The Lonely Rocky Road

Rabbi Yehuda Zakutinsky
From Mishpacha Magazine BT Symposium – September 13, 2012

WHEN MANY frum JEWS ARE asked to picture the experience of a baal teshuvah, a fairy-tale-like portrait comes to mind, in which the baal teshuvah has experienced Jewish enlightenment and clarity, and complete acceptance and contentment in the frum community. Unfortunately, the reality for most baalei teshuvah is far from a fairy tale.

Their road is at times rocky, lonely, and filled with many obstacles. After the period of inspiration the baal teshuvah experienced, which often occurs in a yeshivah or seminary geared specifically toward incubating the new found love for Judaism of these men and women, baalei teshuvah are plunged back into the new reality of their life, and they now need to incorporate Torah Judaism into their already established lives and relationships.

Parts of the frum lifestyle that we take for granted seem daunting for these baalei teshuvah. Shabbos and Yom Tov can be lonely when there is no family to go home to for these festive times. Shidduchim, which are challenging for even the most savvy of the frum community, can be very confusing for the newly religious individual. Their newfound commitment can at times strain their relationships with family and friends, who are all trying to adjust to their lifestyle change. The spark that was ignited can begin to flicker, or even be extinguished, due to the tremendous loneliness and difficulties of the path they’ve so boldly chosen.

Baalei teshuvah need a venue in which to come together as a community, where they can meet and make friends with others who have walked the same path they have.

When a child comes back from learning in Eretz Yisrael, the scene is generally one of excitement and anticipation. For the baal teshuvah, this reunion can be filled with misunderstandings, disagreements, and at times many tears. While both the baal teshuvah and his parents love and care about each other, the child’s newfound frumkeit can, if not handled with care, create deep rifts. Keeping kosher can create chaos at a family dinner, and keeping Shabbos can leave the baal teshuvah home alone during family time. I have found that with intense, ongoing, one-on-one guidance, driven by understanding, empathy, and concern, baalei teshuvah and their families can often learn how to maintain their close relationships, without compromising the child’s new commitment.

Judaism is a very family-oriented religion. Shabbos and Yom Tov are times when people join together with family and reconnect with them. For the baal teshuvah, who doesn’t have religious family to go to, Shabbos can be a lonely time. At best, the baal teshuvah has the uncomfortable task of inviting himself over to people’s tables, always feeling like a nomad and a guest, and never finding a place to call home. At worst, a challah roll and a can of tuna alone in a basement apartment can be the extent of the Shabbos seudah.

There needs to be warm, loving, nonjudgmental, accepting environments in the frum community where one can always feel welcome. An integral part of integration is for the baal teshuvah to have a network of frum families who will invite them into their homes and into their hearts. It is imperative that the proper “shidduch” be made between host and guest. They become adoptive parents for them, and create an environment where they can be themselves and not be put on display as the “baal teshuvah” in the room.

The process of finding a spouse in the religious community is very different from the one with which the baal teshuvah is familiar, and navigating it requires guidance and advice. Also, without a parent advocating for an individual, the process is that much more difficult. Finding shadchanim who are sensitive to baalei teshuvah is essential, as is the role adoptive families can play to advocate for them, research prospective dates for them, and coach them with the love and care that they need.

The baal teshuvah often feels he is playing “catch up” in his Torah studies because of his late start in Yiddishkeit. To address this, it is important that there are learning programs, shiurim, and chavrusos specifically geared to helping the baal teshuvah learn and grow.

When someone is blessed with a simchah in the frum community, the family shifts into high gear, so to speak, to make every aspect of the simchah as beautiful and as meaningful as possible. But the baal teshuvah’s family is usually unfamiliar with the many minhagim and halachos of a simchah, and this can result in significant friction between the young couple and their families, and leave them with no one to count on to help make their simchah the special occasion it is.

Vorts, aufrufs, sheva brachos, brissim, pidyon habens, bar mitzvahs, and weddings — at every stage of the life cycle there are occasions which the baal teshuvah’s family may not be able to truly be there for them. I have found that this is another time when the Jewish community has the opportunity, as well as the obligation, to step in and create the simchah that these men and women deserve.

Based on more than three decades of working with baalei teshuvah after their return to Yiddishkeit, I know that while the road for baalei teshuvah can at times be rough and challenging, with siyata d’Shmaya and support from the Jewish community, the baal teshuvah story can be a truly successful one.

