Kiruv without consideration of integration is irresponsible
It is now more than a half century since the modern teshuvah movement was ignited with Israel's miraculous victory in the Six Day War. As a community, we have invested tremendous resources in bringing Jews to a life of Torah and mitzvos. In Israel (upon which I will be focusing) it is estimated that ba'alei teshuvah and their offspring now number 250,000.
Unfortunately, there has been less success in integrating those ba'alei teshuvah into the larger chareidi community. Statistically children of ba'alei teshuvah constitute a disproportionate share of the drop-outs from Orthodox life.
Chareidim, along with the Arab population, are the poorest communities in Israel, and among chareidim, the ba'alei teshuvah tend to be the poorest of the poor. About 75% of chareidi families own their own homes or apartments. Among ba'alei teshuvah, the number is about 30%.
Successful integration of ba'alei teshuvah lags behind kiruv for numerous reasons. For one thing, it is much easier to attract funding for front-line kiruv. Funders are attracted by the instant gratification of the first steps into religious observance and the quantifiable measures of success — e.g., the number who become shomer Shabbos.
Integration, by contrast, is a generational process and has no clear calipers to evaluate success. The measures are more commonly of failure — divorce and declining religious observance, for example.
In addition, kiruv is easier. It demands one-on-one personal skills. Integration requires an understanding of the psychology of the teshuvah process and the sociology of the chareidi community. The chareidi community has many charismatic mekaravim to work with potential ba'alei teshuvah on an individual basis and an abundance of superb lecturers. The number of those interested in mining sociological data is far smaller, and yet a larger overall perspective is needed to identify where problems lurk in the integration process.
IN RECENT WEEKS, I've spent many hours with Ilan Kosman, the director of Shlavim, the only organization in Israel devoted exclusively to supporting the integration of ba'alei teshuvah. One thing he talked about was the loss of self-confidence experienced by baalei teshuvah. They enter a completely foreign society in which the social codes are unknown to them. They will hear frequently, and come to believe, that the world in which they have been living is an "olam hasheker," which causes them to ask how they could have lived in that world for so long. As a result, they no longer trust their own common sense and become completely reliant on those guiding them, according to Kosman.
The baalei teshuvah often view the chareidi world in purely idealistic terms, and see its members as ethereal beings removed from all earthly concerns. They know nothing of the pragmatism that characterizes the chareidi community and are unaware that the ideal is frequently modified by the guidance given to individuals in dealing with their particular circumstances.
The challenge of integration has nothing to do with the quality of the baalei teshuvah. A friend of mine who teaches in the Israeli division of Neve Yerushalayim told me that the kedushah of the young women he is teaching is so palpable that he often feels himself unworthy to be teaching them. But their very idealism can be a trap. They tend to see things in black and white, as if a life of Torah and mitzvos is a contradiction to dealing with the realities of day to day existence: that one must choose between one and the other.
They are too often under the impression that the entire chareidi world simply relies on miracles with respect to parnassah, and have little awareness of all the practical steps that chareidim take to secure their livelihoods. Accordingly, Kosman tells me, they identify the approach of relying on miracles with being at the top of the chareidi hierarchy, and they aspire to the top. "We did not become ba'alei teshuvah to be simple Jews," they say.
The naivete of some ba'alei teshuvah with respect to all things practical is one of the sources of estrangement from their children. The latter view their parents as dupes.
MY SECOND MEETING WITH ILAN was in the conference room of Shlavim together with many of the department heads. With 400 full and part-time employees and partial funding from the government, Shlavim has identified transition points in the lives of first or second generation ba'alei teshuvah and tried to develop programs to smooth those transitions. For instance, many of the ba'alei teshuvah live in cities on the geographical periphery. In the local Talmud Torah, up to 90% of the students may come from ba'al teshuvah families. But these cities frequently do not have a yeshivah ketanah for high school age students. As a consequence, the children must live away from home during their high school years. For the first time, they find themselves a distinct minority.
To help prepare the second generation for that transition, Shlavim has created a youth group, Yachdav (Together), in 20 cities on the periphery. The new youth group is a throwback to Zeirei Agudath Yisrael in the early years of the state. Under the guidance of the Chazon Ish, ZAI's leaders sought to instill a solid religious identity at a time when the tides were turning from religious observance. Similarly today, Yachdav works on the identity of members as bnei Torah and to boost their self-confidence. "Taking responsibility" — first and foremost for oneself, but also for the larger Torah society — is the watchword of Yachdav. A third goal of the youth group is to expand the ambitions of members, to foster a positive attitude of "I can," in place of limited goals, like becoming a stock boy in the local supermarket.
Another major transition point is the end of 12th grade for girls. Most chareidi families somehow scrape together the 40,000 shekels the seminaries take for professional programs that give a certificate upon completion of year 14. But about 2,000 Bais Yaakov graduates, the majority of whom are second generation baalei teshuvah, do not continue on post-high school. And most of those end up taking minimum wage jobs — as cashiers or as assistants in ganim (nursery schools) — and dropping out of the work force after they marry and begin having children. Shlavim has developed a pilot program to prepare a group of such young women to continue on for professional training. That preparation is combined with classes, with an emphasis on practical applications, in building a Jewish home, marital harmony, and parenting.
At the primary school level, Shlavim has introduced teams of learning specialists and various therapists to foster the emotional development of students in schools around the country. The direct work with the schoolchildren is supplemented by parenting groups. Shlavim is also developing a program whereby established chareidi families adopt ba'al teshuvah families and guide them.
In areas with large numbers of English-speakers, Shlavim is drawing on the resources of English-speaking volunteers, to work on spoken English with girls in schools with a high percentage of ba'alei teshuvah. The volunteers either come to the schools or invite the students to their homes. The emphasis is on short-interval goals, with lots of prizes. Not surprisingly, principals have noted an upsurge in attendance on the days when the English-program takes place.
Finally, Shlavim is addressing the parnassah issues of ba'alei teshuvah directly, providing individual counseling on family budgeting for those in debt and mentors for those starting small businesses. Shlavim noticed that way too many of the latter efforts failed, often due to the lack of 50-80,000 NIS at a crucial juncture. In established chareidi families, such sums could almost always be raised through the family's network of contacts or a gemach. But not so with ba'alei teshuvah. So Shlavim has created a $500,000 gemach specifically to aid ba'al teshuvah entrepreneurs.
Even this very partial list of Shlavim initiatives demonstrates how much needs to be done. Kiruv without consideration of integration is irresponsible, and will ultimately hurt kiruv efforts themselves.