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Rabbi Benzion Klatzko

Klal Perspectives, A Review of Kiruv

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

A Unified Theory of Kiruv

Kiruv. The word conjures up images of the scraggily, long haired backpacker who, after traversing the globe in search of spiritual truths, finds his life changed by a tap on the shoulder at the Western Wall. While this scenario has certainly played out countless times, it hardly reflect the scope and breadth of the outreach movement.

Outreach has gone through significant changes in recent years. While religious defection from Judaism has occurred throughout history, its pace has accelerated substantially over the past two hundred years. Much of this was due to the Haskala (enlightment) movement, which gave birth to alien forms of Judaism, as well as the emancipation of Europe, which helped point the way to the exit.

It was not until the 1960’s, especially in the aftermath of the Six Day War, that we as a people were emboldened to start reaching out to our wayward brethren. In the mere forty-five years since, we had evolved from a people struggling to survive, to one dynamically growing in confidence and numbers. That certainly was a good time to reach out!

What started as a fringe movement that was relegated to legendary personalities and idealistic individuals had, in a mere forty years, become a national cause, as well as a legitimate career choice. The heroes are many and the players are organized and professional. Chabad, Aish, Neve, Ohr Somayach, NCSY, Project Inspire, Community Kollelim, Arachim, and many more, have all contributed admirably to the worldwide outreach movement. This has resulted in every demographic and age bracket being touched and effected. It is safe to say, that outside of large and established Jewish cities such as New York and Lakewood, kehilos (communities) throughout North America are significantly represented by active returnees. The movement has breathed life into communities near and far and infused skilled and talented professionals into our ranks.

Perhaps most importantly, a feeling of freshness and vitality has descended upon the faithful, affirming that one who lives a Torah lifestyle can stand proudly and confidently, regardless of which way the ideological winds blow.

Given kiruv’s success and impact, it may be surprising that some question its ongoing value. However, the Jewish community’s growth and expansion has introduced new challenges and exacerbated others. Marital harmony, kids at risk, job stability and the cost of raising and maintaining an Orthodox home are all serious challenges facing Orthodox Jewry.

So the question is, simply put, has the time come to put kiruv on the back burner and focus on other issues?

I recently presented this question on my weekly radio show (Hidabroot 97.5FM) to the listening audience, expecting to hear a firm if disappointed “Yes, it’s time to work on the more immediate issues that afflict our community.” After all, my audience is largely comprised of frum listeners who are painfully aware of the many communal concerns we have mentioned. In fact, we often use one or more of these issues as the show’s weekly talking point, with call-ins and text messages passionately debating their solutions.

To my surprise, the response was quite to the contrary. Our listeners felt strongly that there is no justification to abandon kiruv. The drive to reach out should be a natural expression of living a good, solid Torah life and our community must remain committed to it. Many listeners themselves felt that, with minimal effort (a Shabbos invite here, a friendly hello there), even they could help reverse the tide of assimilation, and they were fully supportive of intensive efforts to accomplish much more.

The response to that show taught me three things:

  • As a nation, we still believe in the validity of Kiruv.
  • We believe that everyone can be involved in reaching out on some level.
  • Outreach need not be left to professionals working outside the framework of the community. Rather, our community is beginning to view it as an organic expression of its values, and of its dedication to Judaism done correctly.

This was all fascinating to me, given the fact that I am a mekarev by profession!

But, if kiruv (the unaffiliated returning) is a natural response to their exposure to a Torah lifestyle, why isn’t outreach much more effective than it has been? Are outreach professionals failing to bring people in, or is something lacking in our Torah lifestyle that is repelling people instead of attracting them?

I believe that we intuitively know the answer to this question. Non-observant Jews are generally unimpressed by our lifestyle, and many are turned off by it. This is not because of outreach efforts – it is because of us.

This suggestion is a scary indictment of Orthodox Jewry. Perhaps it is too harsh. But the question remains -What is missing? Why, do we not enjoy the respect and admiration of the non-observant community? Perhaps we should start off by exploring how it is that Torah is supposed to be naturally attractive and compelling. Perhaps most of all, it is a function of how well a Torah community reflects the true definition of what Judaism is and how well it carries out its core mission.

Historically, Judaism too often has been defined incorrectly, and the damage has been immeasurable. Although Judaism is often listed amongst the great “religions” of the world, the Torah categorically avoids the designation – and even the word – “religion.” In its place, the Torah always insists on using a completely different construct: a metaphor for relationship.

