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Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein

Klal Perspectives, A Review of Kiruv

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

It’s not Your Mother’s Kiruv

THIS IS THE STORY of how I, as one of the editors of Klal Perspectives, lost my place in kiruv Paradise, and how I found my way back again.

As I dove into the submissions we received for this issue, little did I realize that I would find it similar to beholding what used to be an angelic child who has turned into a teenager. The experience can age a person beyond his years. I found myself traveling back to memories of another time in kiruv, and comparing the outreach of old with descriptions of the current version. Soon I was longing for an era that seemed to have passed without our realizing that it had slipped by. How had things become so….different? I began to fret. Could this work? What would the future bring?

As an editor of Klal Perspectives, I had hoped that this issue would offer a change of pace after the ponderous topics of previous issues. Here was a topic, I thought, that would elicit a plethora of completely upbeat responses. Every article, I expected, would bring a smile to readers’ lips.

Many readers will react that way, and I am happy for them. We did, after all, gratefully receive a good number of thoughtful responses from highly competent practitioners of kiruv.

I, however, could not manage a broad, cheek-to-cheek grin. I found myself discomfited by some unanswered questions and challenges. We had posed some very specific questions to our potential contributors. Some were particularly difficult. I am an enthusiastic kiruv booster, but I am painfully aware of the new-fangled skepticism about kiruv, and I wanted the authors to convince us that the outreach enterprise remains one of the crown jewels of contemporary Torah living. I was hoping that the authors would make an effective case that kiruv should occupy a position of prominence on the hierarchy of community priorities. I wanted to feel good, but did not want to receive self-congratulatory testimonials.

We had issued a challenge to our writers: show us that kiruv pays off. Justify the expense in time, talent and money. Show us that kiruv has not stalled out. Demonstrate how it is cost effective. Hit us with cold facts and figures – the case you would make to reassure an efficiency-oriented donor. As I started reading the contributions, I grew concerned. I was learning a good deal about some genuinely exciting new strategies and programs, but I was not getting the reassurances that I was looking for. Almost unanimously, contributors simply avoided answering the questions, or explained why they could not provide the requested facts and arguments. Some explained why it is difficult to provide a metric for kiruv success. Nonetheless, they confidently insisted that kiruv was a worthwhile endeavor. (I was already convinced of that.) Most of the other articles seemed to say, “You asked us to hit one out of the park. We are not sure we can do that in regard to numbers and cost-efficiencies. But we can nail a line drive just over the head of the shortstop – at least our particular organization can – and that will get a player to first base.” My hope – shared by some of my colleagues – is that the contributors, after reading the other pieces in this issue and hearing some of the critique by their fellow kiruv professionals, will respond with follow-up articles or letters, which we will be happy to publish.

This, however, was not altogether reassuring. In first reading the submissions, I found myself looking at something very different from what I had committed myself to some decades ago. I was used to passion and exuberance on the part of kiruv professionals – dreamy visions of an idyllic future, couched in superlatives. In the kiruv I knew and championed, it was taken for granted that vigorous outreach would both change the face of the frum community, and lead the rest of Jewry back to observance. All Jews back then were divided into three categories: FFB’s, BT’s, and NYBT’s, the last acronym indicating Not Yet Baalei Teshuva. The new realities that now stood before my eyes weighed heavily upon my mood. So much had changed from the kiruv of yesteryear!

What changed? Here is a quick inventory of the differences.

