What the Ba’alei Teshuva Do for Us

The theme of this year’s annual convention of Agudath Israel of America is the necessity to “Wake the Sleeping Giant” by involving all members of the Torah community in efforts to reach out to non-Orthodox and unaffiliated Jews. We are fast approaching the point where intermarriage and assimilation will have so reduced the general American Jewish population that there will be little left to rescue.

The relatively short window of opportunity remaining and the untapped potential of all Torah Jews – and not just kiruv professionals – will be the focus of most of the speakers. But I would like to address another aspect of the ba’al teshuva phenomenon that is too frequently overlooked: the positive impact that ba’alei teshuva have had on American Orthodoxy over the past 25 years.

As one who travels frequently to communities on the other side of the Hudson River, I am frequently struck by the extent to which many out-of-town communities are primarily made up of ba’alei teshuva and geirei tzedek. Nor is this phenomenon limited to out-of-town communities.

At a recent Shabbos meal, we entertained four or five English-speaking bochurim currently learning in Eretz Yisrael. True, they were not learning at Brisk (or one of its satellites). But their yeshiva is for boys who come to Eretz Yisrael already serious about their Torah learning. Each of these bochurim came from a family where one or both of the parents are ba’alei teshuva, and they told me that the same is true for well over half the boys in the yeshiva. In sum, the American Orthodox world is experiencing something of a population transfer.

But numbers is only one contribution that the ba’alei teshuva have made to the American Torah world – and likely not the most important. For one thing, they have deepened the level of Torah being taught publicly to the benefit of the entire Torah world. Most ba’alei teshuva enter the Torah world after having obtained a sophisticated secular education. Their questions are different than those who enter the Torah educational system at age six, and the level of the answers given them must be correspondingly higher as well.

Ba’alei teshuva by definition must make a positive choice to become mitzvah observant. Something must attract them and convince them to dramatically change their lives and all their expectations for the future. Most often that attraction involves both intellectual and emotional elements. And among those intellectual elements, the exposure to the depth of Torah thought is crucial. (Some of that depth can be tasted even before the ba’al teshuva develops the technical skills to fully experience the excitement of Gemara learning.)

It is no accident, I believe, that the Thursday night shiur of HaRav HaGaon Rav Moshe Shapiro, which attracts several hundred listeners every week and is disseminated around the world, was for many years given in the beis medrash of Ohr Somayach, one of the flagship institutions of the ba’al teshuva movement, or that many of those in attendance are ba’alei teshuva. In short, ba’alei teshuva helped to create the audience for some of the most penetrating Torah thinkers of our time.

Again, because the decision of ba’alei teshuva must be a positive one, they were in many cases attracted by some of the finest individuals the Torah world has to offer – some well-known and some not. They did not grow up in the Torah community, and were attracted to the community – in some cases perhaps a bit naively – by its highest ideals and their exemplars. Part of their acculturation process requires learning to live with the fact that neither all Torah Jews nor the community are perfect in every respect.

Nevertheless, there will always be some tension for the ba’al teshuva between the ideals that attracted him or her in the first place and the reality that they discover over a period of years. And because of that tension ba’alei teshuva are perhaps more inclined to demand that the Torah world live up to its own highest ideals and not just accept things as “the way it is.”

Ba’alei teshuva are acutely sensitive to issues of Kiddush Hashem and Chilul Hashem. In part that is a function of the fact that they continue to live in two worlds. Even after they have entered the Torah world, most of their family and lifelong friends are not religiously observant. There remains a part of them that continues to view the Torah world through the eyes of those family members and friends. Because they constantly find themselves having to justify their decision to leave their former lives they are perpetually alert to whatever places frum Jews or the frum community in a bad light.

There is a positive side to this tendency to view the Torah world through one eye that retains the perspective of the outside world. And that is a heightened concern to avoid any trace of Chilul Hashem and the constant search for opportunities for Kiddush Hashem. Those traits link the ba’alei teshuva, incidentally, to all the gedolei Yisrael about whom I have written, and who, without exception, made Kiddush Hashem one of the centerpieces of their avodas Hashem.

