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Shared Adventures, Same Direction

Barbara Bensoussan

You’ve changed your life around, transformed your inner self, and have embarked on the road to a mainstream Torah life. But who will understand you on the other side of the divide? Will those who have been religious all their lives even begin to relate? A community shul in Los Angeles carries baalei teshuvah to the next level, while keeping them on familiar territory.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

The food is different. The clothing is hot. And no one gets your jokes. It’s the no-man’s-land between a secular lifestyle and full integration into a religious one. Even if you’re happy to have left your old life behind, it takes time to fully grasp the mores of your new environment. Even worse, if you don’t find people you can relate to, the loneliness and alienation may lead you to give up and just go back where you came from.

Rabbi Avraham Yechiel Hirschman, head of the Pico Bais Medrash in the Pico-Robertson area of Los Angeles, is deeply concerned by the fact that so many baalei teshuvah actually drop out after several years of being frum. “I would say between 20 and 40 percent of baalei teshuvah have thoughts of regressing to their old lifestyles,” he says.

Years ago, says Rabbi Hirschman, the teshuvah process was more drawn out. Today, young people are shuttled along the kiruv track at dizzying speeds.

Kiruv rabbis send people off to Eretz Yisrael to learn after six months, where they stay for a year or so, and then they return and get married,” he says. “Within two years they’ve transformed their lives, gotten married, and had children.”

These folks may look like everyone else, but underneath the black hats, their needs and struggles differ greatly from those of their FFB neighbors.

“They are not simply late starters,” he emphasizes.

Rabbi Hirschman, formerly of LA’s Merkaz HaTorah Kollel, now heads a shul that caters to mature baalei teshuvah: not college-age newbies, but married couples in their 20s and 30s who are raising families and trying to deal with the triple-header of commitment to Orthodox Judaism, marriage, and children. Rabbi Hirschman’s minyan on LA’s Pico Boulevard is one type of solution for dealing with second-stage support for the newly observant.

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