Frozen Jews

Originally Posted on Oct 25, 2006

When Modiin was first built, it was designed as a ‘secular’ haven for the people who used to fancy living in Jerusalem, but didn’t want hareidim for neighbours. As the city has grown, it’s begun to attract quite a few modern orthodox, including a lot of expat anglos, who for the most part, have similar feelings about the hareidim.

When we moved here last year from London, we were just happy to be somewhere where we had jewish neighbours, regardless of what they did or didn’t keep. I wonder now if we were a little naïve.
It’s not that we have had any difficulties, G-d forbid, with our secular neighbours. They have been as friendly as they can be, given the fact that we can’t eat in their homes, and they aren’t overly keen to come for a Shabbat meal.

But that ‘anti-haredi’ stance comes out in a lot of subtle, and not so subtle ways that has implications for everyone who lives here. It means that building synagogues, mikvas and schools in the area is loaded with a whole bunch of fears about being ‘taken over’ by the religious.

The irony is that if anything, the ‘religious’ people here are just as scared of being taken over by the hareidim. We also don’t want people telling us how to dress, telling us when we can drive our car, telling us what we can and can’t watch.

Until quite recently, I was firmly in this camp. How can you have free will – and the merit of doing a particular mitzvah – if you are being compelled to do it by outside forces?

But then my husband started to go to kollel a few hours a day, in the hareidi neighbourhood of kiryat sefer. There is no kollel in modiin, so that was the nearest option.

And lo and behold, we discovered that hareidim are not the scary monsters that many people persist in making them. Many of them are the kindest, non-judgemental and most genuine people you could care to meet. They have their priorities right: lots of kids, and a focus on learning and mitzvahs as opposed to accumulating pointless ‘stuff’.

In Israel, there is a long list of popular complaints against the hareidim, starting with the number of kids they have (that secular wisdom dictates that they can’t afford) and culminating with the ‘facts’ that they don’t pay taxes and don’t serve in the army.

I’m not qualified to comment on all the ins and outs of these issues. But it seems to me that they all touch on the same basic issue: hareidim act as if the ‘natural’ laws of the world don’t apply to them.

But of course, as jews, that is exactly how we are meant to act.

Once you see it in action, in a neighbourhood like Kiryat Sefer, it calls into question how many of us modern orthodox act and think.

I was talking to a hareidi woman who used to be chiloni (non-religious) and lived in Tel Aviv. She and her husband made tshuva a few years back, and now she lives in Kiryat Sefer with her five kids.

She does a lot of outreach work with girls in Ramle, many of whom don’t think twice before chowing down on a pork chop. She was telling me about her work and said something that really made me stop and think.

“A lot of these girls eat pig, but when you show them that the Torah is true, they make tshuva and over time, they go the whole way,” she said. “They understand that if the Torah is true, then ALL of it is true. Just as they shouldn’t eat pig, they understand that they should also try to do all of the other things in the Torah.

“It’s easier to work with them than to work with ‘frozen jews’, who are keeping more, but think what they are doing is enough. Frozen jews never really reach the top of the mountain, because they haven’t accepted that the Torah is true, and comes from Hashem. If you accept that the Torah comes from G-d, you can’t pick and choose which bits of the Torah you keep. They are all equally important.”

The point is not that we have to keep everything immediately. But the point certainly is that we have to continually strive to reach that goal.

It’s an uncomfortable reminder and it leads to a lot of uncomfortable questions, not least because i™ makes a very clear distinction between those that really believe in Torah and Hashem – regardless of their outward observance – and those that really don’t – again, regardless of their outward observance.

I don’t know what the answer is. But I’m increasingly of the opinion that when it comes to belief in G-d, you can’t spend a lifetime trying to sit on the fence.

Understanding Gods Plan as Best We Can

Admin’s note: the referer’s log is a great source for reposts. This post was first posted in January, 2007. Somebody from the MGM Mirage in Vegas was searching for Hashem Runs the World and came to this post. After rereading it and the comments, it is clear that it’s well worth reposting.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve started, and failed to finish, about 5 different posts for Beyond BT. While all were different, all had the same theme: why aren’t people seeing the same ‘truths’ that I see in the Torah?

I started all of these posts trying to engender a spirit of honest debate and questioning, but stopped before I’d completed them. Why? Firstly, because like everyone, I have my own baggage, and however ‘objective’ I wish I was, I know that my own slanted viewpoint creeps in here and there, and warps the real essence of what I’m trying to write.

Secondly, because many of the subjects I was trying to write about – and which are exercising me at the moment – are ‘biggies’. Let me share some examples: We moved to Israel from the UK, about a year and a half ago. While many people, thank G-d, have had an easy aliya, we have had quite a challenging aliya, with things going ‘wrong’ on many different levels.

Without belaboring the point, within a week of moving here, we lost all of our savings (thanks to an ‘unexpected development’ back in chutz); had a falling out with a close family member ostensibly upset about our move; and a firm offer of a job (again, with a firm in chutz) retracted.

From that point, we went on to have our credit card stolen, our house broken into, business difficulties which in turn lead to financial difficulties, and the dawning realization that socially, we just weren’t fitting in all that well.

Yet despite all this – or maybe, because of all of it – I haven’t stopped thanking Hashem that we made the move. In the UK, we were both workaholics; in Israel, we have had the time and space to really appreciate the blessings that are our children. In the UK, I was too busy making and spending money to really do much in the way of learning or chesed. Here, I can’t give tzedeka as freely as I’d like to. But boy, am I making an effort to have Shabbat guests and to find ‘free’ ways of doing nice things for people.

