Thoughts From a Mekarev in the Field

By Rabbi Meir Goldberg
Reprinted with permission of Mishpacha Magazine

It was with great enthusiasm that I eagerly read the recent edition of Klal Perspectives, kiruv edition. After reading many of the articles and especially the responses by R’ Adlerstein and R’ Ilan Feldman, I was hoping to respond with the some thoughts of a typical mekarev in the field.

The older generation of mekarvim often wax poetic of the kiruv glory days which started sometime after the six day war and ended in the early 90’s. Rav Noach Weinberg’s dream of changing the world was, to a large extent, successful in that tens of thousands became frum and so many more were reconnected in some meaningful way, to their heritage. However, the dream of the first generation of mekarvim, that they would somehow make the whole world frum, was never realistic.

The simple fact is that becoming frum is an extremely hard thing for most people to do. The very same reason why Jews are a tiny minority among the nations is the very reason why the teshuva movement was never destined to become a mass movement. Changing ones habits, surroundings, dress, friends, personal image, the way one relates to ones family, culture, etc, is not for the faint of heart. To be a baal teshuva by definition, means that you are sailing into the wind and that is not something that the masses can do. As an FFB I often ask myself and others if we would realistically ever consider becoming a Satmar Chassid even if we thought that it was what Hashem wanted? To go from secular to frum is much harder.

Many of the authors asserted that there are less people becoming frum now than before, despite the vastly increased number of mekarvim. While this assertion was not necessarily borne out by the statistics cited by R’ Edelstein, it does behoove us to examine why, at least for campus mekarvim, it is harder to get students to Yeshiva now, than it was before. (It should be noted that there are more options for potential baalei teshiva today than before and some of the Yeshivos, such as Machon Yaakov and Machon Shlomo, are bursting at the seams.)

It’s important to distinguish the current situation with our students from the one that was preeminent in the much glorified heyday of kiruv in the 70’s and 80’s.

Colleges today cost a fortune, with parents or students taking out major loans to pay for it. The pressure to get into the job market right away is enormous. This was not the case AT ALL back then. Craig Brandon’s must read: College, The Five Year Party, demonstrates the incredible rise in tuition since the eighties and nineties. Additionally, to land a good job nowadays, one must usually go to grad school. Not so back then. So when exactly does Yeshiva fit in for these students?
Students back then were much more willing to put up with little in the way of gashmiyus. I’ve heard from several prominent Kiruv Rosh Yeshivos about how students used to sleep on mattresses on the floor in the BT Yeshivos of old. Think that will fly today? Additionally, students then backpacking through the world did not need as much money as they do today to get them through the year in Israel.

Students back then were ardent Zionists and were usually very proud of their Jewish heritage regardless of whether they were Reform, Conservative, unaffiliated, etc. Furthermore, many secular Jews had grandparents who were proud of their Judaism and instilled it in their grandchildren. Jewish learning and serious examination of the holocaust was quite normal for a secular Jewish child back then. Today, most students are completely indifferent to Judaism and Israel, and are sometimes pro Palestinian. They have no connection to a Jewish past and most cannot articulate what the holocaust exactly was.

Most importantly, meaning in life, intellectual depth, morality, idealism, etc, were all big topics back then. People were still living with the self introspection and soul searching of the sixties. Finding ones self was in. All that is important today is money, fame and taiva. While Rabbi Ilan Feldman discovered on a mission to Israel, 200 secular Jews who were “religious, spiritual, spiritual, passionately devoted, etc,” my experience is that his descriptions fit a minority of the secular Jews that we run into. It seems to me that today’s typical secular Jew reflects the larger American secular society; Uninspired, hedonistic, unfocused, distracted, disconnected from others and deeply suspicious of overtly religious people, despite the fact that they have never had any real interaction with them. While we often are able to connect and inspire these people, our target students come from the minority who are interested and open to spirituality and growth.

