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The Yeshiva World and the Children of Baalei Teshuva
The Ugly Secret
by Catriel Sugarman
Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Voice and Opinion

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7/18/08

The following article contains some strong opinions, some which our readers may disagree with and/or find objectionable. Nevertheless, I have posted it here, because there are points made by the author that deserve our consideration.

Yakov Horowitz

Ba’alei Teshuva—sometimes translated to mean “penitents,” but, more commonly used to refer to Jews from secular backgrounds who have become religiously observant, often hareidi, or ultra-Orthodox—have been held in high regard by Jewish tradition. In the Talmud (Berachot 34b), Rabbi Abbahu says: The [elevated] position that ba’alei teshuva attain, tzadikim gemurim [those who were always righteous] are unable to reach.”

Try telling that to Avigail Meizlik, who recently wrote a controversial article in Mishpacha, a highly regarded English hareidi magazine, about “issues” ba’alei teshuva (BTs) face when they try to affiliate with various hareidi communities in Israel.

According to Ms. Meizlik, when it comes time to register their children in mainstream hareidi schools, the BTs are rejected, finding, to their dismay, that they were never really part of their chosen community after all.

This is true not only in Israel. In the United States, too, the children of BTs—along with the offspring of Jews of Sephardic background—are increasingly denied entry into mainstream hareidi schools.

Personal Experience

A resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh and a BT herself, Ms. Meizlik related her personal experience with the Israeli hareidi educational system. Her daughter’s class, composed almost entirely of children whose parents were BTs, was suddenly closed. Worse, no other hareidi school was willing to accept them.

This was true, she said, even of Beit Shemesh BT families that had been religious for more than a decade.

“The husband wears a long black coat and a streimel; the children are sweet and have long side curls, are raised to be modest and G-d-fearing, in homes without newspapers or a computer; good pure hareidi children—until they reach school age,” she wrote.

Ms. Meizlik’s angry conclusion was that the hareidim, the FFBs (frum—or observant—from birth) who engage in kiruv, or outreach, should curtail their efforts to bring non-observant Jews into the fold, “since they do not make any serious efforts to integrate them into their community anyway.”

“Why bother? Why convince [the BTs] to make such a difficult, painful change? Why call upon them to come and live a Torah lifestyle if no one has any intention of giving them the opportunity to live such a lifestyle? Perhaps the time has come to stop investing in outreach,” she wrote.

Harsh Reactions

Responses to her article came fast and furious, and some were surprisingly brutal. Advocates of the schools’ strict exclusionary policy cited the BTs’ secular relatives, expressing the fear that even second-hand encounters with non-religious people could do irremediable damage to the spiritual health of tender impressionable hareidi children.

In a letter to the editor, Yael Berg bluntly explained that BT children had to be kept out of mainstream hareidi schools because “the newly observant tend to meet with their non-religious relatives and the children are exposed to their relatives’ culture, their speech patterns, music, body language, and concepts.”

“I feel that the pain of the girl who has not been accepted is preferable to the anguish of families whose daughters are affected by a girl who was erroneously accepted,” wrote Ms. Berg.

Zippora Beit Levi, a teacher in the hareidi community’s Beit Ya’akov girls school system, agreed. The hareidi community has “enough troubles with its own young people without importing ‘trouble’ from outside,” she wrote.

Not all responders agreed. Someone who identified on the Mishpacha website only as “Krum as a bagel” wondered what exactly was so offensive about “BT speech patterns.” “Is their language linguistically coded with kefirah?” Krum asked, using the Hebrew word for “heresy.” “Do they belly-dance when they talk?”

60,000 Strong

According to Rabbi Yitzhak Greenman, executive director of the New York branch of Aish Hatorah, there are roughly 60,000 BTs in the US, a number which may be a bit high.

While some insular hareidi communities in the US have virtually no BTs, others, such as the thriving Orthodox community of Passaic, NJ, are comprised overwhelmingly of the newly observant.

For BTs, problems arise when they try to assimilate into established hareidi communities in Brooklyn, such as Borough Park, Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Flatbush, as well as Lakewood, NJ, and Monsey, NY.

“Dhimmis”

While the BTs’ problems with the hareidi community are not widely discussed, they have been recognized. Rabbi Chananya Weissman, whose organization, “End the Madness,” is dedicated to combating the “angst and hardships associated with dating in the religious Jewish community,” noted that while BTs are lauded and even admired for overcoming the challenges to achieve an observant lifestyle, they “never manage to shake the stigma of not being FFB.”

