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Rabbi Zale Newman

From Conversations: Readers Respond to A Review of Kiruv

Lessons Learned from 40 Years in Kiruv


The following are the key lessons garnered from working in the kiruv movement on a daily basis since I was in grade 9. My initial involvement stemmed from being raised in a home that stressed hachnosas orchim (welcoming guests) for unaffiliated Jews and from exposure to NCSY at age 11. I was then, and remain today, enamored and in awe of the idea that Jews would choose to change their lives and become observant and G-d fearing when they weren’t initially raised in that environment.

While my experiences and analysis in no way represent the “Torah from Sinai” of this holy field of endeavor, it does present food for thought for those who truly believe in kiruv as “the call of our time.” Bitaiyavon!

Lesson # 1: Jews Want to be Jewish.

It was that way when I was first exposed to large groups of unaffiliated Jewish teens in 1969 and it remains that way today. One on one, in hundreds of private, personal, heart to heart discussions, I have found that ALL Jews want to be Jewish. The “pintele yid” is alive out there and is bursting with the desire to express itself. The challenge is to bring this desire to the fore and turn the desire into action.

Lesson # 2: High School Age is the Ideal Age for Kiruv

Rabbi Steve Burg is right (Stuff People Say about Jewish Outreach: Toward an Assessment of the Contemporary Outreach Movement, Klal Perspectives Fall 2012). After all is said and done, reaching young Jews in their high school years is the most effective way to do kiruv. At that age, teenagers are most impressionable. They are about to leave home and make many of the key decisions in life, such as where to go to college, what to major in and what career path to follow. Religious affiliation and observance can easily move up the ladder of importance at this age, as the teenager’s analytical skills and decision making processes mature and they become more independent from their parents.

In this age group, the students are easy to find and identify (For example, at NCSY headquarters in 2006, we identified 110 public high schools in North America that serve 50% of all Jewish public high school teens). At that age, teens are very influenced by peers, so if one successfully creates a peer group, the teenagers will attend. Programming, teaching and inspiring high school students is immensely cost effective. They are willing to sit on the floor of a shul or school, eat cold pizza and just listen to a rabbi playing a guitar.

On the other hand, programming for college-age students and adults is far more expensive.

While an inordinate amount of resources, in terms of money and manpower, have been spent on college outreach, this is after the ideal time to reach out and it is very far from being the most cost effective means of providing return on investment for the kiruv dollar. It is, however, more “sexy” to work on campus, with its intellectual environment and with the trappings of a mature adult centre of activity. Thus, it is far easier to raise funds for college programming and to recruit outreach workers for this age group, even though it is not the mosteffective time or place to do kiruv. It is for the most part, too late for many young people.

Lesson # 3: The Only Kiruv Tools that REALLY Work are the Shabbos Experience, Relevant Torah Study and Acts of Kindness

After trying many approaches over the years and witnessing others try their various approaches, I believe that BY FAR, the most effective tools to touch and bring in unaffiliated Jews are the Shabbos experience (whether it be with a family or in a group environment at a shabbaton), relevant, meaningful Torah study and acts of kindness. These three experiences can be designed and marketed in a myriad of ways, but I believe these to be the only ways to successfully touch a Jew’s neshama.

Lesson # 4: Women are the Key “Drivers” to Kiruv Success

At every age and in every environment, I have found that women are the key “drivers” of kiruv. Chazal teach that “mishum nashim tzidkonios nig’alu Bnei Yisroel miMitzrayim” (it was because of righteous women that the People of Israel were redeemed from Egypt), and since the final redemption is meant to mirror the experience of the first,[1] it should come as no surprise that it is easier to reach women and use them as a catalyst for further change within our people, than it is to reach men.

Aside from their additional openness to spirituality, there are some technical reasons why this is so. According to marketing guru Faith Popcorn in her bestselling book on marketing to women entitled “Eve-olution,” women gravitate to group activities. Her rule states that “if you connect women to each other they will be connected to your brand.” So if we can create group programs wherein women can connect to each other (as Lori Palatnik does in the JWRP, for example), they will be naturally more receptive to the Torah we teach.

