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Parenting Matters -- Ba'alei Teshuva Parents FFB Kids Part Two
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
This article orignally appeared in The Jewish Press

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11/17/09

In the previous column, we began responding to a question posed by a ba’al teshuva who wanted to make sure that his frum-from-birth children be well integrated, healthy and normal frum Jews. Here is part II.

In the previous column, we discussed the distinctions between a mitzvah, minhag, chumrah, and something that is none of those three categories, but rather a cultural practice.

We gave some examples:

  • Putting on tefilin is a daily mitzvah (a mandated commandment) incumbent upon all Jewish males above the age of thirteen.
  • Refraining from dipping matzoh in liquids on Pesach (commonly referred to as “gebrokts”) is a minhag (a custom – one only observed in some communities).
  • Not using an eiruv that has been approved by the vast majority of your city’s rabbonim is a chumrah (stringency) that many accept upon themselves.
  • Wearing a black fedora is a cultural practice prevalent in some communities.

It is of utmost importance that you fully understand the difference between these categories of Jewish practice – in your personal life and especially as you guide your children. It may be helpful to think of these categories as spiritual “needs and wants.” Mitzvos are mandatory practices. Chumros need not be observed, especially when one is first beginning Torah observance.

In reality, the harm caused by blurring the lines between these four components of Torah life is not limited to ba’alei teshuva. It is something that many FFB parents engage in as well. Allow me to share an analogy with you that might shed light on this matter.

Imagine if you were having a talk about safety with your six-year old child and you used the same tone of voice to describe the dangers of crossing the street without looking, taking a ride from a stranger, forgetting to brush one’s teeth and eating too many snacks.

While you may wish to impart all these values to your child, lumping all four of them together will not give him/her the context necessary to prioritize them.

As we noted in the previous column, the complexity of these issues only underscores the need to find and maintain contact with a Rov who understands you well and can guide your family with wisdom.

Maintain Ties with Your Family

I think it is very important for the stability of your family life and your level of personal menuchas hanefesh (tranquility) to maintain ties with your non-observant parents and in-laws. I am well aware that there are those who advise ba’alei teshuvah parents to sever their ties with non-observant family members for fear of confusing their children. However, I feel that this thinking is fundamentally flawed in theory and practice.

In theory, what kind of message does it send when you walk away from your parents and siblings once you begin Torah observance? Shouldn’t the Torah teach you an enhanced level of respect for your family members?

In practice, as it relates to your children, I think that severing relationships with your family robs your children unnecessarily of the unconditional love that grandparents have to offer. It will be difficult enough for them to watch their FFB-family friends celebrate their simchos with large extended family members. Why compound the pain by having them feel that they are rootless?

I would like to mention a final point on this subject – one that may not be evident at first glance. When you exhibit tolerance for family members, you are making a profound statement – that family bonds run deep and they override any differences that you may have with each other. Over the years, this unspoken lesson will serve your children well and enhance the respect that they will have for you. For you never know how things will turn out with your own children. What if one of them decides to take a different path in life than the one you charted for him/her? If you send clear and consistent messages over the years that ‘family matters,’ that child will, in all likelihood, remain close to your family members. However, if you decided that spiritual matters are grounds for severing ties with parents and siblings, how do you know that this logic will not be used against you in a different context one or two decades down the road?

To be sure, there are many challenges that you will face regarding kashrus (kosher food requirements), tzniyus (modesty), and other matters. But they are very manageable provided that an atmosphere of mutual respect is created and nurtured. Over the years, I have attended hundreds of lifecycle events of ba’alei teshuvah where their non-observant family members were active and respected participants.

Find a Community and Schools for Your Children that are Tolerant and Understanding

It is of utmost importance that you find a community that will accept you with welcoming arms. That means one where you will not cringe with what-will-the-neighbors-think when your non-observant brother comes to visit. If you do feel that way in your community, you may not be in the right one.

As far as selecting schools is concerned, there too, see to it that the school’s educational philosophy is in general sync with yours. Often, I get calls from parents who are put off by certain policies (dress codes, media exposure regulations, etc.) that their children’s schools maintain or the culture of the institution (What will the rebbi say about Thanksgiving, and does it match how you feel about it?). And equally often, these guidelines were in place when the parents enrolled their children in the first place. One cannot blame a school for enforcing their stated policies.

