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Rabbi Steve Burg & Dovid Bashevkin

Klal Perspectives, A Review of Kiruv

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

Stuff People Say about Jewish Outreach: Toward an Assessment of the Contemporary Outreach Movement

IN APRIL 2012, A JEWISH outreach organization posted a humorous video on YouTube portraying, quite cleverly, the reservations many Orthodox Jews harbor about the outreach movement[1]. Comical satires of individuals within the yeshiva community pose questions, laden with yeshivish jargon, about the merits of Jewish outreach. One character wonders, “You think you’re so shtark (religiously resolute) that you’re ready to work on others?” Another character, a convincing Jewish woman were it not for the beard, insists that the Jewish outreach organization, “should be paying my kids tuition before they are paying those kids.” The video has been viewed nearly forty thousand times, not an insignificant number for a viral video in the Orthodox Jewish community.

While clearly intended for entertainment and marketing purposes, the video reflects innate, yet typically unspoken frustrations felt by many observant Jews. The video’s amusing questions raise some very real and very serious questions about the focus, methodology, and future of Jewish outreach – issues in desperate need of careful analysis.

“You think by being mekarev people, that you’re “tooing uf (accomplishing)?!? You’re going to get them to become yeshivalite (yeshiva students)?! You’re going to get them to learn in kollel?!”

 – Kiruv satire video[2]

Measuring Success in Jewish Outreach

Return on Investment (ROI), cost-benefit analysis (CBA), and many other terms normally reserved for financial analysis of for-profit institutions have begun to creep into the lexicon of the more sophisticated and advanced not-for-profit institutions[3]. As not-for-profit professionals are increasingly graduates of advanced education programs in sophisticated schools, and as philanthropists increasingly seek returns on their charitable investments beyond a warm feeling or being honored at a dinner, charitable institutions increasingly conduct careful analysis of their efforts and strategy. Recently, compelled by the leadership of a few justifiably demanding mega-funders of outreach, coupled with the recent economic downturn, the scope and focus of the outreach movement has begun to be put under more scrutiny.

Investment analysis as it relates to Jewish outreach is uniquely ambiguous since, in contrast to most other non-profits, such as a soup-kitchen or a scholarship fund, its target outcome is markedly non-monetary, namely religious growth. A soup kitchen has a clear, quantifiable goal – feeding the needy. A scholarship fund measures its success primarily by the academic achievements of the students it supports. What then is the measure of success in the world of outreach? Alas, outreach suffers from certain evaluation handicaps that do not apply to many other charitable ventures. While social service agencies and academic institutions can employ objective and measurable criteria to gauge effectiveness (at least to some degree), outreach works in the elusive and esoteric realm of souls – and how can the holiness of a soul be measured?

Some argue that the prime objective of outreach should be preventing intermarriage, while others assert that merely preventing an intermarriage, without an attendant commitment by the individual to Torah observance, merely delays the inevitable intermarriage to the next generation, hardly justifying the communal investment. Others suggest that the sole legitimate objective of outreach is creating fully observant Jews, even if there are numerous intermediate steps in the process. Many find middle ground, suggesting that an increase in Jewish commitment is a major and significant accomplishment for the Jewish people, from both a spiritual and a sociological perspective.

Setting aside which criteria of success one chooses to apply, it has become increasingly recognized that choosing some criteria, with identifiable objectives, enhances productivity and effectiveness. Whichever criteria one chooses, it is critical that outreach supporters and participants be acculturated to immediately identifying the goals of each initiative and being fully committed to review and assessment of achievement and failure.

NCSY has recognized the importance of self-evaluation and data-based assessment. Over the past several years, NCSY has introduced a database for use across the country, giving its leaders the opportunity to analyze data patterns from many locations, and to weigh the relative merits and challenges of its many programs and initiatives.

