What does it mean to be a Ba'al Teshuva?

An Autobiographical Statement

These days people who meet me assume that I have been a Torah Jew my whole life. Baruch Hashem, you could not pay me a higher compliment! But that is not the story. In fact, I have spent many years striving to develop a Torah personality...

I was raised in a very assimilated Reform Jewish home in West Long Branch, NJ. We went to synagogue twice a year and were completely ignorant of Judaism. We had a Pesach Seder with crown-shaped challah (in addition to matzah). I grew up eating (and very much enjoying) bacon cheeseburgers, lobster, shrimp, and all that the non-kosher world has to offer — both in food and culture.

My parents were shocked when, after my Bar Mitzvah, I began to fast on Yom Kippur and stopped eating bread on Pesach. Of course, I ate pretzels and cereal too — who knew they were chometz? On my first trip to Israel as a young adult in 1987, I was shocked to learn that "The Temple" had been a place where animal sacrifices were brought. Here I thought it was a "Temple" just like mine. I had no idea what the black boxes were at the Kotel or why everyone wanted me to put them on.

During that trip, I spent time in an Ulpan that arranged for us to be adopted by families in Jerusalem. When filling out my preferences, I wanted very much to learn Hebrew so I requested a family where no one spoke English. That meant was that I was adopted by a religious Sephardic family. What an eye-opener! I quickly learned that Orthodox Judaism was not what I had been taught — a crutch used by the emotionally weak or the backwards way of the "Old Country" — instead, I saw a religious Judaism that was a healthy and integral part of living.

After six months in Israel, my parents gave me a choice: come home and go back to college or you are on your own. Having no idea how I could possibly support myself, I gave in and went back to college.

But I missed Israel desperately. At school, I began to attend Friday night services — not because I was interested in being religious but because it was a way to hang onto some aspect of the culture I had so enjoyed in Israel. And then during the week I began to say blessings on the foods I ate because that was a way to draw a little bit of shabbos into the week. But most importantly, I began to eat at the kosher dining hall — not because I kept kosher but because that was where I could find others who spoke Hebrew and had been to Israel. I say that this was "most important" because by and large those people were Orthodox Jews. Yet they were "normal," kind, and stable people.

As these Orthodox Jews became my friends, over time I began to learn a little Torah, a little of the weekly parasha, a little halacha. And the truth of Torah, even in small dosages, has its inevitable impact on a Jewish neshoma.

When was I actually chozer b'teshuva? I don't know how to answer that. Was it when I kept my first shabbos? Or when I learned all the technical details of borer? Perhaps when I started to keep a kosher home? Or maybe when I stopped eating in non-kosher restaurants? Maybe it was when I started davening, or when I started davening three-times daily, or when I started going to shul to daven with a minyan? When my wife and I began keeping taharas hamishpocha? When I accepted Torah MiSinai? When I accepted rabbinic authority, that whatever my Rav tells me I will do?

The truth is that I don't know. There was no one such moment. I became chozer b'teshuva this morning when I woke up and decided to go to shul. And again this afternoon when I went to mincha. And again when I made a blessing on my lunch. G-d willing, I will be chozer b'teshuva again tonight when I daven ma'ariv.

"Ba'al Teshuva"? I haven't mastered anything.* I continue to turn to and return to Hashem every day.

So you see why it is such a compliment when someone asks what Yeshiva I went to? For decades I have strived to learn and integrate all that I missed in the years that my contemporaries spent investing in their Torah learning. To be compared to such a ben Torah — that is the highest praise.

*Thanks to Tzvi Edelman who clarified for me this distinction between a "ba'al teshuva" and a "chozer b'teshuva".

This short statement is just a part of the much longer — and much more sordid — history of Rav Dovid's return to Judaism. The full story is complex, beautiful, and full of miracles. Contact Rav Dovid to invite him to your community.

Like what you read? Contact Rav Dovid to bring him to your community for a lecture, class, or shabbaton.