This year's Association of Jewish Outreach Programs (AJOP) convention included a broader than usual spectrum of kiruv workers across the Orthodox spectrum. For instance, Hart Levine, a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, described in one session a project he initiated while an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania of Orthodox students on the Penn campus inviting fellow Jewish students for Shabbat meals, Sedarim, to learn Hebrew and text study. Since graduating, Levine has worked to spread this initiative on nine other campuses with a significant cohort of modern Orthodox students, with day school backgrounds and often one or two years of post-high school learning in Israel. As campus kiruv becomes an ever larger slice of the overall kiruv budget, Levine's initiative raises the question of whether and how the student efforts could be combined with those of full-time kiruv workers on campus.
One of the featured speakers at the AJOP convention was Rabbi Steven Burg, the national director of NCSY. He told a story of tracking down a blogger who was consistently posting highly critical remarks about Orthodox kiruv. The young man was thrilled that anyone had taken note of his complaints, and told Rabbi Burg that he had once been a student in a ba'al teshuva yeshiva. As long as he learned in the yeshiva, he related, all he heard from his rabbis was how great he was. But when he decided to leave because he was not yet prepared to take on a life of full observance, he was dropped like a sack of potatoes (or at least that's how he perceived it.)
As far as that young man was concerned, the message was: You are only of interest as long as you seem headed in the desired direction. The effect of such an attitude is to turn the would-be ba'al teshuva into the chafetz shel mitzvah (the object with which the mitzvah is performed) of the one who seeks to draw him close to Torah. No one wants to feel like someone else's chafetz shel mitzvah.
Even with the best of intentions it is possible for kiruv professionals to slip into such a mindset. Campus kiruv workers, for instance, who are constantly pushed by funders' demands to enroll new students in programs, may find themselves shortchanging those who have already gone through programs and denying them the ongoing attention they need.
Whenever one hears the ugly phrase, "I made so-and-so frum," one should beware of the attitude that those who become frum are notches in the gun of those who helped them along their path. No one can "make" someone else frum, just as there are no formulas for mass producing ba'alei teshuva.
When someone in whom one has invested much effort and developed a relationship does not become fully observant, disappointment is natural. But that does not mean that the efforts were worthless or that one is a failure. For one thing, one never knows what the impact of that investment will prove to be years later. NCSY, for instance, works primarily with Jewish public school students from non-observant homes. Historically, no more than forty percent of those students will become shomrei Torah u'mitzvos. But beyond the fact that it is impossible to know in advance which ones will fall into which group, it is a mistake to feel that nothing was achieved with respect to the other sixty percent. As Rabbi Burg pointed out, NCSY graduates will rarely be found among those Jewish students leading campus coalitions against Israel.
Of course, as in every other field, there are those who are more successful in facilitating growth and those who are less. But the key determinant, over the long run, is likely to be the commitment to sharing Torah with one's fellow Jews and the ability to establish deep personal attachments.
I once asked a ba'al teshuva from Detroit what was the secret of the phenomenal success of Rabbi Avraham Jacobowitz in drawing close so many Jews over the years. He replied, "It's simple, he loves every Jew." Recently, I had the opportunity to spend five days in the home of two others who have that quality of loving every other Jew, Rabbi Doniel and Esti Deutsch. Rabbi Deutsch founded Chicago Torah Network (CTN), together with Rabbi Moshe Katz, over twenty years ago.
CTN is not so much a kiruv organization as an extended family, and like a family those who enter through any of its various portals are members forever. CTN deals in individuals, not numbers. Over the years, I have spent a number of Shabbos meals at the Deutsch's overflowing Shabbos table. The recent Shabbos meal included a young widow and her high school age daughter, a recently married couple just back from a few years of study in Eretz Yisrael, and two university students at different stages of their religious development and in need of a religious family with which to connect. By the time I returned on Motzaei Shabbos, the Deutschs were already working on their Shabbos list for the next week, just as parents figure out which of their children will be with them the next Shabbos.
