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Lori Palatnik

Klal Perspectives, A Review of Kiruv

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

Kiruv: If We Do Not Change, We Will Lose

I live in the Washington D.C. area, but on a recent trip to Israel, I was speaking to the young smicha (rabbinical program) wives at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem, as I try to do almost every year. I told them that I was going to tell them something very different this year. In past years, I would usually say something like, “Go out there, be supportive of what your husband is doing, host some guests for shabbos, start tutoring one-on-one, build up slowly and begin teaching classes…rah, rah, rah.”

But instead, this year I told them, “I am not going to tell you to do those things any more, because ‘slowly’ is no longer an option, for we are quickly running out of time.”

My husband and I have been working in active community-based kiruv for the past 25 years. Before that he was on staff at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem, teaching the beginner’s Gemara (Talmud) shiur as well as Rambam (Maimonides). After moving to Toronto, we became the founding rabbi and rebbetzin of The Village Shul, initiating one of the most vibrant outreach communities in North America. We then helped shape an exciting direction for Aish Denver and subsequently moved to the Washington D.C. area to help transition Aish there from an educational center to an outreach community.

Building another outreach community in the D.C. area was the safe thing to do. We had done it in the past and there was definitely a need. But since we began our kiruv efforts 25 years ago, we have watched an increasingly steep decline in society’s values dramatically alter the landscape of non-Orthodox society, undermining the entire model of how kiruv is supposed to work. Doing the safe or easy thing no longer seems like a viable choice.

Until not so long ago, there was a stable “middle class” of Judaism, with traditional family values and a strong sense of Jewish identity. Kiruv efforts consisted of appealing to these values and building on them – guiding individuals and families further along a path whose beginnings they recognized. The heritage we sought to share with them had a familiar ring in their ears and our job was to encourage them to take a “next step” in their Judaism.

This Jew is rapidly disappearing, replaced by a generation with values and morals entirely incompatible with those of the Torah. What often turned on the parents now turns off the children.

Years ago, there was a famous comedian whose highly irreverent routine included “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.” Today, you can say all of those words on television, and more. Years ago, Lucy and Ricky slept in separate beds. Today, Ricky sleeps with Fred in a popular and accepted mainstream comedy.

The internet has opened up a whole new world of access to wisdom and education, but in one “click,” the sickest and most depraved content is also there for the taking. Children have become so highly sexualized that they have literally lost their childhood. Stories of what happens in the bathrooms at Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties, or in homes at middle-school basement parties, would shock you. Trying to reach these young people with the Torah’s lofty and inspired principles is a gargantuan task, as their Jewish souls are buried deep beneath the surface.

The “middle class” of Judaism is rapidly disappearing. Gone is the generation in which Jews generally married Jews (and if they didn’t, it was still shocking). The distinction between Jew and non-Jew is hardly acknowledged at all.

Today, in some cities (think Seattle, San Francisco, etc…), it is unusual to meet a couple who are not intermarried. My non-observant but proudly Jewish mother-in-law in Chicago tells me, “My friends and I no longer struggle with should we go to the intermarriage of our children?’. Everyone goes. We do not want to lose our kids. Today we struggle with, do we go the christening of our grandchildren?’”

Increasingly we see, either you are “in” – an educated committed Jew – or you are “out,” ignorant, gone from the Jewish ranks, intermarried, assimilated, apathetic. In my family, though raised as secular Jews, three out of four of us became observant. The fourth one got married in a church on Shabbos and is raising his kids as Christians.

Welcome to the new Jewish “normal.” We cannot afford to use the same kiruv model that has been tried in the past, because we are now facing the “last stand.” It is do or die, but “die” is not an option when it comes to Klal Yisroel (The Jewish People).

So what do we do? Consider the following two-step plan of action:

I. Shift the Target Market

I have spoken on many major American college campuses and I am familiar with the wonderful college kiruv work being performed. These initiatives are actively engaging Jewish students, sending them to Israel, and supporting their journeys before they make that critical decision of whom to marry.

But, while I support and believe in these programs, if we are nearing the end of an intense spiritual war, it may be a mistake to make these students our primary target. After all, if you connect a 20 year old young man to his Judaism, and he becomes a committed Jew, you have now impacted a 20 year old. But what about his 17 year old sister, his 15 year old brother and his mother and father? Yes, perhaps if he stays on track and matures in his Judaism he will be a positive example to his family and some may follow suit, but we have seen that it is “hit and miss” and a long term project….

When a High School kid gets involved with NCSY or a college kid goes on one of the many outreach programs in Israel and comes back home excited about their Judaism, if the parents are not on board, this kid is swimming against the tide. Some will make it, and some will not.

