Sivan 5763 – How A BT Or Anyone Can Keep The Devotion

1 Sivan 5763

Dear Rabbi Orlofsky,

There is a joke I’m sure you’ve heard: How can you tell when a BT (Ba’al Teshuvah) has become just plain frum? When they start talking in shul.

I was having a discussion with a close friend of mine, an FFB (Frum From Birth), about my becoming BT and so on. She was telling how much she loved to read novels and such, to which I replied that I used to too, but becoming frum made me lose interest in them. She said that she enjoyed them because they provided an escape, and that I didn’t need them anymore because frumkeit had become the escapism, but that one day, I too would fall back on them, or TV, and the like, because I would lose the extreme interest and “hype” about yiddishkeit.

My question is, in short, how does a BT keep the passion going for yiddishkeit before they become like my FFB friend who requires escapes because frumkeit just doesn’t do it for her anymore? Chas vesholoym all FFB’s are like this, but you did say in one of your columns that FFB’s don’t listen to BT’s because, “If frum people see other people being frum (FFB’s I mean. They’ve come to accept BT’s do it but they’re not like us) and enjoying it.”

How does a BT maintain this spark?

Thank you very much,

Ora Birenbaum,


Dear Ora,

First of all, that is by no means the best BT joke.

How many BT’s does it take to change a light bulb? You mean it’s mutar?
How can you tell when you’re on a date with a BT? He drives with the door open in case it’s yichud.
How many Chanukah candles do we light tonight? Last night we lit four.
How can you tell the BT in the dairy aisle? He’s the one looking for the Glatt Kosher cheese.

And so it goes. There is as a rule all BT jokes have in common – BT’s are intense. Someone I know once referred to someone as an FBT. Now I know that a BT is a Baal Tshuva and an FFB is a frum from birth and an MO is a Modern Orthodox, “But what,” I asked, “is an FBT?” He replied, “a flaming Baal Tshuva”.

Many FFB’s feel threatened by BT’s, even those of the non-flaming persuasion. There is no question that is because those who are sitting comfortably in a general religious malaise have to be challenged by someone who is so sincere, feels so deeply and sacrificed so much to achieve what an FFB was born with and might not enjoy the experience to the same extent. A beautiful description of this can be found in the introduction of a book about hospitality called “Aishel.”

Your friend sounds like she is not getting from her religious observance the same level of excitement you are. I once heard someone make reference to their relationship with Hashem and another FFB rolled his eyes and said, “What are you, a BT?” The only comfort many FFB’s get is by telling themselves that with time the BT’s will become like them soon enough. They’re just excited because it’s new.

The truth, however, is that a BT’s enthusiasm is based on something much deeper. An FFB was born frum. There wasn’t any agonizing process of trying to decide whether or not this is who they want to be. They didn’t have a former life to turn their backs on. They may have come up with philosophical questions when they were young, but they were probably either given simplistic answers or discouraged from further questioning. The BT however, arrived at their decision as an adult. They asked adult questions and received adult answers. Rabbi Yonosan Rosenbloom, who is one of the major Orthodox spokesmen today and an unabashed BT, explains that many of the writers and speakers who have a major impact on the FFB community are BT’s for exactly this reason – they have approached the subject as adults.

Having said that, there is, as you observe, always the danger that the fire will die down, scrupulousness will ease, and you will become like everyone else. What can be done?

The most important thing that can help is your chevra. Always stay with people who are growth-oriented. Yes, we even have some of those in the FFB community. I am not suggesting that you pigeon hole yourself in a BT community; I believe in mainstreaming. But there are shuls where there is no talking, where davening is taken seriously, where only children (and not all of them even) leave for the Rabbi’s derasha. There is no kiddush club during the haftara. This is no easy task. You will have quite a search for such a community, but it is well worth it.

Reflect at least once a day (perhaps during “hashiveynu avinu lisorasecha” in shemonah esreh) what your life would have ended up like if you hadn’t become frum. The world out there is a world of shadows and illusions. It’s hard to keep your hold on reality. So once a day at least, follow down the road more traveled (with apologies to Robert Frost).

Make a cheshbon HaNefesh. Set specific growth goals and monitor them. Get a Rav who appreciates who you are and will help you keep the fire alive. Avoid cynics!

Finally, remember that ultimately, it will be the people on fire, filled with excitement and enthusiasm, who will save klal yisroel and bring the geula, which is getting close enough these days that we can almost taste it.

As we used to say in my old NCSY days – “KEEP THE FLAME ALIVE!”

Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky