Saturday, March 19, 2016

Cutting Ties to Family and Friends in the Name of Kiruv

  While some rabbis claim that they would never influence ba'alei teshuva/newly religious to sever familial ties, Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Yitzhak Yosef believes in just the opposite approach. Earlier this week, Ynetnews reported that Yosef "has called for religious Jews to distance their children from secular or merely traditionally Jewish family members, and even to prevent their children from meeting them."1 The Chief Rabbi stated "There are ba'alei tshuva (once-secular Jews who have become observant) with non-religious families who take their small, 7-year-old, 8-year-old children to visit [non-religious family], and this influences the children."2 His concern is that secular influences such as TV and interaction with non-orthodox family will ultimately pave the way for kids to leave orthodoxy.
  The rabbi's words were countered by
Rabbi Refael "Rafi" Feuerstein, the co-chairman of the rabbinical organization Tzohar, [who] criticized the chief rabbi's approach and said, "The fruits of a disconnected and anxious education are that we treat the secular public with arrogance and contempt . . .  and only increases polarization and hatred in people."3
  Adding to the difficulty of changing one's life to become orthodox, the Chief Rabbi now wants BTs (ba'alei teshuva) to cause more strife and anger within their families. Bad enough that BTs have already informed their families that they cannot eat on their dishes or drive to them on the holidays, that they will not see them or take their calls over Shabbat, that they've given up many activities that they previously enjoyed with extended family, that their lifestyle is hugely different from that of their parents, and that they've taken on a strict interpretation of Jewish practice, they now are expected to sever bonds with their non-orthodox family to ensure their children's spiritual safety.
  In Margery I. Schwartz's book "What's Up with the Hard Core Jewish People? An Irreverent Yet Informative Approach to Judaism and Religious Devotion From A Reform Jewish Mother's Perspective" she talks about Aish HaTorah's grip on her son and how the yeshiva
encourage[s] students to reject their upbringing if it's not according to Torah. They believe that they are reprogramming our children in the proper path. Aish doesn't focus on the fact that a person from a non-Orthodox background most often cannot be integrated into the ultra-orthodox world without destroying old friendships and family connections.4
  While some readers might be thinking that Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef's words and even those of Margery Schwartz are inaccurate and that kiruv rabbis do not promote or justify severing ties with non-orthodox family, it only takes a Google search to find various blog posts suggesting just the opposite. Even Chabad Rabbi Tzvi Freeman's addresses a reader's question asking why a close long-term friendship suddenly collapsed as one of the friends became increasingly orthodox. Freeman states:
Many of us have been through this. You fall in love with a different way of living, rituals, study -- a whole new wave of life washes over you -- and your only way to deal with it is by blocking out the rest of the world. I've seen it happen not only to people getting into their Judaism, but with musicians, artists, career people, politicians. Although, yes, religion may be the most encompassing of all.
It's a sign of an earnest personality, someone who puts his all into anything he does. You can't achieve a total immersion into anything without first letting go of everything else. Perhaps it was that same earnestness that allowed such a strong bond between the two of you in younger years. This is a person who, wherever he is, all of him is there.5
  Freeman blames the BT's personality for alienating his friend and assumes it's because he is, perhaps, very earnest. He says it's the same thing that any person who is passionate about something might do. But Freeman does admit that this alienation may be more extreme when it comes from religion. The one thing that Freeman doesn't address is whether people becoming orthodox are being influenced, either subtly or overtly, to sever relationships that kiruv professionals and their organizations may feel are, in some way, not kosher.
  When we look back at Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Yitzhak Yosef's concern about being influenced by those who aren't orthodox, it seems like his ideas aren't so shocking. They're just the same extremist views that other kiruv organizations hold. The only difference is that he seems to have no problem saying them out loud.
1. Nachshoni, Kobi. Chief Rabbi: Keep children away from secular family. Ynetnews. March 13, 2016.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4.  Schwartz, Margery I.
What's Up with the Hard Core Jewish People? An Irreverent Yet Informative Approach to Judaism and Religious Devotion From A Reform Jewish Mother's Perspective. US. 2006. p. 18.
5. Freeman, Tzvi. My Orthodox Friend Cut Me Off!


