Following the Kiruv Tradition of Avraham

I am a baal tshuva of 10 years living in Jerusalem. I have spent time in a number of different yeshivas and kollel’im in various different communities in and out of Jerusalem. I have met and know a plethora of baal tshuvas like myself who have married and integrated into the frum communities in which we live. I know many baal tshuvas that doven neitz, learn all day, behave like menchen and who are raising their FFB kids to be good Jews and are sending them to well established schools. But, I am beginning to think that as utopian as all this seems, something is wrong, something is missing.

Lately I have been doing something that for quite a while I have to admit I have managed to avoid doing. I have actually been listening to the Torah that I am learning. As crazy as this may sound, this has been a life shocking experience for me.

One of the questions that I caught myself contemplating the other day was: What does it mean ‘Kol yisroel arevim zeh lezeh’? An orev is a guarantor. That means that if my friend borrows $5000 from a gemach to start a little business and I sign as a guarantor – I better make sure that he doesn’t make a stupid investment otherwise I’m going to be the one who has to pay for his mistake.

If I am an orev for every other Jew, even secular Jews, and they are investing their time – their lives in nourishkeit, does that mean that I and my family are going to have to pay for their mistakes? And in what way will we have to pay? As extreme as it may sound, I can’t deny that the thought hasn’t crossed my mind that there were a lot of frum Jews who were murdered in the holocaust?

I have been thinking about what the Chatam Sofer explains to be the reason why Avraham was chosen as the Father of the Jews and not Shem and Aver even though they were more learned. He explains, Shem and Aver stayed in their tents caring only about the levels that they were reaching and Avraham was willing to forgo his growth to teach the world about G-d.

I see so many baal tshuvas, including myself, trying to pass as FFB’s, leading FFB lives. Have we completely forgotten about and stopped caring about the Jews in the world that we came from? And if we have, is this a mistake?

On a practical level I am finding myself ask: Even if I want to, what can I do anyway? It wasn’t hard for me to find a resevoir of mekorot demanding that if the Jewish people need it, we must involve ourselves with kiruv rechokim. But what can I do? I don’t think that I know or can relate to that world anymore. I don’t know any secular Jews (except my own family and I believe that in my case that doing kiruv with my family is best done through example as opposed to discussing the validity of G-d’s existence).

This is the dilemma that I presently find myself in. Do I just go on doing what I’m doing, or should I be stepping out of my tent? And even if I decide to do that, what does this mean on a practical level?

15 comments on “Following the Kiruv Tradition of Avraham

  1. Michael you wrote
    “Secular Jews, …investing…their lives in nourishkeit, does that mean that I and my family are going to have to pay …And in what way will we have to pay? …I can’t deny that the thought hasn’t crossed my mind that there were a lot of frum Jews who were murdered in the holocaust?

    I think that you really overreach when you try to search for rationales for the Holocaust. Very few gedoley yisroel ventured broaching the topic and if it has to be rationalized at all I think it is best left for them to do so.

    Additionally I think that arvus is meant to augment our Ahavas Yisroel. No one signs on as a cosigner on a loan expecting the borrower to default. It is more about giving a vote of confidence to the borrower so that a lender unfamiliar with him will extend credit. Of course the borrower defaulting is a risk every Oreiv takes, but he does so to benefit the borrower not for maintaining his own financial integrity. My understanding is that any love, including Ahavas Yisroel, is meant to be selfless. IMO to worry about what you may have to pay in terms of Divine retribution, rather than what your talmidim stand to gain by your greater involvement with and investment in them,(i.e. shouldering a greater; more proactive Arvus burden) informs the whole undertaking with the wrong spirit.

  2. Thank you so much for your responses to my letter. You have given me a lot to think about. I am going to take a week to mull over the different ideas that have been put forth and my what my options are and then will b’ezras Hash-m write another letter to let you know what I came up with.

    Zi gezunt und shtark

    Michael Goodheart

  3. Warren,

    May I recommend that you also speak with my old boss, Phil Chernofsky, at the OU Israel Center in Jerusalem. He sometimes has some angles that others don’t. The Israel Center of the OU can be a great resource for the English speaking oleh.

    Congratulations on your move up!

    May Hashem bless you with great success in learning Torah like no other – Torat Eretz Yisrael.

    in galut Santa Fe, for now…

  4. So, what are the good learning resources in Jerusalem for an English-speaking oleh chadosh? I’m looking for a Kollel or something like that.

  5. Just to echo Gershon Seif a bit. Some opine that because of their shared history with secular / non-observant Jews BTs bring a special sensitivity to their Kiruv efforts. They “get-it” and better understand a secular Jew’s mentality and challenges in adopting observance. Others hold that FFBs, at least those who have had relatively more time for in depth study, can be more impactful as mashpeeim=influencers. (I think it was the Chazon Ish who said that Hashpoa=influence is from the root shefa=overflow. The more overflowing a Torah personality is with spiritual content the more it can influence/pour out spirituality to others). You sound like you might be one of those rare individuals who combine both strengths. For what it’s worth IMO after you do a cheshbon hanefesh based on Gershon’s sound and balanced advice and you still have the yen… go for it. I found one thing in the post objectionable, bl”n I’ll get to that later.

