Skip to content

Dr. Marvin Schick

Klal Perspectives, A Review of Kiruv

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

Who Are We Reaching Out To?

WHEN I WAS HONORED at the Torah U’Mesora dinner twenty-five years ago, I compared the understandable emphasis that our community was placing on kiruv with our neglect of the challenges arising from the abandonment of religious life by many, mostly younger persons, who – though raised observant – no longer considered themselves Orthodox. “We speak of kiruv rechokim,” I said, “but we pay no heed to the problem of richuk kerovim.”

At the time, kiruv activity was in its heyday, enveloped in a great deal of hype and expectation. There were good reasons for this. Both nationally and locally, there were committed and energetic persons who were devoted to kiruv and who apparently were producing impressive results. However, even then there seemed to be an excessive emphasis on public relations, that could be justified as necessary not only for fundraising, without which kiruv activity could not proceed, but also as an instrumentality of kiruv itself. Publicity resulted in persons outside of our religious life knowing more about the glories of our tradition.

Whatever the justification, it would have been helpful had the proclamations of triumph been accompanied by a healthy dose of introspection. The point would not have been to question whether kiruv was necessary and beneficial, but whether there were other ways to reach out, and whether the strategies that were being employed were as effective as some claimed them to be.

A generation has passed. Let’s face it, the bloom is long off kiruv. Many of those who labor in this vineyard strike me as tired, doing by rote what they have done for many years, as if they are in some kind of box that they cannot escape from. The rhetoric is toned down, perhaps because people aren’t paying attention. Of course, there is the annual gathering of the Association of Jewish Outreach Programs, an organization whose mission seems to be to demonstrate that although, like so many other Jewish organizations, it is no longer alive, it can have an annual convention nonetheless.

If we look at day school enrollment, a field that I monitor on an ongoing basis, the number of students in outreach and immigrant schools has plummeted over the last decade by more than fifty percent – significantly because the Russian immigration occurred a generation and more ago and because the Bukharian community has either drifted away or been morefully incorporated into Orthodox life. Even so, some schools that once catered to what can be called kiruv families have closed and others are barely hanging in there. Equally telling is the situation at what may be termed ordinary day schools and yeshivas. The former are largely closed to kiruv families because of very high and ever-increasing tuition and scant scholarship assistance, while the latter are far more restrictive in their admission policy than they used to be, fearing that if they accept students from homes that do not live up to the religious standard the schools promote, there is a heightened danger that mainline Orthodox children will be influenced in the wrong direction.

For all of the harsh reality that may induce a negative view of kiruv, there is much that the movement can be proud of. Outreach in America takes place in a world engulfed in modernism and secularism and is akin to swimming against the tide. Every successful outreach story is a validation of the great principle of kiruv proclaimed in the famous Mishna in Sanhedrin that teaches us that saving a single life is like saving the entire world. Surely, this applies to spiritual salvation.

Thus, in his farewell address as president of AJOP in what seems to be an eon ago, Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald – the most eminent of all outreach workers – declared that statistics show that on the average, each outreach worker produces one-half a person of outreach success each year. He was declaring victory and not defeat, even as he was cautioning all of us about how Sisyphean the challenge is.

As difficult as outreach has been, it becomes more difficult with each passing day, the inevitable consequence of advanced assimilation and intermarriage. In pure arithmetic terms, there are fewer Jews to reach out to each day, in part because intermarriage creates largely insurmountable halachic issues and, at least as important, there are fewer people listening to our messages. I imagine that just about every contributor to this symposium is making the same point.

I also imagine that in too many places, kiruv professionals are going about their work as if the world in the second decade of this no longer new century is not much changed from the world of the 1970s and 1980s.

None of this means that the kiruv enterprise should be shut down. What it does mean is that there needs to be a change in attitude and strategy, beginning with the recognition that, at least in its first stage, the return to Judaism is in many instances serendipitous. People are drawn to Judaism not because an organization or activity has beaten the drums or done anything in Billy Graham style but because individuals sense that they want to be drawn to the spiritual and to the great heritage of our people.