In Israel, thanks to many of our difficulties, I am now inordinately grateful for everything I do have, like my health, my husband, my family more generally. In chutz, I would get down if even the tiniest thing didn’t go my way. In Israel, I am meeting so many great people, who are really on an upward path in terms of their yiddishkeit. People who are really living their Judaism, and for whom Hashem permeates every minute, every moment, every decision and action. In chutz, I really wasn’t.

As one of the other posters here commented, all the arguments about moving to Israel etc, have been very well rehearsed. But when you live here – and you really struggle to live here – you understand how a Jew who doesn’t live here is missing out on a very fundamental part of their yiddishkeit. That’s controversial, I know. But it’s what I truly believe.

Here’s another ‘controversial’ thing that the last few months here have shown me: Having a lot of material wealth is an enormous obstacle to getting close to Hashem. Yes, the dream house, luxury car, gourmet meal and designer outfit is nice, on one level. But that level is incredibly superficial. I had nice things in London and lots of money. And I realize now just how complacent I’d become in my yiddishkeit as a result.

Here, I have prayed like I have never prayed before. It’s not always been a comfortable experience. But I’ve had to ask myself ‘what are we here for?’ and I’ve had to realize that the answer is ‘to work on ourselves and get closer to our creator’. And you don’t do that by shopping.

The last thing I’ve realized, again controversially, is that ‘feminism’ and Judaism really don’t go together. To the point that now, I try to steer clear of any self-styled ‘orthodox feminists’. Why? Because anyone who is putting gender politics into Torah really doesn’t grasp the basic principles underlying creation: G-d made the world. G-d is perfect. G-d knew exactly what he was doing, and if you have a problem with it, you are essentially saying that you know better than G-d.

I know others will differ, but for me, that is a fundamentally problematic position to take; it’s a circle that simply can’t be squared.

Every issue / problem / challenge has G-d at its root. From the small niggles, to the larger frustrations and the enormous tragedies, G-d is running the world, and knows better than we do what is for our best, and ultimately, what is for our ultimate ‘good’.

It sounds strange, even to me, to write these words and be that much closer to genuinely believing them. But coming to Israel, with all the ups and downs it has entailed, has helped me to realize that if I am to have a meaningful relationship with G-d, and also to my Judaism, I have to accept that I can only ever see a very small part of Gods plan – and that his ability to run the world is far beyond what I can comprehend.

The Path Towards Truth is One You Often Tread Alone

Like everyone, I have my faults. I spoke a bit of lashon hara last week. I squabbled with my husband because our overdraft is plumbing the depths of our bank account; and I skipped bentching on shabbos because it was just us for lunch and I couldn’t be bothered.

But ultimately, I believe that I am accountable for all of these ‘little’ things, and that on Yom Kippur, if I don’t properly hold myself to account, then G-d will do it for me in a myriad of wonderfully aggravating ways.

Yom Kippur Teshuva and Baal Teshuva Teshuva are similar inasmuch as they are both ultimately a search for truth, and an attempt to get past all the little lies and flattery we feed ourselves to see who we really are, and whether we are really living up to the covenant agreed by our forefathers.

But I find Yom Kippur Teshuva is harder. It’s harder because when you are a BT you get very used to swimming against the stream. Becoming a BT is a constant battle against the people who think you’ve turned into a religious fanatic, and the people who you think are giving religion a bad name by acting like a religious fanatics. You get used to it; perhaps a part of you even relishes the fight – because you are fighting for a just cause.

And when you know that pursuing the truth in the secular world is often a lonely calling, it doesn’t bother you so much to be doing it alone.

But come Yom Kippur, I’m aching to go to shul and to feel like part of a wider community, asking Hashem to have mercy on us as individuals, as a kehilla and here in Israel, as a country, too.

But it’s just so hard. It’s hard because in many shuls, even where everyone is outwardly observant, there is a palpably complacent sense that ‘G-d will understand’. And, ‘I’m really a good person’. G-d is educated, you see. He knows that we all have busy lives, and that we both need to work long hours in order to pay for the house and the two cars and the expensive High Holiday tableware.

He appreciates that after a long day at the office, we are too tired to visit a sick friend, take a meal to a newborn’s mother or watch our neighbour’s kid for a couple of hours.

But I often wonder if the value system that we judge ourselves by is the one that Hashem himself uses. Sure, we say vidui and we bash our chests, but how many of us actually take a moment to really internalize what we are saying? We do lie, steal and cheat. We do embarrass other people and act insensitively. We are selfish and lazy – and these things apply to pretty much anyone you’ll meet in any shul in the world. And let’s not even get started on the fraudsters and adulterers.

Yet most of us act as if the millions of things we do wrong a year are petty infractions that G-d will wink at come Yom Kippur.

I was recently at a shiur where we were discussing the power of prayer. One of the participants told us that she doesn’t believe it makes any difference, but she still does it as a form of therapy.

In our secret souls, I’m sure that many of us would agree with her. Yom Kippur is not so much about making amends to G-d, as much as about making ourselves feel better.

And that’s why I find Yom Kippur Teshuva harder than becoming a Baal Teshuva. Every year, I wish that my neighbours in shul and I were on the same page, and that we all honestly believed that we had done some serious sinning that we needed to atone for, and that our prayers really matter.

And every year, I realize that most of us are just going through the motions. I’ve realized that even in a shul full of observant people, the path towards truth is still one you often tread alone.

Originally published on Sep 27, 2006.

