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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michoel halberstam
7 years 4 months ago

Despite my inclination to agree with Rabbi Adlerstein’s criticism of those who exclude, or seek to exclude BT’s I think an approach can be articulated that cen explain the phenomenon. I have often observed that the maamar Chazal “Divrei Torah Nishlu l’mayim” ( The words of Torah can be compared to water”), to mean among other things that, just as water can not be kept our of a house, and always finds its way in through cracks and crevices, so too does the Torah find its way in to the Jewish heart. This is one of the Nissim Geluyim of… Read more »

Lawrence M. Reisman
7 years 4 months ago

Having read the article, I decided to track down “Avakesh,” the source of much of the anti BT comments in the article. The reader should know that what was quoted was from postings in November, 2006, over 18 months ago. If the author had to go that far back to find something to justify the point, it says something. Also, “Avakesh” himself seems to have strong sympathies towards one group that while it does extensive Kiruv work, makes a point of keeping BTs segregated long after they have become frum, and makes a point of segregating their… Read more »

7 years 4 months ago

One cannot accept as fact the attitudes reported in Mishpacha. R. Adlerstein reported the Charedi schools in LA dont have that attitude. I can say the same of all the orthodox schools, including the charedi ones, in my own city as well. And prior to reading that article, I never once heard the term “Harry”, (though I suppose it could be a neoligism.) So, while the article is indeed disturbing, it also seems to be fiction, as least as far as most of the world is concerned.

Important caveat – none of this means one’s status as a “BT” is unnoticed.… Read more »

7 years 4 months ago

While I admit this is a solid jumping-off point for an essay on Ahavas Yisrael, this is the third blog upon which I have had, lulei demistafina, to register a protest. One problem that the blogosphere seems to suffer from is to accept these stories as absolute truth.

I know many, many BTs in Passaic and in Monsey who do not feel second-class, who are very comfortable in the shuls they choose, and whose children are in the same yeshivos as their neighbors.

You, sir, are very involved in kiruv. Do you believe this is an accurate portrayal of post-BT life? The… Read more »

7 years 4 months ago

This is a very important topic so let’s PLEASE discuss it with calm heads. As a BT who learned for years in very mainstream Charedi Yeshivos, lived in Monsey and Flatbush and now raises a family in Baltimore. I think I have a broad perspective on the issue. We are very close friends with a family of baalei t’shuvah that were rejected by Kiryat Sefer. They had written on their application that they had learned (only) in Ohr Someach and Neve, respectively. I have many other friends, also baalei t’shuvah, that learned in O. S.,… Read more »

Big Maybe
7 years 4 months ago

Parents today have it rough. I don’t have to elaborate – my fellow parents out there know what I’m talking about. It’s a daily struggle to keep our kids. We need to monitor their learning, their friends, the books they’re reading, the games they’re playing, the places to which they are going. This is in addition to making a living to pay staggering bills. We daven 3 times a day and have in mind every child. For crying out loud, we don’t need more challenges!

I am wary of questioning the decision of a parent not to allow her child… Read more »

Mike S
7 years 4 months ago

Some of the behaviors toward the BTs, and even the children of BTs, described in Mishpacha seem to be clear violations of the issur of ona’at devarim. A mechanech who tolerates, or worse yet encourages, children teasing the children of ba’alei tshuvah should be treated no differently than one who encourages the children to eat unkosher food. He should be exposed and dismissed; yet according to the article, this is encouraged by parents.

no mishpacha
7 years 4 months ago

Dear Rabbi Adlerstein,

I could not get past the begginning of your article without registering a protest IMVHO Mishpacha magazine cannot be called a chareidi publication. 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. Hardly an ubiased startig point! We can cheerfully admit that our far right wing universe has its problems and that there is a positive benefit in raising the public conciousness of those problems; but, one who stakes out position of priori seeking problems is not serving… Read more »

Harry Maryles
7 years 4 months ago

Personally, I kind of like the name ‘Harry’. So… what’s the problem? :)

7 years 4 months ago

As an aside, sometimes I feel like a Harriet. FFB I may be, but I don’t know all the rules myself, maybe because I was born, bred, and lived in out of town enclaves.

But one concerns me most of all is that parents won’t let their children be friends with children who have contact with unobservant relatives. The angle I’m coming from is that such parents, and there are many, are in effect trying to raise nazirim! Unless they have total 24/7 surveillance over their children, there will be foreign substances, however minute, they will be exposed to. This… Read more »

joel rich
7 years 4 months ago

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?

An excellent question. Why not pose it to the gedolim as a yes or no question (i.e. all other things being equal) and see what response… Read more »

7 years 4 months ago

FFB’s often look down upon BT’s, regarding their non-standard behavior as “harryish.”

I am going to keep on saying this until people who DON’T actually spend alot of time in yeshiva these days pay attention to someone who DOES:


Garnel Ironheart
7 years 4 months ago

> 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.

And maybe that’s the problem. While many in the FFB part of the Torah world are looking for inspiration and see BT’s as inspiring, some others see them as a threat. Their Yiddishkeit is stale, a form a rote, something they do simply because that’s the way they’re always done it. The… Read more »