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Rabbi Ari Koretzky

From Conversations: Readers Respond to A Review of Kiruv

A City of Hope in the State of Kiruv


The latest issue of Klal Perspectives elicited from me a broad range of emotions. Most notable was the instinctive defensiveness I felt, an impulsive need to defend my chosen profession and life’s mission. Was my emotional reaction unfounded, or was it rooted in a reflexive understanding that much of the articles’ analyses did not line up with what I observe unfolding in the kiruv world I occupy daily?

The issue also called to mind the variety of objections toward kiruv that, while not enumerated there, commonly are expressed in other contexts.

Misgivings towards the kiruv movement – at least as it currently stands – come in many flavors: financial (questioning the fiscal prudence of the endeavor, in light of other needs); intellectual (questioning the approaches often employed); pragmatic (questioning whether it is actually working); and sometimes even philosophical (questioning the validity of the endeavor as a whole).

I find it especially interesting that certain types of objections tend to emerge, almost exclusively, from different segments of the Orthodox community. In this article, I will evaluate the various protestations along these lines, recognizing of course that crossover does exist, and, as with any process of categorization, oversimplification is an invariable byproduct.

Broadly speaking, I have identified three sub-populations: the “Modern Orthodox” community, the “Yeshivish” community, and then, in a different vein, those in or related to the kiruv establishment who have expressed reservations about its current trajectory.

Is There a City of Hope in the State of Kiruv?

This third sub-group – established kiruv veterans and “insiders” – is most familiar to me, and their objections – many of which were outlined in Klal Perspectives Fall 2012 – are most germane to the field’s development. I will begin with their critiques, which focus largely on the methodology and effectiveness of the current kiruv movement.

While I appreciate the great impact these more critical contributors have made on the Jewish world, it is telling to me that few of those submissions came from people actually engaged in the daily kiruv enterprise, at least on a “front lines” level. As they noted, the landscape has changed dramatically from the days of backpackers wandering into a class near the Kotel. While the essential kiruv ingredients of personal warmth and Torah wisdom have not changed, the demographics and methods necessarily have, and the kiruv world is still learning to respond to these seismic shifts.[2]

As such, without an intimate understanding of how people “on the ground” in fact currently are thinking about and responding to these challenges, the objections amount to straw-man arguments that underestimate the perceptivity and creativity of those engaged in the process.

Since my familiarity lies in the realm of college outreach, I will restrict my analysis to the ways in which this field is developing. First, categorically, while we have a long, long way to go, I would argue that college kiruv is beginning to prove very fruitful. Readers should appreciate that, prior to six or seven years ago, there were almost no non-Chabad kiruv professionals on campus, beyond Rabbi Avrohom Jacobowitz in Michigan, the JAM (Zarrett) outfit in California and a lonely handful of others. We should not underestimate the game-changing power of the Maimonides program,[3] which has provided an entrée to nearly every campus mekarev in America, plus had ripple effects on Chabad and Hillel.[4] The casual observer also might be unaware of the impact Rabbi Menachem Deutsch has had over the past three years in standardizing and crystalizing goals, and in directing funding towards projects that most effectively promote them.

Under the Wolfson/Horn mandate, mekarvim – at least I can speak for myself and my own staff – have a very clear sense of mission, methods of measurement and means of evaluation. We track data meticulously, record pre-determined metrics and evaluate success in a professional manner. We maintain a stratified and balanced sense of purpose, recognizing that our primary goal is to develop students towards concrete mitzvah observance, but also embracing the myriad steps along the way; residual impact is not lionized, but is appreciated still. A handful of students each year will make their way to yeshiva/seminary, a handful more will begin observing Shabbos and other miztvos, and hundreds beyond that will experience meaningful Jewish connections and gain valuable knowledge. These numbers grow each year, and as the cadre of professionals humbly self-reflect and share insights, we sharpen our sense of how best to touch the students we so deeply love.

Momentum is building constantly. We are beginning to attend frequent frum weddings of students who participated in programs seven or eight years ago. “Maimonides” is not quite a household name yet, but it’s moving in that direction, as the network of program graduates grows into the thousands. Many other programs feed off of and into this flagship, and recent growth has necessitated moving to large, new facilities at ours and other campuses.

