Skip to content

Rabbi Ilan Feldman

Klal Perspectives, A Review of Kiruv

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

Why the Giant Sleeps

To Take a Stand to express a principle in an uncompromising way; to possess and articulate a vision and a potential that few others see; to be unswerving in commitment to a value.

To Sell Out – to abandon a principle or value in favor of prevailing circumstances; to allow immediate conditions to obscure a principled vision; to accommodate a challenge to one’s principles in the name of short term convenience.

WHEN AVRAHAM AVINU TOOK A STAND for the existence of HKB”H, it was coupled with a profound faith in human beings as reflections of the Divine. Avraham Avinu’s stand was not only for the existence of G-d; it was also an affirmation of humanity’s design and potential to reflect G-d, of its tzelem Elokim. He fulfilled his declared mission by developing his potential as a reflection of G-d’s character; his chesed was a manifestation of the human capacity to  imitate G-d. His famed hachnasas orchim (welcoming of guests), for example, wasn’t a personality trait or a tactic to influence others – it was his affirmation of the greatness of people. He related to wandering idol worshippers as if they were emissaries from G-d because that is what he saw in them. He would not allow their behavior, despite its utter rejection of cardinal truth, to cause him to compromise that stand. It wasn’t blinding love that led him to serve guests; it was clarity of vision, which allowed him to see beyond the superficial into their essence. Through his life, an uncompromising affirmation of G-d’s existence, and, thereby, humanity’s greatness, emerges.

Having suffered through 2,000 years of bitter exile, much of our Orthodox community no longer embraces this view of man. We stand for G-d and serve Him dutifully, but we have sold out on the view of man that was the keystone of Avraham Avinu, replacing it with suspicion, cynicism, and judgment (imagine an Orthodox community today begging G-d not to destroy an evil city). This sell out, or abandonment of principle, is at the source of the “sleeping giant” phenomenon, in which our thriving observant communities, larger and more vibrant than ever, are largely ineffective as magnets in our effort to bring the majority of the Jewish family back to observance. And it is the reason we live in dread of losing more of the precious children raised in our own homes. There is hope for us to turn the tide in both these areas, but only if our communities embrace the stand our forefathers took for the Divine nature of man and adopt practices consistent with that view. When we do, our communities will be magnets of spirituality, and outreach will become a natural outgrowth of our way of life.

The State of Outreach Today

I suspect my shul and rabbinate are typical of the state of affairs in outreach to the unaffiliated in 2012. Fifteen years ago a majority of our annual crop of new members came from the ranks of baalei teshuva, many of whose first point of contact was the outreach arm of our community, the Atlanta Scholars Kollel (ASK). Today, our new members are predominantly religious families and young couples, moving to an Orthodox community that is attractive because it offers all the amenities of Orthodox life and a sense of real community, as well as baalei teshuva who made their commitment to be frum in Israel and are now looking for a comfortable and religiously nurturing place to live. Most of the successful outreach activity that continues to occur in our community consists of efforts on the part of hired professionals focused on campus outreach. Our Adult Beginners Service still attracts people, but more and more they are gentiles interested in conversion, and less and less non-observant adults exploring Orthodoxy. As our inner, observant core becomes stronger, larger, and more defined, our synagogue community, whose motto is “The Orthodox Synagogue for All Jews,” has become its own obstacle to outreach, as the recognizable mass of observant Jews that greets a newcomer is daunting. Rarely do I greet a non-observant family exploring our shul, and it has been suggested that our motto has become antiquated. While I do spend time with baalei teshuva dealing with issues typical of that population, a majority of my time is spent presenting classes and forums designed to inform and inspire the already frum, or providing counsel in crises that affect frum families: shalom bayis issues, child raising problems, kids at risk, financial issues, etc.

The heady outreach days of the 1980’s and 1990’s, when it seemed that every outreach organization could point to its own poster children, and when even sophisticated professionals and well-established citizens were becoming Shabbos observant, have faded. With the emergence of the “teens at risk” phenomenon and other challenges to the comfort of a frum lifestyle, the claim we all believed 15 or 20 years ago — that being frum was not only a fulfillment of G-d’s will but would also would provide peace, meaning, and safety for one’s family — rings hollow, and is no longer an authentic representation to non-observant people. Moreover, while beginners’ services and Shabbos dinners — relationship building forums — were the tools of outreach back then, tweeting college kids seems to be the active frontier today.

