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Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox

From Conversations: Readers Respond to A Review of Kiruv

The Outer Limits – A Risk-Management Model for Outreach Programs


My thinking about competency among kiruv professionals has followed a different trajectory than that of many in the outreach field. A great deal of my clinical consultation involves forensic and diagnostic work when a large range of individuals, in many fields and professions, get into trouble. Professionals who “get into trouble” may have been implicated in financial crimes, in other criminal behavior, in interpersonal violations of other’s rights and privacy, or in malpractice. They are referred for evaluation so that the courts, or a professional association, or a licensing board, or a law enforcement agency, can make some determination as to their need for rehabilitation, for censure, or the pointlessness of attempting to rehabilitate such individuals.

Sadly, none of the helping professions, whether in the secular fields or in klal work, including professional outreach, is entirely immune to these difficulties. Some of the clinical concerns are not exclusive to kiruv workers, for they can often apply to rabbonim, teachers, camp counselors, and administrators. In some cases, however, independent kiruv workers wield more control and influence over people who look up to them – with fewer checks and balances – than other community professionals. Accordingly, I have consulted and performed consultative evaluations on many who may have engaged in or even excelled in their work in kiruv yet whose practices cast question as to their integrity and to the safety of those with whom they plied their outreach techniques. I preface that I have also provided enrichment workshops and consultation for a wide range of professional outreach organizations, and have trained and supervised a large majority who are wholesome, healthy in motivation and in preparedness for this avodas ha’kodesh. I view them and their efforts as very professional in promoting mental hygiene along with spiritual ascendancy. It is not about this admirable majority that I write. It is not even to this group that I offer my thoughts. If anything, a great deal of my thinking is the product of a very positive psychological appraisal of how much good work can be done for our people through the many talented individuals who devote spirit and energy to this sacred form of helping. Because of my professional scope, however, I have contrasted this remarkable potential with that which lurks in the underside, or that pathological dimension with whom I also work. This article is decidedly not a criticism of the exceptional programs and their gifted professionals. Rather, I present this considered and respectful view to those who select and oversee those who commit to a career of kiruv. In our era when liability and morality issues are at the forefront of our awareness – and rightfully so – in the human services, it seems valuable to consider the extremes and the fringes of human folly so that each of us maintain sight of the goals of our work with those who turn to us. Whether as doctors, as therapists, as clergy, as employers, as teachers or as outreach professionals, each of us aims to abide by a standard of care and a standard of competence for the welfare of others and for the reputation of our respective fields. It is my hope that the thoughts which follow will support the quality and uphold the integrity of Torah outreach.

Consider the demands facing a person who seeks to market Judaism or Torah to the masses, or to select individuals:

  • An Orthodox outreach professional must speak the lingua franca of his or her target audience, yet must also speak a more lofty language which represents knowledge of Torah and of its ways. Behavior is language, and an Orthodox outreach professional must also conform to a halachic standard of personal and interpersonal behaviors, so as to communicate an inspiring example of the integrity which is inseparable from a Torah framework of living.
  • Kiruv professionals are in a position of authority. Authority corrupts or at least goes to the head, infusing the ego with vague feelings of omnipotence. That is, being in charge or being an exemplar means that people look up to their leader and attribute to him/her an almost majestic sense that this rabbi or rebbetzin or youth leader knows what he or she is doing and must be obeyed.
  • Kiruv involves relationships. A relationship can only be as healthy and stable as the people who engage in an interaction. That means that one who seeks to engage in a power-differentiated relationship such as outreach needs to be comfortable as the holder of personal confidences, must be at ease with those who may be of different age, gender and/or level of maturity, and must be able to have his/her personal needs met without exploiting those who depend on him/her for guidance. Much like those of us who are mental health professionals, an outreach professional is acquainted with the reality of transference (other people’s projections about the professional’s grandeur, conflicts and personal life) and is also in tune with their own potential for countertransference (placing their own needs and conflicts above the needs and rights of those who are dependent on them).

