Last week I shared a letter from a newly observant Jewish woman. She and her husband reside in a small suburban community outside of Los Angeles. Last year they came to consult with me on a personal religious issue. While they were both ba’alei teshuvah, there was one fine difference between them. He had become a ba’al teshuvah earlier than she and was therefore somewhat more settled in an observant lifestyle.
The husband asked his wife to take the next step and cover her hair, as is traditional among observant married women. She had difficulty even considering the idea, and that was why they came to New York to our Hineni Heritage Center. She explained that such a responsibility was much too much for her to undertake at this time – not only because of vanity, which she admitted was a factor, but also because of her fear that her family, especially her mother, might react harshly to such a decision. Additionally, she and her husband were members of an Orthodox shul where even the rebbetzin did not cover her hair.
They left my office after an extensive discussion, expressing their gratitude for what they learned at my Torah class, though the wife still had doubts about covering her hair. It was a year later that I received the letter that appeared in last week’s column. The woman related how she’d been constantly thinking of our discussion and how every week when she and her husband listened to my live Torah-studies webcast she would be reminded yet again of the need to take the leap and cover her hair.
She finally took that leap in honor of Shabbos and decided to take a walk to her parents’ home in the afternoon. She feared the reaction she would encounter from people she knew in the community where she’d grown up. To her surprise, no one reacted negatively – and while there were some tense moments with her mother, the initial discomfort dissipated. Now she wears her head covering with grace and honor. She twists her beautiful scarf into a turban and feels like a Princess of Jerusalem.
The concept of a ba’al teshuvah as we understand it is rather new in terms of Jewish history. While we’ve always had ba’alei teshuvah, they were mostly Jews who grew up in observant homes and for one reason or another lost their way before returning to a Torah way of life. Today’s ba’al teshuvah movement is something else entirely.
When I established Hineni, there were no full-fledged ba’al teshuvah organizations. American Jews were by and large devoid of Jewishness in any meaningful sense – they had no concept of what it means to be part of Am Yisrael, the Priestly Kingdom that stood at Sinai. Having survived the Holocaust, I knew that I dared not sit by silently and watch my brethren disappear again. Hence I founded Hineni. The response from my fellow Jews ranged from apathy to cynicism. I was viewed as a sentimental dreamer who could not accept reality.
The Orthodox reaction was one of dismissal – I was told my efforts would be a “waste of time.” I was pointedly asked whether I really thought “these people” would ever become Torah observant. Meanwhile, Conservative and Reform Jews feared I was out to brainwash them or their children and make them religious fanatics.
Today, of course, all the doubters have been proved wrong. The ba’al teshuvah movement has become a powerful source of energy and vitality –a beautiful shining star in the Jewish community. It did, however, present us with a new set of problems.
From the genesis of our history, parents were commanded to impart Words of Torah to their sons and daughters. This mandate is repeated again and again throughout the Torah. Suddenly the ba’al teshuvah movement put it all in reverse and children were now called upon to teach their parents. But how can one criticize parents without creating a wall, without offending? The very fact that a child would try to reeducate his parents was viewed by many as unbridled chutzpah – after all, who is a son or a daughter to censor the lifestyle of a mother and a father?
When the woman in California appeared in front of her mother with her head covered, she asked a basic question: “How is it, Mom, that you can respect someone dressed in Muslim, Hindu or Christian [nun or priest] garb and yet vehemently object to a Jew in chassidic clothing, or a Jewish man wearing tzitzis and a yarmulke, or a Jewish woman dressed in an Orthodox manner?”
The mother gave a perfunctory response along the lines of “that’s our society.” But the real reason for the different reaction is that the sight of a traditionally dressed Muslim or Hindu does not remind the Jew of his abandonment of Torah. But even a glimpse of a traditionally dressed Jew touches a deep chord of guilty recognition.
The young woman who wrote the letter overcame her problem, and her experiences should serve as a lesson for all of us. Even under the most trying of circumstances she and her husband retained a warm relationship with their parents. The ties between them were never cut. And when she took that big leap and covered her hair – a “no-no” in her mother’s eyes – she continued to speak to her mother respectfully and lovingly. Calmly she explained everything to her parents, and that made all difference – so much so that when on another occasion she expressed some doubts to her mother about her appearance, her mother actually encouraged her, assuring her she looked lovely in her new head covering.
Ba’alei teshuvah need to learn from her experience: When embarking on a path of Torah you must be very careful with the feelings of your parents. You must remember that they have never been in the Torah world. And by embracing this new lifestyle you are, at least to their minds, pointing an accusatory finger at them.
It’s no different from parenting. When you criticize your child and impart rules and regulations, you must do so in a loving but uncompromising manner. If a child rebels and does not accept your instructions, you do not throw him out, nor do you sever the relationship. To the contrary, you try to relate to that child in a loving manner. If he does not respect your beliefs, you wait for the time that he will. Patience and perseverance are a must, but you dare not falter in your convictions. You must remain a role model that your child may one day emulate.
We are living in the days before the coming of Mashiach, and it is written that at that time the “children will bring back the parents.” That phenomenon is unfolding before our eyes. So ba’alei teshuvah must take the initiative in inviting their parents to journey with them on their new path; they must hold the hands of their moms and dads and be spiritual parents to their parents.
Ba’alei teshuvah often bring their parents to my Thursday night Torah class – and for many of those parents it is the very first shiur they’ve ever attended. What a magnificent thing it is to see the generations uniting through the words and teachings of Hashem.
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