Why American Jews Reject Torah

Having been heavily involved with Kiruv and BTs for many years, it has always bothered me why we have such a low success rate of attracting people to Torah. I’m not talking about becoming fully observant, but rather about showing interest in Torah learning and practices.

My experience interacting with BTs and non-observant chavrusas, friends and relatives drives my thinking. I have also discussed this for countless hours with others involved in kiruv. I would like to share my current thinking on the matter.

I think the main reason Torah is rejected is because most non-observant Jews come to the conclusion that increasing their Jewish knowledge or practice will not significantly increase their pleasure or happiness and is therefore not worth their effort. They come to this conclusion largely from their observation of Torah observant Jews.

Let’s dig deeper using the four human dimensions: the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.

In the physical dimension, Torah requires us to limit our physical pleasures in the areas of food, sensuality and sun and fun activities. Most non observant people enjoy their restaurants and vacations, and even with the tremendous increase in kosher restaurants and resorts, it doesn’t compare. In regards to financial stability, the higher costs of Torah living, specifically tuitions, gives an advantage to the non observant.

From an emotional vantage point most non observant people seem to control their anger, envy and desire for honor on a level with the typical observant Jew. Although Torah provides the prescription for great relationships and emotional maturity, the typical secular person also has decent relations with their spouses, children, friends and relatives. Regarding happiness, the growth of the positive psychology movement with its focus on happiness has provided more paths for non observant Jews.

In the mental domain, non observant Jews find meaning in their jobs, communal activities and political discourse. Although Torah learning and mitzvah observance provides additional avenues of meaningful activities, this is not always observable.

The spiritual domain is one in which Torah provides a tremendous advantage. However, belief and connection to Hashem is difficult to measure. In addition our davening and observance of mitzvos performance often lack observable degrees of spirituality and purposeful living.

In summary, I think the secular lifestyle provides an advantage in the physical sphere and can approach the typical Torah life in the emotional well being and happiness areas. Regard meaning and the mental dimension, Torah has the potential to provide advantages. In the spiritual and purposeful living arenas, Torah is clearly superior.

So why do most observant Jews think a life of Torah is better, while most non-observant American Jews are not convinced? I think the reason is that most people are more focused on the lower realms of physical pleasure and happiness than they are on the higher ones of meaning and purpose. Torah observant people experience all the realms so they typically live a more fulfilling life, while the non observant experience more physical pleasure and decent degrees of happiness.

Perhaps if we were even more focused on living a Torah life of purpose and meaning, it would lead to more demonstrable contentment and happiness. If the non-observant could observe the clear advantage of Torah in three of the four human dimensions, they would to want to find out more.

How to Make a Bar Mitzvah and Actually Enjoy It

Having made two bar mitzvah’s within one year (no twins either!) and another one several years ago, I have some experience which I would be happy to share with Beyond BT readers who have reached this point in their family lives.

Practical Points
The most important thing is to make a list of all required actions and put them on a schedule leading up to the date of the Bar Mitzvah.
A sample would be as follows:

-9 months to one year before:
–begin bar mitzvah lessons if son is going to lein the parsha
–reserve the date with the gabbai of your shul

-6 months before:
–order tefillin if ordering from Eretz Yisroel
–decide what to do re: seudas mitzvah, Kiddush, Shabbos meals
–examine venues and reserve one for each of the above if needed
–start your diet (just joking!)

-3 months before:
–order tefillin if ordering locally
–make inquiries into invitation businesses and order invitation package. Don’t forget some form of thank you cards.
–make inquiries for catering and reserve caterer. The actual reservation can be done at a later time but it should be started early.
–hire musician and photographer. If they are popular or you live in a large city this may have to be done earlier.
–call neighbors and arrange for sleep over arrangements for those friends and relatives staying over for Shabbos
–order new sheitel if needed
–if cooking for meals or Kiddush yourself, start freezing!! You should not have to cook for shabbos at the last minute