Still, as Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky (Getting Back to Basics, Klal Perspectives Fall 2012) notes, the baal teshuva yeshivas are not yet full. He should appreciate, though, that the de-emphasis on outreach in many community kollels, coupled with changing financial realities that discourage baalei teshuva from spending time in yeshiva, have deprived many beginner’s yeshivas of their traditional student base. This indicates not that the pool is shrinking, but that it is shifting, and such changes occur slowly over time.

We are finding locally that, as better building blocks are set in place, the number of students seriously contemplating yeshiva attendance is in fact growing steadily. This does not signify that every receiving institution will grow in the future, as some have adapted less effectively to changing student needs while others have emerged as more viable outlets. Of course other metrics of success exist as well – specifically Shabbos observance among those unable to attend a yeshiva or seminary at any given time.

I invite any of the more skeptical authors to join us for an evening on campus, to observe programming, speak with students, even peruse our “records.” And most of all, I invite them to engage in an actual dialogue with those of us standing outside college dining halls, teaching classes, schlepping pizzas, leaving our families to jet across the world on trips, and holding students’ hands through very personal and challenging transformations.

I believe such a dialogue would demonstrate that the real questions are not whether or not kiruv is still viable in the 21st century – it is – or whether our approaches are beginning to hit the mark – they are. Those are the “straw man” concerns that in my view are already well understood, often discussed and, from my very limited vantage point, are being amply addressed.

Instead, the real questions involve the essence of our work: How do we better retain college alumni and better transition students between organizations? How can we leverage our burgeoning national network to capture new students, or utilize existing mechanisms like Taglit-Birthright to do the same? How can we more effectively “package” Yiddishkeit in a philosophical/political climate so antithetical to concepts of absolute truth, traditional morality and suppression of the self in service of a greater good? How should we handle increasingly complicated yichus (personal status) questions that cross our desks? How can we better collaborate, where possible, with other campus groups, and, in particular, involve as allies Modern Orthodox student-peers on secular campuses? And finally, how do we move towards greater financial self-sufficiency and develop the skills that will allow today’s front line mekarvim to become tomorrow’s organizational architects and leaders?

These are the real challenges, and they are challenges worth discussing. Wise, experienced thinkers like Rabbi Buchwald and Dr. Schick could contribute greatly, if they would participate first briefly in day-to-day, nitty-gritty campus operations. I believe that they and others would indeed find a city of hope in the state of kiruv.

Ye Modern Orthodox: Where Art Thou?

Moving to the second group of frequent detractors, it appears to me that many Modern Orthodox Jews are simply uncomfortable with the enterprise of kiruv. I often find it ironic when I encounter more whispered suspicion about my kiruv efforts from Orthodox students than from their secular brethren.

Anyone familiar with the current periodicals and blogs of the Modern Orthodox landscape recognizes that, broadly speaking, the Modern Orthodox approach embraces complexity as a hallmark of sophistication, focusing more on nuance than on the general ideas it informs. An emphasis on rationalism and its attendant skeptical posture generates an almost reflexive disdain of certitude. Yet certitude generates conviction, a natural precondition for sharing one’s world view.

Likewise, an intellectual approach that defies reduction to succinct talking points will prove much more difficult to impart than a clear-cut philosophy firmly asserting basic truths.

Consider the following demonstration: Ask two individuals whether or not G-d is involved in the world, and whether we as human beings can engage in an ongoing relationship with Him. A traditional “right-wing” yeshiva product likely would answer: “Yes, He is interested in our affairs and governs all aspects of our lives. One absolutely can have a relationship with Him.” His Modern Orthodox counterpart more likely would respond: “It depends what you mean by ‘involved.’ There are various degrees of possible hashgacha (providence), and these may or may not depend on one’s spiritual standing. Currently a maximalist, perhaps Chassidic-influenced perspective is in vogue, but this is not necessarily the traditional view. In short, it’s complicated…”

“It’s complicated” might be true, but it rarely inspires.[5] It also can obscure larger truths – in this case, for example, that according to all traditional Jewish approaches, a person can and must develop a relationship with the Almighty through the mitzvos He has ordained, which is what the questioner likely wanted to know anyhow. In the name of nuance, the forest can fall casualty to the trees.