  6. Why does there need to be a “primary” goal in Kiruv? That might facilitate an ends justifying the means approach. I tended to stay clear of organized “kiruv” institutions and grow at my own pace with my own goals in mind and not someone elses. Mr. Goodheart, you wrote a thought provoking article, but we are not Avraham Aviniu, and I think as far as any Jew is concerned, by being good examples, a “light” so-to-speak, our brethern in the other streams will ask us directly if they are interested. I get questions from co-workers all the time about Judaism and I try to answer as best as I can, invite them for Shabbot, etc. Beyond that, if I was the type to be getting people to put on tephillan or light shabbot candles, I would be in CHABAD // Aish//Orh Samayach outreach centers I suppose. If you find yourself drawn to do this out-reach, then talk to a Rav who has experience in this area and take those directives into the practical world around you.

  7. Michael Goodheart, You’ve got a good heart! Keep on asking those kind of questions.

    I spent 4 years at Ohr Somayach and 9 years at a very intense Kollel after that. I worked in two FFB schools for 7 years after that. Now I’m involved in kiruv. Your question has occupied my thoughts over the years.

    There is a big debate in the kiruv world as to the role of baalei teshuva who want to stay in full time Torah study and/or chinuch. Should they go out in the field and do kiruv after a few years? Should they bake in kollel for years until they are authorities?

    I believe there isn’t one answer. It depends on who you are…

    Are you in love with learning full time? Are you good at it? So was the Vilna Gaon. He wasn’t out in the field doing kiruv (and tehere was kiruv to be done in his time). The Torah and tefillos of the Vilna Gaon were powerful too. Let’s not underestimate that. If you understand your contribution to klal Yisroel via your learning, and in the back of your mind is the question, what else can I do?, that’s a good thing, not a problem.

    Are you a real people person? Do you feel the need to get out and do this because it seems to fit your personality, not just your history?

    Why not have baalei teshuva over for meals on Shabbos. Perhaps, if your wife is up for it, take a special interest in one or two. (Gotta have your wife on board for this. She may not have to become the kiruv expert, but she will have to sacrice some of your Shabbos time) You may find that as the perfect way to get into this without radical changes in what you’re currently doing. If you opt for this, be ready to look up questions you don’t have answers for. Be ready to hear questions and attitudes you’ve never heard before.

    One last thought. Don’t forget about your fist resposibilty – your wife and kids. Once you sign the kesubah, you must be mekarev them before you’re being mekarev the rest of the world. I know too many people in kiruv who forgot about that one!

  8. I’d link to clarify my distinction a little. Should the primary goal of Kiruv be:

    1 – To help Jews become fully Torah Observant with keeping Shabbos, Kashrus, Family Purity Laws and Prayer as the usual first steps.

    2 – To help Jews get closer Hashem through mitzvos like belief in G-d, performing acts of kindness, learning Torah, ritual observance, etc…

    Rachel might still voice her same objection, because you might categorize “helping people get closer to Hashem” as trying to change them. I don’t think you can avoid this, if you believe like I do, that increasing G-d Awareness is our collective mission.

  9. Mark Frankel makes an excellent refinement to the question.

    I think some of it has to do with a fundamental distinction in how we see Judaism in general.

    If we see/pursue Judaism as personal religion (Rachel’s “their path to holiness and to Hashem), then we are less compelled to be concerned and act on the ‘general’ state of affairs. In such a conception, the People of Israel is made up of individuals bound together by common contract; not much unlike other nations.

    If, OTOH, as the Kuzari, and Maharal, etc. present it, the individual’s Jewish indentity comes about *because* they are part of the general People of Israel, then the personal path is always part of, and related back to, the general state of affairs. I suspect this creates, in many cases, a greater sense of obligation to attend to the needs of the community and other individuals within it.

    Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook used to continually emphasize this approach with two sources:

    Yeshayahu says in Hashem’s name: Am zu yatzarti li- I have created this *nation*; and that in Birkat HaTorah we say ‘asher bachar banu mikol ha-amim v’natan lanu et torato’-it is the reality of us as a nation that led to receiving the Torah, not individuals.

    Hashem’s intent, and the success of Torah, depends on our functioning not as pursuers of individual religion, but of national religion/culture.

    In that view, Mark Frankel’s question becomes all the more important…

  10. Rachel – You highlight a good question. Should the primary goal of Kiruv be to help Non Observant Jews become Torah Observant (Shabbos, Kashrus, Family Purity, etc) or to help all Jews – FFB, BT, NOB (Non Observant) get closer to Hashem?

  11. Fantastic post. For many years, I have also observed many BTs also trying to imitate FFBs by trying to insulate their kids from the fact that they were BTs.

  12. This is a fascinating question. I appreciate the compassion and the generosity inherent in the desire to help other Jews become BT — and yet most of the Jews I know (some of whom are “secular,” and many of whom are deeply religious in non-Orthodox contexts) would probably not change their ways. Well, I’m not as sure about my secular friends (though I suspect they’re happy where they are), but I imagine my religious non-Orthodox friends wouldn’t want to change because they feel they’ve already found their path to holiness and to Hashem.

    I’m not sure what the answer is. In general, I advocate the building of bridges between different communities — which is part of why I like blogs so much; where else might you and I sit down and have a conversation? — but if a relationship is built on one party’s desire for the other to change, it’s not likely to be a strong or lasting relationship.

    When you think about stepping out of your tent to assist other Jews in finding the right path, do you distinguish between Jews who are secular (e.g. don’t belong to a shul, don’t think much about God, don’t study Torah, etc) and Jews who are religious but not frum?

    Thanks for your thought-provoking post.

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