Rabbi Bentzi Epstein
Klal Perspectives, A Review of Kiruv
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There’s a Makom Torah in Dallas: How Community Kollels are Raising Communities
KIRUV INITIATIVES TODAY come in an incredible variety of shapes and sizes, targeting Jews of all backgrounds and ages, in many types of venues and in perhaps hundreds of locations throughout the United States alone. One kiruv model, which makes use of many different types of kiruv initiatives, is the community kollel, and it is from that perspective that I will explore the status and viability of American kiruv.
A community kollel is typically comprised of between 4 and 10 highly motivated and religiously educated families who settle in a Jewish community in order to help develop it into a thriving “makom Torah” that attracts and serves Jews of all backgrounds. A makom Torah is an environment that reflects the Torah’s ideal vision for society, characterized by embrace of authentic Torah study as a guide to life, centrality of service of G-d – especially in personal growth and prayer (avoda) – and a joy in giving to others in every way (gemilus chasadim). This is a far broader commitment than simply to study Torah during the day and engage in outreach and give classes at nights and on weekends. In Dallas, the community kollel model has proven to be enormously effective in drawing Jews of all backgrounds to a life of Torah. What are its elements, can the model be replicated, and does it remain an attractive strategy?
Dallas Area Torah Association
When the Dallas Area Torah Association (DATA) first opened its doors in 1992, there were only a handful of community kollelim in existence, and all but one were established primarily to serve Orthodox communities (e.g., Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, Detroit). The one exception was Atlanta, whose Atlanta Scholars Kollel (ASK) had been founded in 1987 to further enhance Atlanta’s growing “kiruv” community. Since that time, many outreach kollels have been launched throughout the country, and much has been learned about how this model works.
When DATA’s first four families arrived in Dallas, there were three Orthodox-led shuls but only about fifteen fully Shabbos-observant families. There was a single mikvah visited by twenty-some women per month, and a single Orthodox community day school hosting 350 children – almost none of whom went on to Orthodox high schools. Dallas did enjoy, however, a reliable kashrus organization, as well as an eruv. There was also the presence of Chabad.
Today, Dallas has eleven Orthodox shuls, comprised of about 375 fully Shabbos-observant families, and four mikvahs visited by 300 women per month. There are now two Orthodox day schools with over 700 students – almost all of whom go on to Orthodox high schools – including the three Dallas high schools (a Bais Yaakov, a Yeshiva and a Modern Orthodox co-ed school). There are seven kosher restaurants, three communities with or about to have their own eruv, and several kiruv organizations. Just as importantly, DATA teaches over 1,000 students each week – the bulk of whom are not fully Shabbos-observant – in more than 50 weekly classes, and touches approximately 15-20% of the 60,000 Jews in Dallas each year. There are now close to fifty klei kodesh (rabbis, Torah educators, etc.) in town serving the broader Dallas community.
DATA also has: a Sunday school for those families not ready to send their children to a day school, a summer camp program staffed by 40-50 counselors from Torah Umesorah’s SEED program serving hundreds of children in multiple locations (with five or six follow-up events throughout the year for which some counselors return), an active NCSY, a campus program reaching 300-400 students a year on several campuses throughout the Dallas area (about 10% of whom join an Israel trip, and 15-20 of whom will pursue full-time learning), and a recently launched young Jewish professionals program (YJP) with over 400 people involved, and over 100 people attending its last event.
While DATA’s successes reflect the higher end of the community kollel success rates, many kollels around the country are following a similar trajectory. Before analyzing the strategy and its implementation, we must first and foremost acknowledge the three primary reasons for DATA’s success: siyata d’shmaya, siyata d’shmaya and siyata d’shmaya (support from Heaven). With that in mind, there is little doubt that this growth came about almost entirely through the presence of DATA, and the same can be said for many other community kollels. I will address some of the specifics about our approach and our programs, but first, a word about our philosophy, which is also reflected by other similar kollels.
Why a Kollel?
Rabbi Zev Epstein (no relation), Rosh Kollel in Rio de Janeiro, remarked; “A Jewish man without Torah knowledge is a man divorced from his glorious past; A Jewish city without halls of Torah study is a city estranged from its glorious future.”The philosophy of a community kollel is simple: Talmud mavia lidei maaseh (Torah study leads to action). The kollel message is super-focused: Torah, in its fullest definition, is a treasure that must be made accessible to every Jew.