Judaism is a Relationship

Relationship is not religion. They are not the same and they are not alike. When Hashem asked the Jewish people if they want to accept the Torah, they answered “Naaseh v’nishma,” we will do and we will listen. Hashem then rhetorically asked “Who revealed to My children this secret used by the heavenly angels?”

What is this great secret? The fact that they reversed the order and didn’t respond, “Nishma v’naaseh” – we will listen and then we will do? Is the order of their response the great secret? In reality, the order of their reply is quite noteworthy. In considering a religion, one first listens, hears, judges and then commits to act. We weigh the proofs, survey the evidence, and if all checks out, we commit.

A pledge of to “do” first before listening is something else entirely. When a loved one asks for a favor, the typical response is “Sure! What would you like me to do?” This reflection of trust and eagerness to please is the very hallmark of a loving relationship. And this was the “secret” known by the angels. Hashem wants relationship with us!

In the Temple’s Kodesh Hakadashim (Holy of Holies), perched atop the Aron Kodesh (Ark of the Covenant) stood the keruvim, one with the face of a boy and the other with the face of a girl, lovingly gazing into each other’s eyes. Metaphorically, one represented Hashem and the other the Jewish people. In fact, when Hashem was upset or disappointed with the Jewish people, the keruvim would turn their backs to each other like a quarreling couple who have ceased communicating.

The analogy couldn’t be clearer! The Torah presents Judaism as a relationship hundreds and hundreds of times. Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs), the quintessential love song, is described by Rabbi Akiva as “kodesh kadashim” the holiest of holies!

The ramifications are tremendous. Each mitzvah, as well as its meaning, morphs when seen through the eyes of relationship. Shabbos is no longer a ritualistic day off. Rather, it is romantic special time with the One we love, complete with flowers, a bottle of wine, and a candlelit dinner. We call out “Boi kallah, boi kallah” imploring our beloved bride to come and join us.

Even the Challah has romantic overtures, reminding us that Hashem braided Eve’s hair so she should be attractive to Adam. B’samim (spices) during havdalah remind us of the scent of our loved one, in the same way a lover dabs her perfume on a letter she is sending to her solider on the front lines. She, like Hashem, is imploring him to remember her and return home soon. So we say, “hayom yom rishon l’Shabbos” today is one day towards my special time with my beloved.

Shmini Atzeres becomes a moving farewell to a loved one, when we echo Hashem’s words to us – “koshe alay praidaschem” (it is difficult for Me to part from you). Tefillin turn into a love locket where we engrave our allegiance to Hashem Echod (one G-d) and He, wearing his celestial tefillin pledges back to us, “Umi k’amcha Yisroel goy echad ba’aretz”, there is no one like you Klal Yisroel!

When one is in a meaningful relationship, it becomes a deeply personal, moving experience. Happiness and a sense of bliss descend upon us and all is right with the world.The definition of Judaism as relationship and not as a religion makes all the difference in the world.

Unfortunately, many of the contemporary issues that plague our communities result from the steady numbing of the disconnected soul. The happiness in our relationship, which is supposed to be a catalyst to shmiras hamitzvos (mitzvah observance), has seen its passion dulled. Perhaps this is due to the burden of exile, or perhaps due to its creature comforts. But for many, Torah, while meticulously observed, no longer sets their souls on fire. Our children see this, and they go elsewhere to find joy. Our spouses see this and they lose respect and appreciation for us.

It is no wonder that a depressive monotony can set in. Worse, what should be a source of inspiration becomes a burden we must bear. Like soldiers, we religiously follow our marching orders, extracting pleasure from Judaism’s trappings (a nice bowl of chulent followed by a Shabbos nap), rather than its substance as an eternal relationship with the Divine.

My family is involved in outreach, and we are frequently joined on kiruv Shabbatons by FFBs (“frum from birth”), who are invariably thrilled by the joy they experience. I have often heard the refrain, “the religious need this as well.” The truth is that we all need it. Happiness is the lynchpin of Judaism – the key to success in our relationship with Hashem. Already we were warned in the Torah about “not serving Hashem with joy and goodness of heart” (Devarim 28:47).

Is it any surprise that Carlebach minyanim are proliferating? Is it really a mystery why 50,000 people a year head to Uman for Rosh Hashana? The Jewish people are begging to rediscover the simcha (joy) in Yiddishkiet. Our children, our homes and kehilos are striving to recapture the essence of a loving and vibrant relationship with our Heavenly Father. When a non-observant person witnesses the true happiness of Judaism manifested in the Jewish home, this becomes the greatest reason to give it serious consideration. No kiruv expertise required!