Finally, ba’alei teshuva have played a disproportionate role in kiruv work. That is not to say that only ba’alei teshuva can be effective working with non-frum Jews – something which is demonstrably not the case. Effective kiruv professionals come from the ranks of both the frum from birth and the ba’alei teshuva. The key is caring about one’s fellow Jews and possessing the Torah knowledge necessary to show non-religious Jews an entirely new world (which is not to deny an important role in kiruv for all committed frum Jews, whether they are very learned or not).

It is only natural, however, that the passion for drawing other Jews close to Torah is most frequently found among ba’alei teshuva, who have experienced both life without the guidance of the Torah and a life with Torah and know the chasm between the two.

Much of the discussion of ba’alei teshuva has typically centered on our religious duty to draw our fellow Jews close or how we should be nice to them because they are nebechim, cut off from their families and lacking ready role models to emulate as parents. But it is also good to keep in mind how much the ba’alei teshuva have brought to our community.

This article appeared in the Yated on November 22 2007.

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13 Responses

  1. Harry Maryles says:

    It is an article like this that makes the current Agudah convention whose theme this year is Kiruv less satisfying than it could have been.

    Why did they not invite a spokesman from NCSY or Lubavitch to give their input? One does not have to agree entirely with their Hashkafos in order to benefit from their experience.

    The lessons that could have been learned from these two organizations could have been very valuable to all the Kiruv professionals who attneded and it would have been a wonderful display of Achdus on the part of Agudah as well.

  2. Barry Simon says:

    As this article points out “Most ba’alei teshuva enter the Torah world after having obtained a sophisticated secular education” so it is especially distressing that some parts of the Torah world have been pushing the notion that to believe the world is more than 6,000 years old makes one a heretic or makes one unsuited to be a dayan (see http://hirhurim.blogspot.com/2007/11/conversion-and-age-of-universe.html).

    In the first place even those who believe this don’t regard this as a fundemental tenet of our religion and in the second historically, it is certainly clear that many gedolim held that the first chapter of Bereshit was not to be taken literally.

    Those with the ears of the current gedolim might try to convey to them that there is a disconnect between asserting that it is heresy to believe in an old universe and trying to reach out to those with a sophisiticated education.

    Barry Simon

  3. joel rich says:

    Most ba’alei teshuva enter the Torah world after having obtained a sophisticated secular education. Their questions are different than those who enter the Torah educational system at age six, and the level of the answers given them must be correspondingly higher as well.

    How true and how sad – it sounds like we protect our children by keeping them uninformed?


  4. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Note: This is about kiruv in general, rather than the impact of Ba’aley Teshuva on Orthodoxy. Please delete if you think this is irrelevant.

    Is the prohibition on seeking gerim, converts to Judaism, immutable Halacha? Is it a custom that made sense during a part of our history? I’m asking because you’re unlikely to reach Heterodox Jews without reaching everybody else in the culture:

    1. Heterodox communities include intermarried couples, and converts whom you would not consider Jewish.

    2. As lamented here, you’re unlikely to be able to reach us through our synagogues. The rest of the time, we’re part of the general culture, reading and watching the same things as our gentile friends. If you want to reach us, you’ll get them too.

    Think what you would do if you were seeking geirim to come accept the yoke of Torah. That is what you would need to do to seek Jews to come accept the same yoke.

  5. Chaim Davids says:

    I want to add an important point to this excellent article:

    The success of the Ba’alei Tshuvah was only made possible by the wonderful acceptance granted them by the born frum.

    It’s 100%. The born frum do not just accept Ba’alei Tshuvah, they respect them, they quote their divrei Torah, them marry their children into their families. They are terrific.

    That’s what gives the Ba’alei Tshuvah the opportunity to voice their opinions and be heard. The open arms of the born frum.

  6. Reb Yid says:

    Agreed with J. Rosenblum that those who were not born in the Orthodox world add much of value, qualitatively, to Orthodoxy.

    But on the quantitative end….while JR may have his personal observations, the data I have seen do not support his contention that those born non-Orthodox make up the bulk of Orthodox communities, whether “out of town” or elsewhere.

    There was a recent A. Shafran post on the sexual abuse article, noting the limitations of generalizing those findings to the Orthodox world as a whole. So, too, with J. Rosenblum’s piece–the value in this piece is on the qualitative end….

