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Harav Sholom Kamenetsky, shlita

Klal Perspectives, A Review of Kiruv

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

A Rosh Yeshiva’s View: An Interview with HaRav Sholom Kamenetsky, shlita

Rabbi Sholom Kamenetsky is a Rosh Yeshiva in the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, and is consulted regularly by many mekarvim and kiruv organizations for guidance in both halacha and hashkafa. He has lectured for years in both Lakewood and Baltimore to avreichim who are preparing for or considering careers in kiruv and/or rabbanus. His presentations and the follow-up question-and-answer sessions at the annual convention of the Association of Jewish Outreach Professionals (AJOP), have generated wide discussion. 

Rabbi Kamenetsky generously agreed to speak to Klal Perspectives about the subject of this issue. Because of time limitations, the interview could not be comprehensive in scope and touched only on certain aspects of contemporary kiruv. The editors of Klal Perspective nevertheless feel that Rabbi Kamenetsky’s insights are an important addition to the current issue.

RABBI KAMENETSKY BEGAN by quoting a general piece of advice from his father, Rabbi Shmuel Kametsky, Rosh Yeshiva of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, for all those involved in kiruv, whether as funders, kiruv professionals, or interested lay people: “Always remember that you are not HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s apotropis (guardian).” He is responsible for the results, not you, and you have no right to bend Shulchan Aruch in the pursuit of “better results.”

At the same time, Rabbi Kamenetsky emphasized, no one should go into kiruv imagining that he will always be able to preserve “West Point standards” in the field. “We are not talking about doing anything in contravention of Shulchan Aruch,” he stressed, just the fact that any kiruv professional in the field will find himself engaged in many types of activities that he never imagined in himself doing in yeshiva or kollel.

Rabbi Kamenetsky expressed his strong opinion that every kiruv professional in the field, particularly those on isolated university campuses, needs to have a rav with whom he speaks at least once a week (he gives the same advice to Bais Yaakov graduates who take college or graduate school courses where some of the material presents hashkafic difficulties; they must have a rav with whom they can discuss the material, and who can help them navigate their program). Accepting the guidance of a rav is one aspect of what Rabbi Kamenetsky means by not making oneself into Hashem’s apotropis. In addition, the connection with a rav keeps the flame that kiruv workers take into the field connected to the fire of the beis medrash, represented by the rav.

It is quite natural that funders want to know that their tzedakah money is being well spent, and therefore look for concrete ways to measure the success of the programs they are supporting. The effort at quantification, however, can also lead to a numbers-driven approach to kiruv. In that case, much of the kiruv effort is determined by the need to meet the metrics of the donors, rather than by the individual needs of those with whom the kiruv professional is dealing. Anything that causes kiruv professionals to make decisions based on criteria other than the best interests of the Jews they are working with is, in Reb Sholom’s view, pasul.

The first requirement for measuring success is to identify the goal. Rabbi Kamenetsky remains convinced that the most powerful tool in the kiruv arsenal is genuine Torah taught by someone who has spent years immersed in Torah study, and has the communication skills and confidence to teach that Torah to individuals and groups. In addition, the mekarev must be someone who represents what it means to be shaped by the Torah. Rav Sholom mentions that his mother, in her work with college students, often gives them copies of the biography of Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky to show them a level of human being with which they have never had any previous contact.

But even if the mekarev is a fitting representative of Torah and has much Torah to teach, that still does not guarantee results in any timeframe. The most the mekarev can do is to place Torah al levavecha (on a Jew’s heart). But whether it is absorbed or the heart hardens is beyond his control.

For Rabbi Kamenetsky, then, the collective kiruv goal is to ensure that as many Jews as possible have access to someone who is genuinely immersed in Torah and capable of conveying it. He illustrates with a moshol. An old galleon was found sunk off the coast of India. At first, plans were made to lift the ship from the ocean bottom, so that archaeologists could examine its contents. But it was determined that the galleon was in no condition to be raised; it would disintegrate in the process. So a decision was made to provide training in archeology to a group of divers, and have them go down to the sea bottom to examine the galleon’s contents.But then someone observed that it made far more sense to take professionally-trained archaeologists and teach them enough diving skills to safely examine the galleon and its contacts.

Similarly, rather than choosing people with ‘people’ skills and trying to teach them enough Torah to be effective, the ideal in kiruv is to provide avreichim with the supplementary skills necessary to effectively teach Torah to a kiruv audience.

Rabbi Kamenetsky made two other points with respect to measuring the success of kiruv professionals. The first is that we often see something like the story of the tortoise and the hare in kiruv, and any metric with a short time-span camera will miss that. He pointed to Rabbi Benji Jacoby of Toronto as one of the most successful college mekarivim. Rabbi Jacoby works almost exclusively one-to-one and in small classes, and not through large-scale programs. Yet over close to two decades he has produced a large number of serious, well-balanced ba’alei teshuva.

Secondly, a baal teshuva passes through a number of stages, from the initial piquing of interest to successful integration in the Torah community. often under the auspicies of different institutions and individuals. Thus, it is impossible to attribute any baal teshuva to one mekarev. As an example, he cited the Chicago Torah Network, run by Rabbi Donnie Deutsch and Rabbi Moshe Katz. Only a part of their efforts are in front-line kiruv, with minimal involvement, for instance, on university campuses. Yet they are crucial to the healthy development of those who have shown that initial interest. Almost every baal teshuva in Chicago who successfully integrates into the Chicago community – or another community –passes through the Deutsch Shabbos table, and usually remains closely connected to the family for years. This vital step of helping ba’alei teshuva integrate into their new lives in a healthy fashion would seem virtually impossible to measure.

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