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Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky

Klal Perspectives, A Review of Kiruv

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

Getting Back to Basics

IN ADDRESSING THE QUESTIONS posed in this issue, I will begin by identifying my basic assumptions about what outreach is intended to accomplish. On that basis, we can then assess whether interim targets and programs are aligned with the desired long-term goals. To paraphrase Stephen Covey: We must ensure that our systems are aligned with our values, and remember that we can’t talk ourselves out of problems that we are behaving ourselves into.

The Goal of Kiruv

A significant portion of the Jewish people has little if any Torah knowledge and even less connection to halachic observance, the two foundations of authentic Jewish life. The result is Jewish ignorance and Jewish apathy. This is the problem which kiruv seeks to solve. As such, the solution must necessarily be built on reintroducing Torah study and observance in a manner that is engaging, meaningful, inspiring – and authentic.

Not all outreach professionals and supporters, however, share this understanding of kiruv’s goal. Often, when funds are solicited for outreach, or people are recruited to engage in kiruv, the pitch is predicated on crisis. “Assimilation has taken (killed?) more Jews than Hitler.” “If Nazis were shooting Jews in the street, wouldn’t you drop everything to save them?” “In a decade or two it may be too late.” While one can view these declarations as mere hyperbole, they are often taken very seriously, and this attitude has informed many decisions in selecting among alternate kiruv strategies.

For those approaching outreach as a crisis-management response, the goal of kiruv is nothing less than ensuring the survival of the Jewish people. Every generation – and perhaps every day – that passes without reversing (or at least slowing) assimilation is one step closer to the disappearance of Jewry. In this view, kiruv must aim to address masses of Jews. The depth, and even the full authenticity, of the Judaism being proffered is far less significant than the number of people reached. I believe this view is seriously flawed.

Assimilation is wildly different than Jews being subject to death camps and pogroms. Jews shot in the street are lost forever. In such situations, we would certainly be required to do anything necessary, as quickly as possible to save the maximum number of helpless victims. By contrast, ignorant Jews are neither dead nor helpless, and even their assimilation is not irreversible. Witness the number of formerly intermarried couples who are today full ba’alei teshuva. Witness the even larger number of children of intermarried couples who are in ba’al teshuva Yeshivas today.[1] Non-observant Jews are very much alive, and always candidates for a return to authentic Judaism. If they are not interested, they have made a choice. We might wish they were better informed before making that choice. And if possible, we should find opportunities to make them better informed. But a refusal to become informed is also a choice. No one is shooting them in the streets.[2]

There is also a serious ideological flaw in this crisis mentality. It ignores the uniqueness of Klal Yisrael and the eternal covenant between the Almighty and our forefathers regarding the survival of the Jewish people. Three thousand years of Jewish history demonstrate the immutability of that covenant. We aren’t going to disappear, chas v’shalom.[3] A couple of simple examples from the past forty years can illustrate that the covenant is as valid as ever.

No one could have imagined that the Russian Jewry of the 1970’s could ever produce the numbers who, in the subsequent decades, would reclaim their Jewish identity and, in many cases, their observance. It was simply miraculous. Similarly, no one who grew up in the Orthodox community of Los Angeles in the 1960’s (as I did) would ever have dreamed about the number of daily minyanim, daf yomi classes, and kosher restaurants with which Los Angeles is today blessed.

The pintele yid, the eternal spark that resides in every Jew, and the eternal survival of the Jewish nation should give us the confidence to calm down, assume a long-term perspective, and select realistic and meaningful goals.

The primary goal of Orthodox outreach should be to enable individual Jews who did not grow up with Torah knowledge and observance to live an authentic, well balanced life of Torah and Mitzvos. Certainly, less lofty goals – preventing intermarriage, promoting pride in Judaism, and increasing support for Israel – are also important. But many Jewish groups are already focused on these goals. Our aim should be to fulfill our obligation to teach Torah to every Jew. This is a lofty goal, but it is also an authentic, Jewish goal. Teaching authentic Torah to individuals over an extended period of time has proven the most effective way to enable a Jew to grow into a balanced, confident observant Jew.[4]

Is the Opportunity for Effective Kiruv Dwindling?

