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?