Healthy Kiruv…Respecting Those Whom We Bring Closer to Judaism

By Zev Gotkin

(Response to “Dishonest Kiruv! The Building of Responsible Jewish Outreach Movements” by Rabbi ShmulyYanklowitz)

Many in the Torah-observant world would likely consider me an “outreach success story.” Coming from a secular background I had little knowledge of Jewish teachings or observance when I entered my first year of college. However, I was open to spirituality and thirsting for truth. Naturally, I found myself relishing the Torah classes provided by the outreach rabbis working on my campus.

In his article, “Dishonest Kiruv! The Building of Responsible Jewish Outreach Movements,” Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, an orthodox rabbi and Jewish outreach professional, criticizes some of the methods and actions of his peers in Jewish outreach. I believe Jewish outreach is probably one of the holiest and most needed pursuits in which one can engage. Although I am pained to admit some of the negative things he discusses do occasionally take place, I am happy he got some of these issues out into the open. As someone who has truly benefited from the tireless work of Jewish outreach professionals, I wish to present what I believe are some criticisms as well as challenges that I believe should be addressed in the world of Jewish outreach.

I am reminded of a teaching in the Ethics of the Fathers that one should emulate Aaaron of the Bible by “bringing [others] close to the Torah.” The Lubavitcher Rebbe highlights that the verse implores one to bring people close to the Torah rather than bring the Torah close to the people. When one presents the Torah observant way of life to fellow Jews, one need not fear that others won’t be interested if shown the authentic version. A person involved in Jewish outreach must not resort to cheap gimmicks or dishonest tactics to water down the Torah in attempt to make it “easier” for their students.

In the spirit of the mitzvah of judging others favorably, let’s take into account the challenges facing those in Jewish outreach before we criticize what some may or may not be doing right. The passionate and sincere outreach professional is charged with presenting Judaism in its purest and most unadulterated form while at the same time making it relevant and appealing to the average non-observant Jew. Those who work with the demographic of college students know that with an intermarriage rate among American Jewry of 47% time is of the essence. After taking the above into consideration, we must acknowledge that those who work in orthodox Jewish outreach are human beings. Some may occasionally fall into the trap of sugar-coating the demanding nature of Jewish commitmentor downplaying the challenges of being a Torah-observant Jew in the modern world. I assume most of this is not done willfully, but rather is motivated by a sincere desire to cultivate interest among students in their heritage. This problem is understandable, but not justifiable.

Interestingly, Rabbi Yanklowitz does not consider himself an ordinary Jewish outreach professional. He is a self-proclaimed “social justice rav” and states that “The best outreach involves…giving to others, social justice work, and inviting others to have an impact on the world.” He adds that all this should be “infused with Jewish learning and conversations.” Social justice, or “tikkun olam,” and community service are all beautiful activities and a part of being a Torah Jew. However, an orthodox educator must be ever-wary of falling into the same trap which the Reform/Conservative/Reconstructionist movements fell into of placing an inordinate amount of time on social justice at the expense of textual study and ritual observance. Social justice activities are good, but they are not activities on which Jews have a monopoly. College campuses and communities abound with secular social justice and community service opportunities in which young Jews can get involved. Acts of chesed (kindness) are not enough to maintain the distinctness and separateness of being Jewish. While some may bemoan the lack of emphasis on social justice within most orthodox Jewish outreach, social justice is not a uniquely Jewish pursuit. However, lighting Shabbat candles, wrapping tefillin (phylacteries), keeping kosher etc. are what keep make being Jewish unique and what keeps us a distinct and “holy people.”

Finally, I will raise a few of my own concerns.

1) Don’t push too hard. In their sincere excitement and tremendous caring about the welfare of their fellow Jews, outreach professionals can occasionally push their students too hard and too fast. Mitzvot have to be taken on slowly and carefully. Jewish ideas and concepts take time to be fully integrated into one’s personality. A person who bites off more than they can chew will inevitably choke and cough up everything that was stuffed into their spiritually hungry mouth. Sometimes it is the baalei teshuva themselves who move too quickly or who grow in an unhealthy direction, but nonetheless it is the responsibility of the outreach worker to help guide them and make sure their growth is grounded. This leads me to my second point.

