Children of BTs navigate life as the first generation of FFBs
hen someone leaves her secular life to live a life of Torah and mitzvos, we applaud her courage, her commitment to truth, and her strength of character to make this momentous change.
Being a baalas teshuvah (or giyores) is like being a new immigrant — which makes the children of baalei teshuvah the first-generation natives in frum society. What is life like for them, growing up knowing only an observant life?
A hyperfocus on background can be detrimental to healthy integration. But the reality is that there are certain experiences and challenges unique to children who grow up with parents who are baalei teshuvah — even as every family is unique, and children within each family will have their own perspectives on their upbringing, and their own emotional reactions to their background.
How Do the Kids Feel?
When parents have an interesting background story, children will live with that story and often develop their own relationship to it. Some children embrace that aspect of their family history, while others just want to be “regular” and will do their best to downplay it.
Gila Reidy’s parents met in Venice, where her father — an Italian glass blower at the top of his field who converted to Judaism in his thirties — had a store in the Jewish ghetto. The store was a popular tourist stop, and her mother, on her own journey to observance at the time, walked into the store one day. The rest is history.
“I was never going to fly under the radar,” says Gila, a mom of two who was raised in Baltimore and still lives there. “I heard their story growing up and was proud of my parents and family. And because of their interesting background, I was more of a free spirit.”
“It was just there,” says Meira Schneider-Atik, who lives in Queens, New York with her husband and three children. Her father was raised in a traditional home, but while teaching in a public school in upper Manhattan, he became friends with some fellow teachers who were Orthodox and helped him on his journey to become observant. “It was part of my life’s framework. My father was never ashamed or embarrassed of his status as a baal teshuvah, and I grew up with that attitude. He would talk about it. He also set a terrific example because he appreciated Torah and mitzvos very much and passed that on to me and my sister.”
Most of the interviewees I spoke with were tremendously proud of their parents’ journey, but acknowledged that growing up in its shadow wasn’t without its difficulties.
“As a child, it was definitely a little challenging because there were holes in my Yiddishkeit that my parents didn’t necessarily have the tools to fill, through no fault of their own,” says Avi Rosalimsky, today a rebbi at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, New Jersey. “Don’t get me wrong. My parents are amazing people and I learned and continue to learn a tremendous amount from them. But there were just some aspects of Judaism they weren’t familiar with because they didn’t grow up with it.”
Shani Kramer, who grew up in Cincinnati and Cleveland, Ohio, reflects that it took her a while to appreciate having parents who are baalei teshuvah. “When you grow up, you definitely feel like something’s different. I was different, my family was different. I didn’t have any religious cousins. I wasn’t the only one like that, but I did feel like I was a little different in that way.”
For others, it was so much in the background that it wasn’t even on their radar growing up. When I asked my friend Shani Newman how she felt, she responded, “I don’t know what I have to say because when we were growing up, aside from not having frum cousins, I didn’t feel so different.” Her parents became frum prior to getting married. They met in high school and decided together to live a frum life, becoming an integral part of the Cleveland community, where they raised their four children, all of whom still live in Cleveland.
An Evolving Process
The majority of people I spoke with had parents who became frum on their own through Hashgachah pratis or a natural yearning for something more, not through any established kiruv organizations (many of which were in their infancy at the time).
When parents become frum as young adults and are mostly settled hashkafcially by the time they’re raising children, it definitely makes things smoother for their children. But some people are still finding their way as they’re raising their family, which can get complicated. Should they adhere to the customs of long-ago ancestors, or adopt the minhagim of the local community? Which nusach should they daven? Where should they live? Which hashkafah seems the most correct? There’s a lot to work out. Sometimes families will try something for a few years before realizing that it’s not quite a fit. Or sometimes they’ll take the best of what they like from a variety of different hashkafos.
“That’s how it is with a baal teshuvah, it’s a hodgepodge, and sometimes that’s a little confusing for a kid,” says Shani Kramer. “As a girl, it wasn’t so confusing for me, because I didn’t go to shul with my father. My husband is also a child of baalei teshuvah. His experiences differed from mine in that, as a boy, his father was still searching for the right fit when it came to a style of davening that he was comfortable with, and so they went to different shuls most weeks, which can be hard for an impressionable young person.”
