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Foreword to Fall 2012

Klal Perspectives, A Review of Kiruv

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

THE QUESTIONS POSED to our contributors for the current issue of Klal Perspectives sought to organize and rank kiruv activities within the wide range of communal priorities.  By and large, the responses we received did not accept the premise of the questions.  With a few exceptions, in place of objective data and analysis of the range of kiruv options, we received presentations passionately advocating specific kiruv programs.  While this avoidance of the questions will be frustrating to some, we must also be open to consider it as an affirmation of the strength of passion and spirit in the world of kiruv.

The Rambam in his Sefer HaMitzvos (Aseh 3) includes the mitzvah of kiruv as part of the mitzvah of loving G-d.  As he explains, it is the passion one feels for G-d that drives the individual to want to share that passion with anyone he or she can.  The presence or absence of this passion is an important marker of the strength of our own commitment to Hashem and His Torah.  And while passion does not remove the need for accountability or for thoughtful choices, it may well be that the inherent nature of the kiruv enterprise precludes a “big government” approach of defining communal outreach priorities from the top down.

To make it easier for the reader to jump into an issue with many points of entry, we offer this forward as a road map of the individual articles.

In an impressively comprehensive piece, Rabbi Avraham Edelstein, director of Ner LeElef, builds on his assertion that the global kiruv movement has expanded far more rapidly in the last ten years than it did in the previous thirty. Acknowledging that no one has yet cracked the code of how to measure success, he offers an approach in the areas of campus and community-based kiruv, though concluding with a list of challenging questions yet to be resolved. He maintains that kiruv has not run its course at all – both based on real data and on guidance from gedolim that we are in the beginning stages of the teshuva prophesied in the Torah. Kiruv can be raised to an entirely new level through pursuing several avenues, such as improving operations of scale, investing in the professional development of mekarvim, developing great leaders – both of kiruv and of mainstream Jewish organizations – and by appealing to refugees from the Conservative movement. He concludes with boundless optimism that we will make the breakthroughs that are necessary to take us to the next level and beyond.

Rabbi Ilan Feldman laments the diminished impact of kiruv from its earlier momentum, notwithstanding increased manpower and resources.  He argues that this slide has little to do with the efforts of those in outreach, but rather kiruv can be rejuvenated and be truly effective only if the Orthodox community evolves into a true model of holiness and wholesomeness. Rabbi Feldman identifies the source of the Orthodox community’s failure to play that role in the Orthodox community’s view of itself primarily as an observant community, rather than as a model community.  Rabbi Feldman suggests that the American frum community’s exclusive focus on internal needs and observance represents an unjustified deviation from the true and authentic Yiddishkeit exemplified by Avraham Avinu, whose chessed reflected not only a belief in One G-d as the Giver of existence but also an expression of Avraham’s profound faith in human beings as tzelem Elokim – reflections of the Divine. He chastises the Orthodox world for its insularity and parochialism, sharing his fear that we will remain on a path away from the mission of Judaism if we fail to embrace the responsibility to both adhere to halacha and also focus on bringing about kiddush Hashem in the world around us.

Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie chronicles the success of a mushrooming network of Chabad centers. He sees kiruv as unquestionably picking up steam, rather than slowing down. An increasing number of families who are far from observance are nonetheless eager to affiliate with local Chabad establishments because they are greeted non-judgmentally and with genuine ahavas Yisrael. A younger generation of Jews does not bear the burden of the anti-Orthodox prejudices of their elders, and are therefore happy to affiliate with a community shul that offers Jewish authenticity. Success, according to this model, is not determined by speedy transformation to a frum lifestyle (although this remains the ultimate goal), but in any change that positions people or their children closer to it in the long run – or even the performance of a single mitzvah.

Rabbi Bentzi Epstein details the workings of the community outreach kollel, using Dallas as the model. He shows the variety of activities and programs that can be assembled under the rubric of bringing people directly closer to Torah, not to observance. He believes that even with waning interest in Judaism outside of our community, so many people are receptive to the power of pure Torah that what we need the most is more capable and caring young couples, ready to lovingly guide other Jews through the steps of growth and commitment.

Lori Palatnik showcases a new strategy for kiruv that targets Jewish mothers, as people capable of immediately carrying along other families on their journey back to their Jewish roots. The success of her program requires the quick development of kiruv resources in the community beyond those of the kiruv rabbi. She is developing them through a mentoring project with local observant families.

The arguments against kiruv as a communal priority are developed in a trenchant critique by Dr. Marvin Schick, who particularly mourns the drain of resources from what he believes to be the most important priority: supporting the Torah chinuch of our own children. His position represents a challenge that must be met by all who have a stake in kiruv. Dr. Schick is one of the most able and respected advocates for Torah education in our community; his position was not entirely unexpected.

