Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Problem with Being a Ba'al Teshuva

I hope to explain my struggles with being a Ba'al Teshuva. I hope there are some people out there that can relate, but as per my explanation, I doubt many people can.

It has been my experience, while being involved with NCSY from about age 10-17, that this organization produces many Baalei Teshuva, and as a general rule, they do good work. Many kids that come in to NCSY from public school often graduate from Jewish Day Schools - an amazing accomplishment. However, I believe that these kids are drawn away from public schools by more than NCSY - namely, being already unhappy with public school. As my sister alludes to in her post, being cool is of utmost importance in the middle/high school years. I would bet oodles of money that if I polled BT's that graduate from Jewish day schools, an overwhelming majority would respond that they were not in the "cool" or "popular" crowd in public school. Therefore, they are not leaving much behind when an organization like NCSY turns them on to the idea of a Jewish Day School. This leads me to my conclusion #1 - that in the middle/high school years, BT's are dorks. Sure there are exceptions, but I do believe this is the rule.

This was not my experience in public school. I give myself no credit, but for whatever reason (could be playing varsity sports, or being overly sociable) I did not have any problems in public school. I always seemed to have plenty of friends, and what to do on the weekends. In high school I was heavily involved with a plethora of extracurricular activities, went to parties; I suppose you could have labeled me a "cool" or "popular" kid. However, not even I was immune to the NCSY magnet. I went to a Jewish day school for the start of my 10th grade year. While I enjoyed the experience, and some of my closest friends to this day were met during this time, I missed public school. I dreaded the 3-hour round trip commute, and missed playing competitive baseball. Therefore, my stint at HAGWASH lasted one year - I was back in public school. Already this differs from most BT's - they would never consider going back to public school.

Now, I will readily admit that there are people that I viewed as being "dorky" or "not popular" that have changed since their middle/high school days - and many of these people are funny, normal people. I am sure that some of my friends now were in this group in their yesteryear. However, I don't know why - maybe BT's are different - but BT's never seem to shake their dorky selves. I say that I can spot a BT from a mile away. Something is just different about them. This is conclusion #2 - that BT's retain their dorkiness into their adult lives.

Of course, however, there are more BT's than the NCSY-related BT's. There are those people that become BTs post-college, and even later in life. While these people may have been normal, popular kids in middle/high school, and may be normal, even-keeled people in their adulthood, I believe this changes when they become BTs at a later point in life. People that become frum later in life have obviously lived many more years in a non-frum lifestyle than those people who make the switch during high school. So, to compensate for their immersion in non-frum life, I find that often, these people swing very far to the right wing. You all know these people. They're the ones who you see reading a bracha under the chupah at a wedding you went to, with the long beards, black hats, and trouble reading hebrew (ever heard a BT try to read the Bracha of Sameach Tisamach?). Conclusion #3 - Later-in-life BTs often tend to be very "frum", ultra right wingers (see Yeshivat Ohr Someyach in Yerushalayim for about 150 examples...the ones who can mussar you for holding of the eruv there, but can't read Kiddush).

Basically, I don't like being labeled a BT. To someone that wouldn't know me, they would assume that I am either an ultra-right winger or a dork. BTs , as a general rule. are either dorks that I can't associate with, or "formerly cool, but now overly frum people". I wish I could meet a BT that wears dress slacks, Banana Republic shirt, Naot's and a Black Knit Srugi on Shabbos.


Blogger Danny the Manny said...

It's been pointed out to me several times before that a similar phenomenon occurs when people make aliyah. The day they move to Israel, their lives go to a standstill. That's why you see so many people walking around in clothes form the 70's. You can pinpoint the exact year that someone made aliyah based on how he looks. And these people too can be spotted a mile away when they come over from Israel to visit, and I don't mean the ones who knock on your door asking you to fund their lives over there.

2:58 PM, January 24, 2006

Anonymous Baalat Teshuva said...

I expressed my Judaism by working in the kitchen every Shabbos at University of Maryland. If you know me, you get extra lima beans. I can't actually promise that because it's against our policy to show favortism--taek it up with the board--but I sure can try. Ketchup packets I can do, though.

