Awesome, Judaism, life, media

The Definition of Awesome: “A message to ba’alei tshuvah”

After reading a story written by a good friend in this week’s Canadian Jewish News, it’s with great difficulty that I am unable to come up with a sufficient response to justify the story’s awesomeness.

The author, whose name is Michael Isenberg, is what I like to call a very gifted, intelligent, yet down to earth person. A fantastic role model, it’s not hard to draw motivation from his presence. And maybe most of all, he has a great deal of clarity; a person who usually “gets it” (regardless of what “it” is).

(If you’re reading this Michael, I apologize for bevy of compliments, but you deserve it good sir 😉

Maybe I like the guy so much because we have much in common. Although a year a part in age, when we first met it was to both our surprise that we:

– both went to the same high school
– both studying journalism (albeit in different programs)
– I interned for the Jewish Tribune this past summer, while he’s currently interning for the Canadian Jewish News – both national Jewish newspapers
– And we live literally one minute from each other – I can see his driveway from mine).

But even more so than those examples, we’ve both discovered and embraced the significance of our Jewish faith and heritage at the same age and very similar situations. Going through high school not so affiliated with our religion, we both decided to make a commitment to Judaism, realizing how much more important it was than things had associated ourselves with up that point in our lives.

So it wasn’t the biggest surprise when I saw the story in paper and the headline was entitled “A message for Baalei Teshuva”.

Since you should read the story, I won’t give out any more information about the story’s content. You can find that out for yourself. I can’t post a link because the CJN’s website is retarded in the sense that in order to see recent stories you have to have a log in -aka a subscription. Instead the I’ve posted the entire story at the end of the post.

But I will say that beyond the great writing, the piece is very impactful, and not just to those baalei teshuva who can empathize with author’s situation.

(And a quick journalism quip – the story is written in conversational sentencing – as if the author was literally speaking to you. That’s precisely the way any good piece should be written!)
(Oh… and the writing it was neither pompous nor condescending, which translates amazingly with the message of the content!)

Well done, my friend. Keep up the fantastic work.

Nuff’ said!

A message to ba’alei tshuvah


Family feuds occur in many homes and the biggest problems seem to arise around religion.

When a Jewish child decides to leave an unobservant lifestyle for Orthodoxy, a verbal brawl between the black sheep of the family and everyone else often ensues.

Being such a child, I would know.

I’m known as a ba’al tshuvah, a person who is becoming more religious. Over the past five years, since I was 16, I’ve grown spiritually and intellectually through my Jewish studies and observance. Friends and family have commented on how much more of a loving and sensitive person I’ve become, working hard but living in tranquility. But none of it would be true if I had continued on the path of intolerance for non-observing Jews with which I began my growth.

Too often, ba’alei tshuvah get caught up in the excitement of their new-found meaning in life, leaving behind entirely the world they once knew. This only isolates the individual and strengthens others’ stereotypes about “crazy” Orthodox people who think they’re superior to the rest of mankind.

Sadly, I learned this the hard way.

When I started growing, I felt I could no longer live in my parents’ home. It wasn’t kosher. It wasn’t shomer Shabbat. And there were, God forbid, televisions!

I did what any good, newly observant Jew would do: I stayed away from home as much as I could.

I felt I wasn’t getting spiritually uplifted if I wasn’t at my religious friends’ homes for Shabbat. I came home to sleep, but mostly, I would just sleep out.

Big mistake.

My parents’ hearts were shattered. They felt I had abandoned them and my two younger siblings, who were both used to looking at me as a role model. I embarrassed my family, as if I had said, “Thanks for supporting me for 16 years. I’m out of here, suckers!”

It also bothered me that my family wasn’t religious. I had discovered something incredible – something that I believed gives purpose and meaning to life – and I wanted to share it with others.

So the few times that I was around the house, I preached. No, actually, I dictated. I imposed, or at least tried to kosher the house or discuss a Torah class I had heard.

Another big mistake.

My family was hurt by my absence from our house. And when I was around, they were angered by me acting as if they were worthless for not living a Torah lifestyle. I didn’t consider them any less Jewish. But everything I was doing was the antithesis of Orthodox Judaism.

The secret to avoiding strife between Jews of any stream and to establishing working, loving relationships is simple and painfully  obvious. In the words of one of my rabbis: be normal.

After he literally slapped me across the head, he told me that the problems I was having with my family were a direct result of my actions.

The fatal error that ba’alei tshuvah make – one I’ve seen too many times – is assuming their families are unwilling to accept a religious child.

But parents only seem uninterested in helping because they have negative stereotypes embedded in their minds. If a child becomes a vegetarian, even if his or her parents disagrees with vegetarianism, they’d surely accommodate their child so long as he or she was respectful.

Parents want to help. I would know. Mine did.

But they’re only going to help when they see that their kids are calm, rational and accepting. The same rabbi who knocked some sense into me also taught me about the concept of shalom bayit, peace in the home.

He said, for example, that if my parents want to eat right when Shabbat starts but I want to go to shul because it gives me a spiritual experience, that I should daven at home and eat with my family. The spirituality and well-being of the collective is much more important than the individual.

He told me to be myself, the same joketelling goof at the dinner table I used to be. When everyone enjoys a Friday night dinner, the essence of Shabbat and Judaism is truly felt.

There are times when I can’t compromise. I won’t break kashrut laws, for instance, but if davening without a minyan means spending time with my father who needs me around, so be it.

After a year of nearly losing my family, my parents saw that I was making strides to repair the damage. I would stay at home on Shabbat, even though we didn’t say the blessings at dinner to my liking and the TV was on. I would miss a Torah class to go to a Toronto Raptors game with my father, the only time we had to spend together.

Over the past three years especially, my willingness to accommodate my family has been reciprocated. We now have shomer Shabbat Friday nights and our basement kitchen is now kosher. We also build a sukkah and kasher the house for Passover together, as one family.

Last year, my parents purchased a condominium in Florida, and one of their requirements was that there be an Orthodox shul within walking distance for the one time that I come down each year.

People, not Judaism, teach intolerance.

Judaism says love every Jew like you love yourself. A life of selfishness and isolation is lonely and unfulfilling. Family, friends and simchah are what givetrue meaning to life.



3 thoughts on “The Definition of Awesome: “A message to ba’alei tshuvah””

  1. I also found MIchael’s article interesting. I just want to point out that with any article of this caliber and audience, there has been some people who interpreted the article in ways that probably were not meant by Michael. Perhaps a little more care in expressing some of the content next time.


  2. Michael
    Your article is fabulous.
    I went through the same thing. Like you I almost lost my family when I started becoming frum. Today I have my own family and wear a sheitle, I live a chassidic life, and yes I visit my family, some of them to this day watch TV on Shabbos and do not keep kosher, but I go there Shabbos if there is a family get together, I bring all the stuff from my home and I do not compromise on kashrus or Shabbos. They are my family and when I finally included them in my life and made time for them they started asking questions about this new life I had found, it was slow but today one brother has become frum since then, and the others not so frum (some not at all) and it is not for me to judge, Like you rightly say we must love every Jew like we love ourselves.
    Go from strength to strength and thank you for sharing this.

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