Pitfalls that Aren’t

A few weeks ago, Avakesh posted on the “Pitfalls of Kiruv.” An associate of mine discovered it Friday, probably through R’ Gil Student, who says “I’m not sure whether I agree with him or vehemently disagree.” Like the majority of commenters on Gil’s blog and Avakesh itself, I suffer no such feelings of ambivalence. The post mixes the obvious with the stereotyped, criticizing BTs and the BT movement for failing to assure that every BT is boki b’shas u’poskim (colloquially, expert in the entire gamut of Torah and Jewish Law). Like many similar articles purporting to identify a great yet hidden problem, it exaggerates while falling remarkably short on providing solutions — and ignoring existing attempts to address the issues in a more serious manner.

To begin at the beginning, we all agree with the following:

The kiruv movement has been an unquestioned blessing. Thousands of enthusiastic seekers have joined our communities over the past several decades, bringing with them a spirit of renewal and inspiration that challenges our rote performance and frozen spirituality.

That being the case, why spend the rest of the post accentuating the natural results of welcoming newcomers, and treating them like a problem instead of signs of success?

As one kiruv professional has said, frumkeit is and will always remain for a baal teshuva, a coat. No matter how well fitting and comfortable a favourite coat can be, it always remains a coat. In theory, at least, it can always be taken off. For a person born and bred in Torah, Judaism is and always will be his skin. He can no more take it off than a man can shed his skin.

I don’t know who the Kiruv professional was who said this. There are two options, really. One is that this individual really is an expert and “lo yaradti l’sof daato,” I have failed to perceive the depth of his or her wisdom and understanding. The other is that he or she is clueless and suffers from a tenuous grasp on reality. I do mean this sincerely, because I find it hard to believe that someone could genuinely claim, in essence, that an FFB (“frum from birth” Orthodox Jew) could never leave Torah observance, while BTs always perceive Torah observance as unnatural and can drop it as easily as one can shuck a coat. Both are demonstrably false, and so obviously so that the speaker had to mean something deeper, which neither I nor Avakesh have properly understood.

I will provide what I hope is a better, more appropriate analogy, that being immigration from a foreign country. Among immigrants to the United States or Israel, you find a broad range of levels of integration into the local society. There are those who are as fluent — or nearly so — in the local tongue as those who were born there, and others who still “break their teeth” trying to speak English or Hebrew even twenty years later. There are those who find local practices easy and comfortable, and others who struggle to master the more complex and unfamiliar systems that we consider natural (even elderly Americans-from-birth often have trouble with ATMs). Certain obvious factors like age, previous background, and cultural education come into play.

Those who immigrate from Vietnam at age 40 will rarely become fully integrated. They will always speak with accents and are unlikely to make millions on Wall Street or become CEOs of major corporations. The real question is, once again, why anyone would consider this a problem. Should we prohibit immigration by people over 40, or by anyone unwilling to enroll in a two-year course on how to be an American?

Under the surface, there fester serious problems. They range from underground survival of secular attitudes to shallow understanding of the Torah, to serious psychological imperfections that are exacerbated by the wrenching effects of adjustments to the Torah lifestyle and abandonment of family and friends. There are shalom bais problems from incompatibility of backgrounds and levels, and rampant deficiency in Torah knowledge.

What chidushim! What novel thoughts these are! Could you imagine — a person who starts learning Torah at age 40 might not achieve the level of learning of someone doing it all his or her life! [Imagine what the Vilna Gaon or his contemporaries would say of the level of “understanding of the Torah” of even the most advanced Bnei Torah of our day.] A person who adopts Torah observance after marriage might do so more or less rapidly than his or her spouse!

It does no one a service when the natural side effects of growth in Torah study and observance are highlighted as if they were “festering problems.” While they are problems at the individual level, at the communal level they are not deficiencies in Kiruv, but growth pains associated with success.

Note that I am not saying these issues do not warrant our time and effort — on the contrary, a person who begins Torah study late in life must continue to study and grow on a daily basis. Strangely enough, though, the obligation of daily Torah study applies to those who began in cheder as well — but the point is that the community must provide opportunities for those not ready for Daf Yomi. And the community does. Yesodei HaTorah, “Foundations of Torah,” is an organization designed “to offer everyone in the community, regardless of background, the opportunity to engage in authentic Torah learning. Some of our Talmidim (students) come as experienced learners eager to enhance their skills, while others are just starting out.” It was founded in Baltimore, and has since expanded to six other cities. In any city with an outreach Kollel, you will find BTs continuing to study and grow at their own pace.

