What Do We Do with Our “Baggage”?

Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz

Firstly, I’d like to thank Beyond BT for inviting me to guest blog. It’s truly an honor and a privilege to share some of my own experiences with my peers. It is also an auspicious time to blog – I’m writing this on the third day of Chanuka which mirrors the third day of creation when Hashem saw it was good twice. Chanuka is also the time for “pirsumei nisa” to publicize and show gratitude for the miracles Hashem has worked.

We live in an age of baggage. Everyone seems to have some to one degree or another. The unprecedented shidduchim crisis is exacerbated by fears – unfounded or otherwise – of the other person’s “baggage”. Similarly, when people undertake a journey towards a Torah life they frequently express concerns about all of their past “baggage”. So what can we do about all this baggage?

I actually began thinking about this theme in earnest several years ago when we were about to move to a smaller house. Suddenly, my “assets” (antiques, oversized furniture, collectibles) didn’t really seem so much like assets any more. After all, I had to build space for them, pack them, pay to have them moved, stored, etc. Perhaps Hillel was on to something when he said “when one increases possessions, one increases worry”. I recalled reading a story about several gold prospectors in the Yukon who hit the mother lode. They sewed the gold into their sleeves and cuffs and got on the raft to go back down the river. The raft capsized and our prospectors apparently drowned under the weight of their clothing while those who had been “less fortunate” swam to safety.

What about the other kind of “stuff”, the spiritual kind? In his seminal work “Tanya”, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi cites a gemara in Yoma which is simultaneously enigmatic and empowering. The gemara quotes Reish Lakish (himself an inspired returnee) as saying that one who does t’shuva out of fear – his sins are expunged, but one who does t’shuva out of love, his sins are converted into merits.

What a radical concept! Imagine an accountant telling the CEO of a major company that the company was about to post a huge loss. The CEO is mortified and asked the accountant for a suggestion. Suddenly the accountant jumped up and said “I’ve got it – let’s carry all the losses over to the profit column!” Reish Lakish tells us that we can in fact do just that with our spiritual ledger. A story is told of the famous Berditchiver, Rabbi Levi Yitchak who went over to a fellow reputed to be a wholesale sinner. “I envy you” he said” You possess such potential spiritual riches.”

By way of a “regel achas” (on one leg) introduction, I’m probably more of the classic type of BT – brought up frum, leaving the “derech” for a long walkabout and then fighting to come back, making peace with what I lost and what I left behind and moving forward. I’ve been in love with pop music since childhood and I can hold my own on the guitar with the best of them! I worked as an attorney in the entertainment industry for many years. Whatever they say about the music business is true and then some. It’s full of shallow, narcissistic, vain people who labor under the illusion that they will remain “forever young” – and that’s the positive side. The seamy underbelly contains a self-destructive force of unbelievable intensity which has claimed numerous victims over the years. I was going through some old industry photos recently and my wife pointed out that I was pretty much the only one in most of the photos who was still alive.

So what do I do with my “peckel” of life experience? I chose to work with Jewish kids. The minute they hear that I knew “Jerry” or hung out with Clapton or Dylan or the Beatles, they’re suddenly open to hear what I have to say. I’m no longer just another guy with a black coat and beard (I still have to convince people that Chassidim had the look before ZZ Top!).

It’s ironic that my credibility has to come from experiences which I’ve largely repudiated but in chassidus one takes one’s Torah where one finds it. When high school kids would come up to the farm where were lived with their guitars in tow, I used to get a kick asking them if I could “sit in” They’d kinda stare at me and say “Rabbi, do you play?” I’d smile and say “Just a little” Then, I’d break out the old telecaster and off we’d go – no hostages taken!

Similarly, in the days when we still had TV, I was a huge fan of the classic TV show “The Honeymooners.” I am a firm believer that the answers to all of humanity’s problems lie within the original 39 episodes. I’m currently working on a quasi-Purimlike work entitled “Tal D’vash” or “Honey Dew” (gematria anyone?) in which the episodes are used to demonstrate everything from the shabbos melachos to the Story of Purim (by way of illustration, one of the episodes had the main character, an oversized, ego-inflated bus driver named Ralph Kramden being asked to make a speech at the annual Raccoon dinner. He thought that he was being given the coveted Raccoon Of The Year award . The speech he crafted echoed his ersatz surprise and false modesty at being the recipient of such an honor. Imagine his surprise when he was given a speech to deliver awarding the honor to his best friend. It’s the Purim story on steroids!)

One year we planted a huge patch of corn on our farm. One day I came down to the garden and the heads of corn seemed to have exploded with gray and black pustules. It looked like something out of a science fiction movie. It was truly frightening. I ran into the house holding one of the misshapen ears screaming “Rivkie, we’re ruined”. I grabbed one of my organic gardening manuals and went back down to the garden to figure out what had gone wrong. I did some quick research and discovered that the culprit was a fungus called smut. The book recommended burning, not composting the plants, not planting in that area again, and to use smut resistant strains next season. It then went on to point out that if there was a gourmet market nearby to sell it as it is considered a delicacy (it is actually related to the mushroom and truffle). I ran back into the house yelling “Rivkie, we’re rich”.

The bottom line – baggage or riches – it’s your call.

Originally published on Dec 31, 2005

The Mechutanim

By Mr. Cohen

This true story happened to me approximately in my 11th year as a Baal Teshuvah.

I used to work in a company owned and mostly staffed by Orthodox Jews.
One of my FFB coworkers, around 50 years old, made frequent phone calls
during work hours and I could easily hear everything she said.

One day I noticed something about her conversations:
The mechutanim this…
The mechutanim that…
The mechutanim want…
The mechutanim said…
The mechutanim did…
The mechutanim own…
The mechutanim know…
The mechutanim forgot…
The mechutanim will…
The mechutanim won’t…
The mechutanim can’t…
The mechutanim over and over and over again, more times than I could count.

I suddenly came to a realization:
Even if I mastered every Torah book that was ever written,
I would always be a disadvantaged contender in the marriage market
of Orthodox Jews, because my traif parents will never be valid mechutanim.

Mr. Cohen invites Orthodox Jews to join his web site for quick Divrei Torah: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DerechEmet/

Will I Ever Fit In? Do I Want to Fit In?

We thought this post by Josh Goldman was perfect for Beyond BT. Thanks to Josh for letting us repost it.

Spending a day in Brooklyn can be a little overwhelming for an out of town Ba’al Teshuva (born-again Jew). There are Jews everywhere. Jewish stores, Jewish signs, even Jewish license plates. It’s a bit much.

But it made me think about the religious lifestyle I lead, and how much it is different from my brethren who have always been frum. Can my own religious lifestyle ever be the same as theirs? Would I want my lifestyle to be the same as theirs?

I have a lot of freedom to objectively observe Jewish Law, independently of how it is commonly practiced. That is good and it is bad. For example, I had to choose my own prononciation of Hebrew words, which forced me to learn what the differences are, where they come from, and how they are viewed in Halacha. I think most Frum from birth (FFB) people just take their parents’ prononciations for granted, not realizing how much depth there is to even such a simple issue. Even if in the end we come out at the same place, I’ve gained so much in my approach.

Of course, there are also the many phases of Baal Teshuvakeit, from testing the waters to utter zealousness. I’ve gone through them all. I remember when I skipped any prayer that seemed remotely optional, even if it just had a smaller font. I also remember when I thought it was frummer to add in every page, paragraph, and bracket into my prayers. But there is a certain maturity that eventually develops.

By its very nature, my approach to Orthodoxy is at the same time fundamentalist and open minded. But can my perspective ever be the same as that of an always been frum person? Could I marry an FFB? I know many BTs go that route, and many stay amongst people from similar backgrounds. A lot of it results from the natural attraction between people of similar experience. But beyond that, can the wide-eyed evaluation of the BT coexist with the cautious eyes of the FFB? Do they balance each other out?

It seems that so much of Orthodoxy is merely cultural norms, not Frumkeit. How do you raise your kids with that open-mindedness, that honest search?

Will I ever fit in? Do I want to fit in?

Originally posted June 2006

Led Zeppelin & Frum Culture

As a BT, I’ve often felt the clash between the culture I grew up in and the “frum” culture I’ve been living in for so long. One of the areas the clash always made itself evident to me was music. I just never could get into “Jewish music.”

This clash took on new meaning for me years ago when I worked as a manager in a small business that employed Chassidic girls, who loved to listen to music as they did their tasks. One girl, in particular, was really into it. She sometimes asked my opinion of the latest song or album. I tried to feign interest, but Jewish music – especially the type these girls liked – really never did anything for me.

One day she excitedly brought in the newest album and played it. I had to admit, at first, that there was something I liked about one of the songs. It had… a certain….

I couldn’t put my finger on it. But it had a quality that resonated for me. And as I listened to it over the next few hours — she played the album again and again — all of a sudden it struck me:

It was “Stairway to Heaven,” by Led Zeppelin, regurgitated in instrumental form without lyrics.

I don’t have to tell most readers here that Led Zeppelin was a famous hard rock band in the ‘70s. Their concerts were drug and alcohol fests; their music hard-driving heavy metal, their lyrics raunchy. In other words, everything a red-blooded American teenager with a rebellious streak ever wanted.

And everything one would have thought a Chassid, in the real sense of the word, would recoil from. Yet, here were these Chassidic girls really into it.

Of course, they had no idea of the context or the words. Moreover, even if they did, there wasn’t necessarily anything wrong with the denuded elevator music version of the song. Chassidic philosophy, in particular, emphasizes the idea that there are sparks of kedusha all around embedded in the tumah waiting for a Jew to come and extract it. Some of the most inspiring Shabbos niggunim were originally Czarist army marching songs. We are here to convert the matter of the lower world into the currency of the higher world.

Still… Led Zeppelin?

One of the lessons this drove home for me was that if I had any reason to feel inferior because of my cultural upbringing I was a fool. If sparks of kedusha could be had in Led Zeppelin, then the sound tracks of my memory banks were gold mines of potential kedusha no Chassid could hope to duplicate.

