Sheryl Sandberg Illustrates New Directions in Kiruv

On June 3rd, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, posted her thoughts and feelings after the accidental death of her husband Dave Goldberg. Here are the first two paragraphs:

Today is the end of sheloshim for my beloved husband—the first thirty days. Judaism calls for a period of intense mourning known as shiva that lasts seven days after a loved one is buried. After shiva, most normal activities can be resumed, but it is the end of sheloshim that marks the completion of religious mourning for a spouse.

A childhood friend of mine who is now a rabbi recently told me that the most powerful one-line prayer he has ever read is: “Let me not die while I am still alive.” I would have never understood that prayer before losing Dave. Now I do.

Please read the entire post as a merit for Sheryl’s late husband.

I think that Sheryl’s post highlights the new face of kiruv going forward. Non religious people are very interested in learning about God and the Torah’s view on purpose, meaning and happiness within the ordinary and extraordinary occurrences in our lives. However if they feel like they are being proselytized to a fully Torah Observant way of life, they will probably back away and lose some interest in learning.

As Rabbi Avraham Edelstein wrote in December 2012

“Kiruv is the communicate of timeless Torah through contemporary vessels and idioms. As such, the kiruv movement is always in a certain state of transition. We are dealing with a moving target, a rapidly changing generation, and almost daily technological innovations. Woe betides the kiruv organization that thinks that it has found “the formula.” Today’s successes are tomorrow’s failures. Methodologies, goals and targeted age-groups need to be constantly reassessed and often reformulated. The kiruv world by its very nature is engaged in transformation. For us, creative breakthroughs are a part of our basic avodas Hashem. Given the enormous implications of this movement in world history, I remain with boundless optimism that we will make the breakthroughs that are necessary to take us to the next level and beyond.”

Bob Dylan and Me

A True Story

St. Paul Minnesota is not a popular tourist attraction in winter, but there I was in December 1984, wandering around the lobby of Bais Chana. Perched atop a hill, in a monastic looking building situated amongst large sprawling suburban homes, would be the place where I would confront myself as a Jewess for the first time.

The Lubavitcher shluchim at StonyBrook University where I had been a student hadn’t told me too much about the place except, that there was a certain Rabbi Manis Friedman there who specialized in answering questions for girls like me, whatever that meant.

Feeling lost and aimless, I tentatively stood in the empty lobby. It seemed that I had been one of the first to arrive for that winter session, and the place was not yet as packed as if would get later on. Few people were around and all was silent.

Then suddenly I saw a figure appear at the front door and I gasped. It couldn’t be real, but it was. Right in front of my eyes stood none other than Bob Dylan. At the time I didn’t know that this was during Bob Dylan’s Torah ‘stage’, and that he had been studying privately with Rabbi Friedman and was a regular visitor to Bais Chana during those years.

There Bob Dylan stood, right in front of me, in all his glory, wearing his signature faded jeans and black motorcycle jacket. “Hi,” he said to me softly, ‘How are you doin’?”

This was all a bit too much for me to take in. Here I was going to a place that I thought would be trying to teach me to go back into time, to become like my grandmother, and here was the king of all things hip and cool, a 1960’s prophet, the master of rebellion against the establishment, right there in front of me, in the flesh.

Despite feeling as if I had been just struck by lightening, I mustered up a meek,’ I’m fine.” Then Bob Dylan came over to me and gave me a gentle pat on my back and said, ’It’s cool, don’t worry, everything is cool. It’s gonna be alright.” And he walked away, through the hallway and disappeared as fast as he had come.

I immediately found a payphone and called my friend David.

‘Bob Dylan is here! And he talked to me”

‘Then that must be a cool place,’ David said, and he later followed me to Crown Heights. After all, if Bob Dylan was there, then David was right, this was a cool place, and I felt better about being there. In fact, I felt like I was in the right place at the right time, and at that moment, I decided that if one of my teen idols was studying there, then I would stick it out too.

