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Rabbi Horowitz,

What is your advice for ba’alei teshuva who are raising frum-from-birth children in terms of making sure that the children are well integrated, healthy and normal frum Jews? As ba’alei teshuva sometimes it is easy to be very strict because of insecurities from our own upbringing and lack of family minhagim. If you can give a few pointers that will obviously need to be explored with our own rabbeim to tailor make it to our own families, it would be helpful.

Thank you!

Rabbi Horowitz Responds

Your excellent question practically answers itself, and leads me to believe that you already have a deep understanding of the opportunities – and challenges – that you face in raising your FFB children. You hit the nail on the head when you noted that you wanted to raise “well integrated, healthy and normal frum Jews.” For that balance is exactly what you ought to be striving to achieve.

If you are a regular reader of these lines, you may know where my suggestions will start – with you and your spouse. One of my mantras is that most of the issues that we face when raising our children are reflections of our own struggles. I maintain that in order to raise “well integrated, healthy and normal frum Jewish children,” you need to start with “well integrated, healthy and normal frum Jewish adult parents.” That means that you adhere to the timeless advice of Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon) and remain on the ‘golden path’ of moderation. After all, if you don’t want your children to be raised in an overly strict environment the best way to achieve that goal is not to go overboard in your personal lives.

Here are some practical tips:

Grow Slowly

Many meforshim (commentaries) suggest that the dream of our patriarch Yaakov (see Bereshis 28:12) where he envisioned angels climbing up and down a ladder is a profound analogy to our spiritual pursuits. The Torah describes how the legs of the ladder were placed on the ground while its top reached the very heavens. I think that the correlation is an insightful one for everyone – but is all the more relevant for ba’alei teshuvah. We ought to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground – all the while reaching for profound spiritual heights.

I would like to suggest that the reason that the image of a ladder was used in the dream (as opposed to, say, a road leading to heaven) is that you simply cannot run up a ladder.

So, too, spiritual growth needs to be a sustained and steady process.

Which leads me to …

Find a Rav Who Truly Understands Ba’alei Teshuvah Issues

Not all rabbanim have a deep understanding of the complex mix of halachic and social issues where ba’alei teshuva need individualized direction. Finding a Rav who understands them – and you – will provide your family with an invaluable resource. Similarly, it may be helpful for you to find a ba’al teshuvah couple ten years or so older than you who can mentor you as your family passes mileposts and lifecycle events, such as enrolling children in school, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, high school placements, shidduchim, etc.

I recommend the BEYOND BT website for ba’alei teshuva men and women. I am proud to serve as one of the rabbinic advisors of the website, and it has provided advice, camaraderie, and spiritual guidance for ba’alei teshuva around the world over the past few years.

Be Yourself

Ba’alei teshuva may be concerned that they are poor role models for their children since they are observing their less-than-perfect Torah and mitzvah observance. I think not. You are setting a wonderful example for your children by seeking to grow spiritually throughout your lives.

I encourage you to read and re-read a terrific article by my dear chaver Rabbi Bentzion Kokis shlit”a (Integration: Helping Ba’alei Teshuva be Themselves). You can find it on my website, and run a search for “Kokis”). Rabbi Kokis is an outstanding talmid chachamwith decades of experience in guiding ba’alei teshuva and his advice is equally outstanding. If I may sum up his thoughts, it is to refrain from jettisoning your personality, hobbies, interests, education, career – and sense of humor – as you embrace Torah and mitzvos.

Distinguish Between Mitzvah, Minhag, Chumrah, and Culture

In your question, you noted that, “sometimes it is easy to be very strict because of insecurities from our own upbringing and lack of family minhagim.”

Well, in order to gain a better understanding of when to be firm and when to be flexible, you must distinguish between a mitzvah, minhag, chumrah, and something that is none of the three categories, but is rather a cultural practice.

  • Putting on tefilin is a daily mitzvah (a mandated commandment) incumbent upon all Jewish males above the age of thirteen.
  • Refraining from dipping matzoh in liquids on Pesach (commonly referred to as “gebrokts”) is a minhag (a custom – one only observed in some communities).
  • Not using an eiruv that has been approved by the vast majority of your city’s rabbonim is a chumrah (stringency) that many accept upon themselves.
  • Wearing a black fedora is a cultural practice prevalent in some communities.

It is of utmost importance that you fully understand the difference between these categories of Jewish practice – in your personal life and as you guide your children.

More on this – and other practical tips – in the next column.

