Dirty Harrys


Several decades ago, a senior official at the Conservative movement’s University of Judaism alerted the wider Los Angeles community by direct mailing to a new threat looming on the Jewish horizon. A growing number of Jews were introducing strange and foreign ideas and practices into the Jewish mainstream. He urged his readers to reject their view of Judaism, and to not take pride in their rediscovery of their Jewish roots.

The threat, he claimed, came from people known as Ba’alei Teshuva.

Ironically, albeit for different reasons, some FFB’s may also see BT’s as threatening. An article in the Sivan issue of the Jewish Voice and Opinion, pgs. 28-33 is one of the most disturbing I have read in months. It claims that FFB’s often keep BT’s in a state of dhimmitude – out of their schools and away from their children, both in Israel and in the US. FFB’s often look down upon BT’s, regarding their non-standard behavior as “harryish.” (Since much of the more extreme content of the article was gleaned from blogs, readers should be skeptical of how typical are the vignettes. Clearly, it is not universal. The two most haredi schools in Los Angeles, including the chassidishe cheder, are absolutely open and inviting to ba’alei teshuvah.)

One of the most telling testimonies came from the more than respectable haredi weekly Mishpacha:

“Advocates of the schools’ strict exclusionary policy cited the BTs’ secular relatives, expressing the fear that even second-hand encounters with non-religious people could do irremediable damage to the spiritual health of tender impressionable haredi children…. BT children had to be kept out of mainstream haredi schools because the newly observant tend to meet with their non-religious rela¬tives and the children are exposed to their relatives’ culture, their speech patterns, music, body language, and concepts…. The haredi community has enough troubles with its own young people without importing trouble’ from outside.”

BT’s should be shunned, according to this person – or at least held at bay – because of the risk of infection. BT’s pollute, as surely as secondary cigarette smoke, by exhaling the contaminants they breathe in from their past, and from their unavoidable ongoing contact with associates from their previous lives.

Those who believe this are hopelessly oblivious to the ways in which ba’alei teshuvah positively and sometimes crucially impact upon the mainstream.

First and foremost, they have kept us honest. They have made us think through important issues that the rest of us take for granted. They give us no respite until we can explain what needs explaining. They have buoyed us with their spirit and enthusiasm.

Rather than introduce harmful ideas, BT’s have also been the ones to introduce important enhancements to our lives. (Chazal had something similar in mind when they observe that the Book of Rus offered us nothing new, but was needed to inject some new vistas of chesed into the community. Sometimes, what the tzibbur needs most has to come from the outside.) They have taught many people about professionalism, so often lacking in many of our institutions. They have shown people refinement in speech, where a certain coarseness prevailed before. They have demonstrated the advantages of using good manners, where people previously had little use for gestures like saying “excuse me,” or simply refusing to interrupt, or how to greet a phone caller in a busy office without making him feel like a useless non-entity. They have brought sophisticated information and skill through their years of education before becoming observant to a community whose children’s abysmal secular education leaves them often functionally illiterate. They have shown that frum people can be kind, considerate, caring human beings to a wide swath of humanity without sacrificing their commitment to Yiddishkeit.

Even if we would deny what we owe them, many of us would reject the conclusions that some apparently have come to concerning the risk of contamination. At the root of reaction are two attitudes. The first is that anything and everything that is sourced in the non-Jewish world is problematic or worse. While the gemara tells us that chochmah is to be found among non-Jews, some circles see and expiration date attached to that assessment. Today’s culture, they maintain, has degenerated to the point that it is simply not worth the effort of rummaging through a garbage heap for an occasional usable discard when you run the constant risk of getting cut up by sharp edges coming at you from every angle. Many of us think that things are not so different today than they were at other times in history. Yes, the volume and nature of the chaff has changed, but there are still kernels worth collecting. Our job is to use the abilities and discernment HKBH gave us to differentiate between the good and the bad, rather than paint a picture in broad monochromatic strokes of an always-dark world lying beyond the perimeters of our own enclaves.

Second is the strategy of how to deal with difference and challenge. To some in the Torah world, but certainly not to all, the answer is always the fright/flight response. One school of thought holds that our job is to shun as much as possible any changes to the way in which we lived in the past, and more or less successfully conducted our avodas Hashem. While challenges can often be surmounted, Torah expects the committed to flee from challenge to what ever extent is possible. It is easier to avoid difficult choices concerning secular dress, speech, mores, styles, and aspirations by putting distance between us and them. This is a perfectly legitimate expression of devotion to HKBH – but it is not the only one.