Generally speaking, I think that ba’alei teshuvah parents should not enroll their children in Yiddish-teaching yeshivos. I am aware of the cultural reasons that people are inclined to do so, but in the case of ba’alei teshuvah, I think that this is simply bad practice – unless you are fluent in Yiddish yourself. It will be difficult enough to do Judaic studies homework with your children as they grow older, without compounding matters by adding language barriers, that will virtually guarantee that you will not understand what your child is learning, let alone be in a position to help him or her.

To sum up, when raising your FFB children, as with all other areas of life, follow the timeless advice of Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon) and stay on ‘the golden path’ of moderation. It is the quintessential road map for success.

© 2009 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved



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1. Stop the "kiruv" presses     11/18/09 - 3:58 PM
Yitzchok - Brooklyn, N.Y.

The problem is that Baalei Tshuvah are NOT moderate people. For someone to pick up and leave the path he was born and bred in, That, in and of itself exhibits extremism. Some bt's join the community for the communal lifestyle fantasy which means black hat, shtreimel, bekitche etc. not eating gebrucks is the easy part for them. What many of them do not comprehend is that they will never become mainstream. What they realize after they have undertaken the radical act in changing their lifestyle and have already sent their children to the most "heimishe" mosdos, is that theyr'e on the treadmill that does not stop. The sad part is that while they can do tshuva for becoming a baal tshuva, their kids are stuck. Remember also, that the product of a bt union may even be inherently "wired" to change and rebel just as his/her parents did. The solution? Stop the baal tshuva movement. Stop the "kiruv". Focus on your own life and your own moral deficiencies. For those children and young adults already in the system? You've got a problem.


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2. yes....but     11/18/09 - 4:25 PM
Anonymous - UK

This is a great article that really addresses some critical points. Thank you! If I can add to the point about families, I hear (and do) the point about maintaining contact with parents who are not-frum, it still teaches our kids kibud av v'aim, and tolerance. But the siblings I find much harder. Whereas we can explain our parents non-observance by explaining to our kids that there wasn't the Jewish education available 50 years ago like there is today, our siblings had the same education as us!

I find my kids want to look up to their uncles/aunts and I don't want them to idolize their values. What if a sibling is openly anti-frum (eg. expresses a desire to be cremated, or ridicules observance?)? what of siblings who have inter-married...? and therefore there are non-Jewish cousins? I recognize this is a huge topic that doesn't (I hope!) affect every BT, but if it could be addressed I would be grateful


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3. Clear thinking with the help of H'Y     11/18/09 - 4:34 PM
Anonymous

What always amazes me is the clarity of Rabbi Horowitz's thinking (writing)sprinkled with humor (whether he means to do so or not). May H' bless you and yours with kol tov and may you continue in your avodas hakodesh amush!

Best wishes A silent admirer.

p.s. What a lovely concert...how about an art auction for your next function/get-together?


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4. Speaking as an old BT from the 70s     11/18/09 - 7:37 PM
Elliot Pasik, Esq. - Long Beach, NY - efpasik@aol.com

I'm an old Ohr Somayach BT from the mid 70s, and some Dvar Yerushalayim of America in the late 70s. I agree - BTs should stay close to their parents. Every leniency should be utilized. That's the Jewish way. Sever ties? Terrible advice, a prescription for emotional and spiritual disaster, even a potential chillul HaShem.


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5. re parents and past (comment 4)     11/18/09 - 11:08 PM
anonymousfornow

I think a lot of BTs are where they are not in spite of but because of, i.e. they are bringing out the best of what's been the tapestry of their lives so far. If we're talking good people, especially with solid loving families, of course one would want to keep them in their lives.

Could be we're of a different age. I hope the younger crop of BTs has all this in their lives.

I would also say, have a bit more self confidence. There are a lot of FFB's out there who are also trying to navigate their ways through life, as things may have changed so much since they were younger and experiencing those stages themselves. NOT to downplay the need for such ongoing chizuk as these wonderful articles, especially as they pertain to figuring out minhagim, mesorah, coping without family (not that I have any within 200+ miles myself) and other situations. But don't underestimate yourselves!


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6. to #1 Yitzchak from Brooklyn     11/19/09 - 1:30 AM
RI

YOU'RE MESSED UP IN YOUR THINKING


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7. what about intermarriage     11/19/09 - 4:00 AM
Anonymous

While maintaining family ties can be a great example for kids, in BT families that is often impossible. I have BT friends whose siblings, even parents are intermarried. What do you do about that, not to mention the glamour the secular lifestyle appears to exude? And as to schools, the only school system that respects Thanksgiving is the modern orthodox where modesty, boy and girl separation are deemphasized. I would love it if you could write again, considering some of these points.