3:02 PM, January 24, 2006

Anonymous fetuslaz said...

I'm going to experiment with facial hair and drugs during my year in Israel at Ateret Yerushalayim as a rebellion against my father for being a Baal Teshuva.

3:04 PM, January 24, 2006

Blogger Lanie said...

Wow, way to potentially piss off lots of people.

I think your generalizations are much too broad and that there's no way that every single person that's a BT is a) in general a dork when they become a BT and b) retain this "dorkiness" (whatever that is) into adulthood.

I'll agree that the "NCSY Appeal" probably is stronger with kids that might not be as popular or cool outside of NCSY. I have some issues with NCSY's whole approach, but that's a different subject. Regardless, I can give you a very, very long list of people who are now religious that weren't religious when they were young (my definition of a BT for these purposes) that are entirely mainstream people.

Also, I think that the extreme right-wing attitude of people that become religious later in life can at times be an attempt to totally remove any semblance of a BT's former life from the "new" life. Some have a lot of guilt about things that they have done or their lifestyle in the past. I personally will talk to anyone who will listen about how awesome Pizza Hut tastes.

Do you think that it's different for kids that become religious through Shoresh? Shoresh is more of a lifestyle and not a 3 time a year high like NCSY is. There are events, trips, camp, etc. I think that a lot of ppl. that become religious with the help of Shoresh do not fit in to your generalizations.

3:16 PM, January 24, 2006

Anonymous Greg said...

While some of your forumulations bear a modicum of truth, generalizations as a rule never work. It is a foible of the human mind that we search to reduce all human experience to discrete, predictable criteria. Honest experience and interaction with Being proves this not to be the case time and time again.

That being said, I think you are missing the essential quality of what it means to be a ba'al teshuvah, regardless of the stage in which one makes this change. They are not seeking to be cool, or be with other dorks, or be really right-wing. Rather, they are looking for acceptance, and the Orthodox world is readily welcoming and accepting. Sometimes individuals feel the need to assert their own individuality and feel that they can not adequetely do this in their traditional setting, and are thus attracted to the frum community holding themselves apart from the norm in an effort to establish their own self-image as iconoclastic. Perhaps your self-identification of your own uniqueness is nothing more than a call for acceptance, while at the same time maintaining your own unique identity. If so, that sounds pretty dorky to me.

4:25 PM, January 24, 2006

Blogger Jewboy said...

I must agree a bit with Helanis and Greg here. I'm afraid you're making a bit of a generalization. there are some "dorky" BTs, surely, but I've known plenty of "cool" ones as well. Like any group of people, they come in all types.

5:49 PM, January 24, 2006

Blogger Danny the Manny said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:10 PM, January 24, 2006

Blogger Danny the Manny said...

Maybe it's a way to jump social classes. It's like the reverse of the shiksappeal. Think about it from that end. The decision to go from a shmorgesbord of all kinds of beautiful women and then to convert and be limited to the Jewish schnowsers is a bit of a strange move. But then you realize the real motivation behind it. Look at yourself inside a large society of many and then "convert" into a small group of few and you rise in popularity and your level of dorkiness should go down. Inside a smaller group, you should rise to the top, like an Oreo inside a cup of milk. So what's the real problem here? Why can't these guys transition from nobodies into somebodies? Why does the "conversion" leave them as destitute as in their pre-frum days?

So let's summarize: You start out as a dork with a chance to get a good looking wife. Then you decide to change into someone who has potential to become not a dork but will wind up with a far less good looking--sometimes downright bad looking--wife but the payoff is worth it for you personally. The problem here is that while undertaking a downgrade in wife potential, it's still somewhat of a crapshoot to see whether he will turn out to blossom into a prince. Strange how that works. Loses with only the hope of gain, but not for shizzle.

7:21 PM, January 24, 2006

Blogger AlanLaz said...


I shall respond to each paragraph.

#1 - I said specifically that this does not apply to every person. While the generalizations may seem to broad to you, in my experiences, they are not.