Gila remembers that when her family moved from a Modern Orthodox community to a more yeshivish community, it was an adjustment. “As a kid, I just didn’t feel like it fit me.”
While it might seem like taking things slowly could be confusing for children who are coming along for the ride, mekarvim regularly caution baalei teshuvah about taking on too much, too quickly. When becoming observant as an already established couple, it’s natural for one spouse to be more “into it” than the other. Progressing at a slow pace can help cushion any of the inevitable disagreements that arise during the process.
Chana Miller’s* parents became frum in a large out-of-town community, after being married for many years and even raising some children to adulthood. They took things very slowly. “My father was always four steps behind my mother, and she accepted that he was on his own journey,” Chana recalls. “I think the reason my parents were so successful in raising me frum is that they took it slow. They never had a hashkafic shift, they just settled into what was very natural.”
Sometimes not having firmly established policies had surprisingly positive outcomes. Sarah Wolf’s* parents started becoming frum after they were already married, with her father being more invested and her mother more or less coming along for the ride. Sarah’s parents never gave her boundaries on tzniyus, so while she wore her uniform in Modern Orthodox day school, outside of school she experimented with her observance of this mitzvah, especially when she was in public college. Somewhere around adulthood, Sarah settled into her current way of life and feels very comfortable and connected. The lack of an established tradition gave her freedom to find her way.
The communal aspects of frum life can provide tremendous physical, emotional and hashkafic support when tapped into. But these same assets can also be isolating and ostracizing if a family doesn’t live in the right location, or if they’re not able to connect with the people they need to.
Finding the right community is more than just a matter of buying a house in the right neighborhood. It’s about making friends who can help answer social questions, finding a shul and a rav who can provide guidance when needed, having playmates for children, and schools to send to.
“People really took my family under their wings and embraced them,” Chana shares. Even though her parents were in the process of becoming frum and learning the nuances of frum life during her childhood, because they spent so much time with families in the community, she saw plenty of examples of standard frum family life. These families became like extended family to them, with connections that are strong to this day.
Getting eitzahs from a rav was an integral part of Chaya Rivka Davis’s parents’ life. Chaya Rivka’s parents are American baalei teshuvah who made aliyah and raised their seven children mainly in Israel. She lives in Beitar with her husband and children.
“My parents say one of the big reasons we children are all so connected to Yiddishkeit is that they didn’t deviate from daas Torah,” she says. “They had someone that they went toto ask questions. My father is very close to Rav Moshe Sternbuch shlita. He still learns in his kollel and goes to him with any questions that arise. My parents both say that baalei teshuvah need to have a person with daas Torah that they’re close to in order to really integrate into frum society.”
Avi shared a similar thought. While his parents couldn’t teach him everything he needed, he says, “Baruch Hashem, I was lucky enough to attach myself to amazing rebbeim who helped me on my path to fill those holes and to ultimately become a rabbi. That said, I do have many friends whose parents are baalei teshuvah who never became close to rabbis, and either left Yiddishkeit or still have gaping holes in their understanding of it.”
Sarah grew up in the Tristate area. Her parents bought their first home before they were frum, and while it was within driving distance of all the frum amenities and schools in their city, on Shabbos, it felt like they lived outside of the community.
Sarah and her younger sibling spent Shabbos doing lots of reading, lots of board games, and playing with their non-Jewish or nonobservant neighbors when the weather was nice.
“I had no idea what a real Jewish community Shabbos could look like until I was old enough to sleep away at my friends’ houses,” Sarah remembers.
Her family stayed in that home until she was in high school, when they moved to a neighborhood better suited to their needs.
Family is complicated, no matter what your background. One of the hardest experiences for children of baalei teshuvah and geirim is the lack of an extended frum family. There’s no going to Bubby for Shabbos, no cousins coming for Yom Tov, no family Shabbos Nachamu.
As Gila says plainly, “I grew up with almost no family.”
Sarah remembers that sometimes her family would invite non-frum family members for Yom Tov, but that it was lonely.
“There were no cousins, just a handful of adults,” she remembers.
