Posted on | January 16, 2008 | By Guest Contributor | 19 Comments
By Yaakov Weinstein
A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with a college student. This student had just enjoyed an inspiring summer of learning and was going back to college with a new vision for religious activities and events to facilitate his continuing growth in learning. To insure the soundness of his plans, he spoke to a number of Jewish, Orthodox, people supposedly knowledgeable about halachic Judaism on campus. He related to me that one rabbi told him: be sure to serve alcohol that’s the way to attract the non-religious kids.
Disregarding the major issue that serving alcohol to minors is illegal (and the disdainful tone that of course non-religious students would be attracted by alcohol), this led us to a discussion of kiruv on campus. Specifically, should religious kids be doing kiruv while at college? In the following paragraphs I will try to relate my opinion on this thorny (and ill-defined) subject. However, before relating my opinion I would like to note that every student is different. I believe that what I write below is appropriate for the typical student but that there may be students who could and should deviate from my prescription. Also, I ask everyone to read the entire post before commenting.
So, should college students be doing kiruv on campus? In short, my answer is NO! A students’ primary (spiritual) focus while at college should be his or her own religious well being. This is especially true in light of what we have discussed previously concerning the challenges facing students on campus (link). Thus, I would strongly discourage students from running activities geared solely to attract the non-religious student to halachic Judaism or Hillel, and I strongly disagree that ‘doing kiruv’ is a proper justification for attending a college not run under religious Jewish auspices (there are other justifications as we have discussed) It should go without saying that I despise the suggestion of illegal activity in the name of kiruv.
Why not do kiruv?
No doubt many people reading this post know (or are) people who became frum while at college (I know many such people too). If so why not encourage students who are already religious to actively encourage this phenomenon? The reasons not to encourage such activities are on many levels:
1) chayecha kodem – ones own spiritual growth takes precedence over that of others. I do not mean to get into a halachic discussion of this concept but merely to point out that most students at college are not yet very strong in many Jewish subjects. These years are an especially important time for religious growth (as by this points students are hopefully mature enough to realize the importance of religion, generally do not have to worry about making a living and lack the resposibility of a spouse and kids) thus ones time should be spent on their own learning.
2) The opposite of the above is that when ‘doing kiruv’ one may come across questions they cannot answer. This can lead to doubts about religious Judaism and an eventual exit from the community. I feel this is especially important for those who have come recently to a halacha-based life and may have a ‘proselyizing spirit.’ Those who know the least should not be the ones teaching others.
3) Sometimes suggested kiruv activities may violate halacha. Joining three mechitza dancing on Simchas Torah (one section for mixed dancing) or joining any other halachiaclly questionable activity to show that frum students are cool too is just not a good idea.
What can students do?
The above applies to what I’ll call ‘active’ kiruv or attempting to bring export religious Judaism to others. However, there are many time when kiruv opportunities can come to a student. For example, a non-religious Jew may decide to check out the Orthodox minyan. In such a case kinship to a fellow Jew (not to mention simple rules of kindness) demand that more knowledgable students take the time to ‘show him/her the ropes,’ answer any questions the student may have and just be friendly. Another such opportunity is the ‘study-with-a-buddy’ programs. In such programs students learn Jewish texts together. Those with a stronger background (who tend to be Orthodox) are paired with students whose backgrounds are not as strong. Again in this situation I think it appropriate that a religious student utililze this opportunity to show a students of a weaker background the beauty of their shared religion (note that even this type of program can lead to uncomfortable religious situations, as discussed in my last post, and students should be aware of this beforehand). Notice that in the two cases cited those who are not religious have approached those who are. To make a sports analogy, the situation is on religious turf. The activities I would discourage (though they may take on the guise of a religious ritual) are those where the religious students disrupt their basic routine in order to seek non-religious kids to influence.
Finally, I would like to encourage all students to view their fellow Jews not as kiruv material but in the spirit of kinship. Judging the success of interaction with our non-religious brethren based on their eventual level of halachic fidelity is 1) demeaning, and 2) bound to be disappointing. Most non-religious students will not become religious because of you. Rather, the goals of a religious student should center on perfecting his or her own knowledge of Judaism and character traits. If religious students on campus were to establish a community that was passionate in their beliefs while being honest, friendly, understanding and respectful, there is little question in mind that others would strive to join this community.