Bob Dylan never stayed the course as far as Yiddishkeit goes, he travelled a very zig zagged road, in and out of a number or religions. In a strange way though, one could say that Bob Dylan brought me back, with just a few kind words, when I was facing a fork in the road, he showed me the correct path.

Originally Posted on March 13, 2006

INSPIRATZON – the Process of Transforming Inspiration into Willpower

By Aryeh Goldman who writes at hitoreri.com

The function of inspiration is to give us an insight into whom we are and offer us an opportunity to realign ourselves with our inner purpose. However, when inspiration is not converted into something tangible and real it is wasted and the lost opportunity can leave us feeling empty and unfulfilled.

I have created a new term – INSPIRATZON – based on what my teachers have taught me. In order to make inspiration meaningful, for it to be sustained, we must almost instantaneously make a vessel for it. That vessel, is referred to as Ratzon or willpower. Our Ratzon is the driving force behind all our spiritual movement and development. Once we convert inspiration into a focused and burning willpower, no obstacle can stand in its path. You see, the inspiration usually comes from outside of us, driven by the G-dly intent of redirecting our desire away from physical and temporary pleasures towards a more spiritual and meaningful existence.

We all have our challenges. Mine has always been my weight. My library is full of diet books, my pantry packed with vitamins, meal replacement bars and protein shakes. My cupboards are crammed with juicers, blenders and other diet promoting paraphernalia. I possess multiple exercise machines, sneakers, training shorts, pedometers and sweat bands. My parents, friends, teachers and doctors have all tried to persuade me and I have been inspired on multiple occasions to lose weight. However, my weight challenge will only be addressed once I cultivate an unwavering inner ratzon/willpower to be healthy. Once I commit to that, then all the other tools will be at my disposal to affect the necessary restoration. But until I am prepared to make that commitment, the exercise equipment will continue to gather dust and the unworn running shoes bare testimony to my failure to convert inspiration into Ratzon.

Many of us begin a program of transformation with the best intentions and are highly inspired. However before long we lose the initial excitement and hit a plateau. This is usually when our true Ratzon is tested. At that moment our persistence waivers and we usually just give up. Champions are born out of a resolute persistence, even in the face of adversity. These legends see the moments of stagnation, the plateau, the challenges, as opportunities to draw upon and reveal their inner Ratzon. And in so doing, inevitably bring themselves closer to their goals.

The Talmud (Avodah Zoro, 17b) tells a fascinating story of Elozor ben Dordoi, who was a man with an insatiable lust. He pursued his temptation at great expense, crossing seven rivers to be in the company of one particular lady. While in her presence and defiling himself, she commented that Elozor ben Dordoi will never repent and return to his source. Her words pierced his heart and he immediately withdrew to the fields. He began beseeching the mountains and valleys, the heavens and earth, the sun and the moon to pray on his behalf…to no avail. Finally he realises he cannot shift the responsibility and declares: “I see that it now depends on me.” He places his head between his knees and begins to cry. In a tragic ending to the tale Elozor reaches such a state of purity that he resembles the innocence of a child and his soul leaves his body. A heavenly voice pronounces that Rebbe Elozor ben Dordoi is invited to Olam Haba and hearing this proclamation Rabbi Yehuda begins to cry. Through his tears he says the words, “Yesh koneh olamo besha’a achat – in just one moment of inspiration one can acquire one’s entire eternal reward”.

This is a powerful tale. Elozor ben Dordoi teaches us that we cannot blame anyone but ourselves for our lack of happiness and success. He teaches us not to ignore the inspiration and that if even he, Elozor ben Dordoi, can hear the embedded message, generate a powerful Ratzon and immediately act on it – then anyone can.

Rabbi Yehuda’s tears bothered me for a long time until a mentor explained that Rabbi Yehuda was not crying for Rebbe Elozor. Rabbi Yehuda was acutely conscious of the incredible potential contained within mankind and realizes how critical it is to transform inspiration into Ratzon if that potential is to be realized. He was crying for each and every one of us who mute the call to self-discovery, fail to create a vessel for the inspiration, fail to seize the opportunities inspiration offers, fail to take immediate action or fail to persist when success isn’t instantaneous.

