My name is Risa, and I, am a baal teshuva.
“A baal what?”
That’s usually how most conversations go when I introduce myself to anyone unfamiliar with the term.
A baal teshuva literally translates to “master of repentance”. Today, it is used to describe someone who returns to the faith, someone who was once non-Observant who became observant. In essence, though, Baal Teshuva should be a term that is used to define everyone and anyone.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s impossible for one person to be more Jewish than the next. Person A can be eating pig on Yom Kippur while Person B is in shul davening. But neither of them are more Jewish. Why? Because when you strip away their actions, their clothes, their lifestyles, and dig into their essence they’re both an equal part of G-d. So too, someone can grow up totally religious or became religious later on in life, and they are still the “same amount of Jewish”.
How cool is that? No matter my upbringing, my actions, my words, I am still just as Jewish as any other Jew. Which is why my primary essence is Jewish. Sure, after that I can start classifying as a chabadnik, baal teshuva, lover of books, writer, etc. But why limit myself by identifying first with one of those aspects?
To be clear: I am a very proud baal teshuva. I am proud of my journey, determination, and strength to overcome the many hurdles a “baal teshuva” faces. And I am not ashamed of where I come from. However, I refuse to let that be my definition, because those two words limit my whole identity. I identify as a Jew first and foremost.
Let’s talk about the amazing parts of being Jewish. Of being Jewish, regardless of affiliation or belief.
I remember one of my true first encounters with the orthodox lifestyle. I was working at the local Camp Gan Israel in Plano, Texas. Every year, our camp director hirers a group of counselors from out of town. I was in eighth grade—two years younger than most of the counselors—and nowhere near as religious. But, that didn’t matter to them. My label wasn’t important. These girls went on to become some of my closest friends, and I am still in touch with many of them today. They showed me what it means to love every Jew for who they are.
Now, notice how I introduced myself at the beginning of the article as a baal teshuva—why is that? Even I do it, I’m not exempt from folly. We’re all doing it – and maybe we should consider changing that.
We’re all baalie teshuva. We’re all striving to be better people and improve our personal and global journeys. But no matter what: Jewish is your noun; your label is just an adjective. Adjectives are replaceable. But what will never be replaceable is your identity as a Jew.
Fact: You are a Jew. Lucky: You are a Jew.
Choice: What are you going to do with it?