Ba'alei Teshuvah

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BA'ALEI TESHUVAH (pl. of ba'al teshuvah; literally "penitent ones"). Beginning with the Bible (see Deut. 30), Jewish tradition has always encouraged those who stray from the path of mitzvah observance to return, to do "teshuvah" and readopt a traditional life style. The talmudic sages speak about repentance, "teshuvah," on numerous occasions, their most famous statement being, "where ba'alei teshuvah stand, a complete ẓaddik cannot stand" (Yalkut Shimoni, Gen. 20). In the post-talmudic period, innumerable scholars wrote about "teshuvah," encouraging even the observant Jew to become a ba'al teshuvah and improve his fulfillment of God's commandments. Maimonides codified the laws of "teshuvah" in his Mishneh Torah; Jonah ben Abraham *Gerondi wrote the classic, Gates of Repentance; and in modern times, Abraham Isaac *Kook wrote The Lights of Repentance. Unfortunately, we have no statistical record of the number of ba'alei teshuvah throughout history, just as we have no record of the number of Jews who abandoned their Judaism and its observance.

In the second half of the 20th century, the words ba'alei teshuvah took on new significance. Beginning in the 1960s in the U.S., the rise of the counterculture in general American society together with the search for new meaning and spirituality led an increasing number of college-age Jews to explore Jewish observance, many for the first time. For most of these young Jews, the exploration led them to Orthodoxy, of one form or another.

The essential factor that turned individual searching into a full-fledged movement was the internal state of Orthodoxy itself. Orthodoxy was enjoying a resurgence, following the semi-moribund state which largely characterized it during the first half of the century. The first to take advantage of the new interest in Judaism was the *Chabad-Lubavitch ḥasidic movement. By the mid-1960s, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menaḥem Mendel *Schneersohn, had "emissaries" in place on most of the large college campuses with high concentration of Jews. Trained to reach out to other Jews, Chabad was most instrumental in assisting numerous young people to become ba'alei teshuvah, even if they did not become Chabad ḥasidim per se. At the same time, the first generation of "baby-boomers" graduated the Orthodox day schools and went to college. Through their involvement in Hillel, Yavneh (the religious Jewish students' organization), and ncsy (see below) they became a potent force in creating the Ba'al Teshuvah movement.

The Ba'al Teshuvah movement was further bolstered by the organized and institutionalized Orthodox community. A number of institutions that were in place began to have an increasing effect on the movement. The *Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, commonly known as the OU, established the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (ncsy) that effectively used Orthodox college students as counselors for the burgeoning number of non-Orthodox high school students who were interested in Judaism and in Jewish observance. To this day, ncsy continues to teach Orthodoxy to non-Orthodox high school children. Yeshiva University offered beginners-level Jewish studies for ba'alei teshuvah in its James Strier School. Many of those who graduated from this program went on to become Jewish educators and rabbis. Numerous other, more "right-wing" yeshivot opened their doors to ba'alei teshuvah. They include She'ar Yashuv, Far Rockaway, n.y.; Hadar Ha Torah (Lubavitcher), Brooklyn, n.y.; Maḥzikei Torah (Bostoner Rebbe), Brookline, Mass.; Or Yosef, Strasbourg, France. This helps explain one of the more interesting phenomena of the Ba'al Teshuvah movement. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, increasing numbers of ba'alei teshuvah opted for stricter norms and uncompromising observance of "right-wing," "yeshivish" Orthodoxy.

In the wake of the Six-Day War, the nascent Ba'al Teshuvah movement in the former U.S.S.R. went public with demonstrations and an open call for more observance as well as permission to immigrate to Israel. As a result the kgb hounded those who wished to fulfill the Zionist dream and renew their Jewish observance. Hundreds of refuseniks were jailed. Ultimately, the Soviet Union opened its gates and the mass aliyah to Israel began. Two prominent refuseniks, Joseph Mendelevich and Eliyahu Essas, currently reside in Israel and continue to teach Judaism to the Russian immigrant community.

Eventually, the Ba'al Teshuvah movement spread to Israel. On the one hand, numerous institutions and organizations were created to teach and influence English-speaking students who arrived in Israel to continue their studies and enhance their Jewish observance. The most prominent are: Kefar Ḥabad (Lubavitcher), Kefar Ḥabad; Magen Avraham, Bene Berak; Diaspora Yeshiva (Har Ẓion), Jerusalem; Or Sameaḥ, Jerusalem; Kollel Or Sameaḥ, Zikhron Ya'akov; Or Sameaḥ Work and Study Program, Givat Ada; D'var Yerushalayim, Jerusalem; Aish Ha Torah, Jerusalem; Kehillat Yaakov, Jerusalem; Hamivtar, Efrat; Shapell College, Jerusalem; Neve Yerushalayim, Jerusalem; Isralight, Jerusalem; Machon Pardes (co-ed), Jerusalem. These institutions, in many cases, function not only as schools, but as the centers of living communities. Many of their students marry, set up homes within the community, continue their studies and, even after the end of formal studies, continue to maintain strong ties with the yeshivah or school. Thus these yeshivot may be seen as the vital center of the entire Ba'alei Teshuvah movement. On the other hand, the native, Israeli society has also witnessed a growing, Hebrew-speaking Ba'al Teshuvah movement. Here, the movers and shakers are primarily Sephardi rabbis, many of whom preach to large crowds, exhorting them to return to their religious roots. On the whole, the Israeli Ba'al Teshuvah movement can be characterized as "right-wing" or ultra-Orthodox.

In the U.S., in 1987 an organization called National Jewish Outreach Program (njop) was created to provide support and in-service training for those engaged in outreach to potential ba'alei teshuvah. Founded by a leading outreach rabbi, Ephraim Buchwald, njop has guided thousands of volunteer teachers and tens of thousands of Jewish adults. They participated in programs advertised via the mass media and taught at Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox synagogues, as well as Jewish non-religious organizations, such as Jewish community centers. There is also a complementary organization called Association for Jewish Outreach Professionals & Programs (ajop), which was founded in 1988.

The Ba'al Teshuvah movement, both in Israel and throughout the Diaspora, can certainly claim great success. Though no accurate records exist, literally thousands of Jews have returned to Jewish observance over the past 45 years of the movement's history. The movement has generated a whole library of books aimed at ba'alei teshuvah, strengthened existing and built new communities in Israel and abroad, and experienced its own unique set of problems, such as the growing difficulties in educating and maintaining the observance of the second generation, i.e., the children, of ba'alei teshuvah. Nevertheless, the movement has been an integral element in the resurgence of Orthodoxy throughout the Jewish world over the last half century.


M.H. Danzger, Returning to Tradition: The Contemporary Revival of Orthodox Judaism (2005); D. Klinghoffer, The Lord Will Gather Me In: My Journey to Jewish Orthodoxy (1998).

[Jonathan Chipman /

David Derovan (2nd ed.)]