Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman
Klal Perspectives, A Review of Kiruv
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Kiruv versus Outreach: Making a Lasting Impact
IF THE PERIOD IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING the Six-Day war was a boom time for Jewish identity and affiliation, the current period is something of a recession. But just as economic fluctuations do not eliminate certain constant axioms, efforts to increase Jewish affiliation and commitment must recognize certain constant principles. I fear, however, that efforts in America to reach the unaffiliated have strayed from certain fundamental ideals, and this change has deeply affected the effort and its results.
My concerns center on the distinction between activities that I will distinguish as kiruv on the one hand and outreach on the other. I use the term “kiruv” to reference efforts designed to facilitate a Jew’s sea-change commitment to Torah and yiras shomayim (fear of Heaven). By “outreach”, on the other hand, I refer to general efforts to provide non-observant Jews with positive experiences of traditional Judaism. The two approaches work best in coordination, with initial exposure coming through outreach, and kiruv efforts guiding those who are interested in taking the next step. Currently, however, these two objectives are often muddled, leading to obfuscated goals, an inability to measure success, and – often – ill-prepared Jews entering the observant community.
The confusion is made more acute when one gives “outreach” the prestige of “kiruv.” The effects of outreach by itself are fleeting. They might raise the standing of traditional Jews or Judaism; or they might lessen their “strangeness,” thereby making them more accessible. But they rarely result in a sustainable uptick in spiritual growth, i.e. in choices that will bring people substantially closer to an observant life. Given the assimilation pressures buffeting a contemporary Jew, we cannot afford to be satisfied with such evanescent gains.
With far fewer resources and far less personnel than they have today, yeshivas in Israel and America were opened in the 1960’s and 1970’s that aspired to teach authentic Judaism to a small but highly motivated subset of young Jews. Aided by a conducive environment, including the enthusiasm generated by Israel’s emergence as a modern dynamo, an eager cohort with raw but powerful Jewish instincts were drawn to these yeshivas and were mentored by a small cadre of gifted and deeply motivated kiruv pioneers. The focus of such institutions was to help the student evolve into a Ben or Bas Torah (i.e., live a Torah-oriented life), despite beginning the journey with little more than an inchoate sense of Jewishness and Jewish literacy that often ended with the Aleph-Beis. The goal was wildly ambitious and, the herculean efforts were wildly successful. In an era in which the radical was not rare, such changes were both fathomable and often achievable.
Alas, society’s current cultural environment is far more pragmatic, less idealistic and certainly less radical. The Jewish youth of today is not only less prone to idealism and inspiration, but also has drifted further from Jewish roots and Jewish identity. The reaction of the Jewish outreach professional to these trends, and to the more pragmatic environment, is to assume a strategy that is far less ambitious and imaginative in aspiration, with goals too often limited to corralling young Jews into doing almost anything Jewish at almost any level (i.e., outreach). While these activities would be valuable if pursued in conjunction with follow-up efforts designed to guide the Jew towards a commitment to Yiddishkeit, this happens much less frequently than it should. Most striking, however, is the blind support of many philanthropists, despite the ineffectiveness of their investment. One would have hoped that the very pragmatism that dulls radical aspiration would, at least, mandate a more focused strategy and an emphasis on more measurable results.
Contemporary Jewish Youth
Young Jews today possess a far more tenuous relationship to their Jewish identity. Their parents’ relationship to Judaism is often weaker than the generation before, and connections to more traditional grandparents or great-grandparents can be very distant. Moreover, the likelihood that Jewish inspiration will be drawn from a connection to Israel is no longer axiomatic. Tragically, for many youth, Israel is actually a toxic topic. And perhaps most significantly, contemporary Jewish youth, like its non-Jewish peers, is less moved by idealism or inspiration than the parents’ generation.
Perhaps influenced by the perilous economic times, though the trend was evident even beforehand, the searching Jewish neshama (soul) prepared to take a few years away from the rat race to explore spirituality is almost an endangered species. Getting sixty uninterrupted minutes of religious focus in a deeply wired world is tough; six uninterrupted months seems like a pipedream. An additional factor that must be addressed in any exploration of the viability of ongoing kiruv is the fact that a large segment of the “Jewish” population is simply not halachically Jewish, a trend that is inevitably expanding and that is making outreach something of a minefield.
Not only is the nature of the Jew changing, but the manner by which relationships are formed and sustained has changed. Young people live in a world of weak associations. Social media have created a massive array of facile ways to conceive pathetically weak ties. These trends affect marriage dynamics, family relationships and communal structures. Social ties born of electronic connections have only a passing resemblance to true relationships, and they are hardly the strong bond that offers the hope of sustainability. Making introductions has become almost comically easy but that’s where such ties typically end. Connecting the Jew to his Torah heritage, however, requires deep and authentic relationships – whether across the teaching podium or across the dining room table. The ability of the non-observant Jew to engage in these types of relationships, however, is at risk.
Though the situation does not augur well for reaching out to teens and twenty-somethings, they certainly cannot be abandoned. As hard as it is to reach young Jews, they are just beginning to think about the world in independent and meaningful ways, and it is our obligation to ensure that Judaism is part of their nascent, and fresh, framing of the world.