  • Who is doing it. Kiruv had come of age since the time that our impressions of it were created. It had once been the peg upon which a small number of souls on fire hung their visionary hats. Once a small number of impassioned souls heeded a call to rescue their brothers and sisters from impending doom. They were an expeditionary force sent into a war zone, trudging through the mire of cynicism and rejection, and carrying huge burdens of fundraising in their backpacks. Today, kiruv is a job description. For a yungerman on the cusp of leaving kollel to earn a living, and without any specific career training, one of the options for consideration is kiruv. (This does not imply that such people will not do a good job. Clearly, many rise to the occasion once they learn the ropes. They deserve credit and appreciation for locating themselves in communities that some of their peers will not consider. Nonetheless, what used to be an expeditionary force has become a regular army.) In earlier times, mekarvim boldly proclaimed that they could turn around a generation. Those they would inspire would in turn inspire their families and friends, and an entire people could be turned around. It didn’t quite happen. To be sure, across North America, baalei teshuvah have increased the numbers of mispallelim in shuls and children in the classroom. They have introduced new skills and a renewed enthusiasm to Orthodoxy Judaism. Like most revolutions, however, by the second generation they had become establishment. Today, kiruv is similar to a rescue effort after an earthquake. You tend to the victims you think you can still save, aware that most will remain buried under the rubble.
  • Who is open to it. Kiruv used to be looking to a different audience. The spiritual seekers of the Sixties and Seventies – the low-hanging fruit at the Kotel on the way back from Tibet, waiting to be plucked by R. Meir Schuster (may HKBH send him a refuah bekarov) and ably directed to a Shabbos meal or a yeshivah – are nowhere to be found. The number of mekarvim has dramatically grown, but enrollment in kiruv yeshivos has shrunk. Young people are no longer eager to put their life plans on hold for a few years while they explore their heritage or find themselves; the career marketplace has turned much more competitive, cruel and demanding. Hence, the debate about focus. Should it be college students? Couples starting families? Back then, the issue was triage. With so many to help, whom do we help first? Today some of us are questioning whether a much larger number are beyond help, at least bederech hateva (absent a miracle).
  • The sources from which it draws. Rabbi Buchwald charges in his contribution that kiruv never really “made” baalei teshuvah. For the most part, the numbers came not from the spiritually unwashed, but from people with some religious background, primarily through the Conservative movement. That movement, however, is now in its death throes, closing its schools and temples and moving towards a merger with Reform. It failed miserably in its long-term goal of conserving halachic practice for future generations. Those future generations they were anticipating are the young people of today who are marrying out without flinching, or who have dropped out of Jewish affiliation altogether. The inexorable slide of the Conservative movement into spiritual oblivion will mean even fewer kiruv candidates from their ranks in the future.
  • How Orthodoxy’s coming of age drives down the numbers. Orthodoxy itself has changed. It once had a certain mystique of being sort of other-worldly, a counterculture of cholent rather than weed. It was relatively unknown to the outsider, except for its reputation –known only from a distance – for authenticity. Its faults were hidden from public view. Being Orthodox was presumed to demand sacrifice and discipline in the pursuit of spiritual rewards.

Today, we are in the public spotlight often, but not to receive adulation and admiration. We cannot even count the number of front-page scandals that have marred the image of the Torah Jew. We are viewed, on the one hand, as harboring abusers, banning books and women’s faces, as intellectually rejectionist and primitive, judgmental and xenophobic, and perpetuating the cycle of dependency that Senator Moynihan observed in other communities. On the other hand, we are depicted as materialistic and self-indulgent, spending far in excess of what we earn. The outsider looking in (and the media help him do it with the click of a mouse) sees greater variety in eateries, wine labels, designer sheitels and Pesach orgies of consumption than in ways of connecting with Divinity. In a word, as we have exploded in size, we have become a less inviting community to join.

Rabbi Avrohom Edelstein’s piece set me on the road to recovery. He answered each of our questions with facts and figures. Where he had none, he evidenced that the inability to respond was due to the inherent ambiguity of the question, not for lack of trying. As the head of Ner L’Elef, he has placed hundreds of mekarvim in all sorts of positions and places. Many of our other contributors are good examples of the Rambam’s ba’al melachah achas: they are expert and passionate about their own bailiwick. Rabbi Edelstein, however, observes the entire landscape­­ – the successes and the failures, the traditional and the novel. He is convinced that the number of people interested in Judaism is growing rather than shrinking. His treatment of the topic was nothing less than magisterial.

Rabbi Ilan Feldman was also magisterial, but in the realm of hashkafa (perspective). He speaks to our hearts and minds, reminiscent of the idealism some of us heard in a different generation. Perhaps that is because he is part of that generation that heard the exhortations of Rav Nachman Bulman, zt”l, and watched the unflagging energy Rav Yaakov Weinberg zt”l personally brought to the avodah of kiruv. By taking us back to an earlier time, he gives us the clearest mandate for the future.

Rabbi Feldman’s thesis is powerful. The greatest asset we possess is the presentation of a Torah-based community that is so attractive as to be irresistible. Kiruv has slowed because we no longer are that community. We may be an observant community, but we are no longer a model community. “Fifteen or twenty years ago we were pretty confident in asserting that being frum was not only a fulfillment of G-d’s will, but that Orthodoxy represented a lifestyle that would provide a family with tranquility, healthy relationships, proper values and meaningful spirituality. Over the last two decades, however, there has been an undeniable recognition that a morass of social, familial and religious challenges have crept into our families… The mindset of an ‘Observant Community’ is fearful focus on the threat of secularism and its enticing allure, with little attention allocated to the power and grandeur of Torah. Strangers are suspect. The wagons must be circled… The first step in the outreach’s agenda must be the transformation of the frum community. We must recognize that many non-observant families are led by emotionally and financially secure and successful educated parents who respect wisdom, consider weekend volunteerism to be an exalted way of spending one’s free time, and view wholesome family activities on Saturday afternoon as a healthy way of building character. We cannot possibly expect such parents to join a society in which routine Shabbos table talk favors disparaging secular wisdom rather than exploring subtleties and ethical messages in Torah.”

