Breaking Bread With BTs

By Samuel Green

A lot of people say that there is no better way to experience Shabbat than in Jerusalem, the place where it all started.  So I guess that’s another reason that I’m absurdly lucky to be spending the semester in Jerusalem. I’m trying to experience as many different kinds of Shabbatot as possible—with family, friends, fellow students, religious and secular, in settlers, kibbutzim, etc.  But there is one kind of Shabbat that I enjoy more than any other: eating ‘by’ some ba’lei teshuva.

“Ba’al Teshuva” (lit. “master of return/repentance/the answer”) also known as “chozer b’teshuva” or less flatteringly, BT, describes a person who becomes a religious, Torah-observant Jew. BTs often grow with little to no religious education or connection to the Jewish community, and as I’m discovering, a lot of them move to Israel after getting on the derech.

What makes these people become such fervent believers in and practicers of Judaism? What makes guys move to Israel and study in yeshiva for upwards of ten years in order to learn and gain a Orthodox semikha (rabbinical ordination), condensing what could be a two decade process into half the time because they just can’t stop learning Torah? Men and women with almost no Jewish education or connection to HaAm drop in for a Shabbat dinner with an observant family, and a three months later find themselves living in the dorms and studying 12 hours a day in a Jerusalem yeshiva catering specially to the BT crowd (Ohr Somayach, and Aish HaTorah, are two of the biggest).  I know this because I’ve heard this story dozens of times.

I’m fascinated by the BT phenomenon. I’ve written previously in defense of Chabad, specifically Chabad on Campus, one of the outreach arms of the world Chabad-Lubavitch movement.  The Chabad on Campus rabbis call themselves schlichim (emissaries) of their rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who kicked-off the worldwide Orthodox Jewish outreach movement (called kiruv) in the 1950s and 60s, with the aim of bringing non-religious Jews back to Judaism.

Whether the ultimate goal is to turn secular Jews like myself (I regularly attend events with my local Chabad rabbi and have eaten approximatly $300 worth of bagels and lox at weekly lunch ‘n learns) into mitzvot-keeping, kippa-wearing, Talmud-studying frumies, or just to teach us some Torah, facilitate the doing of some Mitzvot, and expose us to and alternative philosophy and way of life, is still up for debate. What is certain is that Chabad outreach has been phenomenally succesful, both in terms of Mitzvot done (Chabad philosophy dictates that each Mitzvah makes a real, positive, moral difference in the world and also brings the coming of the Moshiach a wee bit closer) and people brought into the Orthodox fold.  Not to say that every guy who gets hooked on Tanya with his local college Chabad rabbi himself moves to Crown Heights or Jerusalem and becomes a black-hatter with 10 kids, but an appreciable number of secular folk have started with Shabbat dinner at Chabad and moved to active participation in modern Orthodox shuls in America.  And those Chabad guys, in my experience, truly believe in what they are doing, take great pride and joy in their work, and are pretty good at.
So good in fact that other Orthodox groups have taken up the same cause.  Yes, it’s true that modern-day Litvish/Yeshivish/Mitnagdish (non-Hassidic Charedi) Orthodoxy, with its dual emphases on ethics and Halakha, is not nearly as sexy to a secular folks.  Who wants to learn the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (a condensed version of a famous compilation of Jewish law) when you can learn about the mysteries of the human soul and the creation of the universe (in English) in an intro to Kabbalah class taught by the local Chabad rabbi?  But the original Tefillin-pushers have been joined by another set of eternally cheerful, Shomer Mitzvot crowd in the Litvish black-hat kiruv set.  And the two groups (Chassidim, which means lit. ‘pious ones’, and the Mitnagdim, so named because they established themselves as the opponents of the radical new Chassidic movement, which began in the 18th century in Eastern Europe) now generally get along decently. The Chabad outreach rabbis and Litvish outreach rabbis usually acknowledge that each represents a slightly different approach to Judaism, but the important thing is to keep the mitzvot and learn.

With a mixture of admiration and bemusment, I’ve visited some BT yeshivot and talked to guys who are clearly so fired up by Torah, or perhaps so brainwashed by a certain presentation of it, that they have little to no desire to leave the walls of the yeshiva and see the rest of the country, outside of Jerushalayim, Ir HaKoidesh.  Or maybe they do.  A few weeks ago I had Shabbat dinner in the cavernous Old City apartement of a BT Litvish rabbi who generously hosted me as a random guy who was part of a Shabbaton, without even knowing the slightest details about the kid who would show up and eat massive quantities of his food and drink his pricey booze.  And he and a lot of these guys do this every week without fail, with a big ol’ smile plastered across their patient, bearded faces as some snarky secular kid tries to tell them about why evolution isn’t a theory, it’s a fact (me).  And it’s all for the love Hashem, I guess.  My feelings are about Orthodoxy are pretty mixed, and it’s really not worth it to go into it here.  But suffice it to say that, Im Yirtzeh Hashem (an expression I picked up from reading frum websites) I will be eating ‘by’ a lot more observant folks (BT or FFB, it don’t matter to me) here in ha’aretz.”

Samuel Green is a student at Swarthmore College. When he grows up he wants to be a guy with a lot of dogs.

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