The Baal Teshuva Movement 

My title concerns me, because this phenomenon of people coming back to full observance is definitely part of this project and my own personal story. But here’s the thing: I don’t like the term: Ba’al Teshuva. 

The word ‘baal’ probably originated as a Canaanite word for ‘god’. It’s used in Tanach for that Canaanite thunder god (like Zeus or Thor), plus it means master, owner, or husband. So, a Ba’al Tehuva means a ‘master of repentance’. I’m not sure how many people really ever master that particular skill. We all spend our lives trying, failing and trying again. I prefer ‘wasn’t always observant’ or ‘returned to a Torah based life style’. But that’s cumbersome. For this post. I’ll use BT. 

There are BT’s for centuries, but we’re only going to discuss the phenomenon that started in the very late 50’s and into the 60’s and was precipitated by organized efforts to capture ‘lost souls’.  

The Conservative Movement must be given credit for spearheading the effort with United Synagogue Youth (began 1951), but the declared objective was to provide primarily for social needs. However, there was also the network of Camp Ramahs which began in 1947, and provided kosher food and a serious, observant Shabbat experience. The Ramah alumni list is impressive and includes Wolf Blitzer, Jake Tapper, Congressman Jerold Nadler, former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, Debra Messing and Chaim Potok. But I know dozens of young people who became observant at Camp Ramahs.    

However, my agenda today is about those organizations which were specifically Orthodox outreach or Kiruv, literally ‘bringing close’. Close to what? Maybe God, but most probably observance.   

To quote from Prof Jack Wertheimer’s book The New American Judaism, these efforts: 

first began in the United States after the Second World War. Inside the Modern Orthodox sector, educational programs were launched by the National Council of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) and the Young Israel movement to teach returning war veterans and Jewish children enrolled in public schools about traditional Jewish observance. 

For some reason, he doesn’t include the Yeshiva University efforts, especially Torah Leadership Seminar and the James Striar School which had college level courses for beginners within Yeshiva College in Washington Heights. I’ll cover those efforts in another post. I’m also going to leave Chabad outreach for another time. 

Back to NCSY, nobody knows the numbers of those affected or those who became observant. 

Writing in 2018, Prof Wertheimer says that as time went on, outreach became harder and harder, because the target audience became smaller. He reports:  

Many outreach workers acknowledge that the likeliest targets of opportunity historically have been drawn from Conservative Jewish homes where they had been exposed to some measure of traditional Judaism. With the demographic contraction of that movement, the low-hanging fruit of the past is not nearly as available today, and therefore the pickings have grown slimmer. 

BTW one of the saddest respondents I encountered was Rav Ephraim Buchwald, who was a leader at YU’s TLS and then founded and led National Jewish Outreach Professionals. I know, like and respect him very much. This is what he wrote to me:   

The rise and decline of the Baal Teshuva movement, particularly the rise and decline of the non-Orthodox synagogues in the U.S. Conservative and Reform synagogues were the primary feeders of the Baal Teshuva movement. With their collapse, the religious return of their youth has ceased. With few exceptions, the Baal Teshuva movement has sadly ended. 

Question: Back in the 60’s, who was NCSY reaching? Answer: Young people like me, members of Orthodox synagogues, who were the non-observant Orthodox. In the words of Prof. Wertheimer, we were the ‘low hanging fruit.’ To a certain extent the efforts of NCSY in the 60’s and 70’s was in-reach, more than out-reach.  

As a member from 1963 to ‘68, I came from an Orthodox shul and found NCSY exciting and fun, but I was a captive audience. From 1972-75, I was an advisor in NCSY, again almost all of our wonderful members came from nonobservant members of Orthodox shuls. We succeeded for many reasons recorded in Debra Renee Kaufman’s book Rachels’ Daughter, about female BT’s. She described one woman’s journey as a search for identity. And she quotes one sociologist who explains that the return to observance was ‘to give life meaning and purpose’ (Glock, 1979). 

It also just felt good becoming part of this movement, and even better bringing others on board. It did give a sense of ‘meaning’. 

But here’s the fly in the ointment: Sometimes it gave us an inappropriate sense of control. NCSY ran into a situation where some parents were claiming that the C stood for ‘cult’, instead of ‘conference’. I wish that I could say that it never happened. In 2000, Gary Rosenblatt of the The New York Jewish Week wrote an eye opening article named The Dark Side of Outreach. This article revealed, I believe, a greater and more widespread problem than his more famous Baruch Lanner expose. He quoted one woman a saying: 

advisers are “telling kids, in effect, ‘we have the absolute truth, and we’re giving it to you, but your parents just don’t get it.’ 

That’s a problem. Rabbi Soloveitchik was very concerned with this problem whenever he spoke to NCSY participants or advisors. The Rav felt that nothing should interfere with the parent-child relationship. I always agreed, but am so embarrassed that some of my colleagues weren’t as scrupulous. 

I had a specific case in 1973 when a parent called me about her daughter, and told me that her son had become a Christian and now she was concerned that she was losing her daughter to us fanatics. I cried myself to sleep that night, but went to see this woman a few days later. Thank God, we became allies in her daughter’s journey toward observant Judaism. I wish every incident ended as well. 

Thousands of young people went through NCSY in the time period we’re discussing, early 60’s to late 70’s. Most of them benefited from the intense experience, but that doesn’t excuse those whose experience was traumatic.   

It was an intense time for all religions. Indeed, the proliferation of cults and revivals was so great that the period has been referred to as “the age of conversion” (Robbins and Anthony, 1979). 

The NCSY part in this phenomenon was fabulous, but could have, and should have been better. 

Next: Prelude to Miracle: May ‘67 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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