Wednesday, July 25, 2007

One thing baalei teshuva have difficulty understanding or relating to is what growing up in the yeshiva world is like. I know from some of my friends that as their kids go through the yeshiva system, every day is full of unexpected learning experiences. It's fascinating to me (and I'm sure to many bt's) to learn about the upbringing and raising of ffb children as bt's are expected to raise their child ren without basing themselves on their personal experience. It's one thing to adapt to the Torah world on a personal level - and as a newcomer - but children of baalei teshuva are born and raised religious! As a friend of mine put it : "omg my baby is an ffb?!"

One of the most interesting aspects is when a child decides to rebel or turn their back on this lifestyle. I'm always intrigued by the stories behind these kids' choices. As someone who’s dedicated close to half of her life to entering the torah world, it's interesting to find out what the struggles and social issues are in the life of a child who grew up in this world and decides to question it or leave it. As idealistic and utopic as the frum world first appears to a BT, it doesnt take very long before the realization hits that this world - which is supposed to be steeped in torah, in morality, in kindness, in justice - can be so full of… human faults and realities.

I recently spoke to someone who went through this and asked him to write me his story so I could post it on my blog. What amazes me the most is how, despite how many times I’ve heard this story, the same issues seem to repeat themselves – not fitting in, disinterested or harsh teachers, rabbis and parents, judgemental attitudes… The truth is, these are true everywhere. Speak to any rebellious teenager, frum or not, and they will repeat the same lines – they didn’t fit in, they were disrespected, they weren’t appreciated, their good intentions were dismissed, their search for truth were ridiculed… Kids completely realize and relate to this, but at some point as we enter adulthood.. we seem to forget this.

The reason I want to post this story is because this very gentle and sweet person describes what he went through, in his own experience. When I read this, I felt so disturbed that adults and peers could treat him this way - I couldn’t understand how they didn’t realize how hard he was trying and how they just kept pushing him further and further away. But then I stepped back and tried to picture him as a 16 year old and I got a different image in my mind.

Can you picture it?

The rebellious attitude,
the disrespectful words,
the hostility,
the anger,
the disregard for things holy and things proper…

I just imagine a kid like that and I think how I, and probably so many others, would have a hard time not judging him. Can't you hear it? “Why should we care? He’s so far gone! Look how he dresses, look how he acts, look how he speaks to his parents!! He needs love? He wants attention? respect? He deserve a kick in the behind!! He has no interest in changing, he just wants to have fun”

Judging on a superficial level, I can somehwhat relate to those feeling, but when you read his words, his truth, his thoughts, it's SO obvious that this is the complete opposite of what he was and what he needed? I guess my reason in posting this is that maybe a parent who reads this, or a rebbe, or a friend, or a sibling, or even a stranger in a store, will think twice before dismissing someone who is going through something similar.

I’m sure there are plenty who are not interested in a torah life, and maybe never will be and are genuinely disrespectful and turned off by it all, but on the odd chance that the bratty rebellious kid in front of you is really secretly fighting and trying deep inside... try to have a little compassion – realize how a little respect, a little genuine empathy, a little understanding might be just what he needs to give him a little hope not to give it all up. If someone wants to leave this lifestyle, let him leave it because he has valid intellectual, logical reasons for it, not because he's been pushed out and turned off by our behavior.


"I don't really know where to begin, or what's important...

I grew up in xxx, went to school there through junior high school. My folks are people who came from more modern backgrounds ( by today's standards), and as they've gotten older, they've moved further to the right. For high school, I went to an extremely yeshivish, close minded yeshiva, where I was immediately cast an outsider, due to several factors. Not being fluent in the yeshivish lingo, my "out of town" mentality, the fact that my father is a "baal habayis" as opposed to someone in learning, and my interests outside of the regular yeshivish realm (including books, comic books, music tastes [ while anyone who was listening to non jewish music was listening to pop music, I was listening to a wide range of genres, including metal, hip hop, funk..]) all helped in strengthening that label. I never thought anything of it; this was who I was, what I knew. But they didn't know from it...

