Tale of a Contemporary Baal Teshuva
Reviewed by Yonina Hall
Every teshuva story is fascinating, and every one is dear to Hashem. In a new book, A Jew Returns Home, the story of one Ben Ami (the pseudonym of a particular baal teshuva who now lives in Eretz Yisroel) is retold in a unique fashion. He is interviewed by Sara Soester, a former BBC interviewer who previously headed the English section of the Jerusalem anti-missionary department of Yad L'Achim.
Ben Ami's story is entertaining and engrossing. While others may identify with his slow, steady progress back to Torah and mitzvos, his starting point is certainly unusual. Both his parents were born Jewish but were not Jewishly educated. With five young children, his mother went through a personal crisis and allowed a neighbor to comfort her by bringing her into the local Baptist church, which welcomed her with open arms. Soon both she and her husband were practicing Christians; she even became the Sunday school superintendent and taught in the church school.
Ben Ami and his siblings were raised in the church. His older brother became a Baptist minister and his older sister married a minister and missionized in Nicaragua and Guatamala. It was during Ben Ami's high school years that the church's barely concealed anti-Semitism began to bother him. His doubts mushroomed into an all-out rejection of Christian teachings and a return to his Jewish roots. He was the only one in his family to make the leap back from Christianity to Orthodox Judaism.
Unlike other biographies of Jews who came from dubious backgrounds, what Ben Ami actually learned and did during his years in the church is not spelled out. This is a wise and sensitive decision on the part of the publisher, making this suitable reading for Jewish families. Instead, Ben Ami uses his background as a springboard for a larger discussion of the challenges facing the Jewish Kiruv movement, considering the well-funded, worldwide Christian missionary movement that exists today.
Effective Q & A
The use of a question-and-answer may surprise the reader at first. But as page follows page, it emerges as an ideal choice for several reasons. Recording Ben Ami's `live' response to the interviewer's questions quickly reveals his kind, caring personality. We laugh at his jokes and empathize with his emotions as he shares his newly acquired beliefs with family, friends and coworkers.
This format also helps us to understand Ben Ami's feelings at key points in his story. For example, the way he describes his first real exposure to Jewish thinking from a college radio program called "Morning Chizuk With Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser" (Rov of Khall Bais Yitzchok in New York and author of It Happened in Heaven, who gave the haskoma to this book) conveys as no first-person narrative could the amazement and sheer excitement of discovering that the dogma he was taught to be true is, in fact, completely erroneous.
"It was my first experience hearing a rabbi, and I was very impressed," Ben Ami relates. "It was not so much what he said but how he said it. You see, I had been taught that Judaism was a dry, legalistic religion. I was told that religious Jews did things by rote, without feeling. They supposedly just go through the motions, like robots, observing rituals without feeling, except perhaps fear, and mindlessly do what the rabbis tell them. That was always the impression I was given of the Jewish religion. Rabbi Goldwasser spoke with such tremendous enthusiasm and conviction, I felt betrayed...
"It was his excitement. It was his energy. You could hear it in his voice. He was not merely reading from a script. This was real. It was as if he himself was actually experiencing, living, bringing to life the words of the texts he quoted. It was clear to me that his commitment to Judaism was anything but rote or going through the motions. I realized that I was listening to a Jew who believed in G-d, a rabbi who passionately followed the commandents because G-d had commanded him to do so. So strong was the impression he made, I can still hear his voice in his sign-off saying, `This is Rabbi Goldwasser from Morning Chizuk. Have a nice day!"
Halfway through the book, the interview format takes a fascinating twist. In a thought-provoking chapter called "Outreach Issues," Ben Ami airs a point of view with which the interviewer disagrees, based on her own experiences. Their one- way conversation quickly becomes two-sided, as the interviewer becomes the interviewee.
It turns out that she, too, is a baalas teshuva, although she embraced Torah and mitzvos at a later age, as a mother of teens. With a directness tempered by sensitivity, Ben Ami compares and contrasts their experiences as baalei teshuva in the religious world. Their spirited discussion makes for some of the liveliest reading in the book.
Intermarriage and assimilation are the bane of secular Jewish society. "Jewish continuity" has become the rallying cry for all kinds of secular stop-gap measures. The Orthodox response, of course, is to provide a Torah education for every Jewish child.
"We stand at a moment in American Jewish history when the crisis in Jewish continuity is broadly acknowledged as the single largest problem facing our community," acknowledges David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, in an opinion piece (Am Echad Resources). "What should be causing us embarrassment and shame -- and frankly, sleepless nights -- is the sorry state of Jewish knowledge and Jewish commitment, and the prospect that our children or grandchildren may grow up without any sense of meaningful Jewish identity."
Ben Ami echoes that sentiment, decrying the silent holocaust wrought by Christian missionaries in America and Eretz Yisroel.
"In America," Ben notes, "there are a lot of Christian groups active on college campuses. They target Jews who are lonely, who feel they are missing something in life. We talk so much about anti-missionary work, but I think that we devote far too little resources to pro-Judaism work. The missionaries tell them, "We care about you!" But we need to do more to show that we, their fellow Jews, care about them... If he [the unaffiliated Jew] knows that we care about him, then the battle is already well on its way to being won. The best way, the only way, to counteract Christian outreach is with Jewish outreach."
Ben Ami's story is the contemporary call of a Jewish neshoma searching for truth, and a challenge for those who have found it to bring even more of their brethren back into the fold.