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Jonathan Rosenblum

Klal Perspectives, A Review of Kiruv

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

The Mitzvah of Kiruv Does Not Change

I WRITE FROM A DIFFERENT perspective than most of the contributors to this symposium – not from the point of view of the kiruv professional, but as a beneficiary of the kiruv movement that first began to flourish in the early ‘70s. My wife and I came to Israel in 1979 on our honeymoon and found our way to Ohr Somayach, where I learned for over two years, which were followed by nearly a decade of full-time kollel learning. I am also currently at work on a biography of Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the great visionary of the early ba’al teshuva movement.

Apart from a lack of Yiddish – which in America can give one away as a ba’al teshuva – my wife and I would appear to be well-integrated into mainstream Torah society: We have both held public positions, our children’s shidduchim do not seem to have been adversely affected by any stigma attaching to being ba’alei teshuva and we function comfortably within Israeli chareidi society (or at least our particular subgroup of that society).

Yet it would not be fully accurate to say that we have ceased to be ba’alei teshuva. Many of our closest friends are those with whom we have shared the journey, including, in my case, three siblings. And we continue to interact on a regular basis with a variety of ba’al teshuva institutions. I am a frequent visitor to both Ohr Somayach and Aish HaTorah, and a few years back had a morning chavrusah in Darchei Noam, another ba’al teshuva yeshiva, whose rosh yeshiva is my next door neighbor.

We regularly host guests from the two ba’al teshuva yeshivos in our Har Nof neighborhood – Machon Shlomo and Machon Yaakov, where my youngest brother teaches – and from Neve Yerushalayim, the ba’al teshuva seminary in Har Nof. In addition, I’m often struck by how many of the mainstream yeshiva and seminary students who join us for Shabbos are themselves the children of ba’alei teshuva.

On my travels, too – at least those outside the New York metropolitan area – I’m acutely aware of the large number of ba’alei teshuva whom I meet. Nearly a quarter of the Johannesburg community today is shomer Shabbos, the highest percentage of any Jewish community in the world, outside Israel. Yet until the early 1970s, there was scarcely a shomer Shabbos community at all in South Africa, apart from a small German-Jewish kehillah. Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein is himself a product of the wave of teshuva that swept South Africa from that time, and despite his relative youth, is fast emerging as one of the most dynamic and articulate spokesmen for Orthodox Judaism in the world.

I spent a Shabbos a few years back in the Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody, in a congregation led by Rabbi Binyamin Friedman. Fifteen years ago, there was not a shomer Shabbos Jew in Dunwoody. Today there is a vibrant Orthodox shul, which began as an outgrowth of an adult education series under the auspices of the Atlanta Scholars Kollel (ASK). On a recent visit to Cincinnati, I heard about a suburban Conservative synagogue that was taken over by a dynamic young Orthodox rav, who started with an Orthodox minyan in the basement. Rabbi Yaakov Meyer in Denver has created a thriving shul in a neighborhood that was previously without any shomer Shabbos families. And for good measure, I can easily rattle off another dozen shuls in which I have spent Shabbos in which the majority – usually a large majority – of the mispallelim did not grow up in shomer Shabbos homes or are geirim.

The four founders of the Dallas Kollel (DATA), all of whom learned in kollel under Rav Tzvi Kushlevsky while I was there, literally transformed the Dallas Jewish community, as detailed by Rabbi Benzi Epstein elsewhere in this issue.

Last winter, I spent a week speaking for Aish HaTorah – U.K. I was astounded by the dedication of the team of rabbis to changing the face of Anglo Jewry. On a Friday afternoon less than two hours before Shabbos, there were still ten people working in the London headquarters. Over a week in England, I managed only a partial glimpse of the organization’s overall approach, which included a distinct action plan targeting every demographic of Anglo Jewry – from high-flying yuppies and Oxbridge students to the rundown neighborhoods in which most London Jews once lived. Over the last decade, Aish – U.K.’s manifold activities have resulted in a statistically demonstrable decline in the British intermarriage rate.