It is commonly suggested that kiruv was easier twenty years ago. The conventional thesis to support this suggestion is that twenty years ago a significant number of Jewish college students and young professionals typically had at least a reform or conservative Jewish education, as well as a strong attachment to the State of Israel. They were already “in the game,” and the role of kiruv was to introduce them to increased levels of Jewish identity and observance. Today, there is less interest in Israel and things Jewish, particularly among Jewish collegiates, which makes kiruv more difficult and less effective.

This thesis may be true. But if it is, rather than justifying diminished results, it demands that we employ appropriate kiruv strategies.

First and foremost, resources should be focused on those students who grew up with a connection to Judaism of any sort, and who maintain an interest in furthering that connection. This includes both the apparently shrinking pool of those educated in Conservative and Reform day schools, along with the growing pool of the non- or partially-observant who attended Orthodox day schools and high schools.

When we look beyond this population to target students who grew up lacking any attachment to things Jewish, we should recognize the potential created by Birthright Israel, as have many kiruv programs and funders. Conceived and financed largely by secular Jews to enhance Jewish engagement and identity, Birthright has created a pool of tens of thousands of young Jews who return from their free trip to Israel excited about Israel and aware of their Jewish identity. The Birthright Israel experience doesn’t necessarily provide a connection to the religious dimension of that identity. But the great potential for igniting the missing religious dimension has been recognized by kiruv rabbis and funders, who have developed Birthright follow-up programs to tap into this enthusiasm.

Unfortunately, in the spirit of the crisis mentality discussed above, the kiruv follow up is constituted primarily of programs that pay students money to attend classes on Jewish leadership, Israel advocacy and “relationships,” rather than authentic Torah learning. The students are then provided with yet further free trips to Israel (and, amazingly, on occasion trips to South Africa, South America, or other exotic locations).[5] The goal of all these initiatives, of course, is for these students to be “influenced” to become observant. Moreover, to attract the largest numbers of students, these programs too often include Torah content that is watered down, if not eliminated entirely. Though they successfully avoid “scaring off” participants, they fail to provide sufficient resources for those students actually interested in religious growth, while having very little impact on the participants who don’t have that interest to begin with. Consultants call this “lose-lose.”

The ineffectiveness of this approach has been exacerbated by the decision to measure programmatic success by the number of new participants a campus or community rabbi recruits each semester. This criterion of success has created a serious catch-22 for anyone hoping to enhance the long-term religious growth of each participant. The rabbi who successfully attracts numerous participants, and in awakening some interest in religious growth, does not have the time he needs to continue working with them, since he needs to focus on recruiting even more new students. And insufficient recruiting of new participants can translate into diminished funding.

This frustration is expressed by countless people in the field. Too often, rabbis have been unable to build individual relationships and encourage long-term religious growth because of pressure to bring in new people. These frustrations reflect a system that rewards quantity rather than quality.

What is less well known are the complaints voiced by some program participants, themselves. Many young Jews whose interest in Judaism was enhanced by the “initial” programs complain that as they became increasingly observant, the rabbi/rebbetzin was less responsive, and less likely to return their calls or have enough time for them.

Donors to kiruv, and particularly those making significant financial investments, are eager to realize measurable results. But time has passed and the results of current strategies have begun to be evidenced; this methodology has simply failed to produce the expected results. It is now time to change course. Kiruv can surely recapture its effectiveness and produce much better results if the focus is reverted to the individual student, and appropriate Torah study becomes a major component of the programs. We will probably never achieve the massive numbers sought in the strategy encouraged by a “crisis” mentality. But, at least we are likely to realize significant numbers of young Jews assuming a sincere and substantive commitment to growth in Judaism.

