Skip to content

Rabbi Yitzchok Lowenbraun

From Conversations: Readers Respond to A Review of Kiruv

Are We Ready for the Challenge?


Kiruv professionals today are more sophisticated, better-trained and more polished than ever before. They need to be because they face more challenges than ever before. In the old days, back in my time, one could literally catch people “off the wall.” In the early ‘70s, thousands of Jewish seekers would journey to the Kotel, and people like Meir Tzvi Schuster and Jeff Seidel would round them up and deliver them to homes for Shabbos meals or to one of the various baai teshuvah yeshivos.

Kiruv has followed a similar path to the Texas Oil Boom and the Gusher Age. Back then, one just had to dig below the surface and oil came seeping to the top. Today, they need electronic noses called sniffers, or they use seismology to create shock waves that are reflected back to the surface in order to locate the oil. Then, it is necessary to dig an average of a mile below ground or five miles or more off the Gulf Coast in order to get the same amount of oil. By comparison, today’s young Jews do not live in our neighborhoods, do not belong to synagogues or Jewish organizations, do not read Jewish books or publications and do not identify as part of the Jewish community.

In addition, whereas in the old days, one could assume some basic knowledge on the part of most Jews, today, there is no such luck. Many in the past knew basic Hebrew, some prayers and were familiar with Shabbos and Yom Tov observances and customs. Recently, I had a Shabbos guest – a twenty-seven year old who had just returned from a three-week trip to Israel followed by a four-week summer learning program in the United States. I asked him if he ever heard of a shofar. One could see the puzzled look on his face. Shofar? What is a shofar? Then I asked him if he knew who Abraham was. He could not recall. Finally, I asked him if he knew the song, “Am Yisroel Chai.” To my surprise, he had not heard of that either. This, of course, is merely anecdotal, but it is indicative of the lack of familiarity with basics that were common knowledge in the past.

In this age of Liberal Arts Education, students are being taught that no one book is greater than any other, no one person is nobler than any other and “American Exceptionalism” is arrogant, if not racist. With that, try to explain that we are the Chosen People.

Accordingly, we need to readjust the starting point of what we teach. Although conceptually, we have a sophisticated audience who can deal with big ideas, they may know nothing of the essentials and fundamentals of our Jewish heritage and practices.

Finally, whereas in the past, we could have assumed that those identifying themselves as Jewish had a very good chance of being halachically Jewish, that no longer is a safe assumption.

So, we have to dig deeper and start really from the very beginning. We have to begin with “Why Be Jewish,” how Jews are different and what being Jewish means.  New programs and training are needed to meet this new reality.

Yet, with all these obstacles, we, in the Kiruv Movement, are enjoying much success. With heroic efforts, many succeed in changing lives and building communities. However, I would like to propose how we can improve on our past successes.

I would compare our current efforts to guerilla warfare. We are winning many battles, but not necessarily the war. In order to win a war, we must have trained soldiers and the tools of war – munitions, intelligence gathering, a propaganda machine, communication, leadership, and a clear strategic goal. Throughout today’s kiruv world, we have all the necessary components. What we lack is the coordination of all our efforts that is necessary to win the war for the future of the Jewish people in North America.

The Kiruv Movement has some of the most creative, courageous, and dedicated people in the entire frum community. We have only tapped the surface of what we can do. We need to harness our energies, coordinate our activities, and take full advantage of the tools of technology and communication to maximize our efforts.

Masters of Change

The only thing I know for certain about tomorrow is that it will be different from today. Growing up in the turbulent ‘60s, the kind of change we looked forward to as kids was what the new model cars would look like, since they changed every year. But, our world basically was a stable place.

We are now caught up in a “tsunami” of change. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a list of cataclysmic natural disasters, “Sandy” being the most recent, the “Arab Spring,” the collapse of “Too Big to Fail” financial institutions and the moral decay of our society have undermined the assumptions and beliefs that were the common denominators in our society. It is not enough to be flexible, we need to be the masters of change.

In order to position ourselves to embrace change, we must understand our “target audience” better. Who are the people most likely to be responsive to our efforts? Up to this point, we have defined our target audiences primarily by age – high school, college, young singles, professionals, etc, or by other generic factors. But every one of these groups is behaving differently today than they did even five or ten years ago. And who knows what they will be like ten years in the future.

I believe our movement must develop a clear identity across all ages that is designed to attract those people who are seeking or will respond to spirituality and a meaningful life style. Today, we are simply presenting ourselves as fellow Jews (who are obviously Orthodox and) who want to share the wonders of traditional Judaism. This has been authentic and powerful and it continues to be so, but its power is dwindling rapidly, as so many have observed.

In this age of E-everything, people crave personal, genuine experiences. Audiences are looking for interaction and useful information, not merely a clever headline or promotional gimmick. My friend, Marco Greenberg, President of Thunder 11 — a boutique marketing and communications firm — tells me that in the non-Jewish corporate world there is a saying that “Everyone needs a rabbi.” We are perceived as having wisdom and authenticity.

The rage in the marketing world right now is “Stick Marketing.” Stick Marketing helps you tell your story in way that captures the imagination and helps create longterm relationships. We need to create an identity that sticks, an identity of wisdom and authenticity.

Ideally, we should pick specific areas by which we can become identified or with which we can be effectively branded. For example, we can seek to become identified as relationship experts. In this age of loneliness, where we have hundreds if not thousands of social media friends but not one true relationship, where the divorce rate is well over 60%, we can be The Rabbi that people are looking for.

Reaching Today’s Jews

Secular Jews are no longer found in any of the traditional places, certainly not in my neighborhood or in other frum enclaves. We cannot find them, so we need them to find us. People live on the Internet. They shop there, their social life is there, they check the news and the weather, get directions, and seek all their needs on the Internet.