  1. Even kiruv professionals who believe that they, themselves, would never encourage a new BT to sever ties or limit contact with family WILL tell a new BT that they she can't eat non-kosher food. That act itself limits contact with non-Orthodox.

    When I was becoming Orthodox, my rebbetzin didn't see what the big deal was - so what if you can't eat with your family! Relationships aren't based on food! I did t know it at the time, but I should have started waiving the bullshit flag right then. Feeding their children is one of the primary things parents do. A child who rejects their food is huge. Meals often function as the center of family gatherings. Someone who is encouraging a person to become a BT certainly needs to realize the huge strain it will cause in a family.

    1. So true, Chananechama. Growing up, family gatherings always centered around the table--it was the center of the action. It's so ironic that your rebbetzin told you that "relationships aren't based on food" when most Jewish gatherings are also around the table. To not eat with your family means you cannot celebrate Passover with them, have a traditional Friday night meal, or even dip apples and challah in honey as a start to the Rosh Hashanah meal. It means not breaking the fast on Yom Kippur with family, not having potato latkes together to celebrate Hanukkah. It means you can't go to Grandma's 80th birthday party at her house without drawing attention to the fact that either you're not eating or that you've brought your own food. And that's assuming that you're becoming orthodox from a family that's Jewish. It's probably a thousand times worse to come from a family that doesn't celebrate Jewish holidays--now, not only can you not eat the food, but you're being discouraged from getting together with family for holidays that you previously celebrated--and you still can't eat the food. No going out to restaurants, no attending non-kosher weddings or other life-cycle events without having to draw attention to your dietary restrictions. It kills me that there are people who believe that relationships aren't formed around the intimate act of sharing a meal.

    2. Agreed.

      Kosher food restrictions are a HUGE barrier to forming and maintaining relationships. Sure, you can meet people without eating, but it just makes everything harder and often less intimate.

      However, you should know that this is happening within the frum community as well. The main reason we do not have my sister and brothers in law and their families for shabbat is because they drive us nuts about kashrut. We live in Israel and maintain a strictly kosher home, but use rabanut as our standard.

      If you ask them outright 'do you think my food is kosher', you get a 'Yes, but . . . '. If i do get them supervisions they eat, they will eat from my oven and my dishes, so they clearly do not think it was treif.

      Worse yet, when we have made the accommodations, they will continue to ask about everything and then go to my fridge to check stuff. If you can't trust me to follow what you asked for, then how can you trust me on anything?

      It is this mistrust coupled with them generally adding more and more stringencies that has left us to cut ties with them on a general basis.

    3. "It kills me that there are people who believe that relationships aren't formed around the intimate act of sharing a meal."

      That's a bit overblown, to be honest. I'm religious (Orthodox convert with a Jewish dad), and I always find ways to have social experiences such as sharing a beer or coffee with my non-Jewish friends and family, meals are not the epicenter of the social experience. If you think so, I get it, but many people don't see it that way.

  2. The sad thing is that, with some effort, some real knowledge and some goodwill, it's possible to maintain relationships despite kashruth and Sabbath observance.

    When we moved in order to be within walking distance of a synagogue, we deliberately bought a home with an open plan combined living/dining room large enough to fit the whole family. We host Friday night dinners, and invite the extended family as well for Rosh Hashanah and seders. It's possible to accept help for a potluck meal if you know the basic rules. You can have guests bring soft drinks and wine, or a cake from a kosher nut-free bakery (we've got allergies too in the family). Someone can bring some raw veggies or fruit to cut up a salad. My dad even bought a roasting pan that he uses to cook us brisket. It's amazing to see the kids growing up with their nieces and nephews.

    Going over to someone else's home, foil pans and disposable dishes make eating out feasible. You can easily buy kosher ingredients for vegetarian cooking at almost any grocery story in the United States or Canada. You don't need to worry about a non-kosher oven if you wrap the foil pan tightly with aluminum wrap (like they do on airplanes), so you can cook at a non-kosher relative's home, or eat well if you all go on vacation together.

