An Overview of the Baalei Teshuvah Movement

December 2001
By a former member

Over the past 50 years or so, there has been a growth in outreach organizations and yeshivas geared towards people from non-Orthodox backgrounds, who are seeking to become Orthodox. These organizations also target people who are not seeking to become orthodox on their own.

Much of the impetus for the outreach organizations came from the belief that the messianic redemption is "imminent." The resurrection of the Jewish commonwealth brought out a messianic fervor in some circles, as they believed that the "geulah" or redemption was near.

Lubavitch was the first organization to organize a mass outreach and they probably have the most infrastructures for handling Baalei Teshuvahs (BTs) in terms of teaching, and accommodations. But now there are many organizations and yeshivas including Aish HaTorah, Orh Sameach, Diasporah Yeshiva, Hineni, and National Jewish Outreach.

The latter group claim to have converted about 200,000 back to Orthodoxy. But these numbers may be exaggerated and the depth of the commitment on the part of the converted is also questionable per these "chozrim bitshuva" (returnees in repentance, another term for BTs).

But the question remains, if a person becomes a BT, which version of Orthodoxy will he or she adhere, Ultra-Orthodox, Modern Jewish Orthodoxy, Chasidic Judaism, or what? This can all be quite confusing. Some yeshivas like D'var Yerushalayim hire rabbis with differing opinions, leaving the BT to develop his own path rather than be groomed to become a specific type of Orthodox person.

I had modern Orthodox relatives and my uncle attended Yeshiva University. Encouraged to return to the orthodoxy my father had abandoned, I went to Israel when I was 19, to study in D'var Yerushalayim. The accommodations and it was often quite depressing.

And ultimately I got nowhere with the BT movement.

But the outreach organizations, which are used to attract BTs first display the nice parts of Judaism to attract people, such as Sabbath dinners, Passover Seders, etc. Later on though, the hardships they expect from new recruits to endure become more evident. Such as the legalism regarding personal conduct and the strictures of the dietary laws.

I believe that forewarned is forearmed and if people knew the picture of what they are really getting into, up front, perhaps they would avoid such potential problems entirely. Becoming a BT is not just chicken soup on Friday night.

Today approximately 4 million Jews are Orthodox and the rest are secular, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist. This means that the majority of Jews are not orthodox and/or have abandoned an Orthodox lifestyle. But there is an increasing effort to change this trend by some Jewish "outreach" organizations through targeting Jewish youth, for example Americans who visit Israel.

While some people might think exposure to Orthodoxy by such outreach efforts as Heritage House, TOPS, Jeff Seidel, etc. can be a positive experience, the result has often been families been torn apart and strained if not destroyed relationships.

It is important to recognize that Orthodox Judaism is not monolithic. There is an entire spectrum of beliefs and array of affiliations, which offer various modes of behavior.

A new BT may experience profound confusion as he is confronted with issues like Kol Isha (women can't sing to men), negiyah laws (men and women can't touch each other unless married or close relatives), and niddah (husband and wife can't touch each other or cohabit while the woman is in her menstrual cycle). There are other issues like kashrut (dietary rules), cholov yisroel (milk must be overseen by Jews), bread must be watched, and kashrut to some groups is more stringent (e.g. than say the largest Orthodox denomination the Orthodox Union would expect).

After becoming a BT a person may find it difficult to get work for a variety of reasons. This might include not being able to work on Saturday, garb or appearance that seems strange to an employer, such as a beard or a yalmulka and tzitzith.

Relationships with families can become strained as relatives may not eat on the same family dinnerware (due to dietary rules) or be together with families on the Sabbath and holidays. Old friends may be cut off as the BT increasingly only associates with others who observe Orthodox at a similar level. New converts are often the worst, or most zealous on these points.

Many questions should be asked. What are the chances that a new BT will have a viable fulfilling future? What would that future be like in Israel, considering the political problems there? What might the BTs chances be of finding work with a secular education, if he or she is only associating with ultra-Orthodox people who often denigrate such a background?

There are many reasons to keep away from Orthodox outreach organizations. Perhaps the single most compelling reason is that a person from a non-Orthodox background most often cannot be integrated into the ultra-Orthodox world without destroying old friendships, family connections and ultimately him or herself in the process.

The BT movement is a relatively new phenomenon. Suffice it to say that the jury is still out on the results of involvement. But what results are in, frequently seem to indicate negative consequences.

Copyright © 2001 Rick Ross.

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