How to Start a Movement – The First Follower Theory

I ran across an older video this morning, in which Derek Sivers explains the importance of the first follower in the creation of any movement. He displays his theory through an amusing display of concert goers performing a kooky dance started by one lone shirtless man.

Coincidentally, I also read an older rant that was shared yesterday from the Evolving Jew blog, entitled, ““Gedolim”? You mean a bunch of fundamentalist fanatics?” In his blog rant, David Staum mentions that whenever anyone from Chareidi rabbinic leadership makes an outrageous pronouncement, the Modern Orthodox community is quick to apologize for their fanatical stance by saying that the godol in question probably isn’t responsibly for the proclamation. Rather, the rebbe’s followers (or askanim) are manipulating an elderly rabbi who either has no idea that others are speaking in his name or has been given faulty information that wrongly influenced his opinion.

The askanim theory is a very popular one in Modern Orthodox circles to explain away troubling trends seen in more right wing communities. Watching the video, it’s easier to understand how followers are actually more important to a movement than leadership.

For example, the first follower theory explains how a man like Lev Tahor leader, Shlomo Helbrans, was able to start his own fringe sect of Judaism. Of course it takes a charismatic and unabashed leader to start a movement, but such movements would never gain a foothold if not for the first few followers who climb aboard and subsequently recruit additional passengers.

If the first follower theory holds true, it means that the followers actually have more control and influence than the leadership of any movement or community. As such, a leader’s control is a precarious thing. For example, the lone shirtless dancer in the above example would have remained nothing more than a funny anecdote or fleeting viral Youtube sensation had no one joined his dance. He was the anomaly among a crowd of seated audience members. However, because of the first follower who encouraged more followers to participate, pretty soon any seated audience member became the anomaly. The community had spoken and dancing became the socially acceptable behavior. Those who sat out of the fun felt different and ashamed, until they too, reluctantly joined the dance.

The point is, depending on the mood of the crowd, a leader can spark a movement, or be marginalized. It’s entirely up to the crowd whether they follow or not. Additionally, the mood of followers can change on a dime. Society is fickle concerning who they follow. Whereas one leader is popular today, another might be popular tomorrow. In the end, we followers hold all of the power, yet we don’t even know it. Just because there’s music playing, it doesn’t mean we have to dance.


Self-Hating Frum Jews


“Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” – Groucho Marx

I was browsing a forum for Orthodox Jewish women the other day, and one of the threads was discussing newly religious Jews. This forum has participants from all walks of Orthodox life – modern, Hasidic, Yeshivish, etc., yet most of the women seemed to agree that anyone choosing to become Orthodox of their own volition must have problems.

There is a little discussed undercurrent of thought in the frum community that baalei teshuvah are people who couldn’t make it in secular society, and so, turned to Orthodoxy for a fresh start and the acceptance they never had before finding religion.

The implication is that baalei teshuvah are troubled people. They might be former drug addicts. They are often assumed to have led promiscuous lives and been hurt by abusive relationships (this carries more stigma for the female baal teshuvah). There is often talk of instability and flightiness – baalei teshuvah may have experimented with various religions and forms of spirituality before returning to their religion of birth. Mental illness is also a topic that sometimes crops up when describing the general baalei teshuvah population.

Although there is a lot of lip service paid to the holiness of the baal teshuvah – the strength of character needed to give up worldly freedoms and take on the restrictions that being a Torah observant Jew requires – the actual attitude toward the newly religious is often quite different.

The Jewish Worker blog described an article that appeared in a 2005 Mishpacha magazine:

“Mishpacha had an article last week (I think by a Baal Teshuva) about the problems that they encounter in the Charedi community. The main one is that their kids are not accepted in mainstream Charedi schools. She told a story of a new school that started that originally accepted the children of Baalei Teshuva and as soon as they became successful they kicked them all out. Of course this continues on with Shidduchim.

This week they published a response. The woman who responded is married to the son of a Baal teshuva. She explained that she originally also felt very bad about this but a relative in Chinuch explained the situation. He said that many Baalei Teshuva stay in contact with their non-religious families. Therefore they are a tremendous danger to everyone else. After all, the friends may actually see a non-religious person in the house etc. Of course she threw in the obligatory anecdote about such a thing really happening (going off the derech due to the influence of a baal teshuva friend). Therefore she concluded, that it is better to hurt individual baalei teshuva then to put the whole community at harm.”

While there is a prohibition to publicize that a person is a ger (a convert), there seems to be no such qualm about reminding a baal teshuvah of their status. It seems that one can never fully integrate into the frum community, unless they cut all ties with their non-religious friends and relatives. As long as there are non-religious people who still play an active role in a baal teshuvah’s life, there will be people in the frum community who won’t want to associate with them.

