Dear frum-from-birth Orthodox Jews (even the ones I know),
I’m just writing to say thank you.
I am a Baal Teshuva. I did not grow up within the traditional Jewish world. I was brought into it by people like you. And for that, I am eternally grateful.
Now, I know you’re waiting for the sucker punch, for when I say “but” and then explain how your communities and lives would only be enriched if you would just listen to me more, or watch this movie, or purge so-and-so from our ranks, or repair such-and-such an institution. You’re waiting for the part where I tell my brave, dark truth about all the skeletons I’ve discovered in your closet.
But that’s not going to happen.
For one, I haven’t really discovered many skeletons. I read some things that other people have found (allegedly — I am not them, I was not there, and I do not know, and I feel no obligation to say I do) and they make me sad. But the situation is not all-or-nothing, and who knows what’s true about anything you hear, and there is no obligation to care, etc. etc.
Secondly, I worry that revealing your skeletons does not demand my bravery (after all, they populate bestseller lists and garner lots of hits for websites). I worry that the brave thing is to say what is not said enough, which is that sometimes we Baalei Teshuva can be a bunch of ungrateful little prigs.
And so, I say without caveats: I am grateful for you. Yes, you. Every single frum-from-birth Orthodox Jew. Collectively.
You are collectively guilty of changing my life for the better, just by being you and existing. Because you’ve taken me in and taught me Torah and shown patience for me and the countless others that are now a huge part of your community. Because very, very, very rarely have I ever encountered a frum yid who said, “You don’t belong here because you weren’t born religious.”
So I’m telling you, the FFBs, the ones who may think, a little bit, deep down inside, that you’re hopelessly backward for being born and raised religious — you don’t need to change a bit.
I’m telling you this because too few of us who come to this community later in life ever say “thank you.”
We who came as outsiders to your world are much more content to take the high road and enlighten you with all we know of secularism.
We are too happy to use the very principles you taught us to bind you to our plans for your lives.
We hear from your throats that have spoken words of Torah since infancy Chassidic stories on the holiness of illiterate peasants and we are thoroughly convinced of our own greatness.
We imagine that Torah and Truth belong to no one, that they simply pool around our feet, and we needed only to bend over to partake, that we alone have invested and we alone are to blame for our newfound piety.
We, who did not know “todah” until one of you beautiful souls mercifully slaked our thirst, cannot now say “thank you”.
“Thank you” is sometimes as hard as “I’m sorry.” Both of them painfully indebt us to another. But that pain is ennobling. Gratitude raises us up from our animal nature and compels us to respond to kindness with kindness — the foundation of all human relationships.
Chassidus tells us that the root of all evil is yeshus, separate, self-sustaining existence; its opposite is expressed in the bowing of the prayers, when we say Modim anachnu lach, We thankfully acknowledge…
So: I thankfully acknowledge.
I thankfully acknowledge not just those who actively reach out to the not-yet-religious, but even those of you who never speak or do anything for us Baalei Teshuva at all. I thankfully acknowledge that it was you who kept the flame of Yiddishkeit bright enough that I could see it in my corner of the world.
I thankfully acknowledge that you let people like me into your homes and onto your streets, even though you know the danger, even though you understand it will change your way of life in unpredictable and perhaps irreversible ways.
I thankfully acknowledge that even though you might see the arrival of people like me as some sort of godsend or blessing, you did not have to see it this way, and that until Moshiach’s times, everything has downsides, even me. I thank you for believing in us.
I thankfully acknowledge that you have generally been quite patient with my lack of knowledge and even my own self-importance. I remember saying once at the Mayanot Yeshiva in front of some of you that the entire hope for the Jewish people rests on Baalei Teshuva. Thank you for not slapping me. I kind of wish you did.
I thankfully acknowledge my many teachers, both my peers and my elders, without whom I would not even know enough to be a part of this conversation. I thankfully acknowledge your long hours listening to me as I mangled my Aramaic and Hebrew and Yiddish, and treasured me even in my arrogance, and nurtured me so I at least know something of my own heritage today.
I thankfully acknowledge your patience. I still have so much to learn, and my words sometimes exceed my wisdom.
I thankfully acknowledge your willingness to even talk about my ideas, suggestions, and innovations. The fact is, “we have always done/understood it this way” is more powerful than my great insight. You do not have to explain yourself to anyone, particularly someone who just got here and who may, tomorrow, leave.
I thankfully acknowledge those of you who wish I would no longer speak as a Baal Teshuva, but rather as yet another member of the community, the same as any other. This is perhaps your greatest kindness of all, but I hesitate to accept it. Perhaps you should be more discerning.
I even thankfully acknowledge those exceptions who prove the rule: you who are more strict, who will never see me as one of your own. I understand you, and I thank you. Your voice, too, is important (you don’t need me to say this, but since some might say the opposite, I will). You want to protect your people and your way of life from those who would unmake, through destruction or drastic transformation, that which you have built. You doubt whether we are truly invested, whether we will not, with the power that belongs to all that is young and new, use the life you have given us to destroy you.
No, I do not want you to forget that I am a Baal Teshuva. I want you to weigh me with your standards, as you weighed the advantages of taking me in, and I will thankfully accept your assessment, like a parched traveler who, at the end of the wilderness, accepts a sideways glance along with his life-giving water.
Thank you for hearing my ideas and stubbornly rejecting most of them.
That’s what your parents, and their parents, and their parents did.
That’s why you were born to a frum family, a family that accepted an idea at Sinai, and rejected afterward.
It is only through that age-old rejection, after all, that I came to be here.
Originally posted on Hevria.