But the larger point was the place of culture clash in the evolution of a BT. There is, of course, a difference between real Torah and a culture in which this Torah is expressed. They are not necessarily the same thing. Moshe Rabbeinu did not speak Yiddish or wear a streimel (notwithstanding the Parasha sheets our kids bring home from yeshiva).

Yet, the reality is that when we become observant we not only join a religion but perforce join one of the cultures within it, be it Modern Orthodox, Chassidic or whatever. Judaism is a social religion; it demands we become part of a tzibbur, a kehilla, a community. Therefore, we must make our peace with a community, even if it is lacking or imperfect in our eyes.

And so, we BTs more than others, go about our lives in strange paradox, feeling alienated from the culture we left behind for a religion that makes sense but invariably comes with a culture we may not fit perfectly into.

Somehow we have to find a niche not necessarily made in our image without losing our selves. We have to navigate the choppy seas of a culture sometimes at odds with our memories, origins and expectations while remaining glued to the inner compass that led us to the timeless values underpinning that culture to begin with.

Some of the cultural dissonance is relatively easy to handle but some is not. Often there is no easy solution for the latter – other than recognizing that our task here is not always easy.

That’s a lesson we learned long before we came to Torah. You can’t buy a stairway to heaven.

Originally published March 15, 2006

Another World

Many years ago I sought the attention of an obgyn doc in Manhattan, Dr. Kevin Jovonovic, for a tricky problem I was having that another doctor was recommending surgery to fix. Dr. Kevin specializes in this problem and although it took me an hour train ride, and then an hour’s walk to his office by Central Park (I’ll walk two miles in the city before I’ll get into a taxicab there!), I was glad I made the visit. He correctly diagnosed the problem, gave me a non surgical fix, and I’ve been coming back to him for annual physicals twice a year ever since; once you’ve found a doctor who is smart, compassionate, and responsive, you don’t let them go over something like a less-than-ideal distance away. I joke with Dr. Kevin that I must be his patient with the longest commute to his office!

I am writing this column on the train back from my visit to Dr. Kevin this morning. When a writer is struck with the writer’s muse, unless it’s Shabbos, she has to write while the inspiration flows in!

Last night I set the alarm for 5 AM, so that I could catch the 6 AM train to New York from my Highland Park, NJ home, and then walk to his office for my 8 AM appointment. I bundled up in layers, earmuffs, gloves, and winter tights for the cold long walk, and donned my best sneakers for the mileage. As I emerged from the train, I was immediately accosted by the sights, sounds and smells of the bustling New York city streets, as every nationality, size, and cultural group whisked by me, rushing somewhere. It struck me how weird it is that I leave my suburban home in NJ, take a one hour train ride, and I emerge on a different planet, an environment so different and unfamiliar to me, with no gradual transition. Off the train, walk a few minutes, and NY City is all around me.

I search for familiar landmarks to anchor me, and to reassure me that I have not lost my way. The kosher pizza store on Broadway.The three-story high Macys.The glittering billboards of Times Square.The 5-dollar pashimi scarves selling on the corner, and the carts on every corner selling trafe food not for me. The recognizable sights remind me that I am on track to my destination, but all around me, the New York City pandemonium overwhelm my senses. I marvel: How can a trainride transport someone to such a different world in under an hour?

This feeling I had in New York City this morning is as close as I can describe to what I feel like when I spend time visiting my secular family. The landmarks are familiar – old childhood photos on the wall, familiar people, the smells and sounds and language of my childhood. I try to orient myself, so I am not lost, but I am now on an alien planet. I left my home and entered another, but it’s not just another home – it is the home of family who do not observe Torah and mitzvot the way that we do. After over two decades of keeping Shabbos and raising a frum family, I am becoming as disoriented when I visit my family of origin as I feel when I emerge from the train to New York City.

Shomer Shabbos used to be the alien world and I was a visitor from another planet. Now the secular world is strange to me.

I can’t wait to get off this train, and to be back home where I belong.

Azriela Jaffe, www.chatzos.com and www.azrielajaffe.com.Author of 32 books, holocaust memoir writer, novelist, and freelance writer for Mishpacha magazine and Ami magazine. Contact email: azjaffe@gmail.com

Time, Space and Soul at the Kotel

On my recent trip to Eretz Yisroel, I had the good fortune to rent an apartment in Kfar David in Mamilla, very close to the Jaffa Gate. I davened almost every Tefillah at the Kotel, except for Shabbos when we were in Ramat Beis Shemesh. (As an aside, the apartment was great and priced at $160 a night off season. There are smaller ones for $100 a night. Email me at BeyondBT@gmail.com if you need more information).

Davening at the Kotel is amazing because it’s a Minyan factory and you get to join together with all types of Jews from the four corners of the world. However, I do find it distracting at Shacharis, between the people collecting Tzedakah and the simultaneous Minyanim going on at a somewhat loud volumne.

On my first Shacharis I went to the Vasikin minyan, which is at sunrise and is the best time to Daven according to the Shulchan Aruch. So here I was, at the best place-the Kotel, at the best time-sunrise, and with a great collection of Jewish souls from around the world. And to top it all off, since it was Vasikin every Minyan starts Shemoneh Esrai at the same time and the entire Kotel would be quiet together.

So I stepped into Shemoneh Esrai anticipating the sweet sound of silence, but unfortunately perfection was not to be found. There was one individual who was davening very loudly well into our Shemoneh Esrai. So there were 300 souls with the opportunity to join in Tefillah at the perfect time at the perfect place, but one person was out of step.

I decided to write three endings to this piece:

1) How does Hashem judge this situation. On the one hand the person was davening to Hashem in sincerity, but at the same time he was disturbing many other people in a situation where total quiet was a possibility.

2) I need to work more on my davening. If I really worked on it, I could daven anywhere without being distracted. Perhaps wanting or needing silence is really a deficiency in my davening.

3) We’re in Golus and even if we’re at the perfect place and the perfect time, it’s our souls that need correcting. That begins with me working on caring about this unknown individual as much before the Shemoneh Esrai as after. He’s a great Yid who made the same journey I did to daven at the perfect place and the perfect time. Even if he was mistaken in this one act, I make plenty of mistakes myself and I hope people judge me favorably.

So at the end of the day, maybe it was better that there was no silence. After all time, place and silence are external and davening is an internal act. And becoming a little more forgiving from this incident is probably more important than finding the perfect Time, Space and Soul at the Kotel.

Originally Published February 2010

If you Really Want Unity, Stop Sleeping!

Yisro 5774-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

… and Israel camped there opposite the mountain

-Shemos 19:2

 וַיִחַן[the singular form, the pasuk does not say that the Israelites camped there. This indicates that they camped there] “as one man with one heart”, but all the other encampments were [on bad terms] with complaints and strife. — [from Mechilta]

-Rashi ibid

I am HaShem your Elokim who brought you out of Mitzrayim, from the place of slavery.

-Shemos 20:2

Sleep is one 60th of death.

-B’rachos 57B

Many meforshim commentaries address this question: why is HaShem’s calling card in the 10 commandments so provincial?  Why does He introduce Himself as “the One who brought you out of Egypt” rather than as “the One Who created the cosmos”?

Conventional wisdom views sleep as, at worst, a benign activity.  When sleeping we recharge our batteries, no more and no less. But the Izhbitzer school takes a much less sanguine approach to slumber than we do.

The Bais Yaakov, the second Izhbitzer, explains that that when one is asleep there is a kind of disintegration and dissolution at work.  It is only the wakeful, conscious mind that integrates a human being into an organic whole.  Under the sovereign direction of the mind and soul all of the body’s organs, limbs and digits work towards the attainment of the common goals that are mutually beneficial to the person as a whole.

Asleep and in a horizontal position the human head is on the same plane and level as all the other limbs and organs of his body.  This is true both literally and metaphorically.  The position of the recumbent sleeper is that of the proverbial level playing field.  It is an egalitarian posture in which no one member of the body has any pre-eminence or dominance over any other.

Then, the soul begins to stir the body into wakefulness and the human being transitions from a horizontal position to a vertical one.  The life-giving soul stands the person up and, by doing so, establishes a hierarchy (a shiur komah) in which the feet scrape the floor and the head, containing the mind and soul, is at the very top of the pecking order.

Our sages teach us that we don’t wake up merely because, when our batteries are fully recharged, so to speak, we are “done” sleeping. Instead it is because our souls, mostly absent during slumber, have been restored to our bodies.  This concept underpins the first words we utter upon waking “I admit to You, O living and eternal King that You have compassionately returned my soul within me, Your trustworthiness is abundant” and the morning blessing that is part of our daily liturgy that begins with the phrase “my L-rd, the soul that You put into me is pure etc.” It is only when we are awake and vertical that our diverse limbs, organs and faculties become truly incorporated into a united whole.

In stark contrast; death does not merely render the body inert and motionless. Death initiates the dissolution of the human being.  In death, anatomical connections begin loosening and the body breaks apart. The teaching of our sages can now be understood to mean that the disintegration of sleep is 1/60 of the decomposition, and utter disintegration, of death.

The unity that K’lal Yisrael   the Jewish People, achieved prior to the Revelation at Sinai was more than preparatory, it was anticipatory. As HaShem’s Shechinah Divine Indwelling, began shining forth from Sinai, it was the macro-soul beginning to enter the slumbering body of K’lal Yisrael that blended the various tribes and the conflicting interest groups of Israel into an integrated organism “as one man with one heart.” A plural, multiplicity of “Israelites” fused together to become “Israel” in the singular.

Rav Gershon Henoch, the Radzyner Rebbe spells out his father’s Torah more explicitly:

The aseres hadibros are most commonly translated as the 10 commandments.  However this translation is both literally and factually inaccurate.  The translation is erroneous on a literal level, because dibros, a plural form of dibur, translates as “sayings” or “pronouncements.”  Factually imprecise, because only the last nine dibros are expressed as  mitzvos-commands, the first one is not.  The opening of the Decalogue is a statement of fact, a presentation of credentials, as it were.

