, it is not really an option.

The fact is, however, that by the time we hit adulthood, we recognize that mixed friendships are really, mainly, a myth, no matter your religious persuasion — which is just how halacha views it. Men are always men. Women are always women. Men vis-à-vis women is always something that is usually not limited to the non-romantic, non-physical relationship properly described as friendship.

In fact, last fall (October 2012), Scientific American published an article called “Men and Women Can’t be Just Friends.” Unsurprisingly, researchers concluded that it’s pretty much the men who can’t just be friends with women:

New research suggests that there may be some truth to this possibility—that we may think we’re capable of being “just friends” with members of the opposite sex, but the opportunity (or perceived opportunity) for “romance” is often lurking just around the corner, waiting to pounce at the most inopportune moment. . .

The results suggest large gender differences in how men and women experience opposite-sex friendships. Men were much more attracted to their female friends than vice versa. Men were also more likely than women to think that their opposite-sex friends were attracted to them — a clearly misguided belief. In fact, men’s estimates of how attractive they were to their female friends had virtually nothing to do with how these women actually felt, and almost everything to do with how the men themselves felt — basically, males assumed that any romantic attraction they experienced was mutual, and were blind to the actual level of romantic interest felt by their female friends. Women, too, were blind to the mindset of their opposite-sex friends; because females generally were not attracted to their male friends, they assumed that this lack of attraction was mutual. As a result, men consistently overestimated the level of attraction felt by their female friends and women consistently underestimated the level of attraction felt by their male friends.

Men were also more willing to act on this mistakenly perceived mutual attraction.

Some comments on the website question the methodology, but most people — and here, I suppose, I really mean most men, who are the ones who know about the “problematic” side of this equation — will admit that, yes, this is about right.

You can interact with a member of the opposite sex and be helpful, compassionate and even… friendly. But most contexts in can do so inevitably result in what halacha calls k’rivas ha-daas — literally, “convergence of the mind,” or what we would call an emotional bond.

That process, that attraction, is there for a reason, a good one: So that men and women, in the right context, can grow close. Which they will, given half a chance. Given half a chance, too, other things will happen. Interestingly, it appears that “just friends” could work if men and women thought the same way where — as you’d like to think — at least the man was attached to another woman, and she knew this. Women see a man’s “taken” status as meaning, well, “taken.” Men, however, not so much:

Although men were equally as likely to desire “romantic dates” with “taken” friends as with single ones, women were sensitive to their male friends’ relationship status and uninterested in pursuing those who were already involved with someone else.

These results suggest that men, relative to women, have a particularly hard time being “just friends.” . . . This is not just a bit of confirmation for stereotypes about sex-hungry males and naïve females; it is direct proof that two people can experience the exact same relationship in radically different ways. Men seem to see myriad opportunities for romance in their supposedly platonic opposite-sex friendships. The women in these friendships, however, seem to have a completely different orientation — one that is actually platonic.

That’s what I meant by “half a chance” — the male half, mainly.

Orthodox Jewish life, in fact, is pretty much set up to recognize this reality. Some people have trouble understanding levels of sensitivity to the separation of the sexes than they are used to — either before they became religious, or in communities that are more vigilant on this issue than they are. Can’t people just control themselves?, they ask.

People can. They do, mostly. But traditional Judaism says, given the values, and at some point the lives, at stake, why make it harder for people to do so?

“Just friends,” in fact, is a phrase that most of us remember from our dating days as what the girl you like says she wants to be when she doesn’t “like you” in “that way.” And we guys remember what “just friends” meant, and felt like, when we heard those words, don’t we? Did we really want to or expect to be “just friends” with that girl after that?

Did we ever?

Can We Commit to True Unity for Purim?

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato writes in “The Way of G-d”:

…Purim involved Israel being saved from destruction during the Babylonian exile. As a result of this they reconfirmed their acceptance of the Torah, this time taking it upon themselves forever. Our Sages teach us that “they accepted the Torah once again in the days of Achashverosh”. The details of the observance of both these festivals are related to the particular rectification associated with them.

