Three on Kiruv and Ba’alei Teshuva

By Jonathan Rosenblum

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.

Originally Published in Mishpacha Magazine

6 comments on “Three on Kiruv and Ba’alei Teshuva

  1. To Mr. Cohen #4: Kovod is not Chesed.

    Giving Kovod to those people whom the Torah requires us to honor is not a choice. It is incumbent upon us, not voluntary.

    The only way I can imagine in which bestowing Kovod becomes making someone a mitzvah object, would be if an individual took a trip to see the Gadol HaDor on a fast day with the explicit intention of making the Brachah on seeing a Gadol baTorah in order to reach the quota of 100 daily brochos.

  2. From my experiences as a Baalei Teshuva you can’t pin point your change to one particular Rabbi. There may have been someone you learnt with when becoming observant or even interested but what about all the experiences you had before then? I think back and realise that I had many many positive experiences with frum people as a child and I believe that left positive feelings in my psychy. You can never under estimate the impact of a single interaction. It may have been the big smile some ‘random’ frum person gave you when you were 6 years old that set up your whole openness to even breath anything religious.

  3. Does this mean that we Jews should not honor: Torah scholars, parents, the elderly and kohanim, because doing so would make those people into chaftzei shel mitzvah?

  4. We knew Rabbi Avraham Jacobowitz in Oak Park, MI, and often davened at his shul, Machon L’Torah. He was friendly, inspiring, erudite…and a great role model for Rabbonim in community service, including kiruv. Shabbos services at his shul were free of distracting conversation. Once, I was attending a wedding in Southfield, MI, but had very mixed emotions because I had been laid off suddenly from my job earlier that day. I met Rabbi J there and his smile and appropriate encouraging words were exactly what I needed.

  5. Jonathan Rosenblum said:

    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.”


    What Rabbi Avraham Jacobowitz does is not a secret.

    It was taught 20 centuries ago by Hillel HaZaken.

    Mishnah, tractate Avot, chapter 1, paragraph 12:

    Hillel taught: Be students of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and brining them near to the Torah.

    משנה מסכת אבות פרק א
    הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַהֲרֹן, אוֹהֵב שָׁלוֹם וְרוֹדֵף שָׁלוֹם, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת וּמְקָרְבָן לַתּוֹרָה

  6. One rav whom I know told a story of two rabbonim. Rabbi XYZ was sitting shivah and Rabbi ABC wanted to come visit him. Rabbi XYZ responded, “I don’t want to be your Esrog.” In other words, as stated in the article above, don’t make me your object for notching another mitzvah. The moral of the story was that we should visit those who are sick or mourning, or help others to see more about frumkeit, because we really care about them as people, not as choftzei shel mitzvah.

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