The State of Kiruv Today
by Jonathan Rosenblum
January 4, 2013
The new issue of the on-line journal Klal Perspectives on kiruv today is out. Judging by the early traffic, it promises to be both widely read and likely to stir up debate, especially as the contributors had widely divergent assessments of the current state of kiruv.
Though the editors posed the questions to contributors in neutral language, it does not take much to read into them a certain disillusionment. Among the questions posed (I'm paraphrasing) are: (1) Has kiruv in America run its course due to a rapidly diminishing target audience?; (2) Does kiruv rechokim command too much of the communal budget compared to other important needs – e.g., kiruv k'rovim?; and (3) How can the effectiveness of various kiruv efforts be measured?
These are tough questions. If the symposium did nothing else, it showed how elusive are the measures of success. The contributors did not agree on the goals of kiruv: Is increased Jewish identity (and perhaps the lessened chance of intermarriage) a desideratum? Or are only those who become fully observant "successes?" Nor was there any clarity about the metrics for success. One contributor asked, for instance, whether it is permissible to talk of "high value" ba'alei teshuva, who will likely influence others.
The disillusionment is perhaps understandable. After the Six-Day War, dreams of a whole generation of Jews returning were rife. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe spoke of mass teshuva in Israel, and Rabbi Noach Weinberg developed plans to return the majority of the Jewish people to Hashem.
Uri Zohar, Israel's most popular entertainer shocked the country by going to learn in kollel. Future Maariv editor Amnon Dankner wrote a piece, in which he spoke of all his friends suddenly turning up at Ohr Somayach, and described himself "as swaying like an apple on a tree. Another week or two. Maybe a month or a year. I'll fall too." Aish HaTorah was the subject of a long, not unsympathetic 1977 piece in Rolling Stone Magazine, the bible of the counter-culture.
But it is unfair to judge kiruv today against unrealistic hopes once aroused. Any individual who changes his life completely, while rejecting the default assumptions of the society in which he grew up is a miracle. And miracles cannot be mass produced – at least not derech hateva (in the natural order of things). Even in the good old days of kiruv, no more than one in ten who entered Ohr Somayach or Aish HaTorah stayed for any period of time.
Rabbi Avraham Edelstein, who from his perch within the Wolfson Foundation has the best overview of kiruv worldwide, argues that kiruv continues to thrive and expand. He points to 2,000 salaried positions added to kiruv activities around the globe over the last thirteen years, and cites statistics that during the last two academic years nearly 1,100 students becames shomer Shabbos on North American campuses.
From one point of that view, that latter figure represents a huge number of Jewish neshamos; from another point, it will barely make a dent in the demographic future of North American Jewry. I choose the former perspective.
Still Rabbi Edelstein admits that the English-speaking ba'al teshuva yeshivos have not experienced a commensurate increase in students – in fact, the opposite. The uncertain economic future and huge debt load many students carry makes it much harder to take a year or two off for full-time yeshiva studies. Twenty-something ba'alei teshuva today are more likely to be Wharton graduates than spiritual-seekers backpacking around the globe.
The changing climate for kiruv has important consequences for future strategies.
Religious growth cannot end with college graduation. If campus kiruv workers can no longer hand-off to ba'al teshuva yeshivos in Israel, there will need to be a lot more coordination between different kiruv organizations – e.g., between campus kiruv workers and community kollelim in the cities to which graduates move. That is already happening. In Chicago, for instance, there are at least eleven kiruv organizations working in different areas and with different demographics. They try as much as possible to bring in speakers together, and to refer to one another as needed.
In addition, more resources will have to be directed towards follow-up –i.e., helping recent ba'alei teshuva integrate into the Torah community, marry, raise families, etc. But if the metrics of campus kiruv are dicey – hours spent in class, participation in trips to Israel, Shabbos observance – follow-up kiruv will be even less subject to quantitative measurement. How do you count those who became healthy, happy, normal frum Jews because they were adopted by a family like my friends Rabbi Donny and Esti Deutsch in Chicago, and had role models with whom to consult throughout the long process of integration.
THE ESSAY THAT has attracted by far the most attention was Rabbi Ilan Feldman of Atlanta's clarion call for Jewish communities to aspire to be "model" communities serving as magnets for other Jews and not just "observant" communities, rigorously observing the halacha, but lacking a vision of the type of individuals and communities the Torah seeks to shape. He urges the Orthodox to rediscover the optimism of Avraham Avinu that the example of Torah lived as it is supposed to be – not just as a set of rules to be obeyed – can exercise a profound impact on all around.
