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Rabbi Raphael B. Butler

Klal Perspectives, A Review of Kiruv

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

Theological Triage: When the Immeasurable Needs to be Measured

AT TIMES, KIRUV HAS FLOURISHED with minimal expenditure or strain on communal resources by maximizing the value of an engaged Orthodox community. But this approach has its limits. It requires an army of committed community members to maintain long-term relationships, shepherding the searching Jew through the process of return. It requires know-how as well as openness on the part of the community to engage a world beyond their personal comfort zone. There can be perhaps hundreds of families that will undertake such an effort, resulting in hundreds of new baalei teshuva – but over the slow-paced course of many years. From motivational pastoral rabbis and rebbetzins to welcoming neighbors and understanding day schools, our communities can and should be an inviting environment for hundreds of searching couples in the years ahead.

But as we revel in many meaningful moments of success, the reality is that we are rapidly losing Jews to assimilation and intermarriage at a rate that demands a far greater response. While the problems are not new, a renewed effort has unfolded in recent years to reinvigorate campus and young professional outreach and create new beachheads of opportunity to engage the searching Jew. Instead of following conventional and rather slow-paced communal engagement, these efforts implement far more intensive, experiential modalities with the potential to play a significant role in reshaping Jewish life.

One thing is certain: whether the focus is on college students and young professionals or on other segments of the community, the allocation of communal resources requires responsible strategies and thoughtful cost/benefit analysis. At the historic Siyum HaShas celebration at MetLife Stadium last August, there were 2,000 non-observant, college-aged students and young professionals attending, who merited a special welcome, heralded as the “Not Yet Ba’alei Teshuva.”Likely lost on most in the crowd, however, were the elaborate efforts and the substantial resources that were invested in bringing these “Not Yet Ba’alei Teshuva” to such an event.

First, it required a coordinated effort by numerous kiruv organizations around the globe. Second, apart from the cost of attendance and transportation, a pre-siyum event for these young people was hosted at a nearby hotel. The participants enjoyed a light meal while listening to inspiring speakers, and then broke into groups for a learning session before being bused over to the stadium.

The effort was actually a reflection of years of relationship building, hundreds of hours of work on this project, inspired marketing and a budget of over $30,000. While many of the participants thoroughly enjoyed the event, the question begs to be asked: Was this effort a sound use of tzedakah funds and communal resources?

No doubt, a significant minority of the attendees will ultimately become shomrei Torah umitzvos. Yet, these same funds and hours of communal work could have been directed to feeding needy families, helping marry off orphans, contributing to the salaries of unpaid Jewish educators, or adding an after-school program in an enriched yeshiva environment. I call this dilemma theological triage. Where should the community be directing its tzedakah dollars?

The Funding Priority Dilemma

Perhaps the first question in analyzing the cost effectiveness of kiruv is defining its goals. Should kiruv success be measured by how many intermarriages are prevented, or by the number of Torah supporters recruited? Should the number of not yet observant children enrolled in day school be the yardstick, or perhaps the degree to which a Jew assumes communal responsibility?

Furthermore, the scope of the analysis must be made clear. It is generally understood that kiruv happens in two stages: reaching out to larger numbers first, and then following up with those individuals who are interested in further engagement. Should we allocate a certain amount of overhead to the initial stage and then separately measure how cost-effective follow-up efforts are? Or do we expect individual successes to justify the entire investment? And how much Jewish commitment qualifies as a success? Do those who fall short of that goal merit inclusion in the cost analysis? For example, if “success” is defined as becoming an observant Jew, what of the attendees and participants who become more Jewishly engaged, and perhaps avoid intermarriage, but eschew observance? Is this a partial success that justifies expenses and if so, how is it measured? Should the cost of the Siyum Hashas event be allocated among all 2,000 participants, or only the projected 400 who are likely to become observant?

A further challenge to the kiruv community is how to decide the optimal target age and demographic, and to assess the degree to which one strategy or approach should be preferred. There are, after all, many portals of engagement available within a potential Ba’al Tshuva’s life cycle – high school, college age, newly married, young families, retired, etc. At which stage is outreach likely to prove most effective?

The defining challenge is to fashion an approach that enables the kiruv community to focus primarily on the area likely to have an impact on the greatest number, while preserving the benefits of success that accrue from targeting other life stages, as well.

While there have been studies underscoring the challenges of engaging the non-affiliated, there is tragically little data or analysis that allows for a comparative evaluations of the effectiveness of alternative programs or strategies. Ideally, such analysis is needed to justify the myriad decisions being made in allocating kiruv resources. Without reliable data, priorities and strategies are decided upon based on the observations and experience of experts, and on the minimal data that is available.

Based upon these limited factors, a strong view has emerged that the most effective use of resources is to target college age students and young professionals and, in fact, a significant paradigm shift has occurred in this direction. Aided by a new infusion of resources, manpower and mindset, the focus of kiruv efforts has begun to switch from community-based efforts to the campus and young professional communities.

This shift was based on the following arguments in favor of this focus:

1. Ideal Age. This population is old enough to explore and evaluate ideas and values, yet still young and flexible enough to change direction. Moreover, they are at a stage in maturity and development that allows for the independence to chart one’s own destiny.

2. One is Sometimes Better than Two. Working with married couples poses difficult challenges, as husband and wife often explore a Torah way of life in different ways and at varying speeds. This can potentially lead to friction in their relationship, which is certainly something to be avoided.