Learning From the Business World

A common refrain among philanthropists is that charities, including kiruv organizations, should learn from the business world to identify goals and measure success. They draw on business practices and experience as a source of direction. I would like to do the same.

In 2005, Sprint and Nextel merged. Prior to the merger, Nextel had the industry’s highest customer retention rate, popularly attributed to excellent customer service. Sprint, by contrast, focused on attracting new customers (and sometimes even surreptitiously extending contracts of existing customers). Servicing existing customers and solving their problems just wasn’t among Sprint’s priorities.

Within three years of their merger, Sprint-Nextel almost went bankrupt. A 2008 Businessweek[6] article analyzed this deterioration. Quotes from disgruntled employees identified the reason for high customer attrition, “The 38-year-old who worked in a call center…says the numbers-driven management approach implemented after the combination led to poor morale and deteriorating customer service. Even bathroom trips were monitored. ‘They would micromanage us like children’… In the pre-merger Nextel, she had been judged based solely on the number of customer problems she solved, regardless of the time they consumed. In fact, she would occasionally spend up to 30 minutes resolving a particularly thorny issue. After the merger, by contrast, speed was the priority. ‘They would say, ‘your calls need to be shortened.’”

The evolution at American Express was quite different. Upon becoming Amex’s Executive Vice President of World Service in 2005, Jim Bush began a program to empower call center employees to “solve the problem, as long as it takes.” “Deepen customer relationships rather than make customers’ phone calls go faster.”[7] As he hoped, this program led to increased customer satisfaction, and long term customer retention. As opposed to Sprint employees, who were judged by how many calls they were able to handle per hour, how fast they could advance to the next customer, and whether they got customers to purchase new products, Amex focused on quality and developing customer relationships. The results are in: Amex surged and Sprint almost went bankrupt.

Currently, too much of outreach is dominated by strategies designed to rapidly bring in many new “customers”, while providing little of the long-term “customer service” that would nurture a valuable customer base, albeit more slowly.

Would it not be both welcome and compelling for a kiruv funder to ask, “How will the two hundred Jews you expect to attract be serviced if you spark their interest?” rather than the more typical “How can you expand your target to touching two thousand Jews instead of only two hundred?” If it is true that the number of non-Orthodox Jews interested in Judaism is dropping, perhaps this demand would rebound if outreach programs provided more and better “customer service” to those eagerly seeking this service, rather than pursuing Jews who are just not that interested.

The Yeshiva Model

What does proper “customer service” in kiruv look like?

A ba’al teshuvah entering the Orthodox world undergoes significant attitudinal and behavioral changes, which are accompanied by emotional, psychological and behavioral challenges. Healthy adjustment requires time, and it also requires support. Kiruv strategies and tactics must allow the developing ba’al teshuvah the time to grow at a responsible pace, ensuring that each step he takes is stable and that he is equipped to deal with the challenges of family, friends and his own upbringing. Outreach workers must be well trained, and afforded the time to provide that support.

Without additional cost, kiruv resources should be reallocated, with less spent on the front-line programs to “bring people in” and more invested on follow-up – learning with, and nurturing the long-term growth of, those who are interested. Proper follow-up requires well-trained kiruv professionals who will take a long-term perspective, relating to each person as an individual, working closely with them through each stage of their spiritual growth.

Too often, I hear from communal rabbis about the difficulties faced by ba’alei teshuvah who have joined their communities with only a rushed or incomplete kiruv process[8]. If the primary goal of Orthodox outreach is to enable an authentic, well-balanced life of Torah and Mitzvos, then the Jew with little Torah background must be provided with the foundations necessary to live that life.

Having been involved for over 35 years in Yeshivas and seminaries for ba’alei teshuva, and having educated and followed the progress of thousands of our students, I am perhaps biased in my belief that the requisite foundations for a full Torah life are best acquired by spending a significant period of time in an appropriate Yeshiva or seminary. But even for those who don’t have that opportunity, avenues must be introduced to provide these foundations. Otherwise, the kiruv effort cannot ensure the long-term success of its “front-line” efforts.