The summer between 9th and 10th grade, I went to Israel, where I pulled out all the stops. I had my first experiences with tobacco, marijuana, and other mind altering substances. I didn't take advantage of the Holy Land, opting to go to Israel, not Eretz Yisroel (semantics do make a difference).

Upon returning to high school for 10th grade, I felt ready to grab the year by the reigns, and really learn. Towards the end of the summer, I had made a conscious decision to apply myself. I guess after that summer, I had gotten a lot of craziness out of my system and was ready to really grow. Unfortunately, no one wanted to learn with me, as in one short year, I had made a reputation for myself as a guy who doesn't know how to learn and doesn't care either.

Thankfully, my folks hired a tutor to teach me how to prepare a gemara, and he really helped me. More importantly, he became a confidant to me, and I felt like I was really developing. Throughout the year, I continued smoking up on Shabbosim that we had off, choosing not to smoke up while in yeshiva. At the end of the year, my parents "suggested" I stay at home for the summer, get a job, and continue with another tutor throughout the summer, to keep up the momentum of my improvement. I agreed, and the summer was a lot of fun.

The next year, I continued to strive, but my classmates made things difficult. Always making derogatory comments, expecting me to be a clown, joking around, they didn't get that I was trying to shed that rep. That year also saw the addition of a few guys to my class, who in my opinion didn't really contribute anything worthwhile. My tutor from the year before was now our rebbe in the afternoons, and these guys clashed with him constantly. They were yeshivish guys, with no respect for anybody, and very loose ethics (in my opinion ). These are the kind of guys I see who can float through life pretending to be what they are not, and they'll be handed a lot of good things.
Moreover, my rebbe - now that the dynamics of our relationship had changed - had less to do with me than ever.

At the end of the year, the guys tried convincing me to come up to the mountains with them to the program my yeshiva had at a certain camp. They were straightforward about the fact that they had plans to party exclusively, and that it would be fun with me along for the ride. I declined, saying that I needed to go home, so that I can continue to make progress.

They didn't like that, and 3 of the "main" guys cornered me one night, and really gave it to me. They said very hurtful things to me, with the intent of knocking me down a few pegs.
I won't go into details as to what they said, but I went home anyway. But what they had said struck a chord with me. They may have been wrong, but after that episode, I couldn't disagree with them. Nothing felt the same after that.

The next year, my senior year, things continued to worsen. I was now under the jurisdiction of the Roshei Yeshiva, and while one of them was cool with me, the other one just seemed to have it in for me.

I was getting depressed, but no one could see it. It felt like everyone was after me, and there seemed to be a lot of hypocrisy within the yeshiva system. My anger and frustration made me lash out at many people; my family, my teachers. I started smoking up often. I was ditching yeshiva at night, sneaking out to bowl, shoot pool, hit kareoke bars, and watch movies. I started hanging with local kids, and we raised hell, getting into brawls, graffiti, all sorts of stuff.

I stopped laying tefillin, and wearing tzitzis, and while on the outside I appeared to be normal to everyone else, I knew the truth. I had no idea where I was headed in life, and all I wanted was for everything to stop. I hated yeshivish people, I hated being different, and I hated myself for not being a stonger, better person.

Midway through my first year post high school, I made a stupid mistake, which led to many things coming out into the open. It was painful, but ultimately led to something much better. My folks (who still don't know the extent of what went on in those years ) realized that I was serious about leaving that place, and we started looking for a yeshiva that would help me out.

We found this small yeshiva in xxx. It was a normal place, not a rehab or anything, but it was unique because of the guys there, and the rosh yeshiva who cared for them. The guys were all accepting people, and the Rosh seemed to be really interested in my well being. I started to relax a bit. I felt like I found my place. I decided right then that i wouldn't do anything wrong while in yeshiva. No movies, no books, no dope. Off Shabbosim and bein hazmanim were a different story, but while in yeshiva, I was gonna focus on that exclusively.