3. Easily Accessible. There are approximately one million Jewish students on campuses throughout the world. Most are still readily identifiable and many have already enjoyed some initial Jewish engagement. In particular, Birthright has provided a significant initial spark which, if properly ignited, can trigger a far more engaged Jewish student population. For example, at least 40% of those involved in ongoing Torah study programs on campus today have participated in a Birthright program. It would be irresponsible for the kiruv effort to neglect the opportunity to build upon Birthright’s incredible impact.

4. Social Forces. There is a strong desire within the student and young professional community to connect with peers. As these populations are already seeking such connections, outreach efforts that include attractive social environments have a greater likelihood of drawing interest.

5. Time. For a young single, time is on their side. A college student or young professional is well suited to consider an intensive Torah study program in one of the many Torah institutions around the world. A three-month, six- month or one year study experience can lead to far-reaching life changes. Such commitments are far more difficult to make for those who are married or already settled.

Therefore, I would posit that the potential measure of kiruv success can reach 20 times greater in a campus and young community environment than it can in the context of community outreach,. While this sounds like hyperbole, initial data has indicated that over 600 students and young professionals have become Shabbos observant over the past academic year, alone. Initial projections for this year are even greater, and we assume that as measurement matrices and best practices testing continue to improve we can expect this number to increase dramatically.

Nevertheless, the campus path to Sinai is not without serious challenges:

1. Staff Costs. Community, synagogue-based outreach often requires only negligible incremental costs. The Rabbi is already in place, as is the community infrastructure to embrace the ba’al teshuva. While adding funds to a community outreach initiative certainly facilitates a more robust outreach program, such costs pale in comparison to the campus-young professional model. Moreover, a campus community must be built and rebuilt almost every year. Not only is this effort daunting, but it is further challenged by the inability to develop a local support system to help fund the program.

2. Event Costs. The campus and young professional model relies upon costly programming. Trips, seminars, fellowships, and other initiatives are expensive, yet are critical to sustaining an effective and successful program.

3. Pressure for Results. The pressure felt by those in the field to produce results risks compromising the idealism and spiritual focus and love that is integral to effective kiruv. We must marvel at the devotion of the families who dedicate their lives to the service of our unlettered brethren. However, we must maintain laser-like focus in evaluating tangible achievement over time. Especially considering the short window of opportunity before students inevitably move on, this results-based model can potentially ask too much of those in the field.

Adopting a Long-Term Vision

While both communal and campus kiruv are important, both approaches are expensive and demand a serious allocation of limited communal resources. In justifying the communal expenditure, the cost should be assessed as one would an initial investment in a start-up venture. After all, the returns on these investments will manifest in multiple manners, and in a leveraged growth for so many dimensions of an expanded and increasingly motivated Klal Yisrael.

For example, were it to cost $20,000 in communal funds[1]for the staffing and funding that leads to each ba’al teshuva who joins the Torah community, it would be an investment well spent. Even in the early stages of development, it is not unreasonable to project successful ventures that will allow for a significant infusion of baalei teshuva at the suggested cost.

Play it out one generation. In a mere twenty years, the individual is now married with a family, and is no longer one observant, committed Jew, but rather three or five, or more. With no need for a further infusion of kiruv funds, the next generation is now exponentially greater. Our initial kiruv investment has now been pared down to but a few dollars per affected Jew, and in return, the community enjoys askonim (activists), talmidei chachomim (Torah scholars), leaders in chessed (charitable work) and inspiration and families who have successfully integrated into the fabric of the Torah community. [2]

And that takes us back to the Met Life Stadium.

While support for our Torah institutions and schools must obviously be maintained, we must also include those “Not Yet Ba’alei Teshuva” among our priorities. With effective follow up, trends indicate that 400 of those 2,000 students and young professionals at the Siyum HaShas will go on to make major strides in limud hatorah (Torah study) and shmiras hamitzvos (mitzvah observance). In some of the more successful campus kiruv models, 25% of those who have effective follow up activities following initial meaningful Torah experiences such as Israel trips become Torah observant. The overwhelming majority of the 2,000 in attendance that night were participants on such a track.

As Chazal (our sages) have indicated, “elef nichnasu” – of every 1,000 students that enter the Beis HaMedrash (study hall), only a minority excels – but all of them grow from the experience.

Consequently, while it certainly makes sense to reach thousands in an attempt to prevent intermarriage, the proscribed portal of engagement must always include opportunity for a meaningful percentage to pursue far greater growth and limud haTorah.

The overwhelming majority may never achieve the goal of active Torah living but a natural by-product of effective informal Torah education is a dramatic decrease in intermarriage Among the over 40,000 non-observant students and young professionals involved in ongoing Torah study and other kiruv activities who have married, the intermarriage rate is under 2%.

One last thought. These reflections have focused on the kiruv efforts and investments likely to produce the greatest potential for long-term success, loosely defined as sustaining a Torah-true lifestyle. However, this cold and calculated assessment should not ignore or undermine the numerous mitzvos fulfilled in every kiruv encounter, regardless of ultimate results.

The inestimable value and merit of such efforts will certainly secure a special place in eternity for those toiling for Klal Yisroel, faithfully following the trail blazed by Avraham Avinu himself.

Rabbi Raphael B. Butler is the President of the Afikim Foundation.

1 Evaluating costs per student is always difficult. Were to develop a similar evaluation for the cost per 12 years of day school, mesivtos, kolelim, etc. we would immediately appreciate that priorities cannot be developed solely based on cost.

2 Though, in many instances, the integration process is far from smooth in the first generation, a review of the challenges and possible solutions is beyond the scope of this article.

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