Ask yourself, what are your challenges? What do you willpower more then anything else in the world? It is critical to have a conscious awareness of our desires for our success depends upon it.

Don’t Grow it Alone

We had a wonderful young BT couple over for lunch recently and we were discussing two of the main attractions to Torah observance, the values of the community and the search for truth that a life of Torah entails. However I think I would add a third pillar and that is the pursuit of continual growth found among so many members of the Torah Observant community.

Growth is hard, whether it be emotional growth, intellectual growth or spiritual growth. It is made harder by the fact that a growth oriented person never rests on his or her laurels. There is always another level. You may have successfully worked long and hard on dealing with anger, envy and honor but there’s still another step you can take, and another step after that.

Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford has helped put a growth Mindset on the agenda of the secular world, but it is just a pebble’s ripple when compared to wealth of insights, strategies and nuances that the sea of Torah contains. But it’s not easy. We each have our own individual challenges in we have to find and apply the right prescriptions for our own unique situations day in and day out.

Thankfully the Torah observant world is full of people working on growing. In my little corner of the Torah Observant world in Kew Gardens Hills, I’m constantly surrounded by FFBs and BTs who understand that life is growth and pursue it with a passion. We have our faults. We have our disagreements. We have our struggles. But I’m so thankful to the local and worldwide Torah Community where we Don’t Grow it Alone.

A BT’s Recipe For Raising Good Kids in an FFB World

I recently met the grown son (20-ish) of a very talented rabbi and educator. The father is an overt ba’al teshuva, and the son a regular bochur who attends a top mainstream Israeli yeshiva. To me the boy seemed to have inculcated the best of what the FFB-and BT-worlds have to offer.

As a BT raising my kids in a FFB yeshivish world, I could only wish for the same success with my own sons. I asked the father how he did it, and the following is what he shared with me as his “recipe.” I understand every home, parent, and child is different and parenting isn’t “one-size fits all” and that the issues below implicate thorny hashkafic issues. Nevertheless, having seen the product and judging the recipe on its own merits, I thought his ideas were worth sharing. Whatever our recipe, may Hashem help that we all merit to have wonderful children!

1. Relaxed atmosphere in the home. I want life to be light, not heavy, for them. But light because Hashem loves us and everything is OK, not light from kalus rosh. Light has nothing to do with circumstance. You can have a parent die, a divorce, monetary problems and life can still be light. (This, to me, is probably most important of all and it’s a tricky balance to find. As a wise man I know once said, anyone can be a great gardener in Hawaii – if you have the right atmosphere in the home, children will naturally flourish, even under difficult circumstances.)

2. No shouting, ever.

3. Mistakes are not terrible, they are part of life. I want my kids to feel it’s OK to be naughty – it doesn’t make them bad people. They just need to apologize if necessary, do teshuva and move on. It doesn’t need to be a big deal.

4. Apologize to my kids when necessary. I’m not perfect either.

5. Very little interest in grades at school – middos are all that matter to me on their reports. This is not just words, I believe it – and my kids know that.

6. No labeling – even good labeling. You did a good thing, not you are a good boy. (If you are a good boy because you did good, it implies you are not good intrinsically – there’s another reason, but I want to keep this short)

7. Similarly, praise the act, not the child.

8. No punishment, rather consequences to actions (tricky balance this one and it’s taken a while to get it right – I learned this as some of the other ideas from Adlerian family counselling)

9. Ask them difficult questions as soon as they are ready for them – how do you know God exists? How do you know he wrote the Torah? Obviously, give them answers also.

10. Encourage them to ask the difficult questions that are bothering them. Value and appreciate a question like, why should I keep Shabbos or how can the world be 6000 years old – it’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s a wonderful opportunity to muchanech.