To accept the Torah on Sinai we needed to be united as if the entire nation was “One Man with One Heart”. On Purim, when we re-accept the Torah, we once again achieved that unity in the face of annihilation.

The mitzvos of the day, charity to the poor, giving gifts of food, a meal with family and friends give us actions leading to unity. But we also need to be united in thought and emotion.

Can we commit to true unity for Purim?

Can we focus on the successes, and financially and emotionally support all our local institutions who are truly there to serve us?

Can we convince ourselves that it’s not really a big mitzvah to air every piece of dirty laundry Ad infinitum?

Can we support those dedicated to spreading Torah to our fellow Jews, without undermining them by questioning their effectiveness?

Can we commit to true achdus?

Any suggestions on small steps we can take on that path?

American Pie Purim

It’s become a tradition here in St. Louis that my wife and I invite the Yeshiva High School senior boys over each year for our Purim seuda. Given the logistics of our house, the males gather around a long table in the den while the women watch in amusement and, occasionally, dismay from the relative safety of the dining room. How my wife prepares enough food to satisfy the appetites of a minyan of teenage bochurim is one of the great mysteries of life.

I begin with the Reading of the Rules (e.g., anyone who feels sick must make it to an emergency exit before, well, you know), move swiftly through a parody of kiddush, then come to the main part of the celebration, where I introduce all the students in turn with lyrical grahamen and they earn their fare by presenting divrei Torah. When the last one is finished, I give my own davar Torah, which somehow weaves together all of theirs in sequence. (Don’t be too impressed; it’s a lot easier to do drunk than sober.)

Lower classmen, although not officially invited to the meal, often drop in as do graduates who happen to be in town, for a chance to see the effects of a full bottle of wine on their unswervingly staid rebbe. (According to rumor, I never loosen my tie). It’s also not often that a bochur gets to hear his rebbe perform a drop-dead, Paul Robeson rendition of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

But the highlight of the afternoon festivities (which typically run between three and four hours) is my annual exegesis of Don Maclean’s American Pie.

The references are a bit dated for today’s teenagers, although they still know Buddy Holly (the music), Mick Jagger (Satan), Elvis (the king), and Bob Dylan (the jester), and they usually get the Lennon-Lenin pun. Such references as Charles Manson (helter-skelter), the sock-hop, Woodstock, James Dean, and the 1968 Democratic National Convention (the “sweet perfume” may be tear gas) require a bit more explanation. And a few of the lyrics need editing (e.g., the Father, Son, and Casper the Ghost). Don Maclean’s message of modern music’s messianic hope and ultimate failure seems to resonate well within the spiritually complex structure of Purim.

I suppose some might suggest that I am degrading Purim, introducing the secular, the mundane, even the profane into avodas haKodesh. And although I generally avoid listening to modern music with its coarse or often heretical lyrics, although I never insert secular melodies into Shabbos davening or Shabbos zemiros, although I struggle to squelch discussions of baseball whenever they turn up at the Shabbos table, I would argue that Purim, with its theme of blurring the boundaries between Mordechai and Haman, is different. Moreover, I would argue that Purim offers a unique opportunity to resurrect, selectively and briefly, the ghost of my secular past as a demonstration of the need to strike a balance between the spiritual and the physical.

Who can measure the impact on Amerian kids of the lingering memories of a Purim celebration that integrates the culture they find so enticing without losing focus on avodas HaShem? And what could ever have replaced what has become my trademark Purim schtick if I hadn’t learned American Pie way back when?

First published Fev 28, 2008

Beyond Teshuva Unmasked – A Look Behind the Scenes

Purim is the holiday where G-d parts the curtains and gives us a glance at what goes on behind the scenes. In that spirit, we here at Beyond Teshuva would like to give you a glance at what goes on behind the scenes adminstering the blog. In doing so, we have reproduced a sample of private emails sent to the administrators as well as conversations between the administrators so that all of you can get a snapshot of what has to happen before you see the fruits of our collective efforts here on the blog.