In August of 2012, Dan Hazony, the Director of Information Systems for NCSY, published an honest appraisal of NCSY’s efforts at data collection to measure and improve its outreach efforts in an article entitled, “Using Quantitative Data to Lead Qualitative Conversations.”[4] Mr. Hazony, who has overseen our database since it began monitoring Shabbaton attendance and as it expanded afterwards to monitor all walk-ins, admits that maintaining such a database can be a “confusing and daunting task.” Specifically, even after overcoming the difficulties of setting up a basic infrastructure, our system still struggles with widespread acceptance and compliance by our staff. Overall, as Mr. Hazony mentions, even considering its flaws, the database has been a tremendous help for our organizational growth.

The primary advantage of data collection is that it helps distinguish realism from delusion within the outreach movement. In both for-profit and non-profit industries, there is a propensity to overstate numbers, a malady that certainly has not escaped the outreach movement. Most likely a product of the tension between objectivity and the need to raise money, many outreach professionals provide numbers that tend to be exaggerated. Data collection, aside from allowing clear presentation of actual quantitative measures, such as program attendance, helps prevent the incentive for external exaggeration from becoming internal delusion. Even when outreach professionals may “round up” when describing their attendance numbers to donors, having the actual numbers helps keep internal discussions regarding programmatic successes honest and accurate. More honest internal discussions can and should lead to more accurate and honest discussions in the marketing and philanthropic sphere, as well.

The primary disadvantage, however, relates to the shift in focus that is often caused by a data-driven outreach movement. As mentioned earlier, the readily quantifiable aspects of outreach, such as attendance, are not the essence of what outreach purports to accomplish. While some organizations use modified language such as “Jewish identity” and “engagement” to more accurately align with quantitative outreach measures, there is no true quantitative measure that can reflect qualitative religious growth. Programmatic attendance, with all of its advantages, is also a dangerous proxy for monitoring religious development. Outreach professionals, in fear of the financial repercussions that may result from an unsatisfactory answer to the all-too-ubiquitous donor question, “how many people came?,” can dangerously skew their outreach efforts to focus on quantity at the expense of quality. We may never be able to accurately quantify religious growth, but we need to be extremely cautious when using surrogate measures, lest outreach becomes more about event planning than religious education.

How much money do you need to make a baal teshuva?” – Kiruv video

Choosing the Optimum Outreach Constituency

Once criteria of success are selected, another decision that an outreach initiative must consider is what age group and what demographic is most appropriate to focus upon. Should outreach focus on teenagers? College students? Young couples? Should American children and families be the focus, or perhaps Israelis, Russians or Bucharians living in our locale? Each potential market should ideally be the subject of a thorough CBA calculating which demographic yields the most successful outreach “return.”

The sole focus of NCSY outreach is teenagers. Without a rigorous CBA evaluating each potential demographic, we could not honestly present conclusive evidence that these are the most beneficial years for outreach efforts. We can, however, present our reasoning for why NCSY has chosen, for over half a century, to focus its outreach efforts exclusively on teenagers.

Erik Erikson (1902-1994), the famed German psychologist, proposed nine stages in psychological development. He singled out adolescence as years characterized by the over-arching question of self-definition and exploration[5]. The volatility and uncertainty surrounding this stage of development have not been lost on psychologists. Dr. James Marcia, a student of Erikson’s, once remarked that “studying identity in adolescents is not a task for the methodologically hypersensitive.”[6] Nevertheless, echoing much of the consensus of the psychological community, Dr. Marcia concluded that proper resolution of the issues raised during this stage of development is crucial for long-term emotional stability. Commenting on the importance of identity formation during adolescence, Dr. Marcia wrote, “…it is an educationally and clinically useful concept. Individuals do better and feel better about themselves and others when they “have” it (i.e., a well formed identity).”[7]

The centrality of identity formation during adolescence is not underestimated by the psychological community and it certainly should not be ignored by outreach professionals. Outreach is an exercise in the presentation of religious principles and ideas, and the introduction of a lifestyle and of life values that will likely form the basis of a student’s broader identity. A married couple may have the independence to make long-term decisions, and college students often exhibit enormous intellectual curiosity. But during no period in human development is identity formation as much in play as it is during adolescence.