Rabbi Yehuda Zakutinsky, a musmach of Rav Pam ztz”l, has been involved in kiruv for over thirty years. He is a founder and the director of Hashevaynu, an organization that functions as a support system for baalei teshuvah who are integrating into the frum community.

Some BTs Lose It, Some FFBs Never Had It

Rabbi Menachem Zupnik
From Mishpacha Magazine BT Symposium – September 13, 2012

THE PROBLEMS IDENTIFIED here are very real and serious, and the answers are very personal and complex, and can’t be properly addressed in a short forum. I am also uncomfortable that perhaps classifying these courageous Jews and their problems separately in this way is shallow and disrespectful. I try to be understanding of each individual, weighing his strengths and limitations as we talk. I experience each one as just an Orthodox Jew trying his best to juggle the stress and difficulty of fidelity to Hashem and His Torah in today’s day and age.

I have been privileged to be inspired by many Jews who demonstrate incredible dedication and modesty in the face of great nisayon; but I have also encountered Jews who unfortunately do not seem concerned enough about compromising their Yiddishkeit. There is a spectrum of connection to Hashem and His Torah that exists equally among both the frum from birth and the baalei teshuvah. Indeed, some FFB people demonstrate weaknesses requiring compromises that dwarf any I have ever made for a person due to his secular past. In my experience, it is not a person’s upbringing that defines who he is; his past is something for consideration, but no more.

You wonder how to deal with a baal teshuvah’s “buyer’s remorse.” In response, I query: Is their problem of disenchantment essentially any different from that which so many of our young FFB adults are feeling, and is the answer to “their problem” any different from the answer to “ours”?

Regarding the sheer difficulty and expense of being frum, I again suggest that the problem is no different for the FFB individual. What would you say to a good, well-meaning Jew who, following his rebbeim, struggled to raise daughters who wish to marry only bnei Torah? His wonderful success in raising six exemplary daughters is greeted with the harsh reality that the really serious bnei Torah “cost” more than he can afford. His daughters, he is told, must settle for boys who are not such big learners but can support themselves. He regrets having thoughtlessly followed the course of our community, he is disil-lusioned by the system, and angry that it does not value his precious daughters and give them the chance they so very much deserve. How does one respond to his remorse and anger? The problem is not essentially any different from the one described here as a baal teshuvah problem. Indeed, in my experience, the latter problem arises more often than the former.

The issue of full integration into the community is also a personal question that depends on the individual and the community. I cannot overemphasize the importance of making the effort to belong to and be part of the larger Orthodox Jewish community. This is especially important for their children’s sake, since they are lacking the added support of an extended frum family.

But once again, this is not only an issue for baalei teshuvah. They are not the only ones who want to retain their own identity and are hesitant to conform entirely. This is a larger problem with frum behavior in general; we may eat similar foods and wear similar clothes, but we are far from conformists. Just listen to the attitudes expressed among FFBs: This rav is too stringent and that rav is too lenient, that rosh yeshivah is too rigid and the other one does not give the boys a clear direction. Tragically, this occurs regarding gedolei Yisrael as well, with too many FFBs assessing their wisdom and deciding at a whim whether to heed their guidance.

The sad reality is that most frum Jews are in actuality very — perhaps too — independent. People resist committing themselves to any one shul, or rav, or any particular derech. This is not spiritually healthy for the FFB any more than it is for the baal teshuvah. So, before we start pondering whether an intelligent, well-educated baal teshuvah has to give up his or her independence and perspective to join our derech, perhaps we should address our own deficiencies in this regard, and ask ourselves: Do I have a rav and a derech? Have I given up my ideas and issues in order to conform to a kehillah?

The term ben Torah, although part of our lexicon, lacks a clear definition. I use the term to describe a particular type of Jew who may not have ever even stepped into a yeshivah, but understands that being frum entails striving to be a better Jew and constantly growing in avodas Hashem. In general, the life of a ben Torah is less secular and more intensely Jewish. One might therefore expect that he would have the hardest time in accepting newcomers to Judaism, with their “strange and different ways.”

Yet, I have observed over many years that the very opposite is true. It is these very intensely Jewish individuals who have the least problem accepting the newcomers. And that is simply because they have the most in common with them; they both are seekers of the truth. They value substance over style, and appreciate each other’s mesirus nefesh to try and do what is correct. Others who accept mediocrity and stagnation in their Jewish lives do not share this common bond with the baal teshuvah. And, although their more liberal form of Jewish living and familiarity with secular culture might seem closer to the baal teshuvah’s own experience, in reality they find little in common with the baal teshuvah’s sincerity and quest for meaning in life.