Ironically, those among the Modern Orthodox who dismiss kiruv as a bastardization of Jewish wisdom are in fact ignoring the vast nuance in the process itself. I have heard myself quietly portrayed in precisely such a dismissive and simplified manner – eager to present a neat, sanitized Jewish product, glossing over complexities or inconsistencies to achieve an end-result. Yet as a “kiruv professional,” when I avoid nuance, I do so consciously, intending to communicate a larger truth to a student who is unprepared for a fuller treatment so early in his or her development.

Certainly, we teach the story of Yehuda and Tamar one way to 3rd graders, and (hopefully) very differently to a student in bais medrash. And while nuance has its place, so does its concealment. Truth, as such, operates not in a vacuum but in the context of the individual receiving the message. While intelligent, non-observant adults can obviously handle more sophisticated presentations than can children, the “art” of kiruv does mandate making routine judgment calls on just how and how much to present at any given moment.

That Modern Orthodoxy institutionally supports one major kiruv cause – NCSY – demonstrates this inherent acknowledgement. Most people can appreciate that children and teenagers require a more emotionally-based and intellectually straightforward approach – and even then there are detractors. Torah education must be tailored to the needs of its students, and this applies equally across all demographics.

As perhaps an even more fundamental objection, however, aside from doubting the intellectual integrity of kiruv efforts, many within the Modern Orthodox community in fact feel morally unjustified imparting their beliefs to others. Yet accusations that those in kiruv “brainwash” and “push their agenda” on students so dramatically misrepresents the facts on the ground; every experienced mekarev that I know – and I know many – respects the deep humanity of his students, encourages balanced, measured and emotionally healthy growth, and promotes honest dialogue about any topic that emerges. In my view, accusations to the contrary amount to a cover for some peoples’ discomfort with any form of Jewish directional encouragement.

Sadly, due at least in part to these hesitations, many in the Modern Orthodox community, who in the finest Hirschian tradition could most credibly wage intellectual battle on behalf of Torah ideology, refrain from doing so. Instead, they critique kiruv in a manner that belies either their own insecurities of belief, or their unfounded concern that imparting these beliefs to others would compromise their intellectual integrity or inappropriately influence others.

Is the “Right” Right?

The challenges from the “Yeshivish” community tend to be more pragmatic than the philosophical considerations of the Modern Orthodox.

The most commonly raised objection from this sub-community is a financial one. As a group suffering from an overwhelming cost of living, coupled with an even more overwhelming list of tzedaka concerns – yeshivas, kollelim, chessed organizations, “off the derech” (OTD) programs, and so much more – they will concede that kiruv is important, but question whether it is more important than these causes. Can we justify the exorbitant cost of “creating” just a single baal teshuva?

In my view, this objection fails on three counts. Conservatively speaking, I will estimate the cost of “producing” (as crass as that sounds) a baal teshuva to be $100,000.[6] The average day school education – that which is intended to solidify a young person’s fidelity to Judaism – certainly costs at least this much, and often much more.[7],[8] Most observers addressing the “tuition crisis” argue that Jewish education must be perceived as a communal responsibility no different than feeding the poor, and that parents alone should not shoulder the burden.[9] Should our community feel less obliged to provide a basic Torah education to non-observant Jewish students, who certainly have not received such training at home?

Next, those portraying kiruv as a mammoth “$100 million enterprise” neglect the fact that a large majority of this money comes from two or three exceptional donors.[10] At the highest levels of charitable giving, there is actually very little broad-based support in the frum community for kiruv, much to the frustration of its fundraisers. I know of many observant donors who contribute more generously to AIPAC and a host of other secular Jewish causes than they do to all of the kiruv organizations in their area, combined. Also, at risk of impugning my own yeshivish credentials, I will ask: Do we really need another “Turnpike yeshiva,” catering to a subset of a subset of a subset of students? And yet kiruv receives too much money?!?