Identity formation during adolescence also plays a central role in Jewish thought and practice. The Jewish teenage years are bookended, by the Bar or Bat Mitzvah on one side, when a child accepts responsibility to participate in normative Jewish practice, and by one’s twentieth birthday on the other side, when one becomes halakhically accountable for one’s actions –what is called a bar onshin [8]. In Jewish law, the teenage years bridge responsibility and accountability. Adolescence is the period during which the Torah expects people to consider their values and ideals and take responsibility for their decisions. Only at the age of twenty, when the formation of one’s identity is complete, is one ready to become accountable for those commitments and responsibilities.

“You think of yourself so shtark (strong) that you’re ready to work on others??” – Kiruv video

The Positive Externalities of Jewish Outreach

Debates may rage regarding the effectiveness and productivity of the outreach movement, but we must recognize that outreach is integral not just to the Orthodox community but to Orthodox identity. A suffering outreach movement cuts deeply into the very fabric of Orthodox identity and the quality of the Orthodox personality. The community’s character is compromised, and its integral values of sensitivity, altruism, and unity are undermined.

For a moment, imagine Orthodoxy without a strong outreach movement. In such a world, in a community with no welcome center, how would the Orthodox community genuinely reflect a true concern for the well-being of every Jew? An Orthodox community without outreach is like a hotel without a front desk. While certain guests may be fortunate to have rooms, the unavailability of new check-ins will eventually result in those inside shunning and ignoring their brethren without decent lodging.

Robert Wilson, one of the pioneers of nuclear physics, was once summoned to testify before a Congressional committee to defend a recent multi-million dollar expenditure his lab had made for physics research. When pressed by congress to explain what his work had to do with national security, he famously responded, “It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”[9]

Jewish outreach, while certainly contributing to the utilitarian “defense” of Jewry, makes our community worth defending. Outreach underscores the values and character that must be endemic to a truly religious society and it embodies the sensitivity and vision of a unified Jewish community – a vitally important expression of who we are that is sadly overlooked in discussions regarding the merits of outreach in the Jewish community.

The current strength of the Orthodox community, while remarkable, can easily obscure how important it is for our community to have open doors. Many members of the community feel confident and comfortable with the size and scope of our community. But for those who doubt the actual practical advantage of a Jewish outreach movement, they must understand that a Jewish community that does not reach out to the broader Jewish world may not be worth defending.

“Here you have an organization that is going to be m’kavrev rechokim (bring close those who are far) and m’rachek krovim (make distant those who are close).”  – Kiruv video

Organizational Challenges and Future Possibilities for Outreach Organizations

Most professionals will acknowledge that much of their expertise is accumulated on the job, as well as from continuing education once they have a more direct and sophisticated appreciation for their profession and its challenges. Schooling is vital, but continuing training is equally important. A doctor spends years as a resident and fellow learning how to diagnose. A lawyer is hardly ready to stand before court after passing the bar exam. Their primary professional development comes as a result of their professional experiences and opportunities. What, then, are the professional skills and areas of expertise that are being strategically developed among outreach professional after they are fully engaged in their profession? Sadly, the answer is not enough. This is a symptom of perhaps the greatest challenge to the continued success and effectiveness of outreach – a crisis of quality in the field’s human capital.

Like other ambitious enterprises, NCSY finds it increasingly difficult to attract high quality candidates into its professional ranks. While it may initially be assumed that the absence of high quality candidates is due to the lack of interest in outreach by more sophisticated and learned candidates, in fact, that is not the case. To be sure, NCSY and most outreach professionals exhibit a great deal of passion and dedication, but as a community, we have failed at providing them the skills to develop long-term careers in outreach or in other areas of Jewish communal work.

While programs such as Ner L’Elef, Ohr Lagolah and others have made enormous strides in preparing young people for a career in outreach, once the career begins, the opportunities for further training and career development suddenly vanishes. Few organizations, if any, provide training programs and even fewer help finance higher education to advance the outreach professional’s skill set and long-term career options.

After a few years of outreach work, what new skills have the outreach professionals learned? At NCSY, the most capable develop valuable fundraising skills, some learn marketing techniques, and others grow in Torah scholarship, but too many remain exactly at the same point professionally as they were when they started. A career in outreach should be attractive to the most creative, passionate and innovative of our community’s young people – and it can be. But the kiruv community must affirmatively and deliberately introduce a career path that deems the option to be attractive and inviting.