K’shem sh’ain partzufosaihem shavin zeh la’zeh kach ain daa’tan shaveh. Our sages remind us that people have, or take on, different styles in the ways in which they orient to their tasks. There are some highly successful outreach professionals who emanate a sense of personal piety which is magnetic for those who turn to them. There are others equally competent yet who meet others on their own turf, bringing Torah down to, say, the college campus or to the public school or to a place of business where others might be inspired by the “down-to-earth” manner of the lunch-and-learn program and the like. There are others who win over souls through encouraging their students to make fairly rapid changes, such as a trip to Israel, time in a seminary or yeshiva, or other reshuffling of lifestyle in order to adopt a Torah persona or at least to try it on for size. The kiruv process is in all cases a matter of facilitating change, whether the kiruv professional models a modus vivendi to raise the bar and aspiration of their student, whether he/she models an approach which demands less overt reconfiguration of their student, or whether the professional is actually a catalyst to get the student up and running with a new set of overt behaviors in the hope that this will lead to more meaningful internal changes as well.

It is not possible to determine whether one style is more or less effective, or whether those effects endure over time. It is probably accurate to posit that some styles are effective in attracting some people and others draw another type of person. I reflect on my own youth when I was privileged to study under the great Gaon Rav Simcha Wasserman zt’l. My rosh yeshiva – according to the epitaph on his matzeiva on Har HaMenuchos and according to many in the Torah world – was perhaps the founder and instigating force among the gedolim of the last generation of what became the Teshuva Movement.

In my day, on the West Coast, there were people whose introduction to Torah took place in San Francisco at the House of Love and Prayer. Of those who tasted the Torah and hungered for more, we observed three groups. There were those who found their way down the coast to Los Angeles and entered our yeshiva. Rav Wasserman had us work slowly with these people, infusing them with learning Torah li’shma rather than emphasizing practical halacha or overt changes right away. They slowly shed their bohemian garb and ways and today, there are many who live Torah lives, some being quite accomplished in doing so. There was a second group who made their way to Chabad or to other Chassidic movements – many with the encouragement of Rav Wasserman – rapidly donning a different garb and overt appearance as they reached for a vision of living a very different lifestyle. There were still others who stayed put, content to live by their sense of what they deemed spiritual and good, perhaps seeking a philosophy rather than a religion. Nahara nahara u’pashtae. If it works, do it. Do it by working at it.

What seems clear to me is that when an outreach professional considers a style or approach, he/she needs to be honest. Is the approach based on a careful appraisal of what is needed in that particular position and with that particular population? What is the true motivation to spend time in a different environment with people who live different lifestyles? Is the challenge one which I am capable of, or is it an indirect way of being able to compromise the values which I struggle with under the guise of needing to be on the same wave length as my students? Lot left the outreach camp of Avraham because the standards were too high. He brought some of those standards to Sdom, where he was enough of a moral authority to be appointed an elder judge by the locals. Nonetheless, the cracks in his own morality ultimately brought him down, forcing the question of whether he really was in a place ripe for kiruv and whether he was the man for the job. Rav Chaim Volozhin came running in to the Gaon of Vilna, breathless with enthusiasm, about moving to Volozhin in order to establish a place of Torah for its unlearned residents. The Gaon summarily dismissed him. Some while later, he approached his rebbe again and asked if he could discuss the original project, and the Gaon approved it on the spot. He explained that his earlier refusal to support the project was because Rav Chaim had seemed rushed and too inspired. That does not always bode well when sincerity and level-headedness is required for bringing about durable change. Rav Yisroel Salanter, who by some accounts may have been the Gaon haDor in learning capacity in his time, brought musar to the masses, including time in the wilds of Paris. He did not lower his personal standards during that sojourn, and inspired some others. In my opinion, an aspiring outreach professional needs to start with a self-appraisal of motivations, of personal conflicts or struggles, of current stability and life satisfaction, and then determine whether he/she is ready to embark on this challenging process, whether he/she understands the demands of the target population and whether he/she is a good fit for the particular locale and its program.

In consulting with, or in consulting about, or in having to provide consultation for, outreach professionals in crisis, a number of clinical concerns tend to surface. These concerns are by no means ubiquitous. Those who dedicate their professional life to bringing others closer to Torah generally operate within a framework of halacha, and are role models for their community. They are receptive to professional guidance, they exercise responsible (and caring) judgment with their students, and blaze trails across frontiers where Orthodox Judaism was once unknown. In providing forensic and clinical consultation to organizations, synagogue and programs which have employed that minority of individuals whose judgment has gone wrong, the patterns of concern cover a small spectrum.