2) Follow-up. It is crucial that a person involved in outreach follow up with their charges to see how they are growing and developing. I have heard many a complaint from a newly religious Jew that once they became observant their former teacher lost interest in them and moved onto the next “victim.” This is wrong. Outreach is about is working with human beings. The job of someone in Jewish outreach is not to churn out cookie-cutter “frummies” like an assembly line, but to respect the individuality and experiences of their students. In a recent article titled ‘When Judaism becomes a Drug’ blogger, Pop Chassid criticizes those Jewish outreach workers who make Judaism seem like a high-inducing drug by “implying that a person cannot be happy or healthy unless they are religious.” In my experience, not all who leave Orthodox Judaism are unhappy. On the contrary many become happier. Yes, as Orthodox Jews we may believe some of their “happiness” is stemming from the opposite of holiness and truth, but using propaganda and scare tactics is not an effective way to reach out to our fellow Jews. It is also important to recognize that while most people who become observant are on a quest to pursue a life of truth and meaning, some may be taking on an orthodox lifestyle in order to get a superficial high or escape painful realities in their own lives. We must be wary of this and make sure those whom we bring close to Torah adjust to their new lifestyle in a healthy manner. Otherwise the outreach worker is guilty of being an enabler. Jewish outreach is not about “making people frum.” It is about returning Torah and mitzvot to their rightful heirs in a spiritually and psychologically healthy way devoid of tricks or sales pitches. A person cannot be “sold” on Torah Judaism. One will only remain connected if one’s desire to connect is allowed to come from within.

3) Respect the background of your student. Finally, I would like to address Rabbi Yanklowitz’s point that some returnees to traditional Judaism are encouraged to resent or hate their previous life. Some baalei teshuva unfortunately disassociate from family or friends, feel excessive shame and guilt over past decisions, give up on positive hobbies or pursuits, or are dismissive of the skills or knowledge they acquired in the secular world. This is often the result of irresponsible outreach. Dishonest kiruv makes people think there was nothing of value in their “past life.” On the contrary, the Chassidic master, the Baal Shem Tov, taught that everything that happens to us in life is the product of Divine Providence. Where we were born and everything we have experienced is purposeful and part of the Divine plan. A Jew who was born “far” away from Torah and mitzvot was not placed where he/she was by accident. Every person is given a unique mission in life to uplift and reveal the holy sparks hidden within their life’s experiences and interactions. Those of us who adopted a more observant lifestyle must be a Kiddush Hashem (a sanctification of G-d’s name), by being a blessing to our families and all whom we meet. True Jewish outreach enables individuals to take whatever skills, talents, and experiences they acquired while not observant and elevate them and transform them into something that reveals G-dliness in the world.

12 comments on “Healthy Kiruv…Respecting Those Whom We Bring Closer to Judaism

  1. Just came back to this thread after reading Devorah’s re-posted August 2007 article about how a wonderful assistant rabbi and his rebbetzin (and a supportive shul) helped to ease the difficulties she encountered as a teenager when her parents first started becoming frum. It would be nice if we all could find this kind of caring welcome on the bumpy road to fully integrating a frum lifestyle. Not everyone is fortunate enough to get this kind of support in the beginning to help us get through that rocky initial transition period.

    There is a quote from Chazal (sorry I don’t have the source): “All beginnings are difficult.” The wisdom of this saying is borne out in real life time and time again, and becoming a frum Jew seems to have a doubly difficult beginning, as if one has climbed headfirst down into a whirlpool. I can’t even imagine where Devorah would be now if she had not had that kind of supportive environment outside her family to help her get through to adulthood.

  2. To Bob Miller #8: To borrow a phrase from Ron Coleman #6, it’s an “endlessly recycled kvetch.”

  3. Judy, are you saying that not knowing whom to call is typical or that it happens too often but is not typical?

  4. To Ron Coleman #6: I would boil down all of the “dishonest Kiruv” criticisms into one pithy phrase: “Who ya gonna call?”

    “Who ya gonna call?” – when you need somewhere to go for Shabbos, or for Pesach, and you have no idea where to find some of that fabulous “hachnasas orchim” you heard so much about on your way upward.

    “Who ya gonna call?” – when you desperately need advice on a Shalom Bayis problem, but the last three rabbis you called were “out of town,” “unavailable” or “leave a message.”

    “Who ya gonna call?” – when September is looming closer and you still don’t have a place in Yeshiva for your “borderline” child.

    “Who ya gonna call?” – when it looks like you’ll never be able to “crack the code on frum finances” to figure out how to make the month’s money stretch to cover that month, or the last month, or the next month.

    “Who ya gonna call?” – when it appears that your refusal to attend the annual treifa Thanksgiving dinner or the younger sib’s nonkosher wedding has now started World War III, with half the family vowing never to speak to you again, and the other half (that is still speaking to you) doing the speaking at a volume of 192 decibels.

    “Who ya gonna call?” – when you need help with a life problem, connected to the new life you decided to take on?

  5. I agree with some of this essay, particular the idea that one should “pitch” Yiddishkeit by claiming that Jews can only be happy if they’re frum. There are indeed enough unhappy frum Jews, and evidently happy non-frum Jews, to make this argument useless, even if the claim of what “happiness” is is, in fact, a subtle one, as discussed at this blog here.

    I also agree with the “go slow” approach recommended here.