I find it ironic, as in the quote above from Groucho Marx, that there are frum from birth people who think that someone would have to be crazy to become Orthodox. Does it make them question their own choice to stay religious when they see the types of folks who are attracted to this lifestyle?

When they see the “hippies,” the “former addicts,” the people who “couldn’t make it in general society,” wholeheartedly embracing their new frumkeit in a loud and open way, do they feel lumped in with that crowd? Do they wonder if that’s how non-religious people also see them and cringe? Why do some frum people try to distance themselves as much as possible from baalei teshuvah?

Do Blogs Have an Impact on the Chareidi Community?

computerUltra orthodox Jews of the “Toldot Aharon” community attend and learn at a computer and Internet lecture in Ramat Gan. Photo by Yossi Zeliger/FLASH90

I was contacted by someone who is writing an article for a well known UK publication. The writer wanted to get my thoughts on how the Chareidi community has been affected by social media, and particularly, writers who publicize societal ills within Chareidi society.

The questions gave me pause, because while I have discussed problematic issues within Chareidi culture, it’s usually because of the larger concern over how those issues spill over into my own community.

Since most, if not all, of my lengthy response will not get published, I thought I would share the full text of my answers, as this isn’t the first time I’ve been asked my opinion about Chareidi society. The questions posed to me are in bold italics and my answers are in plain text.  I will link the actual article at the end of this post if and when it comes out.

I am writing an article for [UK Publication] and would like to ask you how you see your blog effect problems in the Chareidi community.

I don’t think that my blog affects problems in the Chareidi community. It does sometimes address certain problems in the Chareidi community, but I’m not naive or self-centered enough to think that anyone from Chareidi leadership will read my blog and be inspired to make a change because of my words. People who are driven to make positive changes in the Chareidi community are already working to make those changes through personal motivation. Those who don’t see any problems within their community will not only refuse to make changes, but become hostile toward anyone suggesting that changes are in order.

I don’t write my blog to try and change the Chareidi world. They are happy with their way of life and have every right to live out their beliefs. I started writing my blog because of the growing feeling that the same sentiment isn’t true in reverse. Although I belong to a Modern Orthodox community, over the last twenty years or so, I have seen changes creeping into Modern Orthodoxy that were once only within the realm of Chareidi society. For example, gender segregation at public functions outside of synagogue services, stricter modesty requirements for women’s clothing, choosing not to have female speakers address mixed gender audiences, and the growing tendency to eliminate pictures of women and girls in community wide publications.

My blog was a way for me to make sense of this growing fundamentalism slowly creeping into my own community, and it found an audience of other likeminded people who were concerned about the same things. Along the way, I have gained some readers from a Chareidi background. For the most part, the ones who contact me attempt to help me to understand their viewpoint, others are living in the Chareidi world with growing disenchantment, while still others have gone off the derech altogether. However, I wouldn’t say that my main readership are Chareidim or former Chareidim.

Brian Culpepper of the National Socialist Movement has told me how he and similar parties use Orth. Jewish sources such as OTD memoirs, muckraker sites, blogs critical of Hareidism to substantiate their anti-Jewish ideology.

I don’t doubt that such groups use the internet and any other research tools at their disposal to find information that substantiates their own foregone conclusions. There will always be people looking to find dirt on Jews in order to further their own anti-Jewish agenda.

My concern is that such anti-Semites become an excuse among some Chareidim for why communal problems should be kept quiet and swept under the rug – because we don’t want people outside our community who already hate us, to hate us even more. There are no social issues within larger society that don’t also exist within Chareidi society. As long as you have people living together in a community, there will always be at least of few of those people who behave badly.

However, a large reason why some problems have continued to exist, is precisely because of such silence. Possible reasons for keeping problems quiet might be to avoid panic or discord within the community, but also to avoid outside hatred from a larger society who also grapple with the same issues, yet might judge the Jewish community more harshly due to anti-Semitism.

Do you think that your blog reverses some of the problems in Chareidi lifestyle? And if so, in which way?

I don’t think that there is a problem with the Chareidi lifestyle. My problem is that the Chareidi lifestyle is not my lifestyle, yet there is a growing idealization of the Chareidi lifestyle that is leading to its adoption in other more Modern Orthodox segments. While overall, there is great beauty and tradition in the Chareidi lifestyle, similarly, there is great beauty and tradition in other Orthodox lifestyles. It is sad to think that those traditions might vanish over the next few generations in favor of a mode of conduct that’s seen as superior because of its strictures.

