Be'Chukosaid 5774 -- For the Love of Jews
by Jonathan Rosenblum
May 16, 2014
Is there any value to a Jew taking on various mitzvos if he does not accept the full yoke of Torah? That question, or variants thereof, is often discussed in kiruv circles, where both organizations and donors are constantly refining metrics of success. One variant of the question might be whether programs aimed primarily at increasing Jewish identity, but which do not push mitzvah observance, have any value.
Rabbi Yakov Vann, Director of Kashrut Services for the Rabbinical Council of California, and I discussed this question a few months back while driving from Los Angeles to the shul in which he serves as rav in the outlying community of Calabasas.
Reb Yakov mentioned that he had once heard a shiur given by Rabbi Yisroel Reisman in which Rabbi Reisman related a story of the Vilna Gaon coming to an inn and seeing a non-religious Jew eating without making a berachah. The Gaon urged the man to make a berachah to which he replied that it would make no difference since he was not observant and had already amassed so many more aveiros. The Gaon, however, did not desist and told the man he would give din ve'cheshbon on each berachah as well.
Reb Yakov added that even if one agreed that only full mitzvah observance constituted "success" from the point of view of the mekarev, there was little practical nafka mina because it is impossible to know how far any individual Jew will travel once he starts on the path towards teshuvah.
For the first half hour of our rush-hour drive to Calabasas, he told me story after story of Jews in his congregation who had made dramatic changes in their lives – sometimes after years of seemingly going nowhere. At his Shabbos probe for the shul, for instance, one of the congregants challenged him defiantly, "Rabbi, I drove to shul today. What do you think of that?" Rabbi Vann disarmed him by replying, "I don't know about the driving, but I sure am happy to meet you." That Jew long ago stopped driving on Shabbos, and today he learns daf hayomi, davens three times a day, and has all religious grandchildren.
Those involved in kiruv are sometimes forced to make triage decisions as to whom they will allocate the most time, but they readily admit that it is very hard to predict who will end up going to yeshiva or becoming fully observant. More than thirty years ago, we had two recent college graduates who had just come to Ohr Somayach for the Seder. One was full of questions; the other looked bored. It was clear to me that the first was far more interested and more likely to become observant. But that's not how it worked out. A few years later, I was amazed to learn that it was the latter who had become religious after returning to the States.
TWO DAYS AFTER the conversation with Rabbi Vann, I flew to Denver for five days in the home of Rabbi Yaakov and Rebbetzin Chaya Meyer prior to speaking at the Aish-Denver annual dinner. And the same question came up in a different context.
The Meyers moved to Denver in 1986 to run the outreach division of Yeshivas Toras Chaim. In 1995, Rabbi Meyer and his wife (a Denver native) rented office space in the southeast section of Denver for Yomim Noraim services. Shortly thereafter, they purchased a Shabbos home in the neighborhood.
At that time, the only other shomer Shabbos Jew in the vicinity was a Russian-born ba'al teshuva, who had to walk almost two and half miles to the minyan in rented office space. For Shalosh Seudos, Rabbi Yaakov Meyer often found himself alone with his nine-year-old son. But as one congregant put it, "The Meyers built the congregation one Shabbos meal at a time."
Less than twenty years later, the congregation (which affiliated with Aish HaTorah in 2000) sends about one-quarter of the students to the local Bais Yaakov High School. Old-time Denver residents refer to the upstart community with awe and wonder. Rabbi Meyer Schwab, the long-time principal of the Bais Yaakov, described to me what the Meyers have achieved as yesh mei'ayin.
The beautiful shul complex has been carefully designed to ensure maximum use around the clock. It houses a nursery school, a Sunday Hebrew school, and a state of the art mikveh (which a Reform group was touring the Sunday I was there). The large social hall was designed with numerous room dividers to facilitate a number of simultaneous classes and multiple minyanim, including one for beginners, on the Yomim Noraim.
There are plenty of black hats for Shabbos, and after the morning davening, a nattily dressed man in a bow-tie gives a highly articulate daf hayomi shiur. I later learned that he is one of Denver's leading attorneys, who gives two daf hayomi shiurim daily and learns as many hours as the average kollel yungerman, while still maintaining his practice.
But Rabbi Meyer has worked hard to make sure that Aish-Denver never becomes a status quo shul, where newcomers feel out of place. Only around a third of the congregation's 200 paying member families are fully shomer Shabbos, and those who are not yet observant feel themselves to be equal members of the community in every respect. The nursery school, Sunday Hebrew school, and Camp Shoovy, a summer day camp on the sprawling campus, all draw from a large area and families who are not members of the shul.
In 2011, Rabbi Meyer brought in three rabbinic families to do kiruv, both within the shul and the larger community. JOI (Jewish Outreach Initiative) fully captures the message of Aish-Denver: Judaism can change every aspect of your life and bring you joy.
The emphasis of the nursery school, Hebrew school, and summer camp is on the kids learning to "love being Jewish" from an early age. On leil Shabbos, the Shabbos I was in Denver, the shul hosted a Shabbos dinner for the Sunday school students and their families. The students enthusiastically led their parents through a description of the Shabbos meal and the Six Days of Creation. Their excitement brought back no memories of my own Hebrew school experience. Having teachers who love Judaism and can convey that love makes the difference.
HOW DID THE MEYERS DO IT? What qualities are necessary to help so many Jews to transform their lives completely? Part of their success was never making the level of mitzvah observance of the Jews they met the measure of their success. In other words, the question with which we began is irrelevant, in Rabbi Meyer's point of view. He expects to be judged rather by the possibilities for growth he created, not the results.
Rabbi Meyers shares my strong aversion to the oft-used phrase "to make someone frum." "I am not here to make Jews frum," he tells me. "My job is to teach as much Torah as I can."
But what a Jew chooses to do with that Torah is ultimately his or her decision. The most Rabbi Meyer can do is to offer a model of living with a real awareness of Hashem that makes Judaism inspiring and a welcoming environment to come and learn. He is quick to credit his wife and children with doing as much as he to create that model. He proudly relates how his eleven-year-old son once taught a sixty-year-old man aleph-beis.
"You have to love Jews and believe in them," Rabbi Meyer tells me. Far from creating something from nothing, the key to his success lies in the knowledge that the most important ingredient is already there from the start – the pintele Yid in every Jewish heart. That pintele Yid needs to be kindled, nurtured, released, but none of these can be done according to any time-table.
That is where it becomes so crucial to know that the task is not to "make Jews frum," but rather to fan their desire to know more about Torah. Unconditional love and infectious joy that conveys the message, "I'm offering you the most precious gift of all" are the means of doing so.
Unconditional love means love that does not depend on anything – in particular, not on how fast they take on mitzvos. Every Jew who meets Rabbi Meyer feels that he cares about them just because they are a fellow Jew and not because he views them as a potential notch on his kiruv gun.
Knowing that the choice of how much and how fast to grow is not up to him helps him avoid pushing people faster than they want or are capable of going. It also ensures that no one feels that they have failed him in some way – a feeling that is likely to cause them to withdraw.
And it allows him to focus on what is in his power – teaching more Torah and living as a joyous Jew whom others want to emulate.
Related Topics: American Jewry & Continuity, Chareidim and Their Critics, Jewish Ethics, Personalities
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