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‘When I Found Authentic Torah, It Was Like Electricity’

A roundtable with ‘baal teshuvah’ Jews—who grew up non-Orthodox but later chose Orthodoxy—about why they started their journeys, what they had to leave behind, and which aspects of religious life they love the most

Abigail Pogrebin
August 24, 2023
The Minyan
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Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine

When secular or non-Orthodox Jews decide to become Orthodox, they are called baal teshuvah, which literally means “master of return.” Their numbers are large: According to a 2019 study, 42% of the modern Orthodox community in America is baal teshuvah; in Haredi or Hasidic circles, the numbers are smaller but still significant. The median age when they started to identify as Orthodox is 23.5.

For baalei teshuvah—the plural of baal teshuvah, sometimes colloquially called BT’s—this transformation does not happen overnight and involves a significant commitment when it comes to learning about Torah, Shabbat, kashrut, holidays, and the laws and customs around everything from tznius (modest dress) to niddah (purity laws). Some baalei teshuvah I spoke to reported feeling persistent judgment from FFB’s—“Frum From Birth,” meaning those who were born into frum, or Orthodox, families. Some FFB’s worry that their children will be negatively exposed to a BT’s nonreligious friends or relatives. One baal teshuvah rabbi told me, “People question the potential for purity if someone has previously had a defiled existence.” Other baalei teshuvah told me that they remain overwhelmed by all the texts and tradition they will never master, no matter how diligently they try. “There’s a feeling of inadequacy,” one said, “like I’ll never catch up.”

However, in the roundtable discussion I had recently with 11 baalei teshuvah, the sentiment was overwhelmingly positive. Yes, some had to overcome misconceptions—their own, as well as those of other observant Jews—and some had felt friction from friends and family members who didn’t understand their transitions. But they were mostly focused on what they had gained, how their lives had changed for the better, the things they valued most about their lives today. Virtually everyone I spoke to said that living a life oriented toward God and Torah added “truth” and “meaning” to their lives, and gave them a sense of purpose and community.


Their ages, locations, and when they became observant

Judy: 63, Los Angeles. “It probably started around the time I was 25 and I was fully committed by the time I was 27, when I got married.”

Yaakov: 34, Monsey, New York, originally from Częstochowa, Poland. “My journey began when I left Poland at the age of 15 in 2004.”

Fred: 71, Riverdale, New York. “It was a process; I don’t have the date.”

Esther: 37, LA, originally from Russia. “I decided to seriously observe Torah when I was in ninth grade.”

Yitzchok: 60, Bay Area, California. “The process was from age 20 till 23.”

David: 42, Michigan. “I started my journey at 18 and became frum—religious Orthodox—at 21.”

Bracha: 67, Baltimore. “I became observant at 22.”

Nina: 67, Skokie, Illinois. “I was in my mid-30s when it really started to stick.”

Chaya: 56. Denver. “I became observant at 26.”

Debby: 63, Toms River, New Jersey, originally from Australia. “I became shomer shabbes at 27.”

Yehudah: 43, Huntington Woods, Michigan. Became baal teshuvah at 33. “Your question of when we made the transition is a little bit tricky. I just answered it based on when I became shomer shabbes [observing the Sabbath], shomer kashrus [keeping kosher]—just the basic elements of being able to live in an observant community. But I don’t feel like it’s a binary.”

Let’s address the term “baal teshuvah.” Can some of you weigh in on whether you use it?

Debby: I’m very comfortable with it. It’s something that was hard-earned, and there’s so much we can share with others. It’s a term that doesn’t have any negative connotations for me, only positive.

Bracha: I love telling people that I’m a baal teshuvah. It’s an interesting term because it means you’re a person who is returning to who you were, but it’s not like I’m returning to being observant, because I wasn’t. I’m returning to the essence of who I am. Another term that is used is mevakesh emes—a seeker of truth. I relate to that so much; we’re people who are seeking truth, and that’s what motivated us to return to a path of following the Torah’s guidelines.

