Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

26 Iyar 5766 - May 24, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Home and Family

Baal Teshuvoh Musings . . .
By Lisa Neumann

By now, a basic ingredient in the great melting pot of flavors that comprise the Orthodox expanse of Jerusalem and its surrounding environs, the baalei tshuvah of today have realized all manners of integration into established frum communities. Yet despite the very real transformation from college student, stock market analyst or high school teacher to avreich and palpable proponent of Torah values and practices, the acute difficulties experienced at each station of the journey from secularity to full-fledged Jewish observance should never be underrated.

The initial decision to adopt a life of mitzvah observance is often augmented by a powerful spiritual drive which can move a person to aspire to great change within a relatively short time-frame. However, good intentions aside, the passage between the ideal and the outcome can be awash with setbacks, disappointments, and quite often, real emotional anguish. Moreover, while pulling out of the secular world is itself a complicated and difficult process, integration into the religious establishment is an entirely separate concept.

The technical aspects alone present a major set of challenges: Reading and understanding Hebrew, following a service in shul and performance of basic halachos which are child's play for the wider Orthodox community, can prove a major difficulty for the mid-twenty someone who has never before encountered such regular requirements.

The journey of a baal tshuvah is often initiated by a vision of family life only possible within a solid Jewish framework. Within the breakdown of the family unit that has become so prevalent in the secular world over the past decades, it's no surprise that the stable home afforded only to the family that lives within the framework of the Torah is such an attractive option for the young person today.

During the interim phase between starting one's journey and establishing for oneself a home and family, there is generally plenty of opportunity to witness religious family life and the inner workings of a traditional home. Yeshiva and seminary students will usually find themselves as Shabbos guests in myriad homes, affording them a first-hand appreciation of the ins and outs of Torah-true family life.

It's not uncommon for a young single person to develop a close relationship with one or several families with which s/he feels most comfortable, and to spend much time taking mental notes in preparation for future married and domestic life. From my own experience, I can say that it's truly a beautiful feeling to be made part of a home and to experience the type of family dynamics that are long extinct in the secular household.

The welcomes are perpetually warm and the invitations to return 'any time' are generally unending. Yet the issues that baalei Teshuvoh face with regard to family life are complex and individual. The spectrum of pain deriving from dysfunction and abuse in secular families and communities means that many among the newly observant require different forms of intensive guidance/counseling before they are in a healthy position to start the process of dating, marriage and establishment of their own strong Torah-based homes.

The understanding that the relationship with one's own parents and siblings can never emulate that of a family bound by common spiritual goals and ideals can lead a young baal tshuvah to feel a heightened sense of frustration and isolation in these loving homes — that are not their own.

Such issues can even stem from the simple fact that parents who once gently prodded their children in the direction of the front door and encouraged them to search the world, are now dealing with a new lifestyle with which they are, if not openly resentful, certainly uncomfortable. From the early teenage years on, secular parents give their children unlimited independence to explore both their immediate surroundings and the world at large. The basic assumption is that youthful curiosities will eventually be numbed by the material realities demanded by society, and at some point in early adulthood they will desire to settle down and establish for themselves a 'normal' framework of existence.

In the non-Torah world, there is no such concept as learning for the sake of learning. A person learns for the purpose of acquiring the piece of paper which on a practical level becomes the ticket to the highly sought-after middle position in the accounting firm, and on a more idealistic level — the key to unlimited fame and fortune. To sit in an institution week after month after year for the purpose of gaining nothing but a lot of very subjectively valuable knowledge is a mind-boggling concept for someone without an appreciation of Torah.

The expected reaction to a call from a son who had last been seen some months earlier at the airport departure gate sporting dreadlocks and jeans and who is now informing his parents of his decision to prolong his stay in Israel to study in Yeshiva is thus nothing less than total shock and disbelief. By the time this same son is married and committed to learning in kollel indefinitely, the parents have hopefully become reconciled to the state of affairs. However, the reality is that there is never any shortage of new situations cropping up which continue to put strain on the relationship.

The geographic relocation itself can at times be a source of stress for the newly observant. Many baalei tshuvah spend a number of years residing in dormitories where the necessities of communal living combined with new financial restrictions result in far inferior standards of comfort that they experienced in one's previous reality.

As insignificant as a reduced level of material comfort may seem when one considers all the gains of adopting a Torah- based lifestyle, the change of type and location of one's physical environment can certainly be traumatic. Gone is the park that you used to stroll through in the early mornings. Gone too are the relatives that used to be a short car-ride away. Now, everywhere you go people are speaking a strange language. In the bank, everyone always seems to be out to lunch.

For a person who is in the earlier stages of the process of learning how to live according to Orthodox Jewish standards, living in a religious neighborhood can also present a significant challenge. To be quite blunt, new baalei tshuvah stand out. It's not even a question of standards of modesty.