Kiruv and the Frum Community

Perhaps the piece that I most disagreed with was R’ Ilan Feldman’s assertion that “Sadly, there is an open secret known to those who practice outreach: to effectively inspire people to become observant, the effort must be done in isolation from the established Orthodox community.” Actually, I and most mekarvim I have spoken to have found that the most effective way to be mekarev anyone is to expose them to the frum communities as much as possible. We have found a direct correlation between the amount of time students spend in frum communities and going to Yeshiva. At Rutgers, our most effective program is the chavrusa program that matches frum men and women with our students. Our shabbaton interactions in Lakewood, Far Rockaway, Highland Park, etc have been 98% positive. The campus program that has the greatest amount of students that go on to Yeshiva is the Lakewood Fellowship, where students spend a week in the Lakewood community and Yeshiva. Granted, it mostly attracts students who are already in serious growth mode. But if R’ Feldman’s charge that the frum world (of which presumably Lakewood would most typify it’s most right wing) is one where “Strangers are suspect. The wagons are circled. Welcome comes only after a security check, and by then, it doesn’t feel like welcome,” then why does the Lakewood Fellowship – precisely because of the Lakewood community – inspire these students so much? Actually, there are hundreds of Lakewood men and women involved in Kiruv in some way on a regular basis and they are quite successful.

R’ Feldman insinuates that the frum community before 20 years ago was a model one which is what attracted so many baalei teshuva, while today’s communities are unattractive. I ask though, do you really believe that all was well in our camp years ago? Didn’t many of the abuse scandals and subsequent cover ups, which have been such a stain on our camp, occur during the kiruv glory days in our so much more beautiful communities? Let’s be real. We have always had our criminals, miscreants and sickos. It is the advent of the internet and the 24 hour news cycle that exposes everything we do today. As long as mekarvim are up front and do not try to gloss over our faults by pretending that the frum world is a utopia, then the community will continue to be kiruv’s most valuable asset.

Modern Orthodox

Following on the heels of Rabbi Buchwald’s insistence that we must begin working with the modern Orthodox, I would like to mention a recent study quoted by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Teaneck which claimed that 50% of Modox Yeshiva HS grads aren’t shomer Shabbos or Kashrus within two years. While the study has never been published, most mekarvim on campus know this empirically. While the right wing of modern Orthodoxy seems to be doing well, the left wing is falling apart fast. They come from families who are only partially shomer Shabbos (according to one student I spoke to, only 30% of parents in a well known Yeshiva HS won’t turn on a TV on shabbos) and cannot truly be called frum. As they marry, have children and send them to public school (as the price of tuition skyrockets, more and more parents are seeing public school and Hebrew charter schools as a viable alternative) it is only a matter of time till the kiruv organizations start having to work with their children who will not even be called modern Orthodox.

I am often asked, how come I don’t leave this issue to the OU’s JLIC program on campus which is geared to modern Orthodox students? The answer is simple. 1) A Rabbi/Rebbetzin team cannot effectively work with more than 100 students – if that much. Naturally, the ones who will gravitate to the JLIC staff are the students who are more interested. But many of these students who will not be going to YU, are not motivated to be involved. One recurring theme I hear from these students is the largely negative Jewish experience they had at home and in Yeshiva HS. So in fact they are running away from the Hillel’s. 2) JLIC couples are not trained to ‘go out’ and get uninvolved people, as mekarvim do, so it is often only us who run into these students as part of out ‘out there’ recruiting. 3) These students have been given an uninspiring Judaism. They see secular students who are inspired and interested in what we are giving them and their interest is piqued.