So when the author writes that “we [should] give some attention to broadening and solidifying the committment of even established Baalei Teshuva,” he disregards the many current and proposed efforts designed to do just that. A particularly pointed comment on Gil’s blog says it best:

I am awaiting the birth of my first (of many, it is to be hoped) Jewish grandchild, born to my frum, yeshiva-eductated PhD son and FFB medical doctor daughter-in-law. I may have started too late to be anything but an ignoramus, but my grandchildren will not have that problem. All thanks to frum Jews who didn’t spit on me when I asked them what Shabbat was.

B”H, the overwhelming majority of frum Jews do not think like this individual — as can be seen, again, from comments thus far. The BT movement is “an unquestioned blessing” as he says — let’s not give mere lip service to that idea. The real “festering problem” is with FFBs who are unwilling to address the growth pangs of our increasing size, including via BT “immigration”… more to come on that, I think.

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14 Responses

  1. joel rich says:

    I’m told that in many “frum” circles it is exceedingly hard to get a “good” shidduch if one is the child of or a BT themselves. Is this true? If so, why?

    “I may have started too late to be anything but an ignoramus, but my grandchildren will not have that problem.” – 2 comments:

    1. Don’t many believe that if you want it enough any child can become the gadol hador? If so, why doesn’t that appply to this individual (e.g. R’ Akiva did it)

    2.kach mkublani mbeit avi abba – HKB”H doesn’t measure us by the objective results of our learning but on our efforts in that regard. The person I respected most in this area would not have scored objectively in the gadol hador range but his dedication to learning even when the results were not what he would have liked them to be are an eternal inspiration to me.


  2. GB says:

    What I found strange about Avakesh’s comments were that the very issues he found objectionable in BTs can also be found in FFBs, including FFBs that wear black hats yet rent videos, exhibit poor childrearing habits, are guilty of uninformed kashrus violations, and who have mental health and shalom bayis problems. The list goes on but why dwell on the negative? It’s called the human condition. We can only hope that a Torah lifestyle will help give us the tools to conquer our weaknesses and overcome our faults, but the birthright of being born frum is not a panacea or guarantee.

    To answer another comment, two of my children are married to BTs. For them it was about finding a mate who had a genuine enthusiasm for Torah, who treated Torah and mitzvos more as a joy than a yoke. For me it was about finding them mates that weren’t concerned about frum “shtick” – the obsession and demands and “rules” (sic)in the shidduch world of parents and their children that are mostly money-related and have very, very little (if anything at all) to do with Torah or a proper Torah lifestyle.

  3. dude says:

    Awfully small-minded of you, Joel. Here’s a man expressing the sublime pleasure a father has in seeing his kids surpass his own achievements, and all you can say is, “Why doesn’t this loser just do more learning?”

    You seem to be assuming that the man R’ Menken quotes spends no time learning Torah. By what sort of divination do you know this?

    I’m (almost) speechless with indignation. I’m hoping I just misunderstood you.

  4. Fern R says:

    If being frum is like having a skin of Torah observance that can’t be removed, then there wouldn’t be any need for kiruv and there would be no such thing as a baal teshuva. I can’t believe anyone actually said that. I think it must be some sort of urban myth.

  5. joel rich says:


    Perhaps you could reread my comment and consider why you deemed it necessary to give it a negative response and reading. I was taught that in situations like this it is best to ask the individual what they meant in a non-judgemental way.

    I did not say or imply (nor intend to do so) anything about this particular individual. I did want to point out that some might take the view that objective accomplishment is the most important measure and that this was not what I was taught was the proper gauge.

    My own assumption (which was based on my own reading of the post but which could not be substantiated and thus not subject in my opinion for posting) was that the individual in question was much like the one I praised – doing his best but not satisfied with the results.


