The “Baal Teshuva movement”; the phenomena of those born into homes void of Jewish practice, committing themselves to observance of Torah laws, began in the early 1950’s. One individual, a man who in keeping with his newfound lifestyle adopted the Hebrew name Avraham, is commonly identified as the prototypical, if not the original, Baal Teshuva. As an innovator his story offers insights into this flourishing trend, including a plan of action and a refutation of common myths.
Some background: Avraham was born to upstanding, well-respected parents, pillars in their community. Contrary to legend, Baal Teshuvas are not all lost souls from dysfunctional families. Avraham had a healthy relationship with his father and siblings.
Another Baal Teshuva myth imploded; Avraham’s quest was grounded in logic, not an earth shattering experience or devastating calamity. He simply figured there had to be more to life than the shallow materialistic pursuits that were all the rage one moment and a forgotten whim the next. Avraham was neither slacker nor fanatic; he excelled in the sciences and was eager to debate.
He married to a like-minded Baales Teshuva. Life went well, despite their radically different lifestyle they built a Jewish home where no others existed.
Eventually the couple “got the message;” their life contrasted too sharply with their hometown; in order to raise the children they hoped to bring into the world they had to move. It was no longer practical to simply add another mitzvah to their routine; they had arrived at that next stage, having “maxed out” their current circumstance.
This was perhaps the hardest part, enough to scare the most committed. They had experienced resistance from friends who felt abandoned and “looked down upon”, yet they had maintained sufficient neighborly ties to even persuade some locals to join with them. While Shabbos, kashrus and all their newfound Mitzvah observances had isolated them from local mores, moving was a bigger deal than politely refusing a Friday night barbeque invitation. It was hard on so many levels; Avraham was successful, a prominent, if not always beloved, member of the community. Relocating meant uprooting his business and leaving their cherished home and all its warm memories, to the mystery of strangers.
It also meant leaving Avraham’s aging parents and all the old familiar places and faces. It meant the child, they were still praying for would never play in the parks they had enjoyed, it meant saying goodbye to the comfortable rhythms of home. They had grown accustomed to the strange looks and whispered comments made about them. Yes, he was the kid who had struck out on his own, rejected his parents’ way, they remembered him before “all of this,” it was hard, but it was still home.
Moving was a statement too; now they were fully “in.” Their commitment was more than just resisting tempting foods and activities not in keeping with their fastidious Mitzvah observance, now they were not only abandoning what “normal people” do, they were moving away from what society valued, for what others labeled a spiritual wild goose chase. This move meant goodbye to ideals and interests and farewell, in many ways, to their family. Of course they would stay in touch, but they knew the declaration they were making.
At the end of his life Avraham’s father, who had been so resistant, made his own way to G-d. He had been on a path; Avraham had merely picked up the baton from his Dad. Another Baal Teshuva myth exploded, Avraham was not “rebelling”; he was embracing his parents, harvesting what they had given him. Hadn’t they always encouraged him to think for himself and to make a difference in the world?
So with some trepidation and heaps of enthusiasm they headed out. Avraham, always the generous one, overcame local suspicions ingratiating himself through hospitality, welcoming guests who raved about the cooking. “The way to a man’s soul is through his stomach”, Avraham would say. With the zeal only a Baal Teshuva can muster Avraham eagerly directed their gratitude to Hashem. And he succeeded, surprisingly more so with these new friends than he had with his own resistant family and childhood neighbors, another common Baal Teshuva experience.
This new Utopia soon sprung some leaks and the good ship ‘frumkeit” started to take on water. Their arrival coincided with a regional recession. Avraham was in financial trouble and the critics were generous with their analysis: “Told you so, you never should have left, this has gone too far!” “Holier than thou Avraham; where has your religion gotten you now?!”
Avraham held firm, he knew he had to do something; some argued he should let G-d fix it, but Avraham chose to act. It was risky, downright dangerous, but he did it and hated every minute of it. With the snickering ringing in his ears he put his new home in the rear view mirror, promising the gloaters that he would return.
He had always avoided traveling, it cost too much, was tough on the body and the business, and there was still the heartache of being childless. Fully aware of the risks and prepared for the worst, he was not disappointed. The worst was only the beginning, and then came worse, somehow, miraculously Avraham would say, he survived, his integrity in tact. He returned home wealthier than before. Another hypothesis out the window, religious observance didn’t drive Avraham to the poor house or encourage him to stay there. The downturn affected everyone; Avraham was blessed because he knew there is more to life than his account balance.