  3. Many OJ families will essentially 'excommunicate' 'children' who reject the religion. One fear is the OTD child will have an adverse effect on the religiousness of the other siblings. In addition, they may see the OTD child rejecting the religion as a slap in the face of the parents and seek to punish. They may also think the punishment will bring the OTD child to his/her 'senses'.

  4. Cynthia, anyone who has kept kosher for any length of time knows how to sort out meals with family or guests. That's not the point. The point is that it's cumbersome to go to so much trouble. It's cumbersome for a non-Jewish grandmother to always let the daughter-in-law do the cooking (or to be satisfied with bringing raw vegetables). It's cumbersome to take the kids to stay at the non-Jewish grandmother's house without her feeling like she's been kicked out of her own kitchen for the week since she can't cook anything. This is a ridiculous way to treat family members.

    Also, it's cumbersome to the only person in the family who keeps kosher. My husband and I prepared all the holiday meals, all the meals we took to my ILs, all the birthday suppers. I made all the cakes and everything from scratch as there's no such thing as kosher take out where we live.

    It's absolutely not as simple as you pretend it is.

  5. While I agree with Cynthia's point of view in theory, in practice, this is not necessarily an option for someone who is newly religious and still trying to find her/his way. A BT who is already married and who has become comfortable with her/his newfound religiosity will have a much easier time hosting extended family--and will have the wisdom of experience--while a new BT may not have the wisdom or the resources in order to make these relationships work. It's the new BTs, who, in the fervor to do what she/he perceives is right, who will possibly sever these familial ties, thinking that this is the only way to maintain a new, strictly religious identity. As a result, the family who has not changed their lifestyle is made to feel like whatever they do isn't good enough and ends up feeling slighted. The next thing you know, these differences get out of hand and a "well-meaning" rabbi reminds his student that while you must honor your parents, you cannot go against God's rules if your parent requires it. Visits home now consist of the new BT locking him/herself in her/his room, ignoring phone calls, emails, and texts, and allowing a wedge to be driven in what may have previously been a close relationship. While this may not all stem from one instance of being able to eat on the same dishes, as the new BT become more and more entangled in orthodoxy the potential for permanently damaging relationships increases.

  6. bec - I do agree that it was likely easier for us because we were in our 30s, married with children, when we kashered the kitchen and became fully shomer shabbat.

    I strongly suspect that many of the issues that some BTs face is linked to the fact that they are in their late teens or early 20s, and in the process of separating from parents and defining their individual identity. In some ways, I think we were close to 30 by the time we fully acknowledged, to ourselves and our parents, that we were indeed independent adults, and stopped feeling like everything was either about getting their approval or feeling like we were rejecting them. I'm not talking about religious issues, but about basic life. Did I get offended if my FIL thought we needed a new car? Did my MIL get offended if I rejected all of her (totally out of date) advice on how to schedule bottles of formula and announced that I was breastfeeding on demand, period, and btw the babies didn't take bottles, ever?

    So yes, we were lucky that we had parents who were close and loving, AND that accepted that we were independent adults capable of making our own decisions (and that we had outgrown the obnoxious judgmental stage). We were able to treat the religious stuff as simple practical issues.

    Anonymous - honestly, I think that the degree of offense is just as high, if not higher, with observant families. I mean, my sister doesn't pretend to be kosher and understands if I'm not about to eat from the same slow cooker where she makes pork roast, so she's not offended that I don't consider her kitchen kosher.

    Speaking of my sister....on both sides of the family, we ended up having nieces and nephews with dietary restrictions. Some restrictions (peanut and egg allergies) meant that our siblings were asking us about ingredients and food labelling, double-checking everything and bringing their own food, because a reaction could be life-threatening. Other restrictions (like the autism diet from the naturopath that eliminated dairy, gluten, eggs, garlic and some fruits) were so comprehensive that I needed constant reminders about what was and wasn't okay, and we got used to serving separate foods.

    I know that these things require extra work - after all, I'm the one who makes the Shabbat and major holiday dinners. To me, it's worth it, because family is worth it.