The Outreach Response
In reaction to these trends, enormous resources are being poured into reaching the dwindling numbers of non-observant yet accessible Jews. Using the terms I identified above, these efforts are often called kiruv, but in actuality they are usually merely outreach.
The wide world of outreach is much bigger, much more diverse, and more vibrant than when I walked into Yeshiva for the first time in 1982. This army of professionals is doing undeniably valuable work. They are representing the Torah world in all kinds of tricky situations, and on the whole they do so admirably, performing a kiddush Hashem in a world that desperately needs it. They sometimes recruit young Jews to join a pivotal trip to Israel that could challenge and even inspire them. Or they simply reach Jews who would otherwise never have a chance to encounter an authentic traditional text, or a traditional Jewish meal, or even a traditional Jew.
But very few of those mining the fields of outreach are charged with the task of bringing people to true commitment to Torah and Mitzvos. And though perhaps this ”Judaism lite” approach is necessary as a first step in the kiruv process, there is typically no “next step” in place to build upon the momentary inspiration that may be triggered by the initial inspiration during a beautiful trip to Israel, in a meaningful class, or at an exciting event.
Introductory-level outreach efforts directed toward young and unattached Jews are shallow in their aspirations and fleeting in their effects without coordinated follow-up. By their very nature they are incapable of transforming someone into a committed Jew. Spiritual growth for baalei teshuva is no different in certain regards than the religious growth of an observant Jew. The frum parent and the classical yeshiva rebbe both know that the child of an observant home becomes integrated into the religious community through a deep bond with Yiddishkeit that involves deep social relationships, deep educational involvement and deep cultural bonds. Many of the earlier generation of Kiruv pioneers understood that kiruv is no different. Encouraging a Jew to perform a Mitzvah here or to adopt a custom there is simply insufficient. It is all about bringing people to a way of life devoted to Torah and to Mesora, a life that will transmit to their progeny a fighting chance to live a fully-observant, fully-actualized Jewish life. If kiruv has done its job, the children of baalei teshuva will be able to pursue such a life because of their parents’ choices, while most contemporary Jews would be willing to embrace such a life only despite their parents’ choices.
A clarification: Although much of what I am saying holds true in analyzing any outreach endeavor, my emphasis is on efforts aimed at younger Jewish singles. Couples and families, who are often unable to make radical changes in their lives for other pragmatic reasons, have always been a large segment of the Baal Teshuva population. They present, however, a different dynamic. Their progress is often made in fits and starts, and is not easily measured. Such populations make up the challenge faced by kiruv-oriented shuls and, if a city is blessed to have one, a community kollel. Together, they are best positioned to support and guide these families.
Battling Intermarriage is Simply Ineffective
An oft-repeated justification for broad-based though shallow outreach is that the effort stymies intermarriage. Tragically, however, simply preventing intermarriage is an almost meaningless and typically short-lived victory, which I do not believe justifies the allocation of precious communal resources.
Without a deeper commitment to Jewish custom and theology, many Jewish marriages can be called Jewish in sociological terms, only. When the Jewish basis of their union is simply the circumstances of their partner’s birth, there is no evidence that they will be any more motivated to pursue Jewish spiritual growth. Absent a decision to pursue a strong Jewish education for their children, the next generation will be no closer to Judaism than their parents were, usually calling for a repeat struggle to avoid intermarriage.
The sole argument in favor of battling intermarriage without deeper Jewish meaning is that such efforts will, at least, retain the possibility that the next generation will become more Jewishly involved. But this is the same hope one would have if a Jewish woman married a Gentile – namely, at least there is a possibility the Jewish child could become more attached to Jewish tradition. There was a time when delaying the hope for another generation seemed harmless. But the forces of assimilation are overwhelming now, and we do not have another generation to wait. Basic logic dictates, therefore, that this goal justifies an allocation of resources only if it comes at no cost to true kiruv, which is providing non-observant Jews with access to the meaning and understanding of authentic Judaism.
The Preferred Approach
The proper allocation of communal resources – both financial and human – needs to be an initial allocation to broad-based outreach, but only to the extent that such outreach is directly intertwined with true kiruv follow up.
What are the components of this true kiruv?
• Emuna: Integral to any true kiruv effort is the communication of emuna (religious faith) to the non-observant Jew. Jews are a creative and immensely talented people, and there is much pride in belonging to such a tribe. In addition, Judaism is built upon an intellectually rigorous oral tradition that continues to beguile and enchant even the most sophisticated newcomers. But in addition to peoplehood and letters, Judaism must also be understood as a religion. That means kiruv must be upfront about G-d, Torah and Mitzvos, and the centrality of belief in Hashem and in the mesorah (the chain of tradition). Contemporary outreach tends to sidestep this basic point. The very mention of G-d is often avoided, and Jewish identity and pride are often pursued in place of spirituality. In the context of true kiruv, this serves no one well.
