Passaic’s David Baum writes ‘Guide to Orthodox Jews’
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Passaic’s David Baum writes ‘Guide to Orthodox Jews’

Some people build bridges with steel cables, others with outstretched arms. Passaic father of seven David Baum built his with words.

His book, “The Non-Orthodox Jew’s Guide to Orthodox Jews,” is intended to bridge what he sees as a growing schism between the secular and Orthodox Jewish communities.

“I want everyone to understand each other,” says Baum, 49.

This is a tall order for one 355-page volume, subtitled “Why We Do What We Do, Wear What We Wear, and Think What We Think.” Its three parts cover an exhaustive range of topics, from theodicy and reincarnation to sex and drugs – all from a traditional Jewish perspective.

His goal was to encapsulate 3,300 years or so of law and lore into a single source that one Jew can hand to another.

The idea for this project took root in 1986, when Baum went to solicit funds from a Kansas City businessman for Aish HaTorah, a Jerusalem-based worldwide outreach program responsible for Baum’s own metamorphosis from a Jew-by-identity to an ordained Jew-by-practice.

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David Baum wants to build bridges between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. Courtesy David Baum

“The man told me he’d never give money to Aish because he believed the Orthodox are the death knell of Judaism,” Baum recalls. “That was the most preposterous thing I’d ever heard. But it started an idea banging around in my head to have one book we could give somebody to explain what we’re all about. There has never been one book to address that.” However, he did not feel qualified to write it.

Then, several years ago, the Baums’ baby daughter nearly choked to death on a small object and was saved by a quick response from her 15-year-old brother. “For reasons that are not clear to me, the thought of writing this book immediately came into my mind when my daughter’s life was spared, and I committed myself to it on the spot,” he writes. “I hope it does some good. It is truly a heartfelt response to the irrational and depressing situation that exists today within the worldwide Jewish family.”

Baum grew up in a kosher home in Fair Lawn, where his family belonged to the Conservative Temple Beth Sholom. “I didn’t walk into a yeshiva until I was 20,” he says. “My background gives me a unique perspective.”

He studied for seven years at Aish’s Jerusalem campus, during which time he met his future wife, Laurie. He does not like to put any particular label on himself. “I just say I’m a Torah-observant Jew, leaning toward the yeshiva world,” says the member of Cong. Agudas Yisroel. “If you saw me, it would be hard to classify me.”

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As he wrote, he pictured particular readers: “My lawyer; my brother-in-law; people I know who are not observant.”

He gave an early draft to his non-Orthodox sister-in-law, who encouraged him to take a more personal, conversational tone. “There are certain moral issues I speak about that people won’t agree with, but I didn’t write it in a way where they would take offense or feel I was criticizing them,” Baum says.

Given that Orthodoxy is hardly monolithic, Baum strove to keep the concepts basic. “Most Orthodox Jews, from the left to the right, would read what I wrote and say it makes sense. Every Orthodox Jew believes God gave the Torah at Sinai, for instance. But I did cover certain issues, such as Zionism, where you can have a huge range of opinions.”

Baum is counting on his book to make a small contribution toward shoring up what he sees as the shaky future of American Jewry, threatened by skyrocketing intermarriage rates, declining birth rates, languishing synagogue affiliation, and inadequate Jewish education.

Available at jewsguide.com or Barnes & Noble or Amazon online, the guide has an index, but no bibliography or footnotes. Baum believes that by writing from his own heart and head, he might influence open-minded readers to “come away knowing we are not the Taliban, Crusaders, or Inquisition. We encourage questions…. If someone is antagonistic, I hope it dampens their antagonism.”

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