Dear Rabbi Horowitz:
What is your advice for ba’alei teshuvah (BT) parents raising frum-from-birth (FFB) children in terms of ensuring that the children are well-integrated, healthy and normal frum Jews? It is sometimes easy for us, as BT parents, to be very strict because of insecurities from our own upbringing and lack of family minhagim. It would be helpful if you offered a few pointers, to be explored with rebbe’im and suited for our family needs.
Your excellent question practically answers itself, and leads me to believe that you already have a deep understanding of the opportunities – and challenges – that you face in raising your FFB children. You hit the nail on the head when you noted that you wanted to raise “well-integrated, healthy and normal frum Jews.” That balance is exactly what you ought to be striving to achieve.
If you regularly read my columns, you may know where my suggestions will start. One of my mantras is that most of the issues that we face when raising our children are reflections of our own struggles. In order to raise well-integrated, healthy and normal frum Jewish children, you need to begin with well-integrated, healthy and normal frum Jewish adult parents. That means adhering to the timeless advice of Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon) and remain on the golden path of moderation. After all, if you don’t want your children to be raised in an overly strict environment, the best way to achieve that goal is not to go overboard in your personal lives.
Here are some practical tips:
Grow slowly: Many meforshim (commentaries) suggest that the dream of our patriarch Yaakov (see Bereishis 28:12), where he envisioned angels climbing up and down a ladder, is a profound analogy to our spiritual pursuits. The Torah describes how the legs of the ladder were placed on the ground while its top reached the very heavens. The correlation is an insightful one for everyone, but is all the more relevant for ba’alei teshuvah. We ought to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground – all the while reaching for profound spiritual heights.
The reason that the image of a ladder was used in the dream (as opposed to, for example, a road leading to heaven) is that you simply cannot run up a ladder. So, too, spiritual growth needs to be a sustained and steady process.
Find a rav who truly understands ba’alei teshuvah issues: Not all rabbanim have a deep understanding of the complex mix of halachic and social issues where ba’alei teshuvah need individualized direction. Finding a rav who understands those complex issues – and you – will provide your family with an invaluable resource. Similarly, it may be helpful for you to find a ba’al teshuvah couple 10 years or so older than you who can mentor you as your family passes mileposts and lifecycle events. Those include enrolling children in school, bar/bat mitzvah, high school placements, shidduchim, etc.
I recommend checking out http://www.beyondbt.com/ for ba’alei teshuvah men and women. I am proud to serve as one of the rabbinic advisers of the website, and it has provided advice, camaraderie, and spiritual guidance for ba’alei teshuvah around the world over the past few years.
Be yourself: Ba’alei teshuvah may be concerned that they are poor role models for their children since they are following their less-than-perfect Torah and mitzvah observance. I think not. You are setting a wonderful example for your children by seeking to grow spiritually throughout your lives.
I encourage you to read a terrific article (available by running a search for “Kokis” on my website, http://www.rabbihorowitz.com/) by my dear chaver, Rabbi Bentzion Kokis, shlita, titled “Integration: Helping Ba’alei Teshuvah Be Themselves.” Rabbi Kokis is an outstanding talmid chacham with decades of experience guiding ba’alei teshuvah, and his advice is equally outstanding. He advises refraining from jettisoning your personality, hobbies, interests, education, career – and sense of humor – as you embrace Torah and mitzvos.
Distinguish between mitzvah, minhag, chumrah, and culture: In your question, you noted that, “It is sometimes easy for us, as BT parents, to be very strict because of insecurities from our own upbringing and lack of family minhagim.” In order to gain a better understanding of when to be firm and when to be flexible, you must distinguish between a mitzvah, minhag, chumrah, and something that does not fall into any of the three categories – namely a cultural practice. Here are some examples:
*Putting on tefillin is a daily mitzvah (a mandated commandment), incumbent upon all Jewish males above the age of 13.
*Refraining from dipping matzah in liquids on Pesach (commonly referred to as “gebrokts”) is a minhag (a custom only observed in some communities).
*Not using an eiruv that has been approved by the vast majority of your city’s rabbanim is a chumrah (stringency) that many accept upon themselves.
*Wearing a black fedora is a cultural practice prevalent in some communities.
It is extremely important that you fully understand the differences between these categories of Jewish practice – in your personal life and while guiding your children.
More on this issue, with additional practical tips, in my next column.