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Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

Klal Perspectives, A Review of Kiruv

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A New Reality: An Assessment of Contemporary Outreach

WAKE UP AMERICA! The old and familiar “outreach” paradigm of the past half-century no longer exists! New realities must be acknowledged, and the development of new attitudes and new approaches to outreach are necessary. Ignoring these new realities is simply irresponsible.

The Current State of Kiruv

It was long ago predicted that given the increasingly challenging environment in America, the window of opportunity to reach the non-committed Jew would rapidly close. It needs to be acknowledged that the heyday of the baal teshuva movement is probably behind us. Despite the immense resources that have been invested in outreach, current efforts and approaches have not worked effectively. Sadly, American Jewry prayed for a melting pot, but instead we now have a meltdown.

In May 1997, I addressed the Association of Jewish Outreach Professionals (AJOP), speaking at length of the important role played by the non-Orthodox movements in the Teshuva movement. I observed that the vast majority of baalei teshuva grew up with Conservative and Reform backgrounds. I confidently declared that receiving religious training at a Conservative or Reform Temple was an important factor in the lives of the newly-observant young people. I also pointed out that very few baalei teshuva come from backgrounds in which they received no childhood religious training. To my great chagrin, one of the most prominent and highly respected Roshei Yeshiva rose to take strong issue with my assertions, denouncing the Conservative and Reform movements as maysisim umaydeechim and accusing them of misleading Jews from the proper path of Torah and veneration of Heaven. I still recoil when I recall the Rosh Yeshiva’s intense response.

The next morning, the Rosh Yeshiva publicly apologized for his strong remarks, and softened his previous assertions about the Conservative and Reform movements. Frankly, I had been surprised by the Rosh Yeshiva’s initial vehemence since, not long before, on a conference call with several other outreach professionals, the Rosh Yeshiva had stated that, of course, having a Reform or Conservative Hebrew School education was better than receiving no Jewish education at all.

Unfortunately, today’s trends appear to be tragic confirmation of my contention. Contemporaneously with, and clearly related to, the rapid decline of the Conservative movement over the last two decades, it is my view that there has been a precipitous drop in the number of people becoming baalei teshuva in America. This decline is because Jewish youngsters today simply have no real connection to Judaism upon which to build. The vast majority of non-Orthodox Jewish youth now receive no religious education. Many have never been Bar or Bat Mitzvahed, and consequently, have little or no connection with Jewish life. As a result, fewer and fewer young people today respond to conventional outreach efforts. An invitation to a Friday night meal, a Purim party, a Learners Service, etc., is almost hollow and meaningless because virtually nothing Jewish resonates within them.

In one of my early AJOP addresses, I appealed for the greater involvement of the committed community in the kiruv effort, insisting that significant changes to the American Jewish landscape could occur only with the full-hearted participation of the committed community. We have seen some remarkable successes when lay members of local communities are mobilized. Organizations such as the Manhattan Jewish Experience, the Kehilath Jeshurun Outreach Program, the Jewish International Connection of New York (JICNY), Partners in Torah, and several community kollels have positively transformed their communities by involving committed local baalebatim. But the lay community still pays only lip service to kiruv, typically taking no active role.

But the failure cannot be attributed solely to the lack of lay involvement. Although the number of outreach professionals and outreach centers has grown rapidly over the last two decades, the pace of Jews becoming baalei teshuva has not grown, and has apparently diminished. In fact, the rate has probably declined by as much as half over the past ten years (an educated, but really speculative, guesstimate would be that the annual number of new baalei teshuva today is less than 2,000. The baal teshuva movement probably peaked in the mid 1990s at 3,500 or 4,000 new baalei teshuva a year).

Enrollment in baal teshuva yeshivas for Americans in Israel has declined over the last few years. The few baal teshuva yeshivas in America have relatively few students. The number of baalei teshuva emerging from local outreach kollels, with few exceptions, is minimal, probably not more than one or two per year per kollel member. Several years ago I raised many eyebrows for pointing out the ineffectiveness of contemporary kiruv efforts by noting that approximately 3,500 outreach professionals were “producing” fewer than 2,000 baalei teshuva a year. Had they been refrigerator salesmen they would have been fired fourteen times over! If anything, the trend indicates a worsening success rate.

As part of the new reality, it is necessary to acknowledge that the term “outreach” is outmoded, and probably should be retired. In consultation with top marketing experts, I have been persuaded that most young people do not wish to be objects of “outreach.” The entire idea that they are in need of help from others is regarded as rather demeaning. Engaging our Jewish brothers and sisters in positive, joyous Jewish experiences, is a much better way of addressing the issue. As a way of de-emphasizing the notion of “outreach,” the National Jewish Outreach Program has recently been renamed, and will now be known simply by its acronym, “NJOP.”

New Trends: Birthright & Social Media

While some of the conventional outreach efforts still attract significant numbers of participants, it is doubtful that these numbers can be sustained for much longer. For example, NJOP still succeeds in attracting large numbers of participants to its conventional programs: Shabbat Across America attracts about 50,000 participants annually, while Read Hebrew America attracts about 10,000 participants annually. But almost all participants are aged 35 and above.