The notion that somehow we are not responsible for this group is illogical to me. Because someone came from a partially observant home makes him or her less of Hashem’s people? Furthermore, our funders measurement for success on campus has moved away from bringing in large numbers of new students and towards producing high quality individuals who are imbued with a real connection to Hashem and his Torah. These students have very little connection and can be inspired with a little bit of effort. While it is true that some of them may be negative, they also do not need extensive help with basics of Judaism, Hebrew/Torah skills, etc. It is a matter of giving them some basics in emunah and a geshmak in yiddishkeit – something we have in spades and something these kids have never truly experienced. While mekarvim may be fearful of mixing modern Orthodox HS grads together with the secular, we should be open to working with at least those students who seek us out. I have worked with some of these students on a small scale (mostly 1-1 learning) and I can say that we have as much success with them as with the secular. Some have become shomer shabbos, gone to Yeshiva, etc. I am willing to bet that if we made real programs for them we’ll have as much or more success as with the secular students.

I am not suggesting that we abandon our current mission. I am suggesting that we do take some time (maybe 15% of our schedule) to work with the interested Yeshiva HS graduates who are barely/no longer shomer shabbos who we run into and run real programs and an Israel trip for them. As I once wrote to the Meor mekarvim, “No, our mandate isn’t to help the Modern Orthodox, but if we let those on the periphery slip away, won’t we be dealing with their children in MEOR on campus circa 2035? Doesn’t it make sense to make a small investment now so that we don’t need to throw major resources at them later?”

The Cost of Kiruv

A question which is often asked in any discussion on Kiruv is how we justify the cost in light of the many problems surrounding the community. I would argue that the question itself is an improper one and is based on misconceptions for the following reasons.

Everyone would agree that a core service that a frum community must provide is a bikur cholim organization. Yet nobody would suggest that it is the highest on the list of priorities. Even if one would (wrongly, in my opinion) argue that Kiruv is not high priority, it is certainly no less important than bikur cholim and is a part of our communal obligation.
More to the point, the notion that the frum community is somehow supporting kiruv is simply not true. About half of all (non Chabad) kiruv funding worldwide comes from two families. Much of the rest of kiruv support, especially in Aish and Chabad, comes from secular Jews. Baalei Teshuva, who have benefited from “the unjustified cost of kiruv” are usually the ones within the community that will contribute significant sums to the Kiruv budget. The ffb community contributes very little to the overall budget. Which leads to my final reason…

Wealthy Baalei Teshuva have repaid the frum community financially in spades. In Lakewood alone, wealthy Ballei Teshuva have contributed tens of millions to the various frum organizations and have built much needed infrastructure. True, kiruv is a financial investment, but it will eventually come back to be a financial blessing, as baalei teshuva are often financially quite successful.

Still the Best Hope (With apologies to Dennis Prager)

Finally, Kiruv is a reflection of the wider frum world. Our community wrestles with challenges, issues and problems. But I think we don’t give ourselves enough credit. Those who wish to deny that the frum world has had deep and serious issues for millenia, quite similar to what we face today, are simply not students of history. If you compare the frum attrition rate of today with that of the communities over the last 250 years, we are doing quite well. While we do not produce gedolim on par with those of pre war Europe, our baalabatim are certainly holding their own. I would argue that the current chinuch system is quite an improvement over the cheder system of the shtetl.

Kiruv faces many challenges as well. But as R’ Edelstein pointed out – not with hand wringing and speculation – but with cold, hard statistics, Kiruv is growing and there are still thousands of new baalei teshuva each year. More students than ever before are engaging in serious Torah learning on campuses worldwide.

Furthermore, the kiruv enterprise has energized many floundering FFB’s who are now faced with the challenge of reinvigorating their own yiddishkeit, with more passion, understanding of emunah and hashkafah issues and how to be mekadesh shem shamayim in front of their secular brethren.

Rabbi Ilan Feldman argues that we cannot hope to be mekarev anyone until we clean up our own mess. I respond that engaging in Kiruv is a key component in cleaning up that mess. R’ Asher Israel, a superstar chassidishe mekarev, started kiruv training in Williamsburg! That’s right, Satmar chassidim doing Kiruv!! A wife of one of the trainees called R’ Israel and thanked him profusely because the training had ignited in her husband a new found appreciation and passion for Yiddishkeit. She simply had never seen her husband this excited to be a Jew.

