Rabbi Shraga Simmons
Klal Perspectives, A Review of Kiruv
To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.
Outreach & Inreach: Casting a World Wide Net
THERE IS A BASIC FLAW in the question, “Should preferential resources be allocated to inreach or to outreach?” This implies contradictory solutions – that somehow, frum and non-frum Jews operate in separate universes.
Rav Noach Weinberg, zt”l, founder of Aish HaTorah, had a plan for the Jewish people that was all-inclusive and holistic: Draft the frum world into doing kiruv and accomplish both goals simultaneously.
First, for the frum community, kiruv provides a front-row view of secular Jews being drawn to Yiddishkeit. Beyond the dose of inspiration, the imperative to reach out persuades a frum person to examine his own relationship with Torah and mitzvos – adding vitality, energy and enthusiasm to his household and community.
Second, the more kiruv that’s being done, the more baalei teshuva (BTs) join the frum community. BTs bring “added value” by financially supporting schools, shuls and chessed organizations, while infusing the frum world with fresh ideas and vitality. All this continues to play a major role in the renaissance of Torah Judaism in America today.
Which makes this a win-win holistic cycle that is in many ways self-sustaining and perpetuating.
Back in the 1970s, Rav Noach developed a strategy that he called “Awaken the Sleeping Giant” – to mobilize the frum community to reach out to the masses of unaffiliated American Jews. Rav Noach knew that if left to “kiruv professionals,” the funding needed to hire the necessary army of rabbis was completely unrealistic – aside from the challenge of even finding that many rabbis. The only practical way to reach masses of secular Jews, he concluded, is to build a grassroots movement of frum Jews pre-primed with the knowledge and commitment to Yiddishkeit.
As such, Aish HaTorah’s goal was never to be an organization of kiruv professionals, but rather a consortium of “partners” – laypeople, donors, shul rabbis – empowered to take responsibility for helping to accomplish the greater mission.
Initially, the frum world was less than receptive; they simply didn’t believe that kiruv could succeed. So Rav Noach implemented Plan B: being mekarev secular Jews who – knowing the feasibility – naturally would become kiruv leaders.
After 40 years of kiruv success, the message finally sank in for the frum community. At last, in 2007, Aish launched Project Inspire with Rav Noach’s original goal of training frum Jews to reach out – i.e., to be mekarev frum mekarvim.
The plan appears to be working. Project Inspire weekend conventions have energized thousands of frum people, giving them a boost to transmit enthusiasm to their families and others. Over 7,000 people have attended a Project Inspire Kiruv Training Seminar, learning how to answer common kiruv questions and how to avoid kiruv blunders. Based on this training, many hundreds have signed up to learn one-on-one with a non-frum partner.
This has spawned tens of thousands of meaningful interactions with non-frum neighbors, friends and co-workers. One chassidishe woman has inspired a dozen people to accept Shabbos observance, while another has brought more than 100 women to learn in Israel. After attending a Project Inspire event several years ago, the “Traveling Chassidim” now visit communities across North America, sharing the beauty of Shabbos with Jews of all backgrounds.
Highly respected rabbis in America have concluded that the most effective way to do “community inreach” – i.e. to keep the frum community inspired – is to get them involved in outreach. By seeing the incredible affect that one Shabbos dinner has on a non-frum Jew, children and adults alike gain greater appreciation for their own Yiddishkeit.
Herein lies the key, self-generating mechanism: Kiruv success depends on the mekarev himself appreciating the power of Torah.
Furthermore, with laypeople volunteering the work, the entire enterprise is highly cost-effective. Today, lay-driven outreach communities in Brooklyn, Queens, the Five Towns, Monsey, Teaneck and Toronto exist with virtually no overhead. The primary “cost” is to provide these people with user-friendly tools such as “Easy Outreach Packages” that combine an inspirational message with Rosh Hashanah honey, Chanukah candles or mishloach manos. Significantly, the per-unit cost of producing such items decreases as more people get involved.
Casting the Net
When it comes to reaching secular Jews, the most potent method is to find them where they are: online.
With their higher-than-average education and income, Jews are more highly connected to the Internet than the general population. In Israel, for example, 77% of Jews have Internet access and over 50% use Facebook (internetworldstats.com). With today’s ubiquitous mobile devices, secular people are connected 24/7 – checking news, engaging in work activities, shopping and communicating with friends.
Online kiruv, however, requires a different strategy than traditional kiruv. First of all, there’s no cholent to help warm things up J. But the real challenge is that in casting a wide net, there’s no way to know precisely who’s picking up the message. Families? Young professionals? College kids? Seniors? Men or women? Is the person affiliated-but-not-frum? Unaffiliated, yet with a proud Jewish identity? Perhaps apathetic, barely maintaining a blip of Jewish identification? Or worse, negative about their Judaism?
In my 15 years at Aish.com, I’ve had the unique opportunity of reaching out to all these groups simultaneously. We use a mixture of articles and videos (20,000 of them!) on spirituality, current events, dating advice, parenting advice, teen advice, recipes, Jewish holidays, Holocaust studies, Israel updates and even Jewish humor. We cast a global “inter-net” – offering something for everyone.