These foundations include:

  • The Ability to Learn Torah: This is essential for the ba’al teshuvah’s own growth, as well as to enable him or her to raise children who are motivated to take Torah study seriously. A ba’al teshuvah who lacks basic Torah-study skills is unlikely to devote meaningful time to learning, or spend time learning with his or her children. This would be tragic, since engaging in Torah study is essential – in maintaining one’s own connection with the Almighty, for continued mitzvah observance, and as a core element of transmitting Torah to one’s children. Especially in this area, “talking the talk without walking the walk” is a prescription for raising rebellious teenagers.
  • Observing Role Models for Jewish Marriage and Parenting: The Torah’s vision for family life is absolutely vital for every family, but it can only be learned from role models. And since a high percentage of ba’alei teshuva grow up in single parent homes, they often lack role models even for the basics of marriage and parenting. Moreover, their expectations of marriage and family life are significantly influenced by secular media, by family turmoil, or simply by a vivid imagination.
  • Interacting with real-life couples in real-life situations provides a basis from which to learn a Torah approach to family life. While in Yeshiva or seminary, students observe ongoing family interactions of their rabbeim and community families, seeing how typical observant Jewish families function and respond to ordinary family challenges. They receive guidance on how to raise FFB children, since a ba’al teshuvah‘s own experiences do not include appropriate parental reactions to a child missing minyan, for example, or not wanting to stay at the Shabbos table. Feedback from our alumni over 35 years has highlighted these experiences as playing a critical role in their own very successful marriages and families. In addition, of course, ba’al teshuvah yeshivas and seminaries must have classes devoted to marriage issues that are particularly relevant to their students.
  • The Ability to Grow Slowly… step by step, in an environment that is focused on long-term growth – without any distractions, but without undue pressure (not all yeshivas follow this model, but it is a proven secret of success for the long-term growth of the students.)
  • The Yeshiva Experience of Building a Community and Growing with Others over a Significant Period of Time: Our alumni report that the friendships forged during the year or two spent in the yeshiva or seminary were critical to their growth, and also served as a long-lasting network of support. The relationships one builds with others experiencing a similar process of growth are priceless, and are invariably treasured years and decades later.

For newly married couples, however, spending six to twelve months studying simultaneously in a Yeshiva and seminary is especially important. The impact on a marriage of this joint experience is inestimable. Beyond all the reasons mentioned above, this experience establishes the foundations of their lives in an environment of Torah study, enabling them to grow together, and make joint commitments to Jewish growth. In the American yeshiva community, the culture of spending the first year or two of marriage in kollel has become normative, even for those who will go on to school or professions. This practice reflects the recognition that commencing marriage on a foundation of Torah learning provides a long-term religious influence on the marriage and family. This opportunity is even more imperative for baalei teshuvah, as it enables them to create a Torah foundation for their marriage.

For many people, spending time in Yeshiva or seminary poses a great challenge, especially for those in the midst of their careers, and even more so if they are already married. But it should be made a priority whenever possible, and funders should recognize the critical importance of this experience to the long-term success of kiruv.

A Final Suggestion for Campuses

One final suggestion for campus life is to foster greater interaction on campus between the Orthodox students and their rabbis on the one hand, and the outreach rabbis and their students on the other hand. On some campuses, there is currently a tension between JLIC[9] rabbis, who service the Orthodox students, and the outreach rabbis who are focused on servicing students who grew up with no commitment to mitzvah observance. Sometimes, outreach rabbis view the Modern Orthodox students on secular campuses as either not that inspired, not that observant or simply poor role models for their presently non-observant students and emerging ba’alei teshuva. Unfortunately, there are Orthodox students who fit that mold. But in the larger scheme of things, I see the Orthodox student body as a hidden resource that can enhance the long-term effectiveness of campus kiruv.

