Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Keeping it Hidden

Kiruv'd? Hide your BT status!
     Once upon a time, when I decided to uproot my secular life and become a ba'al teshuva (newly religious Jew,) I was strongly advised by an orthodox woman (who had been, decades before, a BT--ba'al teshuva,) that I should never, ever tell anyone that I was not always religious. "Tell them you're from out of town," she advised. "But don't tell them you're a BT." Of course, in my naivete, I privately laughed at this advice. I'm proud of my background, I thought to myself. I have no regrets, I'm not ashamed of anything I've done.
     Fast forward to the present time. I was researching material on the topic of what happens after kiruv workers convince the non-orthodox to take on an ultra-orthodox lifestyle. (Again, I'm talking about ultra-orthodoxy--meaning any orthodoxy that is past modern orthodoxy in observance and stringency.) I found a lot of interesting material on what those who become orthodox can expect, and much of what they can expect is kept well-hidden from new inductees during the process of becoming frum (religious.) I've included links to some pretty interesting articles, each highlighting different aspects of post-outreach ultra-orthodoxy. From how children of BTs are treated, to how FFB's [frum from birth--those who were born orthodox to orthodox parents] really feel about interacting with BTs, to the stresses of an orthodox lifestyle, to how communities enmeshed in kiruv-work are forgetting about their own community members, I've tried to create a montage of perspectives on what often happens once a person commits to an ultra-orthodox lifestyle. I hope that you'll take the time to click on the included links, and read the articles and the comments for greater insight.
     Rabbi Yakov Horowitz reprinted Catriel Sugarman's article from The Jewish Voice and Opinion, entitled "The Yeshiva World and the Children of Baalei Teshuva: The Ugly Secret," sparking a huge number of comments. Sugarman makes the interesting point that while the newly religious may think they have been fully accepted into a community, they very often find that once they have children, their kids face discrimination in school, social settings, and even later on, when it comes to getting married. Often such innocent-sounding questions on school applications for incoming students asking about the family's history, require the checking off of the box next to the term "ba'al teshuva," and for how long. These students are often treated as social pariahs, snubbed by both teachers and fellow students, regardless of how long the parents have studied Judaism in formal settings. Rare is it that the child of BTs is treated well, the article mentions, although there are exceptions, for instance, if the family is very wealthy and can contribute substantially to the school. The article provides accounts of bullying suffered by children, due only to their BT status in the community. What kiruv professionals failed to tell the parents they brought into orthodoxy was that despite teaching that a BT is considered higher up for having left the secular world and taken on the obligations of the orthodox world, BTs in the orthodox world are often treated poorly and have extremely low status.
     Sugarman's article isn't the only place that you can read about the plight of those who get past kiruv and become orthodox. A 2005 article on the Jewish Worker blog entitled "A Baal Teshuva's Fate in the Haredi World" discusses an explanation made by a woman married to the son of a ba'al teshuva. The problem, which is expressed in various articles around the internet, is that because BTs retain contact with their non-orthodox family and friends, they put the frum [orthodox] community at risk of being influenced towards a secular lifestyle, thus justifying the exclusion and alienation of the very people they worked so hard to make frum. She stated that a relative in education explained the low status and discrimination faced by BTs and their children this way:
He said that many Baalei Teshuva stay in contact with their non-religious families. Therefore they are a tremendous danger to everyone else. After all, the friends may actually see a non-religious person in the house etc.... Therefore she concluded, that it is better to hurt individual baalei teshuva then to put the whole community at harm.1

     "Humpty Dumpty Had A Great Fall," an article on Beyond BT, takes us on the journey of a person from pre-outreach to kiruv to BT to  leaving orthodoxy. The writer, whose byline is Little Frumhouse on the Prairie, vividly paints the picture of orthodox life as a BT wife and mother. She shows us how frum life can be frenzied, hectic, and both financially and mentally stressful, and can easily lead to a person leaving that lifestyle, even if the person was raised in a stable, non-orthodox environment.
     Finally, in
"Chabad Fails Its Own Long Term Members, Chabadnik Says" an article found on Failed Messiah by guest writer Chabad Spring, the writer wants to "Turn Chabad Upside [down] and focus on in reach",[sic.] Chabad Spring urges his own Chabad community to curtail funding to outreach/kiruv efforts to non-religious Jews and to help their own community to maintain a decent standard of living. He talks about the extreme poverty that community members face due to the high cost of raising large families and sending them on to expensive yeshivahs. Instead, the writer points out that their own community's costs could be offset with funding that is put towards bringing more and more non-orthodox Jews to this lifestyle (including the costs of helping those on shlichos, or outreach missions--such as the families of college campus rabbis, those families running Chabad Houses in foreign cities, small towns, etc.) Chabad Spring writes:

Reality is, and it’s no secret, almost all our resources are going towards fishing for new Jews to join into our system, and making more frie[secular] people frum[orthodox].  We have Friendship circles, holocaust survivor circles, release time, youth programs for college kids, youth programs for kids who come to Chabad house, Camp Lemaan Achy,   Camps for yalday hashluchim [the children of Chabad's outreach workers],  you name it if you are not yet Frum = Chabad has something for you. Every sheliach [Chabad missionary] out there is doing his best to be mekarev yidden [get non-orthodox Jews to become orthodox], yet the fact of the matter is that there is none or little programming funds, resources, or attention paid to us, who are actually living the Chabad Working  lifestyle.[sic]2 

      In conversations on social media, I have been accused of trying to keep people from becoming orthodox. Rather than keeping people from orthodoxy, I think that most rational people understand that in making important life choices, it is beneficial to be presented with all information on these choices. That includes even the information that may be viewed as negative. Some may see this blog as providing that negative information, and question why I don't give the other side of the story. Well, that's where all of the outreach workers and their organizations come in. I am filling in the other side of the story, the side that you have to scour the internet for because those in kiruv would rather this side of the story remain hidden.