The net is cast widest for young, disengaged Jews with near-zero interest in Judaism. It’s a big challenge to step out of our mindset and figure out precisely “where they’re at.” In today’s media-saturated world, it’s an even bigger challenge to create a product that attracts their attention.
It is said that “the medium is the message,” and young people today rely increasingly on videos for their information and inspiration. So in addition to written content, Aish.com produces short online films – creative, unique clips that are cool and entertaining. And we aim for viral power – the “wow” that motivates viewers to forward it on to their friends. Of course, all this is done with the guidance of the Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah and other poskim, with whom we frequently consult.
The Almighty has blessed us, and in one year, we produced three consecutive multi-million-view films. It began with “Google Exodus,” which told the Passover story as if Moses and Pharaoh had the use of modern Internet tools. The film was a smashing success, viewed online over 2 million times. Beyond this, it was exposed to millions of viewers via the mainstream media – on NBC’s Today Show and later at a number of Jewish film festivals. The Hebrew version placed second on Israel’s list of top Internet videos of the year.
We followed up with “Rosh Hashanah Rock Anthem,” which showed professional dancers (dressed as yeshiva students) break-dancing around the Jewish Quarter. This certified hit (over 2 million views) was featured in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and on popular television dance shows, where one secular (and apparently Jewish) host declared: “A yarmulke never looked so good!” Aish.com’s next music video, for Chanukah, also registered over 2 million views.
Once we achieve this point of contact, the next step is to provide a segue to an ongoing relationship in the form of email subscriptions. Currently over 400,000 people receive Aish.com emails at least twice a week – plugging into meaningful Jewish content in four languages (English, Hebrew, Spanish, and French).
Although a frum person might find some of these films vapid or meaningless, they are truly inspiring for the not-yet-frum Jew. As evidenced by the thousands of comments, these films break down the misconception that Judaism is all about restriction and misery. When unaffiliated Jews see frum Jews who are upbeat and celebrating life, it is a paradigm shift – a complete revamping of their prior perception of Torah Judaism as “antiquated and irrational.”
Beyond this, we strive to inject the videos with a meaningful message. The Rosh Hashanah dance film, for example, touts the importance of cheshbon hanefesh (soul searching) and teshuva: “Taking stock is what we do tonight… Let’s all get written in the Book of Life.” Some viewers, like one fellow in Philadelphia, showed up at Aish’s High Holiday services solely on the basis of having seen the Rosh Hashanah film.
Another positive outcome: By appealing to all strata of Jews, these films help build a critically important bridge between the secular and religious. The mainstream press in Israel – traditionally quite anti-religious – loves the uplifting messages and the fact that a yeshiva cares to reach out and inspire the public. Ynet, the number one source for Israeli news, featured our Rosh Hashanah film on their home page, hailing it as “Judaism that speaks to everyone.”
Of the million-plus monthly visits to Aish.com, we regard each one as a kiruv success. We learn this from the epiphany of Rebbe Akiva at the rock: Though it seemed that each drop of water was having no impact, in reality, over time those drops completely transformed the rock. Similarly with Torah, Rebbe Akiva concluded that every drop is significant, though the transformation takes time to manifest. Every bit we do to “move the needle” – in the direction of Jewish pride, Jewish knowledge, Jewish consciousness – is a success. As marketing guru Seth Godin says: The goal isn’t always to close the sale, any more than the goal of a first date is to get married. Rather, the goal is to move forward, to earn trust and curiosity and conversation.
The overarching goal of our website is to provide an entry point for deeper engagement. Once we get people’s attention, it’s just a click away to the treasure trove of Torah-based content, such as our introductory-level “Toras Chaim,” which consists of hot current topics with a “Jewish spin.” For example, when polarization characterized the 2012 U.S. presidential election, we offered Jewish lessons for unity and understanding. And when General David Petraeus admitted to infidelity, we used that as a launching pad to discuss the Torah concept of yichud (i.e., prescriptions about men and women being along together). The thousands who read these and other articles come away with the sense that Torah is insightful, practical, rational, relevant and compelling – providing real solutions for modern-world problems.
One of our recent innovations is online chat – what I call the “virtual shoulder tap.” A box pops up on the user’s screen, and an Aish rabbi is there to engage in one-on-one dialogue. As a testament to the power of frontline Internet kiruv, we successfully encouraged a spiritually growing Jew in Georgia to join a frum community, and persuaded a man in southern Europe to go study in yeshiva.
The kiruv jackpot is shmiras hamitzvos, and as a stepping-stone we developed the JewishPathways.com advanced learning site, offering self-paced multi-media courses on Hilchos Shabbos, Hilchos Brachos, Jewish History, Derech Hashem, mussar and more.
Of course, nothing can ever substitute for personal contact. That is why we constantly try to connect people with phone chavrusas (study partners) and Shabbos placements. We’ve benefited from the presence of Aish branches and kiruv kollels in so many cities worldwide – facilitating our ability to elevate people beyond the online experience into a personal relationship with a rabbi or rebbetzin who can follow up carefully and guide their Jewish growth.