I have found this to be true for NCSY, Aish HaTorah, Chabad and at the Village Shul in Toronto. Women’s attendance at the shul learning programs tends to exceed men’s attendance by almost 10 to 1. One reason for this is the “yuppie” demographic we encounter. Yuppie men work long hours and play for long hours ( e.g. a typical golf game takes 7 hours, from the time he leaves home until he arrives at the course, plays 18 holes, shmoozes with his buddies at the “19th hole” and then returns home). They simply have little time and headspace to consider religious matters.

Women on the other hand, tend to have more discretionary time, and additionally, bear the primary responsibility to raise the children. The family is in their hands. As a result, they are more driven to deal with issues of transmission of values, and they have the time to investigate what Judaism has to offer them and their families. Reach them and you will reach their husbands and children.

Lesson # 5: We Need Many More Women Outreach Kiruv Professionals

It is my contention, having taught primarily women students for the past 30 years at Aish HaTorah and the Village Shul, that women can teach and reach other women better than men. And while this is in line with most people’s intuition, it is worth noting how few Jewish women’s schools are actually headed by women.

Women are rarely trained to do kiruv. As they marry and raise families, they have less time available to work in the kiruv movement, especially when kiruv often involves many evenings of teaching.

And since far more than 50% of the unaffiliated population likely to attend a kiruv program are women, it is critical that we train women to teach and reach other women. At the Village Shul we employ four women teachers aside from the five teaching rabbis. This is a profession waiting to happen. We just need to train more women kiruv professionals, do more daytime programming, offer babysitting services when necessary and provide lots of part time employment opportunities for women kiruv professionals[2].

Lesson # 6: Enact “3-C” Programming

Attracting students, increasing their level of attendance and enabling them to grow Jewishly requires a sophisticated, strategic approach to kiruv. To this end, we identified three types of programming for use in NCSY. We referred to these as “the 3 C’s.” These refer to the objectives of various kiruv programs. The three C’s are the “Circle, the Core and the Crown.”

The goal of “Circle” programming is to bring members of the target audience into the circle by encouraging them to TRY a program for the first time. In high school programming, this might be a basketball league or a “Battle of the Bands.” In college, it might be a Purim party. In adult programming, it could be a Jewish film festival. Marketing professionals call this “trial” programming.

The goal of “Core” programming is to bring them into the center of the circle by having them attend events at least six or more times. The best example of this in high school programming is Torah High – a program that a student registers to attend 30 times in order to get high school or college credit. In adult programming, this would require attending a series of classes. In marketing, this is referred to as “repeat” programming.

Lastly, the goal of “Crown” programming is to move the student forward in terms of Torah study and mitzvah observance. The results of all of these programs should be measured for success and should be compared to other programs in order to indicate which were the most successful.

Overall, kiruv professionals need to move out of the mode of teaching small classes and hosting small Shabbos meal events to sophisticated marketing and strategic planning approaches. in a certain manner of speaking, we are “selling” Torah and a time-tested and authentic Torah lifestyle. There is much we can learn from successful marketers about how to utilize tools such as social marketing and referral selling and to adapt them for kiruv purposes.

Lesson # 7: The Biggest Opportunity: Turn EVERY frum shul into an Outreach Center

There are more than 1,000 frum shuls in North America. This represents billions of dollars of real estate, almost a million Torah-schooled individuals, tens of thousands of families, thousands of staff members and millions upon millions of dollars that could be contributed by those who belong to the shuls.

It is indeed a painful sight to see that most of these buildings are empty during most of the six days of the week. Most of shul membership is concerned primarily about the welfare of their own families and they lack a broader “Klal Yisroel” outlook.

In the meantime, the streets surrounding these shuls are filled with unaffiliated, not-yet-observant, largely uneducated Jews, many of whom are genuinely interested in Judaism. And thus far, in most cases, “never the twain shall meet.” So how do we bridge the gap between the frum shul members and those unaffiliated Jews who live nearby?