The critics were silenced, for a while. Things got better then tougher. His nephew, whom Avraham was so proud of through the family’s difficult times, found wealth a challenge too great to bear. Sadly he left, though he always remembered, admired and emulated his uncle’s hospitality. That’s another one of the Baal Teshuva experiences, when family members brush up against it they savor the warmth and sense of community. Sadly it also illustrates another tendency; when separated from the larger community some regress to the mean back to their old ways.
Eventually people forgot that he hadn’t “always been around” and when Avraham was blessed with a son, later in life than most, everyone was overjoyed. The bris was a “who’s who” of its time. During the celebratory meal skeptics mused out loud that this “Baal Teshuva thing” wouldn’t last, the new kid would come to his senses and join the fun his parents had foolishly abandoned.
This was all very new for Avraham, more than the challenge of fatherhood, he had to deal with a son who was so different than himself; this little boy was “frum from birth”. How do you raise a child who has an upshernish, goes to Cheder and didn’t reject cheeseburgers because he never saw them? It was hard, his mother banished friends she thought an unhealthy influence with a fanaticism that disturbed her husband, though he knew she was right. She was more than just a protective mother; she was raising a new lineage and was determined to spare her son the ugliness she had fled.
Childhood passed rapidly, somewhere in the background “sunrise, sunset” played a lively tune as he grew to be a son every mother would be proud of. Adulthood brought new challenges for these BT’s parents of an FFB, their son needed a shidduch, needed to grow up, should he continue the family business, try something different, be a leader or content to indulge in his own journey?
The old time voices may have been creeping in when Avraham got the clarity that he must devote his son exclusively to Hashem, no half-hearted blend of the “best of both worlds”, it was all or nothing. Many mocked his choices, those old criticisms resurfaced: “come on!, how can you deny your child the world around them, certainly your G-d would want him to enjoy the pleasures of life, let the kid decide for himself” This was hardest thing he had ever done, yet Avraham found himself peaceful even joyous at the thought of relieving his child from the burdens, the addictions, the mental and personal strife of a world where nice guys finished last.
It worked, father and son, so many differences between them, walked together as one. His boy became a man and added his distinctive flavor to the family. Released from the oppression of a dog eat dog world, he gladly married a woman his father helped him find, she reminded him so much of his mother. The teshuva seemed complete now that Avraham saw his present had a future and his past no longer haunted him. He would only be disappointed that his son wouldn’t pass through without strife; instead he would blaze his own path.
There was still more for Avraham, there always was. There it is again, another maxim shattered. Mitzvah observance did not make Avraham frenetic; that was his nature. Wherever there was something to be done he could be counted on to be the one doing the doing. Life has its dips and doozies, throws you some wicked curveballs, no matter how much we try to hide from it; a relationship with Hashem provides context, a way to deal with strife, not insulation from hardship.
It began in the 50’s — with Avraham, Avraham Avinu, born in 1,948 from creation. At age 3, in 1951, he began his journey and for the next four thousand years we follow its grooved pattern.
We must all walk the path of teshuva, of abandoning what we know, to discover who we are. It’s scary out there, yet we persevere, driven by the awareness that we walk with Hashem. There’s genuine mesiras nefesh, sacrifice of what we once held so dear. It’s hard to watch loving parents wrinkle their noses when we explain why we named our daughter Rochel although she’s named after Grandma “Brandi”. And no I’m sorry, Yechezkel (that’s Ye – chez, kel!) can’t go with you, even just this one time, to the movies or his cousin’s Bar Mitzvah in the Temple on Friday Night. I’m sorry we can’t eat in your kitchen even though the package has an OU on it.
Do you see yourself in this story? Feel the sting of mockery of Avraham as you sacrifice your son – sending him to yeshiva, instead of somewhere where he’ll be able to “make a living”. Is it your personal akeida to deny your children material pleasures you once enjoyed, critics screaming that “you’re killing the poor kid, he’ll have no chance at life.”
Do you see the despondency of arriving in the Promised Land full of raw optimism only to be jolted to reality that bills don’t take Shabbos off? Have you thrown your hands up in despair crying out: “now that I’m frum why isn’t everything (anything) perfect?!”
Have you felt ambivalent, even guilty for forbidding your child to play with the local Yishmael, even though you grew up with that and still turned out OK?
The course of all Jews is modeled after the experiences of our forefathers. Whether you are the first person in your family to keep Shabbos in 100 years or you are a 10th generation Chassid, the route of successes and frustrations is the same. These are the realities, the challenges, the joys of life, everyone has them, how blessed are we that Avraham Avinu has done the heavy lifting, we are not exempt from adversity, we are equipped to handle it.