I chilled out, turned away from the hard music I had listened to almost exclusively during those few years and started getting interested in my roots. I'm xx years old now. I learnt in that yeshiva for a couple of years, then went to Eretz Yisrael. After xx months there, I returned to my yeshiva in the states, where I've been since. I'm dating, looking for my wife. I'm completely clean now and while I'm not satisfied yet with where i'm holding, because I have a lot of work to do, I am happy, for the most part..."


At Wednesday, July 25, 2007 9:46:00 AM, Blogger The Dreamer said...


though the storyline is familiar, the message is timeless...

mooks, have you ever read "off the derech" by faranek margolese? i think it should be required reading for many...

i'm trying to get one girl to leave her school now - she's trying to change, but her reputation has carried her too far tomake herself a new name in this place, and it's so discouraging...

thanks for posting his story.

At Wednesday, July 25, 2007 11:52:00 AM, Blogger Limey said...

i'm throughly confused about htis story
i cant even comment except, yeah you need to send your kid where he will excel not where you (the parents) will "kvell" because in the end they can only be one place.
oh and been there done that

At Wednesday, July 25, 2007 6:54:00 PM, Blogger Rebecca said...

I agree with Dreamer. I will also say that wow, I admire this guy so much. Because he's been through a lot of pain, and he still had the fortitude to make it through. I've heard so many other stories of people like him who didn't make it through, who slipped through the cracks. Thank G-d this isn't one of those stories.

And Anonym00kie, I agree with you about how you introduced this story. So many times we hear such stories as this guy's, and we think "Couldn't anyone see he was crying out for help?" We automatically blame the people who cast out these broken neshamos, we say that they were heartless. It's easy to think that way when you have the kid's side. But then there's the other side, where people see a rebellious kid who doesn't want anything to do with Yiddishkeit--and like you said, it's easy to push him off like that. Or to let him be pushed, if you put it another way.

And Anonym00kie, I agree with you with the call for us to step up to the plate about these "rebellious children." Unfortunately, so many of us are ignorant of their silent cries. We spend more time on bringing in the Jews who have never known Yiddishkeit, but fail to help those who are already there. I don't know why that happens, but my guess is that it's easier to work with a "clean slate" of sorts rather than one that's already been scribbled upon. It's easier to work with a Jew who has never been exposed to Torah than to work with one who's seen Torah and turned away from it. That's my guess.

So I direct this question to you, Anonym00kie, and anyone else who's interested: Do we need to focus more on the Jews who have already rejected Yiddishkeit, the ones who are already a "lost cause," or the ones who have never known Yiddishkeit to begin with, the "clean slates?"

At Wednesday, July 25, 2007 11:41:00 PM, Blogger jewmaican20 said...

Rebecca, I'd like to address your last question: The need for focus is equal, but they're meant for different people. Different strokes for different folks, and all that. The same way there are specialists in any field, there are those in the Kiruv field.
Some work with the completely unaffiliated, others with people who have more exposure, and then there are those who work on "Kids at risk" ( I hate that term).
The ones who work with unaffiliated may not have the specific tools necessary to work with the disenfranchised, and vice versa. But the need is equal, I believe.
On that note, intervention is extremely important. If we would focus on real Chinuch, and on each child's individual needs, we could save a lot of people from unnecessary pain.
How? It's a good question. A suggestion would be smaller classes, where each child is given the proper attention s/he needs. Sadly, in a lot of schools, the "good" kids are dealt with the most, and the not as good kids sort of fall to the wayside.
Also, the expectation of the caliber of teachers should be raised. A lot of Rebbeim, for example, are long time learners who - after realizing they need to provide for their families - take a job as teachers. But just because they are tremendous learners doesn't mean that they are good educators...
Something to think about...

