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“Who killed the Baal Teshuvah?” asks R. Michal




In the lives of many of these Baalei Teshuva there remains an inner conflict that often gets suppressed. While they were still searching, they were made to feel welcome and important. They were the focus and spotlight of the slick machine of Kiruv (outreach) movements. The talks they attended highlighted and contrasted the evils and baselessness of the secular world, as opposed to the flawless functioning and depth of religious communities. The smiling facilitators always had a sense of humour, and as a matter of course, also showed great openness and tolerance for other views.

However, when the spotlight moved on to the next candidate and the Baal Teshuva graduated to a real community with real people who didn’t always smile, weren’t so tolerant, and didn’t abound with a sense of humour; there may have been a possible moment of frustration. When they questioned what they saw, they were told (possibly for the first time) that ‘all people’ and ‘all societies’ have their share of good and bad. This made sense to them, so they continued trying to fit in till they lost any semblance of their previous lives. Now their parents, old friends, old schools and universities suddenly vanished, and they spent an inordinate amount of effort pretending they were always like they are now.

This is sometimes the last time they ever exercise those same inquiring minds that had characterised them till now. Gone is the ceaseless searching and challenging that so defined them when they started on this journey.

Why is it at this point that the Baal Teshuvah dies?

Why can’t he or she continue to challenge and rebel against the aspects of the new society that are less than appealing, and resemble those of ‘all other people’? They showed that they had the strength and courage to do so in the past, but seem to have lost the will to affect any further change. Why? Are the peer pressures of religious life more powerful than those from whence they came? Is there some unspoken fear or apprehension they no longer have the strength to withstand?

The Kotzker Rebbe became a chassid because he saw it as a movement that challenged the sluggish mainstream. Yet he later rebelled against it when he realised that it had simply replaced one mainstream with another even more perfected mainstream.

We need our Baal Teshuvas of today to stop trying to stop being Baal Teshuvas. We need them to remain searchers and challengers so that they can take the religious community and not just live in it but advance it. They bring with them a set of skills they need not be ashamed of. Our Tradition teaches that a Baal Teshuva is greater than a perfect Tzadik. Let them champion and promote the beauty that sets our religious communities above other communities. But let them also speak out against the flaws they were told are found among ‘all people’. They have already shown that they do not want to be like ‘all people’, and there are now enough of them to have a voice and to be heard. Let them attempt to root out those flaws as only they know how….so that the religious community no longer suffer the same maladies as the people in the societies the Baalei Teshuva thought they were leaving behind.

Rabbi Gavin Michal has his own shul in Orange Grove and is a student of the works of the Kotzker Rebbe

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  1. Rephael Mendel Perkel

    Nov 27, 2014 at 9:02 am

    ‘This is an important statement from Reb Gavriel. Unconscious consensus and conformity have been the trap out of which every single one of our spiritual leaders have shown us how to break free. The very founder of our nation, our holy forefather Avraham, stood ALONE in his milieu as the sole voice of Truth and authenticity, rebelling against the overwhelming tide of falsehood, arrogance and immorality, which always has been at the core of violence and destruction throughout history. He, and his successors in every generation, have modeled the values of personal relationship with G-d, individuality, authenticity, creativity, freedom of choice and personal responsibility. Our challenge as descendants (or disciples) of Avraham is to let go of our attachment to the superficial and external, and  connect rather with the inner Essence of everything that we encounter. That way we are living in a true relationship with HaShem. And that is what nourishes us with true faith and trust, deep inner joy and peace. The Torah is HaShem’s infinite Will and Wisdom and supports us in this challenge, by illuminating us with a profoundly broad and deep description of a spiritually connected life, while the Mitzvot provide us with the amazing channels to create this connection. It was never meant to be about superficial conformity. but rather about deep love and soul connection. And that can only happen when we are being real and true to ourselves.’

  2. Samuel Shalom

    Nov 27, 2014 at 10:00 am

    Lies About The Demise of the Baal Teshuva Movement — Why It Ain’t So!

    Lately there have been murmurings in the Haredi English press asking if Kiruv (meaning Orthodox Jewish outreach to secular and non-Orthodox Jews) and the related Baal Teshuva Movement are \”dead\”!

    The critics and skeptics point to the low enrollment currently in the \”mainstream\” Baal Teshuva (BT) yeshivas such as Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem and Monsey, Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem, at the various Chabad institutions all over the world, and the seemingingly fewer women signing up at seminaries catering to Baalas Teshuvas (female BTS).

    A recent edition of the popular English-language Mishpacha magazine devoted a story to this subject and a few weeks later published the responses of several rabbis in Kiruv work who answered defensively working hard to deny that it’s all over for them and that the BT movement is alive well, albeit in different forms.