Aish.com also benefits from the appreciation – shared by secular Jews – that Jerusalem is the center of the Jewish world. It is no coincidence that the baal teshuva movement – its great yeshivas and most rabbinical training – has historically been centered in Jerusalem. In that way, Aish.com is uniquely positioned, with our offices located directly opposite the Western Wall and a 24-hour “Wall-cam” that has registered 33 million visitors. Nothing quite matches the impact of learning Torah at the center of Jewish destiny, and the spectacular new Aish building allows us to extend invitations to come learn overlooking the Kotel – a place that touches every pintele Yid (i.e., the spark in every Jewish soul).
Winning the War
Since we rarely meet face-to-face with our readers, it can be challenging to get a sense of the impact we’re having. I recently ran into a friend in Jerusalem who introduced me to the woman he was with. She surprised me by saying: “I have to thank you. I was living in Iowa, far from any Jewish community. I started visiting Aish.com and got more interested in Judaism. I began keeping kosher and Shabbat, and now I’ve moved to Israel to pursue my studies full-time.”
Thank G-d, our efforts appear to be paying off. In a reader survey, 86% said that Aish.com has inspired them to more Torah learning, and 75% said that Aish.com has led them to increased synagogue attendance and/or Jewish affiliation.
One of the most exciting aspects of our work is reaching Jews in far-flung places. One reader visited a synagogue in Mumbai, India for Shabbat services, and found Aish.com parsha sheets being distributed and used as the basis for group discussion. We receive frequent emails from teachers (both Jew and Gentile) who use our Holocaust section as their high school curriculum. And I can’t even count the number of times someone has told me that their Reform or Conservative rabbi quoted Aish.com in a sermon.
Still, there is so much more we can do. For example, “TED” is a hugely popular online series of riveting 10-minute talks, proving that Internet users are willing to invest real time to watch something of quality and substance. Yet where is the Torah version? We already have an array of truly unforgettable speakers who are able to masterfully articulate Torah content. Bringing them together in a top-tier Jewish version of TED could be a real breakthrough in our efforts to reach intelligent, discriminating Jews.
Other untapped markets are waiting to be filled such as a comprehensive women’s site and a 20-something site driven by mobile-friendly video content.
Implementing these projects requires money, manpower and thinking out of the box. Rav Noach always said: If we’re serious about winning this war, we need to come up with a $20 million game plan and a dozen home-run ideas. He compared our challenge to someone whose child, G-d forbid, is terminally ill. Since the parent loves that child so much and is desperate to save him, highly experimental avenues will be explored. The parent stays up day and night, pursuing every possible avenue, stopping at nothing. Rav Noach said: “Even if people call you crazy, it’s crazier to just stand by.”
People are drowning spiritually right before our eyes, and even those of us involved in full-time kiruv have a tendency to get “comfortable.” Rav Noach would pound his fist and say: “If we’re concerned with the Almighty’s honor, we must care for his children. There’s a holocaust going on!”
It’s not so easy to live with that as a constant reality. So in 2006, Rav Noach took a group of sixty Aish rabbis to Poland, to confront the physical Holocaust of the last generation in order to become more real with the spiritual holocaust of the current generation. Rav Noach implored us – and wrote in his tzava’a (ethical will) – to sit on the floor for 10 minutes each day and ponder what else we can do to protect kavod Shamayim (the honor of Heaven).
The sad reality is that kiruv is operating in a vanishing market. Sixty-nine percent of children in intermarried families are being raised as non-Jews (Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011), and only 15% of children of intermarried couples marry Jews (1990 and 2000 National Jewish Population Studies).
Are we doing enough to counteract this crisis? There are approximately 1,500 kiruv professionals in North America (“The Need for Community-wide Outreach,” Binah magazine, 2008). Assuming that each of them touches 100 people in a significant way, reaching 150,000 Jews, there would still be over 4 million unaffiliated Jews in North America not being reached. Even with some 30,000 frum people actively involved with Project Inspire, the output is still far short of what’s needed.
I once asked Rav Noach: “How do we keep on fighting if we’re losing the war?” He responded: “What is lost is lost. We need to learn from that, keep looking forward, and focus on those we can still save.”
In the face of the Jewish genocide during World War II, it took years of pressure to arouse the American government out of its complacency. Yet nobody thought to suggest, “Let’s give up because Polish Jewry has already been murdered.” No! In the final year, the War Refugee Board was created and a few hundred thousand Hungarian Jews were saved.
Today, assimilation and intermarriage cause tens of thousands of Jews to be lost to Klal Yisrael each year. Yet these tragic losses do not exempt us from the responsibility to do whatever we can to reach those Jews who remain. The Jewish people are one and we don’t give up on anyone.
Which brings us back to the frum community, who recognize the magnitude of the chillul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s name) of 90% of the Almighty’s children who are “off the derech.” Of the many available tools for reaching out, Aish.com is perhaps the simplest and most effective. Every click in the right direction creates a synergy whereby frum people turn on others and as a consequence themselves.
All Jews are Hashem’s precious children, and every drop in the effort to save even a single Jew is a success.