A new approach to kiruv
by Jonathan Rosenblum
February 22, 2002
``If you bring forth an honorable person from a glutton, then you will be like My own mouth," Hashem tells the prophet Yirmiyahu. Rarely is a person so identified with Hashem as when he brings Hashem’s children back to his Torah.
Never has the imperative for kiruv been as great as at the present moment. As the Novominsker Rebbe said at the most recent Agudath Israel of America convention, ``Kiruv rechokim, I believe, is the mission of our generation."
The sense of urgency in the Rebbe’s words is unmistakable. Nor is the reason for that urgency hard to discern. Time is running out. If current trends continue, American Jewry – apart from the Orthodox core – will largely fade away within one or two generations.
Of the roughly 5.5 million Americans whom the sociologists classify as Jews (a far larger number than those who are halachically Jewish), half describe their religion as ``other" or ``none." And of the remaining 2.75 million Americans who consider themselves Jews by religion, over 40% define their religion as secular.
Worldwide the intermarriage rate for Jewish males outside of Eretz Yisrael has hit 80% and for Jewish women 70%. Those numbers spell imminent disaster.
In short, the pool of those who are halachically Jewish, among whom it is possible to do kiruv work, is rapidly drying up. Indeed Marvin Schick has argued recently, with more than a little plausibility, that the era of large-scale kiruv, as we have known it over the past two decades, is over. As Schick puts it: A Jew who does not keep kosher, can keep kosher tomorrow; a Jew who is not shomer Shabbos, can begin keeping Shabbos tomorrow. But someone who is not Jewish cannot become Jewish tomorrow.
Clearly the situation is desperate. Equally clearly, all the kiruv professionals in the world, all the outreach and community kollels combined, will make barely a dent in the numbers of those projected to be lost to the Jewish people in the next two decades, despite all the phenomenal work they do.
Fortunately, we have resources available over and beyond the kiruv professionals. Most religious Jews are capable of playing some role in kiruv, and if they did so our resources for this final battle would increase exponentially. Why, then, do so few Orthodox Jews get involved in kiruv, even on a part-time basis?
The main reason, I suspect, is a failure to understand the kiruv process. We tend to think of the role of kiruv as ``selling" the Torah, and to view kiruv professionals as ``salesmen."
Based on the mistaken feeling that salesmanship is needed, most frum Jews avoid getting involved in kiruv at all. They fear being asked a question that they cannot answer, and worry that the whole kiruv process will hinge on the answer they give.
But that way of thinking betrays a complete failure to understand kiruv. I once heard Rabbi Simcha Wasserman, zt"l, remark that the Torah does not need salesmen; the Torah is its own best salesman.
This view of the kiruv process primarily in terms of salesmanship is badly flawed. The key to successful kiruv begins with establishing a relationship. To do that one must first accept the non-frum Jew for who he is today. As Rabbi Reuven Leucther, one of Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe’s closest talmidim, puts it: Before one can extract the ``ish yakar – the person of value" one must first meet him where he is today – i.e., as a ``glutton".
Unless a non-religious Jew feels that we are interested in him (or her) as an individual, the kiruv process cannot even begin. I once asked a ba’al teshuvah what was the secret of the success of the rabbi who had been mekarev him on his college campus. ``He loves every single Jew," was the reply. Not that he was a great intellectual, or that his shiurim opened new vistas of thought, or was a great wit – just his palpable love of every Jew. Successful kiruv workers come in all shapes and sizes, with a full range of talents, but the one irreducible quality that they all share is their love of every Jew and their ability to see the pintele Yid no matter how encrusted it is in dirt from the outside world.
They treat non-religious Jews as individuals, not as potential notches on their gun about whom they will be able to say, ``I made him (or her) frum." (Surely an uglier phrase has not crept into our speech than, ``I made him frum." Every Jew who becomes frum today is nothing less than a miracle, and miracles cannot be mass-produced. Only the person himself can choose to be frum. No one can make him. The most any of us can do is to be facilitators for the proper choices and to provide models so that someone would want to be frum.)
What emerges from all this is that each of us can be involved in kiruv. All it takes is a little ahavas Yisrael and the willingness to take the time and effort to establish a relationship. That is a crucial first step without which nothing further will happen.
This insight is the basis of a new nationwide kiruv effort called ``Awaken the Sleeping Giant," jointly sponsored by the Association of Jewish Outreach Professionals, Young Israel, and the Orthodox Union, and directed by the EncounterUSA organization in Baltimore. The sleeping giant is all those good, frum Jews who don’t realize that they too have a crucial role to play in kiruv, and that they don’t have to review Mesillas Yesharim and Chovos Halevovos before getting involved.
The first stage of this new project is in full swing during the week leading up to Purim. Every frum Jew is being asked to send a card to a non-frum acquaintance, colleague, or relative five days before Purim explaining that on Purim they will be receiving Shalach Manos. That card includes a brief explanation of what Shalach Manos is and how it relates to Purim. On Purim, the sender follows up with actual Shalach Manos.
Similar activities are planned for other holidays that lend themselves to joint activities – e.g., the Pesach Seder, visiting a Sukkah, or Channukah candle lighting. But Purim is the natural holiday to start this initiative. As the Pele Yoetz explains, the purpose of Shalach Manos is to increase the friendship between Jews. He recommends sending Shaloch Manos to those from whom one has become distanced. The purpose of Shalach Manos is not just doing something nice for one’s existing friends, but to make new friends.
And that, says Rabbi Yisroel Roll, director of EncounterUSA, is the whole point of the ``Awaken the Sleeping Giant." We can all do kiruv. All we have to do is be a friend.
For further information contact 410-415-5685 or www.worldwidepurim.net
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays, Purim
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