Sometimes it appears to readers of the blog that we don’t give any hard and fast answers. Below I have excerpted an email conversation that exhibits Mark’s ability to cut through the morass of nonspecific advice and give a straightforward, direct answer. The results are life changing.

Dear BeyondBT:

I love your site, it has been so helpful to so many in so many ways. I’m hoping you can help me with my specific problem. I didn’t want to put it on the blog because it is a little personal. Here goes: My 1999 Mercury Grand Marquis has aprox 50,000 miles on her. I recently installed a rebuilt alternator that I boosted to 100 amps instead of the normal 65-70-amp type. How can I make sure that it’s working properly?

Buddy, Topeka Kansas

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Buddy,

This is a question we get all of the time. Basically, if the battery in your car is in good condition, the best way to test your altenator is to perform a cold start of your engine. Keep your eye on the voltage across the battery terminals to verify that it registers somewhere between 13.5 to 14.5 volts. If not, double check that the alternator belt is in good condition and properly tensioned then perform the cold start test again.

Mark

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Dear Mark,

Thank you for you speedy response. Worked like a charm. You the man.

Buddy

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Buddy,

Rock on.

Mark

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Almost brings tears to your eyes, no?

When people see the blog, they see it as a finished product. They are often not aware of the deep thought and wrenching decisions that go into the determination of what to post and when to post it. Take a look at this email exchange between Mark and me which illustrates exactly what I mean.

David,

I’ve got nothing in the submission bank to post today. Your thoughts?

P.S. What are you having for lunch?

Mark

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Mark,

I was thinking of chinese.

David

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David,

I thought you said you were trying to watch your weight.

Mark

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Mark,

I am. I might just get some chicken and vegetables, steamed with brown rice and sauce on the side.

David

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David,

You call that chinese food?

Mark

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Mark,

You’re right. Maybe I’ll just get some sushi.

David

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David,

Do you mean sushi or sashimi?

Mark

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Mark,

Dunno. It’s all the same to me.

David

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David,

Ok. Now that that’s resolved. What are we going to do about the post?

Mark

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Mark,

Look, I gotta get back to work. Maybe just throw something together about a BT who can’t eat in his parents house or somethin’.

David

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Not as easy as it looks, huh?

Finally, administering this blog often requires us to discern the nuances and differences contained in the written language. (And I’m not just talking about having a thesaurus handy for Rabbi Dovid Schwartz’ posts). In order to do so, one must have a handle on where the writer is coming from, where they are going and what is important to him/her. I have excerpted a correspondence between prominent blogger and commenter Steve Brizel and Mark and me.

David,

IMO, as a BT, a former YU and NCSY guy, a FYUANCSYABT, if you will, when RYBS addressed the issue of FW vs PD he, IMHO, IIRC, quoted RAIK based on the RASHBA, the RITVA and another acronym that escapes me now LOL. Anyway, when GL posted regarding TFS and EP, I was taken aback. Do you think I should IM him or JFAI?

SB

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Steve,

Huh?

David

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Mark,

Where did you find this David Linn guy? He barely speaks english!!

SB

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Steve,

Its not like this is a paid position or something so you take who you can get. What can I tell ya?

Mark

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And these are just a few examples!

So, dear readers, before you criticize the blog please take into account the time, effort exerted and the acumen applied to get you the finished product.

Happy Purim to all.

Originally posted – March, 2006

Suggestions for a Study Program for a Well Educated Baalat Teshuva

Dear Beyond BT Readers,

I am a 33 year old baalat teshuva. I am considering attending a study program in Israel next year, and am looking for advice about which are best suited for a women with a postgraduate education.

I’d like a seminary that is Orthodox and were I’ll be exposed to different hashkafot. I’ve met some people who have attended Midreshet Rachel (part of Shappell’s/Darche Noam) and this seemed like it would be a good fit. I wanted to consider other options though.

Any advice I could get would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks,
Rebecca.

