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.