-2 months before:
–begin shopping for clothes for family, including YOU! (for bar mitzvah boy this includes new suit, new hat (or two), shoes, etc.), for both Shabbos and seudah evening. This could be done earlier if clothing for the season is available, but since children tend to change size, I don’t recommend shopping too early.
–edit and make final changes to invitation

-1 month before:
–confirm and pay for hall and establish table set-up.
TIP: don’t forget to check out where the speakers will stand and make sure there is an outlet nearby for the sound system!
–decide and confirm menu for seudah, Kiddush and shabbos meals
–send out invitations
–confirm with musician and photographer.
–prepare a list/spread sheet for invitation responses and who sent gifts for thank you cards
–order benchers.
–confirm neighbor’s guest arrangements
–buy small gifts for neighbors who will be hosting your family
–buy small welcome bags and fill with snacks, water, etc for your out of town guests
–if you are self-preparing the Kiddush, hire waiters to set it up while you are at shul.
–decide how to prepare centerpieces for seudah, and if necessary reserve at a gemach or florist. Gemachs can also be used for Kiddush serving pieces if doing it yourself.
–have hubby (HELP-ha ha) write the pshetel (bar mitzvah boy’s torah speech) and his own remarks.
–invite your Rabbi, rebbe, principal, etc. to speak at the seudah
–sheitel appointment
–haircuts

-Week of:
–last minute food shopping & Shabbos cooking
–last minute clothes shopping –don’t forget several pairs of new stockings
–give final guest count to the caterer
–make sure everyone’s siddur, other Shabbos needs are in one secure place. Especially their shabbos shoes!

-Day of (for Shabbos):
–Wake up early! Leave for shul early! Take a chumash to follow along with the leining (unless the shul has enough copies)!

-Day of (for the seudah):
–check out set up as early as possible. Many times things are not set up properly
–bring the centerpieces
–bring the benchers
–bring along a long, heavy duty extension cord (just in case)

-TIPS: For those seeking to scale down the celebration and/or save some money, there are several things that can be done yourself.
–The Kiddush can be in your home. This will save $1000 or more by itself. Yes, it will be messy and crowded, but it will last only an hour. We did ours in our back yard and it was amazing! We cooked, baked and froze, and were supplemented by many generous friends.
–The invitations can be done by someone who knows or is studying computer graphics, for a fraction of the cost. Buy the stationary yourself at Staples, and do the copying at a Kinkos.
–For the photography, find someone with a good digital camera and arrange a deal where he takes the shots and you just take the chip/card afterwards and you do the printing yourself. But this is not worth it if he is not good. The photos are your remaining memories of the event, so make sure he/she is good!
–We did the centerpieces ourselves: with vases from the gemach I made fresh flowers for each table in matching pieces of fresh fruit. You can cut the cost even more by putting flowers only on the women’s tables (men don’t notice or care anyways).

Emotional Points
–Obviously, this is a lot of work. It can get quite stressful, especially when there aren’t frum family involved helping you with the arrangements, or who want to do things differently than you. And especially when holidays like Pesach are near or on your son’s bar mitzvah date.
–Despite the joy the event heralds, many BT mothers have experienced bar mitzvah planning as lonely and stressful. If you don’t have a mother or sister to share the planning with, it would be a positive move to involve a good friend to help you out, shop with you, and help you make your decisions (along with your husband of course).
–Family milestones can also resurrect difficulties with non-frum family that you thought were resolved. For example, asking them to dress modestly, issues of driving to you on Shabbos, the separate dancing, the separate seating, the women behind the mechitza in shul, can all be flashpoints for vocal disagreements. Being prepared for this eventuality and discussing with your husband how to respond to various possible scenarios is the best way to prevent or diffuse any arguments.
–After all the planning, however, when the day arrives, it ushers in a powerful experience of simcha and yiddishe nachas, when you realize how far you’ve come as a family and how much your son has grown. In my experience, boys take their bar mitzvah very seriously and it is an opportune chinuch moment to emphasize how proud you are of him and how you love seeing him involved in his learning and davening. Im Yirtzeh Hashem he should go from this accomplishment to other Torah milestones!

