How Kiruv and the Baal Teshuva Movement has Changed

Someone asked me online why it seems that kiruv and the “Baal Teshuva Movement” isn’t as popular as it was in the 1990s. I replied to this person with the following:

I can only speak based on my humble observations. I am not a kiruv professional or “in the trenches”, in fact I don’t even own a shovel to help dig the trench. I do feel that kiruv is important and I have the highest regard for those in the field, they work non-stop and often without recognition for their efforts. I think the kiruv focus has shifted over the years, at least in North America, and that is why your perception about kiruv is that there is less going on. There are probably a few reasons why kiruv has changed over time, including our attention span being less due to the internet (it’s hard for people to sit for a two hour kiruv seminar), easy access to Torah content (in print and online), and the shift to less in-real-life interaction due to more time online (for example, if more people work remotely or in a hybrid model then there are less opportunities for “lunch and learn” programs). Here is a pedestrian breakdown as I see it:

Chabad- They are still at it in the most amazing way. Shuls, C-Teen, the Jewish Leaning Institute, active Sunday school programs all attract non-frum Jews, in addition to their campus and young professional work. Chabad is often the first address people hear of when they ask about how go learn more about Judaism. If you or I are not going to a Chabad shul then it’s likely we are not seeing how successful they are in kiruv.

Shuls- In the 1990s there shuls doing active outreach and that was part of their mission statements. Pre-internet if there wasn’t an outreach kollel or an active Chabad in a community a shul was the destination for kiruv. Today that has shifted. There are more learning and kiruv opportunities outside of shuls and there is more competition for shuls to keep and service members. Unless a shul has an affiliated outreach program then the shul as an entry point for kiruv is fading fast.

Campus Kiruv- 30 years ago, aside from Chabad and some Orthodox staff at random Hillel locations “campus kiruv” wasn’t an industry. Now there are lots of Hillel locations with someone frum on staff connected to OLAMI or the OU’s JLIC (Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus) or independent OLAMI, JLIC, or MAOR affiliated campus kiruv programs in addition to established Chabad on campus. These programs are extremely great at attracting students in large numbers and due to some of them them being staffed by more “yeshivish” people when these students become more involved in Yiddishkeit and/or frum life they are more likely to affiliate at kollels or shuls, many of them being ones that you and I might not attend (plus in most cities the number of minyanim has also grown since the 1990s, so you or I don’t always see those new kiruv-anchored faces in our regularly attended shuls).

Kollels & affiliated minyanim- Today major Jewish cities boast multiple kollels. In the 1990s many of these were “outreach” kollels, but as time moved forward some of these kollel programs pivoted and also focused on inreach, so that means more staff to make sure outreach is taking place (I happen to be a fan of this trend). Also those kollels often give birth to affiliated minyanim for the people they attract. The long lasting effect of outreach in kollels is powerful and in some cities there are neighborhoods and shuls that are direct results of those kiruv efforts.

YJP (young Jewish professionals): This model of kiruv wasn’t nearly as active in the 90s as it is now. This is both a natural growth from campus kiruv as well as a result of offering creative social religious programming to young adults. Aside from creative Shabbas events (like a Chabad sponsored outdoor minyanim or rooftop dinners with open bars) or social events around the Yom Tovim groups or OLAMI sponsored meet-ups and learning sessions with young Jewish professionals and frum business “mentors”. These young Jewish professionals , as they become more connected to Yiddisheit are also being directed to shuls and minyanim that you might not go to. Also, as these participants get more connected to Yiddishkeit and eventually come to a shul they might already be frum and just blend in.

Internet and distance learning – The web has made if possible for people to grow Jewishly and still not have to step into a shul or kiruv program. In the 1990s programs like NJOP’s Read Hebrew America and the Crash Course in Hebrew and Basic Judaism were draws for the non-orthodox to come and learn. Aish HaTorah’s Discovery programs were brought to community after community and grew in crowds. Today those programs don’t have to be in-person. Why would someone today go to an Orthodox shul to learn about Judaism when they can watch videos or listen to shiurim/classes/lectures online? There is a non-orthodox organization that is focusing solely on attracting Jews who want Jewish content but don’t necessarily want to be confined to brick-and-mortar institutional Judaism. They are successfully attracting millennials who don’t feel a need to affiliate with congregations. They offer podcasts and online videos courses so that participate can learn on their own terms. This fills a void, but a program like this, does draw people away from traditional kiruv efforts. There is a popular online platform that does an incredible job at delivering quality Jewish digital content and even has a Daf Yomi podcast. They are a full digital ecosystem and there are seasoned Orthodox writers who help create content, however it also removes the face-to-face factor that is traditional used in Jewish adult education. If there is a way to connect Jewishly via the web, then those people will never interact with kiruv professionals. On the other hand, there is creative Jewish content from organizations like Meaningful Minute, 18Forty, Thank You Hashem, Chabad, and Aish HaTorah (just to name a few) that is attracting and enhancing the lives of Jews in multiple camps (both frum and non-frum). In addition to this programs like Partners In Torah and TorahMates connect many non-afflicted Jews with people to learn with one-on-one either by phone or by video chat. We, as frum people in our communities don’t often see the growth and commitment to Judaism that happens with participants in these learning programs.

Competition- Other denominations within Judaism are offering more Jewishly enriching educational options than ever before. There is a text-based beis midrash-style learning program in the non-Orthodox world in Chicago, so I am sure it’s happening in other places. If someone can find spirituality and intellectual stimulation without having to follow certain Torah guidelines, then why become orthodox? This is a big challenge for those in kiruv, I think.