On the macrocosmic level the head and soul of the cosmos is HaShem Himself.  The Radzyner explains that it was K’lal Yisrael ‘s clear, expanded consciousness of HaShem’s Oneness and Omnipresence, that nothing and no one but He truly exists – ein od m’Lvado, that exerted an irresistible tug on them to follow the Head, the Mind and the Soul and, as such, to coalesce and form an organic whole.  With this clarity of G-d consciousness a command to believe in G-d was not only unnecessary, it was inconceivable.  It would have been as if a person’s two legs began walking in opposite directions or if his respiratory system began hyperventilating without any physical exertion and the mind would suddenly need to verbalize a command saying “hey YOU pay attention, I’m in charge here!

This explains why the first of the aseres hadibros ends with the limited “the One who took you out of Egypt” rather than with the universal “the One Who created the cosmos.” For if HaShem is the Omnipresent Soul that animates everything and all, what is it that is unique about K’lal Yisrael in particular?  The answer to this question is contained in the exodus experience.  The letters that spell the word Egypt, Mitzrayim, also spell the word constraints, metzarim.

When HaShem brought K’lal Yisrael out of Egypt He was also unshackling them of all the narrow-minded constraints that conceal and camouflage His control and management of the cosmos.  The balance of humanity was never liberated from these.  HaShem’s control and management of the cosmos is beyond their comprehension.  When “introducing” Himself to, and into, K’lal Yisrael HaShem informs them that it is only because I brought you, in particular, out of Mitzrayim /metzarim that you were uniquely capable of integrating and uniting to sense my Divinity, the Mind and Soul that directs and animates all.

There is a minhag Yisrael kedoshim   Jewish custom, of staying awake throughout the first night of Shavuos.  The Magen Avraham-494 bases this minhag on the midrash that says that the Jews “overslept” the Revelation at Sinai and that kivyachol  so to speak, HaShem had to awaken them. We stay awake in order to be metaken  put right, the negativity generated by those who overslept.

I would add that the Izhbitzer insight adds richness and complexity to this custom. Oversleeping the Revelation was much worse than a breach of etiquette or an extremely poorly timed  slothful self-indulgence. It was antithetical to the entire experience and to the first of the dibros in particular. At the foot of Mount Sinai, organic unity for K’lal Yisrael was both the prerequisite for, and the direct response to, HaShems Revelation. The souls (re HaShems) return to the body (re K’lal Yisrael ) requires one that is awake, alert and able to coalesce and integrate, not one that is disintegrated through death-like slumber.

~adapted from Bais Yaakov Yisro 40 (pp113B, 114A)
Sefer Hazmanim , First Day Shavuos 5643 D”H Vayeechan page 61

Looking Good

Remember “Fernando,” Billy Crystal’s Saturday Night Live character whose mantra was, “I don’t feel mahvelous, but I look mahvelous, which is okey dokey with me ‘cause you know my credo, it is better to look good than to feel good?” Satirical? Sure. But a true word is often said in jest and in this case, it highlights secular society’s obsession with looking good. Of course, since most people recognize that much of what we see is merely a facade, who cares if the popular culture indulges?

Putting aside the propriety of engaging in behavior merely to portray a certain image, permit me to pose the following question: is it better to act your way into a new way of thinking or think your way into a new way of acting? In other words, if a person dresses and behaves as a frum yid, that person may eventually be constrained to live as such. Indeed, we see this in the performance of mitzvos. Chazal tell us that it is better to perform a mitzvah without the proper intention since it will hopefully lead to its performance with the proper intention.
Read more Looking Good

A Webinar Series on a BT’s Guide to Fitting In – Kicks off with Rabbi Horowitz this Thursday 1/10

How do I find a Rav? How do I relate to a Rav? What’s so important about finding the right community to settle into? After being frum twenty five years I still have no idea about how to marry off my FFB children. Should my kids be doing Skype with their secular grandparents, aunts, and uncles? What about attending my secular nephew’s Bar Mitzvah? These are questions asked by almost all baalei teshuvah. The answers to these questions, and others, will be answered as part of the Yad L’Shuv Foundation’s webinar series.

The webinar series being called A BT’s Guide to Fitting In sponsored by the Yad L’Shuv Foundation, will be answering questions and concerns baalei teshuvah frequently have but are either afraid to ask and find answers for. The comprehensive nature of A BT’s Guide to Fitting In will create a sort of compendium containing the essential information necessary for baalei teshuvah to integrate comfortably and seamlessly into the frum world. In the words of Binyamin Klempner, the Yad L’Shuv Foundation’s director and the webinar’s organizer, “The idea for A BT’s Guide to Fitting In has come out of the questions and concerns I’m presented with on an almost daily basis. My thought was to put together a forum in which baalei teshuvah can have these questions answered by leaders of the kiruv and BT world.”

The lineup of speakers includes Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz of Project YES, Rabbi Ephraim Shapiro of North Miami Beach, Rabbi Illan Feldman of Atlanta, Rabbi Eytan Kobre of Mishpacha Magazine, and others.

The first webinar in the series is scheduled to be given by Rabbi Horowitz Thursday January 10 at 8:30 PM EST.

The webinar can be viewed through the organization’s website www.yadlshuv.org

Integrating the Ba’alei Teshuva

By Jonathan Rosenblum
From Mishpacha Magazine BT Symposium – September 13, 2012

The ba’al teshuva movement, which began to gather steam after the Six-Day War has profoundly changed the face of the Orthodox world in both Israel and the United States. Once one gets outside the New York metropolitan area, ba’alei teshuva and geirim constitute one-third to one-half of the community. The decision of tens of thousands of Jews raised in non-Orthodox homes to choose a life of Torah and mitzvos – some after reaching the top of the secular totem pole – has strengthened the emunah of many born into Orthodox homes.

Besides numbers, ba’alei teshuva have contributed talents – e.g., doctors, lawyers, writers. Ba’alei teshuva coming from sophisticated secular backgrounds were a natural audience for some of the deepest contemporary Torah thinkers, like Rabbi Moshe Shapira. That same secular training provided ba’alei teshuva like Rabbi Akiva Taitz and Rabbi Jeremy Kagan, both talmidim of Rabbi Shapira, with the ability to communicate some of the deepest Torah ideas to the non-religious world in a contemporary idiom. Not surprisingly, ba’alei teshuva play a major role in kiruv work across the globe. And finally, ba’alei teshuva hold the Torah world to its own highest standards – the ones that attracted them.

MY RESPONSE to virtually every one of the questions posed is: It depends; every ba’al teshuva is different. I write, for instance, from the vantage point of one specific ba’al teshuva framework – and likely not the most common — those who had the opportunity to learn for many years in Eretz Yisrael.

Just as our immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents wanted their children to be Yankee-Doodle Dandies, ba’alei teshuva pray their children will not be instantly identifiable as the children of ba’alei teshuva. Exclusively ba’al teshuva communities are not a healthy option.

Still most ba’alei teshuva, even those who are fully integrated into the Orthodox world, tend to gravitate to others who have travelled the same path – often together – as marital partners and friends. Nearly every ba’al teshuva will have at least one good friend with whom he can share cultural references from his past that his FFB friends would either not pick up or perhaps disdain.
I have never denied being a ba’al teshuva – obvious, in any event, at Agudah conventions whenever Yiddish is spoken – nor broadcast the fact. A good friend recently told me that the tilt of my hat and the disarray of my tzitzis gives me away. Had I ever tried to pass as an FFB I would have been devastated. Instead I just smiled. My children can add many more telltale signs, like laughing too loud at jokes.

BECOMING A BA’AL TESHUVA is a long process, even after becoming shomer mitzvos. For most of us it never quite ends – and perhaps shouldn’t. There is a danger of resting on the laurels of having once upon a time made a brave decision. As a chavrusah once remarked to me when I put my head down in first seder, “It’s amazing how much some people give up for Torah, and how little they do once they’ve made that decision.”

Every human being is shaped, and continues to be shaped, by past experiences. To attempt to sever one’s past entirely will usually involve an aspect of self-annihilation. Most old friendships will wither of their own accord as the core of one’s life changes radically. Not so familial relationships. Rabbi Simcha Wasserman’s advice remains the best I have heard: Demonstrate to your parents that becoming a Torah Jew strengthens the bond between you and them. That is hard to do, however, when non-religious parents are asked to financially support children who have chosen lifestyles based on values far different than their own.

Every ba’al teshuva needs a rav to whom he has ready access. That rav must know him well, and be able to respond with sensitivity to his special circumstances. That will rarely be the person most influential in his first becoming religious. Successful front-line kiruv professionals will, over the years, start hundreds on the path, and cannot keep up with all of them.

Nevertheless nothing is more demoralizing for a ba’al teshuva than feeling that he was just another notch in a kiruv professional’s gun. Becoming shomer Shabbos is the type of metric beloved of funders, but it does not necessarily signify stable integration into a religious life.
Unfortunately, many frontline kiruv professionals find their funding dependent on bringing in new bodies rather than taking care of those already under their tutelage.

Besides a rav, ba’alei teshuva need FFB friends and role models who can keep them “normal.” One of the biggest challenges ba’alei teshuva face is setting realistic goals for themselves and their children. I will never forget my rosh yeshiva’s look of astonishment when I complained that my then eight-year-old bechor did not want to review mishnayos over chol hamoed. Even after we have learned ten years in kollel, our sons still remind us that we never learned in cheder or yeshiva ketana and cannot fully grasp their situation. And they are right.

At the same time, it is crucial that ba’alei teshuva not lose the confidence to think for themselves, and that they not become completely dependent on guides to make every decision for them. Not every thought or feeling they ever had is of necessity illegitimate because they were not yet frum, and, in many cases, they have a rich new perspective to add to their new communities.
THE “BUYERS REGRET” that concerns me most is that of ba’alei teshuva when they discover that the reality of the new world they are entering is far from perfect, and that to some extent they were sold an ideal. That “sale” is based on the reality of one’s past life juxtaposed to the ideal of the new one beckoning. Moreover, one is usually exposed at the beginning to the very best that the Torah world has to offer, and to see Torah at its most noble and purest.

Had we known everything we now know at the beginning, we might not have become frum. And that would have been a huge tragedy. Nevertheless, some degree of early introduction to reality is necessary as a vaccination against the inevitable letdown later, when one discovers that no society is perfect.