Mazel Tov!

Thanks to bar mitzvah planner Laurie B from Passaic.

Lifecycle Events – Tips on Making a Wedding, a Bar Mitzvah or a Bris

I’m 53, I’ve been a Baalas-Teshuvah since June 1974, when I was 17-1/2. Since then, I’ve gotten married and had seven children (four girls, three boys, in that order) and ten gorgeous grandchildren (so far). The first generation has had six weddings (the youngest boy not yet, he’s only 19), three Bar Mitzvahs, and three Brisim (or Britot – pardon my bad Ivrit). The next generation has had six Brisim and one Pidyon ha-Ben; no Bar-Mitzvahs yet.

Believe me, I’m not setting myself up as the Letitia Baldridge Etiquette Expert for the BT crowd. This is more like that Chasidic story about somebody lost in the forest who encounters someone else who’s also lost, but who can at least share which pathways have been tried and don’t work. Let me share my mistakes. Of course, what didn’t work for me might work for you. At least, we can all have a good laugh!

The first thing is to remember the advice of Pirkei Avos: “Make yourself a Rav, acquire yourself a friend.” Get yourself a wise halachic/hashkafic authority who also has a lot of practical good sense and people smarts. Bother this Rabbi (politely and respectfully, of course) with your halachic/hashkafic problems (and there will be many) during the planning of this lifecycle event. Acquiring a friend isn’t bad advice either: you need somebody with lots of patience to bounce ideas off, discuss things with, and complain to.

The second thing to remember is that you’ll never please everyone, so don’t even try. Do the kind of wedding, Bar Mitzvah or Bris that YOU want to do (within halachic boundaries, of course) and forget about keeping up with the Hobgelters. You especially won’t please all of your non-religious and non-Jewish family members, so don’t let anyone pile on the guilt.

The third thing to remember is to try to be in general agreement with your spouse (or spouse-to-be, if this is your own wedding) in planning this lifecycle event. Two heads (and two bank accounts) are better than one. If you are divorced, however, skip this paragraph.

The fourth thing to remember is that the kids’ yeshivos still want their tuition paid even after you pay the catering bills. So think really cheap, as in how low can I go and still make a decent event? Yes, I’m super cheap and that’s horrible. But do a little thinking out of the box (come on, that’s why we’re frum today, we weren’t afraid to think differently!) and there might be more affordable alternatives to the $30,000 Bar Mitzvah or the $75,000 wedding.

I’ll start with Brisim first. After the groggy announcement of “It’s a boy!” comes the planning of the Bris Milah. (Yes, I know that the Sholom Zachor is first. Get six cases of cold beer and soda, open up a dozen cans of cooked chickpeas, and run through the nearest Kosher bakery buying all kinds of assorted cookies and cakes. Lay all this stuff out on the table after you clear off Friday night’s seuda. Next). First, your pediatrician should tell you if the little guy has any health issues that might require postponing the Bris. Second, consult your Rabbi to help determine when the Bris Milah should take place. If the baby was born by C-section or during “Bain Hashmoshos” (the interim period between sunset and nightfall), then it is not held on Shabbos or Yom Tov. Third, hire a Mohel. (That’s why you figure out the date first). Last, deal with the food and locale part. That can be very much connected to the Hebrew calendar. My husband and I had to make a Chol Hamoed Pesach Bris for our oldest son. It ended up as a table in our shul spread with boxes of (relatively) cheap Israeli hand matzohs, open cans of tuna with the label showing, jars of Pesach mayonnaise, cooked eggs, Pesachdik soda, and that was about it. A Seudas Bris on Motzaei Tisha B’av will be very different from a Seudas Bris on Shabbos Sukkos.

Next, Bar Mitzvahs. Talk to your son at least a year ahead of time. Does he intend to read his entire Torah portion or is he content to just say the brochos and let the official reader take over? Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld zatzal was unhappy at the pressure on young boys to “perform,” and so instituted a rule in his own kehillah that nobody “lains” except the Baal Koreh. A boy who plans to “lain” his whole portion has to start learning the “trup” months in advance. And find out exactly what that portion is going to be. Don’t waste time learning the Haftarah for that Shabbos when it’s actually “Machar Chodesh.”