At Thursday, July 26, 2007 6:40:00 AM, Blogger yitz.. said...


my parents were ba'alei teshuvah .. as a teen I remember being jealous of them because they got to choose to take all of these responsibilities on themselves, whereas they had been forced upon me.. on the other hand, i knew the Torah was true, so it was really hard knowing that i couldn't 'choose' it for myself even though i would have chosen it anyway. One of those things that drives teenagers crazy..

the reason that i'm still religious has almost nothing to do with my schools and teachers.. though i definitely do owe them some hakarat hatov..

the reason i'm still religious was my parents' open-minded view of the world and realtionship with, and emunah in, HaShem.

there is no replacement for the values and attitudes children learn from their family atmosphere. In the unfortunate case that they can't learn it from their own family atmosphere, they generally learn it from the family atmosphere of some other religious family they spent a lot of time with during their teshuvah process..

At Friday, July 27, 2007 5:48:00 AM, Blogger Lvnsm27 said...

wow, I didn't expect the happy ending. Glad he found a place that helped, bh.

when a teen is rebellious, we need to find out why, and then give them what they need, whether it's positive attention or a supportive environment with people to talk to etc. One person could make a difference for so many

At Sunday, July 29, 2007 10:28:00 AM, Blogger Lakewood Venter said...

great post! it is not a black and white issue, and hardly can one story serve to describe all the ups and downs of the frum society's ills.

At Sunday, July 29, 2007 12:02:00 PM, Blogger David_on_the_Lake said...

wow..what a loaded post..

Obviously the system works for the vast majority of boys and girls. I don't think it's possible to create a perfect society on earth as that would make us pretty much like God which is im possible and so in an imperfect community there will be imperfections.
The happy ending gave me hope that we can identify more of these situations when they are in the infant stages and have more "kosher areas" for those that dont learn to fit in..
When I was younger and idled away my years in yeshiva..there were lenty of days /weeks when I didnt learn nor want to..but I that meant..staying in bed..reading..shmoozing during seder..
I didnt even know what pot was.
Obviously alot has changed..

I also think if families imbibe their children with love and self esteem..alot of these problems would be averted as well.

At Tuesday, July 31, 2007 11:44:00 AM, Anonymous anonym00kie said...

The Dreamer ..
no, I never read it, I’ll check it out

Limey ..
I don’t get what youre confused about – its just the story of a kid who grew up in the frum community and struggled with his Judaism, and his peers.. nothing confusing about it :)
My main point I guess was that sometimes we see rebellious people and we focus on the rebelliousness and mayb even get insecure about it, instead of realizing that they are probably acting out because of underlying issues, and that there is a lot more going on below the surface. This kid was trying to clean his act up but superficially he probably just came across as trouble maker…

Rebecca ..
I understand why people get this automatic reaction to push away someone who is disrespectful to their way of life, it’s a defense mechanism we all have – but in the case of Judaism, we should have enough love and compassion to overcome that automatic reaction.

In terms of your question about kiruv rechokim vs kiruv krovim, I think those are two completely different issues. Both are needed, both require different resources, both should be happening simultaneously. I think youre right about youre clearn slate theory, but I think its even more than that. Real living torah is and should be a constant challenge and growth process – when youre working on a new bt, you just get to focus on the positive side of your life choices, it reinforces your beliefs. A frum jew knows the torah and g-d are truth, and when they work on kiruv they get chizuk themselves. Working with a kid who grew up frum and wants to leave is a totally different issue – that brings up real concerns and struggles that the person doing the kiruv has probably encountered on their own. Instead of reinforcing their beliefs, it pushes them to question their own perceptions and views, and not everyone is comfortable being put in that situation.

I agree, some popele are really good at working with bt’s but would be a disaster for ffb kids and vice versa. We connect them in our minds, but really one has nothing to do with the other.
I heard a story of a rav who ran a program for both bt kids and ffb at risk kids. When he asked the ffb kids what they thought of it, they told him that he shouldn’t mix them together because their issues were completely different – they said, ‘the bt kids need to be convinced that there is life after death.. but you need to show us that there is life before death!’
It’s a totally different struggle

In terms of schools and the good kids getting more attention … I think that’s true in all schools, not just frum schools. I agree that the calibre of teachers should be raised, im sure some are great, but I have heard some real horror stories. The truth though is that kids all over survive bad school environments and teachers if they can find what they need at home – the problem is when the parents are more concerned with images and give in to societal/school pressure.
In the letter, this kid I felt made it sound that his parents were there for him – even if they didn’t realize the extent of what he was going through, I feel like they didn’t turn their back on him or act harshly with him. Just the fact that he was able to turn to them shows that they were worth turning to. Not all kids have that luxury.

