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Rabbi Eric Coopersmith

From Conversations: Readers Respond to A Review of Kiruv

Knowing We Can Win


In the Fall 2012 edition of Klal Perspectives, I sensed a certain defeatist attitude in the questions contributors were asked to address: “Has kiruv in America run its course…?”

Lately, I’ve been encountering a growing sentiment directed against those in kiruv: “Let’s face it. You had a nice idealistic dream of ending assimilation and changing the world. But the demographics prove that it’s now over.”

In my view, this premise is fundamentally flawed. It displays a misreading of the reality taking place in the kiruv world specifically and of global sociological trends in general.

True, we have great challenges ahead. But the fact is that campus kiruv is thriving, trips to Israel are at an all-time high, the Internet is saturated with Torah study opportunities, kiruv outlets continue to sprout up in a variety of new locations and thousands of frum people are reaching out to friends and colleagues.

And yet the naysayers not only claim that the kiruv movement cannot get the job done, they lead people to wonder if perhaps kiruv is harming the frum community by “draining away vital resources.”

Adaraba! Kiruv represents the best opportunity for infusing financial and human resources into the frum community. Tens of thousands of baalei teshuva have joined shuls, send their kids to local schools and are devoting their resources and energy to improving the frum infrastructure.

Consider one example: Mr. M. is the founder and president of a large mutual fund. He and his wife got involved in Yiddishkeit through an Aish rabbi and became Torah observant. Today, he is president of the local yeshiva high school, leading their efforts to professionalize and upgrade their operation, while she is a founder and leading force in a preeminent organization empowering Jewish women to strengthen Yiddishkeit in their homes.

Yet the premise persists: The kiruv movement is a disappointment, and it no longer makes sense for the frum community to allocate funding and manpower to kiruv.

Even more troubling, this attitude has seeped into the ranks of those devoted to the cause of kiruv.

It is time to dispel this misperception. Here are four levels of “how we know we can win.”

Level 1: It’s All a Miracle.

Rav E.E. Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu) presents a formula for striking the balance between hishtaldus and bitachon: The greater one’s bitachon – i.e. the more one lives with the reality of Hashem as the sole source of success – the less hishtadlus is correspondingly required. (Of course, living with this reality is a challenge.)

Rav Dessler demonstrates this idea from the Gemara (Taanis 25a), where Rebbe Chanina Ben Dosa’s daughter mistakenly lit the Shabbos candles with vinegar instead of oil. Due to her total trust in Hashem – the belief that He alone controls events – the vinegar burned as “naturally” as does oil.

This is the first level of “Why We Can Win.” If we realize that everything Hashem does is b’derech neis (a miracle), there is no reason we can’t conquer the monumental task of bringing back millions of Hashem’s children. Because not only does Hashem have all the power at His disposal, but given His tremendous love for us, He totally wants us to succeed.

Consider: Is there anything you wouldn’t do for your own children? As Rav Noach, zt”l, used to say: If G-d forbid your son was drowning, and someone came along and said, “I’ll save him – just give me your rope,” would anyone hesitate to help to save their own child?!

When it comes to winning the kiruv battle, what is holding back the belief that it’s possible? Do we suspect, chas v’shalom, that Hashem doesn’t have enough money and tools at His disposal? If we are living with the reality of Hashem’s unfathomable power, and his limitless love for the Jewish people, then we can surely succeed – even if “facts on the ground” may make it appear impossible.

The Jewish people have never been constrained by sociological norms. The very idea of a kiruv movement is itself a sociological anomaly. Forty years ago, people mocked Rav Noach, zt”l, as a meshuganeh for thinking it’s possible to attract secular Jews to a life of Torah and mitzvos. Fortunately, Rav Noach had the bitachon to know that Hashem has all the ropes we need.

Level 2: We Have All the Raw Materials.

We are moving through the levels, from “least practical” to “most practical.”

Even without relying on miracles, the facts on the ground indicate that winning this battle is at least a long shot, within the realm of practical reality. That’s because we already have the basic raw materials to get the job done. Just as concrete, steel and heavy equipment are needed to build a skyscraper, the kiruv movement has three primary assets to rely on.