  6. Eliezer says:

    GB begins by stating that “What I found strange about Avakesh’s comments were that the very issues he found objectionable in BTs can also be found in FFBs, including FFBs that wear black hats yet rent videos.” Is there an issur (prohibition) on renting videos altogether, regardless of their content? And why the (seemingly superficial) focus on the nature/color of the hat?

  7. hp says:

    dude, I saw Joel’s comment as a vote of confidence, and encouragement, to counter the “ignoramus” term. A “put-up” rather than a put down. How would you respond if someone used a self deprecating term as ignoramus? Wouldn’t you offer encouragement too?

  8. Ephraim says:

    I am the author of the post that Rav Menken quoted.

    I suppose that rather than being a BT I fall into the category of the tinoch shenishba. Also, I suppose “ignoramus” is a matter of perspective. By the standards of real frumkeit I suppose I know practically nothing; by the standards of the majority of Jews who wouldn’t be able tell the Rambam from the Ramban if they fell on top of them I might as well be the Gadaol ha Dor. I know people less than half my age who are far more learned than I can ever hope to be. Learning for 10 hours a day for 20 years will do that, and it’s just a little too much ground to make up, I’m afraid. However, once you step out of the even nominally Orthodox world the level of ignorance of Torah and mitzvot is absolutely shocking. Much of this is willful ignorance on the part of people who reject Orthodoxy as a matter of principle and who wear their ignorance as a badge of honor. In any case, I learn regularly twice a week, once with a chevrusa and once in a class. Not much, perhaps, but it keeps me off the streets. I make no claims about how properly I do miztvot either. I do my best.

    Regarding Dude’s comments: as far as my boys (there are two of them) are concerned, I couldn’t possibly shep any more naches than I am shepping right now. I mean, thank G-d they know more than I do. That’s the general idea, isn’t it? Any father who doesn’t want his sons to “stand on his shoulders” has no business raising kids.

  9. dude says:

    Got it, Joel. It was, in fact, very unclear to me what you were trying to say. So much so, that I called up a friend who also reads this blog and asked him how he understood your comment. After my friend read it, he told me, “I have no idea where KT is trying go with this.” After some deliberation, our best take on your comment was what I originally wrote to you.

    I guess my own assumption was that the soon-to-be grandfather was just being modest and self-deprecating, as opposed to actually lacking in self-esteem. So your oblique attempt to give him consolation, which in my understanding was totally unnenecessary, sounded more like a smug put-down. In addition, since I never figured this guy to actually be a total ignoramus (after all, he’s clearly been frum for quite a while already), your bringing down such well-known concepts that any baal teshuvah would have heard within the first month of learning, came across as sarcastic reminders, not encouragement.

    I should have asked you what you meant in a more neutral way, and not have jumped to conclusions. For that I apologize.

  10. Joel Rich says:

    Machul Lach, machul lach, machul lach
    KT(Kol Tuv)

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    I stand by the comment that I posted on Hirhurim in reaction to Avakesh’s observation. IMO, he is quite mistaken as to the degree of successful integration of many BTs in frum communities.

  12. Micha Berger says:

    The problem is that kiruv has turned into marketing rather than education. And reality isn’t simple, nor is the Torah that guide us through it simple, and frankly becoming frum and having bitachon won’t make your life problem free.

    The need for a “kiruv movement” is because the Orthodox world doesn’t live up to the Torah. If we had a product that was obviously good, we wouldn’t need to “sell” it so hard. As a friend of mine put it, “Rolls Royce doesn’t need to offer ‘cash back or no money down!'”


  13. Bob Miller says:

    Micha (November 21, 2006 @ 3:09 pm),

    It’s a long way to “obviously”. Many actual or potential Jewish seekers don’t live around the corner from a frum community, ideal or otherwise. Some form of intermediary can be helpful in bringing opportunities for growth/learning/integration/…to their attention, and in providing instruction and personal example.

    Rolls-Royce sells to people who already know what a good car is.

  14. Bob Miller says:

    More on marketing:

    Right now, I’m doing an engineering project at the other Rolls-Royce, the aircraft engine company. Be assured that they make extremely good engines, but they must use every legitimate sales technique at their disposal to outsell the aggressive competition (GE, Pratt & Whitney, etc.). Jewish Orthodoxy also has stiff competition from inside and outside the Jewish world. “Marketing” is not some kind of cuss word.

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