It is comforting to know that at least with respect to Chicago there is always an address to which any newcomer to the city can be sent with confidence that they will receive all the love and attention they need.
Recently, my wife and I had the privilege to spend Shabbos in the holy city of Tzefas together with an Ohr Somayach mentors mission. The mentors missions are the brainchild of Reb Daniel Lemberg of Lakewood. The basic idea is to bring groups of ba'alebatim from America to learn with total beginners who are in Israel on one of Ohr Somayach's short-term programs. The mentors are paired with one of the students for four or five days plus a Shabbos. During that time, they bond over various activities and spend some time each day learning a sugya to which a complete beginner can apply his own sevora (logic).
The fact that a complete stranger would travel from America, at his own expense, and put his business aside to learn and interact with a total stranger for five days inevitably makes a strong impression on the beginners, and gives them a tangible indication of how precious the Torah is to these successful businessmen and professionals. In addition, the beginners gain a connection with a frum family, with whom they will maintain contact on their return to America. Recently, Lemberg has added missions to different university campuses and ones based on inviting students to Lakewood to the mix.
Over Shabbos, I focused less on the students and more on the mentors, whose enthusiasm for what they were doing was palpable. My observation was borne out by a conversation with Lemberg, who told me that many of mentors return for a second mission soon after their first, and that at least ten have returned repeatedly over the last five years.
The fulfillment that the mentors experience in helping the beginners strikes me as just another example of the klal (principle) that sustained happiness in life can only come from a feeling of growing oneself or helping others to grow. Indeed the former is usually the pre-condition for the latter: Only to the extent that we are ourselves growing and alive can we provide sustenance to others.
Man is compared to a fruit tree. The Torah's rhetorical question – ". . . [i]s man a tree of the field . . . ? (Devarim 20:19– is also read by Chazal as statement of fact – a human being and a fruit-bearing tree share something in common. And the Vilna Gaon points out that eitz (tree) and tzelem (the Divine image) have the same numerical value. Man is most G-d-like in his ability to produce fruits, either through his own good deeds or his positive influence on others, most notably his own offspring.
One of our generation's greatest ba'alei hashkafa once put this in a homely fashion: "We did not come to the world just to move the furniture around from one side of the room to another." Rather our task in life is to leave the world a better place. The Navi (Yeshayahu 51: ) proclaims, "[Say] to Zion, 'You are my nation," and Chazal say, "Don't read ami (my nation) rather imi (with me)" – i.e., You are My partners in creation.
The joy I saw on the faces of the mentors in Tzefas was that of Jews engaged in the most important possible partnership with Hashem – i.e., bringing His children closer to Him.
I was fortunate to find myself in Chicago parashas Yisro together with Rabbi Reuven Leuchter, one of the most prominent mashpi'im in Yerushalayim. On Shabbos morning, he spoke about the first of the Aseres HaDibros, "Anochi Hashem Elochecha . . .," which contains not just recognition of Hashem's existence but of His Hashgacha Pratis – "asher hotzeitzi eschem m'aretz Mitzrayim."
Egypt was the womb of the Jewish people because there we learned in the clearest possible fashion that Hashem has always prepared for us a future filled with purpose. In Egypt, we had no present; we were so battered and beaten that we had no ability to even think about anything other than our basic survival. And yet Hashem took us out from there and brought us to Sinai to receive the Torah.
"I'm sometimes asked," Rabbi Leuchter said, "whether I'm embarrassed that I come from a non-religious home." (A fact that he mentions in his mussar va'adim, and specifically told me I could write about.) "When I hear that question, I'm tempted to reply, 'Are you meshugah.'" As he pointed out, who better knows the lesson of "asher hotzeitzi eschem m'aretz Mizrayim" than the ba'al teshuva. For the ba'al teshuva has experienced in his own life the fact that even when the present appears empty there is always a future of purpose awaiting us.