To be sure, the more confident Orthodoxy is the more likely it is going to be interested in sharing with others its values and, indeed, its love of G-d and Torah. Alas, the corollary is also true. When Orthodoxy feels it is fighting for survival, beset by internal social, economic and spiritual problems, it will begin to see the unaffiliated as important but distant cousins who cannot now be invited to the “Shabbos table,” at least not while the parents or the kids, or both, are still working out their own problems. In such a climate, questions about the viability of outreach to the unaffiliated, about efficiency and return on investment of tzedaka dollars are inevitable. And certainly, when the observant and committed community suffers from a plethora of financial and spiritual issues, questions of priority become even more urgent.

A Failed Paradigm

I fear, however, that we are trapped in a paradigm that was doomed from the start, even before more recent, sobering realities set in. The paradigm is the result of a fundamental breakdown in the Orthodox community’s definition of itself as a community. In brief, it is the Orthodox community’s view of itself primarily as an observant community, not as a model community, that explains the synchronicity of two trends: the painfully small number of returnees despite significant efforts, and the phenomenon in which there is no Orthodox household, from Bnai Brak to Lakewood, that does not live in dread of a family member losing his or her commitment to Torah life.

I experienced our lost potential years ago when I joined a Federation/UJA mission to Israel in 1988. In the midst of the “Who Is A Jew” controversy in the late 1980’s, and the deep feelings triggered on both sides of the debate, a strong sense of alienation emerged between Atlanta’s small Orthodox community and the non-Orthodox establishment. It was suggested that it would be worthwhile for me, as the assistant rabbi of Atlanta’s largest Orthodox shul, to participate in the Jewish Federation’s annual mission to Israel. Many members of Federation’s leadership were going to be on the trip, and my goal would be to put a human face on Orthodoxy and reduce tensions between our worlds.

I participated in the Federation trip with a specific strategy. I knew that the trip was planned, and would be executed, without religious sensitivities in mind, and was thus well aware that there would be restaurants in which I could not dine, Shabbos programs that would make me uncomfortable and tour guides whose concept of Jewish history began in 1948. I decided that I would raise no objections, so as not reinforce any negative stereotypes of Orthodox coercion. As a yeshiva graduate who had left kollel only a few years before, restraining from making pronouncements or judgments required significant self control. When shehechiyanu was recited instead of rending garments at the sighting of the Temple Mount, I said nothing. When they offered those who were interested to tour Masada on Shabbos as an alternative to going to shul, I made no comment. When the guide who introduced Mount Carmel dismissed the famous episode of Elijah’s clash with the Baal worshipers as merely a fable I engaged in no debate. Even when a guide described a mikvah as an ancient ritual bath that used to be visited by Biblical Jews thousands of years ago, I waited hours before saying anything. I spent ten days sitting on a bus kibitzing with people who were resentful of Orthodox Jews while my every Orthodox sensibility was powerfully, though unintentionally, challenged. I had only one goal – to establish relationships with my tour mates.

By all accounts, I was wildly successful in my mission. By the end of the trip, people were insisting that I address them in group sessions, asking me halachic questions, directing the bus driver to restaurants in which I could eat. To this day, my relationship with many opinion makers in Atlanta remains influenced by that trip, and some have even made major contributions to the growth of Orthodox institutions due to the relationships we forged.

But the one who was most transformed on that trip was me.

What I expected to encounter was a group of 200 Jews devoid of feelings for Israel or religion. What I discovered instead were 200 very religious, spiritual, passionately devoted, proud Jews who knew very little about Torah and who lacked a Jewish vocabulary, but who loved their Jewish brethren in Israel, respected holiness and possessed a passion for Judaism as they knew it that rivaled the passion I had seen in my frum friends. In short, I learned to respect them. And I learned that “secular” Jews are often very religious Jews who do not know ritual, and whose devotion and willingness to sacrifice for the Judaism they do know is inspiring. By the time we parted ways, I actually loved them. Once I made this discovery, I was both surprised and embarrassed that it was new to me. As is so often the case, a perspective can only be properly re-examined when observed from the outside.

When I joined the Federation trip, I was an Orthodox Jew hoping to survive 10 days in Israel with non-observant Jews, and they were going to survive having me around. At the conclusion of the trip, I was an Orthodox Jew profoundly aware of the souls of my Jewish brothers and sisters, looking beyond their ignorance, appreciating their goodness and sensing their thirst for connection to the Divine. To them, I had become a knowledgeable Jew they wanted to be close to.