In terms of my blog reversing any of the societal ills that take place within Chareidi society, again, I’m not pompous enough to think that a blog is the ultimate elixir for worldly injustice. However, I know that I have been personally inspired by the words of other writers. It starts with words, words form ideas, ideas can inspire actions, and actions can change the world. If my words have ultimately inspired anyone to positive action, I am truly grateful.

The Kosher Switch and Sefiras Ha’Omer

KosherSwitchI was talking to my husband this morning about the controversy concerning The Kosher Switch. The Kosher Switch is a product proposing to replace a standard light switch with an innovative device that would enable switching on and off lights on Shabbos.

While some have hailed the proposed product as a groundbreaking invention in accordance with halachah, others have condemned it as antithetical to Shabbos observance and decidedly not kosher.

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink posted a thorough examination of both sides of the issue on his blog.

I’ll leave the halachic arguments to the likes of Rabbi Fink and other Torah scholars who can more accurately debate the halachic merits and disadvantages of the Kosher Switch. The area of the Kosher Switch saga that interests me is the vitriol being heaped upon its technological creator.

It is one thing to feel that the technology isn’t sound regarding halachic requirements for Shabbos use, it’s quite another thing to lambast another Jew and accuse him of knowingly creating a product that will cause shomer Shabbos Jews to desecrate the Sabbath for financial gain.

On one forum, a poster wrote

“HAVE YOU ALL LOST YOUR MIND? Kosher switch? This is nothing but a scam, sham, trick, loophole or a hundred other things. One thing it is not is “kosher”. This is not some CC T&C’s you are trying to justify. Who do you think you are fooling here? You think you are going to pull a quick one on your creator? Good luck with that one.”

Can’t we at least be dan l’chaf zechus that the inventor simply wanted to create a product to make it easier for Jews to observe Shabbos with no other nefarious motive? Now that the tide seems to be turning against this product, rabbis who seemingly gave previous endorsements are now distancing themselves from their initial recommendations.

As my husband and I discussed the Kosher Switch and the ensuing debate, I wondered how the discussions about the invention got so personal so quickly. My husband asked me if the irony in timing over the issue had occurred to me. We are now in the period of Sefiras Ha’Omer, where we count down the 49 days from Pesach to Shavuos.  These are days when we spiritually ready ourselves for commemorating Hashem giving the Torah to the Jewish people at Har Sinai. These are days of judgement and mourning.

In the Gemora, we are told that during this same calendar period:

“Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students…and all of them died in one period of time because they did not conduct themselves with respect towards one another…they all died between Pesach and Shavuos…and they all died a terrible death. What was that it? R’ Nachman said “As’kerah” (a death from suffocating, from a croup-like illness).”

Furthermore, Rabbi Yehuda Prero explains:

“The students, as the Gemora tells us, did not treat each other with respect. Because they did not treat each other with respect, no one student viewed any other student as “anything great.” Because they did not accord each other respect, when the first student died, the others did not gain any inspiration, as they did not acknowledge the greatness of their comrade, and hence did not make the a fortiore as to their own mortality. The students, therefore, did not refine their character and did not start treating each other with respect. The students, therefore, caused their own death. Because of their failure to accord respect, not only were the students punished, but they passed up an opportunity to repent for this flaw. The students, therefore, truly died “because they did not conduct themselves with respect for one another.”

As far as I can tell, the creator of the Kosher Switch didn’t pull his halachic reasoning out of thin air. He consulted halachic authorities while developing the device to ensure compliance with the laws of Sabbath. While the ultimate ruling might be that the invention isn’t acceptable for Shabbos usage, does this opinion permit the disparagement of one who tried to create something positive for the Jewish community?

Today, if we were put to the same test as Rabbi Akiva’s students, would we fare any better? It’s one thing to learn about our history from an academic perspective, it’s another to internalize history’s lessons in practice.

Ode to a Bar Mitzvah Boy

bm13“Today I am a man, on Monday I return to the seventh grade.” – David M. Bader, Haikus for Jews: For You, a Little Wisdom

It’s not easy being a twelve year old Jewish boy. Each week, you must watch as yet another friend approaches the bimah to face his judgement. What will the verdict be upon completion of the parsha reading?bm16“Mazel tov! He did a beautiful job on the laining and haftorah! You should have nachas! He’ll be a ba’al korei someday!”

“Wonderful job on the parsha. No even noticed those few mistakes – he recovered like a pro! Lots of boys don’t say the haftorah. No big deal.”

