Literary Corner

The Yeshiva's Role

by Mordechai Becher & Moshe Newman
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An old friend's wedding, an uncle's funeral, Passover at the family homestead - these are but a few of the challenging real-life events that are fraught with conflict and anxiety for ba'alei teshuvah. After returning to the faith of their ancestors, many re-enter the secular world without the tools to respond to the inevitable challenges to their newly adopted set of beliefs.

After The Return, now in its fourth printing, discusses and advises with all these issues. The book can be purchased online.

Here is the entire fourth chapter from the book...

The Yeshivah's Role

"Rav Ashi said, "One who loves to study with many [Rashi - with many friends] will have produce" [Rashi - due to him there will be debate and he will have to concentrate in order to answer their questions]. And this is exactly what Rav Yossi, son of Rabbi Chaninah meant when he explained, "What is the meaning of the following verse, 'A sword upon the magicians who are foolish'? (Yirmeyahu 50:36) A sword upon the necks of the enemies of the Torah scholars who sit and engage in Torah study without partners, and not only that, they become increasingly more foolish."

  • Makkos 10a

Rebbi said, "I learned much Torah from my teachers, more than that from my friends, and most of all from my students"

  • ibid

"Be careful to study Torah in a group..."

  • NADARIM 81a, according to Rashi,Tosafos and Rabbenu Nissim ad loc.

"No man is an island entirely of itself, every man is a part of the continent, a piece of the main" (John Donne). Any change in the familiar patterns of life is difficult, especially when this change is accompanied by the acceptance of a vast and complex new system of living. Transition is made easier when there are other people in transit - friends can support each other, people confronting similar problems and challenges can share their experiences with each other and can identify with each other's trials.

Our generation has the merit of witnessing many people returning to the Torah who were raised in secular environments and did not have the benefit of a Torah education during the most impressionable years of their lives. Only one generation ago, there was not one yeshivah or seminary whose major purpose was to educate adults who were just beginning their Torah education. Until recently, most Jews who had grown up non-observant, remained non-observant. Today this trend of continuing the status quo has changed; now there are countless yeshivos, seminaries, and institutions of learning for ba'alei teshuvah of any background, age, and walk of life.

Attitudes in many secular families have changed over the years, and the idea of studying in a yeshivah or a seminary has become more acceptable. In the beginning years of the "teshuvah movement," it was not uncommon for parents to seek the guidance of professional "cult-busters" and "deprogrammers" in order to obtain the "release" of their children from yeshivos. However, the more people study and visit yeshivos, the more their misconceptions are shattered. Nowadays it is common for parents and friends of ba'alei teshuvah to visit and attend a few classes at the yeshivos and seminaries.

A visit to a yeshivah or seminary can be the most effective way to correct false impressions. A woman who had been working on a kibbutz decided to study at a seminary for ba'alos teshuvah in Jerusalem, and informed her parents of her decision. Her father immediately booked a ticket to Israel, and contacted a "cult-buster" for some tips on how to "save" his daughter. The expert advised him to try three things: first, to get his daughter out of the compound by herself (he warned that this would be one of the most difficult of his tasks); second, to observe one of the rituals of the cult, and also sit in on an indoctrination session (in order to be able to refute the claims of the cult); third, to meet the charismatic leader or "prophet", and if feasible threaten him with legal action and harmful publicity.

When the father arrived in Israel expecting to see his daughter only when she was surrounded by a group of other followers, he was surprised when she came to meet him at the airport alone. Shocked by his incredible luck, he suggested that she stay with him at a five-star hotel in Tel-Aviv for a few days. His daughter immediately agreed (having eaten seminary food for the past month, which was only rated four-star in quality), suggested some tours that they could go on together, and acted in a totally normal manner, all of which left her father absolutely speechless.

After a few days of five-star luxury, the father asked if he might be able to attend a few classes at her school. He attended classes given by Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb (a former professor of analytical philosophy at Johns Hopkins University). The father was very impressed with the lectures, and was able to ask questions and meet with the lecturers privately. He met other students at the school, and found them to be intelligent, normal young women. Finally he arranged a meeting with the dean of the seminary, a rabbi with a cynical sense of humor (yes, also a PhD., this time in comparative religion) whose wit and wisdom put the final nail in the coffin of this father's misconceptions. The father was so impressed with what he saw that he decided to enroll in some courses in Judaism when he returned home, and to keep a kosher kitchen.

Yeshivos and seminaries offer the opportunity for total immersion in a Torah way of life, in Torah study, and in an environment where many are striving to improve their knowledge and observance of Torah together. In a secular environment ba'alei teshuvah and many Observant Jews may feel like outsiders, and are very defensive regarding religious issues. It is healthy to live in surroundings which are in consonance with one's lifestyle and beliefs; a yeshivah provides a community where being an Observant Jew is mainstream (even trendy perhaps). This type of experience can have an impact on even a short term visitor to the yeshivah or seminary, and give him a needed injection of enthusiasm and confidence.