He is joined, however, by one of the most creative figures in the world of kiruv, Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, who also questions the effectiveness of some of the kiruv strategies that worked in the past, particularly campus outreach, that he believes are failing today. He opines that the approximately 3,500 kiruv professionals are turning out only about 2,000 new committed Jews a year, at the cost of about $6,000 per success story. He urges a shifting of campus priorities to retention of Modern Orthodox students on campus, and towards social media in general.

Rabbi Raphael Butler adds to the hard questions the editors posed with some pointed questions and analysis of his own. He emerges with a firm resolve to maintain focus on young Jews on campus. He presents multiple reasons why this continues to be the best investment of resources. He opines that even if costs are high, they should be allocated across the new family members that the new baal teshuva predictably will bring to the community in the space of a short number of years.

Rabbi Steve Burg and Dovid Bashevkin also maintain that kiruv is not an activity so much as an articulation of a Torah community that is sensitive, altruistic, and united. When kiruv is pursued as salesmanship, many of the customers will in time show buyer’s remorse. The best choice in kiruv programming however remains the teenage years, when young Jews have reached an age of responsibility, but are not yet burdened by the accountability they will face just a few years later. At this age, moving positive experiences of authentic Judaism will have the most impact, undisturbed by the skepticism of later years.

Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky aims at upending crisis-driven kiruv, which he sees as flawed on theoretical and practical grounds. Among other things, it produces inordinate and counterproductive focus on numbers, at the expense of quality. Kiruv today ought to aim more at deepening the experience of people interested in Yahadus, rather than broadening the “customer base.” Only Torah study – including months-long stays in yeshivos – can provide Jews with the depth and authenticity they need to live fulfilled, balanced Torah lives.

Rabbi Shraga Simmons weighs in on a variety of innovative projects inspired by the legacy of Rabbi Noach Weinberg z”l that emergency times require emergency measures. Especially important is transforming laypeople into energized and educated mekarvim, and helping them begin community outreach centers. In particular, he showcases the web presence of Aish, which has enormous penetration in far-flung locales and traction with Jews who have near-zero interest in Judaism. Coupled with the wealth of upbeat and relevant Torah material on, using videos and other web-based material can lead to meaningful change in a huge number of people. He provides the evidence that casting a wide digital net can lead to serious study and serious change, when coupled with programs like live chat with an Aish rabbi and providing study partners.

Rabbi Benzion Klatzko argues that kiruv should not need justification. It is not an item on a Jewish to-do list, so much as a natural outgrowth of living a proper Torah life. The diminishing returns we witness in outreach today are consequences of the same failings that promote alienation among FFBs. Kiruv, as well as the general state of Torah Judaism – would be in far better shape if we could reemphasize Torah as primarily a relationship with Hashem, and also reaffirm the sense of global mission that is the raison d’être of Klal Yisrael.

Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman takes a dim view of superficial outreach strategies that do not lead to true commitment. Efforts at preventing intermarriage, in particular, are ill-advised. Two Jewish spouses with no commitment to Judaism, even though they have avoided marrying out, are not any more likely to have children who will not marry out. Substantive kiruv must promote emunah in Hashem and his Torah, must allow for individual difference rather than one-size-fits-all presentations, and provide ample opportunity for significant time spent with mentors.

Rabbi Eli Gewirtz offers a mission objective for kiruv organizations: making an appreciable and lasting impact on the greatest number of people. This might mean, in many cases, moving away from casting wider nets for people to come through doors that may prove to be revolving. Appreciable and lasting impact requires a larger commitment to follow-up than most organizations can afford; this should be outsourced to a cadre of volunteers in the community.

TWO MEMBERS OF THE Klal Perspectives Editorial Board offer personal reactions to the issue, and to the state of kiruv. Jonathan Rosenblum speaks glowingly of how the movement enriched his own life, and continues to pump vitality into the communities around the world that he visits. He contrasts the kiruv of old with its present incarnation in terms of the availability of funding, textual resources, and personnel.  Should some of the resources of our community be redirected at kiruv kerovim, as a perhaps higher priority?  Rabbi Rosenblum argues that the two cannot be separated. A frum community that would turn more insular will have less reason to correct its faults; one less concerned with making itself attractive to outsiders will be less attractive to insiders. Most importantly, it would be a dereliction of duty to the concept of Knesses Yisrael.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is less forgiving about the inability of most contributors to provide hard data about their performance. He recounts his malaise after reading some of the pieces, which soon has him pondering the differences between kiruv two decades ago and today. He worries about who is doing the outreach, the pool of semi-affiliated Jews that has dried up, and the impact of negative imagery associated with the Orthodox community. What if kiruv professionals really can’t show why their productivity merits greater support than other priorities of the frum world? His equilibrium is restored, however, after reading the contributions of Rabbis Avraham Edelstein and Ilan Feldman, both of whom deliver for him the confidence in the effectiveness of contemporary kiruv, as well as a simple prescription for success.

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

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