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8.     11/19/09 - 10:04 AM
diana ganger - Chicago IL - dganger1818@gmail.com

Thanks for a great article. I am a BT parent thrilled with how both my children have stayed emotionally connected and seeing how healthy this is. Their journey has opened doors of Hasbara-explanation and given me the possibility to learn much more, and has been a segue for very interesting and deep dialogue.

I would only change the word tolerance to a more inclusive language as it denotes a stance that sets a distance and is then contrary to the spirit of the article.


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9.     11/19/09 - 11:27 AM
Benzion Twerski

There are Baalei Teshuvah and there are Baalei Teshuvah. There is “kiruv” and there is “kiruv”. And perhaps I am oversimplifying by presenting this as a dichotomy of two.

I know many who were attracted to the wholesomeness that exists in a Torah-true lifestyle. They recognized the consistency, the spiritual values, the continuity, and the connection to the past –our heritage. They sought to bring this into their lives, engaged in the quest, and found the communities they wished to enter for their identities.

There are also some who were floundering in their own lives for any of many reasons. The attraction to become frum was based more on being a change from their past experience. To enter a frum lifestyle as an escape from something else is recognized to have significant pitfalls and obstacles. Among other problems, the notion of gradual growth and progress is shunned, as one wishes to get away from the demons of the past. This may not bode well for the aspiring Baal Teshuvah.

There is an amazing insight in the Agra D’Kallah on Parshas Re’eh. The posuk says (12:30) “Be careful lest you stray after them after they have been destroyed before you, lest you inquire of their gods saying, ‘How do these goyim worship their gods, and I will do so myself’. Do not do so to Hashem your G-d…..” The Agra D’Kallah notes that the prohibitions against idol worship are repeated numerous times, but that this is not another repetition. The concept addressed in this posuk is the worship by mimicking. The prohibition is against doing “so” with avodas Hashem. Service to Hashem is not fulfilled by going through motions that involve no concept of what they represent.

I suggest that the motives of Baalei Teshuvah in pursuing shmiras haTorah uMitzvos encompass a wide spectrum of possibilities. The truly sincere should typically be able to present chinuch to their children that is wholesome and without confusion. After all, saying “I don’t know” is not an indication of weakness. Let us note that the Baal Teshuvah often fulfills mitzvos with a more acute awareness that he/she is following direct instructions from Hashem Yisborach. Personally, I aspire to that level of sincerity in everything I do. May HKB”H help me in this effort.


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10. Baal Teshuvah Parents with educational concerns!     11/19/09 - 12:03 PM
Chana Schwartz - Monsey, NY - lindari@aol.com

I find your article very informative at this point in my life because I am almost 12 years Baal Teshuvah. I have a lovely 8 year old daughter who loves being Frum. She can't wait to enroll in a Yeshivah to be with other frum children. But where will she fit in?

My husband and I went to her public school for a PTA meeting with her teachers yesterday. We received great news about her progress, since she is a learning disabled child. She is very bright, but has delays in certain subjects. We have been contacting all kinds of Yeshivahs for special ed issues and regular Yeshivahs with resource rooms.

When we spoke about her progress in writing, reading and math, we felt so hopeful and happy for her. But what is the best educational environment for her? She is doing so well with the highly skilled and well educated special ed Teachers in East Ramapo all these years. Our daughter is thriving in this self-contained special ed environment. We want her to feel the same in a Yeshivah some place, but don't seem to have the right connections with Rabbis and Rosh Yeshivahs. Can you help us with this situation? We want to place our daughter in a Yeshivah next year for the 4th grade.


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11. Business     11/20/09 - 9:25 AM
Tayerre Baal Habos

Rabbi Horowitz, this is an excellent post. Comment number one raises an important issue. Has there ever before in Jewish History been anything resembling a Kiruv movement? I don't believe so. By all means, someone who wants to become Frum, then Kul Hakavod. But soliciting for BT's can lead to occasional successes but mucho trouble, for reasons that are beyond this post.

But the fact of the matter is that the Kiruv movement will now never be stopped because it has taken on a life of it's own. Though there may be yechidim who truly have Kiruv on their mind, it seems to have now become a "business", a way for people to make money, a kosher(?) living. The result might be an avalanche of Baalei Teshuva who are with us for the wrong reasons. In and of itself there is nothing wrong with that except for possibly a high recividism rate as the disillusion and social realities set it.