Last year, about 2/3 of the way through a trip, one of the women came up to me and began to cry. I took her aside and asked what was wrong. She composed herself, took a breath, and confessed: “I came on the trip because it was a free way to get to Israel and to get my son out of Ohr Samayach. But, Lori, I was wrong. I want him to stay.”

“What should I tell him?” she asked, now crying in my arms.

I hugged her tight and whispered in her ear, “Tell him you were wrong.”

What could be an effective alternative? My answer is to target mothers, the one person in the family whose Jewish reawakening will have the greatest impact on the entire family.

Throughout our kiruv careers it became crystal clear that the key to impacting a family is through the Jewish woman; the wife, the mother. The woman of the home, in general, is the one who is the main decider of some of the most important choices a family will make: where to live, what schools children will attend, who they will socialize with, and the list goes on and on. The impact of these choices is literally the difference between one lifestyle and another. Spiritually, some of these choices can be the difference between life and death. I always tell women, “The choice of where you send your kids to school will not result in who your kids will be, it is who your grandchildren will be.”

Inspiring a woman is inspiring the family. And if you inspire enough families, you inspire a community. Inspire enough communities; you can change the world.

Four years ago, eight women founded The Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (“JWRP”) in order to empower women with Torah values in the quickest and most efficient way. Their flagship project is their nine-day “Birthright” for Mothers TAG Trips to Israel. TAG stands for “Transform and Grow,” and that is exactly what happens.

The goal is to fast-forward the efforts of outreach organizations around the world. Most kiruv projects are doing good work, but there is not enough time for work that is merely good. We must do great work; outstanding work; break-through “home run” work.

The trip is free for the women, not including airfare. The local organizations contribute just $250-300 per woman; JWRP raises the rest.

By the end of 2012, in just four short years, the JWRP will have brought close to 3,000 women to Israel, in partnership with fifty outreach organizations from nine different countries. An exciting new trend is that local Jewish Federations are coming on board, which is giving kiruv organizations a new mainstream partner, some for the very first time. The results are over-the top. And most importantly, the women are pushing their husbands and children out the door to learn Torah.


The women are surveyed at the conclusion of each trip, and though the results are overwhelmingly positive, they do not impress me. Of course, everyone is excited on the last day of a high impact, nine day trip packed with inspiration and emotion. But the real question is how long the impact lasts.

So we track the women closely after the trip, offering support and follow-up through our many partner organizations throughout the country. These local partners, such as Aish branches, community kollels, shuls and kiruv organization, are an essential part of our vision, both because they help recruit women to join TAG trips and because their time in Israel is only the beginning of a long journey; it is what happens once they return home that really counts.

City leaders from among our partners participate in monthly conference calls to share best practices and explore each other’s challenges. Speakers are sent to the various cities but there are also live, interactive video events that allow women from all over the world to hear their favorite speakers, reminisce and chat with one another. Each organization submits quarterly reports on the events they have with their women, attendance, and other important information regarding the women’s progress in their post-trip learning and growth.

During the trips, we strongly emphasize that the women must take this inspiration home and assume spiritual responsibility for their families, communities and even for the Jewish people. For example, many of the women have initiated fundraising projects in support of the many chesed organizations we introduce to them. They bring their friends to classes and begin to invite them for Shabbat experiences. And they are the most effective recruiters for subsequent trips. I recently spoke at a recruiting event in Los Angeles, which was attended by 200 women – all of whom were recruited by the 45 Los Angeles women who had come on the previous trip.

We sold out our 1,200 spots for 2013 in 10 days. Would we like to bring more? Yes. Is there a demand? Yes, again. But our rapid growth has required us to build an infrastructure to support it, so we are monitoring the increases in numbers as we build the proper team. Our ultimate goal is to bring 10,000 women per year. We strongly feel that two to three years with those numbers would shift Klal Yisroel (The Jewish People) in the right direction.

Here is some of our data from one full year that illustrates how we have hit a mark:

  • 86% say being Jewish is more important to me.
  • 42% have placed their kids into Jewish youth groups.
  • 23% of those with school-aged children switched them from a public or non-Jewish private school to a Jewish Day School.
  • 68% of their husbands have increased their Jewish involvement.
  • 92% increased their financial support of their local Jewish community.
  • 97% encouraged their family and friends to go to Israel.
  • 33% are considering moving to Israel.
  • 76% increase their attendance at Jewish services.
  • 95% increased their observance of mitzvoth.
  • 75% increased their observance of Shabbat.
  • 90% increased their Jewish study.
  • 33% now observe the laws of mikvah.

