Fitting In // A conversation with Rebbetzin Ruthi Lynn about the many challenges faced by baalei teshuvah

by Jenna Marin

Being a baal teshuvah isn’t easy, as author Jenny Serle explains in her new book Balanced Teshuvah:

“As baalei teshuvah exit the safe cocoon of their initial exposure to the warmth and beauty of Judaism, they find themselves in a foreign culture, often not knowing the language and dynamics of their observant community and facing unexpected situations they may feel unprepared for. Moreover, they often find themselves alone in dealing with these new challenges. This scenario can result in feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and even in questioning their decision to go through the hardships of changing their entire lifestyle in the first place.”

My husband and I, both baalei teshuvah, know this firsthand as we work to build a Torah home in a frum community. However, we have been fortunate in having had great mentors from the beginning, many of whom are baalei teshuvah themselves.

One such mentor is Rebbetzin Ruthi Lynn. Ruthi, a student of chinuch expert Rebbetzin Sima Spetner and Rav Noach Weinberg, zt”l, has been guiding baalei teshuvah for many years. She and her husband, Rabbi Shmuel Lynn, were the MEOR rabbi and rebbetzin at the University of Pennsylvania for over ten years, a kiruv program for college students and young professionals under the leadership of Rabbi Beryl Gershenfeld.

Rabbi Lynn is currently the executive director of MEOR Manhattan, while Ruthi divides her time between taking care of her large family (she has eight children between the ages of five and 19), counseling and teaching. Her popular chinuch classes led her to establish a new organization, ALIYT, which focuses on secular Jewish moms in the Philadelphia area. The name is taken from Eishes Chayil and is derived from the word meaning “to rise up and surpass.” Realizing that parenting is something that all Jewish mothers are concerned about, Ruthi’s classes teach women practical skills to enhance their relationship with their children.

To date, Ruthi and her husband have helped dozens of college students successfully navigate the process of teshuvah, moving on to shidduchim, shalom bayis, chinuch and integrating into a frum community. It was during the Lynns’ time at Penn, where I myself was a student and a newly minted baalas teshuvah, that I merited to spend many Shabbosim and Yomim Tovim in their home and avail myself of their guidance.

One of the areas that is particularly difficult for those new to the fold is shidduchim. We also usually go through it without family to direct us and advocate on our behalf. When I was in shidduchim, I really needed the support of someone who knew me and knew the system. That’s where Ruthi came in. She helped me process my dates and also guided me on the logistics. For example, one guy I dated was interested in continuing to date while I was hesitant to continue. Ruthi encouraged me to take more time to work through our previous dates. Interestingly, this particular guy matched everything I was looking for on paper, but after four dates I felt that something wasn’t quite right. My mind was clouded with many different thoughts and feelings. I called Ruthi and shared everything. Despite the fact that I was all over the place, she was able to pinpoint the exact issue that was bothering me, and after speaking to her I realized that our personalities were incompatible. I hung up the phone with complete clarity. I soon discovered that this would happen every time I called her to discuss a personal issue.

In fact, one of Ruthi’s biggest strengths is that she’s very perceptive and good at understanding people. Her pearls of wisdom have frequently been like rafts in a stormy sea, words I have clung to throughout the challenges in my life.

A few weeks ago I found myself trying to cook dinner. One pot had boiled over onto the stovetop and another was burning while my toddler insisted that I hold her. It was 5:15 p.m. My husband wouldn’t be home until 6:30, and after a quick meal he’d be out the door again for Minchah. I was frazzled trying to make everything work just days before Pesach. Meanwhile, my FFB (“frum from birth”) neighbor across the hall had just returned from her mother’s house, where she had fed her kids. She was also going to her in-laws for Pesach, whereas I had to make Pesach myself. I wouldn’t even have my usual help, as my babysitter was also making Pesach. Of course, my parents don’t understand why I can’t make my life easier by plopping my baby in front of a TV. And when my husband calls to ask if he can squeeze in an extra hour of learning after Maariv, I’m just about ready to lose it.

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