Monday, December 17, 2018

More on the Disillusioned Baal Teshuva

Image taken from Cross Currents
As I was reading Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein’s take on some of the problems Baalei Teshuva face, it occurred to me that some of the problems their children face are similar to children that go OTD from observant homes.

This is an area that I did not really explore in my original thoughts on the subject. Rabbi Adlerstein focuses on the feeling of self doubt that so many Baalei teshuva have. A feeling that trickles down to their children born and raised well after the parents became observant. Which often results in feelings of shame by those children. As Rabbi Adlerstein notes, this creates an environment of embarrassment for young children:
Often children of chozrim b’teshuvah know the dress code of the Haredi world better than their parents. Children sense their parent’s cluelessness and clumsiness. It is hard to have parental authority when your children don’t respect you.”
In Israel this problem is exacerbated by the intensity that is part of religious life there.  Here is how it is described in the Tablet article:
“The Haredi society is tribal…What matters is what family you’re from. Second-generation chozrim b’teshuvah don’t belong to any tribe, they have no status in the Haredi society. You can’t become Haredi, you are born one.”
Rabbi Adlerstein adds that this sounds ‘disturbingly familiar’.  I have to respect his view about this since he has experiences in this matter which I do not have. If he says it is a familiar circumstance, I have to believe him.

Sadly, there is definitely a chasm between those of us that were raised in observant homes and those of us that weren’t. 

I became acutely aware of this right here in Chicago by observing Chabad, the most successful Kiruv organization in the world. (Kiruv is a word they do not like to use for reasons beyond the scope of this post. But that is in essence what they do.) As much as they are accepting and even loving they are of fellow Jews o matter how far removed they might be from observant Judaism, once that Jew becomes Frum (observant) and joins Chabad, they are treated as a separate entity.

Rarely for example does an FFB (Frum from birth) Lubavitcher date a Baal Teshuva. Baalei Teshuva are almost always set up with other Baalei Teshuva. Now it’s true that they have that in common. But is only one aspect of an individuals entire personality. And it should definitely not be the sole basis for setting them up. But that does seem to be widely the case.

Then there is their Kiruv camp, Gan Yisroel. (Kiruv is word they don’t like to use for reasons - again beyond the scope of this post. But that is essentially what Gan Yisroel is.) A few years ago in Chicago FFB Lubavitcher parents refused to send their children there for fear of the influences of those secular kids. Even if those influences do not in any way violate Halacha. So they started a camp for observant Lubavitcher families only.

How ironic that is since they are the ones that go with their entire families into the boondocks where there are literally no observant Jews and set up shop there. They are known for this. And yet once they convince someone to become observant, they keep them at a safe distance – albeit still retaining social interaction with them at some level.

This is not only true of Chabad. It is true in most observant circles. Baalei Teshuva eventually feel that sense of being set apart and are put off by it. Their own children feel it too and end up looking at their own parents as somewhat - strange and out of sync with the FFB world.

That is where the doubt begins.

Why should that be the case? Why must being observant require a rejection of their past? Which deprives their children of the ability to participate in the permitted aspects of the general culture? That can easily become the source of rebellion. Once their children see what they are missing and see it all as outside their area of permissibly, they might think, why bother observing anything at all? 

This is exactly the same thing that happens to many young people that go OTD from FFB families. They somehow find ways to experience a taste of the outside world. And some of what they find may not be a violation of any Halacha at all - but is frowned upon by their particular segment of Orthodoxy. They will end up asking the same question as the Baal Teshuva children whose parents were never informed about differences between what must be observed and what is customary only to their particular segment, Why bother being Frum?  ...believing that what they seek is tantamount to violating Halacha?

In my view there ought to be a major shift in what we teach a Jew that wants to become observant. No matter what Hashkafa we come from. As well as a major shift in how they are treated once they do.

There must be a clear delineation between community custom and Halacha. This is where many Kiruv organization fail. Although there are some that do take that into account (like NCSY) clearly many do not. Chabad is probably the most guilty of this by teaching their own customs together with baseline Halacha and not distinguishing between them.

This approach is vital to the mental health of not only the Baal Teshuva, but to their children as well. They must be taught that there is a certain amount of freedom in observant Judaism that does not require adherence to customs of a given community. They must be taught the difference between Minhag (custom) and Halacha. They must be taught that giving up all of their past is not a real component of observant Judaism. Only those aspects that violate Halacha must be given up. Once they realize that, they will be able to live their lives in ways that are somewhat compatible to their former lives while at the same time embracing that which Halacha requires of them.

Furthermore, they must not be treated as Baalei Teshuva. They must be fully integrated into the FFB world in every aspect of their lives. No separate camps. No separate dating. We should never  judge – or even look at anyone’s past at all. There should not be a scintilla of judgmentalism.

Most importantly children of Baalei Teshuva must be taught that those of us that are FFB cannot hold a candle to their parents. We must look up to them and honor them. Not down at a parent as some sort of anomaly that wasn’t lucky enough to be born FFbB.  And make sure that their children know it as well as FFB children.

It is only by doing this that a child of a Baal Teshuva will no longer feel awkward about their parents and instead feel the pride in their parents they so richly deserve.