There are many baalei teshuvah who, after a while, lose their initial vitality, and there are many FFBs who never had it. Yet we find in both of these groups dedicated Jews who maintain their enthusiasm for everything Jewish throughout their observant lives. This is the only meaningful distinction that exists within our community in an effort to deal with its problems; it is a mistake to continue grouping Jews by irrelevant superficialities.

The best thing we can do for our newly observant members is to continue to strive and grow to become better Jews. Most baalei te-shuvah will feel accepted and comfortable among such Jews. The worst thing we can do for them is to lose our own vitality and become more involved with style than substance. That is a tragedy for us as well as for them.

Rav Menachem Zupnik is the rav of Bais Torah U’tefillah in Passaic, New Jersey, a yeshivah community that is also a magnet for baalei teshuvah. His kehillah is noted for its ability to make the yeshivah worldview and experience accessible to newcomers.

You Have Graduated

By Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald
From Mishpacha Magazine BT Symposium – September 13, 2012

MOST FRUM-FROM-BIRTH JEWS fail to appreciate the life-wrenching decisions and monumental sacrifices that are involved in becoming a baal teshuvah. In a very real sense, becoming a baal teshuvah may be com¬pared to being asked to move to Mars. Once the decision is made, almost everything in a baal teshuvah’s life is challenged, changed, and transformed. For most who make that choice, exceptional conviction and indeed heroism are required to adapt to the rigorous lifestyle of Orthodox Judaism.

To support the development of healthy, balanced baalei teshuvah, we must be aware of a number of cogent principles. From bitter experience, I have concluded that those Jews who walk in and immediately become shomer Shabbos and kashrus might well eventually de¬part from observance just as abruptly. That’s less likely, however, for those who supplement their rapid transformation with intense Torah study. Rather than push for the quick observance of mitzvos, I would encourage additional study and deliberate religious growth.

A healthy baal teshuvah needs to be a balanced person. Yet some methods of contemporary kiruv are antithetical to that goal. Very often the mekarev, who invests many hours, days, and even years working with a potential baal teshuvah, assumes “ownership” of the new neshamah. The mekarev and his/her family generally study Torah with the neophytes, open their hearts and homes to include them in their family experiences, often adopting the beginner as an additional child or sibling.

But this is unhealthy for the baal teshuvah. I’ve long argued that baalei teshuvah need multiple, authentic religious experiences. By exposing them to other mechanchim and rabbanim, with other valid points of view, the future baalei teshuvah come away with a much greater, broader, healthier picture of Jewish life.

True, separation is often very difficult to accomplish, for both the mekarev and the baal teshuvah. When I first began conducting the Beginners’ Service, it was so difficult for me to “graduate” a beginner. I had worked on them and sweated with them, cried with them and labored with them, and I mistakenly perceived that these people were mine! It was a good feeling knowing that the beginners “loved” the service and did not want to leave, and I too, was not eager for them leave.

It was a thoroughly heartrending decision for me to have to say to someone, “You have graduated. I will match you up with someone who will help you during davening in the regular shul.” It was painful for both of us. But it was necessary, in order to create a healthy balance, and allow them to progress and develop religiously.

Another important factor that is often overlooked is that mekarvim and committed community members need to be concerned with the “whole person,” to be aware of the factors that motivate a person to explore Judaism. Is it a true spiritual search, or was it a reaction to a death in the family, or the loss of a boyfriend/girlfriend, or job? Is it possibly due to emotional or psychological instability? It is certainly not just how many chapters a day of Tehillim the newly observant recite, or how many Mishnayos they have mastered, that should concern us. We need to be attentive to the whole person, including issues of parnassah, social status, and relationships with spouses, children, I cannot think of a single instance in my many years where confrontation has proven beneficial either to baalei teshuvah or to their families and parents. Those concerns are also part of becoming a Torah Jew and living a full Jewish life.