11. You don’t have to be frum if you don’t want to – ultimately, the choice is yours. You would be crazy not to be, but you do have the choice, nothing is forced on you. You don’t do me a favor by being frum. Do it for yourself – because it makes sense.

12. I try to learn through an outline of all of nach and give an overview of targyag mitzvos with each of my kids separately. I give them cash incentives to memorize Taryag or Avos.

13. The frum world may be crazy, but it’s the best society we have – embrace it, but don’t buy into the craziness, maintain your independence. Better a frummer school and we parents are the open minded ones, than a less frum school and we parents are the closed minded ones.

14. Secular people are Jews as much as we are. Goyim are not to be looked down upon, they are created in God’s image. Secular education is important and valuable.

15. You have a responsibility to support your family. That’s the man’s responsibility, not the woman’s.

If you wish to contact the author, you can direct any inquiries on Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt, shaul@tikun.co.uk

Originally published on 8/13/2012

Jewish Guilt

Nearly thirty days ago my mother passed away, quietly in her sleep after a protracted illness, and I wanted to share some of my feelings and experiences, as a baal teshuvah keeping the Halachos interacting with a non-observant family.

An incident occurred at my mother’s funeral that I thought would be appropriate to discuss on Beyond Teshuvah. On my way to the U.S. to attend the funeral, my wife called while I was still in the airport in Israel and offered to call my brother, who lives in a different state than my parents, and recommend he pack an old shirt, in case he wanted to tear kyriah. “Okay,” I said, “why not tell him about it? At least he’ll have the choice.”

At some point after I arrived and we took care of the burial permit and other arrangements at the cemetery, I told my father and my other brother about the Jewish custom of kryiah, and the reasons behind it. I explained that we tear a garment to show that we believe the body is only a garment for the soul. We express our pain in this tangible way, but in a way that comforts us that only the exterior garment is lost; the soul lives on forever.

“Very well, but we aren’t going to do that,” they said. The next day, my brothers and my father prepared black ribbons to wear on their coat sleeves, and put on their best dress shirts. I am not the one to be pushy about religion, especially with my family. I was relieved that at least there was going to be a Chevrah Kadisha involved in the funeral.

That was a big concession by my brothers. When my brother was informed of my mother’s death, he immediately called the mortuary located in the local cemetery where my parents bought a plot twenty years ago. They arranged to send their workers out immediately. Then he called me, in Israel, and I suggested finding a Chevrah Kadisha in L.A. (over an hour’s drive away, without traffic).

I phoned the local Chabad Rabbi, probably the only Shomer Shabbos Jew in town, who I knew from previous trips home, and he got involved. My brother agreed to phone him, but told him that my Mom wanted a Reform ceremony, not an Orthodox one. “This has nothing to do with Reform or Orthodox,” the Rabbi said (I heard later), “this involves the difference between a traditional Jewish way of doing things, with a 2000 year history, or nothing.” My brother took the number of the Chevrah Kadisha, but only reached their beeper service.

Meanwhile, the workers from the local mortuary arrived. In what is to me an amazing display of the pinteleh Yid (the Jewish spark), my brother sent them away and waited for the Chevrah Kadisha to get back to him. He was in my parent’s home where my mother passed away; she was in hospice at home. The nurse was gone, and he was alone with her body. At this point, he told me, he was only doing this for me. He didn’t know what my mother would have wanted, and he didn’t believe it made any difference. The Chevrah Kadisha came a couple of hours later and relieved him of his uncomfortable, uneasy post.

Readers of Beyond BT understand the importance of the meaningful and respectful traditions of Jewish burial—the taharah, purification in a pool of water, tachrichim, burial shrouds, shomer, who watches over the body 24/7, and burial in a plain wooden coffin in the ground. However, my family had no familiarity with these concepts at all.

Afterwards, they extolled the praises of the Chevrah Kadisha Mortuary, who acted with great sensitivity, efficiency, and respect. They really went the extra mile (or 75 miles, at 2:00 am), and made a big kiddush Hashem.

