Someone asked me online why it seems that kiruv and the “Baal Teshuva Movement” isnâ€™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 â€œin the trenchesâ€, in fact I donâ€™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 (itâ€™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 â€œlunch and learnâ€ 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 itâ€™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 wasnâ€™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 â€œcampus kiruvâ€ wasnâ€™t an industry. Now there are lots of Hillel locations with someone frum on staff connected to OLAMI or the OUâ€™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 â€œyeshivishâ€ 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 donâ€™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 â€œoutreachâ€ 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 wasnâ€™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 â€œmentorsâ€. 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 NJOPâ€™s Read Hebrew America and the Crash Course in Hebrew and Basic Judaism were draws for the non-orthodox to come and learn. Aish HaTorahâ€™s Discovery programs were brought to community after community and grew in crowds. Today those programs donâ€™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 donâ€™t necessarily want to be confined to brick-and-mortar institutional Judaism. They are successfully attracting millennials who donâ€™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 donâ€™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 itâ€™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. Thatâ€™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. Itâ€™s a reason I find difficult to write about. Itâ€™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 Iâ€™ve had â€œPartners In Torahâ€ and at one point I learned with a group of three passionate Reform guys my own age for over a year. Iâ€™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.