The real problem is the impact it has on their children. And the real avlah is the communal money that is being siphoned away from truly urgent needs and being spent on Kiruv.


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12. To #11     11/20/09 - 10:21 AM
ND - NJ

Are you so willing to give up on the neshamos of your fellow Jews? How do you decide that communal money is better spent on kollel families than on Jews who never had the benefit of a Jewish education? Sounds selfish to me. There may be BTs with psychological issues, but events show that the FFB community is far from immune from terrible problems. How can we bring Mashiach if we are willing to write off Jewish neshamos without a second thought??


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13.     11/20/09 - 10:30 AM
Benzion Twerski

There is some confusion here, and while I can tease matters in words, it is tougher to do in the real world.

One aspect of kiruv is to provide information, and when people are attracted, then provide various forms of guidance to educate and integrate them into the community. The issue at hand is the challenge in the integration process.

Another is the proselytizing. This refers to what is generally observed in some kiruv activities in which a total stranger may be asked if he/she is Jewish, followed by efforts to return this neshoma to shmiras Torah uMitzvos. I am not here to judge whether this is good or not, but it involves a different dynamic and experience. In this form of kiruv, the motivation to proceed through the process needs to be generated. While this appears more difficult, it may also carry additional challenges, some of which I alluded to in an earlier comment.

Commenter #11 stated “But the fact of the matter is that the Kiruv movement will now never be stopped because it has taken on a life of its own.” I would correct this by noting that there are multiple Kiruv movements, not one. And each may have a life of its own.


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14. To #11     11/20/09 - 12:11 PM
bk

While you raise important questions, I would like to respectfully disagree.

You write: Has there ever before in Jewish History been anything resembling a Kiruv movement? I don't believe so.

Was there ever a time when so many Jews were totally cut off from THEIR heritage? In addition, Torah is their legacy as much as it is yours - they have a right to know it.

In addition how do you expect one to decide that he or she wants to become frum without any previous exposure to Yiddishkeit?

The point about the price children of BT have to pay is a sad commentary on the state of our society - not an excuse to make Yiddeshkeit an exclusive club for born and bred Boro Parkers


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15. To BK #14     11/24/09 - 11:49 AM
Tayerre Baal Habos

BK, by any chance, is your Parnossah derived in any way from activities in Kiruv?


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16. To # 15     11/25/09 - 12:10 AM
bk

No, I do not work in kiruv. I am a BT myself, though.


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17. To BK     11/25/09 - 1:27 PM
Taayere Baal Habos

OK. Fair enough. The way I see it it is a matter of priorities, along the lines of Aniyei Irchah Kodmin. If someone wants to join the club, I have no issues with that. But to target big monies for bringing in BT's when, the way I see it, the Frum communities are struggling and hemmoraging, is just not appropriate. I and do not mean to support Kolel institutions in their stead. I mean Yeshivas and Jewish social services for people in distress. And just to set the record straight I personally am, thank God, gainfully and adequately employed and not looking for financial assistance in any way.


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18. to TBB     11/28/09 - 9:58 PM
ND - NJ

Your expression "join the club" is very telling. Your view is that Orthodoxy is an elite club. Last I heard, the Torah was not just given to the elite.


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19. To Taayere Baal Habos     11/29/09 - 10:59 PM
BK

It is extremely hard for me to agree with the "business minded" approach to kiruv you prefer. Still, even from this viewpoint, many of baalei teshuva are very bright, well-educated and gainfully employed. So you can consider kiruv an investment of sorts. Yet, I think this approach is VERY wrong. I believe that saving people from assimilation is pikuach nefesh - and, in situations of pikuach nefesh, you don't calculate but try to save as many as you can.


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20. mutal respect     1/22/10 - 9:39 AM
Michael Milman - mgmilman@yahoo.com.au

BS"D

Dear Rabbi Horowitz,

I agree with the emphasis you place on maintaining relationship with our family of origin. Baruch Hashem, my children have developed a close and loving relationship with my mother. Both my mother and my children have learned about being moved by others and accepting of their differences. It has taught them to go beyond their comfort zone and the deep meaning of Ahavas Israel.

Key to this has been a bond of love and mutual respect.Indeed, without it, things can be much more complicated.

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