The answer appears to be relatively simple and absolutely plausible. We need a handful of shuls to serve as test sites to determine how best to replicate the success of outreach shuls like the Village Shul in Toronto, Ahavas Yisroel in Denver and the MJE at the Jewish Centre in Manhattan by establishing an outreach unit within their existing Orthodox shuls. If shuls can allocate some comparatively modest resources to hire a dynamic, young, energetic kiruv rabbi and rebbitzin and to provide them with some funding for programming, space in which to operate and a small group of supportive shul members to work as kiruv volunteers, their shul would be filled with a new dynamism, providing MANY additional benefits, both measurable and immeasurable. Aside from attracting additional attendees, many of whom will become new members of the shul, meaningful, explanatory programs such as beginners services can benefit many existing members as well as the new recruits. By learning how to reach out to new recruits by becoming host families, Partners in Torah, mentors and chesed ambassadors, the existing shul membership will increase its own level of spirituality and dedication. The lives of their members will be filled with considerably more meaning and purpose. The shul will move from being largely a self-centered “club” toward becoming an inspired, outreach oriented, Klal Yisroel focused “lightbulb” for its community. And this is truly a “win, win, win” situation for the givers, the receivers and Avinu shebashomayim (our Father in Heaven).

This requires outreach, visionary rabbis and a few understanding, supportive balabatim. Help is available from The National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP), AJOP and the existing outreach shuls. Outreach and inspirational programming is available from YU, Aish HaTorah, Gateways, Chabad HQ, NCSY and other skilled and experienced outreach programs in North America and Israel.

Of course, a shul which was indeed very successful in this outreach endeavor could eventually bring a small kiruv kollel within the shul, which would provide “inreach” programming to existing members as well as “outreach” programming to the unaffiliated. The House of Jacob Mikveh Israel shul in Calgary is one such example of how an in-house kollel impacts the existing shul membership.

Additionally, part time outreach rabbis, rebbitzins and teachers can enhance the programs being delivered by the existing shul Rabbi and Rebbitzin. For example, the Village Shul has approximately 250 family members, yet it has five male teachers and four female teachers, of which only two are full-time employees. In most communities, paid, part-time teachers and volunteer teachers and chevrusas are readily available, and the part time, paid positions are very affordable.

Lesson # 8. Heart to Heart Works Best

After four decades in the field, some as a kiruv professional and consultant and most as a volunteer rabbi, teacher, board member, program creator and speaker, Rav Moshe Ibn Ezra’s words ring loudly and clearly: “Dvorim ha-yotzim min ha-leiv, nichnosim el ha-leiv.” It’s all about heart – the heart to listen, to care, to extend a helping hand, to say a kind word, to offer a timely piece of advice, the heart to be a rodef sholom, a shochain tov, or a chevrusa or mentor (pursuer of peace, good neighbor or learning partner), the heart to be cognizant of making a kiddush Hashem and the heart to view other Jews as part of one’s own family.

I believe in the Jewish People and I believe in the “ner Hashem” (“candle of G-d,” referring to the soul) that G-d put inside every Jew to illuminate their existence. It is only a matter of stepping outside of our own “daled amos” (personal space) and recognizing the need to reach out with confidence in our potential., We can then join the ranks of those who fulfill the crucial mitzvah of “lelameid” alongside the mitzvah “lilmod” (to teach as well as to learn).

May Hashem bless all of your endeavors in this arena with success beyond that which you ever imagined possible.

Rabbi Zale Newman has been involved in the world of kiruv for the past 43 years, mostly within the framework of NCSY (where he served at every level from advisor to International Director) and with the Village Shul in Toronto. He is perhaps best recognized as the founder and voice of Uncle Moishy (of Uncle Moishy and the Mitzvah Men fame), which has produced 18 bestselling music albums, 13 DVD’s and multiple world tours over the past 33 years.

[1] See “kimai tzaischa mei-Eretz Mitzrayim erenu niflaos” (Just as in the days you departed Egypt will I show them wonders – Micha 7:16).

[2] Also, see Mrs. Aliza Bulow’s essay in this issue.

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