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Rabbi Menachem Schrader

From Conversations: Readers Respond to A Review of Kiruv

The Still, Soft Voice


The previous edition of Klal Perspectives (Fall 2012) provided many different views on kiruv by people heavily involved in this activity. I would like to focus on several of the recurring themes in the articles, as well as point out several aspects of kiruv methodology not mentioned.

1. One of the articles details in four paragraphs the essential relationship between the present kiruv movement and bias hamashiach(coming of the Messiah). Quoting Rav Hutner, zt”l, via Rav Shurkin, the author explains how the kiruv movement is an expression of Hashem’s hand in bringing in the pre-Messianic era. The author goes on to give the timing of the success of Rav Nachman Bulman as an example of Hashem’s intervention in the timing of kiruv success.

This kind of approach, namely that what “we” are doing is “the” path to the redemption, has already resulted in one Chassidic group claiming its deceased Rebbe was Mashiach, and will be resurrected as such. A similar approach has caused a significant crisis of education and belief within the Israeli National Religious movement upon the withdrawal from Gush Katif.

Specifically, it is dangerous to approach kiruv as a messianic effort for three reasons:

a) Burnout and disappointment are likely to descend on mekarvim at some point as a result of this approach;

b) It can cause a reinterpretation of redemption in order to fit into whatever results from the effort;

c) It interferes with any objective analysis of what is going on. All who see kiruv as petering out, right or wrong, will be “spoiling the party,” and reducing the adrenalin surge of those who believe they are partnering with Eliyahu haNavi. If kiruv is assumed to be the harbinger of redemption, even if someone figures out a way to evaluate it, he had better come up with a positive view, lest he be thrown aside as a spoil sport and a party pooper who is lacking proper emunah (faith), and perhaps worse.

Factually, it flies in the face of several other articles in the same issue of Klal Perspectives that perceive kiruv levels dropping, including one written by the well known mekarev Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, founder of NJOP andfirst president of AJOP.

2. A significant portion of contemporary kiruv focuses on reaching individuals. In this model, the mekarev finds people who appear to be likely candidates, usually youngsters, and brings them under his or her influence. This is done by befriending, and sometimes through platonic “love bombing.” Charisma of the individual mekarev is paramount in this process. The personal connection between the mekarev and the mekurav is crucial in this effort. This connection is turned into a loyalty bond the likes of which can be inspiring. It can also turn into a very demanding relationship, one in which the mekarev uses his or her personal “clout” in the relationship to move the subject of these efforts (a Jewish human being) in a religious direction.

In extreme cases, this becomes a dependency relationship, with considerable psychological implications. Attachments of these sorts allow the mekarev more interested in power than Torah to abuse the object of his kiruv efforts, sometimes verbally, sometimes with physical abuse, and sometimes in sexual advances as well. The relationship is so powerful that even when abusive mekarvim are publicly exposed beyond a shadow of a doubt, those subject to their influence have great difficulty detaching from their charismatic power. While this undoubtedly occurs only in a very small percentage of kiruv relationships, it is the nature of these relationships in general that allows this to take place.

It is not understood by this writer why the encouragement of the relationships above described continues to be common and legitimate in the kiruv world. The potential damage to the objects of kiruv, to the mekarvim, and to the families of all involved has been painfully realized and exposed in several cases over the past 25 years. It should be added that many of those brought ostensibly close to Judaism through this method have broken out to become enemies of the Torah community, in reaction to what they or their friends experienced. Why do we not face up to the damage this method has wrought? Why do we continue to claim the methodology is sound and view the damage caused as incidental, when in fact its occasional result is endemic to this method of kiruv?

3. One alternative way to bring nonobservant Jews back to Torah and mitzvos may be called “the Communal Effort.” The motto of this approach may be found in the words of Ruth in her acceptance of Torah, “amech ami vEilokayich Elokoi” (your people is my people and your G-d is my G-d). In this way, Jews are inspired to return to observance by becoming part of a normative religious community that they find attractive and welcoming.

It is crucial in understanding this approach to recognize that, as a rule, observant Jews keep Torah and mitzvos primarily as a community. The Torah was commanded to the Jewish nation as a whole at Mount Sinai, and we are collectively held responsible by the Covenant at Arvos Moav (mentioned at the end of the Torah) for individuals who stray. Thus, we observe mitzvos as a group; ideally, we pray as a minyan, representing the whole of the Jewish people. Even when praying in solitary, we nonetheless phrase all the blessings of Shmoneh Esrai and the Blessings of Krias Shma in the plural, clearly referring to the whole of the Jewish community.

Our religious life is structured around synagogues and community centers. We have communal shechitah, communal standards of Kashrus, communal mikvaos, communal yeshivos, seminaries, and day schools, communal rabbis, communal shiurim, communal summer camps, and communal vacation resorts. In Israel, the whole of the country serves as a macro-community. We are encouraged by Megilas Esther to celebrate Purim communally. We begin the Seder by inviting in all who wish to participate. We invite guests to our Sukkos as representatives of the Founders of the collective Jewish entity. We are taught how to observe the Torah when we are on occasion isolated from all this. But we know that this is the exception to the rule, and anxiously await our return to the context of our communities.