G-d is Not a Vending Machine

A little while back, I picked up a book by Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt, called ‘Finding Light in the Darkness.’ Shaul was in the same school as my husband, albeit a couple of years’ above him; and when he started Aish HaTorah in the UK, he gave a few shiurim in our home.

But Shaul stopped giving shiurim after a month or two, and a couple of his colleagues from Aish took over. At the time, we didn’t know why. Today, we know that his wife, Elana, had been diagnosed with the cancer that was going to claim her life at a very young age.

Rabbi Rosenblatt is a Baal Teshuva. In his book, he’s very open and honest about how he came to be frum; how he came to be married to Elana, and how he struggled to cope with the terrible blow that was his wife’s death.

Why am I telling you all this? Because one of the themes that comes through again and again on Beyond BT (although I think it’s probably applicable to every single Jew on the planet) is that most of us can only accept G-d’s domination over our lives – to a point.

And usually, that point is well within our comfort zones. For some people, it stops well short of considering or attempting aliya. For others, it comes when they think about how their professional careers or businesses would suffer too much if they didn’t keep things ticking over by working on Shabbat or bending a few laws on monetary matters. For others, it takes the form of being unable to accept that as a woman, they won’t be treated exactly the same as a man in shul.

These are just a few examples of how belief in G-d can stretch us out of comfort zones; I’m sure that everyone can add their own.

Then there are the people who can’t accept that G-d is running the show because they have experienced some terrible heartbreak, upset or tragedy. Many of these people can’ t understand how a kind, loving G-d could send them so much apparent suffering, in whatever form it comes. They can’t accept that this is how G-d runs his world – and so, they reject Him.

If Hashem hadn’t tested them so much, they would probably still believe in him. Or at least, that’s what they say. But it begs the question: what sort of belief is it in the first place, if it’s conditional on everything always going their way? That sounds more like an insurance policy for ‘the good life’ than genuine faith; or perhaps even like a clumsy sort of spiritual blackmail – “treat me nice, Hashem, or I’m not going to do what you want / keep your commandments”.

(By the way, let me just make clear here that this post is NOT about judging other people. It’s about taking an honest look in the mirror.)

As Rabbi Rosenblatt makes clear in his book, any test we are sent, we can ultimately pass. And every test we are sent is ultimately for our good.

And his life experiences have given him the authority to say these things. He went through all of the ups and down any BT goes through when they become religious; he devoted himself to helping more jews get closer to Hashem; he married a woman who by all accounts was one of the nicest, kindest, most sincere and genuinely pious people you could wish to meet.

(I have a friend who was very close to Rabbi Rosenblatt’s wife, Elana, and even before her illness, I used to hear glowing reports of her kindness, and all the effort she used to put into becoming a better jew and helping other people.)

And how was he rewarded for all his devotion and hard work? He lost his wife to cancer at the age or 32, when the youngest of their four children was still a baby.

If he wanted to, Rabbi Rosenblatt has every ‘justification’ for going off the derech. Instead, he wrote a book about finding light in the darkness. About using suffering as a mechanism for coming closer to Hashem. About understanding that even if you are doing your best to follow his laws, to live according to his Torah and to pray for your wife to recover from a terminal illness, G-d is not a vending machine.

You don’t put prayer in, and get a solution to all your problems out. You do sometimes; often, even. But not always. Because G-d knows what we need better than we ourselves do. We are often too clouded by ego, appetites, or emotions to have an accurate picture of what we really need in this life – and it gets even more complicated when the needs of the afterlife are also factored in to the equation.

This is something that I’ve certainly struggled with, at times, over the past couple of years. But reading Rabbi Rosenblatt’s book helped me to understand that there is so much about G-d that we, as limited humans, simply can’t understand. And that everything he does, is ultimately for the good.

‘Submission’ is not a popular word in the West; it has connotations of being forced to do something against our will, of being humbled, or negating ourselves, and our sense of self-importance.

That’s why we don’t like it – it grates harshly on a Western mentality that is taught to believe in the supremacy of the individual from a very young age. We all like to think that we are important, that our opinions count (as I’m sure will be borne out by the comments on this post….)

Yet in some very important ways, Hashem wants us to submit. He wants us to get to a point where we can accept that we simply don’t understand, and that we don’t need to. G-d is running the show. We can rant or rail at him all we want – what does it change? Or we can try our best to accept that G-d knows what we need better than we do, and to do our best to be happy about it – even when it hurts.

It’s probably the single hardest thing for any or us to do – I’m certainly still struggling with it.

I can’t do justice to Rabbi Rosenblatt’s book – or the very profound ideas he writes very cogently about – in a short post. If anything in this post strikes a wrong chord, it’s probably my (mis)interpretation – please don’t have a go at him in the comments! Instead, go and read his book and get it from the horse’s mouth.

I want to leave you with a direct quote from the book:

“I ask you to ask yourself – and be brutally honest – what are you in this world for? To be comfortable? To avoid pain? To live out seventy or eighty years of life with the least challenge possible? If this is your aim, then many ‘bad’ things will happen along the way – because this is a world of pain, and pain is antithetical to all that you are living for.

“If however, you believe, as I do, that we are to lift ourselves into Godliness, to grow and to ultimately attain self-perfection, than all that happens to us is a golden opportunity – and the more challenging it is, the greater that opportunity.”

Modest is as Modest Does

Dressing modestly was probably pretty far down on my list of things to do, when I  became frum. It’s not that I dressed particularly immodestly – I wore baggy jeans and baggy sweatshirts all through university; and I never went for tight skirts or plunging tops.

