Kiruv Organizations Must Stop Sending Participants To Places That Reject Them

I didn’t become observant through a kiruv organization. I became observant due to a search for meaning in life during my childhood. Thankfully, as I started to increase my observance at the end of high school, NCSY was there to give me a network of support and friends to help me acclimate into the Orthodox community. I never received anything but admiration from the Orthodox Jews I met because of my choice to become religious. I was told early on about the Gemara “Makom she’baalei teshuvah omdin, tzadikkim g’murim einam omdin.” (Even a perfectly righteous person can’t stand on the same level as one who returns to observance.) And I believed it. People would tell me over and over again how much they looked up to my decision to become observant and admitted that they didn’t know if they’d do the same given the choice.

In terms of marriage prospects, I met my husband early on in college, and I was married by 20 years old. I never got the feeling that I’d fare worse in the shidduch process as a ba’al teshuva as opposed to someone born and raised religious (FFB – frum from birth). My sisters (who also became Orthodox) didn’t have this issue either. In the circles I travel in, many people have a least one ba’al teshuva parent and I have never been made to feel weird or different due to my background. The baalei teshuva in my circles seem to feel equally accepted.

It is easy to assume that one’s life experiences are everyone’s life experiences, but that is obviously not the case. And the interesting thing about Jew in the City is that the more we speak about the good that exists in the Orthodox world – and there is so much good to speak about – the more we attract feedback from people who experienced the opposite.

Now there are two ways to approach hearing negative: you could ignore it and pretend that the problem doesn’t exist. That the people reporting the problem are the problem. Or you could listen and try to understand and express sympathy and work to make things better. Being empathetic and trying to be better is the Jewish way.

So that is the purpose of this article – to speak to the people involved in Jewish outreach and to the people who have gotten burned by being baalei teshuva. The message for both groups is: it matters where a baal teshuva ends up.

To the educators working tirelessly to inspire and educate our brethren – if you send your students to communities too large or too insular, there is a decent chance they will never fully be accepted by their co-religionists. There is a good chance they will suffer when it comes to marriage prospects, and there is a reasonable chance that even their children will grow up seeing their parents treated as less than which will negatively impact their relationship to Judaism. (All of these examples have been reported to me by people who experienced them.) So when students of yours are ready to go out and join a community somewhere, please make sure that it is one that is known to be blind when it comes to a person’s background. What a painful experience it would be to be given love and attention during the process of becoming observant, only to discover that you are considered less desirable when you finally try to join the ranks.

To the baalei teshuva (or in some cases former baalei teshuva) who have been burned by closed-minded Orthodox Jews: the people you’ve met do not speak for the entire frum world. Go out and look for happy baalei teshuva if an observant life still interests you, and find out what community they’re part of and how they’ve fared. We can’t stop closed-minded people from being closed-minded but we can raise awareness that something better exists and help make connections so than anyone who wants it can have access.

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  • Avatar photo Cvmay says on June 21, 2019

    Hi Allison,
    I enjoyed listening to your presentation at the OU Women’s initiative. You are doing a marvelous job & filling an important void.
    Yes, I agree you can advise Baalei Tshuva to choose the ideal communities before reteaching the “so called” frum how to behave, think & react.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on June 21, 2019

      Thank you! Ideally, of course we’d want every community to be inclusive. But as that is a harder goal to reach, in the meantime, it’s need to be given good advice.

  • Avatar photo B M says on June 25, 2019

    Send them to a chabad community, or chabad friendly community, our philosophy is based on the how the Baal teshuva is at a higher level. my parents are Baal teshuva, you always feel like you are slightly different than your ffb peers when you have Baal teshuva parents, but it is something I and my siblings are very proud of. We know how hard our parents worked to be where they are today, we don’t take things like kosher food and an appreciation for positive outlook in life for granted.
    It is also great that we know and are close to people from all different backgrounds and we can see the beauty in being frum without having to test the opposite extreme of things for ourselves. Seeing the value frum people have of family over just work and careers first.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on June 25, 2019

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad to hear that this has been your experience. Unfortunately, several of the people who have complained to me moved to Chabad communities and felt like they couldn’t marry FFB’s or had the same treatment as the families who were Frum all the way back. But obviously different people experience different things.

      • Avatar photo B M says on June 25, 2019

        I agree that is an issue, as my grandmother always says “if they don’t want us, we don’t want them”
        I feel like you will find elitists in every kind of community.
        Surprisingly I myself married into a family that has always been frum, they don’t see themselves as superior. There are plenty of people who just want to marry others very similar to them and they have a hard time understanding different cultures, but there are still a good amount of people with “Yichus” who see the value in different backgrounds. Anyway, it’s more about the person. If someone is looking into a chabad community as a place to live they should find out if it is the type where people from different backgrounds are really made comfortable or if it’s shtetl style. If you do research you can find out if the regular Anash Chabad community has a chabad house style Shul.
        Also, I think it’s good for old communities to have some new blood.

      • Avatar photo B M says on June 25, 2019

        Another thing, I don’t understand why Baal Teshuvah families would want to specifically marry into ffb families, the culture can be very different sometimes and it makes life easier to marry someone from a similar background. At this point I think there is a large amount of Baal teshuvah families if someone is looking for shidduchim. On the contrary I think Ffb families should be looking into Baal teshuvah ones, they are often times very sincere and take things more seriously since they took things on as adults.


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