    It is very curious to see that on the one hand the Haredi media never tires of showcasing stories about BTs and about Geirim (converts to Orthodox Judaism). The Haredi public seems to have an insatiable thirst to read in almost voyeuristic fashion about the minutia how formerly secular Jews and even gentiles somehow or other decided to become devout Orthodox Jews.

    The famous Haredi publishing houses have published reams of books and made big bucks writing up about this topic that is guaranteed to sell books. But all of a sudden when numbers at the BT yeshivas and seminaries and at Chabad houses are reportedly down, or not doing as great as they used to do or ought to do, there is a quick rush to judgment to declare the BT movement of not dead, then dead in the water or about to die.

    So what is going on here? Is the BT movement \”dead\”? Are there truly less potential BT’s in the world? Is Kiruv over and now it’s time to move on to bigger and better things? As Bugs Bunny used to say \”What’s Up Doc?\”

    Knowing many folks in this sphere from all sides of the BT and Kiruv spectrum and worlds, it would be safe to say that anyone who lives in any Orthodox community KNOWS that there is still some life, and then some, in them thar hills of Kiruv and potential numbers potential BTs or people who would genuinely like to learn more about Judaism and yes, who wish to become more religiously observant and practice more and more Mitzvot, like Shabbat, Jewish Holidays, and have happy relationships and better marriages, raising nice Jewish families with better educated Jewish children.

    People in the frum world know that there is something afoot in the secular Jewish world, that there is still a buzz out there of an interest in Judaism that defies logic and rational understanding. But what really is going on? And why is there a seeming standstill and disconnect between the buzz about this subject out there in the world, and the seeming dormancy and lack of enrollment where once upon a time one could count and quantify Kiruv successes and BTs by a literal head count like adding up the notches of \”kills\” on a gun and how many seculars had been \”scalped\” and sent to the \”re-education\” camps to be churned out as good little wannabe brainwashed frummies shockling on demand ready to take orders from the nearest \”gedolim\” who they handed their lives over to run as if they were trapped rabbits in a cage waiting to be fed carrots for being good little BTs and attending shiur in the BT yeshivas or doing their hail marrys at 770 like all good little chasidim do. Those pesky BTs where have hey all gone? Must mean Kiruv is dead and we were right to think they were all a bunch of crazy fly by nights not worth the effort that the frum world thinks they put into them. The frum world, like any other group likes to believe its own convenient lies and self-delusions and in the department of BTs and Kiruv they show just how out of their depth they really are.

    First of all, one important thing to realize and accept: THE  BAAL  TESHUVA  MOVEMENT  IS  GOD’S  BUSINESS.

    It is not a synthetic trend or fad or movement created by human beings in board rooms, like by \”mad men\” on the proverbial Madison Avenue, or in political action committees by plotting Machiavellis.

    The BT movement is something very special in Jewish history. An unparalleled return to observing Judaism by Jews who had previously given up on it. This is not something that any one person or group of people can \”create\” as if it was a \”product\” or a result of some decree or law or by social engineering.

    The BT movement is spontaneous regeneration somehow embedded into the spiritual and historical DNA of the entire Jewish People. Yes, this or that person or rabbi or social or political factors contribute, as is true for all movements and great events. But the BT movement is not \”powered\” by people or by institutions. Just as the Exodus from Egypt was not \”created\” by either Moses’ extraordinary leadership nor was it held up or stopped by the diabolical Pharaoh’s decrees. It was not just about what Jews or Egyptians or the world wanted. It’s much bigger than that! It was a movement that was ripe in its time and it came to be. Just as there are \”golden ages\” and \”renaissances\” and \”revolutions\” and \”voyages of discovery\” and \”scientific explosions\” etc that take place whether people like it or not or whether they are wanted or not wanted, they take place because their times arrives to happen in history! God had predicted the Exodus to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and it’s built into the spiritual DNA and destiny of the Children of Israel for all time. The Jews would return to their land Israel, to their Torah and to their God. Like it or not, it’s gonna happen and it does and has. It is as true as any transcendental universal law in physics.

    Same thing with the Holocaust and then the rise of the modern state of Israel. Mere people and events do not rationally add up the sum of the parts really, it is part of a greater reality and larger truth whose outlines cannot really be discerned by mere mortals but we all know it’s there if we look hard enough. If we like it or not is altogether another question.

    The Holocaust was a culmination of centuries and two millennia of hate against Jews in Europe stretching back to Roman times. Rome killed Jews and destroyed the ancient Jewish homeland of Judea renaming it \”Palestina\”. For 2000 years there were Ghettos, Crusades, Inquisitions, Pogroms, Antisemitism, Persecutions, Expulsions, Fascism, Nazism, Communism, Anarchy that finally culminated in World War Two and the Holocaust. A few rabbis, and the millions of ordinary Jews who fled to America, Eretz Yisrael, or survived in Britain, South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, and to wherever they could get in or was not invaded by the Nazis, saw it coming and when it came it was almost as if the inevitable happened.