“When I was younger, I felt the lack of cousins, I felt like people were so lucky to have cousins,” remembers Chaya Rivka. She did have friends from baalei teshvuah families who also didn’t have many relatives, and those families became their extended family during her childhood. But eventually, things changed. “My siblings grew up,” she says. “Now they’re married, and now we have the extended family thing where we come for Shabbos and we’re too many people in one house.”
Another common issue is navigating the halachically complex issues that come up when the majority of extended family isn’t frum or Jewish. How do you handle intermarriage? Family simchahs on Shabbos? Food? Recreation? Is it worth it to try to foster a close relationship, or is it just too complicated?
Shoshana Weitzman’s parents both grew up in Brooklyn. Her father was born in a DP camp and emigrated to Brownsville, New York, as a child. Her mother is a giyores who grew up in a large Italian-American family.
“We had a very close relationship with my mother’s family,” Shoshana shares. “It was really sweet because they were totally embracing. I always knew that they weren’t Jewish and we were Jewish, but as a kid, that was where it started and ended. They were just my family. That was who they were.”
Shoshana’s parents raised her and her three siblings in Spring Valley, and visited her non-Jewish relatives often. Thanksgiving was a big deal in her family. “For many years we would go to my mother’s sister for Thanksgiving. My mother would cook all the food at home for us and schlep it to Long Island so that we could all sit and eat together.”
As Shoshana grew up and her knowledge of halachah increased, things became more complex. “As a teenager I was very confused. I still loved my extended family, I still visited them, but I limited my exposure to them. I didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t know how to explain it to myself, and I didn’t know how to explain it to them.”
Meira shares how navigating the complex dynamics of participating in the simchahs of non-frum relatives involved asking a lot of sh’eilos, and participating in extended family gatherings when possible. Her father made sure to get daas Torah on how to handle the complex issue of intermarriage.
“There’s only so far you can go,” Meira acknowledges. “And you can imagine, this led to a lot of tension. It wasn’t easy. But I remember my father told me that the rabbis had told him, ‘You’ve got to make sure to be firm, but be very, very gentle at the same time. Leave that door open.’”
Chana remembers her parents extending themselves to participate in family simchahs — even walking three hours on Shabbos to join in a non-frum family simchah. As the child of baalei teshuvah, Chana notes, she’s a bridge between the family. It’s not uncommon for the families of baalei teshuvah to have complicated and even negative feelings about their now-frum siblings or children, feeling that maybe they themselves are being rejected along with their way of life. But the next generation, having been born frum, never made such a choice, and so their relationship can carry less emotional weight and provide greater opportunity for connection.
As Parents Themselves
Many children of baalei teshuvah say that becoming parents changed their view of their own parents, as they gained a more mature and nuanced perspective.
“I think there’s tremendous value to the fact that my parents chose to become frum,” Shani Kramer comments. “It may not have been easy all the time for us as kids, but we did have exposure to people who weren’t exactly like us, and I feel like there’s a value you can’t place on something like that. It really taught me to be more open-minded, and I’m hopeful that will translate to the next generation in my family.”
Chana has similar feelings. Having mostly non-frum family led to her being very accepting of everyone, she says, even when she doesn’t agree with their choices — a value she works to transmit to her kids.
“I really firmly believe in the ladder theory of spiritual growth,” she explains. “Everyone is on their own rung of the ladder, and their own growth story. You can’t judge someone for where they are on that point of their ladder.”
She actively teaches her kids to be accepting of people where they are.
“I honestly feel very, very good about keeping Torah and mitzvos, and I hope my kids pick up on that,” Meira says, adding that she hopes to convey to her children her father’s love and appreciation for Torah.
“These days, so many people in the frum community are afraid to do something different from the masses because they’re worried how people will perceive it,” says Shani. “The frum community lives in a bubble, and seems to fear there’s no oxygen outside of it.
“As my parents were baalei teshuvah, they were able to look at things from outside the bubble, and if they saw something that could be done better, they weren’t afraid of how it looked to others. They felt no need to hide their unique perspective. They were proud of it and handed this gift to their children. We aren’t afraid to try something different, in the way we run our Shabbos table, the way we help our children with homework, or even something as mundane as going somewhere for winter vacation where no one else has even considered going.”
Sarah married into a family where everyone has been frum for generations.
“It wasn’t so much of a culture shock, it was actually really nice,” she says. “Marrying into a large family meant there were more siblings, there were nieces and nephews, and after we had our own kids there were cousins. I feel like I’m giving my kids something I didn’t have.”