    But the vast majority of the people reading this blog are doing so as a result, indirect or otherwise, of one of those despised “marketing techniques.” (Like a blog for BT’s?) Based on this essay, the term appears to mean “the way everyone else but me does kiruv.” I mean, please — quoting the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who even R’ Noach Weinberg admitted invented what we are calling “kiruv marketing,” in support of some imaginary “non-marketng” type of “kiruv”? I’m not “buying.”

    It makes us all feel highly principled to nod our heads in agreement about how personal, customized and intellectually honest kiruv should be. But it’s a conversation you can mainly have by yourself unless you are prepared to find a way to get assimilated Jews, who have less emotional, cultural or ideological connection to being Jews than ever, to have it with you.

    Also, the point about “disassociation” from one’s past social circle, interests and other aspects of identity and personality, also an issue we have discussed at length here over the years, is oversimplified in this post. It may “often” be the result, as the essay says, of “irresponsible kiruv,” but it may “often” be exactly the right thing to do, or, if it is not, the result of misjudgments by people who are becoming frum, or any number of other things besides misdeeds of the kiruv worker involved.

    When and how to make such breaks depends on the person and the situation, and that may also involve advice, experience and judgment in a kiruv mentor or some other desired “follow-up” program or system. I am, however, skeptical about these fairly routine calls for “follow-up.” For one thing, they are to some extent internally consistent with other desiderata we express here, such as “giving people their own space” and making sure that their “connection to Torah and mitzvos [only] come from within.” Well, which is it? More generally, I have asked for more specifics about this “follow-up” criticism in the past, and I’m still not clear what the complaint is. Have people been involved with kiruv professionals who have refused to take calls from their last “victim”? Are people who give seminars supposed to stalk those who attend them so they’ll feel “followed up” with? How is that different, exactly, from this “next victim” concept? To me, this “follow-up” business sounds exactly like what a cult does.

    There are those who get assimilated Jews interested. They have certain talents and skills for presentation, debate, engagement and debate. Why should they be charged with also having the skills, resources and other tools needed to do personalized follow-up wherever on earth the person they have brought to the point of engagement might decide to be and to hold their hand during years and years of development? Some groups, such as Partners in Torah, do this very well, for certain groups of Jews; others are not going to be as effective at follow-up. Does that mean they aren’t allowed to give seminars and lectures any more?

    We all hate an approach to kiruv that is facile, slick or intellectually dishonest. I don’t believe, however, that we’re better off with one that is condescending or smothering. And I do question the time and energy spent criticizing how most actual kiruv works, and wonder (sincerely), what the real agenda is behind these endlessly recycled kvetches.

  6. Religious marketers may fear that any flash-and-gimmick-free approach won’t get a hearing from Jews lost in 2012 America. The way to dispel such fear is for the real teachers to succeed in a text-oriented approach.

  7. I fully concur with all of Micha’s comments. There is no excuse today with so many of the classical Jewish texts available with good translations that we shouldn’t be teaching the same, as opposed to marketing oriented techniques and pitches.



  9. Outreach workers should have a “Second Step” plan for those whom they actually m’kareiv and bring to Orthodox Judaism, a mentor to whom they can successfully and gracefully “hand off” the newly frum who are now going to have questions about how to best integrate their beginning Jewish observance into their lives. There need to be lists of resources and rabbonim for Shabbos and Yom Tov invitations, wise counsel and frequent shailos. New BT’s need to be helped to continue onward, once they outgrow their original teachers. Sort of like lehavdil once you walk out of the showroom with that shiny automobile it’s not the end of your relationship with the car dealer: you need someone to be there for the 75000 mile checkup too.

  10. 4- Teach Judaism, don’t market it.

    4a- Judaism is allowed to be a way to reframe old questions. You don’t need to tie everything into a nice neat bow.

    It’s the marketing attitude that scares some kiruv workers away from saying “I don’t know”.

    And many questions really have no answer, or no answer a person can understand. Such as why their student loses her child, but her intermarried sisters are rewarded with celebrations and parties. Hashem tells Iyov its presumptuous to assume he has the answer, why should we think we could?

    4b- Marketing means that Judaism is taught as a means to getting something else. Be frum, you’ll be happier.

    Even when those promises are likely to come true, it’s wrong to take a seeking adult and color their search to be in terms of selfish reward.

    Judaism is an end in itself. They came to you because they want meaning, give them meaning.

    This marketing attitude also underlies the first two issues to avoid in this essay:

    1- It’s the marketer who attempts “hard selling” techniques. Rather than teaching someone’s way to accepting what you have, you’re getting them to accept it through intimidation or not giving them a chance to think.

    2- It also gets in the way of developing a true teacher-student relationship that would motivate staying in contact after they accept Torah umitzvos. Success in marketing is measured by quantity of product sold.


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