Yaakov: I would describe myself as a deep thinker and spiritual person. What really began my journey was knowing that I’m Jewish, but not knowing what that means. I wanted to know. My grandfather attended cheder [religious elementary school] and learned Talmud; I wanted to taste that for myself. So in a way, I became baal teshuvah because I returned to the ways of my grandparents and my great-grandparents.

I’m also interested if anyone is not comfortable with the term?

Yehudah: It is a little bit fraught with some issues. I don’t think it’s a negative term, but it might be a loaded term in some Jewish communities.

What do you mean by “fraught”?

Yehudah: You’re not supposed to remind somebody about when they weren’t observant. It’s similar to why you’re not supposed to remind somebody if they’re a ger [a convert]; it’s not necessarily helpful to the person in their own development. The other side of it is I think that the term baal teshuvah is limiting because we’re human, and humans do a lot of things that aren’t ideal, regardless of how observant they might be externally. People do sometimes make a lot of assumptions about people based on that term or status. So I don’t find that to be a helpful descriptor. I don’t have a problem being called it; I just think it’s too limiting.

I became ‘baal teshuvah’ because I returned to the ways of my grandparents and my great-grandparents.

Can I just see a show of hands: How many of you changed your name because of the transition to a more religious life? I see five: Bracha, Yitzchok, David, Esther, Yehudah—you’re gesturing “sort of.”

Yehudah: I was Yehudah at my bris, named after my great-grandmother, who escaped pogroms when she was 16 years old. I added my second name, Leyb, when I got married and became religious.

What is one of the best, beautiful aspects of the life that you live nowreligiously?

Debby: That life is not random. I know that now—intellectually, instinctively, emotionally: It’s not random. There is a God in the world and everything is run by that Creator. Just living with that awareness—I don’t know how people live without it. We all go through so much. I don’t know how people survive trauma or tragedy without that awareness. I am so grateful that that is my reality.

Judy: Our grandchildren. We have 11 grandchildren and almost all of them carry the names of our parents or even my grandparents. So I have a Dov Ber, a grandson, named for my grandfather, who—when he came to the United States—couldn’t go by Dov Ber. I feel a chill even saying this, looking by contrast at relatives and acquaintances of my vintage whose kids are barely Jewish. Seeing that continuity in my family and that they’re happy and being raised with a sense of who they are. It’s just unbelievable. It’s overwhelming.

Fred, do you want to share something that changed for the better?

Fred: Sure, it actually comes to mind pretty easily. I sound like a real baal teshuvah. Shabbes, the chagim—the Jewish calendar overall. If you don’t appreciate it, I don’t know what you would appreciate. It’s remarkable how it sets your year and also the things that it yields: community, family. You know, Judy has 11 grandkids, so I know she’s cooking all the time. She has her shopping, cooking schedule, all on the holidays, right? That would be it for me in a big sense: the Jewish calendar.

There is a God in the world and everything is run by that Creator. Just living with that awareness—I don’t know how people live without it.

David: Contrasting how I grew up—in a completely secular environment—to religious life, one of the things that’s been amazing is just how everything has meaning and purpose. We have a blessing after we use the restroom! With Torah and with the idea that there’s a God in the world and that He gave instructions for living, knowing that there’s objective meaning to things that we’re doing is extremely powerful. There’s no action in our lives that is without meaning. There’s an idea that Talmud Torah [Torah study] is k’neged kulam [opposite all]: There’s nothing that’s outside of Torah. So when we’re walking down the street, checking out at the supermarket, with our family, Jewish holidays, every single thing is infused with objective meaning—there’s something real going on in the world and it’s meaningful. That’s what is magical, that every minute of life is meaningful.

Yitzchok: Children and grandchildren, seeing them reach milestones—get married, have children, the way they raise their children and seeing the way they go after their ambitions.