In a past issue of Klal Perspecives, R’ Yitzchok Feigenbaum, lamenting the lethargy experienced by our young men and women in Yeshiva, wrote the following,”A student once exclaimed to me, “I wish I would have been alive during the Holocaust – I could have been a hero and someone would have written a book about me. Now I am just another good girl who does chesed.” R’ Feigenbaum asked, “Where is the next Torah frontier to conquer?”

R’ Feigenbaum, kiruv is that next frontier. Now more than ever, not only because we must reach out to our secular brethren, but more so, because engaging in Kiruv can inspire, no – much more, it can elevate and bring the mekarev close to Hashem and give even a mediocre Yeshiva bochur/Bais Yaakov girl a previously unknown sense of life and mission, regardless of whether they become a full time mekarev or a volunteer. I know of which I speak – I was that mediocre Yeshiva bochur and Kollel yungerman and I never felt so alive as during that first year of being a campus Rabbi.

So to the editors of Klal Perspectives who wanted to know if Kiruv in America has run its course, I emphatically respond, “NO!” It has merely just begun.

4 comments on “Thoughts From a Mekarev in the Field

  1. Rabbi Goldberg,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to reply to my post. It is a great honor to discuss such an important topic with you.

    Yes, I agree that kiruv is different today than in years past. And I will fully admit that much of my experience is colored by those who have become BT (via ultra-orthodox-based kiruv organizations)in the 80s and 90s.

    It is encouraging to hear some of the things you mentioned in reply to my post. Unfortunately, I will not be able to meet with you any time soon. But I thank you so very much for the invite.

    I also do think it is great that such a program exists between Lakewood and YU. Personally, I do very much enjoy learning with those of different streams of Judaism and hashkafah whether they be less observant or more observant or of different hashkefah than me.

    My experience has taught me that only when engaging with those who come from a different perspective do we learn the most. Sometimes doing so sheds a different light on a topic or concept, or alternatively it may further solidify my own position and practice. My only hope is that such an attitude will become more prevalent in the “charedi” community and that there will be less of a condescending attitude for BTs who do choose to become more religious but maybe NOT hashkafically charedi or so-called “modern” yeshivish or chasidish.

    I would argue, despite the increase in the available resources for Jewish learning etc., that given the number of assimilating, disconnected and OTD Jews in the world today, one could make a case that we are living in a Hora’at Sha’ah, emergency conditions. Therefore, Orthodox Jews must come together as much as possible and respect, love and appreciate our differences in order to overcome the scourge of sinat chinam, which has so devastated our community at different periods of our history.

    Finally, I hope your reply suggests that the kiruv world has moved more to a “QUALITY” mindset when they “mekarv” Jews back to observant Judaism and less of a “QUANTITY” mindset. We need strong, committed Jews who really care authentically about growing religiously and will represent our tradition and HKBH with class and emotional and intellectual intelligence…and are not solely attracted to religiosity as a surrogate for psychotherapy.

    May we all grow to be good examples of what it means to live in the presence of HKBH, and in so doing enhance the admiration and respect that all people (non-Jews and non-Orthodox Jews alike) will have for the Jewish Tradition.

    Kol Tov.

  2. I am very happy to see that this excellent article ended up on BeyondBT.
    I think Rabbi Goldberg (and others involved with “campus” Kiruv are at the battlefront and he seems to the right attitude about engaging with the “modern” Orthodox crowd.

    As he rights, “Kiruv is that next frontier.” Both with outreach and inreach.

  3. @mesorah4ever – It seems to me that you are describing kiruv of 20 years ago. Your criticisms of the Kiruv world bears little resemblance to the reality of what the Kiruv world looks like today.