A different approach sees the changes in the cultural surround as designed by Hashem to get us to demonstrate the vitality of Torah under changed circumstances. We do not ask for these changes, but when HKBH places tens of thousands of people in a new cultural milieu, we assume that He wants us to stand our ground with Torah insight, rather than run away. Living in the mixed neighborhoods that so many of us do, none of us have a fighting chance at incorporating the taharas einayim that meant so much to Yidden in the past, and continues to be important for those who live in places like Bnei Brak. But we do not live in Bnei Brak. Should we feel guilty that we don’t, and strive to move ourselves and our children there as quickly as possible? Or should we see our circumstances as designed by Hashgacha to expect a different kind of avodah – one in which the nisyanos He gives us are decidedly different from what they would be in Bnei Brak, but His expectation of our Kiddush Hashem producing interaction with our neighbors, Jewish and non-Jewish, is a bit higher? Many of us feel at our cores that the answer, at least for some of us, is the latter. (Perhaps neo-Hirschians have leanings in this direction.) (See the remarkable words of the Sfas Emes, Pinchas, s.v. b’inyan haminyan, regarding the function of Klal Yisrael as witnesses to Hashem, especially in galus: “A witness requires derishah and chakirah…there is no end to bedikos…Testimony that cannot be potentially falsified (sh’e-ee atah yachol lehazimam) is not acceptable testimony. One who hides himself away and does not venture where there is opposition so that he cannot be falsified, is not bearing witness. Rather, one who goes where people take notice and wish to contradict him, and he prevails in his avodas Hashem…provides true testimony.”)

If the latter approach is correct, we would view the return to our community of tens of thousands of souls very differently than the interviewee in Mishpacha. We stand in gratitude before the Ribbono Shel Olam, for allowing us to witness the deliberate election of Torah and its values by so many ba’alei teshuvah. We recognize the challenge of melding two communities together – but we run to embrace the challenge, rather than flee from its problems. How could we not invite them into our schools and shuls? How could we not find some modus vivendi to allow them access davka to the best that we have? Anything else is inconceivable.

The unvarnished reality is that ba’alei teshuvah will be met with resistance and distance in communities under the sway of one hashkafah, but met with a much warmer reception in areas in the spheres of influence of different roshei yeshiva. For many of us, this means finding the ba’alei teshuvah who are being shunned and hurt, and redirecting them – physically and intellectually – to safer havens, where they will be warmly received.

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63 Responses

  1. FFB still a BA hoping to be a BT even before Elul says:

    Dear Yehoshua Friedman, the definition of the term “Harry”, is really not so elusive, here are 2 for consideration:
    1. a guy who takes his artscroll gemorah with him to the ball game so he can finish the daf during half time or
    2. a person who believes that the Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Ohr or Aish is ‘the’ Godol Hador rather than ‘one of the Gedolie Hador’

    Actually in the Flatbush world it refers to any ben torah who may be ‘yeshivish’ but not necesarily ‘heimish’ Now, the term Heimish referes to those who not only know what schmaltz, gribenes & p’tcha are but actully enjoy indulging in them. Or as my wife puts it, Harry’s had birthday parties and got Chanuka presents, none Hary’s got Chanuka gelt and were told, ‘you got new pajamas this year? that was your birthday present!’

  2. Raymond says:

    I obviously came into this discussion far too late for anybody to actually read what I am about to say, but who says anybody ever listens to me anyway? So I may as well express myself to, um, myself, and hope that even one more person besides me reads this.

    Two thoughts occurred to me while reading Rabbi Adlerstein’s article. One is, what is everybody complaining about? We here in America live in the greatest country on the face of the Earth. We Jews have it better here than anywhere, with only the possible exception of Israel. We have never had it so good in all of human history. Why look a gifthorse in the mouth?

    My other thought is more harsh than that, but I cannot figure out a way to say it in a softer way. So, I will just speak my mind, and let the chips fall where they may. The thing is, just how relevant are the most pious and insular among us, not only in making this world a better place, but in publicizing the moral ideals of Judaism itself?

    Think of a Rabbi today who is deeply revered by the world-wide, ultra-Orthodox community. I hesitate to name anybody specifically, so let’s just call him Rabbi E or perhaps Rabbi T. Then compare him to a Rabbi who may not be seen as holy and other-worldly, but is sure known in the mainstream media, yet still respected in the religious Jewish community as having not compromised their Jewish values. I am thinking here, among others, of such Rabbis as Jonathan Sacks, Joseph Telushkin, and Shmuel Boteach. All three of these Rabbis promote straight, traditional, Orthodox Judaism, but they do it in such a way that their teachings reach the entire world, not just a narrow group of super-religious Jews.

