By Rabbi Yehoshua Merenfeld
We all look up to and are inspired by Shluchim that we know. We are amazed by their perseverance, dedication, and success. We know that even when we are too tired or lazy to walk three blocks to a farbrengin; our shluchim are out there encouraging others to participate, and inspiring Jews with their words and actions.
We look on in amazement as our peers go off to the far flung corners of the world, and the people around them start changing in drastic and positive ways. Acquaintances become “regulars” and your main contributor becomes the Gabbai. A few kinuses and one rotating stage later and our friends come back from their respective places with men young and old sporting beards, Yarmulkes, tzitzis, and of course “The Black Hat.”
This group of followers is an affirmation of the power of the Shliach/Mishaleach; and they are the physical embodiment of his work and efforts. If there is anything we are more impressed by than the work of a shliach it’s the results he produces; Baalei Teshuva. Lauded for their earnestness and enthusiasm; we welcome them into our homes and lives, and we draw strength from them as they do from us.
When we meet these Jews in their communities or on our own we reiterate all of the statements of our holy sages and Rebbeim concerning the value and virtue of the Baal Teshuva. We stress through the stories we tell the importance of sincerity over all else. In fact, this is truly one of the biggest innovations of Chassidus, and was its most defining characteristic at the beginning of its revelation.
The fact that someone’s feelings and commitment could compensate for a shortcoming in practical observance or ignorance is at the heart of Chassidus. Therefore, when we tell newcomers to observance stories or sayings which basically extoll them; we are not buttering them up or practicing lip service, nor are we trying to convince them.
No, we are fortunate to have been educated by our Holy Rebbeim to appreciate and value every Jew and every mitzvah that they do. We recognize that not only are our mitzvahs not superior to theirs, but in many cases they perform mitzvahs with far more fervor and sincerity than we do.
Which brings me back to the question at hand, since we are all so enthralled with the work of the shluchim, and so warm and welcoming to everyone they bring close; why do we also make fun of them? As a Baal Teshuva I have always been very thankful that my parents sent me to conservative Hebrew School. It isn’t the conservative part I appreciate but the simple fact that I learned how to say a Ches. If you are from a religious upbringing you might not understand the significance of this accomplishment.
However, as a self-conscious teenager wholly obsessed with fitting in and seeming “normal;” the ability to say a Ches was a gift from above. Now stop and think for a minute. The last time you heard the adjective “baal Teshuva” applied to someone was it used to describe a person who discovered Judaism later in life and made endless changes and sacrifices to follow the holy Torah? Or did it imply a slightly odd, somewhat neurotic, ignoramus, whom you suspect of having separate dairy and meat toothbrushes. Yes I also find it funny, but then again I can say “Ches.”
These are the people our Rebbe sent us out into the world to find and help, and this movement of Teshuva is a clear foretaste of the final redemption, but we can’t seem to get past the ches. To be fair, some of the mistakes we make as baalie teshuva can be humorous but unfortunately we usually don’t get the humor and just feel laughed at. I can remember how one of my peers in yeshiva could not differentiate between the correct pronunciations of “you are trustworthy to resurrect the dead” “lehachios HaMesim,” and what he kept saying; “LeHaChayos Hamesim” “you are trustworthy to the dead animals. This very person also gave up a high paying corporate position at Microsoft in order to attend yeshiva, so let’s see someone who can say the words correctly do that!
We are indeed a peculiar bunch of Chassidim. We possess an unbound love for our fellow Jews and infinite patience as they approach the kodesh; unless they have already made an outward attempt to conform, and then they are simply BT’s. Why and how are we able to balance these two extreme views about the very same people? What does it say about us and our true understanding of Moshiach and redemption and their effect on the world?
Having spent the last 12 years of my life closely associated with Yeshiva Tiferes Menachem of Sea Gate, the first 5 as a student and the last 7 as a staff member in some capacity, I have heard every thing that can be said about us BT’s. Obviously, being filled with Baalie Teshuva has made us an easy target for anyone with an axe to grind about grammar and pronunciation, but after more than a decade of hard work, and hundreds of students graduating and going on to build strong Jewish homes; I think it’s time we all own up to the greatest accomplishment in the history of the Jewish people.
The young men that I have had the privilege to live, and learn, and work with are some of the finest most genuine people I have had the good fortune to know. What they lacked in a hundred year old Eastern European accent; they made up for with the insight and connection of a Jewish Neshama. I have seen people sacrifice careers and relationships and everything in between because they see the truth and beauty and holiness of yiddishkeit. Not only are these people and the institutions dedicated to them nothing to laugh at, but they are the crowning glory of Lubavitch and a testament to the greatest Jewish leader of our generation.
Yeshiva Tiferes Menachem is celebrating 15 years of success in teaching and guidance. Our teachers are dedicated to every talmid and to cultivating their natural talents and capacities. Our alumni have graduated onto shlichus, teaching, business, and every other place you find normal productive members of society. They are your neighbors or partners or the parents of your children’s friend or your own parents; you might even be one, or be married to one of them. They are baalei teshuva in the truest sense of the word and they deserve and have earned our respect, patience, and compassion. These young people are a preview of the redemption and the yeshivas they occupy are a taste of the world to come. We have to learn to see past our own myopic outlook and appreciate and embrace the magnitude of what is taking place in our midst.
The redemption is unfolding before our eyes at 4823 Beach 48th street, and everyone is welcome to participate. I encourage each and every one of us to think about who we are as chassidim and what makes us different and unique amongst our brothers and sisters; The Children of Israel. I think you will agree that our true uniqueness and true success are the young men who occupy Yeshiva Tiferes Menachem and its brother and sister Chabad institutions around the world.