This serendipitous, initial embrace of a return to Judaism is enhanced or, in turn, deterred by what can be referred to as the climate of opinion. If returning to religion seems to be the thing to do, more people will return. If it seems out of style, or something that just about no one is doing, the prospect for return is clearly diminished. I do not know how one can create a climate of opinion. What can be suggested is that when we as a religious community act in a noble fashion, demonstrating our concern for others, being less judgmental and being more open to embracing people who do not – at least as yet – share our vision, the likelihood that distant Jews, especially younger ones, will want to learn more about Judaism is greatly increased.

On the other hand, when we act and speak in ways that turn off outsiders, we can be assured that outsiders will not turn to us. As one telling example from recent days, there is the racism and other forms of nastiness expressed by too many Orthodox Jews regarding the man who was just re-elected as president of the United States. Whatever we may think about President Obama’s policies or ideology, he is the president of a country that has been kind to our people, a country predicated on the idea of tolerance. If we are intolerant, as too many of us are, the reciprocal will be that we will be rejected. To borrow from a very old maxim that has applicability every single day, we need to do unto others as we want others to do unto us.

Although the point is obvious, it needs to be stressed that our gratuitous negativism toward non-Jews generally and, at times, toward other ethnic groups is a powerful factor in the rejection of Orthodoxy by too many of our young. Instead of drawing people closer, we are alienating them.

After the initial decision has been made by an individual or family to draw closer to our religion and community, organized outreach activity is vital. This, too, is an obvious point and it constitutes much of what the outreach world is currently engaged in. Shabbos activities, study groups, one on-one learning and many other stratagems are necessary and useful, as individuals continue on the road toward greater religiosity and commitment. There is an abundance of attractive programs and, certainly, ArtScroll has been a big help.

Yet, because so much of what we do as a religious people is in Hebrew, and we have an abundance of rules and requirements, those who are learning about Judaism may encounter roadblocks along the way. I have often sat in shul as the davening has proceeded at a super-rapid pace and wondered how I would feel if my Hebrew was limited and/or I was not familiar with the liturgy. I might stay the course; I might also abandon the process of return. Very few synagogues have beginners’ services. We have to make our religion more user-friendly, not by watering down religious requirements but by making what is required more accessible.

There is a second aspect to this point. The reliance on regular classes with texts is understandable because text-based material is central to our religious life. But I have also been in Gemara classes where men who are in the process of returning to Judaism simply gave up because they could not adequately follow what was happening.

Chabad recognizes this and its reaching out is, at times, as user-friendly as can be. This is important because Chabad in the aggregate dwarfs by a considerable margin all else that might be labeled as kiruv. The interesting thing about this is that when most people write about kiruv, Chabad is often missing from the scene, as if it’s in a different world or dimension. This is telling and not only because there is a paucity of cooperative interactions between Chabad and the rest of what might be referred to as outreach. Each side seems not to sufficiently recognize the other.

Although I admire Chabad’s creativity, as for example in its use of the Internet, its idea of user-friendliness seems to be stretched to the point where Judaic outcomes are considered far less important than how an individual reacts at a particular point in time. Outreach, as we know, is designed to be transformative. Chabad aims much lower and while this means that it hits the target more often, it also means that at the end of the day, the people who come into its ambit are very little changed in behavior or attitude.

I recognize that many in Chabad will reject this. When I have written in this vein, I have been sharply taken to task. I stick to my guns, even as I recognize the dedication and sacrifice of a great many of Chabad’s emissaries. If the movement was remotely as transformative as some of its votaries claim it to be, day school enrollment statistics would be different, as would many of the other demographic indices of Jewish religious life.

In sum, what is needed both from the nominal outreach world and the Chabad world is greater introspection, a greater willingness to ask questions about what is being done and whether the outcomes are as glorious as some like to claim them to be. None of this diminishes the critical teaching of the value of saving a single life. But let us also keep in mind that after that single life has been saved, there are many other lives to be reached out to.

Dr. Marvin Schick is President of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School and a senior advisor to the Avi Chai Foundation.
No comments yet

Comments are closed.