Since nonreligious people also talk about the power of seeing children and grandchildren grow up and reach milestones, what would you say is unique about it through an Orthodox lens?

Yitzchok: Our children have taken to things Jewishly with a gusto. They teach. They lead. And seeing them pursue that has been a Jewish experience, in addition to being obviously the family experience. These are all magical things. One thing that also stands out about my religious life is the fact that I got the chance to learn for a long time. In the 10 years between when I finished college until the time I came to [the Bay Area], I got to spend in yeshiva. So even today, having access to the discourse of big talmidei chachamim—of very big scholars—and to be able to sit there for two hours and follow, decode everything that they’re saying because I was given access to learning, to this day is still a magical thing.

Esther: I feel very content and accomplished living this lifestyle because my son is now living this lifestyle. My life is now more intentional and purposeful; I feel very fulfilled. I’m happy that my son will be carrying this on, and I’m doing this with the help of Oora Somayach, because my son has chevrusas [study partners] and I’m trying to make the Torah lifestyle be sweet and fun for him. So he will continue.

Nina: What everyone said really resonates. I’d add to that: being in a community. I know other people have communities, but this is a community that’s dedicated and focused on creating and celebrating Jewish lives, supporting each other.

I’d ask each of you to speak about the decision to make this journey to a more religious life.

This is a community that’s dedicated and focused on creating and celebrating Jewish lives, supporting each other.

Judy: I met my husband when he was fresh off of a trip to Israel; he had discovered Torah. He had grown up in Chicago, totally secular. We hit it off right away, except for this one problem: He was really interested in Orthodoxy. So I thought, “There goes another one.” But I just liked him too much; he was too much of a mensch. We continued to go out and I realized that he was looking not just for a career, but a life. And even though I had grown up with a full engagement with Conservative synagogue and all my friends were Jewish, I started to realize that I didn’t really know very much about Judaism—what it really taught. I had a lot of stereotypes, preconceived notions, a lot of prejudice against anything that even had the word “Torah” in it. So that began the process. It was almost three years until we got married because I was fighting tooth and nail. But I saw that there was truth. And when I started really learning with Torah teachers, I thought, “This is real, and if I care about what’s true, then I need to pursue this.”

Debby: I think the starting point was a camp that my school miraculously instituted, which brought amazing Y.U. madrachim [Yeshiva University guides] into our lives. It was called Counterpoint, very radical, and it was my first really emotional experience of Judaism. It planted a seed that there was something here for me; that was around age 14, 15. Then I did really nothing. After I left school, I was focused on my career. Fast-forward to moving to LA to become an aspiring screenwriter, and Hashem [God], through Divine Providence, led me to the very beginnings of Aish HaTorah. They started teaching me and I was hooked. It played out from that point. I was in.

Yehudah: I’ve always been a spiritual seeker of some kind. I grew up in a secular environment where what I was exposed to from a Jewish perspective wasn’t scratching the itch of my thirst for spiritual development. So I dabbled in a lot of areas and eventually had the chance to study Hasidus [Hasidic thought] with a rabbi, even though I wasn’t observant. I went through a divorce and found for the first time the ability to imagine a more observant lifestyle in line with what I was learning. I think it’s really a whole family project; I met my current wife soon afterward, and alongside me, she really took to pursuing observance. It was something we did together with a mission to make sure that when we had children, which was really important to both of us and brought us together, that they would feel a real sense of belonging, identity, and a source, a heritage, for how they could seek and find healthy ways to answer those questions.

Esther: For me, the turning point was when I was 11: My school decided to send me to a Jewish sleepaway camp in the Catskills and that’s where I was exposed to a very friendly, warm environment. I was very inspired because of the Kiddush Hashem [acts that bring honor to God], the friendliness from the girls at camp. I didn’t even speak English; I spoke Russian. I didn’t understand the conversation because I’d been in the U.S. maybe a year, but I still understood the language of acceptance, warmth, unity. I felt I was one of them. I didn’t feel different. That Kiddush Hashem inspired me. The principal of my school who ran the camp, Camp Bais Yaakov, gave me her time—speaking to me, listening. It gave me a lot of emotional comfort. That’s what drew me. Later in life, I started to go to a more religious school, and the Kiddush Hashem continued.