My mother was in hospice; I expected what was going to happen. But still, I was totally unprepared. No one wants to consider these things. But it would be a good idea to have a plan for kosher Jewish burial, some information, like phone numbers and the like, and if possible and appropriate, to discuss the matter beforehand with our family members.

At the funeral, the Reform Rabbi who led the ceremony at my mother’s request, called on the husband and the sons to step forward to tear kyriah, which he went on to explain. I was surprised, but before I knew what was going on, everyone recited “Baruch Dayan HaEmet” responsively after the Rabbi (I mean everyone, even my brothers’ non-Jewish coworkers and friends of the family), and we all tore our shirts.

A few days later, I asked them why they decided to tear kyriah in the end? After all, they wore expensive shirts, and they had the black ribbons anyway. They said: “Rabbi L. (the Chabad Rabbi, who also spoke at the funeral) took us aside and spoke to us about the significance of kyriah. Then he said, ‘Really, it’s a question of what’s more important in the final analysis, a $25 shirt or your mother’s soul?’”

“Yeah, you know,” added my sister-in-law, “Jewish guilt!”

They didn’t seem upset in the least, and when Rabbi L. arranged for minyanim in my father’s home, they put on the shirts with the kryiah.

I have always been apprehensive about “religious coercion,” especially with family members. But if I didn’t get Rabbi L. involved, would my mother have had the Chevrah Kadisha? Probably not. Would my family have torn kyriah or said kaddish during shivah? Definitely not.

What are your thoughts and feelings about using Jewish guilt?

Originally Published Nov 28, 2006

The 60 Second Guide to Shavuos

The foundation of Judaism is that there is a G-d, who is completely spiritual. G-d created both a physical and spiritual world. The centerpiece of creation is man who is composed of a physical body and a spiritual soul. Our collective purpose is to transform the world into a unified G-d connected spiritual world.

To accomplish this spiritual transformation G-d transmitted the necessary knowledge and tools in the form of the Torah. The Torah informs us how to turn physical acts into G-d connected spiritual acts. Every positive act we perform can be G-d connected, but the ones with the greatest connection power are the mitzvos G-d explicitly specified in the Torah.

The holiday of Shavuos is the day that G-d spiritually transmitted the Torah. The entire Jewish nation experienced this transmission and Moses experienced it to a much greater degree. The day is filled with a spiritual energy through which we can deepen our commitment to connect to G-d through the learning of Torah. There is also a mitzvah to eat 2 special meals and in doing so we transform the physical act of eating into a spiritual G-d connected activity.

This was written to try to capture the essence of Shavuos to all types of Jews in 60 seconds.

If you think it’s useful please send it to your friends and family.

The first incarnation of this guide can be found here.

So Another Child Will Learn Torah

From 1997-99, I was one of eighteen school principals who spent three weeks each summer upgrading our professional skills as the first cohort of Torah Umesorah’s Senior Leadership Program.

During the first year of the program, we had the great ze’chus of spending several hours with Reb Shlome Wolbe zt’l who graciously answered our chinuch questions on a wide range of topics.

At one of those sessions, (starting at 9:28 on this promotional video introducing Bright Beginnings Volume One), I asked Reb Wolbe zt’l what we should do if the educational instruction we received at Torah Umesorah indicates that we would improve the quality of the chinuch our students are receiving by modifying/upgrading the teaching methods at our Yeshivos.

“What’s with [following] the Mesorah (tradition) [of the way we were taught by our rebbeim]?” I asked.

He responded that, “Your Mesorah is to transmit our Mesorah to our children and you are all not only permitted, but obligated, to use every education tool at your disposal so that another child will learn Torah.”

With that backdrop, I am thrilled to present to our readers The Marc Schertz Memorial e-Book version of our Bright Beginnings Chumash Workbook Vol. 1 2nd Edition.

