Beginners Guidelines

What Steps Should One Who Wants to Start Observing Judaism Take?

Our panel consists of: Rabbi Dan Tiyumkin, a leader of the 'Maaneh' organization that gives counseling for baalei tshuva (those returning to Jewish observance): Yonatan Yitzchaki, a high tech employee and Torah scholar; Iris Shem-Tov, an educational consultant and life coach for spiritual growth; and Iris Lichtson-Amir, a certified therapist which works with expression and art therapy.

A person hears a lecture, is exposed to an idea or goes through a experience that makes him want to start keeping Judaism. What is the best way to start the process?

Rabbi Dan Tiyumkin: “The beginning stages of tshuva (return to Jewish observance) are very individual and different from person to person, and therefore it is difficult to give an all-in-one formula. The only advice that I think is right for everyone and for every situation, is not to become discouraged when the answers he is seeking are not immediately available. Tshuva requires a lot of internal introspection, and one shouldn’t despair of finding answers. We have many intuitions and instincts that the vanities of the world implanted in us, but there are also many intuitions which are true, and they are our wings to take off and find our personal relationship with our Creator. Those we must not reject!

In my opinion, the thing that one should not compromise on is a genuine connection to Torah study. ‘A person should only study the part of Torah that his heart desires.’ A person should make every effort to find a rabbi, a class, or a framework that will give him tools appropriate for him, so he can undertake this courageous journey. At the same time — he should not give up on his individual self on the way. He should hold a private conversation, even daily, with G-d, asking His help to find his personal way to Him.”

Yonatan Yitzchaki: “I suggest first of all that one who wants to get closer to Judaism shouldn’t do so virtually. He should try and look for people who are observant, until he finds someone with whom he can have an intellectual and heart to heart connection. Someone with whom he can learn together, talk about life, and get practical answers. It is very rewarding to get to know families who live a religious life. When one learns matters divorced from reality, it is worth nothing and the one becoming religious may get a distorted understanding and implement Judaism in the wrong way. But if you meet someone who is firmly planted in the world of Judaism, you will get a worldview that correlates directly to life and your reality. It’s not enough to find a study partner, but someone who is also a friend. In this way, the potential baal tshuva will have the opportunity to see how a Jewish home functions and how a family functions. Most people live in a world in which most of the relationships they are familiar with come from the TV. If you want to integrate into the religious world, you have to really see life on the ground.

“It's not easy. You may need to go through several people and several families until you find the ones that are suitable to guide you, but this is the way to plant a tree with very deep roots.”

Iris Shem Tov: “The most important thing is to learn as much as possible — through lectures, classes, books. Knowledge is power. Judaism is not foreign to almost anyone today. So if there is some difficulty, it is usually associated with the motivation to taking actual steps in getting close to G-d or Judaism, or towards spiritual life.

Many times one connects to some commandment and has the desire to fulfill it. In that case, he should begin to learn and implement that commandment that he desires, and use it to push him to advance. This push is a gift from G-d, and like any positive desire — one should take advantage of it. Of course, at a later stage, one is advised to take a guide. It does not have to be a distinguished rabbi or rabanit. It may even be a friend / acquaintance who went through the tshuva process a few years ago, and has some experience and basic knowledge to explain Jewish concepts and how to keep commandments.

It is very important not to fixate on a particular stream of Judaism. Don’t decide in the first months or even the first few years to which stream you want to belong (for instance, chassidic or a different ideology), even if your introduction to Judaism was made through that stream. Judaism has many shades but there is one central way common to all streams, which includes first and foremost observing the Torah as delineated in the Shulchan Aruch. It’s a good idea to start from the basics, and then you can choose the hue you want. After you studied enough, and know the basics, you can decide your own identity or identification with a particular group. But at first, as mentioned, you should avoid defining yourself and officially joining any stream.”

Iris Lichtson-Amir: “This is a very personal question. It makes a real difference if a person comes from a background with some tradition or from nothing. He may be antagonistic to anything to do with “religion”, it may all feel very scary. Since I came from very far away (a kibbutz), with zero knowledge and tons of fear and perhaps even loathing to “religion”, I can give you advice from my own experience.

I would advice a person to first of all remain in his own place, and do almost nothing. Maybe something small like washing hands, or saying “Modeh Ani” in the morning. To first make an emotional connection with this prayer. Savor it, think about the meaning of those words, enjoy the hand washing, feel how the impurity is getting washed away …. I would suggest that a person should read, listen to lectures, and especially develop a personal relationship with G-d. Begin to pray, to talk personally with G-d. The prayerbook in the beginning can feel very strange. With the time, what usually happens is that one begins to feel the “lights”. This is a tremendous spiritual flow that comes from above to help a person take the very unsimple step of making a huge change in his life. At this point, you can start to keep Shabbat, modesty, avoid slander and gossip, and it is a very good idea to look for a regular class (and then to consult with a rabbi / or a rabanit) or enter a seminary or a yeshiva. But take the process slowly. First of all, absorb and observe and take pleasure from the small steps. By contemplation, concentration … like a kind of meditation.”