#2 - I am interested to know your "very, very long list" of people. I know very, very few. Keep in mind, that I am only talking about people that grew up in a family that was non-frum. Therefore, someone who was rebellious during their teenage years, but found the derech again does not qualify.

#3 - This is my point exactly.

#4 - Very interesting point. I will give that some thought. I am curious if your "very, very" long list consists of only Shoresh people. If so, maybe they are not representative of frum yidden in general. I do think Shoresh gives a very even-keeled version of frumkeit.

7:31 PM, January 24, 2006

Blogger AlanLaz said...


What I am saying is that in my experiences, this is the case. While my experiences may not be representative of the Jewish world, I only claim to be reporting my own. My experiences have proven this to be true time and time again.

I understand that they are not seeking to be cool, or to be with other dorks, etc. All I am saying is that I cannot relate to the run-of-the-mill BT.

Also, I agree that Baalei Teshuva are looking to feel accepted. My point is that it is alot easier to run to this warm environment when one is not comfortable with the current setting (public middle/high school).

Finally, it would be dorky of you and I to guess my unconscious motivations for my own "self-identification of [my] own uniqueness".

7:39 PM, January 24, 2006

Blogger AlanLaz said...


In your experiences, they come in all types. In mine, they haven't/don't.


7:41 PM, January 24, 2006

Blogger AlanLaz said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:18 PM, January 31, 2006

Anonymous yaakov said...

Shoresh is different. It does not recruit teenagers solely interested in gaining judaism. Shoresh gets to mold children well before their teenage years and draws them in through non-religious activites in addition to the religion indoctrination. they each have alot of benefits but NCSY will tyopically attract more of those that don't fit in while Shoresh gets kids much earlier in a camp that happens to teach them about judaism.

2:19 PM, January 31, 2006

Blogger AlanLaz said...

Yes, Yaakov, this is the conclusion my sister and I have come to. The way I see it, any "normal" Baalei Teshuva that I know were affiliated with Shoresh. I think we underestimate the role Shoresh plays, but when considered in this context, it is huge.

2:19 PM, January 31, 2006

Anonymous Yaakov said...

The downside to the Shoresh method is the cost per kid. Shoresh has a much higher cost per impact. their budget is many fold NCSY's and they impact less kids. The benefit is shoresh can guide and influence kids at a much younger age.

1:50 PM, February 01, 2006

Blogger Jonathan B. Horen said...

I became a B"T in 1979 and emigrated to Israel in early January, 1980. Went to learn at Aish HaTorah and stayed for a year-and-a-half. There were two problems with B"Ts:

1. They rarely learned Hebrew, preferring those Artscroll translations; and

2. They rarely returned to working in their fields-of-endeavor.

Now, I know that many people like the accessability of Torah which Artscroll translations present; however, ya gotta "work your program" (apologies to any 12-steppers).

Black hats and beards are an illusion of frumkeit, and they fail all the more when the one(s) wearing them can't make Kiddush or give a drosh in Hebrew

Sometime back in 1981, I heard Rav Bullman give a talk about the problems with B"Ts. He said the problem wasn't really with them, but would be with their children and grandchildren -- that we'd see them "M'vakshey kesef al-yad Ha-Kotel."

It's 25 years later, and those kids are now grownups.

Me? off-and-on, but mostly off. I stayed in Israel for 25 years (which helped), remain fluent in Hebrew and read the weekly parsha, but little more.

The problem is that you can't stay a B"T forever, and being a balabatish Yid means working and learning. You've gotta learn Hebrew -- noone is gonna accept you if you can't be shaliach tzibor or take an active part in a shiur.

5:10 PM, May 16, 2006

Blogger AlanLaz said...

I think we are mostly in agreement. One cannot stay a BT forever - the job of all organizations that are mekarev people should be to mainstream BT's. The longer one remains a BT, the greater the chance the person will revert to their old ways.

I am not entirely sure, however, what turned you off from becoming mainstream.

5:57 PM, May 16, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good job.
It is people like you who keep the emes in the world.

5:45 PM, March 18, 2013


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