A young woman could be dressed in a manner of which she is certain that even Soroh Imeinu would approve, and still feel like a papaya in a basket full of apples. To have to be, all of a sudden, conscious of where she is walking, who is behind and in front, her pace, the volume at which she is chatting to her friend — all these can take some getting used to and for some, the period of adjustment is longer than it is for others.

Learning in an environment far away from home may be most conducive to growth in Yiddishkeit, but the separation from family, friends and familiar environs can at times be extremely painful. Due to the relatively rapid pace that changes are made — both internal and external — each trip home is accompanied by new challenges. Constant developments in kashrus, modesty levels and Shabbos observance which are all part of the natural growth process of the newly observant, can be an enormous source of tension. It's not uncommon to hear stories of parents who had done their utmost to assist their baal tshuvah children with purchasing new sets of dishes and modest wardrobes, only to be informed on the next trip home that new standards are now in place and replacement items need to be found.

The fact that a child is showing signs of blatant rejection of the social and familial values that his parents have instilled in him since childhood, can be, not surprisingly, the cause of a range of negative emotions. I have even heard of cases of Jewish families who either begrudgingly or willingly accept the intermarriage of one child, whilst totally rejecting the child who chooses to adopt a frum lifestyle. The former has, all too sadly, become much more socially acceptable in some circles.

Astonishing as this concept seems, from their point of view, it can be "justified" by the simple fact that at least the daughter with the non-Jewish husband will still be able to attend family dinner parties and weekend getaways, while the tsitsis-donning son will no longer even drink a bowl of soup served to him by his mother.

Friendships which have spanned the course of decades often need to be severed. A relationship which in the secular world may have seemed harmless will inevitably begin to stifle a baal tshuvah's growth, and therefore needs to be ended. A person may know that he is ending it for all the right reasons.

In the best-case scenario, it may undergo a phasing-out period, due to 'lack of common interests.' However, when more assertive action needs to be taken, the result can be a myriad of unpleasant emotions from both parties.

New and better quality relationships are frequently formed in a world in which Hashem provides for us exactly what we need, but for the individual who is undergoing such profound change on a daily basis, sometimes the yearning to be in the presence of a long-term acquaintance who is no longer a part of one's present reality can honestly feel overwhelming. One of the games that people love to play at Shabbos tables is called 'Jewish Geography.' It starts off with a seemingly innocent question such as, "Where are you from?" Once this information is established, the inquisitor then wants to know who else you know from that area. "Oh, you're from Toronto. Do you know the Reuben family?" No, sorry. "Do you know Shimon Cohen?" No, sorry. And so on and so forth.

Very many baalei tshuvah don't know any religious people at all from the places in which they grew up. Moreover, they have no interest in divulging to an entire table of people with whom they have been acquainted for exactly twenty minutes the fact they have only been observant for half a year or so. When the line of questioning inevitably leads to, "So where does your father daven? (He's never been to shul.) What does your mother do? (She's a landscape gardener.) How many siblings do you have? (I'm an only child), it can become so excruciatingly embarrassing for some.

Often there is very little tact involved in the line of questioning, until it reaches a point that this Shabbos guest shrinks deeper and deeper into her seat and vows to never again step foot on the entire block, let alone in this particular home. On the topic of lack of common sense, last summer a friend of mind related to me that she had been approached by a woman at the Kosel and told that her sockless- sandled feet were an abomination. This girl had stopped wearing jeans only a few months previously, and at that point, was teetering between prolonging her stay in Eretz Yisroel for a few months to study in seminary, or leaving the country a few days later to return to her office job back home. This comment helped her to make her decision . . . I have no idea what she's doing with herself these days . . . .

By no stretch of the imagination am I trying to say that every single baal tshuvah is a fragile crystal vase teetering on the edge of a shelf. My peer group is comprised of confident, happy, intelligent young people proud of the hard work that they have accomplished and the difficult trials that they have overcome in order to reach their latest stage in life. However, there can be many moments when a person feels so much uncertainty, and interaction with other people is all that is holding him or her together.

Generally, if a girl is walking through an area in which she doesn't appear to have been born, wearing something that may evidently not have been purchased on Rechov Malchei Yisroel, it's not because she is deliberately trying to be offensive. It could be that she's in the earlier stages of her growth, or she could just be having a setback, something which all baalei tshuvah experience.

It could be that all she needs is a friendly smile on the street, or a "Gut Shabbos" to muster the koach to pass the remainder of that day's trials with flying colors.

Just a thought, anyway.

[Ed. When was the last time you FFB readers hosted a baal/as tshuvah for Shabbos? Without being asked? Just a thought, anyway.]


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