“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?