Perhaps I should be grateful for the Shabbos in the summer of 1979, just after my wife and I arrived in Israel on our honeymoon, spent listening to teenage zealots stoning cars on the Ramot Road. At least we could never say afterwards that we thought we were entering a perfect world.

But we also had Rabbi Nachman Bulman, zt”l, to explain why their actions were a total falsification of Torah. Not everyone is so blessed.

http://www.jewishmediaresources.com/1555/intergrating-the-baalei-teshuva-part-of

Where Do You Put Your Old Time Rock and Roll?

The death of Michael Jackson was a shocker to some of us, since we all grew up with his music.

For me, I was very taken aback and felt compelled to follow some of it for awhile. I realized that integrating my cultural and societal priorities, then with now, was a continuing process, and that much of the “then” still lurks in the”now”.

For BTs the interaction with celebrity culture and music is not as simplistic as the “chazerish goyim” approach of many FFB’s.

How have people dealt with integrating their musical pasts with their current self?

– Esther

Originally Posted June 30, 2009

Telling My Story

Mazal Tov to early Beyond BT contributor Shoshana on her recent wedding to Mordechai Goldberg. In honor of this wonderful simcha we’re reposting this piece from December 5, 2006.

When people meet me, and find out a bit of my background – being from Alabama, not growing up in an Orthodox home – they often ask me to tell “my story.” I used to have no problem with this, but lately, the request for my story has started to bother me.

I don’t hide my background; I don’t pretend to be “FFB” (though I’ve been told on more than one occasion that I could “pass” easily). I’m very upfront with my background and the fact that my family is not observant. So why does it bother me to be asked about my story?

I think it’s because I’ve moved beyond my story. I’ve been shomer shabbos for almost nine years now, the majority of my independent life. My “story” occurred a long time ago. I just don’t feel like those events define who I am anymore, nor even my frumkeit.

Many people who become observant go off to a certain seminary or yeshiva and come to define themselves within the hashkafa of that particular place. I didn’t do that – I worked it out for myself, through many permutations until I made it my own. I imagine that it will still change somewhat throughout my life, but I don’t define myself by the organization that mikareved me, so I’m always a little uncomfortable telling people how I got “into” Orthodoxy.

But beyond having people try to define me by the specific organization that I don’t align myself with (which I don’t blame anyone for, it’s human nature to want to put people in boxes in order to understand them better), I guess I want to move on with my life, to just be a normal Jew who observes or doesn’t observe particular facets of Judaism. It’s not about blending – believe me, it’s difficult to blend when you are from Alabama, living in the NY area – but it’s about wanting people to look at me for WHO I am NOW, rather than where I came from.

Yes, our current lives are certainly affected by our upbringing and our experiences throughout life, but because the events that sparked my interest in becoming more observant happened so long ago, I’m not that person anymore. I’ve moved beyond it, just like I’ve moved beyond the person I was in junior high school.

So now when people ask me my story, I kinda cringe and give them as few details as possible. Not because I’m embarrassed about it or my past, because I’m not. But because I just have trouble remembering who that person was.

Them and Us

By From Within

BTs. FFBs. So much has been written about how different we are, and, at the same time, how similar.

And that’s just it, right? If we were just either one – so similar or so different from one another – there would be no conflict, no comparison. All the attendant feelings, on both sides – and the counter-reactions or defences to those feelings from “the other side” – just wouldn’t be an issue.

Much has been made of the FFB’s failure to understand that as much as we are different from them, we’re also that similar, too. Some FFBs clearly think BTs are from a distant planet in another solar system. Some hide their lack of understanding better than others. Some BTs have a great, boulder-sized chip on their shoulder and scorn all those who didn’t have to take the hard route (as if they had been given any more of a choice than that FFB, that they can take credit for coming up with this character-building exercise, all on their own…).

The funny thing is, I can’t figure out who Them or Us are. And I’m feeling like if we could just crack this problem and see who we are talking about – or talking to – we might be on to something. Maybe we could eliminate the tension. Get rid of the comparisons, for better or for worse. Just stop it all and help everyone get on with it so they can get what they need to advance – because, after all, that’s one goal we can all agree on.

So, who are these mythical Them?

By nature, an epithet like this means they are separate, identifiably unique from Us. So, let’s try to identify the players here:

Ask a conflicted BT and he may say, an FFB is someone who doesn’t have the internal struggles that I do. I’m not sure I really want to be like him but maybe I should be jealous. He took it all in with his mother’s milk and his choices are so much easier than what I deal with every day…

Ask a conflicted FFB and he may say, a BT is someone who thinks every single thing in life has to be meaningful and I can’t stand to hear him go on and on about how much he is shteiging…

Ask a supercilious BT and he may say, an FFB is the guy who never thinks about anything, he just does whatever Tatty and Zeidy did, whether he understands it or not – or ever even bothered trying to understand it…

Ask a supercilious FFB and he may say, a BT is someone who doesn’t begin to understand what difference Mesorah and zechus avos make in your life and that, try as hard as he might, he’ll never have that.

Ask an insecure BT and he may say, an FFB is the guy who helps me in the store who promised that the angle of my hat is just perfect now, he wears his just like that too, and he said he’d never have dreamed I am a BT…

Ask an insecure FFB and he may say, a BT is the guy who seems to always be trying to catch me on a shvere Tosfos, and gives me dirty looks when I talk during chazaras hashatz. Doesn’t he know I learned those halachos way back when, while he was still eating cheeseburgers?…

Ask a well-adjusted BT and he may say, an FFB is the guy who is way far ahead of me in what I know right now in Gemara, but maybe one day we can learn together.

Ask a well-adjusted FFB and he may say, a BT is the guy who’s trying so much harder than I am, I can’t come to his toes in my avodas Hashem. I love talking to him because he injects me with some of his enthusiasm….

And the funny thing is, each one of us can be all of these people at different times of our life/year/day.

So. Where has this imaginary sampling gotten us? How can we expect to understand, identify and agree with BTs if we are FFB – or vice versa – when we can’t even agree with our own reps?

The other issue that has me confused is that the lines are just so blurry. On one hand, both sides of the game seem to agree (while putting this admission on opposite sides of the same argument) that BT or FFB status is not something that can be instantly shed or acquired. BTs feel sad that they can never get away from the label, never feel they’ve finally arrived to some extent, when they still feel so compromised and comparatively disadvantaged. FFBs feel BTs can’t just expect to walk the walk and talk the talk (even with the proper pronunciation) and, presto! – you have been transformed into a kadosh merechem…

But most stunning of all is another little issue that I’m not sure anyone else noticed. I don’t understand why no one else has been talking about it, but it’s pretty major. That is – They are Us.

Take a look around you and for one moment, step back and try to put everyone into one of two boxes: BT or FFB. How easy a task is that?

Ok, well, sure, there will be a couple of easy ones, the people whose backgrounds you know well enough to classify them clearly. And lots of people you think you know…But do you really?

Looking around in my life has netted me the understanding that there are many less pure laine FFBs than many people would have thought.

Many more of us have morphed along the way than you might have thought. For sure, more than most FFBs think…Look again: The woman who teaches your child’s preschool class, the special ed Rebbe, the guy who runs the local kashrus organization – you know, the ones you are always comparing yourself to? Well, they sat next to me in day school.

The BTs of my school years weren’t those college kids-cum-yeshiva students we hear about today. The Discovery Seminars we attended weren’t as condensed as the ones running now – the first segment back then lasted eight years, with another four years as sequel. There was one – count ‘em, one­ – kid in my class whose mother covered her hair. Most weren’t shomer Shabbos. (What a sensation it was when Abie’s bar mitzvah featured a belly dancer, of all things…) And my experience is no where near being unique. There are lots and lots of people like me, whose education Baruch Hashem continued and continues and you may never know whether we wore kippahs or yarmulkas or kapplach when we were your son’s age…How did kids like this get to day school, you may ask? Well, that depends. Hakadosh Baruch Hu had so many different schemes to get us there. Regional differences played themselves out. For our family friend Reb Mordechai, for instance, it was a teacher’s strike in public school that brought his parents to enrol him in the day school. For mine, it was the racial tension in our city, where a little black boy threatened me on the school bus when I was in second grade…

Some of us were yet further blessed and we made our way over to Yeshiva or Bais Yaakov and on. Today, people with educational resumes just like mine and my classmates’ are very well represented in all fields of askanus, and especially in chinuch. Is it that we feel we must give back? That we yet feel that tug, which brought us to where we are, and so must in turn try our own hand at pulling it, too?…

In any case, you wouldn’t know this about me if you had not heard it from me. Try to put me in one of your boxes, and I’m not sure you’d have an easy time of figuring out just where I should go. I know I don’t find it easy.

That’s why I think it’s hilarious when I read all these nice, Jewish Observer-ease articles written for “the greater frum public” (me and you included) about kiruv, where they speak of the topic as if they were approaching it from a point far removed from the actual subject. And every time I read one of these, I wonder – how much longer will everyone – FFBs and BTs alike – still think it’s “us” and “them”???

We are them, and they are us. Period. L’chaim!

The Other Type of Assimilation

Several months ago I joined an online “social-networking site”. For a while it served as a great way to reconnect with old friends that I hadn’t contacted in years. In fact, may of them were involved in NCSY when I was becoming frum and many others were participants in NCSY when I was working for the organization. Until about 2 months ago, my “friends” from the “social-networking site” were actually about 90% Torah observant and the other 10% were not-yet observant (oddly enough some of them from my hometown and I am probably the only frum person they are in contact with).

Then there was a change in my friend demographics. Due to a public high school reunion coming up, someone from my high school found me online. He became my “friend”. Then other non-Jews that I really hadn’t thought of in almost 20 years started requesting my “friendship”. My demographics when from 100% Jewish “online friends” to about 20% non-Jews and 80% Jews.

During my last two years in high school I was Torah observant. I was also, then, submerged in the whole punk/alternative music scene sub-culture. My life revolved around bands, music, and concerts. In addition to all the outer signs of individuality that I displayed it was almost, to most people, incidental that I wore a yarmulka, didn’t go out on Friday nights, and didn’t eat much food outside my home.