Moreover, the religious commitment of the Orthodox students can actually be enhanced through interaction with the community of those who are interested, though not observant. I base this on my experiences of the past thirty-five years, and that of our students who became ba’alei teshuvah well before there were official kiruv rabbis on campus. At that time, the Orthodox students were a natural address for non-observant Jews looking for more authenticity in their Judaism. This led to a wonderful synergy of growth. The Orthodox students became role models for the emerging ba’alei teshuva, who could see through their peers that mitzvah observance was relevant and meaningful, and who could experience through them the value of community in Orthodox life. It also allowed for the preferred process of slow, organic growth.

Today, there are some kiruv rabbis whose presentation of “authentic Orthodoxy” is naturally limited to their own personal style, one that may not be realistic or appropriate for many developing ba’alei teshuva. Facilitating interaction with a broad range of FFB’s would show a breadth of Torah Judaism, and illustrate to the potential ba’al teshuvah that the significant life changes he is considering are actually quite doable. Meanwhile, the enthusiasm and the need for increased Torah learning on the part of the ba’alei teshuvah can serve to inspire and motivate many of the Orthodox students to be more serious in their Torah observance, and to take responsibility to help fellow Jews in their Torah growth.

While much has changed on campus, I still believe that increased cooperation between these two communities would serve the interests of both groups, resulting in many more well balanced and committed Torah observant Jews.

Isn’t that the ultimate goal of kiruv?

Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky is co-founder and Dean of Shapell’s/Darche Noam and Midreshet Rachel v’Chaya in Jerusalem. He has been involved in the education of English speaking Ba’alei Tshuva for 35 years, and has over 3,000 graduates.

[1] Currently, less than 70% of the students enrolled in our Yeshiva and seminary (Shapell’s/Darche Noam and Midreshet Rachel v’Chaya) have two Jewish parents. This number has been steadily dropping over the past few years.

[2] If you want a sharper illustration of my point, ask yourself the following question: Who is the victim you are trying to save from “death” (i.e. assimilation or intermarriage), and who is the perpetrator of this “murder” from whom you are trying to save him?

[3] See Sanhedrin 97b about how G-d ensures that Moshiach will come even if we don’t do the requisite teshuva. And many commentaries on the two tochachas (rebukes), Devarim Ch. 28 and Vayikra Ch. 26 about the role of tragedies and exile to ensure that the Jewish people never stray from Torah completely.

[4] And it also has been shown to prevent intermarriage, promote pride in Judaism, and increase support for Israel!

[5] The problematic nature of these “Learn and earn” type programs, paying people to do something that should be done for its own sake, has been shown in many studies to lead to diminished participation and motivation. See the books The Gift Relationship by Richard Titmuss, The Hidden Cost of Reward by Mark Lepper and David Greene, and the 2008 article “Crowding Out in Blood Donation,” by Melsstrom and Johanesson. Paying someone to do something creates the perception that there must be a cost associated with doing it. While some justify it by comparing these programs to the providing of stipends for Kollel studies, this comparison is flawed on many levels, but is beyond the scope of what can be discussed here.

[6] Sprint’s Wake Up Call, Spencer E. Ante, Businessweek Feb. 20, 2008

[7] “Can I Help You?”, Fortune Magazine, April 30, 2012

[8] Even well-prepared baalei teshuva will need ongoing guidance once they join a new Orthodox community. I therefore believe the outreach community should focus their attention on placing qualified people in every Orthodox community, with the mandate to spend time learning with and nurturing the growth of ba’alei teshuva. Community kollelim satisfy this need in certain towns, but there are not enough of them. This needs to become a top priority in our new focus on “customer service.”

[9] A program of the OU to place rabbinic couples on campuses with significant Orthodox enrollment to support these students over their four-year stay in a secular university environment. This developed in response to the significant number of students who had been through twelve years of Orthodox Day School, a year or two in Yeshiva in Israel, and were leaving university non-observant.

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