The kollel members, our community’s most beloved and treasured resource, are accomplished Torah scholars and, along with their highly educated and passionate families, love, learn, live and teach Torah. But for us, “Torah” is not merely something declared from the pulpit or studied in school. It is not simply concerned with what to do and what not to do. It does not mean a set of subjects, such as halacha, chumash, emunah, gemara and hashkafa (respectively: practical law, the Five Books of the Torah, theology, Talmud and Jewish thought), and it does not mean keeping Shabbos or davening (praying) or being honest or raising children or leading a community.
In a community kollel, connecting to Torah means gaining first-hand knowledge and understanding of the Jewish People’s covenant and relationship with G-d, which one can only achieve by directly engaging and grappling with the Torah’s original sources. Proverbs teaches that Torah is light (10:23), and that is exactly what we seek to offer – the vision G-d shared with us in giving us His Torah.
Kollel rabbis bring an understanding of Torah that speaks to everything that matters in life, empowering every Jew to appreciate how much Torah can mean to them, as well as to their families and the community. It is a palpable goodness they can taste that consistently opens new avenues for thought and opportunities for understanding, action and growth. In a community kollel, kiruv is not simply about bringing people close to observance, but rather it is about bringing them closer to the Torah itself.
This necessarily includes such ideals as ahavas Hashem (love of G-d) and yiras Hashem (awe of G-d), as well as the joy of personal growth through learning, through yamim tovim, and through making a difference. For individuals and families who are building their Jewish identities almost from the ground up, these are not elusive ideas to work on during mussar seder, they are transformational ideals that define their Jewish identities. Spiritual growth and connection to G-d and learning about His will become the very entry points to a renewed dedication to Jewish life. In time, they discover for themselves how these principles lead to halacha, and how halacha reflects G-d’s will in daily life. Observances follow for each person in their own time, as they come to appreciate how it fits into an inspired life of meaning, direction and community.
One bein hazmanim (intercession), a woman in the community was at our Shabbos table, as was a young man who was grew up in an Orthodox home and was studying in yeshiva full time. In the course of conversation, the woman asked the yeshiva student, “Would you do anything you knew you would not be proud of?” The yeshiva boy thought about it and then answered, “Not if it would affect anyone else.” Reacting with disbelief, the woman exclaimed: “You mean you would hurt your own neshama, just for some fleeting pleasure???” For someone who had come to Torah through the kollel, Torah was not simply a rule book of do’s and don’t’s – it was the reality of her neshama.
Building upon this “philosophy of kiruv,” the successful kollel offers a wide array of programming to all facets of the greater Jewish community. As noted, programs are designed to achieve a single purpose – to bring Jews closer to Torah. The challenge, of course, is designing programs that reach people and that capture their interest, keeping an eye out to ensure our timeless content is presented in a “package” with maximum contemporary appeal. In developing our programs, we make sure each one has three vital elements that we believe are the most significant and effective dimensions of our outreach programs – excitement, an interpersonal dimension and wisdom.
Every DATA program is designed to be exciting. Why? Because learning Torah is exciting. What can be more exciting than the opportunity to know G-d and to be known by Him – and then to make Him proud of you? It is the ultimate vitality: ein chaim ela Torah – there is no life other than Torah. If you do not find it hopelessly exciting, you’ve made a wrong turn somewhere. Even if you grew up with Torah and have “gotten used to it,” imagine how exciting it would be if you could actually encounter it for the first time?
A program is exciting when it elicits the feeling that something especially good is opening itself up to you – something that “gets you going” and that you are eager to pursue further. A program that is merely “inspiring,” a word more often associated with kiruv, is not the same. Though inspiration and excitement often go together, inspiration by itself tends to fade, and is thus not as valuable to the student. This subtle distinction highlights just how important it is to us to focus on our student’s best interests, rather than on simply winning them over. We are excited about Torah because we know how infinitely good it is, and we just can’t help wanting to share it.
I find it truly astounding, in fact, how many community kollels independently arrived at this same secret of success: loving and caring for the people of their communities. These kollels are blessed with individuals who learned in yeshiva the meaning of the phrase in Mishlei (Proverbs 31:26) “Toras chessed.” In analyzing this phrase, the Talmud asks, “Is there such a thing as Torah that is not of chessed?” (Sukkah 49b) In fact, they are inseparable. This phrase reminds us that it is meaningless to reach out with Torah and not also with chessed.
Those who reach out this way reflect the approach of our forefather Avraham, who also sought to teach the way of G-d: welcome guests, give to them, tend to their needs, care for them, pray for them and honor them – and naturally share with them priceless knowledge about their Creator. This sense of a priceless opportunity is what we strive to communicate in every program we offer to our truly beloved community.