In a satirical piece entitled “The ‘Dhimmis’ among Us: Judaism’s Lower Class,” he compared BTs to the second-class status of Jews and Christians in Muslim communities. The BTs’ stigma, he wrote, is “even transferred to children and the extended family, as if it is a genetic defect of spiritual proportions.”

He pointed out that not only are the BTs’ children rejected by many hareidi institutions and denied positions of leadership in the yeshiva world, they also have “a significantly lower value on the shidduch market.”

“Nowadays, it has become completely mainstream for contestants to be made to divulge whether they are ba’alei teshuva, and, if so, for how long. Those who mush check this unfortunate box on the questionnaire are essentially branded as undesirables,” he said.

Prejudice

This unlovely and almost universal prejudice against BTs in certain Orthodox communities is seldom discussed, except on the blogosphere, where anonymity promotes abandoning all inhibitions, including halachic prohibitions.

Those who protest this growing phenomenon rarely reveal their names or offer any identifying information. The fear of being exposed and blackballed is pervasive and palpable.

It is not hard to find blatant anti-BT sentiments on the web. An example is “Avakesh,” overseen by a blogger who claims “he is a part of this world and actively teaches ba’alei teshuva.” Although “Avakesh” praises the kiruv movement as “an unquestioned blessing,” he nevertheless insists that “frumkeit is and always remains for a BT a coat.”

“No matter how well fitting and comfortable a favorite coat can be, it always remains a coat. In theory, at least, it can always be taken off. For a person born and bred in Torah, Judaism is and always will be his skin. He can no more take it off than a man can shed his skin,” he wrote.

Avakesh enumerated the “host of problems” that he said “fester beneath the surface of the BT community.” For Avakesh, these include “underground survival of secular attitudes,” “serious psychological imperfections,” “shallow understanding of the Torah,” and “rampant deficiency of Torah knowledge.”

Like Spanish Anusim

He compared today’s BTs to the Spanish anusim and their descendants, Jews who were forced by the Spanish Inquisition, beginning in 1492, to abandon their faith and adopt Christianity, but who, years later, returned to Judaism.

Avakesh maintained that from the ranks of the “thousands of wonderful, self-sacrificing Jews [who] streamed to Amsterdam and Turkey, seeking authentic Judaism and spiritual renewal,” came the “most devoted followers” of Shabbatai Tzvi, the notorious 17th century false messiah.

Avakesh also insisted that “the descendants of these same families gave rise to the Reform movement some time later.”

Little “Chani” and “Moshe”

The extremely questionable historical accuracy of Avakesh’s observations is emblematic of the entire problem. A responder who took umbrage at Avakesh’s diatribe, pointed to the harm of such malevolent generalizations.

“Somewhere in Brooklyn, little Chani’s friends won’t come over because her parents are BT—despite the fact that they spent five years learning in kollel and actually know the halacha and ask halachic questions—since all BTs are only ‘wearing a coat’ and ‘can’t be trusted on halacha,’” the responder wrote.

A shadchanit (matrimonial matchmaker) in Borough Park who has been active in her field for over 30 years, confirmed the observations of Rabbi Weissman and Avakesh’s responder. “Though no one will admit it openly, there’s a caste system at work here, just like in India. Except here, in certain communities, the BTs and their children are at the bottom of the heap. There are thousands of ‘little Chani’s’ (and ‘Moshe’s’) in all the frum neighborhoods where ba’alei teshuva live.”

Shunned Children

According to the shadchanit, FFB parents on “both sides of the Atlantic” can be “zealous” in barring the offspring of BTs from their own children’s circle of friends.

“They’ll have birthday parties and Shabbos programs for all the little girls in the neighborhood, but ‘somehow,’ Chani, the daughter of BTs, will never be invited,” she said. “It’s insidious, it’s heartbreaking, and the worse thing is that neither poor Chani nor her naïve BT parents will have the slightest idea why.”

According to the shadchanit, this happens despite common agreement that the affected children are “eidel” (delicate, sweet, and refined) and their parents frum and learned. When the children are rejected by a school, “the administrators make up every excuse in the world to justify not taking anyone with a different background,” she said.

All Over

She maintained that this happens even in the comparably open world of Lubavitch chasidim, known for establishing schools throughout the world for BT children as well as those from completely non-observant homes.