Rabbi Feldman’s prescription gives me hope because it ties the future of kiruv to the very future of the Torah community. With HKBH Himself guaranteeing the latter, the former will surely follow as well. Count me as a returnee to kiruv Paradise.

The Paradise that I returned to, however, is still not the unspoiled place it was before Man left his imprint. My enthusiasm for the kiruv enterprise may have been reignited, but uneasiness with some of the contributions continues. I remain convinced that our asking direct, pointed questions of the contributors was the right way to go. It is disappointing that many contributors did not care or were unable to respond with even the most basic data. While several of the articles make a good case for the difficulty in defining success in kiruv, surely any organization needs to operate with some sort of operational definition of a mission accomplished, and ought to be compiling data on their performance. Surely every kiruv effort can set goals and expectations, and measure how well they are being achieved – and even compute the costs.

In so many areas of Jewish communal life, we cannot make informed decisions without real data and real analysis. As difficult as it may be, all institutions in Jewish life need to become more transparent and more accountable. If, for example, two tzedakah solicitations for fairly comparable causes confront me on my desk, and there is money left for only one, I would like to know which one delivers more with less overhead. With finite resources available, it is simply not good enough to tell me that each one of them performs a wonderful and vital task. Similarly, without gainsaying the value of many forms of kiruv, I would like to know which ones deliver more – and why. I can learn from and appreciate many of the thoughtful arguments offered in these pages, but if a particular variety of kiruv “costs” X number of thousands of dollars, we need to know that and factor it in to our communal thinking, particularly when we are facing in parts of the country a meltdown of our day school chinuch system.

It will also make a better community. We are far too forgiving when we give people a pass simply because they are involved in something positive or holy. Too many things can be allowed when we argue that X is doing a fine thing, so leave him alone.  Since the Editorial Board began mulling over the issues and challenges that we face as a community, we have spent many hours looking for patterns and themes. Speaking only for myself, one conclusion that can be drawn is that much that ails our community boils down to not setting up expectations, and not demanding accountability. This applies not only to individual kiruv organizations, but to other parts of the communal cholent. Schools don’t show where their monies are going, or justify the level of expenditures relative to others. Tzedakos may be doing a good job, but some spend an inordinate percentage on overhead, PR, salaries (for relatives), etc. Individuals learn for years in yeshivos and kollelim without any monitoring of progress, retention, or accomplishment. (One colleague argued for compassion. It is not the fault of the kiruv organizations, he said. The years of learning that nurtured them also knew no measurement or assessment. Kiruv workers were simply performing according to the same rules that governed their years in yeshiva! Indeed this might be true. But all the more reason why “laissez-faire” should not be the words describing our expectations from our professionals, and why the questions we posed seemed like a good place to start asking for more).


Keeping perspective is crucial. My hesitations about some of the articles amount to nothing more than a mum oveir – a temporary, passing blemish on a body of kiruv that is healthy and vital.

Chazal tell us that Herod’s beis hamikdosh (Temple) displayed uncommon beauty. Its stones were staggered, creating the visual impression of undulating waves.

Why waves? Rav Hutner, zt”l, explained beautifully, according to a report that I received orally. Each wave, heading towards the shoreline, evidences strength and power. At its closest approach, the wave crests to its fullest height and fury. A few seconds later, all that remains is water meekly trickling towards the toes of the observer standing a short distance away.

The beis hamikdosh would not last very long after Herod’s renovations. It was destined to become a pile of smoldering rubble. Was it worthwhile investing in a dying enterprise? Chazal tell us that the last decades of a beis hamikdosh had to resemble the might and majesty of towering waves, even if they would all come crashing down a short while later, and become a memory. Until the very end, Klal Yisrael had to put all their strength and passion into the avodah of the mikdosh, regardless of what the future was going to bring.

In fact, those last decades produced a transformation in the way Torah was learned and propagated. The products of that revolution sustained and continue to sustain the Jewish People through two millennia of galus.

We do not know whether kiruv is slowing down, as many contributors conceded, or speeding up, as Rabbi Edelstein and Rabbi Eliezrie maintain. By assembling this issue, it has become clearer in my mind that we must rouse ourselves from our lethargy and recommit ourselves to kiruv with zeal and enthusiasm. We must reconnect to the mission HKBH entrusted to us – bringing Elokus (G-dliness) to the world. In so doing, we will not be saving souls as much as saving ourselves.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a professor of Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School and the Founding Editor of
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