I grew up in a secular environment where what I was exposed to from a Jewish perspective wasn’t scratching the itch of my thirst for spiritual development.

Chaya: My father died when I was a baby. I had an eating disorder that took me to a 12-step program, which took me to finding a relationship with a higher power. And when I started engaging in some Jewish things, I started to feel more connected. Then when I plugged into Torah, it was like a plug looking for a socket. When I found authentic Torah—what Judaism is—it was like electricity. The other piece was when I learned that what I do here on earth affects my father up there. It was the first time in my entire life that I had a connection with my father; he died when I was 6 months old. He got sick when I was 5 weeks. And that to me really sealed the deal.

Just to clarify, when you talk about your father “up there,” you’re talking about your biological father, not God.

Chaya: Yes, exactly. When I light candles here, that affects his place in the next world.

Fred: I was born in Brooklyn and I attended East Midwood Jewish Center, with Talmud Torah in the afternoon. I was bar mitzvahed and that was it; there was no more Jewishness. At Columbia University, of all places. I met my wife in the Ph.D. program in literature. My wife is the daughter of survivors, she comes from a religious family. We kind of worked it out in various stages in terms of my becoming more observant. But the thing is, I was a lucky guy: I went to Israel, where I was teaching at Bar-Ilan University, and then when I left Israel, I came to Riverdale and had the good fortune of being part of Rabbi Avi Weiss’ shul, the Hebrew Institute. I’m no longer there, but Rabbi Weiss is a genius at bringing people in. Riverdale itself has been a very extraordinary community in terms of its diversity, its acceptance. I’m now a member of the RJC [Riverdale Jewish Center] and God help me, I was president for three years. Here’s a message to all of you: Don’t become a baal teshuvah to be president of the shul. Huge, tragic mistake. [Laughter.]

Yaakov: When I was 5 years old [in Poland], I came home from preschool, and told my mother that the teacher told us we are going to church and the priest is going to put ashes on our heads. My mom said to me, “Kuba”—my Polish name is Kuba—“Kuba, sit down. I have something to tell you. You will not go to church.” So I ask her, why not? She said, “Because you are Jewish.” From that moment on, I knew I’m Jewish, but I didn’t know what it means. I wanted to learn, but there was no cheder, no Jewish schools in Poland after the war. So whatever I knew about Yiddishkeit or Judaism was from my mom, who was the daughter of two Holocaust survivors. It wasn’t enough for me. There was a Jewish summer and winter camp in Poland for Holocaust survivors—for their children and grandchildren. I went there and I liked what I heard.

David: When I was 18, I went on this Jewish trip to New York—a 10-day trip for $99. The catch was that we had to go to these Jewish classes in the morning. I had grown up attending Hebrew school when I was younger, but in those 10 days in New York, I learned more about Judaism than I did my whole life in Hebrew school. I was blown away. I was also presented for the first time with this idea that Judaism is real, that there’s evidence that supports something real that happened here, that God exists, and He gave the Torah. Then there were two questions that really changed my life. The first one was, “Will your grandchildren be Jewish?” I looked at the research and it shows basically that the only group that really had Jewish descendants were the Orthodox. I did not like that because I’m not Orthodox. So it made me think. The other question came from a rabbi who asked, “If your kids came to you and said, ‘Why should I be Jewish?’ what would you tell them?” I was on a summer trip trying to enjoy myself, but suddenly I’m thinking: kids. It made me really think that eventually I do want kids and I have no idea what I would tell them. I decided to go off and learn in yeshiva.

When I plugged into Torah, it was like a plug looking for a socket.