Of course, once I was able to leave my hometown and engage in formalized Torah education many of my priorities changed. Eventually most of my old cassettes/cd from all the bands I couldn’t live without were sold and the money was used for seforim. Like most of us, I have over the years, immersed myself in the “frum” sub-culture. I realized as I started seeing names of friends from high school that I really haven’t spoke to in almost 20 years that I probably come off (via an online profile) as a very different person with different reading and music tastes that the ‘Neil” they once new.

It’s funny, because during my years in a ‘traditional’ conservative Sunday school and Hebrew school program we were constantly told that assimilation is, like, the worst evil. We were told that a Jew should never give up their identity as a Jew. Because the word ‘assimilation’ means to make similar I was raised that as a ‘traditional Jew’ I couldn’t be come similar to those around me. Well, as I examine who I am today, I think I’ve become an assimilated Jew. When I write ‘assimilated’ it is in the sense that I have submerged myself into a lifestyle and culture like that of my fellow Torah observant Jews.

I probably didn’t assimilate the way my old Hebrew school teachers thought I would, but then again, most of us BTs don’t when up where we thought we’d be. As for my friends from high school that have some out of the cyber-woodwork, let them go ahead and look up books like “Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh” and bands like “Piamenta”. This is who I am, someone ‘assimilated’ in Torah observant culture.

Second Class: Not Just BTs

By Ezzie Goldish
(Originally published on Serandez)

Ed. note: Part of why this post has taken three days (!) to write is that there’s both so much to say and so little to say at the same time. When it comes down to it, most people know how to act, are aware that they’re sometimes judgmental, and that they’re not as accepting as they can be. They try hard to correct it, they talk about it, they really work at it – and most people really are decent and good most of the time. Not much is necessarily added by talking about it, though perhaps something is. I also realized that in the process of writing the post, I completely got away from what part of my original intention was, which was to encourage good people – which I think that thankfully SerandEz readers are – to come to the Shabbaton we’re running together with BeyondBT in a couple of weeks (Aug 15-16). So… come! :)

There was recently an article that went around the J-blogosphere discussing the “second class” treatment that BTs sometimes receive. This is not the focus of this post. BeyondBT linked to the piece with a simple question:

In your experience, are BTs generally treated as second class citizens in the communities you’ve lived in?

While the overall answer in the comments was a big, “Well, not really…”, the thread of comments was fascinating. As I noted to Mark Frankel, one of the administrators there:

me: i think that the thread on the Second Class post is one of the best on the blog, ever, and is really what the blog is all about in so many diff ways.
BeyondBT: in what ways is it what the blog all about?
me: fitting in, whether BTs should be trying to fit in, what exactly is diff about BTs in the first place, are those positive or negative things, do they need to be “fixed”, are they treated differently, how are they treated differently, is it because they’re BTs per se, what can be done about it… etc.
that thread alone covered all of those.

Many commenters touched on what I think is an important point. When ba’alei teshuva run into situations where they feel like they are being treated as second class citizens, it often has very little to do with their status as BTs and far more to do with the people doing the excluding. The same issues often will come up among any Orthodox family – for nearly every characteristic a person or family can have, there are going to be those that wish to exclude them for those same characteristics. The issue is not whether BTs or any other grouping (Sephardim, Charedim, Modern, Yeshivish, Black-Hat, Srugis, etc.) are considered second-class, but why people feel a need to be elitist, and why we’re hurt when we’re not in the self-proclaimed elite group.

I don’t know that either of those are particularly “solvable” issues – only issues that can be minimized. Unfortunately, there are always going to be people who wish to be exclusionary and find a need to put down other groups to raise their own. On the flip side, the motto atop this blog (Be yourself, because the people who care don’t matter, and the people who matter don’t care – Serach) serves as a good reminder of how to view such elitism – a frum Jew needs to only follow the guidelines the Torah sets out, not the “rules” that an individual community, or more often, a small subset of a community try to overtly force on its members. There should be no hurt at being “excluded” from an elitist group – would a person truly wish to be part of a group that thumbs its nose at anyone who is not just like them? Obviously not.

But then again, this is reality. While in our personal relationships and in our own conduct it is easy to do what is right and what we wish, and not cater to the demands of unreasonable others, the reality is that we sometimes have to face situations such as these. The question becomes how to approach them, and obviously, every situation calls for its own set of guidelines and specific responses.

Most important, however, is that to effect a real change in the Jewish community as a whole these attitudes need to be changed. While it is quite difficult for any individual to effect change on a large scale, one need only to follow the advice of R’ Israel Salanter to do so* – by focusing on one’s own actions first. The more we focus on ensuring that we live up to certain ideals and respect differences as other approaches and not “worse” ones, and demonstrate that, the more the people around us will (and to some extent are forced to do so) as well.

Case in point: A woman called me about a shidduch for her daughter, asking about a friend of mine. One of the questions was how he dressed – ‘does he dress “black and white”, does he wear colored shirts, how does he dress on Shabbos…’ As I often do with questions like this, I decided to make a small point (but nicely) with the response. “My friend wears suits on Shabbos and dresses very nicely during the week. I don’t think he finds whether the shirt is white to be particularly important; he simply dresses very respectably and doesn’t particularly care about that.” After a slight hesitation, she said “Right, that is more superficial bu…”, trailing off as if she was going to say more, but clearly thinking about the concept as she said it, and I cut in simply that “Yes, exactly. [It is superficial.]”

Most people in the Orthodox world who have exclusive views haven’t given much thought to them. They go along with the narrow viewpoints that exist because that’s what you do and because they haven’t given much thought to it. By quietly, and kindly, separating the real stuff from the shtus we help people see past that. By noting nicely the positive impacts and traits a certain group have we help people see those things, and often times, an indirect approach is the best. A lot of people lately have been linking to the now deceased Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” (and the hour to watch the whole thing will change your life in ways that are well worth the hour), and he talks about using “head fakes” to teach lessons. After an hour and fourteen minutes on the theme of the speech, “Living Your Childhood Dreams”, he asks if people realized that that wasn’t really what the speech was about at all. (I don’t want to give it away.) But he was absolutely correct in that the lesson he actually was trying to impart was learned by the audience.

Most of us want to get along with one another, want to see eye-to-eye, and want to appreciate each other’s differences – or at least, want people to do so with us. Instead of announcing “this is my approach!”, calmly explain how your approach is a good one. Bring people into whatever you’re doing and show them how it’s good. Invite people for Shabbos and show them how you live. It’s a lot harder to be judgmental of someone whom you know or someone who’ve you spent a Shabbos with. For example, on a thread suggesting how to “heal the rift within Orthodoxy”, it was suggested to have an exchange program between yeshivos of different types. Whether that is feasible or not does not matter; it is certainly feasible to have at one’s Shabbos table people of all different types, or in one’s shul, or to simply stand on the street and talk for a bit. You don’t need to have a discussion about a controversial subject, and even if you have such a discussion, it can be had while respecting why each side takes a certain view even if one disagrees for themselves.

The best way to effect change in our communities is rather simple: Live it.

…and, uh, oh yeah – don’t forget about the Shabbaton. :)

* “I wanted to change the world, but I realized it was too large of a task for one person, so I tried to change my community. That was also too hard, so I tried to change my family. That was also too hard, so I decided to try and change myself. And though it was very hard, I finally changed myself. And once I changed myself, I discovered my family changed, the community changed, and the entire world changed.”

Crafting a New Nomenclature

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz
Jewish Heritage Center

Dedication- I dedicate this post to the URL of this blogsite- BeyondBT. Most simply deconstructed as Beyond Ba’al T’shuva. The implied purpose being to transcend the societal constraints and the sometimes suffocating self-perceptions evoked by the term “Ba’al T’shuva”. In a word… let’s get past it.

Caveat- This post is intended for those who’ve been Torah Observant for 5+ years. Its message is not for those who get ruffled when old axioms are challenged. It is for those who long for their earliest heady days of spiritual awakening and who intuit that there may have been a linkage between the passion for Yiddishkeit that characterized that long-ago-far-away time in their lives and their nascent iconoclasm that allowed them to smash the idols of received wisdom and preconceived notions on a regular basis.

Among the ways of T’shuva is for the returnee …to change his name
– Rambam Laws of T’shuva 2:4

I’ve always been a bit of a stickler about semantics. G-d convinced the angels of Adam’s profound wisdom based on his ability to assign names. The name changes of such great figures as Avrohom, Sorah, Yisroel, Binyomin and Yehoshua signaled momentous, historic metaphysical modifications. The bard may have said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” but his was not a Torah-informed sensibility. I believe that when the words we use to clothe raw concepts are skewed, wooly or unfocused, our conversations become the communicative equivalents of a fashion faux pas. Kind of like wearing gloves on our feet. At best an unattractive look and at worst a recipe for a pair of really sore feet.

In my estimation the acronyms BT and FFB have done incalculable damage to all parties concerned. Here’s why: T’shuva presumes being accountable for ones life and taking responsibility for repairing those parts of our live’s that we have damaged. What the term “Ba’al T’shuva” has meant historically is a person who had previously been an avaryon AKA a Rosha who had undergone the demanding and rigorous service of T’shuva until (s)he had “mastered” it to repair all that was broken. Hence the term Ba’al T’shuva = “Master of Repentance”.

According to the classic Torah literature on the subject the engine that drives T’shuva is sincere, profound and, according to some, lifelong remorse over the sin. In the historical model even the resolution for the future and behavior modification aspects of Avodas HaT’shuva hinges on the depth and intensity of the remorse. Ever tortured by the memory of sin, reminding a historically defined BT of their past sins is considered onoas devorim (insulting and hurtful speech) because it is the verbal equivalent of picking a painful and unsightly scab. According to Rabenu Yonah, the centrality of remorse and taking personal responsibility is also why “shame” (#6) and “one’s sin being constantly before him” (#18) are among his twenty fundamental principles of T’shuva.