Schools- Also connected to the last point about competition is the rise of non-orthodox Jewish schools. It used to be that there were only Orthodox day schools in cities and some parents who were not Orthodox would send their kids there because Jewish education was important to them and, by default, the Orthodox community offered the only option. This was a major entry point for kiruv and I personally know dozens of families that became frum due to sending their kids to an Orthodox day school. That’s changed over time due to the growth and demand for non-Orthodox day school options.

There is one more reason why I think the shift in kiruv has changed and might seem like there is less kiruv happening these days. It’s a reason I find difficult to write about. It’s personal and, by my own admission, I am part of the problem since every one of us has a responsibility to be ambassadors of Yiddishkeit. Previously I’ve had “Partners In Torah” and at one point I learned with a group of three passionate Reform guys my own age for over a year. I’ve also attempted to invest in my own family, I have aspired to be a good frum role model for my kids, and have tried to grow in my own Avodas Hashem. The demands of life shift over time and I chose to pivot toward my own home. I could be more involved in kiruv activism, but I am not. Here and there I try to do what I can both in real life and digitally, but I know I can do more. I hope and daven that this will change at some point.

Again, I am not at all a kiruv professional and those in kiruv (and chinuch) are doing an avodah that is changing lives, but I think that even with a shift in the kiruv landscape over the past 30+ years we have seen an explosion of experiential education that fuels both outreach and inreach. We live in an age when both non-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews have access to Challah Bake events, the Siyum HaShas, concerts or a kumzitz in a shul, beis midrash programs in shuls, kids going to kiruv summer camps, women learning initiatives, more organized daily learning programs, more inspirational classes, and more people wanting to connect and learn. The emphasis that our community puts on real life Jewish content offers a tangible way to live Judaism and as we promote the amazing Torah, Avodah, and Gemilus Chasadim in own communities the world takes notice.

3 comments on “How Kiruv and the Baal Teshuva Movement has Changed

  1. I think kiruv was a bigger deal in the 1990’s because there was more of an audience for it then. Young college age people were just questioning and exploring a lot more. Just like in the 60’s we had both the hippy movement AND a large influx fo people starting to question their secular upbringing. In the 90’s the same culture that gave us grunge and the Jim Rose Sideshow gave us a lot of young people more open to traditional Judaism than previously. Not that all of these people became frum but they were at least exploring and asking questions. I just don’t think it is as much part of the culture now.

  2. Last but not least, Beyond BT was given a shout-out at a 2017 AJOP session. R. Yitzchok Adlerstein mentioned Beyond BT as an “oasis” in the generally negative blogosphere and recommended it as a great resource which kiruv professionals should become familiar with. See Minute 46 in links below (first link has the video and second is a downloadable audio version):

    The entire above presentation is worth listening to. The session was titled, ” AJOP 2017: Cynics, Skeptics, Bloggers and the Intellectually Curious – How to Present Genuine Torah Values in a Challenging World,” and besides R. Adlerstein, it featured the Klal Perspectives journal panelists of R. Moshe Bane, R. Moshe Hauer, and R. Aaron Lopiansky. R. Dovid Cohen of Gvul Yaavetz has a comment in Minute 1:01:00 of the symposium.

  3. Thanks, Neil, for writing about this topic which I’ve thought about as well. Below are some links that discuss the changes in the kiruv scene:  

    The Fall 2022 issue of Jewish Action had an article by Rabbi Doron Kornbluth discussing six ways kiruv has changed. R. Kornbluth writes that  “kiruv is certainly different than it was in the heyday of the 1990s, but it is very much alive, has had some great successes and, in some ways, even has advantages over the past.” (In Note 1, he lists the names of approximately forty educators he consulted and then apologizes if he left anyone out !)  See also “Jewish Outreach on Social Media: A Newish Frontier” in the same issue.

    The Klal Perspectives Fall 2012 was a “Review of Kiruv” issue, and also published a supplemental issue of readers responses:

    As part of Mishpacha’s “Hindsight is 2020” series, discussing changes of the decade, Gedalia Guttentag wrote “This Isn’t the Kiruv of 2010.”  There was then a response by R. Avraham Edelstein of Ner LeElef/Neve Yerushalayim. An earlier article by Sara Glaz, “Is the Door Closing on Kiruv” was written in 2014.

    Jonathan Rosenblum responded to the above-mentioned Mishpacha article by Sara Glaz, writing, “my own guess is that kiruv in America is not coming to an end, but rather developing new models and targeting different age groups.”

    R. Steven Burg of  Aish HaTorah discussed in 2018 the connection between “inreach” and outreach. He writes, “[t]he bottom line is that if kiruv is dead, then Judaism will die as well. The day that we are not passionate enough about the Almighty to want to share it with the world will be a sad day for us all.” He  quotes an interesting conversation with a Mormon community lobbyist in this vein.

    On the change from using “proofs” in kiruv discussed by R. Kornbluth above and, in general, a lower-key approach, see also R. Adlerstein’s “New Directions in Kiruv – Part One”(2012),  R. Meir Goldberg’s “The Small, Soft Sound of Teshuvah”(2019), and R. Avraham Edelstein’s “Excelling in Faith” article(2017), linked below.

    Using the metaphor of Eliyahu in the aftermath of the Mount Carmel story, R. Edelstein writes, “[t]here are people—entire generations—who will not find God through dramatic proofs and loud noises declaring the truth of the Torah. But they will respond to the still, quiet voice of kiruv, of the loving mechanech (teacher) and of the exemplary parent.”

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