Friday, December 02, 2011

The OTD Baal Teshuva

There has been a virtual explosion of Jews who have become observant over the last few decades. They are typically called Baalei Teshuva (BTs) – ‘owners of repentance’. This is somewhat of a misnomer since we all ought to be striving to do Teshuva and better ourselves as Jews. Be that as it may the name stuck.

The reasons why there has been such an explosion of BTs are many and varied. Among them is the end of the ‘melting pot’ society in favor of ethnic pride. We can thank the Civil Rights movement for that.

Another very important factor is the 6 day war in Israel. That gave a lot of secular Jews pride which in many cases caused them to search for their heritage. In the past it was far more common to hide the fact that one was Jewish and just blend in. As a result of these and other factors, a new industry developed - the Kiruv industry.

For many decades now all kinds of organizations from all manner of Hashkafos have sprouted up that deal in outreach. Just to mention a few, Chabad, Aish HaTorah, Ohr Sameach, NCSY, and Chicago Torah Network. This enabled many secular Jews to find out more about their heritage and in the process become more observant.

But there was, and probably still is a fly in the ointment. There is a downside to much of this outreach that can and has caused some Baalei Teshuva to go Off the Derech (OTD). Last week an essay appeared by one such individual by the name of Shira who was once a BT and is no longer is observant. She tells us her perspective on why BTs go OTD. I think she is absolutley right about it. There may be other reasons as well. Shira was there. I think we all ought to listen to her. And when I say ‘all’, I mean not only those involved in outreach but every single observant Jew.

She spells them all out in detail but briefly these are her five points:

1. The ‘my way or the highway’ approach to Kiruv, where those who work in outreach teach their own Hashkafos as the only true Torah path.

2. Seeing Orthodox Jews being immoral is a big turn off.

3. The shallowness of Kiruv in many cases.

4. The inability for those in Kiruv to properly deal with the problems in observance a BT might have.

5. The unrealistic expectations transmitted to them by unflawed Gadol stories that are used as a baseline goal for the BT.

I agree with her. One must read her article in its entirety to understand why these are serious ‘turnoffs’ to BTs in many cases. In my view these five points are the result of an arrogance on the part of a given outreach group that among other things sees only their own Hashkafa as the true Hashkafa.

One of the things Shira mentions that is a problem really rings true for me. In her second point she explains that the constant refrain of ‘not judging Judaism by its Jews’ is a terrible way to explain things. She is correct. Judaism ought to be judged by how its leaders practice it. When religious - sometimes prominent - Jews are caught molesting children and religious leader's insist we ought not be talk about it, or when prominent Jews are caught cheating the government, or committing fraud and we are similarly asked to avoid the subject - we are sending a false message about Judaism.

When a religious leader like the Spinka Rebbe who committed a fraud against the government is given a spot on an Agudah Dais to express regret at the Chilul HaShem he caused - without admitting he violated Halacha - or in essence did anything wrong besides getting caught - that in and of itself is a Chilul HaShem of which the Agudah itself is complicit… and it is cause for a BT to question the very essence of the Torah’s morality.

Add to that the admonitions for Frum blogs and the like to shut up about it - calling us guilty of Lashon Hara and Rechilus … that just adds fuel to the fire. If religious Jews are quiet when prominent religious figures get caught in various crimes - we are seen as endorsing it by our silence. It in effect it is seen as Judaism itself! A moral and ethical Baal Teshuva who witnesses that and does not see anyone Frum protesting it – that can only be the biggest turn off to him!

There are of course other reasons as I said for turning off BTs. But it behooves those who do outreach to listen very carefully to what Shira says. Those who use the ‘my way or the highway’ approach to Kiruv ought to stop. Chanoch L’Darko applies to a BT just as much as it applies to children. And if a prominent religious Jew gets caught doing a crime, it ought to be forceful and fully condemned without any reservations or explanations.

We ought to listen to them nonjudgmentally when they express difficulty in observance. Observing Halacha is hard. Get a clue! When they say it’s hard- agree with them. If they slack off in one area, understand them! Encourage them to proceed at their own pace. How many of us who were raised Frum slack off in one Mitzvah or another from time to time?!

And perhaps most importantly – those in Kiurv ought to be more honest about what is and isn’t actual Halacha. They can explain why certain practices that aren’t Halacha are important to them. But there has to be a separation between specific Minhagim of a particular group and actual Halacha. And there ought to be acknowledgement that their own Mihagim may not be universal to other segments of Orthodoxy.

These are just some of my thoughts about Shira’s article. I don’t know how many BTs go OTD. But if Shira essay is any indication, I’m surprised that there aren’t a lot more.