“Shlichus” for the 21st Century: A Non-Traditional Kiruv Approach
Rabbi Ilan Feldman’s article in the last Klal Perspectives (Why the Giant Sleeps, Fall 2012), in which he presents a vision of the model Orthodox community struck a chord very deep in me. I grew up in a very large, fully functional, and essentially self-contained Modern Orthodox community, but for purposes of schooling and work I have traveled and lived in many smaller, “out-of-town” communities.
While at a prior job that brought me regularly to state capitals and Jewish communities far outside New York, I would think of my travels as a chance to see “real Jews in real places.” I’ve prayed in the kollel in Grenoble, France, I met a Squarer Chasid in Las Vegas, and spent Shabbos in places such as Austin, Boca Raton, Charleston, Chicago, Edmonton, Harrisburg, Miami, Mt. Kisco, Oakland, Omaha, San Francisco, Silver Spring and more. I studied in Washington, DC, lived for a time in Albany, and currently live in Ithaca, NY, where I’ve come for an attractive parnassa (job) opportunity.
If only Orthodox Jews in larger numbers would be able to spend significant time outside of the “big cities,” at least two, and possibly three, things might happen.
First, they might meet, as Rabbi Feldman did on his Federation trip to Israel, many Jews of different denominations who are passionately committed to Jewish peoplehood, Judaism and Israel. I myself went on a similar program several years back, run by Israel’s Foreign Ministry, and was struck by the sincerity, religious passion, and fierce commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people that I saw in my co-participants. Like Rabbi Feldman, I kept my mouth shut about kashrus questions, Shabbos accommodations and other areas. Like him, many of the participants on the trip have become good friends in the years since, despite our religious differences. I also like to joke that my three favorite professors in law school were an Orthodox rabbi, a Reform rabbi, and a Catholic priest. And when I worked in lobbying and political action for an Orthodox organization, I found myself working side by side with, and sometimes on opposite sides of issues from, equally committed, equally proud Jews of other denominations. Taking the time to get to know them meant we found common cause when able, kept our disagreements civil when unable, and made friendships all the same.
Second, such communities provide the opportunity for Jews of all stripes to work together, live together and build Jewish life together. They have the opportunity to become friends, and to break down stereotypes that engender distance at best and distaste at worst. In such communities, Orthodox Jews can, as Rabbi Feldman notes, model Torah life, without need to resort to teaching, preaching or threatening.
They might also find that a broad, open Jewish community, where one’s yeshiva pedigree, or kippa preference is less critical than whether they are Jewish and whether they want to be involved as a growing, contributing member of the community. Spending time in such communities also provides the opportunity to contribute to the growth of a community in a meaningful way that matters both to one’s self and to the Jewish people to a far greater degree than is possible in large, established communities. For older singles, baalei teshuva (newly observant) and nontraditional Orthodox couples, such communities also provide a place to belong without feeling out of place, or behind their peers.
And thirdly, they might find, as I have, job and educational opportunities that are simply unavailable in a city like New York. It could be a medical fellowship, a legal clerkship or, as I found, an opportunity at a Fortune 500 company. No one says these opportunities must last forever, but they can be, for a young single or young couple, or a middle-aged breadwinner at a career crossroads, an opportunity for advancement well beyond what they could expect in New York. They could also find opportunities in specialty areas that are simply unavailable in New York.
The first two of these possibilities are directly related to the overarching question of the kiruv issue: how to succeed, which, as Rabbi Feldman hints, is by modeling. I would say even more so, it is by creating a two way street, a friendship between Orthodox Jews and others.
The last piece, however, adds an important practical aspect. We are all familiar with the shlichus (emissary) program that Chabad runs worldwide. It is unrealistic, perhaps, to assume that Modern Orthodox or Yeshiva/Charedi Orthodox Jews will spend their entire lives in small outposts of Judaism. But young adults, both singles and couples with younger children, ought to be encouraged to head out to places where they can best experience what they need for their professional lives.
And similar to what Mormon leadership requires of their adherents, middle aged couples can also be sent to smaller communities for a few years. Imagine a young attorney who finds a prestigious clerkship in a far flung community. Or a pre-MBA businessman who finds a crucial first job in a mid-sized city. Or, even for that matter, a middle aged executive looking for a job to transition to their next phase.
Now imagine them in those communities, strengthening the daily minyan (prayer services) and the local day school. Imagine them becoming involved in the local Jewish federation, the Hillel on campus, and living at a cost significantly below New York or other large cities.
Take Key West, Florida as but one example. It is an hour or so from Miami, but has no Orthodox presence. There are of course many reasons for this, but just imagine: there is a federal district court, several health care centers, newspapers and the like.
This may have the benefit of advancing kiruv in North America. It will have other corollaries as well, each of which helps to advance kiruv. Orthodox Jews will be more open and more tolerant, and so will their non-Orthodox counterparts. They will be more fulfilled and lead happier lives with better job prospects. And most importantly, their own Jewish life will be richer, deeper and more vibrant for having forced themselves to confront an outside world, the beliefs and practices of others and communities not like their own. This will reinvigorate the large centers of Jewish life, which will then have a ripple effect on Jewish communities worldwide.
Howie Beigelman is a corporate speech writer, formerly served as the state affairs lobbyist at the Orthodox Union and spent over a decade volunteering as an NCSY advisor.