The final rejoinder is the most fundamental, albeit more emotional in nature. Today, we are rightly concerned with the “OTD” phenomenon. Read any Orthodox publication and you will discover first-hand accounts of mothers spending tear-drenched, sleepless nights engaged in prayer, pleading for their young shaifeleh to return to the ways of his mesorah. Yet how often do we think of Hashem’s “pain” (k’viyochol – so to speak), when in fact 80-90% of His children are “off the derech”?

Does the mother suffering through this terrible pain think once about the cost of funding her son’s return? When a building is burning, you don’t sit down for a budget meeting. At the risk of invoking hyperbole, Klal Yisrael globally is in fact burning.[11] We may be blessed with a well-appointed, fire-safe chamber – though we all understand that it isn’t quite as fire-proof as we once would have hoped – but does this negate our responsibility towards those outside its confines?

I am not delusional enough to believe we can “save” all people; in fact, anyone involved in “front lines” kiruv recognizes the inevitability of failure far more than those reading the colorized “transformation stories” that are passed around magazines and Shabbos tables. There certainly are those working in kiruv, whom I respect, with more sweeping and “Messianic” aspirations than I personally hold; I believe we must focus on creating generationally-lasting transformation within individuals, while hoping for meaningful, residual impact in the process. Still, summoning the image of that tortured mother: for those that we can reach, is the price tag really even relevant?[12]

In this respect, I am astounded when people describe kiruv as a “luxury.” Such a claim strikes me as both offensive and misguided.

Offensive, because secular Jews are not an “other”; they are no less “us” than any card-carrying member of our local shul, yeshiva or social group! Every Jew is a “ben or bas l’Makom” (“child of G-d”) as much as our own children and those of our neighbors.

And misguided, because an infusion of passionate, talented ba’alei teshuva can enhance – and dramatically has enhanced – our own communities. Think of the great teachers, speakers, community activists, and baalei tzedaka who are baalei teshuva. These scores of newcomers breathe enthusiasm and creativity – and yes, like all subgroups, a unique set of challenges – into today’s Jewish world.

This recognition also undercuts a related contention from many on the right: that with so many problems of our own – parnassa, shidduchim, at-risk youth, abuse – we should “get our own house in order” before looking to help those still outside. After all, if we have talented young men and women in our ranks capable of “reaching out,” might they not also be capable of “reaching in,” where we need them more?

I would never dismiss the significance of the internal ills plaguing our community, but such a mentality promotes a false dichotomy. All of these causes are important, and all can and should be addressed. In fact, focusing outward may even generate the unintended consequence of rehabilitating our inward problems. I volunteer weekly teaching at a local girls’ high school that accepts many “struggling” girls, because I have observed how much they can gain from a “kiruv mindset” – intellectually open, personally warm and accessible. It is precisely my experience outside the community that affords me the fresh perspective and approach that these young women appreciate. Meanwhile, from the community members’ perspective, as my colleague Rabbi Meir Goldberg pointed out in a recent Mishpacha Magazine column,[13] involvement in reaching out can force one to deepen one’s own understanding and reinvigorate one’s own sense of purpose.

Still others are afraid to expose our “dirty laundry” to those beyond the tight, communal walls. Yet while our community admittedly is flawed, this need not preclude us from highlighting its myriad virtues. In time, a developing baal teshuva can and should be introduced to our shortcomings. When you invite guests into your home, however, you first bring them to the clean and orderly rooms. If they move in, they will soon enough observe – and come to accept – that not every room is always so tidy.

A final objection originating from “yeshivish” corners is that kiruv exposes its participants to negative influences – both impropriety and heresy. “The broom that sweeps gets dirty,” so they say. (To which one mentor of mine once replied, “then Avrohom Avinu must have been quite the dirty broom.”) Quips notwithstanding, involvement in kiruv undoubtedly carries certain occupational hazards. Yet, I would argue, so does every profession. The difference, of course, is that those working in kiruv are governed by strictures to which few other professionals are subject.