“The ‘real’ true-blue Chabadniks send their boys to Ohalei Torah in Crown Heights. You won’t find too many children of ba’alei teshuva there. There’s a word for that: segregation,” she said.

However, she admitted that the “Litvish yeshivish,” the term for hareidim who maintain the ultra-Orthodox tradition of the Lithuanian-Jewish communities (present-day Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and the northeastern Suwałki region of Poland) “are the worst offenders.”

Sinas Chinom

She insisted that “sinas chinom” (causeless hatred), which, according to tradition, was the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, “would not be too strong a term to use for some of these people.”

“Their insistence on yichus [lineage, pedigree, distinguished birth] is nothing but an ego booster. Everybody knows—though no one will admit it—that plenty of children from yichusdik families, great rabbanim, and roshei yeshiva, go off the rails,” she said.

Even “if by a miracle,” the BT child, does get into a “good” school, her life will not be improved, said the shadchanit.

“They’ll make her miserable. She’ll be snubbed constantly by her classmates and even by her teachers who should—and do—know better,” she said. “She will be permanently tagged as the daughter of a BT—just like a leper—and even while her teachers prattle on about the importance of observing the mitzvos bein adam le’chaveiro [ethical commandments between human beings] and ‘kol Yisrael areivim zeh la’zeh’ [‘all Jews are responsible for each other’], she’ll be treated like dirt.”

“Harry”

In a letter published recently in Yated Ne’eman, a weekly English-language hareidi newspaper published in Monsey, a bewildered father expressed concern that his son had been labeled “a Harry” in school. It took the father some time to understand that, in “yeshivish,” “Harry” is an insulting term used by some FFBs to refer to a BT or his children.

The father came to learn that a “Harry” is someone who demonstrates some lack of familiarity with the subtleties—some of them truly infinitesimal—of yeshivish living. For example, although this “Harry” was an excellent student, he made the mistake of wearing white socks instead of black. Another “Harry” might wear his talit in an unusual way or tip his black fedora at an angle slightly different from what is accepted in his yeshiva.

“In general, if you consider yourself a member of the yeshiva world and do not know what a ‘Harry’ is, you probably are one,” the father wrote.

Principals and Parents

According to the shadchanit, responsibility for this “moral flaw in the system” lies with school principles and parents. For the schools, she said, “chinuch [education] has nothing to do with it.”

“The real reason for this unfortunate exclusionary policy is to ‘prove’ that they are better than the competition because their students come from ‘purer’ homes,” she said.

However, she added, she knew of at least three schools in Brooklyn and one in Lakewood in which the administrations were bullied by organized groups of parents who threatened to withdraw their children if the offspring of BTs were admitted.

Some of the “more prestigious seminaries,” she said, have parents’ committees whose “sole purpose” is to “winnow out” any “undesirables.”

“I actually heard people say that,” she said, explaining that the committees’ function is to make sure “no unworthy pretenders share the same classroom with their precious daughters.”

Thrown Out

She recalled an incident which involved her own neighbors, whom she described as “erliche yidden” [righteous Jews]. After graduating from college, the husband, a successful businessman, and his wife, an accountant, had adopted an observant lifestyle. After their marriage, he learned for four years in a well-renowned BT yeshiva in Israel while she attended a prestigious seminary for women.

When they completed their studies, they returned to Brooklyn where, a few years later, they attempted to register their son in a well-known yeshiva ketana [elementary school]. The principal met them at the door with a radiant smile and a twinkle in his eye, both of which grew broader when he realized they were not only BTs, but well versed as well.

But the smile vanished when he learned the purpose of their visit. “Since you are ba’alei teshuva, you, of course, realize that your son will never be able to internalize our derech [way of life] and hashkafa [outlook and philosophy]. He’d never fit in, and it would be a waste of our time and your money for us to take him,” he informed them.

According to the shadchanit, without another word, he literally threw her neighbors out of his office.

“The poor woman cried all the way home,” the shadchanit recalled, adding that, over the years, hundreds of BTs have confided to her, “some with tears in their eyes,” that they had no idea that after the sacrifices they had made for Yiddishkeit, it would still be almost impossible to integrate into the frum community.

Exceptions

There are exceptions. According to the shadchanit, BTs who have acquired great wealth, or who are fortunate enough to have parents who acquired it, or who have managed to acquire a sponsor “too prominent to be ignored,” can see their children accepted to schools.