  7. My God, Cynthia, get off your high holy horse! This is about a lot more than secular families being tolerant of the "choices" BT's make, or minimizing the hassle of finding a way to eat in the presence of a secular family. The fact is, kiruv rabbis & their wives encourage BT's to separate from their birth families. You are correct that many if not most BT's are young. They are targeted in college and spirited away in cult like fashion by religious zealots who deceptively recruit them. Families who don't go along with the frum show are cut out of their children's lives. Go post at imamother or beyondbt - kiruv magic doesn't work on this audience.


    1. WTF?

      My whole point is that family is important, and relationships shouldn't be trashed over stupid stuff.

      I'm both proud and grateful that we have a really close family, on both sides. I think that our efforts are important, but I'm also extremely grateful for our family members. This isn't about being religious. I know that what our family has - both sets of grandparents living within walking distance, all siblings living in the same city, everyone from all sides getting together and getting along on a regular basis - is really special and not that common.

      I want to help other people have great family relationships, where possible. Sometimes, that can't happen. Parents pass away, or live too far away, or there are toxic family dynamics that make contact unhealthy or even dangerous.

      If I can give any practical advice to families that allows them to maintain relationships, though, I will. And yes, that includes telling religious friends when they are needlessly destroying family relationships.

      You don't have to answer, but I'm curious - what do you mean by families who don't go along with the frum show are cut out of their children's lives?

  8. The strains on family relationships are only the beginning. What about when the enthusiastic new BT needs to explain to his employer that he now has to leave work at 2:30 PM on Friday afternoons? “Sorry boss, I can’t complete that important project this week. You don’t mind, do you?”

    How about strained relations with co-workers when he now refuses to join them when they go out to lunch, or with clients if he or she refuses to shake hands with the opposite sex? What if the job requires wearing a uniform? Is the BT supposed to demand that it be checked for shatnez and have Torah standards of tzenius?

    These kiruv rabbis live in a fantasy world where all Jews are self-employed and can easily set their own work hours.

    What about a student who will miss important classes or labs and will have to beg professors to let him take exams at different times? Let’s be honest. Becoming a BT turns your whole world upside down - in the home, at college, at work - and the kiruv rabbis WILL NOT be there to support the BT with these challenges.

    1. I'd agree that any rabbi who does work in kiruv or with BTs should be prepared to give practical advice on how to handle challenges, or give useful referrals as needed. Certainly, these will be common questions, and there is no reason that someone should be obnoxious and overly stringent, nor is there any reason to assume that they can't be accommodated if they have protected legal rights.

      Someone who is experienced in the business world could give advice on how to gracefully order a cold salad with dressing on the side (technically permissible) or how to arrange for a non-kosher restaurant to serve a catered kosher meal for a dinner event (many fine dining places have no problem doing this). There are rabbis who permitted business handshakes, so a BT should know about that potential leniency. Otherwise, there are ways to avoid making a scene, such as holding items or saying that you are coming down with/just getting over a cold and don't want to spread anything (obviously, you would need to avoid all handshaking for this to be plausible).

      In terms of uniforms or dress code, reasonable religious accommodation is required by law. See

      Friday work hours are a harder issued, if someone was hired to work a standard work week. A mentor may be able to give some helpful suggestions (like working longer hours on other days if flexible hours are possible), but there's no automatic legal protection.

      Re accommodations at college: students should be informed that there is a requirement for schools to grant reasonable religious accommodation. You can't suddenly drop a Friday afternoon class, if you knew full well when it was scheduled but decided to keep Shabbat half way through the term. You can, however, produce a letter from a rabbi if an exam is scheduled during the first 2 or last 2 days of Passover, or if the MCAT or LSAT is scheduled for a Saturday, and you will be accommodated.

      I'm not saying this to encourage or discourage kiruv. I'm saying it because I wouldn't want someone to abandon career or educational opportunities out of a misplaced belief that accommodations don't exist. Many people don't realize that some of these rights and options exist.

    2. Cynthia, I agree with so much of what you're saying, but again, I think that this issue is huge in kiruv: educating new and potential BTs on how to handle these issues is lacking. New BTs (and I've been in those shoes, so I speak from experience) don't always realize that it's okay to have a salad as you've explained--and depending on the rabbis that they're learning with, they may be discouraged from even setting foot in a non-kosher place. There's also the problem that many BTs, in their zeal to move ahead, are still taking on too much too fast, and kiruv rabbis are not doing enough to discourage this or at least really teaching them how to do their thing without hurting those who they're close with. Real people--family, friends--shouldn't become collateral damage on a path towards religiosity.

