By Zev Gotkin
(Response to “Dishonest Kiruv! The Building of Responsible Jewish Outreach Movements” by Rabbi ShmulyYanklowitz)
Many in the Torah-observant world would likely consider me an “outreach success story.” Coming from a secular background I had little knowledge of Jewish teachings or observance when I entered my first year of college. However, I was open to spirituality and thirsting for truth. Naturally, I found myself relishing the Torah classes provided by the outreach rabbis working on my campus.
In his article, “Dishonest Kiruv! The Building of Responsible Jewish Outreach Movements,” Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, an orthodox rabbi and Jewish outreach professional, criticizes some of the methods and actions of his peers in Jewish outreach. I believe Jewish outreach is probably one of the holiest and most needed pursuits in which one can engage. Although I am pained to admit some of the negative things he discusses do occasionally take place, I am happy he got some of these issues out into the open. As someone who has truly benefited from the tireless work of Jewish outreach professionals, I wish to present what I believe are some criticisms as well as challenges that I believe should be addressed in the world of Jewish outreach.
I am reminded of a teaching in the Ethics of the Fathers that one should emulate Aaaron of the Bible by “bringing [others] close to the Torah.” The Lubavitcher Rebbe highlights that the verse implores one to bring people close to the Torah rather than bring the Torah close to the people. When one presents the Torah observant way of life to fellow Jews, one need not fear that others won’t be interested if shown the authentic version. A person involved in Jewish outreach must not resort to cheap gimmicks or dishonest tactics to water down the Torah in attempt to make it “easier” for their students.
In the spirit of the mitzvah of judging others favorably, let’s take into account the challenges facing those in Jewish outreach before we criticize what some may or may not be doing right. The passionate and sincere outreach professional is charged with presenting Judaism in its purest and most unadulterated form while at the same time making it relevant and appealing to the average non-observant Jew. Those who work with the demographic of college students know that with an intermarriage rate among American Jewry of 47% time is of the essence. After taking the above into consideration, we must acknowledge that those who work in orthodox Jewish outreach are human beings. Some may occasionally fall into the trap of sugar-coating the demanding nature of Jewish commitmentor downplaying the challenges of being a Torah-observant Jew in the modern world. I assume most of this is not done willfully, but rather is motivated by a sincere desire to cultivate interest among students in their heritage. This problem is understandable, but not justifiable.
Interestingly, Rabbi Yanklowitz does not consider himself an ordinary Jewish outreach professional. He is a self-proclaimed “social justice rav” and states that “The best outreach involves…giving to others, social justice work, and inviting others to have an impact on the world.” He adds that all this should be “infused with Jewish learning and conversations.” Social justice, or “tikkun olam,” and community service are all beautiful activities and a part of being a Torah Jew. However, an orthodox educator must be ever-wary of falling into the same trap which the Reform/Conservative/Reconstructionist movements fell into of placing an inordinate amount of time on social justice at the expense of textual study and ritual observance. Social justice activities are good, but they are not activities on which Jews have a monopoly. College campuses and communities abound with secular social justice and community service opportunities in which young Jews can get involved. Acts of chesed (kindness) are not enough to maintain the distinctness and separateness of being Jewish. While some may bemoan the lack of emphasis on social justice within most orthodox Jewish outreach, social justice is not a uniquely Jewish pursuit. However, lighting Shabbat candles, wrapping tefillin (phylacteries), keeping kosher etc. are what keep make being Jewish unique and what keeps us a distinct and “holy people.”
Finally, I will raise a few of my own concerns.
1) Don’t push too hard. In their sincere excitement and tremendous caring about the welfare of their fellow Jews, outreach professionals can occasionally push their students too hard and too fast. Mitzvot have to be taken on slowly and carefully. Jewish ideas and concepts take time to be fully integrated into one’s personality. A person who bites off more than they can chew will inevitably choke and cough up everything that was stuffed into their spiritually hungry mouth. Sometimes it is the baalei teshuva themselves who move too quickly or who grow in an unhealthy direction, but nonetheless it is the responsibility of the outreach worker to help guide them and make sure their growth is grounded. This leads me to my second point.
2) Follow-up. It is crucial that a person involved in outreach follow up with their charges to see how they are growing and developing. I have heard many a complaint from a newly religious Jew that once they became observant their former teacher lost interest in them and moved onto the next “victim.” This is wrong. Outreach is about is working with human beings. The job of someone in Jewish outreach is not to churn out cookie-cutter “frummies” like an assembly line, but to respect the individuality and experiences of their students. In a recent article titled ‘When Judaism becomes a Drug’ blogger, Pop Chassid criticizes those Jewish outreach workers who make Judaism seem like a high-inducing drug by “implying that a person cannot be happy or healthy unless they are religious.” In my experience, not all who leave Orthodox Judaism are unhappy. On the contrary many become happier. Yes, as Orthodox Jews we may believe some of their “happiness” is stemming from the opposite of holiness and truth, but using propaganda and scare tactics is not an effective way to reach out to our fellow Jews. It is also important to recognize that while most people who become observant are on a quest to pursue a life of truth and meaning, some may be taking on an orthodox lifestyle in order to get a superficial high or escape painful realities in their own lives. We must be wary of this and make sure those whom we bring close to Torah adjust to their new lifestyle in a healthy manner. Otherwise the outreach worker is guilty of being an enabler. Jewish outreach is not about “making people frum.” It is about returning Torah and mitzvot to their rightful heirs in a spiritually and psychologically healthy way devoid of tricks or sales pitches. A person cannot be “sold” on Torah Judaism. One will only remain connected if one’s desire to connect is allowed to come from within.
3) Respect the background of your student. Finally, I would like to address Rabbi Yanklowitz’s point that some returnees to traditional Judaism are encouraged to resent or hate their previous life. Some baalei teshuva unfortunately disassociate from family or friends, feel excessive shame and guilt over past decisions, give up on positive hobbies or pursuits, or are dismissive of the skills or knowledge they acquired in the secular world. This is often the result of irresponsible outreach. Dishonest kiruv makes people think there was nothing of value in their “past life.” On the contrary, the Chassidic master, the Baal Shem Tov, taught that everything that happens to us in life is the product of Divine Providence. Where we were born and everything we have experienced is purposeful and part of the Divine plan. A Jew who was born “far” away from Torah and mitzvot was not placed where he/she was by accident. Every person is given a unique mission in life to uplift and reveal the holy sparks hidden within their life’s experiences and interactions. Those of us who adopted a more observant lifestyle must be a Kiddush Hashem (a sanctification of G-d’s name), by being a blessing to our families and all whom we meet. True Jewish outreach enables individuals to take whatever skills, talents, and experiences they acquired while not observant and elevate them and transform them into something that reveals G-dliness in the world.