- A Social Dimension
Torah was given to the Jewish people as a community, and not just to a collection of individuals. As a result, it can be lived only within the context of a social environment (anyone who has been to yeshiva knows how important this dimension is). Every DATA program is therefore designed to include a sense of community, of connecting to others as part of the learning experience.
One-on-one kiruv can be effective and meaningful, but there is no avoiding the need to eventually become part of a community. We are social beings who can only thrive within the framework of a social group, and so offering Torah in a vacuum is not a long-term solution. Too often, baalei teshuva move on from their initial source of religious growth and eventually begin to feel they have run aground. Every vision of kiruv must have an “endgame” in mind with the opportunity for baalei teshuva to eventually “live happily ever after.” Sending them off to “follow the yellow brick road” and expecting caring, wise and courageous people to jump out of the scenery to help them through the inevitable challenges is not fair.
Perhaps the most unique dimension of the community kollel, and the source of its particular effectiveness, is its mission “to develop a community into a thriving makom Torah that attracts Jews of all backgrounds.” This approach provides the “whole package,” from the initial introduction to Torah and beginner’s programs to community integration for the long term. It is designed to start with the “Once upon a time” and to be there every step of the way until and including “happily ever after.” Together, the Torah we teach and the social environment we cultivate are designed to foster a sense of connection and belonging, of being an active and cherished part of G-d’s people.
Perhaps most essential to this connection is the relationship that students form with one or more of the kollel rabbis and their families. For many, many Jews, the traditional model of “rabbi/congregant” does not provide them with a spiritually fulfilling connection to Judaism. The kollel rabbi offers a whole new model. He is no figurehead representing a community – instead, he can be described as a best friend who has absorbed priceless wisdom about G-d’s world and who is excited about sharing it. There is no congregational baggage or specific affiliation, no commitments or annual dues and no focus on synagogue services. Simply put, he represents the vision in DATA’s tag line: “Know more. Live Better.” And his family is a blast. Together, they are the social connection that makes all the difference.
As vital as excitement and community are to a life of Torah, the Torah itself is, of course, ultimately about knowledge. When standing before an audience of Jews who are not committed to Torah, there is inevitably some hesitation about the veracity of your message, as well as about its relevance. To win their confidence, it is not enough to present ideas that are interesting. The class must be at the very least fascinating and preferably mind-blowing.
In the words of King David, Torah knowledge is “more precious than gold, even much of the finest gold, sweeter than honey and drippings of the combs” (Psalms 19:11). We strive to offer at least some content in each class that meets that description for each student – something that is so compelling that they cannot fail to be impressed.
Finding such ideas is easy – the Torah is overflowing with them. The challenge is choosing and presenting ideas in a manner that will speak to those we seek to reach. This begins with understanding our students as well as we can so we can make every effort to bring out wisdom they will find uniquely valuable. We understand that nothing less than the kavod haTorah is on the line, and that Jewish lives depend on us to convey it to them.
In fact, this reflects our definition of kiruv – bridging the tragic gap that separates Jew from Torah, bringing each closer to the other. In providing Torah content that jumps off the page, we seek to make Torah not only accessible but irresistible.
Tracking Progress and Success
One of kiruv’s greatest challenges is how to track progress and success. On one level, there is something not quite right about reducing the spiritual and personal growth of so many people you care deeply about to quantifiable, measurable statistics for an annual report. But this same deep caring for so many Jews, and the enormity of the work to be done, compels us to ensure that we are being most effective with our own time and with our available resources. And that means reviewing our accomplishments, learning from our experiences, as well as from the experiences of others, and using this analysis to make smart decisions regarding how to proceed.
DATA has applied three measurements – all of which, it should be stressed, are uniquely relevant in the context of community outreach.
- Number of People Learning
Talmud mavia lidei maaseh (Torah study leads to action), quoted earlier, is not merely a Talmudic dictum, but also an observable reality. Consequently, DATA’s most important measurement is how many people in our community are learning Torah on a regular basis.
Our ultimate goal is daily Torah study but we never push anyone. In fact, we believe that “caring” must come before “knowing”; inasmuch as students develop and deepen their appreciation for what Torah is, they will choose to learn more often and more deeply. But our primary message is to encourage everyone to embrace Torah study as a vital element of their lives on a regular basis. If these numbers are strong and growing – from new people learning to increased learning of regulars – we have been doing the most important part of our job.
Growth in Mitzvah Observance
Though Torah study in and of itself leads to action, everyone also needs guidance and encouragement as they explore increasing their shmiras hamitzvos (observance of mitzvos). I must emphasize that the kollel is committed first and foremost to embracing everyone in the community, with no expectations. If anyone has any interest in Torah, we are ready to welcome them with open arms. Our love and respect for every Jew, regardless of what their level of observance may be, must leave no room for doubt.