From my perspective, it appears that only two efforts are significantly impacting young people in large numbers: the Birthright Israel program and Social Media. The Birthright Israel program is one of the most successful projects engaging young Jews today. More than 35,000 North American young people participate in the free trip to Israel each year. Surveys conducted of the program provide evidence that most of the Birthright participants are impacted by this singular experience. A small number of participants are even affected deeply and undertake serious lifestyle changes, especially if they are fortunate enough to be part of an Orthodox or a more traditional tour.

Unfortunately, many of the individual Birthright tours have little or no religious content. In the non-religious Birthright trips, participants instead are exposed to the “real” Israel. They spend time on IDF bases, see Tel Aviv “up front and personal,” and rather than experience a real Shabbos, they often spend Saturday in their hotel rooms. In their free time, they frequent Israeli nightclubs, are known to often drink heavily and establish sexual liaisons with fellow participants or Israelis whom they meet on tour. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Birthright participants return to the Unites States with positive feelings about Israel and increased pride in being Jewish. Some participants eventually make the decision to move to Israel or join the IDF, and some even become religiously observant, all resulting from the initial Birthright experience. The follow-up surveys and studies also indicate that the Birthright experience reduces the likelihood of intermarriage among the participants.

Even more effective are several of the Birthright follow-up programs that offer participants an opportunity to return to Israel, likely because the participants represent a much more select, and highly motivated, cohort. The fact that Birthright is probably the only current Jewish program for which young Jews vie to participate, despite the long waiting lists, underscores its unique success (but then again, why would anyone in his right mind turn down a free trip abroad?).

Social media is increasingly critical to any effort to connect with non-observant young Jews. Most young people, Jews and non-Jews alike, are most responsive to social networking. Most members of Generation Y (older teens, 20s and 30s) no longer speak on phones, or even respond to emails. They text, they tweet, they communicate through Facebook. So called “Outreach Professionals” who do not engage in these trends should either take a crash course in social networking or start packing their kiruv bags.

Obviously, ingenuity and creativity will be critical in introducing social media as an effective tool. But those characteristics have always been the hallmark of effective kiruv, and must continue to be so. In fact, NJOP was one of the earliest outreach programs to recognize the importance of Twitter, establishing “JewishTweets,” which today is one of the largest Jewish Twitter feeds and is rated as the #1 Jewish influencer on Twitter. NJOP also produces the enormously popular Jewish Treats, providing “Juicy Bits of Judaism, Daily.” Between its presence on Twitter and Facebook, NJOP amasses approximately 250,000 impressions a day from its Tweets and email messages.

Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to measure the efficacy of social networking, whether NJOP’s efforts or those of others. From the “old” days, we know that real “engagement” takes place mostly on a one-to-one basis. One of the primary shortcomings of social networking is that “love” and “passion,” two of the most important ingredients in successful engagement, can only be transmitted in a face-to-face encounter. It is nice to be able to learn the Hebrew alphabet online in 22 lessons on “Twebrew School,” but it is not the same as joining a live Hebrew Reading Crash Course, where teachers eagerly follow-up with their students, developing relationships and inviting them to their homes for a Shabbos meal.

Nevertheless, social networking is, indeed, the call of the hour, and the reason should be evident. Those who have had the heartbreaking experience of trying to stop a prospective intermarriage know how critical it is to keep open the lines of communication. In fact, such communication is valuable even after, G-d forbid, intermarriage takes place. Keeping the lines of communication open, with Jews who are not Jewishly connected, is exactly what social networking achieves. The goal, of course, is to trigger the next step, which is transforming the Internet experience into a personal encounter. Alas, this is not easily accomplished. NJOP has had limited success in this area, inviting small groups of networkers together for a Shabbat experience, and organizing meetings at libraries or at singles’ hangouts. In light of the apparent diminution in actual current and anticipated kiruv success, social media, in its unique role, is the avenue that remains open as an important long-term strategy. After all, the most important factor is to keep the channels of communication open always in the hope that there eventually will be a personal encounter, where real change can occur.

Campus Outreach and Reaching the Already Committed

Some may wonder why I decline to acknowledge college and campus outreach as successful outreach models. After all, over the past several years there has been a big rush to campus outreach by such programs as Maimonides, Maor, Chabad, Young Israel and OU, each mounting an intensive effort to reach Jewish college students. Although the numbers of Jewish college students being reached are not insignificant, the return on investment is rather small. The costs are often extraordinary, with some of the campus programs costing as much as $6,000 per student participant, about double the cost of Birthright. By stationing college counselors on campus to reach Jewish students, and paying the students stipends to attend a requisite number of classes with Jewish content, organizers hope to make a difference in the students’ Jewish lives.

The anecdotal reports that I hear, however, indicate that the number of participants from non-Orthodox backgrounds who actually become baalei teshuva is limited – probably no more than 200 to 300 annually, if even that many. I do not find these anemic results surprising. I have long believed that G-d and religion do not stand much of a chance of attracting the attention of college students who are faced with a choice of spending a weekend in their dorm rooms with booze and their boyfriends/girlfriends, or attending a Friday night service and Shabbat meal.