  9. Re Tzvi Freeman - one detail is missing from your summary of his response to the question. The situation didn't just involve a newly religious friend alienating a non-Jewish friend. It actually involved that BT friend reaching out to his old non-Jewish friend years later. Freeman is encouraging the non-Jewish friend to accept the overture of renewed friendship.

    At the end of the response, Freeman writes:

    "So what has happened now? Simple: It's taken your friend nine years to get his feet back down on the ground. He's finally comfortable with where he is. And now he feels a need to get back to who he is and where he comes from.

    I believe your friend's reaching back out to you is sincere. You can give him the benefit of the doubt. The world, the Jewish sages say, can be sustained only through forgiveness."

    Sounds like a Chabad rabbi who is actually (gasp!) trying to encourage an old friendship between a BT and a non-Jew.

    1. You're right--this Chabad rabbi does encourage the friendship nine years later, and I think that's great. The problem is during the actual kiruv process when that potential BT feels this pressure--either internally, externally, or both--to break ties with his/her friends and family. This guy--and it took him nine years--did try to rekindle the friendship and that's admirable. But from reading so many forums, blogs, chats with former BTs, etc., many folks end up severing close relationships and aren't always able to spark them up again.

    2. Also, I just want to add that I wonder if the friendship would have been encouraged at the 6 month mark of the BT transformation process.

    3. I just happened to come across your website the other day. It sounds like a lot of people on these posts have experienced a lot of pain in having "lost" their son or daughter to Orthodox Judaism. I can understand how such a situation would make a parent feel torn, sad and upset. As a parent myself, I can't imagine going through such a situation and having a child completely lose contact with their parents after becoming Orthodox. I just wanted to share with you my story, and the story of many of my friends and people I know in the same situation. I am a bal teshuva (became religious), since I was 17 years old. I went to my local JEP after finishing high school because I had an interest in learning more about Judaism, having gone to public school and not knowing much of anything about Judaism. I slowly started becoming more observant, going to people's houses for Shabbos, changing the way I dress, etc. Eventually I got married (through shidduchim) and moved to Monsey where I currently live with my husband and three kids. We have never cut off our parents, nor have any of my friends or other balei teshuva in our large community. I was never told to cut off my parents or secular family from our lives. How do I resolve the issues that come up? I communicate. I do not want my children to watch television, I do not want them going to the movies with their bubby and zeidy. Usually there is not any further issues after we clearly communicate our desires to our secular family on how we want our children to be raised. They usually respect that and follow our rules on raising our children when they take them out on trips or when the kids go to their homes. If a child has a bad relationship with their parents (from before they were religious), then often communication is more challenging, but often it was always challenging even before they were religious. I think grandparents just need to be respectful of their child's decisions on how they want to raise their family, and as a result they will often have a beautiful relationship with their children and grandchildren. My children come home with beautiful songs and arts and crafts everyday from school on respecting parents, not speaking lashon hara (speaking bad, gossiping, etc). about others, doing chesed (visiting the sick, calling someone up who is sick, etc.), giving tzedaka, etc. What public school teaches their children that? I think that there is so much beauty in Judaism and values to focus on. I hope that you and other's in these blogs can have a relationship with your children in the future, and I hope that your children can get the right guidance from their rabbis to allow their children to have a relationship with you (because as far as I know, there's no reason why they shouldn't). In terms of food, I used to bring a crockpot to my aunt's house for the holidays when I was single and just eat my own thing. When I was home for Shabbos, I would self clean the oven and I would do all the cooking (or we would get catered food and heat it up in the kosher oven). I had my own dishes at home when I was single and sometimes my mother even made me food in my dishes with kosher ingredients. Things can usually be worked out if there's a little planning, it's not so hard if your family is willing to be accommodating.

  10. When I became a "ba'al teshuva", nobody was there to help me navigate my family and friends. Those working in Jewish education need to grounding in human relations to be able to help learners to find peace (and to find halachic leniencies) that enable them to live with their families and friends as they find meanings in observance

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