“It can happen, but it’s rare,” she said.

One young couple learned this the hard way. The husband had become observant while still in his 20s and had studied for a number of years at a well-known yeshiva for BTs in New York and then, for two more years, in Israel. While in Israel, he met and married an accomplished young woman who had spent three years in well-known Jerusalem yeshiva for BT women.

Upon returning to the US, the young idealistic couple affiliated with a hareidi community, actively involving themselves in community programs and shiurim. They also contributed as superb volunteer fundraisers for the local yeshiva.

When the young couple’s son was ready for school, the yeshiva’s administration accepted him. The parents now say they did not realize the school officials were merely “biding their time.”

Merciless Bullying

Although, from the beginning, their child encountered some minor problems in school, when he entered the fourth grade, “the roof fell in.” According to the parents, he was taunted mercilessly and ostracized by his classmates, who often called him horrible names.

“Ben Nida was a favorite,” the father said, referring to the fact that, because the parents were BTs, the child was accused of being conceived without regard to the laws of family purity, a mortal insult in the hareidi world. “That name they could only have heard from their parents at home.”

The child came home from school every day in tears. “They spread malicious rumors about him and us. I can’t even imagine how many halachot bein adam le’chaveiro [ethical commandments between human beings] they violated And his classmates are children who come from supposedly good frum homes and learn Pirkei Avos—the Ethics of the Fathers—every week,” the mother said.

No Help from School

It was not long before the child developed severe stomach cramps and began having nightmares.

The distraught parents went repeatedly to the school, asking the principal and his teachers to intervene. “They would smile, make promises, and do nothing,” the father said.

After awhile, the parents said, they understood what was happening. “The principal and the teachers—men whom we had known for years—actually wanted our boy—and us—out. We were good enough to raise money for them and run their errands, but we were not good enough to have a son in their yeshiva. It hurt,” said the father. “In numerous places, the Torah commands us to treat proselytes with equity and sensitivity. Shouldn’t born Jews receive at least the same treatment as converts?”

Escape to Modern Orthodox

Although there were hashkafa issues, the couple managed to relocate to a Modern Orthodox community where their son was enrolled in one of the local schools and “blossomed.”

There, they met another family of “refugees” from the hareidi world. The second family had sought to enroll their child in a famous yeshiva ketana which was willing to enter into a “compromise” with BTs: Before the child was accepted, the parents had to agree to break off all relations with any family and friends who were not strictly observant.

“In addition, we had to commit ourselves to throw out any ‘goyishe’ [non-Jewish] books and pictures that we might still have—as if we had pornography hanging on our walls. Would you believe, the principal wanted us to sign a contract to that effect,” the mother said.

The family turned the school down and “moved out of the area as soon as we could sell the house.”

Five Torah Personalities

That this brutal treatment of non-Orthodox Jews by hareidim is a relatively new phenomenon was noted by Prof Yitzchak Levine, of the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ, and a frequent social commentator, who attended last month’s 2008 convention of the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools, Torah Umesorah.

At the convention’s Shabbos seuda shlishit, Rav Avraham Chaim Levin, rosh yeshiva of the Telshe Yeshiva in Chicago, recalled that, 40 years ago, there were eight boys in the eighth grade of Yeshiva Beth Yehuda in Detroit. Of those eight, he noted, five were not from shomer Shabbos homes, but all five went on to become “outstanding Torah personalities.”

Dr. Levine interpreted Rav Levin’s anecdote as praise for Torah Umesorah, which obviously had played a key role in the development of Orthodox Judaism in Detroit and in those five boys—who did not come from BT homes, but, rather, completely non-observant backgrounds.

What Example?

Dr. Levine turned to the gentleman sitting next to him at the convention and said, “You realize, I’m sure, that today those five boys could not get into most of the yeshivas in Brooklyn.”

The gentleman replied, “It was a different tekufa [era] then. We are no longer concerned with parents who send their kids to public schools. If someone wants to start a yeshiva for public school kids, then let him.”

Stunned at this flippant response, Dr. Levine ended the conversation, but, he said, he could not stop thinking about those five boys in Detroit. “Forty years from now, what will a rosh yeshiva have to point to that occurred in places like Brooklyn that will serve as an example of the exceptional accomplishments of Torah Umesorah?” he said.



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