Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin
Rabbi Yitschak RudominCourtesy

Recently, in VIN, Rabbi Elchanan Poupko wrote an article with the heading "The Death of the Baal Teshuva Movement?" in which he postulates that the Baal Teshuva Movement is either dying or even dead. I would like to respond to that by saying that the Baal Teshuva Movement is very much alive.

I will try to respond to some of Rabbi Poupkos salient points and what are, in my opinion, inaccuracies in his passionate article.

First of all, Rabbi Poupko writes as if Israel is not on the map. Over half of the world's Jews now live in Israel, and there, the Baal Teshuva Movement is very much alive. Just a few names of some of the most popular figures in the movement come to mind: Rabbi Dov Begun, Yitschak Amnon, Zamir Cohen and the late Uri Zohar whose Kiruv efforts have brought in thousands of Israel Baalei Teshuva. There is a slew of entertainers, male and female, who have publicly begun to keep mitzvot. There aree constant seminars and outreach programs such as Lev LeAchim, Machon Meir, and similar movements that go door to door in Israel. In fact one of the stipulations in the formation of the new Israeli government is that there should be a Basic Law on the centrality of Torah Studies, national hotlines for all Israelis to ask Halakhic Shailos and an increase in Jewish studies in Israeli secular public schools.

The Baal Teshuva Movement is alive among secular traditionalist Israeli Jews, mostly Sefardim but including increasing numbers of Ashkenazim and related Kiruv workers who work in the field of this dynamic movement that is very much alive and kicking.

He might be very controversial but Yossi Mizrachi the well known Israeli Kiruv worker, draws hundreds of attendees to his Shiurim and talks all over Israel when he goes to Mekarev Israelis. In Israel you can never predict who and when a Chiloni ("secular") Israeli will become Chozer BeTeshuva ("religiously observant"). For example, a little known fact was that the Shimon Peres's wife became religiously observant and Shomer Shabbat in her waning years, Bibi Netanyahu's daughter became a Ba'alat Teshuva and lives in Meah Shearim with her family, and even some of the anti-haredi Avigdor Liberman's family members became religious. Multiply this scenario by tens of thousands and you see that the Baal Teshuva Movement is very much alive in Israel..

Of course it would be great if there were official statistics and surveys to back up all the assertions I am making. But no survey or statistic can measure what is going on in every Jewish heart and in every Neshama ("soul") in Klal Yisrael. How do you measure the Hirhurei Teshuva ("stirrings of repentance") of seven million Israeli Jews, or of millions of American Jews for that matter? There is a lot going on in Jewish hearts that is connected to the complex process of deciding to become Dati or haredi or Shomer Mitzvos or Shomer Shabbos or Shomer Negiah or Shomer Kashrus and all the varied steps and inscrutable nearly mystical routes that bring a Nefesh BeYisroel to decide to get closer with Avihem SheBaShamayim ("Father in Heaven")

Just spend some time in Israel, talk to people, ask around and see for yourself, for example, the influence that Dat Leumi (Religious Zionist) soldiers have on their secular counterparts. I know that in American colleges where Modern Orthodox students are present in large numbers they automatically influence their non-religious Jewish fellow students, and this goes on everywhere, in the workplace, in communities, in casual encounters. None of this will be reported in newspapers or newsletters but it's going on all the time, as a silent and not so silent Baal Teshuva Revolution.

Secondly, Rabbi Poupko speaks about the decreased enrollment in BT yeshivas. Who ever said that those were ever good markers for the strength or continuity of the Baal Teshuva movement? It was wonderful when young people could be convinced to sacrifice their prime student years to learn in a BT yeshiva, but that was never and still is not the epitome or golden standard of the Baal Teshuva Revolution.

Jews are still Jews and in every Jewish heart there is a feeling of wanting to unite with God and the infinite whether consciously or not. While young college age Jews may not want to spend years confined in a yeshiva learning Talmud all day they are still interested in visiting Israel, getting inspired by the aura of Jerusalem and the Western Wall, as the Israel Birthright programs have proven. There is still excitement with secular Jewish boys putting on Tefillin for the first time and Jewish girls lighting Shabbat Candles for the first time, or the popular Challah making programs. All these experiences are seeds that are planted and will have an effect.

Yes, it would be great if everyone could be carted off to a BT yeshiva, but that is a Frum person's unrealistic daydream and wishful thinking because becoming Frum and and joining a Kiruv program by a local rabbi or Rebbetzin is the more casual and roundabout way that Jewish Outreach gets done, and it's always been that way. Forget about looking for "instant BTs" as if you were making instant coffee!

Thirdly, Rabbi Poupko fails to realize that the process for becoming observant in America is a continuum. In Israel where they speak Hebrew and have been exposed to Israeli nationalism, a secular Israeli can be turned on to become Frum at one Shabbaton or a seminar, but in America things work a lot slower most of the time. It takes years, sometimes decades for someone to become Jewishly religious and keep Halakha. It requires commitment, years of study and effort, facing complicating relations with secular parents and family members, and then preparing for marriage and finding a suitable mate. Sometimes there will be lapses and relapses, two steps forward and three steps back, or maybe a quicker spiritual journey, it's complicated, but the point is the process,. The Baal Teshuva Movement is on the boil, sometimes it is set at simmer and sometimes it heats up, but it is there for more Jews, as anyone who works in the Kiruv field knows.

