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Outreach, Regrets and the Wrong Man for the Job

The idea of coming to observant Judaism on one’s own initiative is something those of us who were born into it, cannot possibly achieve.
Aish Hatorah Center opposite the Kotel, Jerusalem.

Aish Hatorah Center opposite the Kotel, Jerusalem.
Photo Credit: Tzviya

In a recent issue of Mishpacha Magazine the important issue of Baal Teshuva (BT) regret was tackled. The Baal Teshuva phenomenon is a subject that is dear to my heart. Organizations like Aish HaTorah (pictured) have been successfully reaching out to young unaffiliated Jews for decades now.

Although I haven’t discussed it in quite some time, those who know my views – know that that my feelings toward the Baal Teshuva (and equally to the sincere convert) is one of immeasurable respect.

To put my views in a nutshell, the idea of coming to observant Judaism on one’s own initiative is something those of us who were born into it (FFBs), cannot possibly achieve. We did not search for the truth to then find it in Judaism. Judaism was handed to us on a platter. Most of us have known nothing else.

Even though we can all achieve great depths of understanding – it is an order of magnitude greater when one does this from scratch. So I stand in awe of such people and echo what the Talmud says in Brachos (34b):

B’Makom She’Baalei Teshuvah Omdim, Ein tzaddik Gamur Yachol Laamod – In the place where the Baal Teshuva stands, even the most righteous among us cannot stand.

I realize that not every Baal Teshuva starts out from the vantage point of simply seeking truth. Some simply find comfort in observant communities. Or appreciate the structure an observant lifestyle gives them. Or the like the values Judaism represents. Sometimes it is about rebelling against a secular past or a dysfunctional family.

In these cases there may be no real dwelling on the great truths of the Torah. But ultimately belief in these truths does play a significant part.

The problem discussed in the Mishpacha article sometimes Baalei Teshuva get “buyer’s remorse.” There could be several reasons for this. For example if the motivation to become observant is too shallow then becoming observant may be only temporary. Sometimes it is because of disillusionment with the negative behavior they see among some of our FFB Orthodox brethren. There are probably a lot of reasons.

However, there does seem to a consensus among those involved in outreach people that the blame in many of these cases may lie in the fact that Baalei Teshuva are often not accepted into the larger Orthodox communities. Rejection can be a big turn off!

I don’t believe this is a Charedi versus Modern Orthodox dichotomy. I think the problem exists in both worlds. No matter how hard they try, some communities just don’t do a good job of welcoming the BT into their lives. That leaves them out in the cold and on their own.

Why is that the case? I’m not entirely sure but I have heard it said for example that a Baal Teshuva or a convert brings a lot of secular baggage with them. Baggage that an FFB community does not want to deal with. For me that is a nonsense and a non issue. Most BTs are sincere and are willing to give up the Issurim they were involved with. Like going to McDonald’s for a cheeseburger. What they may not be willing to give up is everything from their past lives. Nor should they.

For example for those who reject secular culture in their lives in any form – it might be a problem for them if the Baal Teshuva likes listening to popular music. But for me, that is a plus. It shows a normal and healthy approach to life.

A Baal Teshuva need not reject everything from their past. As long as there are no Halachic objections popular culture should not be any more of a problem for the Baal Teshuva than it is for me. I recall a Limudei Kodesh principal of a Chasidic day school – with a long beard and who wore a Kapote daily mentioning that when he took long trips by car he listened to Beatles tapes!

Many of the families whose children were in his school would have been shocked by that had they known. The point is that this Mechanech knew there was no problem with secular culture per se. Only that part of which is not permissible by Halacha. But he never communicated that to his students.

The Mishpacha article interviewed many people who are involved in outreach. To almost a man they pretty much said the same thing. The FFB community must be more accepting and be willing to fully integrate the newly religious them into their lives. That many don’t is one of the reasons some get turned off and start to question why they have chosen this path.

However there was one fellow that took the opportunity to completely disparage those who are not clones of his Hashakafos. I guess he felt that whenever there is an opportunity to disparage Modern Orthodox Jews, he’s going to do it. I can’t let this pass without comment.

When asked about what needs to be done to prevent the Baal Teshuva from regretting his decision, he took umbrage at the very question and asked, “What about FFBs?” Many of them have problems that are even worse.

At first I nodded my head and said, yes! There are many FFBs that have issues that are similar to BTs. We shouldn’’t be singling them out. But then he went right into bashing Modern Orthodoxy Although he didn’t label them outright it was clear from the context that the Modern Orthodox Jew is the one with the real problem.

What’s wrong with us…. according to him? Well we are “unconcerned” about compromising our own Yiddishkeit. And our compromises ‘dwarf’ (his word) anything he ever had to deal with from a BT.

What else do we do wrong? Why might criticize a Rav for being too stringent! Or a Rosh Yeshiva for being too rigid! Or we may even question the decisions of his Gedolei Yisroel! (Of course this also applies to many Charedim who have questioned some of the things said and done by Charedi rabbinic leadership. So I’m sure he includes them in his criticism).

According to this fellow the problem we Modern Orthodox (and wayward Charedim) have is that we just don’t have a Derech. We are too secular and therefore none of us are Bnei Torah!

And then he has the audacity to say that despite our greater involvement in the secular world, we are nowhere near as accepting of the Baal Teshuva into our lives as are those he calls ‘more intensely religious’ (translation – hard core right wing Charedim)!

Why? Well it’s because his ‘more intensely religious’ people do not accept mediocrity – implying of course that we modern orthodox are all about mediocrity! His people have Mesiras Nefesh which they share with the BT – implying that the MO Jew does not! So when we ask why some BTs lose their initial vitality, well we MO never had any to begin with! Like I said, he does not identify us with the term Modern Orthodox. But it is oh so obvious who he is talking about.

I have no patience for people like this. His ‘Holier than thou approach’ is not only a turn off to me, I can’t believe that any Baal Teshuva would pay him any heed. And yet according to the article, he has a huge following of Baalei Teshuva in his Shul. The article calls him a Baal Teshuva magnet! Go figure.

I don’t know what they see in a guy like this. I feel sorry for those BTs who are his devotees. If he preaches these negative attitudes about Modern Orthodoxy to them – then they are being taught to hate their fellow Orthodox Jew. And that is disgusting.

Visit the Emes Ve-Emunah blog.

About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.

The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.

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Binyamin and Chaya Maryles, uncle and aunt of Emes Ve-Emunah author Harry Maryles.
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