But the concept of wearing only skirts just didn’t appeal to me. It seemed way to ‘old’; and to be a statement that I would never ride a bike or jog in public again.

That’s when I was in my early twenties. I got married at 23, and then another element of ‘tznius’ came into play: should I, or shouldn’t I, cover my hair?

I decided I shouldn’t. Not because I thought G-d didn’t want me too – on the contrary, I knew I should be doing it. But it was just so hard. I have thick, black, curly hair that over the years has become almost my calling card. If I covered it up, I’d have to chop it off or risk passing out from heat exhaustion.

If I covered it up, in the UK workplace, I’d have to wear a wig or risk really standing out from the crowd, which I didn’t have the self-confidence to do. And wearing a wig just wasn’t ‘me’.

And so, every few years the question of dressing more modestly would crop up, and I would gently pat it away, to be dealt with at some point in the future, when I would need to be more consistent in my frumkeit.

That time came when my first child was born, and started to attend an orthodox school where the dress code for parents picking up stated that any woman on school premises had to be wearing a skirt.

A lot of my fellow parents complained about it; but I thought it was a fair request. The school was orthodox, it was teaching an orthodox way of life, and wearing skirts – for girls and women – is an halachic requirement.

At first, I thought I’d wear a skirt to drop my daughter off, and pick her up, and then change into jeans in between. But 3 changes a day wasn’t practical, so what happened instead is that I went out and bought a few more skirts, and started wearing them every day except on Sundays, when it was the weekend.

I have to say I did notice a difference. I did feel less ‘young-looking’ in some ways; but I also felt more feminine and less ‘hard’. Difficult to explain, but I started getting a lot more compliments from my husand. I also realised that shopping was SO much easier, when you were limited to buying longish skirts. I hate shopping, so having my choices curtailed by tznius factors was like a blessed relief.

Then we moved to Israel, and I started to only wear my jeans on the plane trips back to the UK. But something about Israel persuaded me that even that was a stretch to far, and last year, I donated my jeans to the local clothing charity.

But hair covering was still a big no-no. It was even hotter in Israel; it was even harder to do it, in some ways. It was even more of a statement of religious belief. It’s a long story, but to cut it short, I finally realised that it’s what G-d wants; and at least in Israel, I could cover it exactly how I wanted, without standing out from the crowd too much.

But it was still a shock to the system. For the first few weeks, I felt that my (chiloni) neighbours were looking at my new bandana quite suspiciously; it was like wearing a t-shirt with ‘I am properly frum’ emblazoned on the front.

But after a few weeks, both they and I got used to it. That was almost a year ago. Today, I’m only wearing skirts, and covering my hair – although not all of it, but that’s a topic for another conversation entirely.

A few months’ ago, I was talking to my friend, another BT, who had also struggled with maintaining a sense of her own style, when she became frum. As we talked, we realised this must be an issue for a whole bunch of BTs – and so, we decided to do something about it.

We have put together a website, www.nutmegshop.com, which sells affordable, fashionable clothes that are modest, but still stylish. We’re starting it on a shoestring, but as it develops, we’d like the site to become a forum for frum ladies to discuss clothes and fashion, and to share tips and experiences. As you’ll see if you visit, we’ve tried to kick things off by discussing what can happen when you cover your hair and you want to go down a water flume…

But it’s a work in progress, and we’d love to get more feedback from the Beyond BT community on it. My friend and I know from our experiences that ‘dressing frum’ is often one of the hardest parts of ‘living frum’. By launching nutmegshop.com, we’re hoping to make dressing modestly easier and more enjoyable, and also to make the point that dressing tzniusly doesn’t always have to mark such a radical departure from what came before.

The ‘Good Person’ Test

From my personal experience, whenever a religious person is dragged into a discussion about religion with a combative non-religious person, the first thing the non-religious person tries to emphasise is how they / their spouse / children / siblings / whoever are ‘good people’.

The argument, which I’m sure must be familiar to other readers of Beyond BT, goes like this: “It doesn’t matter if I / they / whoever keep the mitzvot. What matters is that we are good people.”

I’ve ruminated a lot about this over the years, because without an objective guide to what constitutes a ‘good person’, anyone can claim the title. In some cultures, you can blow yourself up – killing tens of people in the process – and be acclaimed as a ‘good person’. In other cultures, it’s enough to say that you’ve ‘never hurt anyone else’. Apart from the fact that this is a massive fib – everyone has done something to hurt or upset someone else, however unintentional, accidental or minor – it also doesn’t say very much about a person’s character if that is their only claim to fame.

Case in point: an old lady is being mugged. I stand to one side and let her assailant get on with it. Maybe I try to pick her up off the floor, or maybe I don’t. But the point is, I can still claim to be a good person.

Today, ‘good’ for many people seems to be defined simply as an absence of bad – which is why someone who is just a ‘good person’ could never be called a good Jew. Because being a good Jew requires actions.

A good Jew puts on tefillin, keeps Shabbat, keeps kosher etc etc. But I don’t want to dwell on the mitvot between G-d and man in this post, as I feel that doing so often obscures the far more compelling argument about how living a Torah-true life is the single best guarantee of being a good person.

Instead, I want to look at the mitzvoth between man and man. A good Jew is required to give at least 10% of their income to tzedeka every month. Whether or not they feel like it; whether or not they have house renovations to complete or new cars to buy; whether they are rolling in green or struggling to make ends meet.

A ’good person’, by contrast, is not.

A good jew is required to treat their parents with the utmost respect – to stand up for them, to take care of them, to speak politely to them at all times, even in the midst of a heated disagreement or argument.