What happened on that trip — and many have experienced this — can happen in the millions, but only inside a paradigm that does not prevail today. It is the paradigm of purposeful kiddush Hashem.

Why is Outreach So Difficult?

To illustrate my thesis, allow me this question, and allow me my naiveté: Why is outreach so hard? Why isn’t outreach succeeding wildly in 2012 in comparison to say, twenty-five years ago? There are more Jews observing Torah now, there is more kosher food available now, there are more schools teaching Torah now, there is Artscroll Mishna, Siddur, Chumash, Talmud, “How to Do Everything” now. In fact, there are more Jews on the streets walking home from shul on Shabbos now, more observant professionals — doctors, lawyers, accountants, stockbrokers, businessmen — now, there is an internet filled with Torah discussions and classes and websites now and there are adult education programs everywhere now. Cultural diversity is more accepted now. Indeed, there are more baalei teshuva now – who are each networked to family members who are not frum. Moreover, all this developed while people were critically examining the false gods of materialism and fame, seeking alternative expressions of spirituality. The Torah is truth, its paths are sweet and all its ways are peace. Do people avoid peace, sweetness and truth? Shouldn’t Torah living have sold itself by now? We built it, but they did not come.

A different version of the same question: the greatest outreach opportunity in the history of the Jewish people took place in Eretz Yisrael in the last half of the 20th century. One million passionately Orthodox Jews were enclosed in a territory a bit larger than the State of Delaware with 4 million ignorant Jews – who already knew Hebrew! Imagine the possibilities. Why have the 4 million not been attracted to the 1 million, to put it mildly?

Sadly, there is an open secret known to those who practice outreach: to effectively inspire people to become observant, the effort must be done in isolation from the established Orthodox community. Kiruv needs its own environment, as in retreats or hotel Shabbatons, but don’t bring your recruits into the established Orthodox community. While there are many wonderful and devoted members of the frum community who are quite effective in connecting to possible returnees, frum communities as cultures are simply not conducive to outreach.

The reason for this is not that our communities fail to exemplify devotion and passion, or even inspired living. Our communities, as communities, just don’t exemplify responsibility. They may exemplify commitment, but it stops there.

This is what I mean in distinguishing an observant community from a model community. An observant community is a community concerned primarily with observance. There is a sense of duty to perform an obligation, and to do it properly. Such a community emphasizes halacha, and it emphasizes proper environment. It is determined to survive against a powerful enemy that crouches at the door, and is vigilant in preventing insidious encroachment on its environment. In this mindset, there is greater emphasis placed on the dangerous allure of secularism than on belief in the power of Torah to attract. Its interest in halacha comes, to a degree, at the expense of an interest in people. Strangers are suspect. The wagons are circled. Welcome comes only after a security check, and by then, it doesn’t feel like welcome. The language in these communities is of right and wrong, good and bad, safe and dangerous, judgment and assessment. It is the language of survival.

No one openly acknowledges this strategy or suggests that it is an ideal. But this mode of community reflects the current state of mind of the most visibly observant communities of the Orthodox world, which see themselves as enclaves that scrupulously observe mitzvos in an irredeemable and hostile world.

A Better Model

There is an alternative world view, however, that an Orthodox community can adopt. It is the one introduced by Avraham Avinu, built on faith in G-d – as well as in people and their greatness. This approach sees community as a haven for the shechina (Divine presence). The purpose of community is not self preservation – it is nothing less than kiddush Hashem.

In this view, the passage v’nikdashti besoch bnai yisrael (I, G-d, shall be sanctified among the Children of Israel) is understood to convey a mitzvah specifically incumbent on the community, not merely a requirement of individuals to make personal sacrifices or in ways that bring credit to pious people. Halacha is observed rigorously, and is seen as the means to fulfill the mission to reflect G-d in the world. Communities are models of the human capacity to connect to the Divine; the goal of observance is to give expression to that glorious spiritual nature of man. Torah is powerful, and secularism and materialism, while capable of attraction and spiritual destruction, are no match for the expressed neshama of man. The vocabulary of such a community is one of connection, of inspiration, of inclusion, of confidence. Its language is that of purpose and mission. There is a sense of custodial responsibility for the Torah, and for other Jews. Non-observant Jews are essentially divine, even if masked by superficial secularism. In looking at other Jews, the goal is not to see how they measure up, but to discover their innate greatness.