In this method of kiruv, the focus is not on bringing the individual back to observance, but rather on welcoming the individual into the normative Jewish religious community. Religious observance is taken up in a process of becoming part of the observant community and taking in the religious norms the community observes and takes for granted by all who participate in it.

The Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus of the Orthodox Union, of which I am one of the directors, is not an organization that focuses on bringing about baalei teshuvah. Our focus is twofold:

a) to create a Torah community for students who enter the university observant to participate in, to remain true to Torah in practice and study, and advance as well;

b) to present authentic Torah Judaism via this community to the wider Jewish public on campus in a way that is welcoming, attractive, and respectful of all, without a specific kiruv agenda.

We try to accomplish the above by placing on campus a rabbinic married couple to be examples, to lead, and to empower the Torah community to create a communal makom Torah (Torah environment) on campus, in the widest sense of that term. We call the husband and wife of this couple Torah Educators.

Although our Torah Educators do not have a specific kiruv agenda, numerous students have become observant as a result of becoming part of these campus Torah communities. These previously nonobservant Jewish students are attracted to a sincere welcoming community that serves Hashem as a group, and understands itself to be part of and representative of the totality of the Jewish people.

This approach to kiruv was described on the neighborhood communal level by Rabbi Ilan Feldman as a utopian, Kiddush Hashem-oriented Orthodox synagogue (Why the Giant Sleeps, Klal Perspectives Fall 2012) and by Rabbi Bentzi Epstein about his Dallas Torah community (There is a Makom Torah in Dallas: How Community Kollels are Raising Communities, Klal Perspectives Fall 2012).

In this system, the attachment of the nonobservant Jew does not focus on an individual who brings them in, but rather on a community of which they become a part.

It is this approach that makes room for and encourages those hungry to hear the words of Hashem to be part of their local, representative community of the mamleches kohanim v’goy kadosh (kingdom of priests, and holy nation)

4. It would be wrong to minimize the importance of a personal connection between the Torah Educators and their students, observant or not, in order for our Torah Education model to work. What is different about the personal connection between our Torah Educators and their students as opposed to that of the mekarvim and theirs is its focus. Our Torah Educators need not be charismatic individuals. Our Torah Educators need be outstanding personal examples of Torah in their personal lives, as a man, as a woman, and as a couple, in order to project what we hope for our students, both as individuals and as future (and sometimes present) couples.

Furthermore, our message to them is not based on charisma. It is a message of derech eretz, chinuch, and Talmud Torah (proper ways, education and Torah study). We are not interested in students succumbing to the directives of our Torah Educators, as they are bowled over by the force of their personality. We want them to want to emulate the Torah Educators due to their virtue. We want the students to listen to them because they are presenting Toras Hashem.

In the words of the Gemara in Yoma, quoted by Rambam:

ואהבת את ה’ אלוקיך. שיהא שם שמים מתאהב על ידך. שיהא קורא ושונה ומשמש תלמידי חכמים, ויהא משאו ומתנו בנחת עם הבריות. מה הבריות אומרות עליו? אשרי אביו שלמדו תורה! אשרי רבו שלמדו תורה! אוי להם לבריות שלא למדו תורה! פלוני שלמדו תורה, ראו כמה נאים דרכיו, כמה מתוקנים מעשיו! עליו הכתוב אומר ‘ויאמר לי עבדי אתה, ישראל אשר בך אתפאר.’

“You shall love Hashem your Lord.” [This includes] that the name of Heaven should becomed beloved by your hand, that you should study [the written and oral Torah] and serve Torah scholars and that your interactions with others should be pleasant. What will people say of such a person? “Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah! Fortunate is his teacher who taught him Torah! Woe to those who did not study Torah! This individual who did study Torah – see how pleasant are his ways and how refined his deeds!” About such a person it says, “[G-d] said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, through whom I shall be glorified.’”

This second alternative approach to kiruv might be called “The Exemplar Educator Effort.” Within JLIC, these efforts are presented to all students with whom our Torah Educators come in contact, observant or otherwise. It is the combination of the Communal Effort with the Exemplar Educator Effort by which a haven of Torah is created on campus with appropriate exemplars helping the community and its members draw closer to Hashem and His ways.

לא ברוח ה’, לא ברעש ה’, לא באש ה’, כי אם בקול דממה דקה. G-d is not in the [powerful] winds, nor the shaking of the Earth, nor the burning of the flames; but in the still, soft voice.

Rabbi Menachem Schrader is the founding director of the Heshe & Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus. In addition, Rabbi Schrader serves as the director of overseas programs for Nishmat and as the rabbi of Congregation Tiferet Avot in Efrat, Israel.

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