It is my humble prayer that this interactive, digital workbook will help countless Jewish children (and adults) learn Torah.

We hope it will help:

Many Jewish families who live overseas and find the shipping costs of our books to be prohibitive. In the three years since the print version of this workbook was released, we’ve received requests from Jewish Yeshivos/day schools and parents in Gibraltar, South Africa, Australia, China, and on and on. In most of those instances, the shipping costs far exceeded the price of the book itself! This e-Book version can be “delivered” effortlessly free of charge.

Children whose parents don’t have the Judaic background to do homework with them. One of the features of this e-Book is that it allows children to email their work to others to review.

Children whose parents are in the office or on the road during the time that they are working on their homework. Here too, parents can be more involved in the learning of their children each evening.

Kids whose attention spans run short when they are doing traditional “paperwork” but are able to concentrate for far longer periods of time when working with digital tools.

I am deeply grateful to my childhood friend and chavrusa (Judaic study partner) Heshie Schertz and his wife Bonnie for their ongoing support of the Bright Beginnings series since its inception, and to his mother Mrs. Gloria Schertz and her children for dedicating this digital edition of the Chumash Workbook in memory of my childhood friend Marc Schertz a’h who recently and tragically passed away at the age of 48.

This digital workbook was converted to the e-Book format by my dear friend and colleague Rabbi Mordechai Smolarcik, one of the most creative and talented educators I’ve ever met. Rabbi Smolarcik has received numerous awards/grants for his outstanding curricular efforts including the 2013 JEIC Innovator Grant for his Torah i-Textbook Project. I am deeply grateful to him for his assistance with our efforts.

The digital workbook is currently only available for use on an iPad. Our sources (read: Rabbi Smolarcik) inform us that Apple is working on an app that will eventually allow it to be used on an iPhone as well. Additionally, we are working to get it converted for use on other platforms as well and will use this email list to inform you of any new releases, print or digital. Please email email@kosherjewishparenting.com or text 22828 and in the message line, type PROJECTYES (in caps) to sign up for our emails so you can have instant access to the information.

Visit www.bbchumash.com to learn more about our popular chumash workbooks designed to give your children the Hebrew language skills to succeed in school.

For Today, Erev Rosh Chodesh Sivan – A Translation of The Shelah’s Prayer for Parents on Behalf of their Children

The Shela HaKadosh says that Erev Rosh Chodesh Sivan is a special day to daven for your children’s spiritual and material needs. Here is an English Translation of the prayer he composed for this. You can say the Hebrew version here.

You have been the Eternal, our G-d, before You created the world, and You are the Eternal, our G-d, since you created the world, and You are G-d forever. You created Your world so that Your Divinity should become revealed thorugh Your holy Torah, as our Sages expounded on the first word therein, and for Israel, for they are Your people and Your inheritance whom You have chosen from among all nations. You have given them Your holy Torah and drawn them toward Your great Name. These two commandments are, “Be fruitful and Multiply” and “You shall teach them to your children.” Their purpose is that You did not create the world to be empty, but to be inhabited, and that it is for Your glory that You created, fashioned, and perfected it, so that we, our offspring, and all the descendants of your people Israel will know Your Name and study Your Torah.

Thus I entreat You, O Eternal, supreme King of kings. My eyes are fixed on You until You favor me, and hear my prayer, and provide me with sons and daughters who will also be fruitful and multiply, they and their descendents unto all generations, in order that they and we might all engage in the study of Your holy Torah, to learn and to teach, to observe and to do, and to fulfill with love all the words of Your Torah’s teaching. Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah and attach our heart to Your commandments to love and revere Your Name.

Our Father, compassionate Father, grant us all a long and blessed life. Who is like You, compassionate Father, Who in compassion remembers His creatures for life! Remember us for eternal life, as our Forefather Avraham prayed, “If only Yishmael would live before You,” which the Sages interpreted as “…live in reverence of You.”