You can see all of the data online at

Story after story convinces me that we are on to something very big. Torah is the greatest product in the world; you just have to present it in a way that it can be heard, in the right environment and at the right stage of life. These are mature women (average age is 40) who are struggling to make sense of their lives and are ready to learn how G-d put us into this world and gave us an instruction manual. One woman wrote to tell me: “We called off the divorce.”

At the end of the trip I tell them that we just gave them the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more.

II The Job is Too Great to Leave to Rabbis (and Rebbetzins)

The success of the JWRP has highlighted a problem in conventional kiruv that was always there, but which has been inadequately addressed: The numbers do not add up. There are simply not enough of us to reach as many people as we must.

The primary goal of any outreach organization is to meet and engage Jews who are far away from their heritage. The “Free Trip to Israel” has helped, as it attracts women and their families to local organizations that otherwise would not have reached them. And we help establish close relationships by having local representatives – typically, the rebbetzins – come along to Israel to help lead outings. Engaging them post-trip is thus relatively easy. As Rebbetzin Lauren Shaps from JET in Ottawa recently remarked, “They can’t get enough of us.”

The bumpy road towards Jewish knowledge and commitment depends not only on learning but on connection and relationship. Ask almost any baal teshuva, and they will tell you of the special people who helped, guided, and supported them along the way. More than teachers, these people serve as a “living Torah,” an example of what it means to live Torah values as a family and as part of a like-minded community. They do this by opening their homes every Shabbat, inviting novices to family simchas, including them on chol hamoed (intermediate days between Jewish holidays) outings, calling to share their excitement when a great speaker comes to town and volunteering to drive so all could attend together. They are the mentor family that adopts the novice, loving them like their own, and taking responsibility to help them every step of the way, from making sure they get on the right trip to Israel, to, in the right time, finding them their soul mate.

The local outreach organizations are now being flooded with women who are on fire, seeking to learn and grow, and they want to bring their families with them. But how many families can one kiruv professional possibly engage on this ongoing, committed level? My observation has been that perhaps three to four families per year, at most.

So what is the reaction of the organizations to a sudden influx of families needing guidance and nurturing? Either they desperately try to raise the additional funds needed to hire more staff, or they simply scale back their outreach efforts. For those involved in our TAG trips, ”scaling back” means reducing the number of women they undertake to send on the TAG Trip the following year. Alas, both these approaches are mistakes.

We have finally found a program that brings in new families and jump-starts their interest in Torah within just nine days; this is not a time to cut back. It is a time to expand.

But even if more money could be raised, despite the tight economy, and even if new, talented staff could be found (also not easy), it will not solve this “good” problem of having to service all of these new “customers.” There are simply not enough of us to go around.

As such, the solution is to leverage the influence of kiruv professionals to engage the broader community in the effort. Kiruv professionals must stop trying to be salesmen and instead become shadchanim (matchmakers) and resource people.

My husband always says, “The job of kiruv is too great to leave to the rabbis.”

Over the next year, the JWRP will be test marketing a new follow-up program called “Family to Family.” This program will match observant lay-families in the community with JWRP families to mentor them on their challenging journey towards Jewish knowledge and commitment. On the professional side, it will be a team effort between Project Inspire (who will help give the lay-families basic kiruv training), Partners in Torah (who will make sure that all JWRP family members are learning, either in person or on the phone) and the local outreach organization (which will be an ongoing resource to the lay-family, and will continue to provide programming and resources to the families from JWRP).

All Boats Rise

The benefit of engaging all observant Jews in outreach is not only an increase in kiruv capacity, but also an intense inspiration for the already observant participants. After the first trips in the summer of 2009, a rabbi from Dallas called me up and asked, “What did you do to my wife?

“She came back after leading the group from Dallas and told me that she wants to start teaching — though she never taught before — and says that since we need a mikvah, she wants to begin raising the money to make it happen. What did you do?”

As my friend, who is the CEO of the Dallas Federation, says, “All boats rise.” When you lift one group, it lifts us all.

We have all seen the declining inspiration within the observant community. As one gadol b’Torah (Torah Giant) told me, “Today, the Orthodox families are so weak.”

There are programs and initiatives beginning to address this, but Rabbi Noah Weinberg, zt”l, argued that the best way to inspire an observant family is to get them to reach out to their fellow Jew who is far away from knowledge and commitment.

There are no easy, quick fix answers, and there are more issues than solutions. But if we begin to shift the primary target market to mothers, and seriously engage the lay-community in order to change the culture and methodology of kiruv, perhaps we will have a real chance to truly bringing Hashem’s children home.

Lori Palatnik is an author, international speaker and the Founding Director of The Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (
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