Unlike the average office worker, those on campus (at least in Meor, the organization by which I am employed) enter a contractual obligation to study Torah daily, and to implement male-female boundaries well beyond the basic halachos (laws) of yichud (seclusion). And while they may interface more routinely with unorthodox ideas, they are also less vulnerable to the destabilizing consequences of intellectual challenges that greet many today on the Internet or in contemporary public discourse.

But most uniquely, these rabbis and rebbetzins function as publicly declared ambassadors for Jewish ideals, which generates a strong degree of self-consciousness and inhibition not present in standard professional circumstances.[14] No system is fool-proof, of course, and mekarvim can stumble as can any others, but on balance the “exposure” objection can be laid to rest.

Bringing the Ideas – and Us – Together

Kiruv is both a concept and a cause. Its concept remains a pristine ideal whose implementation is constrained only by the limitations of those promulgating the cause. These individuals – among whose ranks I am proud to count myself – naturally suffer from all the insecurities and imperfections normal to the human condition. Still, in the final analysis, our work reflects a deeply sincere, and deeply competent, effort at bringing home our brothers and sisters. I pray that all segments of the observant community will learn to support, if not fully embrace, these efforts. At the very least, I hope we can engage in a more informed dialogue that considers the gravity of the problem, but also respects the existing attempts at its resolution. Meaningful support, coupled with enlightened conversation, can spawn continuously greater achievement. A city of hope, indeed, in the state of kiruv.

Rabbi Ari Koretzky is Director of MEOR’s Maryland Jewish Experience (MJX) at the University of Maryland, College Park. He resides in neighboring Silver Spring, MD along with his wife and four children.

[2] Of course, it isn’t just the kiruv world that has changed – it is the world overall, which demands new responses in every arena of life.

[3] Created by Rabbi Avrohom Jacobovitz and Rabbi A.D. Eisemann, who receive far too little recognition for this accomplishment. More information is available at

[4] Chabad shortly after introduced their Sinai Scholars program, while Hillels around the country have begun hiring many more Torah educators – whatever their denomination – and even paying students through their CEI peer-based, outreach-oriented leadership initiative.

[5] I acknowledge the existence of intellectual outliers, who relish even from their initial introduction the hair-splitting minutiae of Jewish thought. A perceptive mekarev should be prepared to address such an individual in an appropriate manner. I am speaking here of a general educational approach.

[6] I based this on an assumption that a kiruv organization’s annual budget is $500,000, and that they are producing five “genuine” baalei teshuva on average each year. In reality, the budget number is likely inflated, while the outcome is likely deflated, at least as far as my own experience.

[7] Average tuition in my community of Silver Spring, MD hovers around $12,000/year for elementary grades, and increases dramatically in the high school years. Elementary costs may be lower in larger frum cities, but the general math remains the same.

[8] Rabbi Raphael Butler (Theological Triage: When the Immeasurable Needs to be Measured, Klal Perspectives, Fall 2012) made a similar argument in his first footnote.

[9] True, many also attempt to find ways to cut costs, but all agree that education is expensive, and that even at current rates its purveyors are underpaid and underserviced.

[10] I refer here to “mega-donors” – those contributing seven-figures annually to the cause; expanded out, there is a circle of perhaps several dozen six-figure donors. Many more with such charitable capacity exist in the frum world!

[11] On this one item I would take slight issue with Rabbi Karlinsky, shlita, a much older and wiser man with whom I often concur. While I agree that comparing Klal Yisrael’s current state to that of the Holocaust is, on several fronts, a flawed analogy, I do feel that his clinical deconstruction of this comparison resulted (I believe unintentionally) in understating the urgency of the problem. In addition, I am not insisting that Klal Yisroel is in greater peril now that at any other time; yet just because during the haskalah (“enlightenment”) or other periods we were also in a terrible spiritual state, that does not change our necessary response at this particular juncture.

[12] Once again, even if finances ought to be considered, I have argued above that the numbers are justified; here, I am simply proposing that a strong case exists to approach the issue emotionally on some level.

[13] Feb. 1st edition

[14] All this without mention of the myriad benefits that can accrue to one’s family and personal spiritual character through kiruv involvement.

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