Fourthly, Rabbi Poupko conflates what is happening in the haredi or Yeshivish or Modern Orthodox world with what is going on in the Baal Teshuva World and the related field of Kiruv. The Frum world has never been the main point of reference for the aspirant Baalei Teshuva who have internal processes going on that have nothing to do with what is going on in Boro Park, Mosney, Lakewood or Bnei Brak and Jerusalem.

Many secular Jews know that they are living an empty life with no meaning. They are searching for meaning in their life. If they have a connection to something Jewish as they had a few decades ago then maybe they were inspired by Jewish family traditions but in the present time many are looking for greater spirituality or a better happier practical religious life, or they may have questions about God and how God runs things, and I have met people who have had dreams about religious subjects that in turn made them search out answers on the Internet, they then find some books on the subject or they search out a local rabbi of any denomination that would eventually launch them on the path of becoming a partial or maybe even a complete Baal Teshuva.

It's complicated. It's not like making instant soup in a microwave It cannot easily be measured by surveys and quantified on a spreadsheet.

On the other hand the Frum world has its crises: The Shidduch Crisis, the Tuition Crisis, the Off The Derech Crisis, the rising Divorce Crisis, etc all these are legitimate things to focus on in the Frum world, but they have zero connection to the Baal Teshuva Movement or the world of Kiruv!

Fifthly, Rabbi Poupko mentions Chabad and its plus minus 6,000 Shluchim and their wives. Whoever said that their job today is to make every secular Jew Frum? even though some may think so. Chabad has become the de facto functional Orthodox rabbinate of worldwide Klal Yisrael. Once upon a time there were rabbis and synagogues in virtually every American small town, and naturally in bigger towns and cities, but they mostly have died out by now. In their place have come the Chabad rabbis and their wives who put into place and offer religious, educational, and social services for any Jew, no questions asked.

They have set up many Chabad religious schools that tens of thousands of non-religious Jewish children attend. They will come to bury a non-religious Jew who has no family. They will visit the Jewish sick in hospitals. They will give charity to the Jewish poor and indigent. They will pay Shiva calls to grieving families. They will do campus outreach. They will host Shabbat meals and Jewish Holiday parties. They will perform life-cycle events in their Chabad Houses and Shulls for non-religious Jews such as Bar Mitzvas and Weddings. In short they are doing CHESED ("loving kindness") because they practice AHAVAS YISROEL -- love of one's fellow Jews, no questions asked and no down payment requirement!

For Chabad it is not just about reaching out to a secular Jew to try and make him or her religious, and it is great when they do accomplish that and get them to learn Tanya or move to Crown Heights, but for the most part they are trying to make other Jews HAPPY and feel good about being Jews who are created in the Tzelem Elokim ("Image of God").

Sixth, Rabbi Poupko is thinking too narrowly, while when it comes to Kiruv and the Baal Teshuva Movement which requires thinking out of the box all the time and not assuming that your own perceptions are always correct. You have to see things from the other person's point of view all the time. By the way, that's a good tip for doing Kiruv, to be a good listener and validate what the other person is feeling and even thinking, even if they are wrong, you can create a connection and then either slowly (as in America) or quickly (as in Israel) try to win them over to the side of Torah.

Remember, the Baal Teshuva Revolution was not invented by human beings, it is part of Hashem's plan for the Geulah Shleimah ("Final Redemption"), to bring back all the Nidachim ("lost ones) much like the process of Kibbutz Galuyos (''Ingathering of the Exiles''), it is Hashem who is doing it because it His will to do so. We, as humans, are not "in charge" it is Hashem who is running the world and He wants to bring back His children to Torah, to Yiddishkeit and eventually to Eretz Yisroel as well.

Seventh and finally, Rabbi Poupko does not mention the real enemy and that is ASSIMILATION and INTERMARRIAGE which is continuing at a huge speed in America. For this there are statistics, which I will not quote here but they can be easily found. Yes, the Frum world is experiencing a population explosion, Ken Yirbu, and managing to marry within the faith, except for those lost to the OTD crisis and the ongoing Singles Crisis. But the rates of assimilation and intermarriage in America are so high that years ago already it was said that if a secular Jewish man marries a secular Jewish woman it is a miracle!

Consequently nowadays, compared to fifty years ago, there are less 100% Jews with two Jewish parents and more 50% and 25% people, many not halakhically Jewish who have a connection to the Jewish People while having only one Jewish parent, and we know what that means if the father is Jewish but the mother is not.

This muddies the waters of the Baal Teshuva process and makes for a more harrowing experience requiring knowledge of Hilchos Geirus ("Laws of Conversion") and Yichus ("Jewish lineage"). That makes Kiruv and Jewish Outreach more challenging than it used to be in past decades, but far from dead.

Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin was born to Holocaust survivor parents in Israel, grew up in South Africa, and lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is an alumnus of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin and of Teachers CollegeColumbia University. He heads the Jewish Professionals Institute dedicated to Jewish Adult Education and Outreach Kiruv Rechokim. He was the Director of the Belzer Chasidim's Sinai Heritage Center of Manhattan 19881995, a Trustee of AJOP 19941997 and founder of American Friends of South African Jewish Education 19952015. He is also a docent and tour guide at The Museum of Jewish Heritage A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Downtown Manhattan, New York.

He is the author of The Second World War and Jewish Education in America: The Fall and Rise of Orthodoxy. Contact Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin at[email protected]