How should one deal with family and close friends in the process of becoming religious?

Rabbi Tiyumkin: “Here too it is hard to say there is a uniform formula. Usually, the beginning of tshuva naturally results in a decline for the sake of eventual growth. The decline happens because of the person’s different interests. The family is worried, and rightly so. Their knowledge of the Torah world is generally based on newspapers and TV which displays a very unflattering picture of baalei tshuva and the society they are entering. Their loving families are rightly concerned that they were brainwashed and soon they will throw stones at them and will shout at them 'Shabbat'. His answers do not satisfy them, because they do not know where the process will end and to what degree we will become 'extremists' during the process.

“The one anchor point here is that “love covers up all faults.” It is impossible to replace a family, and for the vast majority of baalei tshuva, their relations with their family ended up strengthened. It is easy to find technical solutions, even in terms of kashrut (just as vegetarians find creative solutions), and likewise in every other field. But in the beginning stages, it is very important not to be seen as a missionary preaching to those who changed his diapers that they are living a lie. There is no substitute for good personal behavior, and typically, once the grandchildren start coming, even the toughest concrete walls melt and the bonds with the family warm up. But in the stormy beginning stages, one should fortify himself by learning the laws of honoring one's parents, getting advice, and doing everything possible to convey confidence that the relationship will only become stronger in the future.”

Yonatan Yitzhaki: “One shouldn’t waste time on lecturing about Judaism to one’s family. If the parents see that the person remains sane and doesn’t become extreme, that his move to religion is slow and sure, and he respects them — they will be at peace with it. Without this, even a thousand lectures about Jewish law won’t do a thing. Beyond that, sometimes one sees a family and friends as an obstacle to progress when they are just reflecting his own indecision. If he would transmit that he is at peace with his way, no opposition would arise. But sometimes, someone who lacks confidence becomes too extreme and this will arouse opposition. It might be an indication that he has gone too far. Also here It is important to have someone accompany him step by step and give solutions to such things as a mixed family event, etc.”

Iris Shem-Tov: “Family and friends are not an easy arena, and the main problem is the quality of the relationship after the person does tshuva. If the relationship is good — it will stand the test of change, but if not, sometimes there will be problems due to the person’s tshuva.

“In any case, the one who is becoming religious is advised not to try to get anyone else to become religious, or get into discussions when he doesn’t have sufficient knowledge to know what to say. It is better to discreetly keep his tshuva a personal, internal process. It is important first to reach a state of inner peace with the process and only then to show it outwardly. On the other hand, it is very important to get support from those around him, so if he does not find this in his immediate area, he should look for other friends who are also in the process. Social support is very important.

“It is extremely important to improve one’s behavior to his fellow man. Judaism places great if not primary emphasis on improving our relationships and polishing our character traits, so if those around him see and feel that the baal tshuva is changing his ways for the better in the social sphere, this is the main thing that will remove the resistance, and also give them the feeling that “it’s worth our while that he is religious.”

“This is especially true for the parents. An iron rule that I learned from my teachers at the beginning of my tshuva was that the parents need to feel that as I grow in the tshuva process, they will be more respected and loved. This is true for one’s spouse and children too. The main rule is that one’s environment should feel that they are better off when one is religious than when one isn’t religious … It is also one of the meanings of “sanctification of G-‘d Name.”

    Many people err in this matter when they do tshuva. They make life miserable for those around them, and they terrorize them with legal stringencies only to show how ‘religious’ they are, or to force others to be like them. There is no greater mistake, since ‘[the Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness,’ and the Torah teaches us to be considerate of and giving to others rather than acting selfishly based on an emotional religious experience. The rule is if one’s adherence to his religious experience offends another Jew, there is probably something wrong there, and one is not doing it for heaven's sake …”

Iris Lichtson-Amir: “Do not try to influence them to become religious, even though it's very difficult. I remember that I started the process because G-d touched me. If G-d had not done this, it wouldn’t have happened to me. Remember that it didn’t happen to ‘them’, they have no way to understand me. It is better to remain silent. Smile a lot. Agree to take the place of one who they think is a little off and don’t try to explain and justify your decision. At the most, you can ask them questions like: ‘Why is there the phenomenon of life and death’, ‘Who needs life, if most of the time it is filled with difficulties, struggles and suffering?’, etc. And most important, do not answer these questions, just throw it their way.”

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