Then talk to your son about the kind of Bar Mitzvah he wants to have. You probably can’t afford a lavish catered affair with five-piece band and professional photos, unless you have only one son and exceedingly generous grandparents. For our youngest son, my husband and I got away very cheaply by renting a local shul basement and ordering in glatt Chinese food on paper plates. For our oldest son, the pre-Pesach baby, we waited to celebrate until the summer and then held a barbeque out on our lawn. Some people are “machpid” (strict) that the Bar Mitzvah seudah must held on the exact night that the boy turns Bar Mitzvah. You can still save money by leaving out the professional band and photographer (that’s what CD players and camcorders are for) and opting for a limited guest list at a local glatt restaurant’s party room. Another option: Your son might enjoy much more getting a trip to Israel for his Bar Mitzvah. Send father and son only, leave the rest of the family at home to save money, and it could cost less than 7K. Don’t skimp on the Tefillin, though: a good pair will set you back about a grand.

Don’t forget to make the necessary arrangements way in advance with your shul or synagogue for the main event. How many aliyos to the Torah will your family need? Just two (the boy and his father) or will there be grandfathers, uncles and big brothers who expect aliyos also? Are there going to be two or more boys in your shul or synagogue who are Bar Mitzvah on the same Shabbos? If so, what’s the official policy (hopefully not big donor gets precedence). In all fairness, a longtime active Shul member will naturally be accommodated ahead of a stranger. How will you include, or exclude, nonreligious relatives who don’t keep Shabbos? I once went to a very nice Bar Mitzvah held on Thanksgiving Day, a Thursday when the Torah is read. Davening and the seudas mitzvah were set up at a local Glatt Kosher catering hall (and yes, we had turkey). There was no problem with driving to the event. Ditto for a Bar Mitzvah that can be held on a Sunday Rosh Chodesh or on a Sunday of Chanukah or Chol haMoed.

Last of all, I’ll mention the very special Bar Mitzvah, for a boy with special needs or special circumstances. There have been Down syndrome boys who have had beautiful Bar Mitzvah celebrations with family and friends. You definitely need the full cooperation of the Rabbi, Gabbai and shul president to make a special bar mitzvah happen. Other boys with physical or mental challenges have had Bar Mitzvahs. Say it again: ADVANCE PLANNING!!

Weddings – I’ve already gone on at length on Bar Mitzvahs and Brisim, and I think I could easily run on another ten thousand words or so about weddings. Instead, I’ll just briefly mention six very helpful hints. One, network network network with other people in your community who have just made weddings to get some of their good ideas on how to save money but still make a lovely simcha. Two, keep a notebook and write down important addresses and phone numbers. This can be a useful resource for the next wedding in the family. Three, rent instead of buy whenever you can: gowns for the ladies, centerpieces for the tables, etc. etc. etc. Four, leave out wasteful extras like the Viennese table. Fifth, keep the guest list way down as much as possible on both sides (casual acquaintances and distant cousins will understand if they’re not invited). Sixth, knowing in advance that lots of people will be screaming about your choices will help you to get through it all with your sanity and sense of humor intact. Of course Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Max will complain loudly about separate seating. Smile and concentrate on getting the happy couple halachically hitched. I’ll just mention here that my husband didn’t invite any of his many co-workers to our oldest daughter’s wedding. Instead, he got permission from his manager to bring in the wedding video and show it during lunch hour in one of the conference rooms. His co-workers were quite nice about it, and they enjoyed the video very much. Sending a copy of the wedding video with a lovely note attached could be a welcome alternative to inviting those obnoxious relations who ruin every party they attend.

I’m no maven or macher, and I’m certainly not a Posaik. These hints, tips, suggestions and stories are simply to start the conversation. Your lifecycle event is going to be as individual and unique as you are. If you were brave enough to become frum, you’re brave enough to make your own kind of celebration!