Having the freedom to find herself worked for her, Sarah reflects. “But it might not have.”
She hopes to provide her kids with the clarity her husband has in his mesorah.
“But we don’t just tell them, ‘This is what we do, period,’ ” she clarifies. “We explain. We explain why this is why we do what we do, this is why it’s important, this is why it brings us closer to Hashem.”
While her parents made the choice to become frum, Sarah Newman says, it never became an excuse for any of the challenges that came with it. Even though Sarah’s mother didn’t read Hebrew very well, she never told her children she couldn’t do their homework with them. She hired tutors to help with homework, or she told them to wait for their father to come home. “It was never ‘because I’m a baalas teshuvah, I can’t do this.’ Never, ever did I hear that.
“My parents have an extraordinary sense that regardless of how old you are or where you are in life, you can move forward and build your relationship with Hashem, regardless of what the people around you may or may not think,” Gila says — an example of remarkable growth that she is so grateful for.
“It was in my early twenties when I finally realized what it means to be a baal teshuvah,” Sara says. “When you wake up as a FFB person and you daven and you keep kosher and you keep Shabbos, it’s easy because it’s all you’ve ever known. If you stop to think about a person who chose this, or even a person who sort of chose it and went along with her spouse, you realize how incredibly special that is, and the strength of character it takes. It gives me an incredible sense of pride in my parents.”
If you could tell the frum community one thing about growing up FFB with non-FFB parents…
“For a community it’s a hard struggle, because we want to respect privacy, but we want to provide support. So where is that fine line? It’s not just respecting their stories, not just respecting whether or not they want to talk about it, but also respecting where they came from. I think a lot of times people see it as, ‘Wow, you were so bad and now you’re good,’ but respect that they’re humans with stories and histories, and because of that, they can provide so much. Don’t see them as different; see them as valuable members of our community.”
“If someone’s doing something different, don’t make assumptions as to why. It might be because that’s what they chose to do, it might be because they don’t know any better. It might be because that’s all they can do at the time, and you have no idea why. That’s something that doesn’t just apply to baalei teshuvah and geirim. We really don’t know anyone’s journey, and no one’s journey is over. It might be paused, but don’t make assumptions about why people are the way they are.”
“I think there’s a real, raw beauty of coming from a place where you don’t know the Torah, you don’t know about Hashem, you don’t know about Judaism, and you choose it. My mother was all in, and she showed us.”
“Unfortunately, there are people in the Jewish world, even communities, who treat baalei teshuvah like second-class citizens. We’re supposed to reach out to fellow Jews and bring them closer to Torah and mitzvos, and yet when they do come close, suddenly we might treat them as second-class citizens. That’s not right.”
“This isn’t something that happened to me, but I’ve seen it with other kids of baalei teshuvah. At some point you might be smarter than your parents. You might know more Jewishly. You have to be patient. You have to remember to respect them. They don’t necessarily know better. They want to do better. Just keep that in mind.”
“There are things that are missing. Pieces of the puzzle that don’t quite fit. We grow up knowing the ropes, but there are those little things — fashion, how to pay a shivah call, how to be a guest at a religious wedding — little social things that we just don’t know. Our parents can’t teach us because their world is different.
“That’s why it’s sometimes hard for us to integrate. It would be really nice if someone in the community could just walk us through these things. Make sure we know the expectations, where to shop, how to talk. Just take the kid of the baal teshuvah aside and say, ‘We are going to do X, do you want to join us?’ ‘I know your classmate’s mother died, we’re going to pay a shivah call, I’m guessing you never did that before; why don’t you come with us?’ ”
“The Gemara in Berachos (and Sanhedrin) states, ‘Makom she’baalei teshuvah omdim, ein tzaddikim gemurim yecholim la’amod bo (In the place where a baal teshuvah stands, a completely righteous person cannot stand).’ The Gemara is clear that baalei teshuvah are on a very high level. I feel that in our community, we don’t try hard enough to make baalei teshuvah feel comfortable. After all, they made a conscious decision to leave lives that were much simpler and easiereasier, and exchanged it for an existence infused with holiness.”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 795)
Oops! We could not locate your form.