While perpetual remorse and shame may not be the way an FFB relates to his/her past it is also not an apt description of how a representative modern-day BT relates to theirs. Nor should it be. How can we regret or be ashamed of choices that we did not make? If our great-grandparents chose to abandon Torah, if we were not afforded the barest rudiments of a Torah education or upbringing, if we were nurtured in a culture that is mostly antithetical to Torah and it’s ideals, in short if we are indeed tinokos shenishbu what, precisely, are we regretting? Is it our natures or our nurtures? How can this be when we were responsible for neither? G-d alone is responsible for the former and He, our parents, teachers and society for the latter. When doing T’shuva are we supposed to regret and be ashamed of what G-d has done or failed to do or of what WE have done or failed to do? This may be the subliminal message of the Rambam in placing the doctrine of human free will in his Laws of T’shuva rather than in the Laws of the Fundamentals of the Torah. He may be trying to teach us that T’shuva= remorse must always be about our own choices and never about HaShem’s providence and his administration of His creation. Far from engaging in a holy Avodah contemporary BTs who place too much emphasis on regret are in fact indulging themselves in a good old-fashioned fist shaking at G-d.

The arithmetic is simple; if pre-observance we were Tinokos Shenishbu but never reshoim, then we can’t be Ba’alei T’shuva in a traditional sense. Of course we can and do modify our thoughts, speech and behavior. We can also regret and DO T’shuva for those of our youthful indiscretions that we already knew were wrong in spite of our non/anti-Torah upbringing. (I don’t think anyone gets a “Tinok Shenishba” pass for shoplifting or harassing homeless people.) But that is hardly unique to non-FFBs. FFBs for the most part do T’shuva as well (at the very least during Elul and the Yomim Noraim =Days of Awe). Some obsess over T’shuva and really work hard, smart and effectively at it. But I’ve yet to meet one who would say that (s)he’s earned the moniker BA’AL T’shuva. Most FFBs are also fully aware of the beautiful Chazal that “Even the completely righteous (tsadikim g’murim) cannot stand in (i.e. attain) the [exalted spiritual] place that the Ba’lei T’shuva stand in”. So, for most everyone, to perceive oneself as a BA’AL T’shuva is at best pretentious and at worst self-delusional. Imagine a fellow fancying himself a Talmid Chochom or even a Gaon having studied only one or two Talmudic tractates or someone practicing halakhic stringency or two considering themselves a Tsadik or a Chosid. When such exaggerated self-assessment is conveyed to others it, unsurprisingly, evokes reactions of skepticism, defensiveness and mockery. These self-perceptions will not earn anyone friends or integration into a society of “just plain folks”.

Those who fail to discern the qualitative difference of the pre-T’shuva states of having been a Rosha and having been born a Tinok Shenishba run the risk of diffusing an even more destructive fallout, one that strikes much closer to home. For many contemporary BTs who fall into this category, having no real sin to regret the focus of the remorse shifts to the putative sinner(s). Conflating the traditional and contemporary concepts of Ba’al T’shuva makes us regret and feel ashamed of people (including ourselves), experiences and friends we have no business feeling ashamed of or about. It leads to tortured relationships with friends and family, to suppressing rather than sublimating our pre-observance education, talents and accomplishments and, worst of all, it causes us to fixate and waste our energies on “passing” as an FFB rather than on becoming an Ehrlicher Yid. To conclude- the mostly inaccurate and hyperbolic appellation, BT, manages the slick semantical and psycho-spiritual trick of being both devastatingly self-deprecating and ridiculously self-aggrandizing.

FFB is hardly a benign word either. The first “F” which expands to “Frum” is never to be confused with “ethical” or “spiritual”. In it’s contemporary usage Frum has, almost exclusively, come to mean a soulless adherence to the letter of the law and a negation of its spirit. There is an innate putdown in the “from birth” portion of this acronym as well. It implies that whatever “religion” (but never spirituality) the FFB does have is an accident of birth. Whereas BTs might fancy themselves self-made millionaires FFBs deserve no admiration or respect because, as the name implies, they were born with silver spoons in their mouths. I’ve actually seen the term retooled on other blogs to “Frum by accident”. The fact is that we are all, BT and FFB alike, JFCs =Jews from (matrilineal) conception. No one is frum from birth. Jewishness=the potential for achieving the sanctity of Torah and Mitzvahs, is our bio-spiritual birthright. For want of a better word Frumkeit, i.e. actualizing that potential, is not. Even those born and raised in Bnei Braq, Meah Shearim or Lakewood are endowed with free will and, as Rav Dessler articulates in his famous Treatise on Free-Will, cultivate their relationship with G-d davka by those positive exercises of free will that they were not predisposed to doing by their parents, peer groups and teachers.

Any FFB that considers the term a compliment must have forgotten the Chazal that reveals the underlying meaning of the name of our evil uncle Eisov. According to the Midrash he was named Eisov (alliteratively Osu =done) because he was “done” and physically complete at birth. On an overt level this means that the newborn Eisov was hirsute and had a full set of teeth. But what it also implies is that he was spiritually/metaphysically finished immediately post-partum. The balance of his life here on earth was an entropic downhill slide toward the grave and represents the dross of his father Yitzchak’s holy middah of being conceived and born in kedusha. An FFB who luxuriates in that name shares more in common with the cartoonish Richie Rich than with any true Oved HaShem. Such FFBs are spirituality’s snooty and spoiled rich kids and about as attractive and inspiring as the socioeconomic kind. As it is in chronology so must it be in spirituality. Birth is the starting gate not the finish line.

None of this is to say that contemporary BTs have not had to work harder than their FFB compatriots to attain comparable levels of observance. Pain exerted to achieve spiritual gain is the main (but not exclusive) yardstick by which G-d determines reward. I may be overreaching but IMO part of this “extra measure” of reward manifests in the incredibly swift strides that BTs make in their Torah Study and Mitzvah observance vis a vis FFBs. BTs are to be admired, respected and celebrated for all the pains they took to become, stay and grow ever more observant. But we run the dangerous risks of hubris and divisiveness when we presume that one group in Jewry has a monopoly on the pain/ gain correspondence or on HaShem’s affections.

Make no mistake there are, in fact, many groups and factions within Jewry and the onus for ending the lingering feelings of otherness and alienation many veteran BTs endure still rests squarely on the shoulders of FFBs. To date FFB culture has done a comparatively superb job of being friendly to their non-observant and BT brethren but not as good a job of actually becoming their friends (or Mechutonim!). That said there are the larger questions and challenges that lie before all groups and factions. Among others: Must BTs forever remain a sub/counterculture in Yiddishkeit? As the Kiruv movement moves into its third generation are we any closer to true integration, equality and unity than we were 40-50 years ago? I believe that positive solutions to these questions will begin with our liberation from the inaccurate, pejorative or pompous labels “BT” and “FFB” and their attendant warped perceptions. I dream of a Jewry in which terms such as these will be considered unacceptable in polite conversation. How about replacing BT and FFB with “late beginner” and “early beginner”? “Observant from childhood” and “Observant from adulthood”? “Having religiously supportive parents” and “lacking religiously supportive parents”? Or, best of all, how about one single term that aptly describes all of us- Yidden! Perhaps then as in the days of yore at Simchas Bais HaShoayva in the Bais HaMikdosh all factions can join together in the exultant dance singing “Lucky are those that never sinned and those that did, let them return and be forgiven!”

First Posted 0n 2/21/2006

Conquering Bad Religious Experiences

By Yakov Lowinger

There has been some discussion regarding the reversion of some from religious observance due to a “bad religious experience” (BRE), which seems to cause the sufferer to swear off involvement in organized religion much like a bad omelet will repel one from associating with eggs in a pan for a good while. I personally feel strongly about this discussion and find many of its assumptions to be misplaced, and I hoped to share some of my insights gleaned from inside, then outside, then inside the frum world if I can be so presumptuous.

1. Being rejected is no cause to reject

The problem is that the lovable eggs in a pan that we encounter every day in the frum world, the ones that often drive us crazy and perhaps even give us real indigestion, are our fellow Jews who we are commanded to love and accept. Why are we so concerned on the contrary with their love and acceptance of us as ba’alei teshuvah, so much so that we take their little acts of rejection as proof of the error of our ways? There is a bit of the parable of the sour grapes in an ex-BT who turns away from observance mainly because he/she didn’t feel accepted. You don’t want me? Well I didn’t want you anyway. Unfortunately little of this dance gets either side closer to the questions of finding the Emes that becoming religious was meant to represent. The BT is no less obligated to respect and tolerate those in the community where he lives, as the community is obligated to respect and tolerate him.

2. The derech ha’emes is not contingent on our experiences, good or bad

The story of the aspiring BT who rushes toward ever-increasing levels of observance as long as it feels good, and then backs away once reality (i.e. other people) sets in, has a disturbing undertone. I would argue that Rabbi Jacobson’s comparison to Nadav and Avihu is nice but in the end, there is no distinction between the two brothers’ fate. A more apt comparison is to Rabbi Akiva and R’ Elisha ben Avuya, who went into the pardes together to learn the secrets of Torah. Rabbi Akiva came out unharmed, while R’ Elisha became a heretic and was henceforth known as “Acheir,” the other. In other words, a person’s greatness or lack thereof is defined by how he/she responds to a real challenge to emunah and a genuine exposure to holiness. In the case of the modern day BT, it is in response to a BRE, or even an overwhelming religious experience, that the title ba’al teshuvah is earned or forfeited. It is irresponsible to suggest that the choice between being a Rabbi Akiva or becoming an “Acheir” is ever in the hands of other people, regardless of how insensitively they may sometimes treat us. Those challenges are there for us to use in order to grow, not to become bitter like Acheir, who gave up completely and considered himself beyond repair because of his experience at the pardes.

3. No such thing as an FFB

Unless we take it to mean “filtered from birth”, there is no usefulness to the term FFB as it is generally used. In the first place, as it is meant to be the residual category of BT, it de-individualizes those who happen to have parents who gave them the gift of frumkeit. The argument then almost makes itself – those FFBs are anti-individual – much like saying that anteaters are anti-ant. The term ba’al teshuvah has an exalted status in Torah, considered in some respects higher than a tzaddik. The term FFB in contrast enjoys no comparable prestige, highlights no distinguishing feature of those so categorized except accident of birth, and therefore tells us nothing about those who supposedly bear this title. The label should be discarded, in my opinion, as the terms BT and FFB are in no way commensurable. The former is exalted and laden with meaning, the latter a mere statistic. The term FFB just gives frustrated ex-frum people something to bandy around, some identifier that we all supposedly understand and relate to and toward which we can direct our complaints. By relying less on these labels, we can more easily identify the real source of our challenges, which is more often than not in ourselves and not in those ______s out there.