Rabbi Feldman is firmly in the tradition of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who greeted the tumbling of the ghetto walls not as a threat but as an opportunity to bring the light of Torah to every sphere of life. I'm both sympathetic to that perspective, and in awe of the eloquence and clarity with which Rabbi Feldman presents his vision.
But those who traffic in archetypes – "model" vs. "observant" communities -- risk distortion, as Rabbi Feldman acknowledges. I think that my friend is too hard on the Torah community today, including the Atlanta community whose foundations were laid by his father, Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, fifty years ago, and which has continued to flourish and grow under his leadership.
There is no benefit to adopting the self-flagellation of the Israeli Left: If we were only more forthcoming and understanding, the Palestinians would gladly live with us in peace. To believe that if we were only better individuals and communities, then all non-religious Jews would join us is no more realistic.
No doubt non-religious Jews felt more welcome in Congregation Beth Jacob when most of the members still drove to shul and when the typical shaylah posed to Rav Emanuel was: What's the Hebrew equivalent of Clete (for Atlanta Braves third baseman Clete Boyer)? But ultimately it is the power of Torah that must attract people to a life of Torah. The fact that the Atlanta community now boasts hundreds who can convey Torah with depth to an Emory University student, for instance only increases the outreach power of the community, which newcomers report remains a warm and welcoming one.
A belief in the inherent connection of every Jew to Torah is a prerequisite for effective kiruv. But it is not necessary to idealize non-observant Jews or deprive them of any agency, and place the blame for their not being religious solely on the failures of the Torah community. Rabbi Feldman writes of discovering on a 1988 Federation mission to Israel 200 fellow Atlanta Jews, "who knew very little about Torah . . . [but] possessed a passion for Judaism as they knew it that rivaled the passion I had seen in my frum friends."
Growing up in one of the largest Conservative synagogues in America, I never heard anyone asking the question: "What does G-d want of me?" Yes, my parents instilled Jewish pride, which goes a long towards explaining why four out of the five Rosenblum boys made the journey to a Torah life. But religious passion – hardly: That explains why the Conservative movement (the most identified of non-Orthodox Jews) hemorrhaged 15% of its member families between 2001 and 2010 alone. On this point, I'll trust Jack Wertheimer, former provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who has written article after article decrying non-Orthodox Jewry's refusal to credit Judaism with having "a set of distinctive commandments, beliefs and values," for which Jews have always willingly set themselves apart.
Most important, I cannot agree with Rabbi Feldman that it is "an open secret known to those who practice outreach [that] to effectively inspire people to become observant, the effort must be done in isolation from the established Orthodox community." True, no one would expose potential ba'alei teshuva to those who burn garbage cans, or spit on school girls, or those segments of the community unwilling to confront and address the predators in their midst.
But kiruv professionals consistently tell me that the Torah community is the single most important resource at their disposal. A recent Shabbos guest told me that despite her positive interaction with the kiruv families at the University of Wisconsin she would never have reached her current high level of observance but for the semester spent living in the Chicago community. That's why almost every campus outreach program uses one or two Shabbatons in a Torah community as the centerpiece of its efforts.
Rabbi Edelstein told me last week that Shabbos meals with frum families remain the single most important spur to taking on more observance. I have witnessed first-hand the power of the Ohr Somayach Mentor's Missions, which pair thirty or so baalebatim with college students for four days of learning and touring in Israel.
Rabbi Meir Goldberg, who works on the Rutgers campus, wrote in response to the Klal Perspectives issue, that the single most effective program in terms of sending students to Israel is the Lakewood Fellowships, where students spend a week in Lakewood. One participant wrote afterwards, "We shared tefilos, seudos, and zemiros, with the Lakewood community. They made us part of their homes, a part of their Shabbos, . . . a part of their extended family. . . . I said to myself, 'I was afraid to come here, but I know it will pain me even more to leave this wonderful place.'"
Speaking personally, I can say that after 33 years in a Torah community, I'm still astounded by the number of extraordinary people I know – not just the supernal beings found nowhere else, but the 'ordinary' people with whom I interact daily. Nor have I ever experienced any other community even remotely comparable in terms of shared purpose and mutual concern for one another.
Our communities are the greatest untapped resource for kiruv. That is the message that Torah Jews need to hear so that even more participate in Partners in Torah, Project Inspire, and numerous other kiruv projects.
Related Topics: American Jewry & Continuity, Chareidim and Their Critics, Jewish Ethics, World Jewry
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list