Look who's reaching out
by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 15, 2004
These pages have been filled of late with lively discussions of trends within Orthodoxy, in both America and Israel, and the implications of those trends for relations between religious and secular Jews. Professor Samuel Heilman and Rabbi Berel Wein led off by analyzing the causes for the growing "harediazation" of Orthodoxy.
Professor Heilman points to the dominance of products of chareidi yeshivos (and their wives) as day school educators and in the Orthodox rabbinate; Rabbi Wein notes the greater creativity of haredim in addressing the internal needs of the Orthodox community, in such areas as ArtScroll’s monumental translation and elucidation of the Talmud.
Because of the primacy of Torah learning in the hierarchy of haredi values, teaching and the rabbinate remain respected positions within the community. And it is natural that the haredi community’s creative energies are directed to promoting Torah study and strengthening the Orthodox community. The most gifted members of the Modern Orthodox community, by contrast, tend to gravitate towards business and the learned professions. After all, they say, the attainment of professional excellence is itself a Kiddush Hashem.
Some see growing haredization as a great threat. Efraim Zuroff writes, for instance, "the approach of total segregation espoused by the right wing will undoubtedly lead to the increased alienation of mainstream American Jewry from halachic Judaism." Desribing a recent conference of young European rabbis serving relatively small European communities, "nearly [all of whom] had advanced degrees from leading universities" Michael Freund concludes that those "comfortable with the Talmud, yet conversant with Hollywood ... alone have the ability to reach out to our assimilated and intermarried brethren and bring them back to their heritage." (emphasis added)
Yet it is demonstrably false that only the "modern" can attract secular Jews to their heritage, and that chareidi Jews have cut themselves off from their Jewish brethren. With some notable exceptions, such as the excellent work of Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald and NCSY, the overwhelming majority of outreach work in both America and Israel is done by haredim.
Every summer hundreds of married yeshiva couples and single yeshiva students, sponsored by Torah Umesorah’s Project SEED, spend their vacations establishing Torah learning programs in over seventy communities across North and South America. Many SEED programs have given rise to permanent community outreach kollelim, in communities as small as Des Moines, Iowa.
Graduates of Chafetz Chaim Yeshiva have established day schools and high schools in nearly a dozen communities, and planted Orthodox shuls in the least promising soil. Yeshiva graduates and their spouses comprise the vast bulk of the Association of Jewish Outreach Professionals.
The same pattern prevails in Israel. Over 1500 Torah scholars dedicate at least one night week, under the auspicies of Lev L’Achim, to teach secular Jews any aspect of Torah in which they are interested. Lev L’Achim registers thousands of children from non-religious homes for religious education every year. SHUVU has created an entire school system for children from Russian-speaking families. Arachim conducts large weekend seminars throughout the year for Jews from all backgrounds.
At the urging of Rabbi Motti Alon and others, the Israeli national religious community has begun to take a much more activist approach to kiruv. Zohar, a group of national religious rabbis, for instance, is doing admirable work providing religious services to the secular public in areas where the religious establishment has failed, including individualized premarital counseling, performing marriages without fee, and creating High Holyday services for those unfamiliar with the Machzor
Of course, the national religious world has always stressed concern for non-religious Jews. The assumption, however, was that influence would flow automatically from the exemplary conduct of religious Jews in the army and later the workplace. Likely familiarity with religious Jews in the army and workplace does lessen negative stereotypes about Torah life, though given the outpouring of hatred towards those wearing knitted kippot after the Rabin assassination even this effect might be overstated.
But familiarity has not, by and large, brought many secular Jews closer to Jewish observance. Indeed that very familiarity with colleagues in the army or at work can lead secular Jews to conclude that religious and non-religious Jews are basically all alike, and religious observance is nothing more than another nuance in lifestyle.
The first prerequisite for helping secular Jews find their way back to their heritage is unconditional love for every Jew. But it requires more – above all an absolute conviction that a life of Torah and mitzvot is the best life for every Jew. There need be nothing condescending about that.
Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb, former chairman of the philosophy department at Johns Hopkins University, was once asked by a Jewish Agency emissary in South Africa why he insists on wearing full Chassidic garb even in the heat of the summer. He replied that he wants his dress to convey the message that a life of mitzvah observance transforms every aspect of one’s being.
Knowledge of sports or Hollywood trivia can be a useful conversation starter, but ultimately only those who can convey a passion for Torah will ever be able to help searching Jews find the way home.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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