For this I have come to appeal and plead before You, that my offspring and their descendants be proper, and that You find no imperfection or disrepute in me or them forever. May they be people of peace, truth, goodness and integrity in the eyes of G-d and man. Help them to become practiced in Torah, accomplished in Scriptures, Mishnah, Talmud, Kabbalah, mitzvos, kindness, and good attributes, and to serve you with an inner love and reverence, not merely outwardly. Provide every one of them with their needs with honor, and give them health, honor and strength, good bearing and appearance, grace and loving-kindness. May love and brotherhood reign among them. Provide them with suitable marriage partners of scholarly and righteous parentage who will also be blessed with all that I have asked for my own descendants, since they will share the same fate.

You, the Eternal, know everything that is concealed, and to You all my heart’s secrets are revealed. For all my intention concerning the above is for the sake of Your great and holy Name and Torah. Therefore, answer me, O Eternal, answer me in the merit of our holy Forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov. For the sake of the fathers save the children, so the branches will be like the roots. For the sake of Your servant, David, who is the fourth part of Your Chariot, who sings with Divine inspiration.

A song of ascents. Fortunate is everyone who fears the Eternal, who walks in His ways. When you eat of the toil of your hands, you are fortunate, and good will be yours. Your wife is like a fruitful vine in the inner chambers of your home; your children are like olive shoots around your table. Look! So is blessed the man who fears the Eternal. May the Eternal bless you from Zion, and may you see the good of Jerusalem all the days of your life. May you see your children’s children, peace upon Israel.

Please, O Eternal, Who listens to prayer: May the following verse be fulfilled in me: “‘As for Me,’ says the Eternal, “this My covenant shall remain their very being; My spirit, which rests upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth nor from the mouths of your children, nor from the mouths of your children’s children,” said the Eternal, “from now to all Eternity.” May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be pleasing before You, Eternal, my Rock and my Redeemer.

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

How Can We Avoid Alienating our Families and Breaching Our Values?

Dear Beyond BT

My husband & I are the only frum people in our respective families, except for an emotionally unstable brother who is somewhat estranged from the family. We have sheltered our kids from as much as we could while still having a loving & close relationship with our parents & siblings.

However, something that has been a huge issue the last few years is interdating & intermarriage. We’ve got it on both sides, from both our siblings & our nieces/nephews and it’s rampant. We straddle the line between guarding our kids and not insulting the relatives, but it is getting harder & harder to do that.

Even the ones who marry Jews live together first. It gets increasingly sticky b/c we receive regular financial help (as compensation) from a relative whose children are ALL married/in serious relationships with non Jewish women. In their eyes, it’s just not important to marry a Jew; the most important thing is to be “happy”. Nothing I’ve said or done has made a bit of difference; I’ve tried.

What I still hate most about being a BT is not having frum relatives who embrace Torah & live by the same values. I want to have frum family to share Shabbat & holidays with. One would think after 30+ years I would just get over it but it just gets more and more difficult to the point of resentment. Baruch Hashem, my own kids will always be able to come to us (or each other) and I’m thrilled but I’m actually a little jealous of them as well.

Also, my daughter herself married a BT and I see her having to deal with the same issues with her in-laws I’ve had to deal with my entire life and I feel terrible, because it is so stressful for her. In some ways it’s even harder for her than it was for me b/c as an FFB she is less equipped to deal with it.

I would love to hear how others on Beyond BT deal with these issues. It seems that the only choice is to alienate the family or breach our values, neither of which are a solution.

– Susan

First published 12/15/2010

Overlooking the Challenges of Marriage

By Bob Garber

As someone constantly learning with Baalei Tshuva and potential BTs, my relationship always seems to end with the marriage of my students. Up until the wedding, I frequently see my students at Shabbatonim, visiting our home for Shabbos, or attending an interesting lecture or program. The wedding is usually an exciting, joyous party with many mutual friends, current and former students attending. The Sheva Berachos are filled with inspiring divrei Torah and dancing, usually in an intimate setting with friends and family.