Another important factor in the development of healthy baalei teshuvah is assisting them with coming to terms with their past. Alienating them from their parents, or encouraging them to deny their past, is almost always destructive and wrongheaded. Defiantly antireligious parents, who see their children acting with uncommon respect and concern — despite the parents’ venom — are often trans¬formed, and become more sympathetic. When children are taught not to be confrontational, but accommodating (and that can almost always be achieved), it has a most salutary effect on the entire family, and the entire adjustment process for the baal teshuvah is enhanced as well. I cannot think of a single instance in my many years where confrontation has proven beneficial either to baalei teshuvah or to their families.

I have always made it a point to keep in closer contact with those with whom I have “failed,” than with those who succeeded. It is crucial to never give up! We must try to win back the less committed to the growth mode, even if it is one tiny step forward. These so-called “failures” are the ones who receive our annual calls before the holidays. They are the ones who are invited to our home for Shabbos and holiday meals, more frequently than the “success” cases. Above all, it is important to keep the lines of communication open. And when occasionally there is a return, it is a reason for great happiness.

It is crucially important that the frum community be there to support and aid baalei teshuvah, to show them love and concern along the way. I can candidly say that being warmly welcomed in a new shul has an exhilarating effect on me, and I am no stranger to shul.

Today, unfortunately, we find trends that are going in the opposite direction, where baalei teshuvah and their children often discover that they are not welcome. I wonder if the children of Reish Lakish, who started as a highwayman, were prohibited from attending the local schools and shuls because of Reish Lakish’s ignoble past. This growing practice is not only terribly wrong, but a real turnoff to anyone who is thinking of becoming, or has become, an observant Jew.

Ephraim Z. Buchwald is the director of the National Jewish Outreach Program and rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue Beginners Service.

When Integration Doesn’t Work

By Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky
From Mishpacha Magazine BT Symposium – September 13, 2012

WHEN DEALING WITH QUESTIONS of education and kiruv, there is one rule that is always applicable. That rule is: There is no one rule that is always ap¬plicable when dealing with questions of education and kiruv. Each neshamah is unique. Each situation is different. So each question should usually be answered with, “It depends.”

With that disclaimer, I will share some insights based on 35 years of educating baalei teshuvah (both men and women) that can shed light on some of the important questions raised.

First, to the question of integration. Consumers who have “bought” a product can start a “user’s group.” Kiruv should not be about “selling Judaism,” and those who have “bought in” shouldn’t view it that way. Kiruv must be viewed as a process of transmitting our Divinely revealed Torah — both the knowledge and the practice — to Jews who don’t have it. Jews who are committing to a Torah life need to be integrated into communities with a mesorah rooted in the authentic transmission of that Torah. Baalei teshuvah overcome tremendous challenges on their path to Torah observance. But they lack the knowl¬edge and experience necessary to ensure that their commitment is stable, and can be transmitted properly to their children. Integration into appropriate communities should therefore be the goal.

Baalei teshuvah are raising frum-from-birth (FFB) children (unless they become baalei teshuvah after their children are grown). For those children to carry on the Torah life that their parents have adopted, they must be integrated into solid educational systems, the product of existing Torah communities. As decisions about communities are being made, both the mekarvim and the baalei teshuvah themselves must have a long-term perspective as commitment grows and guid-ance is received.

If integration doesn’t work, it is usually because the baal teshuvah was rushed in the kiruv process, or chose an inappropriate community. Not all frum communities can be termed “baal teshuvah– friendly.” Living in a community that only respects people who are involved in the full-time learning or teaching of Torah is challenging for many working FFBs. For most baalei teshuvah, it can lead to isolation, insecurity, and a weakening of their earlier commitment. With over 3,000 talmidim, most of whom are well integrated into existing communities throughout the English-speaking world, my experience is that Israel and America present very different challenges in many directions. Identifying and navigating them requires experience, sensitivity — and its own article.

There is rarely a good response to “buyer’s remorse,” something I view as tragic on a practical level (which too often results in ruined lives), as well as on a spiritual level (see Rambam, Ch. 3, Teshuvah Halachah 3, on the consequences of regretting a decision about doing a mitzvah). The real solution to buyer’s remorse is to make sure it doesn’t happen. This requires that the kiruv process be slow, “transparent,” and that each step is done with proper deliberation. Buyer’s remorse is frequently the result of the baal teshuvah charging forward without listening to advice from his mentors, or having mentors who are trying to “make the person frum,” as opposed to truly caring about the complete welfare of the individual.