But when the joy of a relationship is absent, no intellectual argument or outreach seminar will be convincing or compelling. A loveless relationship is simply hollow and burdensome.

The “Great Mission”

Aside from the need for a Torah community to reflect the true definition of what Judaism is, it must be focused on its core mission.

The Almighty has a vision for all of mankind and has chosen the Jewish people as His faithful ambassadors to carry it out. While the world was steeped in immorality and corruption, our forefathers were building a people whose destiny was to be the “Light unto the nations.” Our enslavement in Egypt prepared us to deliver the message, that there is a better way to treat people and that we are all created in His image. We learned empathy by experiencing abuse, and we reinforce this lesson yearly by eating the “bread of affliction.”

Empathy is the great tool that the Almighty uses to teach us how to advocate for a better world. V’ohavtoh l’reacho kamocha (love your fellow as yourself) works because I love myself. This is the reason that immediately after we left Egypt and received the Ten Commandments the Torah launches into the laws of how to treat a slave (see the beginning of Parshas Mishpatim): because we have been there and we have done that. Says the Almighty, “It wasn’t pleasant, was it? It was difficult and degrading, correct? Now go forth and teach the world by example that there is a better way!” Thus, morals and values that many assume were always universally accepted norms actually originate in the Torah.

We have a great mission, and the world depends on Jews to complete it. Everything we do or say reflects this mission and its fidelity. When we fall short, we reflect poorly on the Creator, because we represent Him on Earth. We are the teachers of morality and the world is our students.

Absent this understanding, Judaism devolves into slices of ritual and custom that, while obligatory and significant, bypass the overarching motive behind the Jewish people’s raison d’être. This is why the Rambam states that chillul Hashem (misrepresenting G-d and his vision of goodness) is the greatest of avairos, atoned for only by death.

This thesis is no new age Judaism. L’saken olam b’malchus Sha-dai (to fix up the world under the Almighty’s kingship) has been a constant yearning, fervent prayer and our ultimate goal since the beginning. It is the normative understanding of Judaism dating back to its founder, Avraham Avinu (our forefather Abraham), whose life’s mission was to teach the world about Hashem through acts of lovingkindness.

Over time, our focus on this assignment has faded. Not only is the concept of ohr lagoyim – a light unto the nations – rarely mentioned in our schools and homes, we have come to see the nations of the world as a threat to be avoided, lest we learn from their ways. We isolate ourselves, living comfortably in our own insular bubble, blocking out the problems and difficulties that face the world. Hardly the makings of a healthy teacher/student relationship!

Of course, Judaism does not advocate proselytizing to gentiles. It is through our kiyum hamitzvos (mitzvah observance) that the world is meant to see and learn. When we embrace our mission, it injects meaning into our otherwise mystifying rituals and observances. In the right context, everything begins to make sense. At the same time, our way of life becomes far more accessible and compelling to our non-observant brethren, who will naturally respect how sensitive we are and how much we care.

Certainly, there is a balance that must be found between our role to be an influence and our vulnerability to being influenced, and each community must struggle to find its path. Even so, the mandate remains and it must animate our actions as well as our interactions with the nations of the world. When we lose this focus, we live smaller lives, with less meaning and significance to the world and history. It is not compelling to join (or rejoin) a nation that looks down on the rest of mankind. But when we heed its call, the nobility and actions of the Jewish people lights a path for the world to ultimately recognize the rulership of Hashem over the universe.

Am I advocating doing away with kiruv? While perhaps one day I will happily be looking for other employment, we are not there yet. We have some work to do as a nation before the product is so desirable that it attracts the unaffiliated all on its own. Meanwhile, organized kiruv is vital to help us get to where we need to go. It is especially through kiruv today that we have the opportunity to discover our divine relationship through fresh and excited eyes. With its infusion of energetic and motivated neophytes, kiruv offers the best hope for us to become reacquainted with the Judaism of old.

When we ultimately right our ship and infuse happiness and responsibility into our Judaism, the world will quickly take note. Positivity is contagious, and can be shared across the globe in seconds. Our actions will reflect a nation with a divine mandate, who are joyfully changing the world for the better.

Definition and mission. Its why people will choose the Chosen People.

Rabbi Benzion Klatzko, a musmach of Mir Yeshiva, is a leading figure in campus outreach, a renowned speaker, and founder of the world’s largest Jewish social network,
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