A good person is not.

A good Jew is commanded to always try to judge their peers favourably; to be humble; to avoid speaking loshon hara; and to do acts of kindness whenever and wherever they can.

A good person is not.

You get the idea. I know that there are many non-observant people who are real mensches; they are kind, generous, considerate of others and principled. I also know that there are many outwardly-observant people who are not; they often don’t treat other people very nicely and display all manner of character flaws.

None of us are perfect. But what all the mensches, both religious and not religious have in common is this: they would never presume to call themselves a good person, because they understand all too well that while they are making significant progress in many areas of their live, there are many other areas that still require a lot of hard work, effort and honesty.

Conversely, the world abounds in self-proclaimed good people. I know ‘good people’ who treat others incredibly insensitively – even brutally; yet they retain their ‘good persona’ in their own eyes because they never take the time to evaluate their actions objectively, and simply can’t admit to ever doing something wrong.

Sometimes the cognitive dissonance is overwhelming. I once had a conversation on a London tube with a ‘good person’ who spent half an hour complaining about anti-social behaviour and how no-one ever thinks about anyone else anymore – who then stowed his empty starbucks cup carefully next to one of the seats, before getting off, instead of taking it with him and chucking it in the bin.

Other examples: the man earning a 7 figure income who claims to be charitable because he gives a pound coin to collectors on the street; the caring relatives who always seem to schedule family get togethers on fast days, and then complain about you ‘spoiling it’ for everyone else.

I’m not a good person: I’m a person who is trying very hard to do more good things than bad in life, and who is trying very hard to identify my problem areas and to work on them.

Which is why when I get lectured by ‘good people’, particularly non-religious ones, about how I should be behaving or acting, it sometimes takes all my strength to nod, smile and pretend to agree.

I know that G-d wants me to apologise, even when it’s not my fault, if it means keeping the peace; to risk being a ‘sucker’ if it means helping a fellow jew out; and to understand that try as I might, I will always be a work in progress, and far from perfect.

The biggest irony of all is that often, it’s only my yiddishkeit that keeps me trying to build bridges and be more understanding of these ‘good people’, when left to myself, I’d prefer to have nothing to do with them. The same religious practises that they like to knock, denigrate and deny are the only reason I can smile when they tell me this, nod sympathetically and invite them back again for more food and prating.

I struggle with it, I really do, as sometimes the provocation is overwhelming. But I know that if I answer back, go on the offensive, or don’t make every effort to judge them favourably, I won’t be acting like a good jew; but I probably would be acting like a good person.

Going Out of Our Comfort Zone

I’m writing this when I really should be doing some work or packing some boxes, as we are moving out to the Gush tomorrow for 4 months, but what the hey. It’s purim (at least it was, when I wrote this) so let’s live a little dangerously.

I lived a little dangerously yesterday (IMHO), by coming out of my comfort zone to go to a purim seuda in kiryat sefer. To recap, briefly: I’m not haredi myself, but I like haredim a lot, and I think they get a bum deal a lot of the time from the rest of the orthodox world.

My husband has been going to kollel in kiryat sefer for around six months now, and his chavruta and his wife (both BTs themselves) invited us for the meal. It’s not the first time I’ve been there – I’ve been there loads, and even have a lovely chavruta there.

Yet for some reason, yesterday I felt a little out of place. As soon as I stepped out of the car, I was worrying that I wasn’t dressed tzniusly enough (I had a very tight pair of angel’s wings and a halo, over my bandana – oh, and clothes, obviously). Then I was a bit worried that the hechshas on the mishloach manot weren’t up to par (I still haven’t worked out the whole hechsha thing in Israel, and I usually now get round it by shopping Shefa Shuk, which is glatt heaven.)

Our hosts were their usual lovely selves, which reassured me a bit. But as the meal progressed, and the men got progressively drunker, I had the time to ponder on why I was feeling a bit antsy. My husband was in his element – he was dressed like a clown, and I lost count of the number of slightly drunk haredi men who wondered in, took him for a spin round the table or gave him a hug or a pat on the shoulder.

My two girls loved the whole scene so much – they had scores of girls their age to play with – that my oldest told me she wanted to move there. But I don’t. Or at least, I’m not sure what would have to change before I would.

Everytime I go to Kiryat Sefer, I’m struck by how sweet and polite the kids are. And I really want that for my own family. And I’m struck by how generous and giving of their time and energy so many of the people are. My chavruta is a case in point, giving me 2 precious hours of her post-shabbat Saturday evening, when I’m sure she has a million and one more useful things she could be doing for herself, with three small kids in the house.

Or take the teenage girl who taxis in from Kiryat Sefer every Monday, to do a parsha chug for kids in Modiin. At a time when many other girls her age would be in their rooms sulking, or experimenting with who-knows-what and who-knows-who, this kind, lovely girl gives a whole half a day to teach torah to some else’s kids.

And again, I want that for my family. But – and there is a but – there are some things that I still struggle with. I know a lot of people think that you can have all this without living in the haredi world, but I’m not so sure. The kids turn out, for the most part, so well in kiryat sefer because of its emphasis on torah, and nothing but torah.

But it’s precisely the ‘pure’ atmosphere of places like kiryat sefer that puts me a little on edge. Because I know I couldn’t keep it up 24/7. I’d crack, and need to listen to some pop music. Or I’d crack, and need to go and see a film. Or wear sandals without socks. Or something that wouldn’t be ‘right’.

That word is not in inverted commas because I’m being sarcastic. In my heart of hearts, I’m sure G-d thinks that listening to pop music, watching films and wearing slightly risqué shoes is not 100% ok. At best it’s a waste of time or frivolous, at worst it’s, well, going against what he wants.