Deciding what to retain from the pre-teshuvah days is probably the most complex and individualized problem. Was their past life dysfunctional and hedonistic? Was it refined and creative? Many secular people have lives that are very moral, fulfilling, and inspiring, and their path to Torah observance was paved with positive activities and social connections. We have had students who became clinically depressed because they were told they had to drop activities and interests that were at the core of their creative personalities. For some people, being told that Judaism demands that they drop their involvement in art, music, or sports, will lead to their decision to drop their involvement in Judaism. And if they stay in Judaism without having proper creative nourishment, they are vulnerable to many problems.

The correct decisions in this area require great sensitivity and balance, both to the demands of halachah and to the personality of the individual. All too often, a mekarev will try to transform a person into someone the mekarev would like him or her to be. Instead, one needs to identify the unique needs of the individual neshamah, and developmentally educate and guide the person on a path that will connect that neshamah to Torah in a stable and long-lasting way.

Which leads to the final point that I would like to make.
The allocation of resources between the initial stages of kiruv, compared to those devoted to nurturing and supporting longer term growth and development is seriously out of balance. In allocating dol¬lars for kiruv, much of the money spent on the initial stages of kiruv is directed toward awakening interest of Jews who are not initially interested. When a kiruv professional succeeds in awakening an interest in Torah, that interest must be nurtured over a significant period of time. If in the pursuit of getting more and more new people interested in Judaism, a professional — or an organization — can’t continue to educate and nurture the ones who were inspired, those Jews can end up with a more negative attitude towards Judaism than they had before the kiruv process began.

My formula is that for every dollar devoted to getting someone inter¬ested in Torah, ten dollars should be devoted to nurturing and developing that interest, educating and supporting the individual towards the goal of becoming a well-adjusted, knowledgeable Torah Jew.

Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky was born in Los Angeles, learned in Kerem B’Yavneh and Yeshivas Mir Jerusalem, and has a master’s degree in educational psychology from Temple University. Through the incisive way he penetrates and clarifies issues, questioning students and challenging them to question themselves, he has facilitated the Torah growth of over 3,000 men and women. He is a founder and rosh yeshivah of Shapell’s/ Darche Noam and Midreshet Rachel V’Chaya in Jerusalem.

Mishpacha Magazine – BT Symposium Questions

From Mishpacha Magazine BT Symposium – September 13, 2012
We posted Jonathon’s Rosenblum’s response here.
Over the next weeks, with the generous permission of the Mishpacha editors, we will post many of the other repsonses.
Here are the questions that were posed to the participants.

In the last 50 years, tens of thousands of Jews from every walk of life have reclaimed their religious heritage and made their way to a Torah way of life. Their presence in frum communities around the globe has added immeasurably to the success and vitality of observant Jewish communities in too many ways to count. Yet all is not necessarily idyllic in the lives of these baalei teshuvah themselves. They often face a host of unexpected challenges in their newly chosen lives: grappling with the “ghosts” of their past, achieving full acceptance in the frum communities they now call home, uncertainty about the practical aspects of frum living and ongoing religious doubts, and alien¬ation due to lack of an indigenous support network. How can these difficult issues be resolved, and how can the frum community help?

SHOULD FULL INTEGRATION be the universally desirable goal for a baal teshuvah, or is there something to be said for such individuals and families seeking to form or join self-standing communities and institutions?

WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES to the baal teshuvah — both internal and external — along the road to full integration? When full integration fails, is that primarily due to the individual, the community, or some combination thereof?

HOW MUCH, if any, of a baal teshuvah’s past life — e.g., relationships, cultural interests, pastimes — should he retain after becoming frum?

WHICH SEGMENT of the frum community presents the best chance for the baal teshuvah to integrate and take his place as a full member? Do the frum communities in the United States or in Eretz Yisrael present different issues regarding integration?

HOW SHOULD WE RESPOND to a baal teshuvah who speaks of “buyer’s remorse” some years after his return to Torah, due to the sheer difficulty and expense of the frum lifestyle? Due to disenchantment with the frum world? Due to loss of faith or still-unanswered questions?

WHAT ARE THE PARTICULAR challenges the baal teshuvah faces in marriage, in raising a family, and in dealing with the lack of a support system?

ARE KIRUV PROFESSIONALS and their funders focusing on the initial stages of the process and less on the later stages, leaving the newly frum without sufficient resources after they’ve made the leap?

WHAT ARE FRUM communities doing wrong — and right — in relation to their newly observant members?

Edited by: Eytan Kobre