    It is my contention that such Rabbis make a FAR bigger impact on spreading Judaism than does Rabbi E and others like him. Just the fact that Israel itself, is at the geographical center of three huge continents should speak volumes for our role in the world: We are meant to be center stage, not cloistered in some Jewish version of a monastery.

  3. Steve Brizel says:

    One more point-there are many NCSY alumni who are active on a national and communal level either in the Klei Kodesh, organizations such as the OU and local institutions. There are many NCSY alumni on the OU board.

  4. Belle says:

    According to my yeshivish 19 year old son, “Harry” would describe someone who isn’t yeshivish/cool, and who tries to be, but is out of it and does it wrong, like wearing a hat with the brim down with sneakers. Or buys a Stetson hat. The criteria seem to be mostly gashmius-dik. According to him, in these circles, the more yeshivish you are, the cooler you are. The word isn’t used a lot but he has heard it.

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    FWIW, I recall that R Y Wikler, who penned a letter in response to the subject article, was a faculty member at at least one of my earliest NCSY National Conventions and helped me at least think positively about attending yeshiva or YU.

  6. Steve Brizel says:

    I would suggest that anyone read the letters that were published in response to this article in the following issue of the Jewish Voice and Opinion. The letters suggest that denial of this issue and revisionism, ,as opposed to history, as to who were the creators and/or main parties behind kiruv are quite rampant within the Charedi world. ( For yet another example in revisionism, this week’s Mishpacha included a letter to the effect that RSRH thought that TIDE was designed for Germany only, a claim that flies in the face of RSRH’s writings and a well documented meeting with R Yisrael Salanter in which RYS suggested that the Nineteen Letters be tranlated into the lingua franca of Eastern European Jewry).

    Contrary to at least one of the letter writers, both NCSY and NJOP are two prominent and very successful Kiruv movements that are hardly Charedi in orientation. Like it or not, while NCSY had the support of the Gdolim of the past generation, despite its coed events, the yeshiva world eschewed support and participation as advisors, as opposed to rabbinic faculty, until the 1970s. At that point, once Aish and Ohr Sameach were developing, Kiruv became kosher within the Charedi world, especially when RMF stated that it was a kiyum in maaser.

  7. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Regarding the post by Jason Berg, he points out that kids of FFBs sometimes behave objectionably. I agree. That used to bother me a lot, too. Then I had a few kids (8) who are mostly grown up now. This seems to be a feature of kids, that they are not adults and they have to be educated. It’s because they are kids, period. Someone who became a BT as an adult and has not been through all the stages of raising kids might not realize that yet.
    The other point, about the definition of the elusive term “Harry”. Despite the call for someone under 30 to come forward with an acceptable and authentic definition, I suspect it won’t happen for two reasons. One is that the hareidi under-30 type who uses the term won’t touch the internet with a ten-foot pole or a six-foot Litvak. The second is that many of the hatchet-men likely to use such a term are so slipshod and inarticulate as to be unable to define anything in any language. The better products of a yeshiva education are busy learning gemora and presumably never use the term. Once again I am guessing because nobody has supplied hard information. But those of you who have family and friends with bochurim in “those” yeshivos, keep grilling them about the use of the term because it is close to zero probability that they will ever show up here themselves to tell us.

  8. Bob Miller says:

    Regarding the comment by Yitzchok Adlerstein — July 24, 2008 @ 9:38 pm

    1. While “bad” kiruv has to be exposed as such, we also have the phenomenon of people turned off for whatever reason by “good” kiruv, who go on to trash their rejected former mentors in blogs. So we have to strive for as much objectivity as possible and be mindful that some war stories contain elements of falsehood or extrapolate the data into statements that are too general.

    2. Much effort has been put into fighting cults by putting out literature, etc., explaining the warning signs that a group is probably a cult. There are similar warning signs that a kiruv person or group is probably the destructive type. Information about these signs should be put together by responsible Orthodox educators and distributed as widely as possible. There is no need in this to name any offending groups or individuals; just give the potential Baalei Teshuva an objective consumer guide. Responsible people will heed the warning signs.

  9. Baruch Pelta says:

    In fact oe of its regular feature editors has said to me that as a selling point they seek to emphasize the blemishes of the chareidi world.
    Isn’t this lashon hara? Even if this is true, it probably has something to do with the fact that Mishpacha wants to improve the situations in the chareidi world, not just because they want to sell magazines.