4. Cluelessness and misplaced meticulousness

That said, it is not as if there are not prevalent problems in certain frum communities that might drive a sensitive person away from strict observance. I will just point out two that I think are important. Compared to what they are used to, BTs are likely to encounter a certain clulessness about the world at large that may make them uncomfortable. The reality is that the strong filters that we grow up with as frum yidden foreclose the possibility of relating to a BT on most things of interest to them, and thus create that familiar dynamic where we look quizzically at the BT as he tells his/her story at the shabbos table and make him/her even more uncomfortable. This would normally lead to some sort of alienation on the part of the BT who just can’t be understood, whereas a healthier approach might be to accept this limitation and even offer to give some background on the topic in question, in a way consistent with the decency implied by a Torah lifestyle, instead of rolling eyes or sighing knowingly. This cluelessness should be treated with sensitivity and understanding, and the BT should take the acharayus to educate his or her new friends and family in a way that establishes the basis for mutual understanding. Those in the frum community in turn should take it upon themselves to listen and learn from the BT. Their strong filters should be more than adequate to the task.

A second difficulty is the misplaced meticulousness displayed by many in the frum community. This goes for BTs and non-BTs alike. In short, it goes like this. I am frummer than you in outward appearance. This causes me to displace my concern for my own frumkeit (what should I do to be more frum, which I may not know) onto you (because it seems that I do know what you need to do to be more frum). I nitpick on your appearance and seeming observance in my head rather than on my own faults which may not be so visible to others on the surface, because it is easier and seems equally valid. The problem is that nobody benefits from this arrangement. I don’t improve and neither do you. If I became as meticulous in my observance as I was in staring down/talking down to the BT on the other side of the shul we would both win. When we self-professed frummies see someone whose appearance makes us uncomfortable in some way, we should see it as a wake up call to fix what’s lacking in our own avodah. Because anyway, I can only be meticulous on my own account, not yours.

5. Living in a frum community requires a thick skin

We are all growing, hopefully, and learning every day. A BT should try to make him/herself sensitive to this and apply it across the board when confronted with the dreaded BRE. Because that BRE is going to happen. And it may even be horrible (I’ve heard some downright Jerry Springer ones — I bet he’s had a few himself). Here’s where the thick skin comes in — tough up and remember that those people responsible for your BRE are having one too. Rather than have it prick at all your sensitivities and throw you off, which in all likelihood it’s designed to do, remember that it’s also put there by Hashem to make you a stronger, more serious and committed Jew. I know people who have actually gone as far as to thank those who threw really terrible BREs at them, because they couldn’t be who they are now without them. Once your done being carried away with all the fun frills of being frum (I’ve heard there are a few), stare down that BRE in the face and become who you really are meant to be. And as for those bitter acheir’s out there, it’s not too late either. I hope there’s something here for all to take to heart.

Bad Religious Experiences

Reposted with Permission From A Meaningful Life by Rabbi Simon Jacobson. Ths article was first posted here.

Dear Rabbi J.,

You are perhaps the only Rabbi that I feel I can write to about the following painful subject.

I grew up in a very secular home, with no faith and no G-d. My parents were both highly intelligent, cultured individuals. My father amassed a fortune as a shrewd and successful businessman, while my mother was a professional in her own right. But despite my family’s stature, we grew up in a loveless home. Our parents were not there for us, nor were they there for each other. My parents were not loyal to each other and ultimately divorced, leaving my siblings and me adrift.

I was always conscious of being Jewish, though I knew nothing about it. As I suffered through my un-nurturing home life, I began a spiritual search that ultimately led me to the Jewish community. There I found a warmth and love that I had never before experienced. The power of Jewish tradition – Shabbat, prayer, even kosher – resonated with me. Not that commitment came easily to me. But I appreciated the power of commitment – something I had never really experienced. My life was all about shifting loyalties, broken promises, dashed dreams – all creating profound distrust and insecurity. But now I discovered something new: Committed people to each other, to family, to community and to a higher calling. It was quite compelling. I also sensed a simplicity and even rejection of the high culture I grew up in. Most of the religious Jews I met were not open to other ideas and to a free-spirited perspective. But I reckoned that perhaps the trade-off was worth it: Sacrificing some of the beauty of art and literature, but without a rudder, for a life of trust, love and commitment, with very strong sense of purpose.

I was seduced by the observant lifestyle, and I slowly but surely became totally observant myself. At some point I couldn’t do enough. I made friends quickly and was welcomed into the community with open arms. For every friend and family I came to know another set of traditions became part of my regimen. I began using my Hebrew name in place of my secular one. I was kissing mezuzahs, reciting Tehillim, running to synagogue, praying at holy places, tying red strings on every one of my joints. I even took an extended leave from work to go study in a Yeshiva in Israel. And I met many others on a similar journey. As I look back at it now, it all was a blurring whiz – I was completely taken and consumed by the euphoria, like a marathon runner whose legs can’t stop moving, being pulled along on the adrenalin generated by the cheers of all the bystanders and the momentum of my fellow runners.

Pretty soon I was one of those “baalei teshuvah,” with various Rabbis and Rebbetzin’s taking credit for my miraculous “return” to my roots. Adding a feather to many caps, I was then deluged with “shidduchim,” potential marriage mates, whom I began to date. At that point, I began to feel my own self re-emerging and wasn’t really sure what I wanted outside of the demands and pressures of those around me. Truth be told, their intentions were for the most part pure, but they simply did not allow me to be myself. With the argument that they – or as they would put it, the “Torah” – knows better. I realized that my great hunger for spirit and meaning totally overwhelmed my senses and my sense of self, and I was being carried on the waves of enthusiasm. I seriously couldn’t distinguish between who I was as opposed to who others thought I was; between my individual needs and the expectations of me. The boundaries became blurred: where did others end and where did I begin?

And then the ax fell. The honeymoon was over. As I began to land and returned to my daily routines, I also began to see many of the flaws of the communities that embraced me. Frankly, that did not disturb me at all. I was not a child nor naïve; I understood that every social circle has its strengths and its weaknesses. People are people. What drew me to the religious community was not a fantastic expectation that I found perfect people; rather that I had found a perfect Judaism – a way that G-d wants us to live. What ended up truly troubling me was that so many of the religious community were simply mindless and mechanical – and callous. That too is forgivable; the secular world is not much different. What was not forgivable, however, was that in their mindlessness (masked in blind faith) many were cruel and selfish. And to top it off, when “dressed” in religious garb, the self-righteousness is simply unbearable. From condescension to outright arrogance, anything that did not neatly fit into the “comfortable” zone of the initiated was simply dismissed or criticized. Religion was much more about appearances and mechanics than it was about inner spiritual development. Except for a rare few, I did not witness introspection, an effort in personal refinement and growth, deepening love and relationships. That’s fine, as long as you don’t spend your time criticizing others and convincing yourself that you are better than others just because you are wearing a sheitel.

My questions, for example, became the irritating voice of the malcontent. From “she’s too independent” to the profoundly psychological “what can you do, she comes from a dysfunctional family,” people seemed to need to explain me away some way, instead of just having an intelligent conversation that perhaps would enlighten us all.

Especially destructive were those Rabbis and teachers who always knew “what was best for me.” I appreciate their scholarship, but many are quite unevolved when it comes to human emotions and personal refinement. They hide behind texts and quote chapters, verses and halachot. But some simply are clueless of the “fifth” shulchan aruch – common sense. Some of these “authorities” felt that they had to baby-sit for the “nebech” me and others who unfortunately did not grow up “frum.” Their guidance, I understand today, was anything but empowering. It was not driven by confidence in our souls, but by fear that we would wander off. Their intentions may have been fine, but they fundamentally believe that in Judaism there is an “us” and a “them,” “haves” and “have-nots,” and that they were superior to the less informed and educated. If you rejected their advice, on whatever grounds, you were turned on, blacklisted and cast out of the “inner circle.”

Today I am alienated and angry. Lonely and disturbed. And yes, I have regressed in my observance. I deeply love the spiritual path of Judaism. [Not all is lost, Rabbi. I still kiss mezuzahs and wear my red string… Among other things that I cherish and embrace, including Shabbat]. Yet I cannot find a community where I can belong. Equally sad are the other lonely souls that I meet with similar stories.

Many have completely rejected the Jewish tradition that they once embraced. Some are livid when it comes to this topic. I am not in that category. Please understand: I am not writing to you to vent my grievances or to just criticize the “system.” I see much of its beauty and am eternally grateful to those that took me in, taught me and in many ways transformed my life.

I am writing on a personal level: How should I view my experience? What should I be doing? Is there hope?

D. A.

—————

Dear D. A.,

Thank you for writing and opening up a “Pandora’s box” of issues that affect many people, yet is hardly discussed, at least in a Torah context. I for one firmly believe that as irreverent as your questions may be, it is absolutely critical to address them in a constructive and meaningful manner. Hopefully this can be a catalyst that will generate a wider discussion in the broader community.

As you accurately emphasize, the focus here should not be on criticizing the negative elements of the “system” and “establishment.” That deserves its own discussion – and much can be said about it. What I will then discuss is the actual spiritual/religious journey you describe – a journey that many have taken – and its challenges and hazards, and above all: how we are to navigate in face of all the shortcomings you describe and many more that you don’t.

You may be surprised to hear that your dilemma – troubling so many people today – is addressed in this week’s Torah portion.

The chapter describes a defining event in history: For the first time ever the Divine presence finds a home in the material universe – in the Mishkan, the holy Sanctuary. “Built me a Sanctuary and I will rest among you.” As the verse states: On this first momentous “opening” day of the Mishkan, “G-d’s glory was revealed to all the people. Fire came forth from before G-d and consumed the burnt offering.”

You can imagine what kind of powerful reaction this must have caused amongst the people who witnessed this unprecedented revelation. What happened next? “When the people saw this, they raised their voices in praise and threw themselves on their faces” in complete awe.

