I was useful for a little while. Not that there was anything wrong with that.
There are norms in world that I had found myself in, and I wanted to make sure I respected those norms. What did I know about what it meant to be orthodox or Chabad? I was like a child walking into a roomful of adults. I just wanted them to be happy with me, I just wanted to fit in. I just wanted them to accept me.
They saw that, and they were genuine when they used it. We were all genuine. Most people are genuine. That doesn’t stop them from using others, or from being used. I see that now.
The beautiful thing about being a baal teshuva is the way you’re given a microphone practically the moment you walk into the room. They respect you, they genuinely think you have something important to say. They see your strengths and they realize that it makes them richer to have you along for the ride.
But they have what to teach you as well. While they know you have a lot to offer, they also know that there is so much more they know, so much more you still need to learn.
Ironically, I first learned this when I spoke up about the off the derech people, those people who seemed so illogically angry to me, who seemed to just troll every page on earth where a Jew was proud of being orthodox. I’d come in, and I’d say, “What’s wrong? Okay, you don’t believe. But we’re proud of believing. They’re proud. Why the anger?”
“You don’t know! You don’t know what we’ve been through!” they’d say. “You’re new to this. Stop acting like you know everything.”
And they were right, of course. What did I know? What did I know of their pain, and their loneliness, and the complicated story that is growing up orthodox? Nothing, of course.
But the funny thing was the way the others would encourage us still: “Go out and fight those off the derech people! You’re right to!”
We were the proof that they didn’t have a good cause, that being orthodox is beautiful. And, of course, it is. But it’s also not, and no one told us that when we went out to be cannon fodder for the battle of orthodox PR.
It’s a complicated story, really. Because intentions are good, but results are… not always good.
I was useful when I told Matisyahu to put his kippah back on. I was useful when I fought for Israel. I was useful when they thought I’d stay in line.
And I wasn’t when I didn’t. And the clearer it became I was determined to stay out of line, the less useful I became.
And maybe they’re right to feel that way. Maybe I don’t deserve to have a say if I’m not going to follow the rules, if I’m purposefully taking the role of an outsider. Maybe I’ll never be invited to speak at a Chabad House again, and maybe that’s good for all of us.
But what worries me is that every year, there are a new crop of the useful ones. I see them speaking up, trying to get in the mix in the way I did. And maybe it’s good they do. But I can’t help but worry.
To be a useful baal teshuva is to put yourself in a dangerous position. You may not realize it, but you are building up an infrastructure around your life, one you will soon become dependent on if you are useful enough. And you are still so young, you are still developing.
What I found, as I grew and my beliefs changed and I realized, “Hey, I was trying to fit in too much, and hey, look at all these things wrong, and hey, now I have daughters that are going to have to live this life,” was that I had come to depend on the good graces of the world I had entered. I was working for them, working with them, and the voice I had built as a writer was through them.
It was a painful process to reassert myself. To build a life that fit me better. To let go of jobs, friends, shuls, things that were good to me but that were not who I was. And the fact that I was so useful to all of them made it much harder.
Does that mean I regret being useful? Yes and no.
No because I am proud of myself for living the life I had chosen at the time. For fully throwing myself into where I was. That is who I am in general, and so if I had held back I would have regretted it even more.
But yes as well. Yes because it was being useful that slowed me from asserting myself as quickly as I could have. It was being useful that made it easier to rationalize being taken advantage of. Because many times, people do have good intentions, but many other times they don’t. And the more useful you become, the more the ones with the bad intentions come out, looking more pious than all the rest, and turn you from a useful person into a puppet.
I look around now, and I see that happening again. I see the Manis Friedmans of the world hiring the useful baalei teshuva. I see them putting the useful baalei teshuva to work using skills that others in the community don’t have to spread messages that aren’t fully understood. I saw the way the useful baalei teshuva were the first ones to attack other Jews for using an eruv, how friends of mine turned into soldiers hacking at the enemies of the state the moment a leader gave them the go-ahead. The way their usefulness can be weaponized.
I wonder if they’ll regret it years later. If they’ll reach a point where other useful baalei teshuva turn on them. I wonder if this is the way of things or if there is a way to make this process healthier.
Because the other thing I’ve seen is the other useful baalei teshuva. The ones who went through a similar process, and regretted it so much, and felt so taken advantage of, that they left completely. I see the way they’re ignored, as if they never existed, or hated, as if they’re the enemy. And I think of how much they gave, and how much it must hurt them to have done so much for the same people who now ignore them or hate them.
And I look at the useful baalei teshuva of today, and I wonder how many of them will end up like that. And I can’t help but wonder if that would be the worst result. Because I see some of the useful baalei teshuva of my “generation”, the ones who think that becoming orthodox must mean constant sacrifice, even when they’re sacrificing their own self-respect, their own agency. And I see how angry they are, but how they direct their anger at others, the off the derechs, and the non-useful baalei teshuvas, and the secular world.
And I realize that perhaps, at the moment, regret is not such a bad thing. That living in a prison of usefulness seems much worse. And while I wonder if things will change, I am thankful to be reminded that our agency never leaves us. That ultimately, Hashem always gives us a key to any room we’ve found ourselves in. And that we can share that key with others.