    Same thing with the modern re-birth of Israel and the Jewish People in their own very ancient homeland in Eretz Yisrael, it was centuries and millennia in the making. The Aliya of the RAMBAN, YEHUDA HALEVI, the conquest of Israel by the Ottomans kicking out the Crusaders and opening the door to Jewish migration to Israel, the Aliya of the disciples of the Vilna Gaon, the Baal Shem Tov, the Chasam Sofer, the modern Aliya from Eastern Europe escaping Czarist persecutions, the victory of the British under General Allenby in World War One kicking out the Turks in 1917, the Balfour Declaration, the Second World War, the UN recognition of Israel as THE homeland for the Jews in 1947, the Israeli declaration of independence in 1948, the mass Aliya to Israel, whereby every decade from the 1940s when Israel had already 600,000 Jews in it and then onwards the Jewish population of Israel increases by another million Jews EVERY  DECADE whereby today there are over 6  MILLION Jews in Israel and counting, all this is something far greater than just one or a few people \”making it happen\” or trying to \”stop\” it from happening, or this or that movement or organization. It is a vast deep beyond-any-one-person’s-grasp-to-understand movement that has a complex sometimes paradoxical life of its own precisely because it is LARGER  THAN  LIFE, something

    of literally Biblical and metaphysical proportions because as even any blind person can see, if they stop for a moment and think about it, some things are part of the grand sweep of destiny, decreed and guided by  the Divine, as God brings about awesome and frightening events that at the end of the day have nothing to do with whether we \”add\” our two pennies to it or not, because as sure as the Sun rises in the East and sets in the West EVERY DAY it will just  come to be. As God told Moses when he demurred, if you won’t lead the Jews out of bondage in Egypt then somebody else will because it is gonna happen whether you like it or not and no matter what anyone thinks, wants, says or does.

    So it is with the modern day Baal Teshuva Movement, too many people have lost sight of the bigger picture and they measure it as if was a recipe for baking a cake that either flopped or came out delicious (BT stories are often to be found in Orthodox publications next to kosher recipes for foods) or something to do with school attendance or statistical analysis. It just ain’t so.

    Too many people have come to think of certain rabbis or institutions or texts or any number of things and misconceptions as being \”essential\” or part and parcel of Kiruv, as if speaking down from Mount Olympus to the puny flesh and blood mortals below prescribing to them what ails them and if it does not fit into measurement XYZ then the patient \”must\” be \”sick\” or \”must\” have \”died\” or the kids are all truants because hey, why else would attendance be down in BT schools and places where they \”ought to be\” like good little obedient BTs come to learn from the wise ones in the frum world. And how wrong they are.

    All the yardsticks and measurements that the Haredi and Orthodox world has for measuring its own successes and achievements really have NOTHING to do with either Kiruv or the worldwide Baal Teshuva Movement in any way, shape, size, or form.

    The way the frum world works nowadays, similar to the secular world in that way, is by looking at numbers of and attendance in yeshivas and bais yaakovs and day schools. If there are lots of mikvas, batei din, kosher supermarkets, glenhazels, boro parks, bnai braks, then everything is a-okay. If boys attend yeshivas, then bais medrash, then they learn in kollel and then give tzedaka to support all the causes and if the girls went to bais yaakovs then seminaries then got married and supported their husbands in kollelim, and if South Africans, Americans, Australians, etc are helping Israeli Haredim and Israel Haredim are building up towns and cities, then all this is quantifiable and presto there is \”success\” in front of one’s eyes. But this has NOTHING to do with Kiruv Rechokim or the BT movement. In fact having such a mindset works against appreciating what the Baal Teshuva Movement is all about and how to measure it. In fact, looking at \”buildings\” or shulls or schools and institutions or \”numbers\” \”in attendance\” at this or that event or lecture as \”signs\” of success is absolutely the wrong set of yardsticks or metrics to measure what is going on in the hearts, minds and lives of secular and non-Orthodox Jews who may really have a certain openness and even curiosity to learn more but this is lot on the frum and their silly pundits and predilection to be paternalistic.

    It is the Orthodox and Haredi and Hasidic worlds themselves and their preconceived notions and attitudes THAT  STAND  IN  THE  WAY  OF  THE GROWTH  OF  THE  BT  MOVEMENT  AND  ARE  THE GREATEST  BARRIERS  TO SUCCESSFUL  KIRUV.

    How that is so and more about this hopefully can be discussed in the future.’

  3. Manny

    Nov 30, 2014 at 5:20 am

    ‘I can see it now; The Baal Teshuva Project. Sign up TODAY!’

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