Ba'alei teshuvah should take advantage of the yeshivos and seminaries available to the newly Observant. The teachers in these institutions have experience and expert knowledge that is invaluable. By linking up with such a place, the ba'al teshuva can avoid having to ask advice from a well-meaning person who has very limited knowledge about his problems or needs.

We know of a student from England who was an avid sportsman before becoming Observant. He was a member of a squash club and trained at least four times a week. He was advised by an Orthodox friend to give up sports completely so that he could use the time to catch-up on the Torah study he missed in his youth. He followed this advice and progressed well in the technical aspects of Torah study. However, he did not experience any enjoyment in his studies and found himself sinking into a state of extreme depression. Eventually he came to regret his decision to become Observant. He decided to try to give Torah a second chance before totally dropping out of the religious community and enrolled at a yeshivah in Jerusalem for ba'alei teshuvah. A rabbi at the yeshivah noticed that the student was depressed and suggested that he take up a sport in his spare time. The student was elated at the opportunity to get involved in sports again, and after a few weeks he began to feel like himself again (without, it should be added, any detriment to his Torah studies).

Programs for ba'alei teshuvah offer classes that cater to people of almost any level and background, and the teachers are familiar with the type of questions asked most by an audience with a limited Jewish education and background full of Western values and pop culture. Many rabbis are floored by a question such as, "Are you opposed to something like 'The Wall'?" The rabbi wonders what could be wrong with the Western Wall, until he realizes that the student is referring to a Pink Floyd album.

Things taken for granted by an average yeshivah student may be totally foreign or even shocking to a newcomer to Torah study. Terminology used by an experienced Torah scholar is either unfamiliar to a beginner or has totally different connotations for him. A rabbi discussing the prohibition against "talking after washing" may be confronted with confused looks if he is speaking to an audience of beginners, who are probably imagining Orthodox Jews silently sitting at the beach or very quietly exiting the shower. Bentching - to an Observant Jew - is not a form of weightlifting; it is the Yiddish term for reciting the blessings after a meal.

Being part of a yeshivah or seminary also means being part of a community of people who have similar aspirations and beliefs. The members of a community celebrate happy occasions together, and provide comfort and support in times of distress. Non-Observant Jews are usually very impressed and moved by the incredible lengths to which people will go to entertain the bride and groom at an Orthodox wedding. Stereotypes (and sometimes even the rabbis from the yeshivah) go crashing to the ground when the men begin juggling, somersaulting, and performing handstands in order to contribute to the happiness of the occasion. These celebrations serve to highlight the sense of community and brotherhood at the bride's and groom's schools.

"The more advice, the more understanding" (Pirkei Avos 2:8). People who have undergone similar experiences can compare notes and learn from each other's successes and mistakes. A student at a yeshivah in Jerusalem made the mistake of going to a "traditional barber" in Mea She'arim who did not speak English (the student did not speak Hebrew or Yiddish) two days before visiting his parents in Pasadena. Needless to say, he could not communicate the sort of haircut he wanted, so he left the barber shop with a very close clip, which was not appreciated by his family. This student's hair-raising experience can now serve as a warning to others at the yeshivah.

Visiting Observant families on Shabbos and Festivals is an enjoyable way for the ba'al teshuvah to learn about Shabbos and family life, and to actually see much that he has learned put into practice. Students at yeshivos and seminaries are storehouses of inside information about the "Shabbos guest circuit." Do you want to spend a Shabbos with a family from Atlanta, Georgia or Georgia of the former Soviet Union? Do you like Sephardi food or macrobiotic? Would you like to be with a large family? Chassidic, Lithuanian, or Yemenite? Jerusalem, Tzefas, or Bnei Brak? Do you want to meet a religious artist, author, physicist, doctor, or investment banker? Someone in the yeshivah or seminary is able to direct any student to an appropriate family, or to someone else who will be able to assist.

Anyone interested in getting married will generally have more opportunities to be introduced to likely marriage prospects if he is already part of a community. Rabbis and rebbetzins, and other married couples associated with an institution of learning will be able to introduce people and help with shidduchim. Teachers and rabbis will be able to provide references for their students, and they will usually have the connections to be able to investigate the references of a prospective shidduch. Many yeshivos and seminaries not only help their students get married, they also assist the married couple in finding housing, financial assistance, and with any advice they might seek.

Most people cannot afford to spend long periods of time at yeshivah, and certainly cannot devote most of their life to the study of Torah. It is especially important for them to take time out to study so that they can improve their skills in the language and analysis of classical Hebrew and Aramaic texts. When they leave yeshivah they will be more independent in their studies, will have a wider choice of classes to attend, and will be more proficient in their prayers and blessings.

It is human nature to put off until tomorrow (or next month, year, or decade) anything that requires effort. Laziness has a surprising amount of strength for something so slow moving. "Hillel used to say...If not now, when?" "Do not say, 'When I have free time I will study,' for you may never have free time" (Pirkei Avos 1:14 and 2:5).

After The Return is published by Feldheim Publishers
© 1995 Mordechai Becher & Moshe Newman

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