The most common categories of personal and interpersonal conflict are:

  • Immaturity
  • Poor impulse control
  • Sexual acting out
  • Dishonesty
  • Drug or substance use/abuse
  • Hypocritical religious standards
  • Anger mismanagement
  • Aging and burnout
  • Identity crisis

I will now devote a paragraph, embellishing my observations, to each of these areas.

Immaturity issues often involve functioning at a lower level of psychosocial sophistication than one’s kiruv population. An outreach worker who has left the framework of a yeshiva or seminary without preparation for the realities of a secular environment may be unequipped to relate to the needs and interests of his/her prospective students. This poor psychosocial fit can engender low confidence, compensatory reckless decision making and faulty judgment, and being more influenced by one’s surroundings than being able to offer positive influence. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in one of his lesser known novels (The White Company) tells the tale of a young priest who leaves the monastery to fight a war and becomes infatuated both with the women he meets and with the mercenary soldiers around him. These are new enticements, tugging on parts of his provincial mind which he barely understood. He struggles valiantly with two battles – one against an actual enemy force, and one against an inner enemy of naiveté and heretofore suppressed emotions which emerge as he is challenged by a new social reality. The kiruv worker who is unprepared for a world where baser interests are in vogue may be overwhelmed and may not be initially equipped to establish his or her footing.

Outreach brings its stresses: fund raising, event planning, difficult people… Maintaining composure amidst such demands is a challenge. Poor tolerance for stress often means the urge to seek impulse– outlets. Outreach professionals who lack self-awareness, the capacity for insight, the ability to seek counsel and guidance, and other resources for self-care, are at risk for acting out, whether with addictive practices or with sudden changes of disposition and mood.

Recent times have brought great dismay to the Torah world when rabbis or those in positions of religious authority fail in the area of sexual misconduct. Whether with teens, with prospective converts, with those who seek counseling or those who are rather innocent bystanders, the crossing of personal boundaries and violation of others is often a display of the grandiosity and omnipotence which at times excite the person with the power. While more cases of male acting out (with female or with male victims) get reported or hit the press, there also is a significant degree of sexual exploitation among women who are in positions of authority in the Torah community. Those who are inadequately prepared and educated about their sexuality, and about ethical standards expected of authority figures, can be lured by the wiles of their own perceived glamour and can misread the adulation given to them by students under their care.

There is a joke that a “crooked lawyer” once declared that “honesty is the second best policy.” There are times when an outreach professional may be entrusted with responsibilities which presuppose his or her integrity and honesty. Organization expense accounts, credit cards, access to charitable donations and untraceable cash, and other situations, which have led the Shulchan Aruch to proscribe absolute unilateral control of communal or sacred funds without accountability, may challenge one’s judgment. Additionally, an outreach professional may be entrusted with secrets, with highly sensitive personal or community information, and with delicate disclosures. We can use the analogy of a doctor, a therapist or a clergy person and note that issues such as privileged information, breach of confidentiality, duty to warn, and duty to report are all realities which must be considered at ethical and at legal levels when holding someone else’s secrets. One who works in outreach also encounters situations where there can be a temptation to reveal a secret, or a temptation not to reveal a problem which must be dealt with. It is important to be familiar with the appropriate path to follow when in such a situation, and to seek supervision therein.

There was a sad “joke” among Russian Jews a century ago: when the Cossacks are sad, they get drunk and go kill Jews. When the Cossacks are happy, they get drunk then go kill Jews. Among some segments of our communities, when we are in a celebratory mood, we make a “l’chaiim.” When we are stressed, we make a “l’chaiim” too. Whether dealing with high school students or with college or adult groups, the use of alcohol to create an atmosphere, to break past inhibitions so that people can share and open up, or to celebrate one or another oneg or simcha event can seem like a natural and even a traditional means of bonding. It is a facilitator of “kiruv.” There is a reliable anecdote about a famous country-western singer who was at a party with one of our recent presidents. He offered the president a Cuban cigar but the commander in chief reprimanded him, saying that it is illegal to trade with Cuba and smoking contraband is a means of abetting an enemy nation. The singer quipped, “Mr. President – we ain’t supportin’ the Cubans. We’re burning our enemy’s fields!” Call it what you want, but using an outreach opportunity as an excuse to get high or drunk may send a message which confuses those persons we are seeking to inspire. Showing students that you can be a frum person and still smoke pot is not cool. It may also involve legal misconduct. Many err in assuming that when Chazal proclaim “nichnas yayin yatza sod”, they are saying the same thing as “in vino veritas” – that truths emerge through drinking wine. Rather than this being a rabbinic aphorism, however, it is actually a halachic indictment. The “sod” in the saying is not “secrets” or “truths” but rather the right and the ability of a judge or judges to have the presence of mind to think clearly and to participate in a tribunal. “Sod” is contraindicated by intoxication. With an esteemed outreach professional, there is a negative correlation between frequency of inebriation and perceived respectability.

