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Lifecycle Support for Ba'alei Teshuva Families
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
Publication: Jewish Observer

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by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

Over the past several decades, tens of thousands of previously unaffiliated Jews have become ba’alei teshuva through the outstanding work of kiruv organizations and outreach professionals. Numerous yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel and around the world have implemented programs designed to better appeal to the prospective ba’al teshuva. These programs have all delivered spectacular results – indeed, a veritable teshuva revolution. It is one of the remarkable success stories of the past half-century.

The vast majority of ba’al teshuva programs and ba’al teshuva-oriented institutions, however, focus on the beginning of the ba’al teshuva lifecycle: transforming the unaffiliated Jew into a ben or bas Torah. There is very little “lifecycle support” for the ba’al teshuva individual who has been Torah-observant for ten or more years, and is now raising a family – with adolescent or shidduch-age children. Those who are fortunate to have attended a well-grounded ba’al teshuva yeshiva and continue to live in that community generally have the long-term assistance and support they so desperately need. Others are able to find a local Rav or Rebbetzin with whom they can bond and develop that special relationship that enables them to receive guidance and direction. But even those couples are but one relocation away from dissolving the life-saving rabbinical support that is critical to the stability of their family – possibly leaving them with little guidance and direction. Worse yet, they may come to rely on the advice of well-meaning individuals who have little or no experience in guiding ba’alei teshuva.

The Beginning of the Torah-observant Lifecycle

Ba’al teshuva institutions and programs have perfected the art of finding and bringing out the Pintele Yid in aspiring b’nei and b’nos Torah. They have the skill and experience to know exactly which blend of rational reasoning vs. faith-based hashkafa (philosophy) should be presented to potential ba’alei teshuva to open their minds and their hearts to accepting a Torah-based lifestyle. These institutions are experts in guiding prospective ba’alei teshuva to adopt the behavioral changes of a Torah lifestyle in slow and careful increments. On the other hand, many well-meaning individuals simply don’t have these critical guidance skills.[1]

Happily, many new ba’alei teshuva are able to make the leap from a secular to a Torah-based lifestyle successfully at the time. To this set of new Torah Jews, the Torah-observant community has been increasingly accepting and nurturing over the past 20 years. These individuals are usually single and in their early-to-mid-20s. Often, their Rosh Yeshiva is able to help them find their mate and see them to the chupa. If not, they are able to enter a well-structured dating scene replete with community-based shadchanim, singles weekends, and other organized activities aimed at helping single Torah-observant people meet each other under the proper circumstances.[2]

After the chasuna, after the first several years of marriage, after the first few children start to grow up and attend yeshiva, however, the ba’al teshuva couple, now – to external eyes – settled community members, are often still dealing with unique lifestyle issues, issues that the “frum from birth” (FFB) may never have dreamed of.

Having conducted more that 120 parenting classes in communities around the world in the past several years, I have found it painfully obvious that there is a great and vital need to provide meaningful assistance to these wonderful, spiritual couples in dealing with their unique issues, as their families grow and mature. Invariably, during the question-and-answer segment of the workshops, or privately, after the lectures, unique, ba’al teshuva-lifestyle-related questions come up. And they are difficult ones to answer:

Family relations

It is a fortunate development when a ba’al teshuva couple is able to relate happily and harmoniously with their non-Torah-observant relatives. Obviously, this is not always the case. The ba’al teshuva may be the only Torah-true Jew in his entire extended family. There is often very little support from family members. Sometimes there is open hostility or antipathy on the part of their non-Torah-observant relatives, or at best a resigned acceptance of the Torah-observant couples’ particular brand of “fundamentalism.”

Although elements from the past are often left behind when making the transition from a non-Torah-observant to a Torah-observant-lifestyle, there are some aspects of their previous lifestyle and relationships that cannot or perhaps should not be forgotten. These range from the strategic to the mundane, across a spectrum that includes how to relate to their parents (who are, after all, their FFB children’s grandparents) and how to deal with the visiting family members during the couple’s simchos. Even trickier is dealing with the extended family members as the ba’al teshuva couple’s children grow into adolescence (Simchos: to go, or not to go? What if my sister marries a gentile? What to do on Thanksgiving Day? Or Grandpa’s 70th birthday party? All the other grandchildren spend mid-winter or summer break at Grandma’s home in Florida. Why can’t we go?) The list goes on and on.

Chinuch and Yeshivos

The ba’al teshuva family also has a stress shock when dealing with Torah-observant schools for the first time. Growing up in America, the ba’al teshuva, particularly if he or she came from an affluent, suburban area, perhaps went through an outstanding public school system. Funded with tax dollars, the American public school offered the pre-ba’al teshuva an education replete with free music and art programs, low teacher-student ratios, extensive remedial programs, and a tremendous array of electives. Contrast that experience with the typical yeshiva, which, struggling with lack of funds, can offer little in these areas.