Granted, no community exists that exclusively manifests either of these polarities. The extremes described above are merely illustrations, designed to raise questions about basic, and perhaps unexamined, assumptions. Certainly, I do not advocate compromise in adherence to haIacha. But when observance is the end all of Jewish life, Judaism becomes obsessive, and almost competitive. By contrast, when life’s purpose is bringing G-d into the world, the focus becomes relationships, connections, and responsibility. The difference in these views in behavior, attitude, and relationship to others is huge.

Aish HaTorah’s agenda in Project Inspire is designed to “Wake the Sleeping Giant” by reminding and training the frum community about their capacity and responsibility to make a difference with our non-religious brethren. However, unless fundamental assumptions of frum living are reexamined and ultimately altered, these valiant efforts are going to be the equivalent of placing icing on a mud pie. If we don’t confront the destructiveness of our cynicism – and our defensive arrogance – about humanity, the giant will return to his slumber as soon as the next inspiring advertisement is over. Those who do enter our communities as a result of outreach efforts will not necessarily discover giants at all. Picture an emotionally and financially secure, successful, well-educated head of household who lives in a world in which wisdom is respected, volunteering over the weekend is considered a wonderful way to spend one’s time, wholesome family activities on Saturday afternoon are seen as a healthy way of building character. Ask him to join a world in which routine Shabbos-table talk argues in favor of Torah by disparaging secular wisdom, in which political candidates are assessed purely on selfish concerns of the religious community, with little concern for their impact on broader society. Not only is this sort of talk distinctly unattractive, it is not the talk of giants; it obscures the sense of responsibility, compassion and awe for G-d’s children that Avraham Avinu left as his legacy to his descendants.

If we are serious about the cause of outreach, the agenda must begin with the transformation of the frum community.

Our Likely Future

Here is what we can look forward to if the prevailing model of community remains dominant. Yeshiva-oriented Orthodoxy will continue to experience the development of huge and dense observant communities. When deciding where to reside, for example, young frum couples will apply religious convenience as their guide since a frum environment and ease of observance are key factors in staying safe. Conditioned to worry about its very survival by the vicissitudes of exile – the haskala, the Holocaust and early American Jewish life – it will celebrate its massive growth as a major victory over the extinction predicted for Torah observance barely fifty years ago. Orthodoxy’s healthy birthrate will mask the tragedies of hundreds, if not thousands, of children from frum homes who opt out, because the language of condemnation and devaluation that permeated their classrooms and Shabbos tables didn’t produce enough fear to keep them in the fold.

The Modern Orthodox community will continue to search desperately for ways to reintroduce religious passion into their communities before it is too late, but they will spurn the effective strategies and valuable ideas of the yeshiva community due to the incessant condemnation and shunning they have suffered at their hands. The Modern Orthodox community’s children, exposed only to the restrictions of observance but not to its opportunities, will choose either to abandon observance in favor of professional success, or “flip out” (i.e., become much more religious), often to their parents’ dismay. The yeshiva-educated community will then continue to point to this trend as evidence in support of its insularity and separatism.

Passionately observant Orthodoxy, no longer “needing” recruits to solidify its standing, will withdraw from an outreach agenda as a result of fiscally “prudent” decisions, only to hasten a process which has religious communities developing as isolated bastions of sameness, united only in the consensus that the sole route to religious survival is by avoiding interaction, socially and intellectually, with anyone and anything that can be categorized as “other.”

Non-observant Jews will continue their breathless slide into oblivion. The frum community will identify a plethora of villains to blame for the dissipation of non-Orthodox Jewry, but will fail to recognize and accept their own culpability for allowing the non-Orthodox community to remain unhindered, uninspired, and unaffected by the commitment and devotion of Orthodoxy. The frum community will refuse to recognize that non-observant Jews avoided them because they did not care to be around a group who viewed the non-Orthodox as destructive, unwashed masses who are religiously and spiritually obtuse. In fact, as the non-Orthodox community fades before its eyes, Orthodoxy will continue to withhold any indications of respect, interest or love for the rest of the organized Jewish community – all in the name of halachic integrity. Ultimately, in another generation or two, American Jewry will be dominated by the observant, who will view this result as a victory, never considering that its standing alone at the finish line is the result not of its loyalty to Torah, but of its tragic abdication of responsibility to its brothers, and of its failure to live up to its mission to believe in the divine nature of G-d’s children and to be a reliable source of kiddush Hashem.