Hypocrisy is ubiquitous. I often tell people that we are all, in our own way, members of the “612 Club.” Each of us has our personal peccadillo which we justify somehow. There is that area of observance that we are just not so careful about, or feel is somehow not relevant or applicable. As a clinical psychologist and as a forensic expert, I am no stranger to hearing of people’s hypocrisies. In my field, we learn to expect them and anticipate hearing about what lurks beneath the life of a person in trouble. When an individual harbors a personal secret, it is going to leak out. We cannot get around that. There is an axiom in the field called “criminal parapraxis” – when a person is guilty of something and covers it up, he will slip up and someone will catch on to what he is up to. To paraphrase another adage – “the bigger they are, the harder it is for others when they fall.” When those who turn to you for support and guidance discover that you are struggling with your own demons, or with the same ones you are supposed to be helping them with, and the harder you fail, the harder you will fall in their eyes. Know thyself, heal thyself, but don’t think you can conceal yourself.

People can be frustrating. Work can be stressful. Life can be disappointing. Where we channel our distress makes the difference between being a composed individual and being a terror. Early on in my career, I participated in a training program for aspiring kiruv professionals and I remember a rule set by one of the senior trainers: “the moment you tell a kid to shut up, you are disqualified from doing this work.” Students and adults lose respect for a leader who intimidates. They are not impressed with a leader who utilizes profanities or who speaks sarcastically to or about others. We all like our ethnocentric jokes (even ones where we kid about stereotypical Jewish hang ups) but racist jokes do not garner respect when coming from a person in charge of the spiritual education of others. Our anger needs to be managed and not directed or displayed in the presence of those whom we seek to inspire.

There comes a time when we have to trade in that old car or aging appliance. It is hard to be that car or appliance. No one is happy to acknowledge their own approaching obsolescence or imminent irrelevance. Nonetheless, when an outreach professional no longer connects with the issues facing youth, or when youth can no longer relate to the professional who once led the kumzitz or sat up all night teaching Torah to them, a crossroads needs to be traversed. There must be a system wherein one can begin preparing for his or her next career move despite the cherished and valuable years that they may have invested in bringing others closer to Torah. A component of making that decision is considering that the next career move which one makes does not absolve the erstwhile outreach professional of needing to maintain the respect of those who may always consider her or him their religious model and mentor. You would not want to follow the footsteps of one exiting rabbi whom I had to assess who in short order removed his frock, shaved off his beard, took on a secular first name, and became a spokesperson for another religion. His former Jewish students were not sure whether or not they should or could still call him “rebbie.”

Even before the age of burnout, there are those who have entered the field of outreach only to begin questioning whether their life fulfillment can be found in this form of helping others. As we mature, we begin to consider existential matters, examining the interface between our identity and our universe. Before we reach that stage, we have already begun testing out our own sense of identity, which is done through adopting and rejecting varying interests, lifestyles, preferences and values. It is common for people to stop and reflect, concerned that they have made choices prematurely. Some who work in kiruv question whether they have come to prioritize their students over their own children, or spouse. Despite the havtacha of the Chasam Sofer that those who venture forth for the sake of the Klal will not have to worry about their own families remaining faithful, we live now in a bigger world with more demands and less family time. This is an identity issue. Some who work on helping others grow see the beautiful fruits of their efforts, yet in contrasting perceived stagnation in the spiritual life of their spouse (or self), they may begin to question to what and to whom they have made their commitments. Still others develop a form of kiruv fatigue, similar to the empathy fatigue reported by mental health professionals. They may struggle with the same dispirit which I discussed in my last article in this journal, and question the meaning and value of the work to which they were once devoted. Others are troubled by the perception that others may have of them that they are in an amorphous field, not as revered as are clergy, not as prestigious as are educators, not as formally educated as are those who are in a conventional profession. They may question “what I am I going to do when I grow up?” These are identity concerns.

