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.