Friday, August 01, 2008

Second Class: Not Just BTs

Ed. note: Part of why this post has taken three days (!) to write is that there's both so much to say and so little to say at the same time. When it comes down to it, most people know how to act, are aware that they're sometimes judgmental, and that they're not as accepting as they can be. They try hard to correct it, they talk about it, they really work at it - and most people really are decent and good most of the time. Not much is necessarily added by talking about it, though perhaps something is. I also realized that in the process of writing the post, I completely got away from what part of my original intention was, which was to encourage good people - which I think that thankfully SerandEz readers are - to come to the Shabbaton we're running together with BeyondBT in a couple of weeks (Aug 15-16). So... come! :)

There was recently an article that went around the J-blogosphere discussing the "second class" treatment that BTs sometimes receive. This is not the focus of this post. BeyondBT linked to the piece with a simple question:
In your experience, are BTs generally treated as second class citizens in the communities you’ve lived in?
While the overall answer in the comments was a big, "Well, not really...", the thread of comments was fascinating. As I noted to Mark Frankel, one of the administrators there:
me: i think that the thread on the Second Class? post is one of the best on the blog, ever, and is really what the blog is all about in so many diff ways.
BeyondBT: in what ways is it what the blog all about?
me: fitting in, whether BTs should be trying to fit in, what exactly is diff about BTs in the first place, are those positive or negative things, do they need to be "fixed", are they treated differently, how are they treated differently, is it because they're BTs per se, what can be done about it... etc.
that thread alone covered all of those.
Many commenters touched on what I think is an important point. When ba'alei teshuva run into situations where they feel like they are being treated as second class citizens, it often has very little to do with their status as BTs and far more to do with the people doing the excluding. The same issues often will come up among any Orthodox family - for nearly every characteristic a person or family can have, there are going to be those that wish to exclude them for those same characteristics. The issue is not whether BTs or any other grouping (Sephardim, Charedim, Modern, Yeshivish, Black-Hat, Srugis, etc.) are considered second-class, but why people feel a need to be elitist, and why we're hurt when we're not in the self-proclaimed elite group.

I don't know that either of those are particularly "solvable" issues - only issues that can be minimized. Unfortunately, there are always going to be people who wish to be exclusionary and find a need to put down other groups to raise their own. On the flip side, the motto atop this blog serves as a good reminder of how to view such elitism - a frum Jew needs to only follow the guidelines the Torah sets out, not the "rules" that an individual community, or more often, a small subset of a community try to overtly force on its members. There should be no hurt at being "excluded" from an elitist group - would a person truly wish to be part of a group that thumbs its nose at anyone who is not just like them? Obviously not.

But then again, this is reality. While in our personal relationships and in our own conduct it is easy to do what is right and what we wish, and not cater to the demands of unreasonable others, the reality is that we sometimes have to face situations such as these. The question becomes how to approach them, and obviously, every situation calls for its own set of guidelines and specific responses.

Most important, however, is that to effect a real change in the Jewish community as a whole these attitudes need to be changed. While it is quite difficult for any individual to effect change on a large scale, one need only to follow the advice of R' Israel Salanter to do so* - by focusing on one's own actions first. The more we focus on ensuring that we live up to certain ideals and respect differences as other approaches and not "worse" ones, and demonstrate that, the more the people around us will (and to some extent are forced to do so) as well.

Case in point: A woman called me about a shidduch for her daughter, asking about a friend of mine. One of the questions was how he dressed - 'does he dress "black and white", does he wear colored shirts, how does he dress on Shabbos...' As I often do with questions like this, I decided to make a small point (but nicely) with the response. "My friend wears suits on Shabbos and dresses very nicely during the week. I don't think he finds whether the shirt is white to be particularly important; he simply dresses very respectably and doesn't particularly care about that." After a slight hesitation, she said "Right, that is more superficial bu...", trailing off as if she was going to say more, but clearly thinking about the concept as she said it, and I cut in simply that "Yes, exactly. [It is superficial.]"

Most people in the Orthodox world who have exclusive views haven't given much thought to them. They go along with the narrow viewpoints that exist because that's what you do and because they haven't given much thought to it. By quietly, and kindly, separating the real stuff from the shtus we help people see past that. By noting nicely the positive impacts and traits a certain group have we help people see those things, and often times, an indirect approach is the best. A lot of people lately have been linking to the now deceased Randy Pausch's "Last Lecture" (and the hour to watch the whole thing will change your life in ways that are well worth the hour), and he talks about using "head fakes" to teach lessons. After an hour and fourteen minutes on the theme of the speech, "Living Your Childhood Dreams", he asks if people realized that that wasn't really what the speech was about at all. (I don't want to give it away.) But he was absolutely correct in that the lesson he actually was trying to impart was learned by the audience.

Most of us want to get along with one another, want to see eye-to-eye, and want to appreciate each other's differences - or at least, want people to do so with us. Instead of announcing "this is my approach!", calmly explain how your approach is a good one. Bring people into whatever you're doing and show them how it's good. Invite people for Shabbos and show them how you live. It's a lot harder to be judgmental of someone whom you know or someone who've you spent a Shabbos with. For example, on a thread suggesting how to "heal the rift within Orthodoxy", it was suggested to have an exchange program between yeshivos of different types. Whether that is feasible or not does not matter; it is certainly feasible to have at one's Shabbos table people of all different types, or in one's shul, or to simply stand on the street and talk for a bit. You don't need to have a discussion about a controversial subject, and even if you have such a discussion, it can be had while respecting why each side takes a certain view even if one disagrees for themselves.

The best way to effect change in our communities is rather simple: Live it.

...and, uh, oh yeah - don't forget about the Shabbaton. :)

* "I wanted to change the world, but I realized it was too large of a task for one person, so I tried to change my community. That was also too hard, so I tried to change my family. That was also too hard, so I decided to try and change myself. And though it was very hard, I finally changed myself. And once I changed myself, I discovered my family changed, the community changed, and the entire world changed."