  7. joel rich says:

    It’s 100%. The born frum do not just accept Ba’alei Tshuvah, they respect them, they quote their divrei Torah, them marry their children into their families.
    Interesting, again no statistics available. I’ve been told by someone whose opinion I respect on such issues that “BT’s” are not viewed positively as shidduchim (1 reason – exposing their kids to nonfrum relatives)

  8. lacosta says:

    would the following observations be relevant?

    1— in an era when more occupations are in many circles no longer acceptable, especially anything involving college
    BTs are ‘grandfathered in’–allowed to do that which their FFB children and shul colleagues are not allowed

    2–they can then professionally show ‘i am modern and yet became a BT’
    which is both a kiddush hashem, and good hasbara for those who attack O as atavistic and anachronistic

    3– they can thus also influence jewish non-O colleagues to consider more traditional views of judaism

    4 and, show their non jewish coworkers that there are those who take their judaism very seriously and non-superficially….

  9. belle says:

    To answer Ori’s question: I am good friends with a long time kiruv couple, posted out in middle America. They ask sheilas often to rabbonim who deal w. kiruv situations as their focus of expertise. They encounter intermarried families often. They were told that while they don’t need to focus their energies on finding the intermarried, when a Jew who is already married to a non-Jew comes to their shul, or comes to learn, and especially when they have children, it is still a mitzvah to be mekarev the couple, with the hope that the non-Jew will convert. It is an exception to the rule of not teaching Torah to non-Jews. This is because a Jew’s life is at stake, and that of the children as well. They were also counseled not to encourage divorce in such situations, as it is more important that the children grow up in a stable family environment, given the devastation to a neshama that divorce can cause. Now, I am not a posek, and I am not saying that all rababonim will hold this way. This is what they said they were told. If someone w. more Torah knowledge than myself wishes to challenge this, I would be interested in hearing why.

  10. Harvey Belovski says:

    I read Rabbi Rosenblum’s article with consternation. I fear that the picture he paints of the world of outreach is out of touch with current reality.

    Having worked in outreach and especially with the students of Oxford University for many years, I detect a rather different picture.

    Campus outreach is commonly practiced with little attention to the needs of the individual, instead attempting to transform as many people as possible in the shortest time. It offers a simplistic and often misleading image of Jewish thought and the options for belief and practice within it, and pays scant attention to the very people whose lives it seeks to alter. This is fuelled by funding targets that demand numbers, not quality; filling plane-seats to Israel, rather than gently and stably transforming lives.

    ‘Kiruv’ of this sort is perforce crude and thus unattractive to the most intelligent and thoughtful students. My experience is that it often succeeds in attracting new recruits, but at the price of repelling some of the highest achievers. Their engagement with the type of outreach on offer at their campuses may lead them to conclude that Judaism is not just unsuitable for them, but shallow and even moronic. As these people will likely become the most influential members of society – captains of industry, top academics and the most accomplished professionals – this is nothing short of a disaster.

    Of course, some outreach is sensitive, appropriate and individualised. Yet the one-superficial-size-fits-all style of ‘kiruv’ is growing in popularity. The long-term results of this are awaited with trepidation.

  11. Bob Miller says:

    Rabbis Rosenblum and Belovski evidently live in two different worlds, and each faithfully reports what he has seen in his world. This points to the difficulty of making any accurate broad statements about such a large and multifaceted enterprise as kiruv.

  12. Eliyahu says:

    I can’t comment on Oxford U, having never been there. But from my personal experience with kiruv in two different Ivy League universities, it seems that it was mostly the high achievers who become baalei teshuva. In large part because of the availability of the individual attention/approach and non simplistic picture of Judaism. Secondly, shouldn’t we care about the numbers also? Just because someone is not a high achiever, he doesn’t have a neshama? Is the blood of the future captain of industry more red than that of an average accountant, or for that matter than the blood of three or four average accountants?

  13. E. F. Shaar says:

    I once heard a local politician lament that his constituents wants lots of services but don’t want higher taxes. “Everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die”.

    I see the same thing happening in the kiruv world: people talk about it as a good thing, but often on a person by person basis people are unable or disinclined to modify their behavior or attitude whatsoever to include new people into the congregation.

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