“It’s good that his parents didn’t put pressure on him. You don’t need to lain the parsha for a bar mitzvah. Getting an aliyah is enough. It was a beautiful simcha.”bm8Every boy wonders which category he will fall into. For most, their bar mitzvah will be their first battle with performance anxiety.PlaygirlYou see, for a Jewish man, all the world’s a stage, and all the men merely players. Until his bar mitzvah, a Jewish boy has played no more of a public role than his mother or sisters. However, all of that changes when he turns thirteen. That’s the age when he is inducted into the men’s club that is the world of Jewish public worship and ritual.bm9When he was a little boy, he could roam freely in the synagogue between his father’s seat on the men’s side of the mechitza, and his mother’s lap on the women’s side of the divide. If he went out during services for a quick game of tag or to chat about important issues of the day over lollypops (or cigarettes) with the fellas, it was considered acceptable behavior.bm18However, around the age of eleven or twelve, there’s a change in the atmosphere for boys. No longer is it acceptable to think of prayer or going to shul as optional. Things are about to get real. Boys suddenly start taking note when a bar mitzvah boy takes the stage. They see how he struggles to control his changing voice while navigating the intricate trope. They see how he attempts to take corrections from the men around him gracefully, and keep it moving to the next line. They hear their parents start discussing bar mitzvah tutors, setting dates, and the merits of this caterer’s cholent and that caterer’s kugel. Bottom line, ready or not, it’s going down.bm19Suddenly, it’s no longer tolerated at school or shul for pre-bar mitzvah boys to skip prayers, fidget during davening, leave services in the middle, or just not pay attention in general. It’s time to get ready for the big show, never again to return to the former freedoms of childhood.bm22Of course, since no two snowflakes are alike, some boys take to their new reality more easily than others. Those who are natural extroverts and showboaters look forward to their bar mitzvah day with excited anticipation, confident that their performance will receive praise for both themselves and their parents. These are the same kids who will subsequently go on to often volunteer to lead the Birkat HaMazon after meals now that they count for a mezumen (three men eating together), will happily lead davening services, or might go on to read the Megillah on Purim or blow shofar on Rosh Hashanah. These boys relish attention and thrive upon it.

A Jewish Indian boy blows the 'Shofar' hHowever, we can’t forget the other boys who dread being in the spotlight. For them, their bar mitzvah is akin to an approaching execution. They are terrified of bringing potential shame upon themselves and their families. They are uncomfortable standing in front of a crowd in their gangly new frames – suddenly long legs, feet sprouting forward as if having been sprinkled with a magical growing powder, larger hands forever knocking things over. The only thing worse is not having a cumbersome new body and voice to maneuver, but rather, appearing as an advanced third grader prematurely thrust forward into this religious rite of manhood.bm3There is probably no more awkward a time to have a “coming out” party in a boy’s life than at thirteen. Eighteen would certainly look a lot better in pictures. Eighteen is also a time when boys are internalizing the tremendous obligations automatically incumbent upon them at thirteen, and making sense of them all. At thirteen, boys are still doing what their parents, rabbaim, and other teachers are telling them to. “Why do I have to do this? Because you’re a Jewish boy – and because I told you so!”bm23Getting up early for minyan, putting on tefillin every morning, wearing tzitzis, davening with a minyan three times a day, learning gemorrah, going to Sunday school when the girls get to sleep in – it’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the everyday responsibilities of an adult Jewish male. On the flip side, just as the aforementioned activities are privileges that many girls and women wish they had, I’ve yet to have a son who hasn’t expressed jealousy at one point that girls don’t have these responsibilities. Pride in these activities often doesn’t come until an older age when self-discipline kicks in, as well as a sense of personal choice in keeping these mitzvos and others.bm20So, to my upcoming bar mitzvah boy and all the other future men of the tribe, I salute you. I sympathize with the pressure you are under at a young age – I’ve seen it up close and it’s not pretty. For any role I’ve played in pressuring my own sons, or adding to a climate of expectation and stress, I apologize. Mothers have their own hang-ups when it comes to pulling off a bar mitzvah, and fathers have theirs too. Perhaps we should remember our own adolescent insecurities and make changes to how we do things today accordingly. However, we seem to operate on the attitude of, “This is just how it’s always been done.” Never mind that the lavish parties, huge venues, and overflowing buffet tables with coordinating centerpieces are extravagances only recently made possible in 20th-21st century America.bm21My bracha to you, dear son, is that you make yourself proud, that you do better at separating the ikkur from the tafel than we did, and that you have a happy life at peace with yourself both as a Jew and as a man.