We need to be sought out on the Internet. It is there that we need to have a presence and an identity.

It is imperative that our teaching tools are engaging, entertaining, and sophisticated. The technology has to be cutting-edge in order to win the attention and make an impact. A few examples of exciting new educational tools are: Rabbi Dan Roth of Torah Live, Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone of Aleph-Beta Academy, and Project Sinai.

Some Additional Points about Kiruv

Research and Measures of Success

Over the past thirty years, the world of kiruv has grown from a disjointed constellation of grass-roots operations to an international enterprise spanning five continents. However, our approach to outreach remains antiquated in that it is largely based on hunches and intuition. Methods of social science research can be utilized to (1) inform operational definitions of kiruv outcomes, (2) examine predictors of outreach success, (3) systematically test hypotheses, and (4) perhaps most importantly – design and evaluate new methods of education.

šSecond Stage

Jewish literacy is the key to successful integration into the Torah community. We have a responsibility to give the tools necessary for a lifetime of independent textual learning. Many of our students may spend a few years, at best, in a yeshiva, but most are not so privileged. Can we stand by and watch as our student’s children easily surpass them by the time they reach fifth grade? The hallmark of a Torah Jew is continuity in learning as well as observance. We have to empower the newly observant to achieve these goals.

Programs such as Professional’s Beis Medrash created by Rabbis Dani and Gabi Brett of London and Johannesburg and Fundamentals of Talmud created by Rabbi Ayson Englander are remarkable programs that teach the fundamentals of how to learn a blatt gemara. These programs have achieved extraordinary success in allowing neophytes to learn how to make a laining on a blatt gemara in a relatively short amount of time.

Our attachment to and achriyus for the people that we introduce to Yiddishkeit is a life-long commitment on our part. Yet, we have to allow our students to grow beyond what we have to offer them and encourage them to seek opportunities of further growth. Our work is not finished until we successfully hand them off to someone else who is able and willing to serve as their mentor and aid them in their further search for spiritual growth.

Redefining “Baal Teshuva

In an ideal world, we would cease and desist from using labels that relegate the “baal teshuva” to a secondary status. It never ceases to amaze me that no one ever graduates from the status of a baal teshuva. At the funeral of my neighbor who was frum for seventy-five years, they still mentioned that she was baalas teshuva. Someone could be learning in kollel for ten or fifteen years, and their children are rejected from schools in Eretz Yisroel because they are children of baalei teshuva.

We, in the frum community, enjoy living in our comfort zone. We daven, learn every day, keep Shabbos, are mehadrin in our kashrus. We fall into a pattern and routine. Then, along comes a “baal teshuva” who makes us feel uncomfortable. Their enthusiasm, their striving for spirituality and extraordinary growth in learning and keeping mitzvos challenges our complacency and the status quo.

HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, changed my way of thinking forever in a few short words. He once asked me what I do, and I answered that I work with baalei teshuva. His rejoinder, I felt, shot me between the eyes. His response was uncharacteristically stern. He said, “Mir zennen alla baalei t’shuva, oib nisht, darf men zein! – We are all baalei teshuva, and if not, we should be!”

There is a difference between “doing” teshuva and “being” a baal teshuva. We need to do teshuva every day. On Yom Kippur, we go through a long list of “al chaits.” Being a baal teshuva, as the Rambam says in Hilchos Teshuva, is a life changing event. As the Rambam says, “You change your name, meaning, I am another person and not the one who did these actions.”

I believe that what Rav Shlomo Zalman was saying was that being a baal teshuva means being a person on a path of spiritual growth. Does the quest of spiritual growth end when one because part of the “frum” community? Unfortunately, the answer to this is “yes” more often than “no.” We should all be baal teshuva, in the sense that we need to be on a lifelong path of spiritual growth. Shouldn’t those who have always been frum also be on a lifelong path of spiritual growth?

I would like to encourage us to start changing the nomenclature, shifting away from BT’s and FFB’s as primary distinctions. The connotation of “FFB” is someone who is superior and who has arrived already or whose life work is finished. We are all “works in progress.”

I would believe that it is not the number of times that Rav Elyashiv, zt”l, and Reb Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, learned Shas that made them gedolei hador. It was the life-long quest and dedication to spiritual growth through Torah that set them apart. It was these qualities, I believe, to which Rav Shlomo Zalman was alluding.

šServing the Frum Community

This leads me to my final point. It is well recognized that there is a crisis of spirit in the frum community. Since the Second World War, we have witnessed the rebirth of Torah Judaism, which was nothing short of miraculous. There are, perhaps, more Jews learning Torah today than we have seen since the churban habayis (destruction of the Temple). The estimates are well over 500,000 Orthodox Jews in North America and growing, bli ayin harah.

There is a phenomenon, however, that is called “being culturally frum,” i.e., maintaining a frum lifestyle but with a profound lack of inspiration or understanding of why they are doing mitzvos. There is now a large segment of adults as well as teen-agers within our community who fall squarely into this category (aside from those we think of as “at risk”).

We in the kiruv movement are uniquely suited to provide what is needed today within the frum community. We have cultivated and perfected the vernacular of how to make a connection to Torah that inspires and edifies. If we can connect those who do not believe in HaKodesh Boruch Hu, who do not believe in the divinity of Torah, and who have no tradition, then surely, we can connect those who have all the above.

Thus, we in the kiruv movement are positioned to rise to the challenge of this mission of our generation—to provide what is needed for our frum community, namely, inspiration and connection to HaKodesh Boruch Hu. We have the know-how.

Klal Yisroel needs us. Are we ready for the challenge?

Rabbi Yitzchok Lowenbraun is the National Director of AJOP.

No comments yet

Comments are closed.