WHAT IS MY INTENT with this pointillist presentation? It is simply to point out how much kiruv is going on today and how much energy and creativity many mekarvavim devote to the task. To one for whom ba’alei teshuva are real life individuals, and not just statistics – admittedly a small percentage of all American Jewry – the question of whether too much time and money was devoted to introducing them to Torah takes on an entirely different perspective.

Kiruv is not just something that happened in the halcyon days of the ‘70s among back-packing hippies picked up by Rabbi Meir Schuster at the Kotel. It is happening today as well, even if those coming to ba’alei teshuva yeshivos are more likely to be Wharton grads than spiritual seekers fresh from the Himalayas.

Kiruv was always a frustrating enterprise, and it always will be. Every ba’al teshuva is at some level a miracle. The odds are always against someone thoroughly reexamining the default assumptions with which he or she was raised. Ba’alei teshuva cannot be “made” (as in the ugly phrase “I made so-and-so frum”) or mass produced. Even in the imaginary golden age of kiruv, not more than one out of ten who entered the doors of Aish HaTorah or Ohr Somayach stayed for any period of time.

About thirty years ago, a close friend of mine from Ohr Somayach who was then a congregational rabbi in the South, remarked at an AJOP convention, “It’s so hard to influence someone to become a ba’al teshuva.” Bracha Zaret, who founded JAM (Jewish Awareness Movement) on the UCLA campus together with her husband Rabbi Moshe Dovid Zaret, responded, “It’s not so hard. You just have to care enough.” (Anyone who doubts the impact of present day kiruv should take a look at the JAM photo album of recently married graduates of its programs at UCLA and other Southern California campuses.)

Rebbetzin Zaret’s insight remains true today. And that is what I was attempting to demonstrate above. Those who come to the task with passion, the ability to show genuine concern for their fellow Jews, and a solid base in Torah learning will have a positive impact on Jewish lives. Some will be more productive and some less, but over time they will all witness “miracles” they can point to with pride.

Sometimes the seeds they plant will only take root years later and may be watered by others in the interim. And sometimes their impact will only be charted by a Divine calculus, as even those Jews who appear to find their way to Torah through pure serendipity may well be the Divinely ordained beneficiary of the efforts of some determined, selfless kiruv worker half way around the globe.

The nature of kiruv does not remain static. The field is not the same as it was forty years ago. The rapid decline of the Conservative Movement, in particular, and of Jewish identity among the young, in general, are real challenges. So is the uncertain economic future facing many college graduates, which makes them less willing to take off a year or more for full-time study in Israel.

But contrary to what we may think, the environment for kiruv has improved in many respects. The resources available for kiruv – both human and financial – dwarf what was available then. In the early days of the modern kiruv revolution, virtually the only ones available to go out into the field were themselves ba’alei teshuva, often relatively freshly minted. Today, the field is as likely to attract those who have spent their entire lives in mainstream yeshivos. In the London branch of Aish HaTorah, for instance, all but one of the ten senior staff members are the product of a mainstream yeshiva.

In the early ‘70s, there were almost no English-language works available for a Jew whose curiosity about Torah was piqued at any level. Today, top quality translations of Gemara and Chumash (with Rashi and Ramban) exist, and much of the classic Torah literature has been translated as well. The number of English-language works available – both inspirational and explanatory – many of them produced by ba’alei teshuva – has increased exponentially. The Internet has made it possible for a Jew in the most isolated outpost to access an almost endless supply of shiurim on any topic he chooses, as well as a dozen Ask-the-Rabbi sites.

And perhaps most importantly, the recognition is growing in the Orthodox community, through organizations such as Partners in Torah and Project Inspire, that kiruv is too important to leave to the professionals. It is an obligation incumbent on the entire community. That recognition greatly multiplies the available manpower, and makes possible much more of the crucial informal kiruv done at the Shabbos table.

I DO NOT MEAN TO ARGUE that everything is so hunky-dory in kiruv that we need not bother measuring the success of various kiruv efforts. I do believe, however, that a great deal of energy is currently wasted massaging numbers to satisfy donors, and that many workers in the field ignore their own best instincts in favor of programs that generate “measurable outcomes”.