The Three Stages of Judaism for BTs and FFBs

A Baal Teshuva is usually introduced to authentic Judaism by learning Torah. Different people are exposed to different topics, but the first stage is usually Torah with little or no mitzvah observance.

After some time learning Torah, the observance of mitzvos begins. The time frame can vary greatly dependending on the person and the environment. The first mitzvos are usually between man and G-d like Shabbos, Kashrus and Davening.

After a period of learning and mitzvos the BT approaches integration into the community which is mainly focused on mitzvos between man and man.

The FFB goes through roughly the same phases. Early childhood and schooling is focused on learning Torah. As the child reaches chinuch they focus on mitzvos between man and G-d like Shabbos and davening. As the FFB breaks into the teen years and becomes a young adult they integrate into their Yeshiva and community involving mitzvos beteen man and man.

In a broad sense, these three stages mirror the three foundations of the world, Torah (learning), Avodah (man and G-d) and Gemilas Chasadim (man and man). When spritual maturity is reached, all three are in focus but in the early stages they proceed from Torah to Avodah to Gemilas Chasadim.

The BT however advances through these stages at a much faster pace then the FFB and often does not get enough exposure in the Torah phase. BTs who are more exposed and conversant in Torah have a much easier time in the community integration phase between man and man.

An Unusual Dilemma

Since this is an interesting discussion, we’re going to leave this post on top today. – admins

This is probably not the sort of post that you will accept or run on BeyondBT, but it is very sincere and I would love to see what your posters have to say about my dilemma:

I grew up in a normal American town. The town has about the same percentage of Jews as the United States at-large, somewhere in the range of 3-4% or thereabouts (could even be slightly higher than that). That town, the derekh eretz found in it, my non-Jewish father, and my non-Jewish grandfather, are responsible for my values, morals, and eventually desire for Torah. There are towns like my town all over the United States, but those towns do not have sufficient Jewish populations to attract Orthodox shuls, etc. In the case of this particular town, however, it is extremely close to a town with one of the highest per capita Jewish populations in America, so–save for shabbos itself–all of the resources of a Jewish community (including multiple Orthodox and non-Orthodox shuls, mikvah, etc.) are within a ten-minute drive.

My interest in Torah is solely–but thoroughly–religious. I have never had any attachment to or interest in Ashkenazic (or Sephardic) Jewish culture and, with a few notable exceptions, I have never even felt that I “fit in” in Jewish social circles (no matter the socioeconomic strata of the Jews in those circles). Although I have been sometimes-more, sometimes-less observant for more than ten years, I am not going to move to a modern American Jewish community. I have never been willing to move to one, and this is not going to change. I could move to all sorts of towns similar to mine all over the country, but I will not–for reasons firmly grounded in the intractable problems of the derekh eretz that prevails in modern American Jewish communities–move to a Jewish town. I aspire to provide any children that I might one day have with a Jewish education, but–for the same reasons of derekh eretz–to not do so through the mechanism of a private Jewish day school. Instead, I would seek to use the public schools of my small town (or whatever small town my wife and I ultimately wound up in), as those public schools are entirely consistent with real Torah values (and reinforced the values that I myself acquired growing up). For Torah, nach, kethuvim, gemara, and Hirsch, I will use all available resources (for example, my town is minutes away from numerous thoroughly qualified and credentialed rabbis and arranging comprehensive tutoring, and then reinforcing at home, would be imminently viable) to put together a roll-your-own solution that can work.

The vast majority of Orthodox rabbis, and virtually all baal teshuvas, who I have met have told me that no Jewish girl who cares at all about Torah would ever be willing to live outside of a Jewish town. They insist that I am either wrong about Jewish towns, wrong about normal American towns, bigoted, biased, or that I “have issues.” I laughed at these assertions for ten years and then was vindicated when a potential match, who grew up in a Jewish town, attending day schools, and working in day schools, moved to the town and discovered that my only misrepresentation was understating the case. Her disgust with local Jewish communities (she was from another part of the country) and day schools, and her relentless love and adoration for my family, my town, my schools, and my culture, was absolute. Unfortunately, she got homesick and moved back to the big city from whence she came.