I think that’s the hardest struggle for ffb’s
Evnethough at this point in my life, turning my back on torah would be a really drastic/almost impossible move, I still live under the illusion that it’s my choice, and every day I get to reaffirm it. for someone to not even have that option, I imagine that it is really difficult. Like I wrote in one of my other posts, exercising our freedom of choice is the essence of who we are, and when that is somewhat seemingly removed – it’s a really difficult challenge.

Yitz, I totally agree about the family atmosphere having such a strong influence on a kid. I think all kids at some point rebel but when you have a family you can trust and turn to, it greatly limits the need to go find another nurturing environment. I think a lot of kids feel that – if you don’t feel like you have a place at home.. youll end up looking for your place elsewhere..

Sometimes its difficult to understand why as I think they may not even be able to verbalize it, but I think we should still assume – whether we see it or not – that there are real underlying issues and we shouldn’t dismiss them just because the ensuing behaviour doesn’t make sense to us.

Lakewood Venter ..
It’s for sure not a black and white issue, but I also don’t think its necessarily just a question of ups and downs of the frum society.. a lot of the issues are just human issues. Caring and validating and respecting are needed in any kid’s upbringing.
Some kids get bullied at school and turn out to be completely fine, others turn out to be homicidal maniacs
To me it’s a matter of dealing with each person, each kid, on an individual basis.. not clumping together – all rebellious kids, all good kids, all bt kids.. everyone has their own story and their own insecurities.

David_on_the_Lake ..
“more "kosher areas" for those that dont learn to fit in..”
I think that’s so so true. Because Judaism does emphasize community and communal standards and conformity – to an extent – I think its easy to just try and clump everyone into the same batch and when one sticks out to just try and hit him on the head to squeeze him back in..
Torah is alive and should be accessible and relatable to every jew. If someone isnt fitting in – then he shouldn’t be made to twist out of shape to fit in – he should have the freedom and encouragement to find himself, within the torah world.

At Tuesday, July 31, 2007 8:27:00 PM, Anonymous Lvnsm27 said...

I agree, it's sometimes hard to find out why it's happening. And I agree that people should try to see that person as someone who needs help and has potential.
I guess people just need to keep trying until something works

At Thursday, August 02, 2007 1:24:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

fascinating touching and heartbreaking all at the same time

At Thursday, August 02, 2007 7:39:00 PM, Blogger Rebecca said...

I agree with you, Jewmaican and Anonym00kie. Our world should be more supportive of all different types of Jews, whether they've seen a sefer Torah and didn't know what it was or if they've seen a sefer Torah and chas v'shalom spit on it.

It seems like this conversation has happened in so many different places. In blogs, in books, on websites, in shiurim. But what do we really do? Something I've seen done by Project Inspire (a project of Aish), is where people pick an unaffiliated Jew and try to focus on helping out that one Jew--that is, if they are interested. Maybe we should be doing the same as teen mentors? And perhaps not only in NY?

At Friday, August 03, 2007 11:08:00 AM, Blogger jewmaican20 said...

Rebecca, the teen mentor idea is a good one, and some organizations have started doing it already.
Priority 1 does a whole lot of it in the tri state area, amongst others.
I believe that the reason there is more focus on the NY/NJ area is for several reasons. 1) New Yorkers think that they're at the center of the universe and 2) As a result of the heavy concentration of Jews from all ends of the spectrum in one place, New York is by definition the "hot spot" for "at risk" kids, certainly when you consider ratios. That's why I think the focus seems to be primarily in the tri state area...