Bracha: I was in my teen years, searching for spirituality and I searched into a number of different religions in Buddhism and Christian Science. I got very involved. My soul was starving and it was expressed through my eating disorder. Between binges and restrictive dieting, I was so hungry for something real that could fill the emptiness. I went to Harvard because I was searching for the wisdom of life. I didn’t find it there. I went on to medical school, and then, since I was only dating non-Jews, my parents wanted to send me to Israel for the summer. I discovered Neve Yerushalayim and Ohr Somayach—they had a school for women about the spirituality in Judaism, which I did not know about until then, and I became observant right away. I did not go back to America, didn’t continue with medical school. I changed my life around, and it was not even an issue for me, because I finally nourished my hungry soul.

Yitzchok: I’d had a lackluster Jewish background. I went to Israel on my own when I was 20 and I thought I was going to kibbutz, but I met some people in the first weeks in Yerushalayim [Jerusalem] who made a compelling case for yeshiva instead—for the time I had in Israel. So I changed my plans. It was totally unexpected and even my mom was in shock, mixed with dread, when she heard I had changed my plans. The teachers were amazing. When I went back to college to finish off two more years, I spent time in Judaic studies and fortified myself with questions. Again, when I went back to make a real decision, it was the amazing teachers addressing those questions who brought me to make a decision.

Nina: I grew up in a very involved Reform Jewish family. The synagogue was the center of our lives. It was the ’60s—social justice, social action. That was what we did. My mother was a survivor; she wasn’t in the camps, but she left Germany right after Kristallnacht and she had no background in Judaism. My dad grew up in a Boston frum family, but it wasn’t a very happy family. They sent me off to a Reform camp in Wisconsin and I saw that it could be something alive and spiritual. I loved that. But I knew nothing, really nothing. I knew Jewish history, but nothing about Judaism really. I did not know what the Talmud was. I actually wanted to go to day school for high school and my mom said absolutely not because at the high school in Chicago at that time, girls were not studying Talmud; they studied napkin-folding. She said, “No, I can get you a really good secular education for free. You’ll get Hebrew language in the high school.” I went on, met my husband when I was very young. We got married. We were actually living in Madrid and became involved with a synagogue there.

Thank you all for sharing those stories. What word would you use to describe yourself Jewishly before you made this turn?

Judy: Conservative, leaning secular.

Nina: Reform, questioning.

I changed my life around, and it was not even an issue for me, because I finally nourished my hungry soul.

Debby: Traditional, secular.

Yehudah: Spiritual, secular.

Yaakov: Jewish, not knowing what it means, wanted to learn.

Esther. Traditional, not religious.

Bracha: Conservative-Reconstructionist.

Yitzchok: A happy dropout from Reform Judaism.

Fred: Secular.

David: Conservative but secular.

Chaya: Bagels and lox.

When I interviewed Yitzchok last week about the reality of a baal teshuvah, he invoked Abraham. He reminded me that our patriarch was told to leave everything behind when God told him to go—Lech Lecha. One of the hardest things about becoming baal teshuvah is not being able to carry everything—or everyone—with you. What did you leave behind?

David: Basically my entire life that I grew up with: the lifestyle that I was taught in public schools. I was basically doing the opposite of what they said. I knew they thought I was crazy. A lot of my friends did not continue to be on friendly terms with me. I left the city as well and went to Israel. So I left a lot behind. But in terms of myself, I didn’t have to leave parts of myself. Being religious is bringing out things that were already there.

Was there any kind of fissure in your family?

David: No, actually. My parents were so far removed from Judaism, even though we went to a Conservative synagogue. My sister found my learning and experience interesting and she became religious and now lives in Israel. My brother also found it interesting. He lives in Israel, too, and is married to a traditional woman.

I left a lot behind. But in terms of myself, I didn’t have to leave parts of myself. Being religious is bringing out things that were already there.

Inspired by you.

David: You could say that.

You started it.

