Sunday, July 20, 2008

Second Class Citizens

There are two kinds of people that I universally look up to in observant Judaism. One is the sincere Ger – the convert to Judaism. The other is the sincere Baal Teshuva (BT). I cannot stand in their shoes- or even in their shadow. My admiration for what they have done and the enthusiasm and commitment by which they do it is something I only wish I could have.

The reason I admire them so much is a common feature they both have. They came to authentic Judaism on their own. They were not born into it. They forsook a life of relative ease in favor of a life of relatively severe restrictions. It is a life of rules upon rules that in most cases they have not fully learned but strive mightily to both learn and follow.

Those of us who were born into observant homes have a tremendous head start. No matter in which segment of Orthodoxy we have been raised - we have all been indoctrinated from the earliest age to both believe and practice. It is second nature to us. Most of us wouldn’t dream of living another way… even knowing full well the attractions of the non Torah lifestyle.

But a BT or a Ger do not start from that place. They were for the most part raised in a culture of personal freedom to do whatever their heart desired as long as it didn’t hurt others. In most cases there were very few other restrictions. Judaism by contrast is not a life of personal freedom. It is a life of obligations. Personal freedom comes only if religious prohibitions are not violated and our obligations are fulfilled.

And yet, The Ger and the BT choose a life of observant Judaism with all its restrictions and constraints on personal freedom. They do so whole heartedly. To a Ger or a BT, there is nothing rote about their behavior. Everything they do is done consciously with intent.

There are many reasons why someone would want to join the community of believers known as Orthodox Jewry. But for most - in the end - it is all L’Shma. They do so because they feel it is the right thing to do – the right way to live.

Judaism does not seek converts. So they are a special and much rarer breed. BT’s on the other hand are sought out by various outreach groups. Chabad, Aish HaTorah, and NCSY among many others are dedicated to bringing Jews closer to God. They have - to their credit - been very successful. I don’t know what the numbers of BTs are but my guess is the numbers are in the tens of thousands at least. And the Torah world is of course very happy about that - and richer for it. Those of us who are raised religious - commonly referred to as ‘Frum From Birth’ (FFB) want Jews to return to their heritage and be observant.

But is the BT or Ger truly accepted? Is the acceptance and praise real? …or is it only empty words? I’m afraid that in most cases it is the latter.

Most BTs and converts obviously want to be part of the community they have been involved with in their trek towards observance. They are usually mentored by one or more individuals from specific groups with customs and stringencies all their own. The BT will not necessarily be taught the differences between – Halacha and Minhag or group custom and universal custom. The BT or Ger will see those stringencies as inviolable Halacha. I think they probably follow every stingency for two reasons.

One - they are not educated to understand communal differences. And two - because they want to be fully accepted by the segment of Judaism they are involved in. They want to be an integrated part of the community. And of course they have been led to believe that if they follow all the rules - this is exactly what will happen.

The problem is - it doesn’t happen. Acceptance only goes so far. In certain circles the BT and the Ger are treated like Martians. Or worse. Just read an important article that appears in Rabbi Yakov Horowitz’s website and you will see what I mean. They are practically shunned - no matter how much they try!

That becomes apparent when children are brought into one of their schools. In most cases it seems the children of BTs are not even accepted. And in the rare case that they are, the child of a BT is often tormented by his peers. And the principals do precious little about it – often having the same attitude about BTs as the rest of the community does. BTs and their children are considered bad influences. The FFB fears that old habits die hard and that somehow a child of a BT no matter how sincere will learn unJewish behavior, and be exposed to bad family influences from family members that are not Frum. And the BT children will somehow inflict these influences upon the FFB children.

The description of how BTs are treated by the FFBs in this article is atrocious. Even Chabad whose reason for being is Kiruv (although they don’t call it that) rejects them:

The ‘real’ true-blue Chabadniks send their boys to Ohalei Torah in Crown Heights. You won’t find too many children of ba’alei teshuva there.

Here is the mindset of the typical FFB in such communities:

Zippora Beit Levi, a teacher in the hareidi community’s Beit Ya’akov girls school system, agreed. The hareidi community has “enough troubles with its own young people without importing ‘trouble’ from outside

This seems to be a pervasive attitude in all segments of Judaism except Modern Orthodoxy. That is where one formerly Charedi BT family found refuge. I think the reason for that is obvious. Modern Orthodoxy is not worried about secular culture infiltrating their lives. Modern Orthodoxy does not see anything wrong in modernity as long as it does not violate Halacha.

In light of prevailing attitudes, that is something for any potential BT or Ger to think about when considering becoming observant.