At Friday, August 03, 2007 11:18:00 AM, Anonymous anonym00kie said...

rebecca, ill tell you the truth, i'm not so crazy about the "pick an unaffiliated/at risk jew" and help them out...
no one wants to be anyone else's project.
i think it's nice to have that option for those who want it. new bt's know that if they need help, they have places to turn and they can get a mentor. i guess if that option was open for other kids then they would know they have somewhere to turn..but we cant impose it on them.. and the truth is i'm not so sure someone who is turned off by the system and this life style will go running to one of these mentors.
a bt wants that help. a kid going off, i would assume does NOT want to be mekareved, and probably wouldnt trust such a mentor.

so what can we do? be nicer people :) not judge, not impose, not force, love - truly.

the difference between seeing someone as a project and helping somoene out of love is that you take on a project for yourself but you help someone you love - for their own good.

once we start viewing the whole frum thing as a numbers game (how many have we lost, how many can we get back, how many of us are there, how many of us will be left..) people get turned off. we should help others find their way because we LOVE them and want them to be happy. we should have enough faith in torah and g-d to beleive that if we dont push them away, if we dont mess things up.. they will find their way back.

At Sunday, August 05, 2007 4:47:00 AM, Anonymous malka said...

A good example is this story I heard where this person said to a certain group of teens, I love you and if you need to talk, you can always come to me.

At Sunday, August 05, 2007 12:23:00 PM, Anonymous Frum Funky Fab (slightly eidel) said...

Mookie, this post is AMAZING! Kol hakavod for putting it out there.

There is so much to respond to here, but then again, it seems you pretty much covered it all.

The whole 'which segment of the population do we focus our efforts on?' question is more relevant to community leaders and those with sweeping influence and power (and often, big bucks). For our purposes (we the lay-people) it's about dealing with all the people we come across correctly as best we can. Rav Kelemen's whole thing about becoming a good parent before becoming a parent - we can only change other people by changing ourselves. If we treat others with respect and a true open heart, they will be loved, and they will be changed.
Not that we should be parenting other people. But if we put goodness out in the world, there's more goodness in the world. We get to be a part of Hashem's revealation and that is something so precious!

So many broken hearts are floating around!

Yitz, having been in your position, I there is one way to overcome the whole "I do it because my parents put it upon me" thing (that MIGHT work), and that is to go somewhere where no one knows you and no one has any expectations - and where no one really 'cares' what you do (ie they won't judge.) In such a situation, if you stick around there for a while, you will see and feel all the external pressures fall away and be left And what you want. The thing is, I wouldn't recommend this, it ends being that you are putting yourself in a test, which we're not supposed to do (think Dovid and Batsheva) but at least know that you CAN do such a thing...and if you don't, it's because you chose it.

You don't have to GO the other way just to know that you can. And if you're tempted and you don't, all the greater.

Of course, some people were just born to walk on the edge of society [look! I'm the border control! ;-)] People who find themselves in such a position are probably better equipped to deal with it, than, say, a random BY girl who's HAPPY with her life situation.

I think I just started blabbing. Whatever. Mookie, You rock!

At Monday, August 13, 2007 5:25:00 PM, Blogger jjew said...

Wow, the closest experience I had to this was when we first came to the States in 1986 when I was six years old. I was raised not observant and went to a Jewish Conservative private school until 6th grade, when they put me in the public school circuit. I felt so far and different from everybody for many reasons (change of location being the main one, and clinging to my Israeli identity). Being away from them for a while eventually probably played a big role in my return to the fold when I was 21, when I became an observant Jew. I know that there is an emotional scar left over from those days, but the path I have consciously taken, attempts at self-improvement, and of course the Kadosh Baruch Hu who taught it all, have allowed that to heal. All I can pray for you is that you too know in yourself that your worth is that which is made in the image of G-d. Yaniv...

At Wednesday, September 12, 2007 1:25:00 AM, Blogger Bas~Melech said...

Besides all the other issues, I think one important thing to keep in mind is not to be afraid of the kids. Honestly,some people seem to be, and they need to remember that they are dealing with just PEOPLE. Young people. Regular people with real feelings and struggles.


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