David: I started it. And my parents moved two houses down from me. They moved from Los Angeles over here and now keep Shabbes and find it all interesting. They never would have guessed that their heritage was so rich.

Yitzchok, since you spurred this question for me in the first place, can I ask you now what you left behind?

Yitzchok: I said two things when we first spoke: One was that there’s a certain amount that is left behind. I wanted to emphasize the pain of that. Avraham left his land, his birthplace, his father’s house. But Avraham is also told to go toward himself; he’s supposed to bring himself in every aspect. There’s nothing about him which is posl—disqualified, so to speak. He really is supposed to bring it all, because it can all turn into purpose and something holy. So the pain of it is that not everything one thought was part of oneself has been able to come along. Probably the most acute thing about that was friends.

Did friendships dissolve?

Yitzchok: It wasn’t fractured; there was nothing violent or blunt about it. But the fact that I ended up in Israel for a long time did some of the work. Other things had to do with different interests. But the friends that a person has in late adolescence and early adulthood, they’re a little bit a part of you. It’s not always so clear where everybody starts and ends. And so going on without them meant that part of you was left behind.

Would anyone else comment on what got left behind?

Yaakov: When I began the journey, I decided that I can’t have one leg in the world left behind and one leg in the new world. I fully immersed myself in this Orthodox world unknown to me. In the beginning, I left everything behind. I was in a place only with guys, no girls, and that was a very new experience for me. But I actually had a conversation with myself: I said, “I’m doing this for God. This is the right thing to do.” God gave me the strength to go further. I was thinking that everything rested on me, keeping Halacha, doing everything as best as I can. Then I learned to find that healthy balance. It’s still a journey for me.

Esther: I left behind friends and family gatherings and celebrations because I couldn’t commute on Shabbes, but I gained a life of purpose, stability, and meaning.

I just want to see a show of hands: Was there anyone who would say that there was some breakage or difficulty with this decision to become religious—in terms of your families? Raise your hand. I see eight out of 11: Judy, Chaya, Fred, Debby, Yitzchok, Yehudah, Nina, Yaakov. Is there anyone who is comfortable addressing what that looks like?

It’s not just on them to accept us. We have to make an effort, too.

Judy: People find it threatening—as parents, siblings. You’re going into a very different kind of a lifestyle. They can anticipate that there are going to be times when you’re just not going to all be able to get together in the same way, in the same place at the same time. Parents in particular can consider it a rejection of their own values. One of the things that we were taught when we were early on in this process was to help heal—the best we could—these relationships. That it was our responsibility as BT to reassure our parents in particular, that it was, davka, the good values that they showed us, taught us, that led us on this path. We all have a responsibility. It’s not just on them to accept us. We have to make an effort, too.

Yitzchok: I think parents do feel a certain amount of judgment. Also, they disagree. I mean, it’s not necessarily just because of judgment; they disagree. My mother did not necessarily disagree so much. She says today that if there had been a synagogue in my hometown like the synagogue I’m in right now, they would have gone to it. But she adds that my father never would have. My father would not have come with us. My father disagreed. He thought it was a mistake. He got less judgmental in terms of the mistake part over time.

Yaakov: It began really when I started keeping kashrus, and I would tell my mother, “I’m sorry, Mom, I can’t eat your food.” That wasn’t easy. And then eventually, when I had decided to leave Poland to come to America to attend yeshiva, I would visit my mom only during summer once, twice a year during winter, and we would be separated. I’m the only child and she wouldn’t see me. I wouldn’t see her. That wasn’t easy. It was a sacrifice on her behalf and mine.

I want to address some of the misapprehensions that exist. Before you became Orthodox, what were some of your assumptions—mistaken or not—about Orthodox Jews?