If Hashem has entrusted you with the “deluxe Avraham Avinu package;” born into a non-observant household, your life can be a personalized replica of the first Jew. Begin with acceptance, don’t be surprised or angered by your lot or your parents, you are G-d’s hand chosen. “Echad haya Avraham” Avraham was distinct, if you feel alone, know that Avraham Avinu and the millions who followed him share your journey.
At first it’s all luction kugel and Purim parties, enthusiastically you join the community, invigorated by being “one of the guys (or gals).” It is still hard, more than foregoing your favorite restaurants and Saturday morning tee times, the reorganization of what your goals are is perhaps the hardest part. Western society inundates us with “having a career and being successful, marriage and one or two children will (might) come in due course.” Yiddishkeit is the converse; it’s all about getting married and having lots of children, the parnasah (income) “will (might) come in due course.”
Sometime after arrival, the famine comes, just as it did with Avraham, financial challenges from unimagined expenses, two pairs of Tefilin, kosher food and day school. Tznius clothing is so hard to find, sheitels are hot and sweaty, and your team finally made the playoffs and the game is on Yom Tov.
Casual cutting remarks from family don’t help; nor do the ones from neighbors, stunned that you would “give up all that great stuff to become frum, I mean I had no choice I was born into it, but why would you give up all that fun voluntarily?”
And though you try and it gets easier there is still the craving for the extended family, everyone else has it. How can your mother visit; last time she bought the kids ice cream after making sure it was kosher, but it wasn’t cholov Yisroel and stressed out as you were you snapped and raised your voice and she responded and it escalated, and it was all so unpleasant.
At 99 Avraham Avinu was still not “done”, his soul healed, he could now tend to his body; address his human side – there was pain there. Teshuva must go beyond the neshama, the body/character needs remedy as well. Can we be expected to undergo that intense a self scrutiny? Can we extract the most sensitive, deepest flawed human failings and rescue the corroded souls of past generations? Avraham Avinu went there and became whole. Hashem paid him a personal visit, just to be with him through his most traumatic journey; while the process was agonizing, the recuperation was faster than he feared. When we dare to look where no one else may; to examine what we keep so hidden and bring teshuva even there; G-d appears at our side. The pain is not from the growth it is the longing to perpetuate it; having seen how far we have progressed we yearn to go further.
The disconnect with the past is exacerbated by the divide with the future. Your 5th grader outpaces your ability to help with his Gemorrah homework and like an immigrant your skills and knowledge are useless in his world. What value is tying a Windsor knot when he is trying to tie tzitzis? I can’t turn to my parents for advice when they question why we stress Navi more than chemistry, why we had to have so many kids. I fear stumbling through my new life with broken phrases and clumsy protocol
Avraham had to leave – maarttzecha, mimoladetecha, mbais avicho
Maarttzecha – From his old priorities, the permissible desires and ideals of his youth
Mimoladetecha – From childhood pleasures, whimsical for the old stompin’ grounds, for youthful joys, old time buddies, who genuinely are sincerely nice guys.
Mbais avicho – Perhaps the hardest, why it is last: “leaving family”. There is a detachment from family; try as we do, there is separation, especially if part of what I went looking for was a paternal G-d to replace flawed parents. How can we be “just as part of the family” when Thanksgiving is in a treif restaurant? Traditional Jewish family ceremonies are the hardest; we’ve become “too Jewish” to participate. Yom Kippur break fast at 5:30 PM, Seder with Manishewitz matzo and Gold’s horseradish, explain as you try, they react with hurt, feel judged and rejected! Am I judging them, am I too harsh?
“I will be with you, I will bless you” Hashem promises us, hold on, I am there with you, through the famine, the disappointment in the “flawed frum community;” milk and honey attracts its share of bees. The brochure never mentioned that people with yarmulkes might still gossip; that unconditional love that Torah speaks so often of? we’re still working on it. Avraham laid the groundwork for us, worked so hard so we would have a plan; he returned with wealth, ready to face another test; should I think myself superior; immune to hard times?
So hang on – Moshiach is almost here and those who plant in tears will reap in joy; and hey it’s not that bad along the way either. Chanukah, Shabbos invites, yiddishe nachas, they are the perks that help us keep it together. And how blessed are we to have the Rebbe; the antidote to all cynicism, when your linked to the Rebbe you can’t get so low that you’ve forgotten to smile.
So when galus has got you down and you catch yourself wondering “is this worth it?” remember Avraham, remember Hashem’s promise, to bless – to be forever linked with those who walk with Him. Though you were never promised a rose garden, your grass is indeed greener.