Many baal teshuvas find it very difficult to discuss this problem with me because their own interest in Torah was initially sparked by the warmth of Orthodox families and homes. I, by contrast, grew up in a profoundly warm home in which I had dinner with my family at least six–and often enough seven–nights a week. When I first started going to shul, parishioners would ask “Isn’t shabbos wonderful?” I would say “Yes, the prayers, the sanctification of the day, conformance to God’s laws, etc. Absolutely.” They would say “No, I mean the meal.” I would say “Yes, the blessings over the wine and the bread, the grace after meals, etc.” They would say “No. I mean the fact that I actually get to sit down with my family, uninterrupted, and have a dinner during which, without distraction, we talk about each other’s lives, find out what we’ve been up to, and share what we’re doing.” I could only respond “But don’t you do THAT part of it EVERY NIGHT AT DINNER?” They could only shake their heads and say “No. The rest of the week, we’re too busy working.”

In addition, I was never alienated from my normal American town the way a lot of baal teshuvas were. My small town was my community, is my community, and either it or another normal small town will continue to be my community. I never needed the “Jewish community” (which, frankly, does not comport with what community has ever meant to me, as to me, “community” implied far more than a bunch of people with a common “volk” and a common religion; it is something forged over decades, not weeks, and the price of entry is long amounts of time, not a particular religious faith) because my community has always been my extended family.

In order to offer advice or suggestion to me, you would need to take it for granted that the cultural, values, derekh eretz gap really exists. Do not waste time trying to persuade me that a heimishe Jewish town really has the values that I am looking for. It would take ten densely-typed pages to fully explain the derekh eretz differences. What I am looking for (what I grew up with and still have) is just a normal American small town, with normal American small town values. That’s what I want to expose my family to. That sort of town is what I want my kids to grow up in, so that they absorb those values through their family, their community (which would, of course, be largely non-Jewish), and the positive peer pressure of other kids who by and large come from homes with similar values. To deal with my situation, you need to assume that what I want simply is not available as the predominant derekh eretz in a Jewish town. Please, oh merciful please, do not try to persuade me otherwise.

I don’t need a frum girl. If a girl with normal small town American values, who happened to be Jewish, and who happened to have grown up in a normal American small town (and wasn’t merely desperate enough to try one), was somewhat observant but wanted to drive from a town like mine to a parking lot a half mile away from an Orthodox shul in the neighboring Jewish town, that would work. That would be close enough to what I’m looking for that I could make it work.

But I have been told that what I want–a normal American small town cultural and values derekh eretz, and a commitment to living in a normal American small town community (rather than an American Jewish community)–is simply nowhere to be found among American Jewish girls.

What do you think? If it really is hopeless, then after well more than a decade of very ardent effort, I may have to concede that it just isn’t possible and, with a heavy heart, find another way to pray so that I can marry and have a family. I love God and I love Torah, but I am not enough of a martyr to go through life with neither wife nor children in order to prove how committed I am to Judaism. I am at a crossroads and I could use either confirmation that there just are not any Jewish girls who want to live–fully, completely live–in a normal American small town, or a legitimate claim that there are Jewish girls who want to live in a normal American small town.

Over a decade ago, I figured that I would give it a good hard try. And if I met a girl who affirmatively wanted to live in a normal American small town during that time, but we just weren’t attracted to each other, that would be enough to keep me trying for years to come, because that would at least show me that girls of that sort were out there–even if I hadn’t met the particular one of them who was compatible with me yet. But in all these years, I have never met one who actually affirmatively wanted to live her life, to live her community, to live her derekh eretz, in a normal American small town. And I am just about ready to accept that what I want does not exist among Jewish women.

All I want is what Samson Raphael Hirsch called “Torah im derekh eretz.” I just want it in my normal, good, decent, and fully Torah-compatible small town American derekh eretz. And a wife to live it with.

Please advise.

aspiring father