Chaya: I was under the false impression that women were second-class citizens, and it is completely the opposite. Yes, there are roles that we’ve had to play in the past, due to certain biological things and before the advent of the Industrial Revolution, when there were no washing machines or dishwashers, you had to actually clean the chickens and there were no refrigerators, so there had to be somebody at home doing all those things. Biologically, we’re the ones who have the children. Right? But that’s not because we’re second-class citizens. That said, there are some things, to be intellectually honest, that are said or done that could use tweaking. But it’s never because we’re second-class citizens.

I was under the false impression that women were second-class citizens, and it is completely the opposite.

Yehudah: I have less misconceptions than I used to, but I’m still parsing it out—being able to better differentiate which are matters of my relationship to God and which are matters of conformity to social tribal behavior. How much of the way that communities create restrictions are because of full fidelity to our understanding of God—our relationship and obligations? How much of it is really just the natural behavior of humans and groups? The more learned a person becomes over time, the easier it is to differentiate between those two things. And for me, that’s a journey, and the more I can differentiate, the better of a balance I can create.

Judy, you gave me permission to mention that you have actually written a book about your experience. Can you address whether you had any misconceptions before you lived this life?

Judy: Absolutely—the same as Chaya. I had one of those bumper stickers that said, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle,” or something stupid like that, because I went to Berkeley. But yes, I thought if I’m religious, I’m going to just be pregnant and cooking all the time. Then the community we joined was filled with baalei teshuvah, and so I had to realize, “Whoa, all these women, they’ve got college degrees, master’s degrees, some have Ph.D.’s! What was I thinking?” I had never even looked into it to realize how dumb my ideas were. Also, as Chaya pointed out, I agree wholeheartedly that there are still things in the frum world that I think are not good for women and need fixing. But in terms of women having agency, power, influence, oh my gosh, it’s just tremendous. And we see it in the Torah, we see it in Nevi’im [the writings of the Prophets], and in our own lives.

I would like to turn to the misconceptions from FFB’s toward BT’s—what some in the “Frum From Birth” Orthodox Jewish community think about baalei teshuvah.

Everyone is in process. That’s important to note.

Debby: You’ve stumped me a little bit because it’s been many years since I became frum, and I’ve had pretty much a very undramatic kind of relationship with the frum world from the beginning. I don’t have this horrible story to tell you about the way I was treated over the years. I really don’t. When we tried to get our kids into school, they were very hesitant; they had to check us out. So they checked us out. But in general, I found I’ve had so many mentors, teachers, so much warmth, so much acceptance.

When you say that they had to check you out, is there some kind of test of authenticity that gets measured or ascertained?

Debby: We were coming out of left field into a small, frum school that had no experience of baalei teshuvah. So my husband secured a letter from a Rav in Yerushalayim, a big Rav. And it’s funny because this Rav wrote the letter in Yiddish. My husband had no idea what he wrote. My husband handed the letter to the principal and the principal is reading it and he’s like, “Whoa! OK, you’re in!” We still don’t know what he said, but it must have been good, thank God.

Nina: I live in a different world—in a very modern Orthodox community, open Orthodox, even. My son is a musmach [student] of Rabbi Avi Weiss’ yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, and we have a maharat [ordained Orthodox female clergy] in our shul. We raised our kids in a town where there was not a big frum community. In fact, there were probably 12 of us. Now that I moved a mile and a half west—I’m in Skokie now—it’s like I’m living in the Goldene Medine because there’s Jews everywhere I look and it’s great. But it’s very open and never have we felt any feeling of, “You’re not good enough or you’re not frum enough or you’re not kosher enough.” You know, people sometimes don’t want to eat in other people’s homes; we know people who won’t eat in anybody’s house. Fine, that’s your problem. We’re living in a little bit of a bubble, probably, and I’m very happy in my bubble.

Fred: What Nina’s saying—I also feel identical. I married into a family where one brother-in-law is a rosh yeshiva at Chofetz Chaim in Queens and another is an Agudath rabbi in Cedarhurst. I work at Y.U. I’m close friends with the rosh ha’yeshiva at Y.U. I have never felt that there was an FFB bias toward me. There’s actually real acceptance. There’s also respect. It’s not that I’m a lower order of being because I haven’t done Shas [studied the six orders of the Mishna—rabbinic commentary] in my lifetime. So, I must say, the FFB community, even in Israel, I’ve only been greeted with kindness.