Even an amateur social scientist can recognize how our bitter exile has conditioned us to forfeit our view of the divine nature of man, and to see survival as the goal of existence. But if the Holocaust and the repeated pogroms and inquisitions did not compel us to abandon Avraham’s stand for G-d, why should they be permitted to cause us to abandon his stand for man? If we sacrificed all “reasonableness” to affirm our patriarch’s teachings regarding humanity the way we sacrificed all “reasonableness” to affirm his faith in Hashem, the result would be nothing short of historical – and perhaps even messianic.

An Alternative Future

Here are the changes in culture that would result from a serious and pervasive implementation of Avraham Avinu’s view of man. Our religious leadership, at all levels, would proactively emphasize – not merely agree – that a key ingredient of avodas Hashem is the development of a profound love, care and sense of responsibility for every Jew, whether or not in one’s comfort zone. Seminaries – even very exclusive ones – would highlight the heroic contributions to Klal Yisrael of those who devote themselves to the study of Torah along with those who are driven by a devotion to outreach and the needs of others. Orthodox Jews would be sufficiently secure with their own Yiddishkeit to invite their neighbors and co-workers to their homes, because the language of fear will have been replaced by a language of connection and confidence. Orthodox Jews would lead lives of idealism that extend beyond their own religious needs, inevitably becoming role models and attractive examples of lifestyle to non-observant Jews. Families will make life decisions informed by the religious needs of Klal Yisrael, not exclusively their own. Young couples will be recognized as an invaluable resource in a battle for the spiritual lives of all Jews, and will be encouraged to choose where to reside based upon where their presence would most greatly enhance Judaism, rather than merely their own religious comforts.

Because Orthodoxy would authentically and profoundly respect people, Orthodox community leaders would develop a reputation for selfless devotion to the good of the broader community, rather than solely parochial interests. For example, communal leadership will be invested in ensuring strong public schools in their neighborhoods, even though their own constituencies attend only yeshivas.

Though not eliminated, the “at risk” phenomenon would be reduced. Frum schools would rely on inspiration to educate, staffed by even more teachers who believed in their students, who eschewed the language of condemnation, who used personal growth in middos and Torah and mitzvos in their personal lives as the chief tool in forming behavior in their students. Authentic greatness in people will be respected and honored, and not just in frum Jews – in fact, not just in Jews. Communication skills – reading, writing, the ability to articulate ideas in Hebrew, Yiddish, or English, as the case may be – would be seen as indispensable weapons in the arsenal of a typical Orthodox Jew living for kiddush Hashem. The knowledge that students had this ability would create confidence in their capacity to fend for themselves in their encounters with other cultures. They will appreciate that they are trusted to make good decisions, and will not feel oppressive scrutiny of others examining where and when they were compromising on halacha.

Non-observant Jews will be welcomed by their frum neighbors in both large frum communities as well as in evolving frum neighborhoods, and frum Jews will be more than welcome into their neighborhoods by the non-Orthodox, eruv and all, because Orthodox people would be known to be ideal neighbors: friendly, non-judgmental, and interested in the needs of others.

Yes, perhaps what I am describing is messianic. But that should not be a reason to object to, or to marginalize, the picture I draw. On the contrary: the paradigm of survival I decry has, as a key underpinning, the belief that Moshiach is going to do all the work of redemption on our behalf, while we merely await his arrival. In fact, there is currently a dominant presumption that we are expected, indeed doomed, to suffer all the maladies of galus, including the spiritual neuroses acquired in exile, until the very moment of redemption. But is that our true mesorah (tradition)? In reality, Moshiach’s arrival will be hastened by our demonstrating, before his coming, that we are capable of the kinds of revolutionary changes his arrival will demand from all.

What if the requirement to be metzape liyeshua, anticipate the redemption, is a call for us to take advantage of America’s unprecedented conditions of freedom, affluence, and richness in limmud Hatorah, and to behave, as much as possible, as if the Messianic era is at hand? What, really, are we waiting for?

Rabbi Ilan Feldman is the Rabbi of Beth Jacob in Atlanta.

No comments yet

Comments are closed.