In working with kiruv professionals both in a forensic and in a supportive therapeutic role, I have proposed a number of recommendations to the organizations which hire them, to the synagogues which sponsor them, and to the youth commissions which attempt to guide and monitor them. I will offer these heartfelt and caring recommendations herein. They are based on more than three decades of professional study of those many, many dear and gifted professionals who do HaShem’s work in the trenches with those who seek spirituality and inspiration, and based also on diagnostic evaluations of those individual persons who are in conflict. They are my opinions. I propose that those involved in hiring kiruv leaders, who will be in positions to monitor and assess their programs, and who keep the pulse of those to whom they offer outreach, consider these recommendations. Selecting some of them as guidelines may serve to assure the quality of the kiruv program and to prevent disappointment and liability. These are recommendations which I often propose as considerations for enhancing the foundations of outreach programs:

  1. I recommend that those who seek to mentor and guide others about Orthodox religious life, first attain, if men, a formal earned rabbinic ordination (smicha) and/or a minimum of five years post-high school full time beis medrash and/or kollel level Torah study. If women, I recommend that they have a number of years of formal post-high school Torah education, and that both men and women undertake coursework and systematic training in the “art and science” of Torah outreach. To be in a position of authority and mentoring, and to address both concrete and spiritual aspects of Torah Judaism demands that one have the ability to respond to students in an informed manner.
  2. Those who seek to pursue kiruv work have an established relationship with a rabbinic mentor, or mentors, with whom to discuss halachic and hashkafic matters. The mentor should take responsibility and accountability in a documented manner to assure that his student maintains contact, and regularly checks in.
  3. Those who seek positions first undergo a mental status evaluation by a licensed mental health professional who is familiar with the Torah community and its needs. This is to identify the presence of possible pathologies or conflicts which might interfere with the effectiveness and the readiness of the aspirant to engage in helping others. This evaluation can also help identify individual strengths and assets in each aspiring outreach professional.
  4. Outreach professionals have an annual check-up face-to-face with his or her rabbinic guide to discuss their own spiritual process and any religious struggles. It is important to reflect on one’s original vision and interest in beginning a career doing outreach, and to contrast this with their current feelings and investment in continuing that work, exploring whether they are in it for the same or for different reasons.
  5. Outreach professionals have a face-to-face check in with a mental health professional to identify any personal, marital, familial or professional conflicts or stresses that he or she might be dealing with. At the discretion of the mental health professional, areas which require therapeutic attention or resolution will be treated in more ongoing counseling, or a referral to an appropriate expert will be made.
  6.  Outreach professionals authorize the mental health professional to confer with the rabbinic mentor, or with the organization head (such as the NCSY director or the local Chabad House director) so that there can be a transparency and collaborative discussion as to whether the kiruv professional is facing undue conflict or stress which might affect competence, or pose risks to other persons or to the community.
  7.  Outreach professionals seek consultation at the end of five years in determining whether they remain motivated and appropriate for the work setting in which they have been involved. A collaborative decision making process should be undertaken in helping relocate or retrain those who are ready to pursue other endeavors.
  8. Establish an ongoing forum of local outreach professionals, with mandatory participation, so that those who work in the field can offer peer counseling and support in dealing with the stresses and challenges that each one faces.
  9. Offer trainings and seminars as part of the required continuing education of those who work in outreach. Topics germane to their work, including relevant psychological information, information about addictions and concerns facing youth, conflict resolution, dealing with financial issues, interfacing with synagogue rabbis and other pastoral material should be part of the ongoing education.
  10. I also recommend that outreach professionals take on personal Torah learning and spirituality growth projects, including but not limited to formal regular Torah study with a partner.

It has been said that when you are holding a hammer, everyone looks like a nail. I am not looking for nails, and I will reiterate the message that I began with. My thoughts and recommendations here are not intended as criticism of the worthy professionals and superb programs which reach out to our Jewish brothers and sisters. I relish the opportunities to provide them with positive and mentally hygienic consultation in support of their vital work. Some of my thoughts, as I have qualified, are founded on an understanding of the underside or pathological dimension with whom I also, at times, consult. A great deal of my thinking, however, is decidedly coming from a positive psychological appraisal of how much good work is being done for our people, and how many talented persons devote their energies and souls to this form of helping. May HaShem guide all of us.

Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox is a forensic and clinical psychologist in Beverly Hills, a graduate school professor, and the rabbi of the Hashkama Minyan in Hancock Park.

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