Rabbi Zev Kahn
Working Together is Smarter and Better
Recognizing our limited resources, here are some practical suggestions to help kiruv organizations work smarter and better together.
I attended the recent AJOP convention, where many of the issues raised in the recent issue of Klal Perspectives were discussed and developed extensively. Listening to several of the authors passionately state their case, and following the back and forth between them and with the audience, made for a fascinating, ‘hands on’ examination of the critical issues at hand. Personally, I was energized and feel enthusiastic about the future of kiruv having so many great people working so hard at making our efforts more successful.
I’d like to suggest some practical steps that have helped kiruv organizations in Chicago work smarter and better. I run a kiruv organization, called JET – Jewish Education Team, which is based in Chicago and that reaches approximately 1,000 college students, young professionals and adults.
Here are some of the ideas that have worked for JET:
My first idea is to share students. Before I started JET, I worked with Rabbi Yehoshua Karsh running TLC (Torah Learning Center) in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook, offering adult programming to the neighboring suburbs. Later on, a friend of mine, David Begoun, started his own organization in the neighboring suburb of Deerfield, where his parents lived. He called to ask me if I had any names of people who might be interested. Over the years, I had built up a large database and with a quick search found about 100 names and I emailed all the contact information I had to David. I could have protected those names, given him just a few or delayed getting back to him but I thought to myself: “Here is someone new starting out. Let me give him a chance. How much will it really affect us if I gave him our students?” Looking back, it really did not affect us at all. Instead, today, Rabbi Begoun and his wife, Ali, run a thriving kiruv organization in Deerfield called the L’Chaim Center. Rabbi Begoun is an outstanding mekarev. I don’t believe that my list is what made his organization successful, but I’m sure it helped. David has never forgotten my small act of chesed, our friendship has grown and we now do programs together.
Today, there are a number of kiruv organizations working in the suburbs of Chicago. Even after moving into the college and young adult field, JET continued to do occasional programs in the suburbs, partly to reach parents of our students and partly for fundraising. For a while, each of these organizations would bring in a guest speaker, advertising around the suburbs. Sometimes, there would be two or three events a week, especially in May and November. Since the suburbs are close to each other, some of our students overlap. While I’m sure they appreciated the choice and it looks good on a calendar to see so many events, attendance was suffering.
So a group of heads of these organizations had a meeting and decided to try work together. Even though some of our students overlapped and it might have made sense to protect our speakers and students, upon closer examination, we realized that our target audiences are essentially different. For example, Heritage is for Russians, Torah Academy of Buffalo Grove appeals to parents of young kids, JET is for parents of college kids, and the L’Chaim Center is focused specifically in Deerfield.
We came up with a simple strategy. First, we shared our calendars of upcoming events on a Google document and agreed to try not to have events the same week. Then, we planned ahead and decided that when a speaker contacts any of us about an upcoming speaking tour, we would email each other to see if any other organization would like to participate jointly. So when Rabbi Ken Spiro emailed me a few weeks later, I emailed everyone, and after some back and forth, we came up with a date and venue for a joint event. We designed a flyer with the logos of all the organizations and sent it out to all our lists. As a result, we had a much larger attendance and I was able to split the costs among the organizations, though I did most of the work for that event.
Later that year, Rabbi Begoun organized a pre-Pesach event with Charlie Harary. We had a standing room only audience in a much bigger venue and everyone loved it. Now, we are busy planning another pre-Pesach event – at an even bigger venue than last year. Perhaps I could afford the time and money to do one or two big speaker events a year, but now with this system, I can have at least six! I only have to put major effort into one or two of them and I’m almost guaranteed to have a decent turnout.
Working with Baal Habatim
The JLE Mentors Mission is an example of a partnership that has had enormous success, and that has benefited JET directly. Danny Lemberg, a former talmid of Ohr Somayach in Yerushalayim who now lives in Lakewood, came up with an amazing idea. Ohr Somayach has been running a very successful program every summer and winter, called JLE. Between thirty and forty students from all over North America come for three weeks of learning Torah from some of the top kiruv rabbis, with rousing Shabbosim and lots of touring.