Our first asset is our product – the Torah itself, a spectacular kli chemda that explains all of life’s most complex and rewarding challenges in the greatest depth and accuracy. As Toras Chaim, it contains the instructions for making a marriage work, raising well-adjusted children, actualizing one’s potential, being a moral person and building a healthy society. Torah is the ultimate repository of wisdom, to which no other “wisdom” can possibly compare.

Our second asset is our human resources – the Jewish people. Every single Jew is the ultimate idealist, yearning to do the will of Hashem (tzmay’im la’asos ratzon konam). In the great social movements throughout history, Jews have consistently stepped forward as the innovators and activists, striving to fulfill the Jewish mission of a perfected world (tikkun olam).

Finally, of course, we have Hashem on our side. Banim atem lashem Elokaichem – we are children of the Almighty. He is our loving Father, Who wants nothing more than to bestow His blessings and to bring every Jew home.

So while this battle may be a long shot, we have all the materials needed to get the job done. We just need the right architects and engineers to devise a blueprint for putting it all together.

Level 3: There is Precedent for a Successful Mass Movement.

According to our mesorah, the purpose of all human history is to create an opportunity for the Jewish people to achieve their purpose: returning to the Land of Israel, bringing Moshiach, and becoming an ohr lagoyim – leading the entire world to an awareness of Hashem.

This means that every historical trend and transformation – whether the invention of the printing press, the industrial revolution, or the Internet – is Hashem’s way of providing us with the tools, the wherewithal, and even the likelihood of creating a social movement that will transform the world into a place where Hashem is known.

A movement is a critical mass of people who undertake to use whatever resources they have to achieve a common goal (as opposed to an organization, which is a group of “professionals” that provide top-down “services”). A movement is a grass-roots groundswell that feeds on itself and attracts the masses in a wave of popularity.

Creating a mass movement is the only way that victory is possible. Rav Noach zt”l, understood that if you are serious about changing 12 million Jews dispersed around the planet, the only strategy that has a chance of success is a movement, simply because it is completely unfeasible to train and fund the tens of thousands of rabbis and rebbetzins needed to reach that many people.

Today, creating a mass kiruv movement is quite plausible. Over the past few centuries, the world has changed in five fundamental ways, which makes it more likely than ever in human history for a social movement to succeed.1

1. Urbanization. People used to be primarily farmers, living far apart from one another, completely preoccupied with milking their cows and tilling their land. With the popularity of cities, large numbers of people began coming into daily contact. A successful movement needs large numbers; urbanization creates such a potential.

2. Universal education. When people are ignorant, they are unaware of the options for improving their lot in life. When people are educated, awareness of options increases their expectations for a better life, and gives the masses more self-confidence to exert their desires and aspirations – despite the challenging “facts on the ground.”

3. Economic and political liberalism. In the feudal system, people were essentially slaves of a feudal lord, with neither the time nor freedom to improve the world. Worse were the oppressive monarchies and dictatorships. Today, this hierarchy has given way to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, where people can get together and strategize how to change the world. These changes dramatically leveled the playing field, and gave the common man the rights and abilities to advocate for social change without fear of reprisal from those in power that would make it too costly or dangerous to undertake.

4. Financial resources. Movements need money. People today are no longer overwhelmed with eking out an existence. Along with having more money to invest, they also have more time on their hands, to conceive and implement a transformational movement.

5. Social media. In the past few years, we’ve witnessed the advent of social media – the ultimate game changer that has turned the world into a global village, where you can speak to all of humanity at one time. Yet surely G-d did not create social media for the Arab spring or to popularize Justin Beiber. Rather it is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s historic prophecy: At the end of days, the Jewish people will be an ohr lagoyim, with all the nations coming to Yerushalayim to learn the word of Hashem.

For the vast majority of the Jewish people’s 3,300-year history, it was impossible to conceive of the tiny nation Israel teaching the entire world, and doing so simultaneously. We were scorned, mocked and persecuted – with the nations of the world trying to influence us, often by force, to change our values.

For millennia, the belief in our destiny to change the world was rooted in our belief that since the Torah promised it, we knew it would be true, despite the fact that practically speaking, it seemed impossible.

Today, however, through the Internet and social media, the Almighty is providing all the resources we need, and has put all the social elements in place for a mass movement – making it plausible to win this ultimate battle.

Furthermore, today we have the theories for how to implement such a plan. Social scientists have accurately defined, quantified and analyzed the key elements that create an effective social movement.

Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book, The Tipping Point, identified the key elements underlying social change. It starts with a core of influential people involved – what he calls a combination of “connectors, mavens and salesmen.” Then there’s the “stickiness factor” – how memorable, unique, practical and personal the idea is, and whether it can easily be packaged. Finally, there is the “power of context” – the environment must be properly suitable and sustainable to enable the message to be heard more clearly than in previous generations.

The formula for creating a movement is no longer a guessing game. If we replicate the formula, we can succeed.

Level 4: We are Already Succeeding.

In February 2013, the Project Inspire Convention drew a sold-out crowd of 1,100 participants. It was an unprecedented display of achdus (unity), learning, growth, and focus on ahavas Hashem and ahavas Yisrael. Whether yeshivahleit from Lakewood and Baltimore, or rabbanim from Flatbush and the Five Towns, or Chassidishe ladies from Williamsburg and Monsey – everywhere, people were eagerly discussing strategies for kiruv.

There has been a tremendous response to the “call to action” – over 7,000 people have attended a Project Inspire Kiruv Training Seminar, learning common kiruv techniques. Many hundreds have signed up for one-on-one learning with a non-frum partner. Other volunteers are running programs and implementing their own creative ideas.

Within the Aish orbit alone, other mass initiatives are reaching myriads of secular Jews: JWRP (Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project) is bringing women to Israel for chizuk missions, Hasbara Fellowships is training thousands of college students to fight against anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias, Aish’s new center across from the Western Wall is attracting thousands of secular Israelis, and – with 400,000 unique email subscribers – is bringing Torah to the masses.

In terms of creating a movement, we can now see a light at the end of the tunnel.

This by no means diminishes the fine work of kiruv professionals who are reaching a segment of Jews in their city. Certainly every Jew we touch, every mitzvah performed, has its eternal reward. And we must take pleasure in our accomplishments.

But in terms of really winning this war, a top-down organizational model is doomed to failure. Gedolim including HaRav Aryeh Leib Shteinman, HaRav Matisyahu Solomon, and the Novominsker Rebbe have termed assimilation “a devastating spiritual holocaust” (shoah ruchanit norah).If we don’t think in those terms, we’re not even going to have the goal of saving every Jew. We won’t be davening for it, or strategizing for it, or living as if our lives – and the lives of our assimilated brethren – so desperately depend on it.

Every human being is created b’tzelem Elokim (in G-d’s image), and has infinite potential to change the world. And yet, if we don’t believe we can succeed, then we’re telling the Almighty: “Don’t bring the blessing through me.” Only if we desire to be the kli (tool), to accept the responsibility of bishvili nivra ha’olam (“the world was created for me” – See Sanhedrin 4:5), will the Almighty assist us with His infinite power.

Getting the Job Done

There is no doubt this is an eis ratzon (propitious time) and that Hashem is moving the world for us, activating social structures and the frum community in a l’maaleh min hateva (supernatural) way.

Yes, there are grave demographic challenges. And it is important to assess things from a purely demographic perspective – in terms of pointing where we need to direct our efforts. But we must not predict the outcome based on sociology alone.

Many years ago, Rav Shach, zt”l, came to Aish HaTorah to be the sandek at the bris of Rav Noach’s youngest son, Yehudah (now the COO of Aish Jerusalem). Rav Shach was very moved by the atmosphere at Aish, and gave a devar Torah with the message that: If one man can kill 6 million Jews, then one man can save 6 million Jews.

That is our rallying cry moving forward. The key to victory – a mass movement – has already been defined and distilled. We have all the raw materials. We have the precedents to guide and inspire us. We just have to learn these lessons, apply them to Torah, and get the job done.

The entire purpose of existence is to be mekarev the Jewish people and humanity to Hashem. Of course, it is no guarantee that we will personally merit to succeed, because that depends upon the exercise of our free will. But even if we fail completely, just making the effort alone is worth everything.

The Jewish people will come back. It is our destiny. The only question is: What role will we each play in bringing that to fruition?

Rabbi Eric Coopersmith is the CEO of Aish International.

1 See Charles Tilly of Columbia University: Social Movements, 1768-2004.

2 Kol Koreh, Erev Rosh Hashana 5765

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