Then, in a moment of utter spiritual ecstasy, “Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, placed fire on it and then incense. They offered before G-d a strange fire, which He had not instructed them. Fire came forth from G-d and it consumed them, and they died before G-d.”

Aaron’s sons had a religious awakening, and in their sheer hunger and bliss, they were driven to enter the Holy of Holies, and got consumed by the very fire they were trying to contain.

What did they do wrong? They moved too fast and did so at their own volition, unprepared. The fire was Divine, but it was “strange” to them. They were not ready to contain it.

Though Nadav and Avihu were on a level loftier than any of us will ever attain, the lesson to us all is very clear:

True faith is a powerful force. Like a fire it has the power to warm and illuminate, but also the power to consume and destroy. When edging close to the fire great care has to be taken to ensure that you are able to take the heat and contain the light.

Do not lose yourself in the process of becoming Divine. You have to own your choices. Faith ought not be a “strange fire,” which is alien to you; it needs to be integrated into your being. If not, its intensity can burn you.

Does this then mean that we should not embrace Judaism until it is totally integrated? Absolutely not! An equally polarizing approach is to be so cautious of the fire that we never make a move.

Balance is the key: Knowing how to move forward at your own pace, in a way that doesn’t overwhelm and consume you. One mitzvah at a time. “Mitzvah goreres mitzvah,” our sagely wisely tell us. One mitzvah brings along another.

The outcome of the Nadav and Avihu story is not that no one shall ever enter the holy sanctuary; rather, G-d lays out an entire set of rules, a process, how one is to enter the holy place and remain intact.

This delicate dance is especially acute for sensitive souls, who sense the power of the fire. Aaron’s sons were the most spiritual of them all, as Moses makes it abundantly clear that their demise was a result of their greatness. It was their deep love and passion for the Divine that caused them to enter the Temple unprepared (as the Ohr haChaim explains). As Moses told Aaron that his sons experience fulfilled G-d’s words, “I will be sanctified among those close to Me, and I will thus be glorified.”

Deep souls hungry for spirituality and cognizant of its intimate power have to be especially careful when faced with a Divine experience.

Too often religion is presented in a didactic and dogmatic way. Peer and social pressure is applied demanding conformation. And you – the individual – are lost in the process. While there is value in inspiring someone with faith and there is a notion of joining a community, and not standing on a side (“al tifrosh min hatzibbur”), at the same time, however, the power of community is only possible once and after an individual has found his distinct place and unique voice, then he can join and actually help create a community, to which he is loyal. But the group is not meant to stunt or annihilate the individual, rather to enhance him. First, we must cultivate self-confidence, and then allow the individual to make and own his choices.

As important as a community may be, as welcoming as a religious group may be – what is even more important is that the individual entering the community be allowed and encouraged at his or her own pace. To ensure that new found spiritual truth be integrated into his or her being.

This is true even in the purest form of religious experience. How much more so when it is being presented by flawed human beings, who themselves are hardly role models and paragons of spiritual refinement.

Too often, certain teachers and guides and mentors see their role as one of prodding along, directing, even babysitting for a person who is just being initiated into Judaism. Even if their intentions are right, it is vital to gauge the needs of the individual, not the needs of the teacher, lest you end up burning the person who is not yet ready for such spiritual enlightenment.

How much more so when the teacher is far from perfect and may not be the best representative of the message. Then, it is of critical importance, that the teacher qualify his role and humbly acknowledge how he and all of us are in the same boat, and are available to help each other.

So while it’s true that children need to be directed in the path of faith, and we all, even adults, are in need of the support and guidance of teachers and mentors, yet, the ultimate goal is not to create dependencies but independence. Because after all is said and done, the path of faith is not about the teacher, nor is it about the community; it is about G-d and His personal relationship with each one of us. The spiritual path is not a superimposed one but one that allows and facilitates the true human personality to emerge – the Divine Image in which each of us individually was created.

The ultimate role of a teacher, a mentor and a Rabbi is to inspire, motivate and empower each of us in that direction. If an adult is unable to own his faith there is something seriously wrong.

Bureaucracy more than religion is the root of the attitude that religion is an elitist country club, with a few “gifted” authorities – blessed with being born religious and having received a solid education, achieved scholar status and authority – bestowing their benevolence on others and allow them into the inner club. Either we believe that all people were created equally in the Divine Image or we don’t. Religion is not an end in itself; it is not about a set of rituals and traditions. It is about allowing the soul free, and actualizing the potential within each one of us.

The spiritual journey is not about self-indulgence. Neither is it about scoring points. It is the sacred journey of discovering your life mission. It is a Divine journey about releasing your soul, and transforming your corner of the universe into a home for G-d. So though we need the support from communities and structure, yet above all it is a fiercely personal journey – that has little to do with other people’s expectations and pressures.

This is the profound and yet simple lesson each one of us today can glean from Nadav and Avihu: Own your faith; make it yours; integrate it. Don’t allow it to be strange to you. Or else…

Once it becomes yours then you will be less vulnerable to the predators, to the community and to the pressures around us. The fire, especially in the hands of those that don’t always appreciate it, can be a force that annihilates personalities and ends up being used as yet another weapon of control.

It is up to each of us to understand that we are adults and that we assume responsibility for our choices, with the full and complete ability to live up to them.

I empathize with your life story and cry for your disappointments, as well as for so many others who have lost their trust in the Jewish community. With that being said, please don’t suffice with joining yet another club – the ex-club, “ex-baal-teshuva,” ex-orthodox, or the other exes out there, who gather together and share horror stories of the religious world. I understand the tendency and even healing element in finding a support group; I do not dismiss the value that it offers (no different than any of the support programs that help many people heal from various addictions and abuses). But true healing comes when we don’t just complain but do something about it.

Like it is with healing from any form of abuse – religious abuse included – we cannot afford to just wallow in the grief and remain bitter. To sit around and complain about absentee fathers and neurotic mothers doesn’t allow you to grow. It keeps you trapped as a victim. And if Judaism and faith is anything it is not about victimization. It is about empowerment. We must mobilize ourselves and create a revolution.

Allow your disappointments inform you and others. Your disillusionment contains much more than a negative experience; it demonstrates that 1) you have/had great confidence and aspirations in the spiritual path, 2) you have experienced first hand the inadequacies and failures of the “system.” This places you in the unique position of doing something about it.

We can say that those who have personally experienced the limitations and shortcomings of the religious community are uniquely positioned to teach us all how we can create a spiritual revolution, and do so in fashion that allows us to bypass the petty and partisan forces of the system, and above all – allow the spirit within each of us to shine.

The key is that you care. You genuinely and sincerely are troubled about the situation. Don’t allow that concern to turn into resignation. It would be a terrible shame if you allowed some flawed people and underdeveloped communities to shatter your dreams and hopes; it would be a great loss if your experiences undermine everything you ever believed in, your confidence and your spirit.

Even Aaron’s sons, though consumed by the fire, were driven by their spiritual heights, by their love and passion for the Divine.

Now you are at a place where you can own your Judaism; where you can express your faith with your beautiful and unique voice.

Don’t be afraid of yourself. Don’t be afraid of those that want you to conform. The story of history is that the masses have always tried to intimidate the spirited few. It was our great father Abraham that pioneered the path of individuality. Defying the mainstream he forged a path toward G-d.

Today too we need you to be our Abraham. You, who have been burned by the fire, teach us how to walk slowly, but proudly.

It is vital that we create a network, a healthy and powerful synergy of like-minded individuals, who are on the spiritual journey and have yet to din their place. We must create grass-root connections (if not communities). So much good can grow out of that.

Please see me as a friend and kindred spirit, offering you any support I can in your journey. Hopefully we both can help each other and so many more in our mutual Divine odyssey.

Much success in your journey. May it be glorious.

Perspective

As I was making pizza the other night, I was listening to A CLASSIC CASE: The London Symphony Orchestra Plays The Music Of Jethro Tull.

My son (7 years old) runs into the kitchen as Ian Anderson is going crazy on the flute and says, “Whoa! Abba, is that a new Piamenta album?”

“No, I wish. It’s actually a non-Jewish band and their music is being played by a symphony”, I answered.

“Too bad”, he said.

As I went back to pizza making I got to thinking. How cool is it that my son’s musical references are primarily based on what he listens to…Jewish music?

Just like eating Kosher food and keeping Shabbos are aspects of the only lifestyle that he’s experienced in his long seven years of existence. He has the right perspective.

As I, a BT, raise my kids as FFBs I realize it’s all about perspective.

The truth is that what we value and how we live our lives really forms and defines our perspective on things. This is true for each of us and, of course, for our families.

I have often tell myself and my kids that one has to look for mitzvah opportunities that Hashem sends our way. It’s my perspective.

I’m glad my son could show me his perspective.

Teshuva – The Challenge of Recreating Oneself

By Rabbi Dovid Gottleib

Teshuva is the greatest creative challenge a person will ever face: the challenge of recreating oneself. A person’s whole past – talents, training, experience, successes and failures – provides the materials from which his new identity will be forged. He does not turn his back on his past, but organizes it to fulfill its potential in a new way. It is a denial of Providence to regard any of his “unplanned” prior life as a loss. Everything which happened to him was planned so that he could fulfill his unique human potential and make his unique contribution (see Luzzatto’s Derech Hashem, Part II, Chapter 3). Later, he will see how his seemingly pointless past gave him the tools for his religious future.

One important benefit of becoming religious later in life, through a conscious mature decision, is a heightened sensitivity to those aspects of Torah life which tend to become rote for others. Often this sensitivity generates insights from which all can benefit. A father once told me that he was nervous about speaking in public to deliver a dvar Torah for the bris of his third son. But then he began to wonder: why didn’t speaking in front of Hashem Himself, cause him the same concern? He deduced that his prayer should be improved.

In my own case, working in kiruv (outreach) makes everything that I had previously learned relevant. It helps me communicate more effectively with people who are educated and talented, but who also want to be sure that Jewish society will understand and appreciate them. Even if one cannot see it at first, teshuvah is not so much a totally new beginning, as a redirected continuation leading to a new, higher goal.

Reprinted with Permission from http://www.dovidgottlieb.com/