In light of the relatively small return on the investment in campus outreach, I wonder why a greater effort is not directed at reaching the not insignificant number of former Yeshiva and Day School graduates who are on campus. In fact, I would argue that it is time to establish more programs on campus (such as OU’s JLIC – Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus) directed at Modern Orthodox (MO) educated students, who reportedly suffer a very high religious attrition rate during their college years. (One recent study claimed a fallout rate of as many as 50%!) Keeping the MO students in the fold is exactly what is needed today. I say this despite my lifelong devotion to reaching out to the non-committed. Clearly, keeping the “committed committed,” should be our top priority.

In addition to the large religious losses of Orthodox-raised students on campus, it is important to revisit the elephant in the room – the fact that significant numbers of frum from birth, Modern Orthodox and even Chareidi-raised young people are falling out. I have long argued that one of the most effective ways of impacting positively on the committed is by inviting non-committed guests for a Shabbos meal. These mutual encounters vastly improve the quality of Shabbos for the committed family, and impact profoundly on the non-observant guests. Given the great losses, we must promote Shabbos hosting more assiduously and effectively. And, as noted, we should be supportive of the college outreach programs that focus on keeping the committed, committed (at least some of them), and help community kollels that are reaching those who were fortunate enough to benefit from intensive Jewish educations, but are declining in their religious commitment, and who would otherwise be lost. Their efforts should be blessed.

Reversing the Downward Trend

So, where does this all lead? Should we all just throw up our hands in despair and close up shop?

No. In fact, if we took note of several critical points, the trend might begin to shift in our favor.

For example, there undoubtedly would be many more baalei teshuva today if the major funders of non-Chabad outreach would be less dogmatic in their “all-or-nothing” outreach demands. Engagement in Judaism is a process. In fact, it is a slow and deliberate process – particularly if those who make religious transformations are to remain moderate and balanced. Those who lack the patience to allow the teshuva process to evolve should visit the thousands of Jews in cults today, and see the results of “love bombing” and brainwashing. That is not what we want – I hope!

I am prepared to compare the empirical results of any kiruv program to the quality and quantity of baalei teshuva who start out slowly with a Hebrew Reading Crash Course or a Shabbat Across America experience. I suggest that the numbers of baalei teshuva who emerge from a well run Learners or Beginners Services is unparalleled.

A Turn to Extremism

Another necessary alteration in the kiruv establishment must be a reversal of the recently growing influence of religiously extreme elements who are subtly radicalizing the kiruv culture. Engaging others in Judaism can only be achieved through tolerance, love and passion. These ingredients must not be forsaken by being replaced with fanaticism. In addition to the unparalleled sweetness of Torah, which sells itself, tolerance, love and passion are the secrets of our success. The current turn to extremism in outreach needs to be stopped, before it is too late.

An example of this dangerous trend is the total elimination of the presence of women from all publicity in the name of “tznius.” Advertisements, fliers and marketing pieces for outreach programs increasingly feature blurred-out faces of little girls, or blank picture frames with the names of the women speakers at the bottom. This type of insulting marketing is currently even being promoted by some of the top names in kiruv. It is not only an embarrassment; it is a huge turnoff to anyone who might consider learning more about their Jewish heritage.

This new radicalized direction of kiruv is not only doomed to failure, it also suggests that those who have piously and selflessly devoted their lives to the extraordinary efforts of kiruv either lacked requisite devotion or failed to consult with, and take guidance from, the rabbinic leaders of Jewry. Over 30 years ago, when we discussed with Rav Moshe Feinstein, z”l, and other gedolim the parameters of outreach involving co-ed NCSY and YU outreach seminars, no gadol suggested that women’s faces need, or even should, be blacked out. The parameters were halacha, but the goals demanded moderation with halachic bounds. The advocates who are promoting this radical approach will certainly have to give an account for the many thousands of Jewish souls who are being lost and who will be lost because of the further alienation they are causing.

There is much that remains for us to do. There are plenty of Jews over 35-40 years of age who do respond to conventional kiruv overtures and programs. We need to reach them. By mobilizing the committed, we can significantly increase the numbers reached and, at the same time, strengthen the committed core, keeping them in the fold and enriching their Jewish lives.

Modern technology can be both a curse and a blessing. We need to be alert to the constant flow of new trends in technology and utilize the best of them to advance the cause of Yiddishkeit. We need to get our positive messages out in a big and bold manner.

The Torah (Devarim 30:4) states that our people will be dispersed to the far ends of the Heavens, and from there Hashem will take them and gather them in. There is already evidence of this promise, and its furtherance is our mandate. It can be true today, and it will be true, if we are confident and determined to make it true.

May the Al-mighty bless all the efforts of our hands, in this most vital and sacred work, in which we are engaged.

Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald is the Director of NJOP (formerly the National Jewish Outreach Program) and rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue Beginners Service. He was the founding President of the Association of Jewish Outreach Professionals.
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