Danny had the idea to bring along successful baal habatim from Lakewood for five days of the JLE program. This program includes the same elements of a JLE, except the baal habatim are each assigned a student or two with whom to bond, with the intent that they will stay connected long after the program. The Mentors Mission has been a phenomenal success. When I saw it for the first time, I knew I had to bring Chicago mentors who could develop a relationship with our local students.
One shining success: Eli Finestone mentored Andrew (now Ari) Tennant. When they both got back to Chicago, Eli offered Ari a job at a hotel in order to help him make some money for yeshiva. Ari is now in his second year of the Center program at Ohr Somayach. Over the summer, he came back to Chicago to visit his parents and for the entire time he was there, Eli hired him in a separate job, paying him more to help cover his second year of yeshiva. His parents were thrilled that while his other friends were struggling to find a job, Ari found one immediately; as a result, they were much more supportive of his second year of learning.
I realize that I might lose some funding from some of my frum supporters, who will now support Ohr Somayach. But what I gain in these mentors building strong, healthy relationships with our top students and the passion for kiruv they bring to the community far outweighs that.
In addition, the Mentors Mission arranges a follow up Shabbaton in Lakewood every Presidents Day Weekend, when close to a hundred students travel to experience Lakewood. They meet the Roshei Yeshiva, they sit and learn with talmidim of BMG, and they spend an incredible Shabbos with Rabbi Simcha Bunim Cohen’s kehilla. For members of the community, for the students, for Ohr Somayach, for mekarvim, it’s truly zeh neneh, vzeh neneh –– v’lo chaser (each side benefits and no one loses).
Crossing State Boundaries
Chicago is a great city that draws people from all over North America. Yet many students go to schools outside of Illinois, such as University of Michigan, University of Indiana and University of Wisconsin, all of which have large, successful kiruv operations. Many of these students come home to Chicago for spring, summer and winter breaks, and when they graduate, many move back to Chicago. And many of them have friends who are JET students. A few years ago, I started making regular calls and sending regular emails to the mekarvim on these campuses, asking them for names of students from Chicago with whom they had a relationship. My thought was that instead of them being ‘dormant’ over their breaks, we could invite them to our programs and keep them involved. We now have a number of these students who have graduated, moved to Chicago and transitioned into our young professionals program, and a number of others who regularly come to us for Shabbos. Occasionally, they will even bring new students along, as well.
NCSY, Hillel, JLIC, Chabad…
We are trying to do the same with NCSY. We are still in the early stages, but JET is now working with NCSY to meet the more active students in their senior year of high school before they head to university in the Chicago area.
JET also has a great relationship with Hillel, with all of our Maimonides programs being run in Hillel buildings. This year a mikvah in Champaign will b’ezras Hashem, be completed with the cooperation of JET, Hillel, JLIC, Chabad, the local Federation and even members of the local reform synagogue.
We have a great relationship with two shuls in West Rogers Park – Sha’arei Tzedek Mishkan Yair and Mikor Hachaim, which are both made up predominantly of baal teshuva families. These families host our students for Shabbos and are excellent role models for them. In addition, we benefit from their Carlebach Friday night minyan, as well as their quiet and inspiring davening, beis midrash programming, scholar in residence programs, megilah readings… the list goes on.
Even in the area of fundraising, I believe we can work together. I have no problem sharing names with other organizations and I’d also like to share ideas for events and best practices. I love some of the fundraising events run in Chicago. Gesher haTorah runs a great event each year, called Just Dinner. Arie Crown has a sophisticated evening of entertainment. JET can’t copy these events, but other cities could, if I had the opportunity to share the idea with them. I’d like to hear of other great events in other cities.
We need more interaction. Instead of running so fast all the time, let’s stop and spend some time thinking about how we can help each other. Maybe a two-day retreat to share ideas could be arranged.
- Save time and money
- Make students happy
- Make donors happy
- Make Hashem happy (I’m guessing)
Whether or not time and resources for kiruv are running out, let’s at least use what we have in a smarter and better way.
Rabbi Zev Kahn, who is better known in the Chicagoland area as the “Rugby Rabbi” from his days as a former Maccabi Games Gold Medalist, is the Founding Director of JET – Jewish Education Team, the largest student outreach organization in Illinois. Zev can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.