Kiruv must provide intense one-on-one attention, addressing a person’s questions but also his or her situation. Some people need significant assistance before deciding to become observant. Certain Jews are troubled by academic challenges to authentic Judaism, with searching questions about Biblical Criticism or other conundrums posed by the university study of Judaism. Others only need to learn the fundamentals of spirituality and the principles of Torah thought. But avoiding the core vitality of our religion is not only dishonest, but also ineffective as a kiruv approach.
• Individuality: Each Jew’s journey is different, and his/her needs are unique. Some will discover the elegance of learning while others the tranquility of Shabbat. Some will find the holiness of Judaism in action, and others in self-improvement. People’s familial and social backgrounds will also significantly influence their proper integration into Judaism. Some will bear the burden of intermarried parents or non-Jewish fathers. Others may face difficult career transitions when readying themselves for marriage or the creation of a Jewish family.
True and effective kiruv requires an intensive approach that demands a lot more attention, a lot more teaching, and a lot more individual face-time. A long period in Yeshiva, which remains an elite experience, is not an absolute requirement, but it remains imperative that those who seek to join the Orthodox community are provided ample opportunities to attend high-level teaching and that they have access to constant doses of guidance.
After all, the Jew needs to feel the empowering sense of connection to Hashem and to know that the transformation from a secular lifestyle to one of Torah and Mitzvos is doable, and that it fits them. They need to be sure that they will land softly, that their life’s dreams and aspirations won’t be stifled, and that their actualization as people will be enhanced, and not retarded.
• Mentors: Authentic kiruv requires many mentors. A single source of guidance and influence is both ineffective and dangerous. Consequently, a city with a kiruv-minded community kollel is so much more effective than a community with merely a solo, kiruv-oriented community rabbi. These multiple mentors must function as more than mere cheerleaders. The Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer begins with a tearful Eliezer ben Horkenas pining to learn Torah. The episode ends with him paired up to learn birkas hamazon (Grace after Meals) with no less than the leader of the Jewish people, Raban Yochanan ben Zachai in Yerushalayim. Could there have been a more inspiring learning experience? For bentsching! Training for outreach professionals does not always emphasize the need for an encounter with this kind of teacher. And great talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars) must not feel that working with baalei teshuva is beneath them.
And how many teachers are really needed? A visitor to a successful kiruv retreat once remarked to the head of the program, “There’s a lot of staff here,” to which the program head responded, “Ever been to an operating room? Two doctors, three nurses, and an anesthesiologist – all for one patient. Sounds like a lot of staff.”
The Role of the Philanthropist
The emphasis on quantifying the numbers of baalei teshuva resulting from kiruv endeavors undermines all of this. Demanding high volume is no more productive than employing an assembly line to create great art. A neshama is Hashem’s handiwork and it must be connected to its roots with individual loving care. Most baalei teshuva have career paths and life experiences which require specialized guidance. There is no room for cookie-cutter approaches or speedy pit stops. Too often the emphasis on numbers seems to assume that this work can be done like an oil change.
Outreach may be measured in numbers but kiruv cannot. In Jewish communal life, a partnership must be forged between the communal professional and the funder. While communal professionals are relied upon to make proposals regarding communal initiatives and to lead in their implementation, the donor is tasked with not only providing the financial support but also serving as a check on the efforts of communal professionals. This is intended to ensure that resources are employed thoughtfully and responsibly, and that efforts do not merely reflect the visions and inclinations of the visionary communal activist but are also effective and necessary.
In the kiruv world, as in other areas of Jewry, donors are most generous with their funding, but many are too deferential and inattentive. For example, few supporters focus on the need to balance outreach with kiruv, or the simple ineffectiveness of seeking to avoid intermarriage when not followed up with adequate kiruv efforts.
According to Thomas Tierney and Joel Fleischman in their book Give Smart, philanthropy should proceed through three essential steps –get personal, get clear, and then get real. A funder must begin by identifying where his or her personal passion lies. The next step, getting clear, is about settling on clear goals. Funders must decide: Is the goal outreach or kiruv? Lastly, getting real means being realistic about how to successfully implement one’s vision.
The greatest struggle seems to be to “get clear,” as fuzzy-headedness about goals is pervasive. Also challenging is to “get real.” For example, we must be realistic about the fact that kiruv programs are expensive. All labor intensive endeavors are expensive, and this one requires a lot of person-to- person interaction. Starving such programs of money is not clear-headed thinking, and neither is imposing number quotas on them. In the end, sustainable human choices are involved, and no formula or approach can guarantee what anyone will choose.
Measuring success needs to be focused on making sure outreach efforts effectively coordinate with kiruv programs. Then at least they will be held to account for giving young Jews the chance to choose.
1 Tierney, Thomas and Fleischman, Joel, Give Smart: Philanthropy that Gets Results. Published by PublicAffairs (2011). Professor Fleischman’s name will be familiar to many readers because of its appearance in the first few pages of every Mesorah Publication from the Artscroll Siddur to the Schottenstein Shas. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Mesorah Heritage Foundation, chaired by R’ Dovid Feinstein, Shlit’a.