There is virtually no area in which the Torah world would not benefit from a great deal more hard data, and kiruv is no exception. It is not a static field. The opening of the gates of the FSU in the early ‘90s, for instance, brought into play an entirely new demographic and mandated a reallocation of communal resources. It did not take a weatherman then to know which way the wind was blowing. But there are more subtle shifts in the responses of different population groups to kiruv efforts that require more sophisticated statistical analysis. (I, for one, am convinced that kiruv efforts in Israel offer greater potential return on the kiruv dollar.)

There are also more talented and less talented kiruv professionals. Though the difference may not be easily discerned in one year or two, over time it likely will be. Identifying those who possess the requisite chemistry is clearly a desideratum, and it makes sense to direct greater resources in their direction. (It is possible, however, that someone who was only minimally successful in one institutional structure will be much more successful in a structure more suited to his particular talents.)

My guess is that those who receive little positive reinforcement from the targets of their efforts will leave the field of their own accord, simply for the lack of satisfaction. (Unfortunately, even some who do have that positive feedback may leave the field for other reasons, such as the lack of suitable schooling for their children near their university campus.)

THE QUESTIONS POSED by the editors of Klal Perspectives implicitly ask whether the results from current kiruv efforts justify the amounts currently being expended, and whether money now spent on kiruv would be better directed to other communal needs – the most often mentioned of which is kiruv k’rovim.

With respect to the comparison between kiruv k’rovim versus kiruv rechokim, I would argue that the two go hand-in-hand. A community that does not hold its own young will of necessity be less attractive to outsiders. (That contradiction makes frequently heard calls for a major proselytizing effort among gentiles by rabbis in the hemorrhaging Conservative movement so pathetic.) For instance, college students from non-Orthodox homes are unlikely to be positively influenced by their Shabbos observant friends’ rapid flight from Torah observance as soon as they arrive at college.

Conversely, an Orthodox community whose members give more thought to why they feel fortunate to have been born into a Torah observant family and how to convey those feelings to those not so privileged would be better equipped to hold its young. Young people who toss off observance at the first opportunity – not because of any familial or personal dysfunction, but because they have never found mitzvah observance to be anything other than a set of unwanted restrictions – have likely never heard their parents express much excitement about being an Orthodox Jew or demonstrate that excitement in their behavior.

I DO NOT BELIEVE that the claim of kiruv rechokim to communal support can be evaluated by any specific metric – e.g., how much was spent last year per college student who went to study in yeshiva or a seminary in Israel – without adding a lot of other factors to the equation, many of them difficult or impossible to measure.

Among those factors is what the ba’alei teshuva bring to the Torah community. Here I write as a ba’al teshuva partisan who is convinced that the contribution of ba’alei teshuva has been considerable. Even if the numbers entering were merely equal to those leaving the Torah community, I would argue there has been a net gain in quality. Let me just mention a few of those contributions.

Just as Orthodox-educated university students in full flight from observance send a negative message to other Jewish students, so too do those becoming powerfully attracted to a Torah life send a positive message to Orthodox students. On a personal level, I remember the decision of a brilliant college friend to undergo a halachic conversion, after much learning, as a powerful impetus to look more deeply into my own Judaism.

Ba’alei teshuva have brought energy and enthusiasm, as well as many skills in short supply, to the Torah community. Those coming from sophisticated secular backgrounds helped create an audience for some of the deepest Torah thinkers of our time, such as Rav Moshe Shapiro. And they have also used to their command of contemporary intellectual idiom – Rabbis Akiva Tatz and Jeremy Kagan come immediately to mind – to make the Torah of those thinkers available to a broad audience, including those without an extensive Torah background.

The ba’al teshuva movement has pushed the Torah community to live up to its own highest ideals. Because ba’alei teshuva were often attracted to Torah observance through contact with some of the most exemplary figures within the Torah world – my own list would start with Rabbi Aharon Feldman and libadel bein chaim l’chaim, Rabbi Nachman Bulman – they demand that the Torah world live up to its own highest ideals, and are less willing to accept certain failings as “normal.”

