Close Encounters of the Ba’al Teshuvah Kind


“Wait, I think that’s the doctor!” Zev exclaimed as we hurried out of the car to try to stop him. I had never seen the doctor before but I  had heard all about him. He came to shul on Shabbos a few weeks ago for a Bar Mitzvah.  Zev told me how much he enjoyed their conversation, largely because the doctor was so interested in our Jewish journey. That doesn’t happen very often.

Then again, the doctor came to shul for Mendy’s son’s Bar Mitzvah, and people like Mendy don’t happen very often either. I only remember having one real conversation with Mendy, many years ago when he came to fix our computer–actually, I don’t remember the conversation at all. I just remember listening to him, looking at him, thinking, he’s doing something right. Mendy passed away eight years ago after a long and difficult illness, leaving a wife and six young children. The fact that Mendy’s doctor came to shul so many years later says a lot about both of them.

But our meeting on the street was unplanned; we all had other places to go. Most important though, was for Zev and me to offer the doctor condolences; his mother had just passed away.  Somehow though he wasn’t rushing to leave after that.  He picked up the conversation where he and Zev left off: He still couldn’t believe that we, and so many other people in shul, weren’t born as observant Jews.

“You should carry an old picture of yourself,” I teased Zev as I confirmed that he was once a golfer with a 5 handicap. (Not that I know what that means–I can’t get past why you would want to play a game that requires you to have a handicap.) We introduced him to the generally accepted term for people like us: ba’alei teshuvah. I told them that it literally translates as, “masters of return.” (Halevai, I quickly added with a smile. That’s the Jewish way of saying, “we should live so long.”) I didn’t want to overwhelm him, but I did want to reassure him that if he came to shul, he would be in the company of many beginners who had just begun a little earlier.

Encounters like these thrill me. Because finally, after a very long time, I appreciate that there are many real benefits to being a ba’alas teshuvah. Here are three of them:

I learned a lot in my secular education. I’m not sure how much my 500-word English essays help my writing but I can surely credit my SAT preps for introducing me to words like cistern and harbinger. I may always struggle with Hebrew because I learned it as an adult, but I can sing along in French to much of La Marseillaise–that comes in handy once in a while, too. And because I was educated in America, I learned “1492” as the year Columbus sailed to America. When I learned that 1492 was also the year the Jews were expelled from Spain, I had no trouble remembering the date.

I appreciate my observance because I worked so hard for it. Isn’t this true for everything in life?

I can relate to the mindset of people who aren’t observant. I understand what it’s like to grow up with nebulous notions about G-d and Judaism. Which is why I also understand how people might resist hearing about Moshiach. But, as a ba’alas teshuvah, especially through Chabad,  I also understand that Moshiach is an essential Jewish concept, that he’s ready to come and transform the world, and that learning Torah and doing mitzvos can bring him sooner. (As a woman, I appreciate how his arrival is likened to giving birth–to an almost 6,000 year old baby, no less–with all the pain and focus that are necessary to complete the job.)  I can even elucidate some of the harbingers of Moshiach’s arrival (think global anxiety and circus politics) to anyone who’s interested in doing more to bring him. And when I say anyone, I mean any one. Because humankind’s good deeds are cumulative, and one more good deed is all it’s going to take. I’m not sure what that one good deed will be and when it will transform the world, but we’ll all know Moshiach when he comes. One thing for sure– the word ba’al teshuvah will take on a whole new meaning.

About the Author
Lieba Rudolph, her husband, Zev, and their young family returned to observant Jewish life when they were both over thirty. Now, after spending equal time in both worlds, she shares the joys and challenges of her journey, answering everyone's unasked question: why would anyone normal want to become religious?