Ba’al teshuva parents living in communities blessed with a large Jewish population often have a number of yeshivos to choose from, presenting a variety of options. However, the parents in this situation are often unfamiliar with the distinctive attributes of the different yeshivos[3], and the nature of the admission process to mesivtos for their 8th grade bachurim.

Furthermore, as their sons (and daughters) mature beyond 4th and 5th grade, many ba’alei teshuva find themselves intimidated by the prospect of learning with their children. This is a significant issue that must be dealt with.[4]

Yamim Tovim

Yamim Tovim (and Shabbosos) can be a source of stress to the ba’al teshuva couple as they struggle to learn the halachos and nuances of these special times of the year. Many newly-married ba’al teshuva couples often feel rather lonely as their FFB friends are packing up to spend Yamim Tovim with their parents (After the third child, invitations to sedarim at FFB friends’ homes seem to dry up).

Adolescence and Shidduchim

Now that the children of the first generation of ba’alei teshuva are reaching adolescence and shidduch age, they are dealing with new issues that require a great deal of guidance. While FFB couples deal with the same set of challenges, they often have a support group consisting of extended family members. They also have their own life’s experiences to help guide them. To the FFB, the Torah and halachic dimension regarding adolescent issues and the marriage of a child is frightening enough. But the ba’al teshuva has little guidance. There are no books on this issue, no tapes to listen to, and no forums or formal support groups.

A Call to Action

Our community has invested many millions of dollars and tremendous resources of energy in bringing ba’alei teshuva to Yiddishkeit. But the process cannot stop with the formal ba’al teshuva institutions. The process of becoming a ‘successful’ ba’al teshuva is not a one-, two- or five-year process. It is probably not even a 25-year process. It is a lifecycle process, and it might very well take two generations to be truly successful. We need to follow several guidelines to ensure that success:

1) We need to create awareness within our community that we must help acclimate these ba’al teshuva families. Just because a ba’al teshuva family has four or five kids and “seems to be doing all right” does not mean that they have mastered all the nuances and challenges of becoming integrated into the Torah world.

2) While numerous publications deal with becoming Torah-observant, the newly Torah-observant, and dating and marriage issues, there is a woeful lack of lectures, tapes, workshops, articles and books dealing with lifecycle issues for the ba’al teshuva. Our community and Rabbinic leaders should recognize the opportunity to bridge the gap and fill the void with a rich selection of educational options for the ba’al teshuva couple.

We should identify specialists within the ba’al teshuva movement who can become “senior ba’al teshuva advisors.” These leaders would have specific training in providing advice to ba’alei teshuva on many of the above-mentioned topics. These specialists would be available for consultation with Rabbanim as necessary.

Lay people (and perhaps even Rabbanim) who do not have many years of experience dealing with ba’al teshuva issues need to become aware of the fact that they should not be giving significant lifestyle guidance to ba’al teshuva families. A growing cadre of trained professionals in the ba’al teshuva lifecycle field is needed to bring sufficient support for the ba’al teshuva couple, ensuring that they have adequate resources to call upon in time of need or concern.

A Sacred Gift, and a Sacred Obligation

The Ribbono Shel Olam has given our generation a great gift – the thousands of sincere, committed, ba’alei teshuva and their children. We must do all that we can to assist our brothers and sisters – lach’sos tachas kanfei haShechina.

[1] I vividly recall spending some time ten years ago with the talented and dedicated faculty members of Ohr Somayach of Monsey discussing the progress of a ba’al teshuva bachur that I had become involved with. Over the course of several meetings and phone conversations, I respectfully, but forcefully disagreed with the recommendations they made. Thankfully, I had the good sense to follow their advice, against my better judgment. With the benefit of hindsight – they were 100% correct in their assessment.

[2] This article is of necessity focusing on the majority of ba’alei teshuva who are B’H able to find their mate. It is a sad reality that many ba’alei teshuva – as well as many FFB singles – are not able to easily find their zivug and start a life together. We must continue to support the efforts of Invei Hagefen and other such organizations who are assisting these singles.

[3] For example, I am vigorously opposed to having ba’alei teshuva parents send their sons and daughters to Yiddish-speaking yeshivos – if they do not speak Yiddish themselves. In my opinion, this virtually guarantees that the fathers and mothers will never be able to learn with their children. I am well aware that many of my colleagues would disagree with me – as vigorously.

[4] May I point out a possible solution that we implemented in our Yeshiva to assist ba’alei teshuva parents, or parents who simply don’t have the background to learn with their sons: I just started a series of weekly, half-hour Sunday morning shiurim in my yeshiva for fathers of boys for each grade above grade 4 – that covers the limudim that the rebbi of that grade will be learning that week. All of the sheets and handouts that the rebbi uses in class are given to the fathers during the shiur. The shiurim are delivered by fellow (volunteer) fathers of that grade level.

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