But at the moment, I just can’t help it. Which is why, at the moment, places like Kiryat Sefer are lovely to visit, but impossible for me to contemplate moving to.

Life Through Orange-Tinted Glasses

Before we moved to Israel, I’d barely heard about Gush Katif, knew anyone who lived there, or ever visited the place itself. We moved the day of the disengagement in 2005, when all that changed and Gush Katif hit the headlines.

I’ve moved around a lot as a young teenager and young adult, and I still remember from that time just how horrible transient, temporary living is. So when we were still camping out in our new house in Israel, surrounded by boxes, seeing the pictures of people being forcibly removed from their homes really touched a chord.

But it appeared we were in the minority. At that time, where we lived, there was very little sympathy for the people of the Gush. To this day, I don’t know why. Maybe people bought the line they were being spun about the communities in the Gush being an ‘obstacle to peace’. Maybe they believed it was a sacrifice worth making for the greater good. (always easy to say that, of course, when it’s not you doing the sacrificing). But we also detected quite a distressing undercurrent of the Gush evacuees somehow ‘deserving’ what they were getting.

Six months after the disengagement, I signed up for a ‘tour’ round the main communities, mostly to satisfy my own curiosity and also to see with my own eyes what had happened to these ‘messianic fanatics’ and ‘rabid settlers’.

I was shocked by what I saw. In March 2006, people were still living in hotel rooms or the guest wing of kibbutzes, with 4, 5 and 6 kids crammed into one room; some had moved into their ‘caravillas’ in Nitzan, and discovered that most of their belongings had melted or broken in the packing crates that had been sitting in the scorching desert sun in the Negev.

Other ‘camps’, like the self-named ‘Ir haEmuna’ were almost too shocking to describe. The living conditions were absolutely terrible; tiny, decrepit trailers with large families somehow managing to keep their dignity, community and faith alive, against all the odds. Meanwhile, the people of Elei Sinai had spent the cold, wet, Israeli winter living in tents by the side of a motorway.

I came back and tried to tell a few people about it. Most people weren’t interested – and some were so dismissive of the gush katif people’s plight that once again, I was enormously shocked and discomforted.

Why so dismissive of other people’s suffering? Why the cruelty? Why the attitude that almost nothing was too bad for the former settlers of Gush Katif. I couldn’t work it out. To be honest, I still can’t, particularly when most of the people expressing these sentiments pride themselves on being observant jews.

In the year that passed since, I have struck up a relationship with some of the families formerly from the Gush. I have gone to visit them on a regular, if not frequent, basis, and seen them struggle to once again, keep their dignity, community and faith alive, when most people would have been crushed by everything that has happened – or failed to happen – a long time ago.

We are fortunate enough to be quite close to Rabbi Lazer Brody (www.lazerbeams.net), so when Rabbi Brody went to talk at the Ein Tsurim community centre a few nights ago, accompanied by a group of musicians, we went along to cheer him on.

If you’ve listened to any of Rabbi Brody’s CDs, or visited his website, you’ll know that Rabbi Brody’s main thing is to always emphasise the positive, stay hopeful and do a lot of praying that Hashem will turn bad situations around for us.

As he himself says, it’s not always easy to get people to ‘hear’ that message when they live in gorgeous homes, have gorgeous families, and nice jobs.

But the crowd in Ein Tsurim were potentially a particularly tough sell, because this is a bunch of people who have lost everything; who have very little hope left – and who have already prayed their hearts out.

The clip here will give you an idea of what I’m on about:– it’s from just before the hitnakut, and it really made me cry.

Nevertheless, around 40 people turned out to hear Rabbi Brody speak. They were mostly the older crowd; the people who had successful businesses, but who are now officially classified as being ‘too old’ to find work – so the government isn’t counting them in the unemployment stats for Gush Katif, and they long since ceased being eligible for unemployment payments.

In my previous visits to ein tsurim, I hadn’t realised how many Sephardim there were there, but there was a real mix of people from Tunisia, Morocco, France – and of course, a few from the States and even one woman from the UK that made aliya 36 years ago.

On the wall, there was a picture by someone called something ‘Fhima’ that caught my eye, as that’s my maiden name. The lady next to me explained that this man had moved to Israel from marakech, morocco (so he probably is a relative…) and had lost his wife 4 years ago in the Gush, and is now raising his kids alone.

There are lots of stories like that; stories of quiet loss and dignity in suffering – and gratitude to Hashem despite it all. Really uplifting stories.

The Rav spoke from around 8.30 to about 11 – which is an amazingly long time to hold anyone’s attention, particularly on a week night – but he had a rapt audience.

Can you imagine telling people who don’t have anything to look forward to that it’s a ‘mitvah gedola’ to be happy always? Or that the crowd would respond positively to this message and really take it to heart?

It’s a testament to just how extraordinary the people of Gush Katif are that this is exactly what happened. They ‘heard’ the message that so many of us, with so much more to be grateful for, simply don’t, can’t or won’t.

These are not ‘rabid settlers’; they are not ‘messianic fanatics’, or any of the other names that the Israeli press in particular loves to sling at them.

I’ve spent a lot of time with them now, and they are amongst the best, most sincere jews I have ever met in my life. To go through so many challenges, to have so many other jews ignore their plight, mock them or actively hate them – and to still be able to get up and sing about loving the Jewish people and G-d, and clinging on to their emuna – that is something else.