© 2009 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. I would also mention to try not to disown your parents and family (even if they disown you, show your kids pictures). It’s better for kids to grow up with knowing they have a large extended family who aren’t frum, than not knowing about all their relatives.
    My parents are very normal. FFBs wouldn’t know they are BTs unless we told them, and some would never believe it! My father, even though he’s a BT, made a point of being as meikel as possible with us (with a few exceptions of things he thought important) and being strict on a very few things, because he told us, he wants us to accept more on our own just like he did. My mother was careful to fit in to the community and knocked on peoples doors asking for us to play with their kids.

    We always visited our very not frum relatives, on both sides, and we just accepted them for who they are. We can’t eat everything in Bubby’s house, but Bubby can buy Reisman’s cookies that we can eat. If we hadn’t I would have felt that I lost out on it, and possibly gone seeking those connections later.

    Most of the kids I know of BTs are smarter than average and actually better spiritually than kids of FFBs.

  2. Yasher Koach to Rabbi Horowitz for adressing this important issue.

  3. As usual, Rabbi Horowitz touches upon a topic that involves great anguish to many, and he does so with the loving guidance and sensitivity that are at the core of his character. Most outstanding to me was the focus on how the Baal Teshuvah parents can maintain stability in a way that constitutes good parenting and guidance for their FFB children. He also sidesteps the angle that would be uncomfortable to everyone – the acceptance of the Baal Teshuvah families into the mainstream of the frum community. In reality, this is a major variable in how well the incoming family adjusts. So much of learning occurs within the context of “teaching by example”, aside from the explanations that are often needed. And this issue is painful for many.
    It is told of the Bobover Rebbe R’ Shlomo ZT”L that he was approached by one of the faculty of the yeshiva and asked about whether a Baal Teshuvah boy could be admitted to the Bobover Yeshiva. The Rebbe seemed to struggle with the question. The menahel asking stated that the “derech” of Bobov did not involve outreach, and it was therefore not understood that a Baal Teshuvah would be welcome. The Rebbe asked whether the boy’s learning level was compatible with the curriculum of the yeshiva, and the answer was yes. The Rebbe then explained that he did not send his bochurim out to spend their time outside of the yeshiva setting, but that was not because he had anything negative in the slightest way in his feelings about Baalei Teshuvah. On the contrary, we are welcoming any Yid to the fold of shmiras mitzvos. The Rebbe then expounded on some of the wonderful experiences he had in discussions with Baalei Teshuvah and the insights they shared with him. I record this from a personal conversation I had with him many years ago.

    It remains true that the mainstream frum community needs to improve in our acceptance of Baalei Teshuvah, and the integration into the community in which they seek belonging. After all, they are HKBH’s children just as we are. And it is about time to drop the labeling and the Us-Them concept.

  4. My husband and I have been frum since before we got married. Since he could not trace his grandfather’s minhagim, he took on many of the minhagim of his (our) Rav. Many of the customs are more chassidish, such as wearing a bekeshe on Shabbos. Some of our children don’t want to keep the same minhagim, since they’re not “really our mesorah” , and I believe, mainly because the boys in thier yeshivas dress in regular suits and ties, and don’t wear gartels. One boy, on the other hand, has become much more Chassidish than us, and wants us to be more like him! They are all good kids, but this issue of not following in their father’s path is hurting their father/son relationships. We are by all counts a normal, well-integrated family, who are very much a part of our community. Have you seen this pattern before, and what should we do about it?

  5. That is EXACTLY what Rabbi Horowitz was highlighting when he cautioned against making cultural matters of dress paramount. The path is NOT about the gartel and the bekeshe. These details are not what, at the end of the day, will determine whether your children are following in your path, and if you confuse the ikar and the tafel you will pay a hefty price–both in terms of the father/son relationship and perhaps even in terms of their ultimate commitment to Yiddishkeit.
    This is not to dismiss the importance of the details of tradition and adherence to minhag avoseinu shebeyadeinu; it is about recognizing the primary importance of the parent-child bond as the ultimate foundation for perpetuating a mesorah.

  6. What was the Rebbe’s directive?

  7. To MINHAGIM: My in laws are FFBs and they have three children that are chasidish and dress that way and raise their kids that way, and two that are yeshivish. SO it is not solely a BT issue. They are very chilled about it, never really raising any objections, letting their kids do what they wish, bearing in mind that they are all frum Jews doing what they feel comfortable with. I believe this is a healthy approach that will not cause family fights. (all the families, cousins etc. get along great) It’s just not important what you wear…

  8. lovely article- can you also write about raising ffb kids when only one parent is a bt and the other is ffb- things seem to be more complicated?

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