Many outreach jobs, and particularly those dealing with high school students and collegiates, are appropriate to someone in their twenties, thirties and sometimes forties. But rare is the sixty-five year old who can gracefully dance on a table at a shabbaton, or engage a smoke-filled frat group on a Saturday night. In order to attract those who could be superstars at earlier career stages, they must be convinced that their initial job description will be followed by opportunities in other roles when they are ready to move on. Invariably, this will require investing in continuing education programs.

If we hope to create substantive baalei teshuva, we first need to commit ourselves to more substantive outreach professionals. A broad effort to service those in the field of outreach could potential result in a new generation of educators, fundraisers, and marketing gurus who would be able to present the relevancy of Torah, not only to those unaffiliated, but within our community as well.

Instead, too often, outreach professionals are cast aside once they are perceived as “too old” to relate to the overwhelmingly youthful constituents within outreach movements. Aside from breeding a regrettable amount of ill-will among outreach professionals, the movement is ignoring what could potentially be a fantastic long term investment for the Jewish community. A career in outreach is not for everybody, but we need to provide more development opportunities so it can transform the people it attracts into “somebody’s.”

“Where are all of the baalei teshuva? Have you ever saw one?” – Kiruv video

Concluding Thoughts on the Present and Future of Jewish Outreach

Despite the difficulties and limitations that force our community to make difficult decisions about educational focus and financial allocations, ultimately, within the greater scope of Jewish history, these are decisions that are positive reflections of the relative wealth, independence, and prominence of the contemporary American Jewish community. Though the spiritual stakes are very real, we owe a sincere debt of gratitude that our physical existence is no longer as precarious as it is in many other venues and as it was in previous generations. Although this physical comfort may have contributed to the spiritual difficulties that confront our community, it should also facilitate the consideration of communal problems with greater clarity and focus. The matter is quite urgent, but our conclusions must be carefully considered and deliberate.

In an ideal world, we would have a community that can focus on the entire gamut of demographics in their outreach efforts. Sadly, our world is not ideal. But a non-ideal world does not mean that we should compromise on our most essential ideals as a religious community. Regardless of our financial state or political situation, outreach must remain a part of our communal agenda in the final analysis simply because it is a part of our historical tradition. Echoing Robert Wilson’s aforementioned testimony, outreach must continue if we are to remain a broad and sensitive religious community that is worth defending.

Rabbi Steve Burg has worked as a kiruv professional for NCSY for 22 years, serving as the International Director of NCSY for the last seven. Rabbi Burg will be leaving NCSY on January 1 to join the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Dovid Bashevkin is Associate Director of Education for National NCSY.

1 Stuff People Say about Oorah (from a ‘fan’ of Oorah), OorahKR. April 30, 2012.

[2] All references are to the above-mentioned video

[3] For one notable reference, see Steve Rothchild, The Non Nonprofit: For-Profit Thinking for Nonprofit Success, Josey-Bass, (San Francisco, CA: 2012)

[4] Dan Hazony, August 15, 2012, “Using Quantitative Data to Lead Qualitative Conversations.” eJewishPhilanthropy. Retrieved November 22, 2012,

[5] See Erikson’s Identity: Youth and Crisis, New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1968. See also Identity and the Life Cycle, New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1980. See also his article “Youth: Fidelity and Diversity,” Daedalus Vol. 117, No. 3, Three Decades of “Dædalus” (Summer, 1988), pp. 1-24.

[6] James E. Marcia, “Identity in Adolescence,” Handbook of Adolescent Psychology, J. Adelson (ed.), New York: Wiley and Sons

[7] Ibid.

[8] See Talmud Shabbos 89b. A broader discussion of this halakhic principle is outside of the scope of our discussion, but is discussed by many Talmudic commentaries and Responsa. In particular, see Responsa Chacham Tzvi #49, Responsa of the Noda Beyehuda Basra YD #164, Responsa of Chasam Sofer YD #155, and Responsa of Tzitz Eliezer YD #20, who all limit the actual halakhic applicability of this principle.

[9] “Fermilab History and Archives Project,” accessed November 17, 2012,

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