At the same time, we believe that every year offers all of us – whatever our level of observance – new opportunities to “upgrade” our Judaism. A student who has appreciated and grown from their Torah study last year ought to explore additional avenues for growth this year. To that end, we focus our encouragement about mitzvah observance around the Jewish holidays, teaching that each holiday offers unique opportunities for growth. For example, Chanukah teaches about rededication to our priorities, as we remember how dedicated the Maccabees were to living according to their principles, even when mitzvah observance was outlawed. It is thus a propitious time to dedicate ourselves to a specific mitzvah, and we encourage our students to choose one to focus on. Each of the other holidays also has its own message of growth in mitzvos and we utilize these messages to focus on taking steps forward in mitzvah observance.
We dedicate time to reviewing our students and discussing how we can help them make the best decisions for their personal and spiritual growth. Each student will have at least one kollel rabbi or rebbetzin who is responsible to guide them on their journey, and who will always be paying attention to how they are growing, what they might need and whether they are ready for new commitments. We look out for specific milestones, such as taking on observance of Shabbos, kashrus and mikvah, as well as enrolling children in day school. Sometimes our students depend on our reaching out to them with encouragement and support when the time to consider these big decisions arrives.
Though religion is too closely intertwined with dollars for my taste, among the many mitzvos we have to teach is how to give tzedaka. A Torah life includes financial support of the community, and that means learning about how to allocate one’s tzedaka dollars. If students are absorbing our messages about how valuable Torah education and observance is to our community, they will begin to support Torah institutions and causes. Since building our community is so central to our mission, one of the most important measures of our success is the growth of the community’s infrastructure.
As described above, the handful of institutions that existed when DATA arrived have blossomed manifold. When we arrived in Dallas, the overall annual budget for the Orthodox community – covering all its essential institutions – was approximately $5 million. Today, it is $18 million. These numbers say a lot about whether we are doing our job.
When the numbers are going up, it says our student are committing not only to a vision of Torah but to a vision of community. Without this growing support, our vision for a growing community will not be realistic. With it, we can be confident that our dreams for Dallas to become a “thriving makom Torah” are more than just dreams. And there is still so much room for growth.
Like Dallas, community kollels across America see their fundraising as part of the process of building community. As a result, virtually all their ongoing fundraising efforts are local. In Dallas, close to 95% of our budget is raised locally, and others have similar numbers. With more outside funding, there is far more that could be accomplished.
The Future of Kiruv
I view the American kiruv effort as being at the early stages of its development, not its sunset. It may be true that Jewish identity among the non-observant community is declining and that the window of opportunity to reach out is at risk of closing. Moreover, it is harder to reach certain segments of the community and some of the statistics are alarming. In many cases, however, these observations simply require adjusting the kiruv effort to these new realities. Our world is changing by the minute and we cannot allow ourselves to fall behind.
While I have focused on Dallas, the community kollel movement has succeeded in developing a sustainable model of transforming communities in dozens of cities across the country into thriving centers of Torah that attract Jews of all backgrounds to a Torah way of life. The pure message that high-quality Torah study is available for every Jew, and that Torah can lead to all good things within a community, is the ideal message with which to reach out in developing a Jewish future for local individuals and families.
This is a crucial era – perhaps a turning point in the future of outreach. The opportunity exists to reach more people than we have before, but the window is closing as Jewish identity dissolves into something much more distant from Torah than it ever was. It is especially vital that available resources be invested wisely in models that have proven success and a trajectory of growth. I believe the community kollel is one of those models.
1 Not all community kollels have an emphasis on outreach; some exist primarily to serve a frum community, though perhaps engaging in some outreach as well (some examples are mentioned below). The model I describe considers outreach among its primary objectives.
2 Outreach community kollels have been opened in such cities as Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Miami, Minneapolis, Palo Alto, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland, Providence, Seattle, St. Louis and many more.
3 Quoted in Nitzozot Min Haner, Vol. 16, available at www.nerleelef.com/Nitzotzot/janmar4.pdf.
4 Not just in the original text, this includes the process of learning and understanding as opposed to conclusions, positions or summarized answers. When a kollel rabbi gets a question, his preferred answer will begin with “let’s open the Book and see what it says,” leading to meaningful time spent taking the question – and the Torah – seriously.
5 A study session devoted to spiritual growth
6 Kavod HaTorah translates as the honor, or glory, of the Torah, which represents our connection to the infinite goodness of G-d Himself, so to speak.
7 Start-up funding often comes from national organizations, such as Torah Umesorah, which has played a major role in the community kollel movement.