We’re trying to raise £10k for the community in Ein Tsurim, to help them to pay for small things like a few communal activities, including purim parties, the Rav’s talk and other things that while they don’t sound very important, are actually the ‘glue’ that is continuing to stick that community together.

To date, with G-d’s help and the generosity of some very special people, we’ve managed to raise: £1,368.

I know everyone has a lot of expenses; I know there is a lot going on etc etc.

But it’s not really about the sums of money, it’s more about sending a message that other Jews care what happens to them. If you can help even by giving a tenner, the koach it would give to this community would be enormous.

If you can’t give money at the mo, then feel free to write a message of support in the comments section, and I’ll make sure to pass it on to them. Even better, if you are in Israel over Pesach go and visit them for yourselves, and see with your own eyes that they are kind, lovely people, and they deserve to be treated so much better than they are being.

I know from past experience that the expellees are not a popular subject with many people. But Gush Katif stopped being about politics a long time ago. Now it’s about people who are suffering, and whether we as Jews are going to sit on one side and ignore it, or actually make even a tiny effort to let them know that we are thinking about them and want to try to help.

To help Ein Tsurim:

In Israel, you can send a cheque directly to:
Keran Yochanan (the name of the charity)
C/O Anita Tucker
Ein Tzurim
D.N. Ein tzurim
79510

In the US, you can make a donation to the Central Fund for Israel, and just mark it to go to Ein Tsurim.
Central Fund for Israel
980 Sixth Ave.
3rd. Floor
New York, N.Y. 10018
Please clearly mark the cheque as going to Ein Tsurim, as the fund services a lot of different charities

The 11th Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Judge

It seems to be a consistent mantra for BTs, converts to the faith and others that we cannot, must not and should not judge others. That’s understandable: none of us can walk in another person’s shoes, or understand why they do – or don’t do – things. But if you are a committed jew, this approach raises not a few questions. For example, I believe that G-d appeared to all Jewish souls at Sinai, and charged us all with keeping his Torah.

Orthodox Judaism states very clearly that the obligation to try to keep the torah is on every Jew. If I try to play down or minimise that obligation for others, then I am running the risk of weakening one of the basic planks of my own belief and observance.

Why do I need to keep kosher? G-d told me to. Why does my Jewish friend / parents / sibling need to keep kosher. G-d also told them to. But they aren’t. This creates one heck of a problem for the ‘don’t judge’ paradigm, as the torah makes it clear time and time again that if the jews don’t respect G-d’s laws, they will be judged very harshly indeed.

Secondly, the Torah makes it very clear that we are responsible for one another, and will be judged collectively. We’ve all heard the parable about the jews being in one big, collective boat: it’s all very well for a few people to only drill under their own seats, but by so doing, they could sink the whole enterprise.

To come back to the kosher example: if my friend / brother-in-law / whoever is eating a prawn sandwich, why is it my problem? I shouldn’t judge him. But then, if his eating his prawn sandwich is in fact tipping the heavenly scales collectively against the jewish people, his actions could end up having a negative repercussion on me.

Not judging is a very modern, western thing, but in many ways it’s antithetical to Torah. And it’s completely unworkable in any genuine way. For all that we spout pious things about not judging others, we all do it. And if you have a go at someone else for being judgemental of others, you are doing exactly the same thing to them – why is your judgement value about their behaviour any more correct?

‘Not judging’ also blurs the line between what is objectively right, and what is objectively wrong. Is it right or wrong to mug an old lady? Right or wrong to have a one night stand? Right or wrong to marry out of the faith, or eat a prawn sandwich?

There are always mitigating circumstances for every individual, of course. But we have a clear manual, in the torah, about what actions are right and wrong in G-d’s eyes. And while we can’t and shouldn’t judge an individual (‘they are bad’), we have to judge their actions (‘that is bad’).

And the measurement we have to use is the Torah, as that is the only objective measure we have. And if we don’t judge other people’s action, then we end up blurring the lines even more between what G-d is asking of us, and what we expect from ourselves.

If my child comes to me and asks me why Mr So-and-So is eating a prawn sandwich, I will tell her that it – not him – is wrong. Because according to the Torah, it is. And because I want her to grow up understanding that the final arbiter of what is right and wrong is Hashem.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I go up to Mr So-and-So and do a ‘fire and brimstone’ routine. Everyone is free to make their own choices in life, and be judged for it. But G-d is nowhere near as PC as our modern Western society, and we aren’t doing anyone – including ourselves – any favours by pretending otherwise.

The Three Seforim That Have Had the most Impact on Me

I know I’m probably stretching the meaning of ‘seforim’ just a little bit, but I’m taking it to mean any book with Jewish / religious content. It’s a matter of necessity, as the number of ‘traditional’ seforim I’ve read can probably be counted on a couple of hands.

While I love books about Judaism, and I read them voraciously, I just don’t think that my mind is geared towards volumes about measuring what a k’zayos of oreo cookies looks like, or in-depth halachic discussion.

Though I may be stereotyping, I leave that stuff to my husband. And instead, I read books like: Off the Derech and The Science of G-d. These two had a profound affect on me for different reasons.

Off the Derech explores many of the reasons why people leave the faith. It’s a long book, but the main explanation – or at least, my reading of it – is that most people stop being observant because of emotional reasons. Yes, there are a small minority who have difficulties with ‘accepting’ the validity of the Torah, but most leavers come off the derech because they weren’t treated very nicely by people who claimed to be observant.

This really made me sit up and think, particularly in relation to my kids. And it sparked off a real effort in our house to explain the clear separation between ‘looking religious’ and ‘acting religious’ to my five and three year old.