1. Bluke. A Baal Teshuva's Fate in the Charedi World. The Jewish Worker. 9/17/2005. Accessed 7/24/2013.
2. Chabad Spring. "Turn Chabad Upside and focus on in reach." hosted on Failed Messiah. 7/24/2012. Accessed 7/24/2013.


  1. Well put. As the daughter of a baalas teshuva who went to Bais Yaacov I know the shame and poor treatment all too well.

  2. . . . but he seemed like such a sincere Jewish rabbi . . . I'm sure he would have told me if this was true.

  3. I know a rabbi that said he didn't teach the more difficult commandments to the newly initiated because (you don't give meat to a starving person! You start slowly, with easily digested foods. So too is it with the Torah.
    I suffered from this and more, but I don't blame Judaism for it. I think it is true that those who are dear (or more dear) to Hashem do tend to suffer more. And life in general wasn't meant to be all party (at least not this life). It's meant to have struggles. So if you are a BT, you may have to deal with being mot accepted fully. ANd if you are in Kiruv, or learning full time, or a rebbe or a Morah, then you may have to deal with poverty. ANd if you have poor genetic makeup, you may have to deal with illness, mental, emotional, or physical. THIS IS LIFE! No, we were not informed completely about what we were getting into. Not as far as orthodoxy, nor about having kids or being married, or moving, or ANYTHING! And even if we were completely informed, we probably wouldn't have fully understood the ramifications anyway.
    So, yes, it may be helpful to hear this, or maybe not. What is helpful is to know I chose this way of life because I BELIEVE in it! I believe in Hashem and want a life of relationship with HIM, so I choose to put up with a LOT, give up a LOT, in order to be true to my beliefs and to Him! If some people don't choose to be religious with this in mind, at the forefront, than the other crap could be a deal-breaker for them. I am not judging them either way. Nor will I judge those people who really don't know what it's like to have family that you love who don't believe in Hashem. HOW COULD THEY UNDERSTAND IT? They haven't lived it! Yes, there are those few and far between people who don't judge me for where I come from or who I am related to, or how my children turn out, or what I wear on my head for heaven's sake! Those are the people I keep near and dear, and the others I pray for!!!

    1. Thanks for your reply, Miriam. I think that we would both agree that if someone found him/herself surrounded by a judgmental community, in an ideal situation, he/she would find a community better suited to his/her needs. Unfortunately, it seems (based on the articles I've cited) that a lot times they don't realize that they're not on equal footing until they have children going through the school system. Often by then, leaving a community is much more difficult, especially if they believe they've already established themselves.
      I do agree with your initial point about starting slowly, but these are unfortunate realities that real people do have to face. While not everyone seems to have all of these issues, providing people with a general understanding that these problems are (unfortunately) pervasive in certain communities might make for better decision making in terms of choosing a community and maybe even more success for BTs (and their children) in the long run.

    2. > I know a rabbi that said he didn't teach the more difficult commandments to the newly initiated because (you don't give meat to a starving person! You start slowly, with easily digested foods. So too is it with the Torah.

      Okay, but the post is about a social phenomenon, not “difficult” religious precepts. If BTs are told that they will be held in high regard, then they are being lied to.

      > I think it is true that those who are dear (or more dear) to Hashem do tend to suffer more.

      You don’t see that as an abusive relationship? “I have to hurt you because I love you so much.”

      > And life in general wasn't meant to be all party (at least not this life). It's meant to have struggles.

      Says who?

      Life isn’t “meant” to be anything. It just is.

  4. It's important for both BTs and their parents to be aware that their children and grandchildren will be second class citizens.

  5. You've really done your research here! Very interesting post and perspective. I am the author of the "Humpty Dumpty Had A Great Fall," article. I published that under my old blogger name Little Frumhouse on the Prairie. Seems like a long time ago that I wrote that piece. I actually think I am more cynical today than I was back when I wrote it.

    You write about how many baal teshuvahs are given the message either in a subtle or overt way that they should be ashamed of their secular upbringing. While some baal teshuvahs do come from backgrounds that they are less than proud of, many of us were happy in our former lives and have respect for the secular parents, relatives, teachers, and friends who influenced our lives. Increased torah observance was a means to enhance our lives, but not to eradicate our past. Sometimes kiruv workers and frum from birth folks don't seem to get that concept; nor the concept that expecting us to treat our "frei" past like a dirty little secret can be offensive to those of us who cherish it.


Your respectful comments are welcome.