There is a young man who has been coming to our shul recently who is in the process of becoming a baal teshuva. I have become a bit of a mentor for him and he asks me a lot of questions.
My question to you is this: Our shul is regular Ashkenazi and the boy comes from a Sefardi family with no connection to Yiddishkeit. He seems to feel very much at home in a community such as ours, but I’m wondering if I should encourage him to join a Sefardi community instead. And if so, when?
It is true that Jewish family traditions and affiliations should be preserved, and generally children should maintain the correct Jewish ways of their parents reaching back to Sinai.
But in this case, since the young man seems to have little background, and this is his first exposure to Yiddishkeit, the main thing at this point is that he should be happy where he is. And he should have close, personal contact with warm and caring people such as yourself and feel himself to be a part of a community.
Since it sounds like that’s what he’s getting now, there’s no need to encourage him at this point to make any changes.
In addition, at this early stage, religious distinctions between Ashkenazim and Sefardim are not significant and could be confusing. The main point should be to encourage and help him with general, basic issues of belief and matters of practical observance.
You might at some point mention the subject as part of his growing, general Jewish knowledge, emphasizing the illustrious, rich and unique tradition from which his family comes. You should certainly encourage him to try to find out more about who his ancestors were, where they were from and what role they played in their Jewish community. Often times, people find there’s much to be proud of within their Jewish ancestry.
But since there are observant Ashkenazim that for valid reasons choose to practice as Sefardim, and observant Sefardim that go Ashkenaz, as long as he’s content, growing and feels a part of the community, there’s no need for him to change in the meantime.
Once he becomes aware of his being Sefardi, and understands the importance of maintaining such a wonderful tradition, which in his case would mean re-establishing his family’s broken tradition, if he would like to pursue that option, he should be encouraged to do so. But that doesn’t necessarily mean changing suddenly and drastically. Rather, initially he should continue his affiliation with you and your shul, while exploring various options that would familiarize him with Sefardi communities.
If and when he starts to take an interest in such a direction, it will be very important that someone like you be personally involved in order to guide him and make sure he gets connected with a reliable rabbi and a community that will be good for him. Even then, you should not just pass him on to the care of others, but should maintain contact with him in order to smooth his transition.
I know a young man whose mother left her Jewish roots in order to marry a non-Jewish man. Obviously he was not raised observant. Eventually, his parents got divorced and his father later converted to Orthodox Judaism. The young man, being Jewish, was inspired by his father’s move to Judaism and slowly became religious himself. Once he became fully immersed in Yiddishkeit, he happened to meet a rabbi from a Chasidic group which, while very small now, was one of the largest Chasidic groups before being decimated in the Holocaust. As it turned out, his mother was actually from a prestigious family in that very important Chasidut, which the young man later joined.
In a most hidden and mysterious way, Divine Providence guided this non-religious Jewish young man via the conversion of his non-Jewish father back to the barely remnant, but illustrious family cradle that his Jewish mother rejected but which he has re-discovered and from which he is continuing the path of his ancestors. That’s how important returning to roots is to G‑d!