Rabbi Ari Sytner
Kiruv in a Changing World: A Pro-Denominational Paradigm
The greatest success stories that any kiruv professional can celebrate are those individuals who remarkably turn their lives around and embrace the ways of shmiras hamitzvos. However, I have always been intrigued by something far beyond the individual achievements, and that is the overarching sociological phenomenon of assimilation. During my tenure on the pulpit in Des Moines, Iowa, as well as in Charleston, South Carolina, I have been drawn to, and fascinated by, the notion of non-observant Jews. While I passionately worked to embrace, love and inspire Jews of all backgrounds and ages, my numerous accomplishments on individual levels seem almost negligible in relation to the overall scope and challenges of assimilation. No matter how many people I can impact, my successes do not mitigate the collective hurdles we face. At the end of the day, we are still hemorrhaging unaffiliated Jews at a higher rate than we could ever attract or retain.
At great expense, comprehensive research studies have concluded that Jewish day school education, summer camping experiences and trips to Israel are the keys to prevent and reduce the rate of assimilation. However, these results have often been over-romanticized, as they tend to address the symptom and not the root of assimilation.
Imagine if our community took strategic steps toward addressing the problem – not as a reactive measure of finding and bringing bring back lost souls, but as a proactive measure, targeting the source! We could then impact assimilation on a global level by intervening at the point of disenfranchisement.
Throughout my travels, I have discovered one universal thread which weaves together nearly every non-observant Jew I have ever interacted with. They all, at one point in time, had a Bubbie. It may have been during their childhood, or as many as four or five generations prior, but when you look back far enough, you will find that nearly every Jew comes from a committed, traditional Jewish grandmother.
This reality only magnifies the peculiarity of the phenomenon. How is it possible that in one generation there exists a matriarch, devout and observant, and yet, one or two generation later their descendants may have little to no connection with observant life?
Thus, in the quest to stave assimilation, we must search to find the “proverbial Bubbies” of our generation – those men and women who represent the embers which must be preserved and reignited. If that tipping-point demographic can be identified, their children and grandchildren may have a better chance of remaining affiliated.
Where can such a demographic be found, and how can we bolster them so that their descendants maintain a strong Jewish connection?
By venturing into the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, one will meet countless Jews who fall into this category. Although they may not be halachic, Conservative and Reform congregations are filled with families who have an Orthodox past but, often, an unsure Jewish future. They are the ones who long for the dream of seeing Jewish grandchildren, but stay up nights worrying that they may never see their dreams actualized. They are the ones who run to their rabbi with that famous, yet painful refrain, “rabbi, please speak to my son . . . he is dating a non-Jew.”
This group of non-Orthodox but traditional Jews represent the tipping point of where we must focus our efforts. For if we provided greater resources from our own toolboxes, perhaps many of those painful intermarriage-related conversations can be avoided.
The kiruv world is perfectly comfortable operating in a non-denominational orbit, such as the local Starbucks or on a college campus. However, when it comes to engaging the non-Orthodox community on an institutional level (the very place that houses the majority of this critical demographic), we tend to shy away from them.
On multiple occasions, I have davened in a Shul alongside pious men in black hats who later recounted that they had their Bar Mitzvah in a Conservative or Reform synagogue. It is truly inspiring to observe the contrast of these ba’alei teshuva, and to appreciate that quality of Yiddishkeit that has flourished from within a non-Orthodox institution. Had their parents not maintained membership to those congregations, the odds of them ever becoming ba’alei teshuva would have been significantly diminished. Perhaps it is time that we acknowledge that these institutions play a role in shaping the future of Klal Yisroel. The obstacle that we face, however, is reconciling the halachic implications of supporting non-Orthodox institutions. Can there be a new path which would allow us to maximize our kiruv efforts without compromising our halachic principles?
Organizations such as NJOP have embraced this practice by expanding many of their successful programs (such as Shabbat Across America and Read Hebrew America) to non-Orthodox synagogues. Now, thanks to NJOP, there are Conservative and Reform rabbis throughout the country who have a more substantive product to pass along to their constituents – and hopefully help advance them upon their Jewish journey. Though indirect, NJOP’s partnership with these congregations allows them to spread Torah and mitzvos to audiences to which the Orthodox world would not otherwise have access.
Imagine the impact that we could have on a sociological and global level if we continued to build bridges that directed our kiruv dollars and efforts to reach those leaders who pastorally, religiously and educationally direct the millions of Jews who do not affiliate as Orthodox. The plain reality is that when their institutions thrive, Jews remain more committed and affiliated. Whereas, if their doors closed, their members would not likely join Orthodox shuls, and even worse, much of the connection they previously had to Judaism would be lost.
Therefore, if we in the Orthodox world possess compelling educational materials, websites, classes, resources and programmatic initiatives that could benefit fellow members of Klal Yisroel (regardless of their affiliation), it would behoove us to share it with those who have direct access to the “proverbial Bubbies” and help strengthen the very demographic who need it most.
While we may strongly disagree with the non-Orthodox approach to halachic and hashkafic issues and have no interest in debating or comparing perspectives, the simple fact is that when their synagogues and temples are vibrant, families will be motivated to bring their children along for the journey. It will be those children raised in relevant Jewish environments that will go on to join the Hillel on their college campus, participate in Birthright missions to Israel, and ultimately be receptive to other positive Jewish experiences, such as accepting the invitation for shabbat dinner from the Chabad rabbi on campus.
Collectively, the efforts of both the kiruv professionals as well as the congregations that raise the next generation of Jews, can contribute toward them marrying Jewish and blossoming into affiliated and connected Jewish adults. By adopting a new pro-denominational approach, perhaps the successes that we have seen in the kiruv world on individual levels can spill over and impact a larger pool of the Jewish community and bring greater strength to all of Klal Yisroel.
Rabbi Ari Sytner is the Director of Community Initiatives for Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future. A musmach of Rabbi Berel Wein with a Masters in Educational Administration, he previously served for 13 years in the rabbinate in Des Moines, Iowa and in Charleston, South Carolina.