  10. Mark Frankel says:

    I happily support, embrace – and advocate for – accepting BT’s who have been frum for a considerable time “as equals in [my] community in the thousands of situations where they deserve that acknowledgment and respect.”

    Rabbi Adlerstein, first of all, of course I agree with you that there is such a thing a Bad kiruv, my concern is that people can and do find negatives in *every* kiruv endeavor and we collectively broad brush all kiruv as bad, which is damaging.

    Atits heart good kiruv, like good chesed, is doing what is good and needed by the recipient. A typical 1-2 year BT has separated to a degree from his friends, his family and his old community. Every BT will tell you this is true to some extent. One of their deepest real needs is to be accepted as equals into a new community. The need for integration is probably the number one issue facing BTs.

    When you withhold your full embrace and acceptance of the BT because you fell you need to impose a “frum for a considerable time” limit, you are causing pain and damage to the BTs in your community at a time when they need you most.

    By all means give BTs all the extra support they need as you surely would do for FFBs with special needs, be they physical or spiritual. But I ask you from the depth of the collective pain caused by being treated as second class citizen, that you reconsider your exclusion of newer BTs from being full members of your community.

  11. yy says:

    I’m with you 100%, R’ Baruch Horowitz. I hope to look at that link next week, iy”H. I’d also be pleased to discuss this topic with you a little more l’mmaseh. Perhaps we can ask the administrators to share each other’s email?


  12. RD says:

    Re: comment #44 from “MiMedinat HaYam”, I just wanted to clear up a few misconceptions. Shalom Torah Center was not started “several years ago”, but 35 years ago, by two alumni of the Yeshiva located in that “certain community in central Jersey” (As an aside, I applaud MY for not mentioning that “certain community in central Jersey” by name; he/she probably clearly felt it might constitute “loshon hara” to explicitly refer to Princeton by name.) If by “protektzia” MY means that they were encouraged and actively supported by their Rosh Yeshiva (a beloved figure, btw, who I think even “MiMedinat HaYam” would have a hard time disparaging; but maybe I underestimate him/her), then he/she is correct. I never heard that it was controversial and don’t understand why it would be, but I have no doubt that MY understands the Haredi mindset much better than I do, so I must defer to him/her on this point. What I DO know, as does anyone who has spent time in that “certain community in central Jersey”, is that the assertion that “any decent bais yaakov graduate who wants to earn a (somewhat) decent living can go ‘out of town’ and teach at a shalom torah academy school (or one of their spawns” is downright laughable, as can tell you. Because they operate under a perpetual deficit (or so they claim; maybe MY knows better), they pay their teachers a a mere pittance — when they pay them at all, that is. People go to Shalom either because they are very dedicated or because they want to list them on their resume. I can’t say whether or not the adminstrator makes a “VERY good living from these schools”, since he never showed me his bank book. But while I strongly suspect that he never showed MY his bank book either, I will have to take his/her unsubstantiated word for it that he does, because this is a blog, and isn’t that how things work on blogs?

    One final point: MY’s comment that “that particular community shun’s BTs” would probably be news to the many baalei teshuvah who call “that particular community” home. But that’s what makes blogging so interesting — you learn new things every day!

  13. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “The eekar, btw, is NOT that we must stop building the externals once the internal needs become obvious, but put in at least AS MUCH EFFORT in revamping the internal.”

    I agree that there is need for external fences(“gedarim”), the construction of which should be left to the leadership of each community to decide about. But what I meant by “internal”, is something I don’t always hear discussed as being important, namely, that the “human” dimension is also part of the internal(what I think of as “bein adam l’atzmo”).

    An educator or parent needs to instill or model a desire for yiras shomayim, which is “internal”, yet also needs to insure that a child will accept a part of himself, in order to grow up healthy and to function as a person; that is also “internal”. Similarly, while no one wants to “normalize” doubts or deviancy on a community or individual level, neither should a questioner feel ashamed if he is exercising a normal capacity of intelligence.

    The balancing of these conflicting, internal needs, and how they relate in chinuch are obviously issues for rabbonim, educators and frum professionals(I’m not reinventing the wheel). R. A. H. Fried, linked below, emphasizes that there is what to reject from secular culture(pg. 43), and likewise accepts as valid the insular chasidic communities. Yet he writes(pg. 46):

    “we need to recognize that some things simply cannot be fenced out. Some things are inherently us. To do so, we would have to fence ourselves out of where we are—a logical impossibility. Yet some attempt this”.