On the Road
by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 12, 2007
On the Road
I'm writing while traveling in America with my wife and two youngest sons. As always, I find travel to be a great stimulant. The lack of familiarity with one's surroundings forces one to open one's eyes and to observe the world around with a keener eye and in sharper detail.
At the Boeing Museum of Flight in Seattle, for instance, I had a chance to contemplate the fact that less than seventy years separated Wilbur Wright's first flight, which lasted a few seconds and carried the him little more than one hundred feet, from Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon. I never would have thought about this particular aspect of the unquenchable human thirst to explore new vistas – itself one of the wonders of the Creation – had I not been at the Museum. (The Museum also forced me to reflect on how quickly the Wright brothers' invention was employed to transform the nature of warfare and greatly multiply its destructive force.)
At the same time, the breaking out of familiar patterns entails its own risks. One of the gedolei hador once quipped that Ben Gurion Airport has more yiras Shomayim than any other place in the world – i.e., many Jews leave their yiras Shomayim at the departure gate. Being removed from one's familiar surroundings while traveling makes, it is easy to feel as if all the old rules have been temporarily suspended.
The towering, stark cliffs one encounters as one enters California's Yosemite Park or the view of the Pacific Ocean from the northern California coastline may fill one with a sense of awe lacking in more familiar settings. But neither Yosemite Park nor Big Sur turn out to be likely places to find a minyan.
This bein hazemanim vacation offered many more opportunities for sightseeing than most of my trips, which rarely involve seeing much more than the local shul. But, even on this trip, the shuls in Seattle and La Jolla where we spent Shabbos remained the most interesting part of the trip.
Once one gets outside of the main population centers, there is a massive population shift taking place in American Orthodoxy. I would guess that more than 90% of those in shul on our first two Shabbosos in America did not grow up in Torah-observant homes, and many did not even begin life as Jews. The rabbi of the shul on Seattle's Mercer Island where we spent our first Shabbos told me that he has already performed three chasunahs for formerly intermarried couples, in which the non-Jewish spouse has undergone a full halachic conversion under the auspicies of the Seattle Vaad Harabbonim.
My wife initially expressed some concerns about exposing our sons to communities where everything would be different from what they are used to in Eretz Yisrael. Those concerns are reasonable. But in the end I feel that our sons gained a great deal from meeting so many Jews in the process of spiritual growth.
The challenges faced by the ba'alei teshuva we met in America are far different than those of the American ba'alei teshuva we know in Eretz Yisrael. The latter almost always marry after both spouses have had the benefit of several years of full-time Torah learning. After marriage, they live in large Torah communities in which strict Torah observance is the norm.
Not so ba'alei teshuva in America. In most cases, they start their spiritual journey much later in life, and with no opportunity for full-time, intense Torah learning. Even after affiliation with an Orthodox shul, they continue to live, in a larger secular society, in which their new religious observance is viewed as nothing short of weird by most of their friends and colleagues, especially the Jewish ones.
Fort them, becoming religious usually involves losing most of one's former friends and having to make a whole set of new eyes, but without the supportive environment of Eretz Yisrael to facilitate that process.
Ba'alei teshuva couples in Eretz Yisrael met, in most cases, after both parties had committed themselves to a Torah observant life. That was a given from the start. The situation is far different for those who embark on the teshuvah process in America after they are already married. There is no guarantee that both spouses will move at the same rate, or even share a newfound enthusiasm for Torah. Thus many new ba'alei teshuva face the additional complication of negotiating with a spouse who rightly views them as having changed the assumptions under which they married in the first place.
Most of the ba'alei teshuva one encounters in Eretz Yisrael are pretty much indistinguishable from their neighbors in the chareidi community. Few of those we met in America would be confused, however, for Yerushalmi kolleleit.
I hope, however, that the exposure to those who have embarked on a spiritual journey in America will help my sons learn not to judge their fellow Jews only in terms of their external appearance or by their precise conformity to the societal norms with which they are being raised.
On our trip we met Jews who learn Gemara every night with the assistance of their Artscroll Gemara, despite never having had the opportunity to learn in a structured setting. And I spoke to the proud parents of a young man who learned with the local rav in La Jolla every day, after he returned home from public high school, and was able to enter straight into one of the top yeshivos in Jerusalem for graduates of American yeshiva high schools.
If my sons caught a glimmer of the obstacles that the Jews they met in shul have had to overcome to get to where they are today, I will account that aspect of our trip to have been a major success as well.
Related Topics: American Jewry & Continuity
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