However, once the festivities end, connections seem to begin to diminish. Of course, we invite the newlyweds for Shabbos, and they come a few times, but even this contact gradually diminishes as the couple begins their new lives together and get involved in their careers and their community. My wife and I have attended numerous such weddings in the past five years, and in almost all cases we have gradually lost contact with former students, rarely seeing them except for chance meetings. I don’t necessarily think that this is a bad thing, as couples develop their own relationship and build their home and family.

Nevertheless, the following pattern has also become increasingly common. I start hearing rumors or innuendos that someone is separated, but of course no one can really speak about it because its lashon hora. Then I hear rumors about a get, and then still later I meet the person (sometimes with a baby) and find out that the couple is in fact divorced. Sometimes the BT also appears to be dressing inappropriately, and later is no longer Shomer Shabbos.

I am very saddened by this pattern. Marriage, instead of being a significant stepping stone to personal and spiritual growth, seems in many cases to have become the culmination of spiritual growth, and is unable to survive the ongoing pressures and challenges that observant couples inevitably face.

Part of the problem is that I don’t think the couple, family, friends and even rabbis and other spiritual guides focus much on life after marriage. The reality is that it’s not easy changing the focus of one’s life when you get married, and the older the chassan and kallah are, the more difficult that transition becomes. Moreover, it’s also not easy to learn to prioritize another person’s needs over one’s own needs, especially when that person is so different than oneself. After the excitement wears off, and the couple becomes entrenched in their routines, sometimes communication and expectations between the parties get out of sync. I also think especially BTs, who do not have observant parents as role models, may become confused as to their spiritual direction both individually, and in relation to their spouses.

The worst part is that I believe the downhill slide is totally preventable. Many couples just don’t know that Judaism has much to contribute to the ongoing relationship, and that learning about marriage and relationships, e.g. Shalom Bayis, may be just as satisfying and important as learning about Shabbos and Kashrus. The Torah has much to say even about the personal relationship skills that each partner in a marriage need to practice and perfect. In addition, there is no reason that inspirational Shabbos and learning experiences should end after marriage. I believe that Kiruv and regular Jewish institutions need to devote more efforts to reaching out specifically to BT married couples and provide them both with the spiritual resources such as classes and learning opportunities, as well as practical and personal resources for handling the stresses of living as a couple and later with children.

Mourning’s End – Understanding Sefira and Lag B’Omer


The Torah’s Honor

The untimely demise of a Torah giant impacts every Jew, leaving a deep feeling of loss. If two Torah leaders died on one day (G-d forbid), the tragedy would be immense. We cannot even fathom how we would feel if the number was ten, fifty, or a hundred. In this light, we can begin to grasp the devastation of 24,000 Torah scholars dying between Pesach and Shavous, all students of Rabbi Akiva.

Our Sages reveal that they all died for the same reason: they did not honor each other properly ( Yevamos 62b). Their failure to honor their colleagues prevented them from appreciating words of Torah said by others. As a result their understanding of Torah was confined to their own insight, an extremely limited perception. Lacking total comprehension, they were not worthy to pass the Torah on to the next generation.

This flaw was rooted so deep in their conduct that they were not aware of it. Even Rabbi Akiva did not perceive it and never reproached them for it. If so, why were they punished so severely? The period between Pesach and Shavous is a time when a Jew is meant to prepare himself to receive the Torah. They should have used this opportunity to look within themselves and recognize their shortcomings. Instead, their souls were returned to their Creator.

Because of this tragedy, the Jewish people observe a period of national mourning between Pesach and Shavous. During this time we refrain from getting married, taking haircuts and shaving ( Shulchan Aruch 493:1-2). In addition, the accepted custom is not to listen to music ( Igros Moshe 1,166 and other poskim ) or to dance, even at a seudas mitzva ( Mishna Berura 493,3).
Read more Mourning’s End – Understanding Sefira and Lag B’Omer