    Firstly, I know of no kiruv Yeshiva that encourages long term Kollel for most BT’s and Shappell’s, Machon Shlomo and Aish specifically encourage most of their students to not do Kollel at all, or where appropriate, for a short period of time. The vast majority of BT’s who have gone to Yeshiva, that I know of, return to finish master’s degrees or to join the work force.

    Secondly, while we present a certain hashkafah to our students because it is the one we believe in and it is the one we are familiar with, we have plenty of students who have gone the religious Zionist/modern Orthodox route. If that works for them, great.

    Furthermore, success in Kiruv to me, is maximizing a student’s spiritual potential, whatever that may be. For some it will mean not intermarrying, for others it will mean some Shabbos observance, for others it may mean going to Yeshiva. I and almost all of the campus Rabbis that I know of do not use the one size fits all model that you allege they do.

    Finally, I and most of my colleagues do expose students to families across the hashkafic spectrum. Our only requirement is that the family be positive and excited about Judaism.

    Why don’t you come to Rutgers and I’ll give you a tour of our chavrusa program which matches our students with men and women from both Lakewood and YU. Our shabbaton hosts have both Yeshivish and YU backgrounds.

    It seems to me that Kiruv today is very different from what you perceive it is.
    Meir Goldberg
    Rutgers Jewish Xperience

  4. First, as far as “baalei teshuva are often financially quite successful.”

    And how long do you think this trend will continue? Many were successful because of secular education and/or secular parents with money.

    There are now many BTs today that are NOT financially quite successful and are truly struggling. And there are some BTs who are encouraged to pretty much just learn in kollel.
    It pains me to say this, but this will make things much more difficult for the average person in the Yeshiva world (not the elite) whether FFB or BT in the future I assure you.

    Kiruv is holy work for sure.

    But how one defines “mekarv” is key. Does “mekarv” mean to produce someone who is clone of oneself? or does it mean to encourage one’s own neshama to grow in observance within the boundaries of Halacha?

    It seems to me that many baalei teshuvah are encouraged not to find their own voice within Orthodox Judaism but to mimic those who are considered to be the ONLY standard to follow within an Orthodox framework.

    The “one size fits all” approach to kiruv which seems so often employed by the Yeshiva World is incredibly uninspiring to many who are spiritually growing. People are inherently different and the kiruv of today should reflect that.

    There is nothing wrong with someone coming to Orthodox Judaism under the auspices of a particular hashkefah but at least give potential BTs the information in regards to all the various hashekefot that are out there and let them decide where their neshama is “holding”. As long as it is within the bounds of Halakhic practice.

    Modern Orthodoxy has its share of problems. This I concede completely. There is more diversity of practice because the philosophy of MO is inherently more inclusive of a wider variety of Jews who are at different levels of growth and observance. It’s not perfect in encouraging everyone shomer mitzvot and really is not for all Orthodox Jews. But then again, no stream of the Jewish community is totally perfect. And no stream of Orthodoxy I would argue should be for all Jews who wish to become “frum”.

    Honest kiruv, in my view, would present all hashkefot that now exist within Orthodoxy.

    What is vitally important is that someone connects with what it means to be a representative of HKBH and a shomer mitzvot. Not that they absolutely must wear a black hat or a kippah sruga or grow payot or conform 100% totally and completely to the minhag and hashkefah of a particular community.

    Whether one finds a “home” with the Modern Orthodox, Relgious Zionist, Chassidish, Yeshivish, Modern Yeshivish, Modern Chassidish, Modern Sephardic, Haredi Sefardic, Persian, Yemenite, Kabbalistic etc…it shouldn’t matter..but the problem is.. for SOME kiruv organizations I have come across….it does.

    Today we live in a world of incredible personal autonomy. Therefore, I think going forward there must be a greater openness of diversity of thought and minhag while living by conformity of action within the bounds of halacha by mekarvim to bring potential BTs with a solid spiritual foundation to the practice of Yahadut.

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