Chaya: When one of my daughters, my oldest daughter, was dating—thank God she’s married and expecting a baby now, which is exciting—but when she was dating, we actually got a phone call from someone. Because my husband and I were baal teshuvah, they wanted to see proof of our Jewishness. And I said, “No, thank you.” So there’s that twist where people wonder who you are. Maimonides—the Rambam—says everyone is baal teshuvah. Everyone is in process. That’s important to note.

Judaism is the ultimate gift. I chose to unwrap that gift.

We’re going to finish now with this question: What is one thing you would want the American Jewish community to understand about those who consider themselves to be baal teshuvah?

Nina: As the entire Jewish community is diverse, the baal teshuvah community is diverse. I mean, look at us: This is 11 people. We are all coming from different places, and yet we all describe ourselves as baalei teshuvah and all accept each other as baalei teshuvah, or just as yidn [Yiddish for “Jews”]. That’s the basic thing. We’re all Jews.

Debby: Judaism is the ultimate gift. I chose to unwrap that gift, and I encourage each and every one of them to also take that gift that lies right there in their backyard, and learn what the ultimate benefit is in their life.

Chaya: One of the gifts of being a baal teshuvah and learning Torah is finding out that things are much deeper than they seem. If something bothers you, look deeper at the primary sources. Eventually you will find something that resonates, because it’s for all of us.

Judy: There is a great fear of judgment that goes both ways. I would like the greater Jewish community to know that baalei teshuvah are on a self-development mission for life. We’re not here to judge anybody else’s level of religious observance.

Esther: It’s a beautiful lifestyle. And you should try it.

Yitzchok: If I’m addressing the American Jewish community, I’m addressing a community which is trying to go from one generation to another, despite the fact that they are Jewishly illiterate. No Jewish community has ever tried to go from one generation to another without basic Jewish literacy. So I would say baalei teshuvah represent the fact that it’s never too late to try to take on Jewish literacy.

Bracha: The essence of being a Jew is living a life of gratitude. All the mitzvahs are an expression of gratitude.

David: For 3,300 years, your grandparents sacrificed everything for God, for Torah. Sometimes they sacrificed their lives. It’s an incredible, incredible history, so investigate and see what it was that they were so faithful to and stuck to for so many thousands of years, despite unprecedented persecution from every country we ever lived in. Check out what that is. I thought about this question and I created a video called "The Mystery of the Jews.” And it was to try to answer, inspire people to see that there’s more than what they think is there. Because I had no idea. And when I was presented with Torah, I was blown away by it.

Yehudah: I used to joke that at the beginning of the pandemic, it was the first time I felt totally comfortable with being shomer negiah [observing prohibitions on touching]. It was like, Oh, this is the best—I don’t have to have awkward interactions all the time because everyone is doing this. The reason I think I struggle with religious dictates—and my one sentence for what I would want people to know—is it’s not personal. Don’t take it personally when people are making changes in their life. You’re not going to take offense when you interact with someone if they’ve always had a certain limitation in their life. Taking on things that create limitations, whether it’s that I can’t go out to dinner with the family anymore, or I can’t eat in this or that restaurant, or I can’t give you a hug, it’s not personal. I think everyone would be so much happier if everyone knew that.

Yaakov: I would like everyone to know that it’s something that a baal teshuvah chose to do and keeps on choosing every single day. It’s ongoing and it’s something that we choose to do every single day—connecting our neshama, our soul, to our maker.

Fred: Try it, you’ll like it.

Participants were permitted to use pseudonyms to protect their privacy.

Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David and My Jewish Year. She moderates the interview series “What Everyone’s Talking About” at the JCC in Manhattan.