If Off the Derech had a big impact on my parenting, The Science of G-d had an enormous impact, intellectually. Hard as we try to stay above the debate about ‘Creationism’ vs ‘Evolution’, it can be very difficult for a secularly educated, torah-observant Jew to be comfortable about the apparent and fundamental disagreement between science and theology about how our universe began, and then continued.

In ‘educated’ circles, I’d feel ridiculous claiming the world really was created in seven days, for example. In ‘religious’ circles, I’d feel like a semi-apostate for thinking anything else. Then along came Gerald Schroeder, and in a neat, little black volume he happily resolved all these dilemmas. Not everyone agrees with his findings – but then, not everyone has to.

He has a number of incredibly lucid and well-researched arguments which means that if I want to believe in the Genesis version of creation – and I really do – then I no longer have to check my rationality at the door. Schroeder’s book demonstrated that there is no contradiction between science’s account of creation, and our torah.

As well as resolving my personal doubts about the story of creation, it also taught me a very important lesson: if there is a disagreement between what science says and what the torah says, you can bet your bottom dollar that the torah is right.

For millennia, received wisdom was that the universe has always just been here. Jews had to wait 3,250 years for the Big Bang theory to come along and prove that they actually knew what they were talking about.

There are still many, many areas where science disagrees with Jewish theology, but they no longer worry me. Sooner or later the full facts will come out, and there will be more ‘told you so’ moments.

The last sefer is a proper one: Michtav M’Eliyahu, by Rabbi Dessler. The book contains so much that it’s hard to know which parts to highlight. Certainly, the sections on understanding that everything comes from Hashem had a big impact on me. It’s hard to properly motivate yourself when you really grasp that everything does indeed come from Hashem, regardless of our efforts. Finding the right balance between hishtadlut and hisbodedut has been an ongoing effort ever since.

Also, just understanding the level of middot we have to strive to hold ourselves to made me stop being so complacent.

It’s often said that it’s a sign of a good book when you can’t put it down. For me, these three books achieved even more than that: they fundamentally changed my understanding and appreciation of yiddishkeit, and along they way, they also inspired me to try and shorten the gap between what the Torah says, and what I often do.

What Direction Should Beyond BT Go in the Future

I’m not an established or frequent poster to Beyond BT (admin: ahem). But I’ve been reading the site since it started and a few things have struck me in recent months. In the top right hand corner, it says that: “Beyond Teshuva is focused on providing ideas, connection and support for Baalei Teshuva in their continuing quest of learning, growing, and giving.”

For the first few months, boy did the site live up to that promise! It was amazing to hear about other people’s family issues, difficulties finding a spiritual ‘home’ and efforts to get closer to Hashem.

Maybe it’s inevitable that the first blush of excited posting and sharing should evolve into something a bit less febrile and emotional. Something perhaps a bit more considered and ‘visionary’.

The question is, how do we get from ‘here’ to ‘there’? And it’s a hard one to answer, not least because it’s hard to ask difficult questions, and to really grow in pursuit of an answer.

Is Beyond BT a mechanism for validating our exciting lifestyle and choices, or is it a forum for really exploring why certain choices have been made – and dare I say it, even exploring the possibility that certain choices and assumptions are no longer correct or appropriate?

The former is certainly more comfortable. On a personal level, I found it extremely heartening to know that other people were having difficulties with family members; or struggling with what it really means to live a Torah lifestyle.

One of the earlier posts, from a parent whose children had become frum, was also the first time that I had really heard about how it impacted the ‘other side’ in the equation.

The shiur on how BTs should try to relate to their families – stop preaching, and come down from your high horse! – was also a lightening bolt. It made me realize that on many occasions, my attitude towards my in-laws had been less than helpful. I was so busy justifying my religiousness, I forgot to honestly question if I was really living up to the Torah ideals I claimed to represent.

That was a hard realization. But ultimately, a very useful one. It’s unlikely that my parents-in-law and we will ever be on the same page. But by sheer dint of being my husband’s parents, they still need to be respected. I certainly don’t agree with a lot of what they do and think.

But that post made me realize that agreeing with them – or getting them to agree with me – is not what the Torah wants. It wants me to treat them kindly, for me to swallow my pride (and all my defensiveness) and to make our time together as pleasant as I can by not responding to barbed comments or thoughtless remarks.

But you notice, this is not a validation of how I was already doing things – it was a headlong challenge to it.

It’s very difficult to continually challenge and question ourselves. With so many people seemingly willing to do just that for us, we can get sick of it. But challenging our own assumptions is the only way we continue to ‘grow’ both as Jews, and as people.

I would like to see more posts on Beyond BT that explore some of the really difficult questions – the ones that are lurking underneath the surface, but are rarely discussed out in the open.

There are many reasons for this, not least that it’s hard for posters to put themselves ‘out there’ when they know they may well be subjected to a whole bunch of criticism.

So, I would like Beyond BT to usher in a new era of considered debate, soul-searching – and soul-finding.

But this will only work if posters are able to express themselves truthfully. If we write about a lack in our own lives or observance, for example, that lack shouldn’t be seen as a general comment on a whole community. Beyond BT should not be about who is more ‘right’.

What I would like it to be is a place where we can challenge ourselves, and others, in a constructive way. Where we first ask how a difficult issue or challenge applies to us, before liberally applying it to everyone else. And where we aren’t afraid of going “beyond” what we know – or at least, thought we knew – about our religion, our personal observance and our own behavior. A place where we recognize that whatever our starting point or current position, there is always room for improvement.