Members of the Torah community involved in kiruv are acutely aware that their actions can have a powerful impact for good or bad on the perception of Torah life of not-yet-religious Jews. The greater the communal involvement in kiruv – which is by definition outward-looking – the greater the incentive to behave better. (As a general rule, the more isolated and self-enclosed a Torah community is the worse will the behavior of its members be, particularly with respect to mitzvos bein adam l’chaveiro.)

Finally, ba’alei teshuva, who have personally experienced the difference between a life of Torah and mitzvos and one without, still tend to bring the greatest passion to kiruv work and constitute a disproportionate percentage of those active in the field.

NO LESS IMPORTANT than what the ba’alei teshuva bring is what the Torah community would lose by making a strategic decision to retreat from kiruv. That retreat would constitute a betrayal of some of the most fundamental Torah values. At present, the Torah community is the last bastion of Klal Yisrael consciousness. Only those who believe in a Divine mission given to the Jewish People at Sinai can offer a coherent account of what binds Jews together. Knesses Yisrael is the corporate identity of the Jewish People, of which each individual Jew is a part. Halachically, that concept is expressed as areivus – e.g., no Jew has fully discharged his halachic obligations, such as Kiddush, until each Jew has done so.

To turn our back on kiruv would constitute denial of Klal Yisrael – of the shared destiny of the Jewish people and the mutual concern incumbent on each of us. As a sometime apologist for the Torah community, I’m frequently asked whether Torah Jews care about anyone besides their own community. I always point to the tens of millions of dollars raised each year in the Torah community to support kiruv work – e.g., the entire SHUVU school system, which boasts superior secular studies and an enriched Jewish education, supported to the tune of over ten million dollars a year by American baalebatim. Shuvu was founded at the request of the late Rabbi Avrohom Pam, to serve children from Russian-speaking families in Israel. (Yes, I do understand that non-religious Jews might not consider that form of concern benevolent.)

With respect to the shared fate of all Jews, Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe frequently pointed out that Mashiach will not come until all Jews do teshuva (see Rambam, Hilchos Teshuva 7:5), and therefore everyone who is able must help his fellow Jews come close to Hashem. Failure to attempt to bring other Jews back is thus tantamount to giving up hope in the coming of Mashiach.

Kiruv rechokim is an obligation touching on some of the strictest mitzvos both in the area of bein adam l’Makom (between man and G-d) and in the area of bein adam l’chaveiro (between man and man). The Ramchal, quoting Tanna d’vei Eliyahu, writes that the lowly state of the Jewish people – e.g., prolonged exile, the Bais HaMikdash in ruins – constitutes a chillul Hashem. So too is the near total ignorance of Torah and mitzvos of the vast majority of His Chosen People.

In a pamphlet written in 1905 called Chizuk HaDat, the Chofetz Chaim quotes the Sifri on the verse, “And you shall love the L-rd, your G-d,” which refers to Avraham Avinu as “the one who loves Me.” From here, the Chofetz Chaim derives that the essence of the Love of G-d is to “call others to Him.” And similarly, when one does not devote himself to combating the disgrace to Hashem that results from widespread alienation from His commandments, one demonstrates his indifference to Hashem’s honor.

The Chovos Halevovos writes that even one who has perfected his soul to the level of perfection of the prophets does not enjoy the reward of “one who shows others the proper path and turns the wicked around to the service of Hashem” (Sha’ar Avodas HaElokim 5:6). And in Sha’ar HaBitachon, Chapter 4, he goes even further and writes that even one’s good deeds do not entitle him to reward in the World to Come unless he also teaches “others about the service of G-d and guides them in doing good.”

In the above-mentioned pamphlet, the Chofetz Chaim describes the failure to act to rescue one’s fellow Jew from ignorance of Torah as transgression in bein adam l’chaveiro – a form of “don’t stand idly by on your brother’s blood. Therefore, he writes, if one cannot save one’s fellow Jew himself, he is required to hire others to do so.

Just as lack of effort to bring Jews closer to Hashem reflects a lack of ahavas Hashem (love of G-d), so too does it reflect a lack of ahavas Yisrael (love of one’s fellow Jew) and of belief in the “genetic” connection of every Jew to a life of Torah and mitzvos.

Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist, author, biographer and lecturer.
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