Tempest in a Teapot


Eytan Kobre asserts, in his most recent contribution, that the secular Jewish media turns free-market economics into sinister “pressure” when the word “charedi” can be placed before it. And, of course, he is right. Whether it’s separate swimming or cellphones without Internet, “serving the customer” becomes “bowing to pressure” when the customer is a Charedi Jew whose preferences stem from his or her religious beliefs. Yes, the normal and appropriate is turned by the media into something bizarre or sinister when the observant are involved — but it would be a mistake to believe that this only applies to the world of business.

The same is true, for example, in the world of Jewish philanthropy. To wit, Largest Outreach Effort for Alums Of Birthright Raises Concerns, appearing in The Forward. Were the effort in question not “characterized as Orthodox,” it would not raise any concerns at all — in fact, anyone raising “concerns” would be criticized for questioning the right of Jewish philanthropists to make their own choices and investment decisions.

Birthright Israel, as we all know, was co-founded by Michael Steinhardt. Three years ago, Birthright Israel NEXT was created to do “the critical job of follow up.” And Steinhardt — no Orthodox Jew himself — specified through a “restricted gift” that his funding for Birthright Israel NEXT should go in large part to an organization called the Jewish Enrichment Center.

A classic case of a donor stating how his donation should be spent, which is non-controversial, right? Wrong! The Jewish Enrichment Center has been labeled an Orthodox outreach organization, and that makes Steinhardt’s gift very controversial indeed.

Can you imagine? They’re spending his money to offer “inspirational and Torah-learning classes” rather than “secular Jewish cultural events like concerts and parties.” Never mind that Jewish education has a 3000-year success record of strengthening “personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people” — why, the very things that Birthright is supposed to do — while concerts and parties have absolutely no demonstrable record of success in those areas. We’re not talking about logic here, we’re talking about spending money the way The Forward thinks Steinhardt ought to spend it.

The JEC is also criticized by some, like the former director of the New York University Hillel, and Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, for not being pluralistic. “Pluralism”, as we all know, is an absolutist position masquerading as tolerant and inclusive. “Pluralism” is the belief that there is no right and wrong when it comes to Judaism, only a multitude of “roll your own” possibilities — otherwise known as the Reform position. So when Eric Yoffie says a group isn’t “pluralistic,” what he means is that the organization doesn’t adopt the Reform view of Jewish authenticity.

Yoffie asserts that the JEC is being dishonest. “When some people say, let’s do away with labels, that’s simply another way of saying, I want to promote my type of Judaism without talking about it, without being honest and upfront about it,” he argues. He’s almost right. What they are really saying is, we want to teach Judaism and Jewish tradition without the listener being encumbered by artificial distinctions, much less the preconceived notions that others pushed upon you for years about how the Orthodox hate you or believe you not to be Jews — myths belied by the very existence of organizations like the JEC. The Reform movement, of course, has taken the lead in promoting those myths for generations. So who, indeed, is being dishonest?

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Bob Miller
6 years 2 months ago

Dr Bill said above, “And no Bob Miller, it is not an attack on kiruv.”

It often is, even if not in Dr. Bill’s case.

I find the “codes” to be problematic, but I think those who push codes and the like really believe them. And not all support from observation of the natural world is bogus.

6 years 2 months ago

To summarize Dr. Bill’s point, if you cheat than you make it appear that you cannot win without cheating. This is not an attack on kiruv, I have no experience of being personally cheated like that. It’s an attack of cheating in general.

dr. bill
6 years 2 months ago

In just this last week, i became aware of two (new for me) scientific examples used by kiruv organizations / individuals – one on the average period of lunation and a second on the number of stars in the universe. In both cases, the accuracy of chazal was attributed to a mesorah from sinai. The facts were hardly as portrayed; but to my mind that is perhaps the minor point. More importantly, understanding how the Rabbis adapted the science and astrology of their secular environment, teaches important lessons in the halakhic process and the nature of effective… Read more »

Esther Miriam
6 years 2 months ago

Interesting – I jut happened to read something called “The One Minute Salesman”, and the book argued that the real purpose in selling should start with identifying what the customer actually wanted or needed, and only selling with that in mind. In other words, not starting from the position of, what can I say to convince this person to become frum, but rather, getting to know this person and what they want/need/aspire, etc., and then showing how Judaism would benefit them with this. As someone who was raised Conservative and chose to become Orthodox, I’ve been on the… Read more »

Bob Miller
6 years 2 months ago

Many of those who attack methods or tactics used in kiruv are not in favor of better methods or tactics at all. Rather, they want kiruv not to exist whatsoever, so they point to real or alleged flaws in some organizations’ kiruv methodologies as a way to cast aspersions on the whole enterprise.

6 years 2 months ago

I’ll add my voice to the last few comments.
When my Partner in Torah, an involved (Reform) Jew, asked me why I do it I told her that I get to meet fascinating people, have some stimulating discussion, and am forced to crack the books. No one wants to feel like a cheftza shel mitzvah.

My goal, and the goal of the directors I’ve spoken to, has never been to “make someone frum”, though it’s gratifying when it happens. What we can have as a goal is to create ambassadors for authentic Judaism, as our partners circulate among relatives and friends.

Chezkel - 1A7B
6 years 2 months ago

As long as we are all ganging up on Aaron Leibowitz, I don’t want to be left out.

Anybody who is familiar with Rav Noach Weinberg (ZT”L)’s I/You/He-Syndrome lecture on terminology knows that atagonists and protagonists will address the identical concept with terms that fit their agenda. Examples: In the eyes of the protagonist he is educating; in the eyes of the antagonist he is brainwashing. To the protagonist this event is a revolution, to the antagonist it is a catastrophe. To the protagonist he is a freedom fighter, to the antagonist he is a terrorist. etc.

Likewise in our discussion, what… Read more »

Pinchas Avruch
6 years 2 months ago

I take issue with Aaron Leibowitz’s estimation of the motivation of the “kiruv circuit”. As someone who is (and has long been) actively involved in teaching Torah to our brothers and sisters who never had the priviledge of a Torah education, I am not trying to “make them frum”. Indeed, how could I have the chutzpah to think that I could “make” any clear thinking person accept Torah and mitzvos upon themselves?

Rather, I am involved in an effort to share the Ribono Shel Olam’s Torah – His emes – with His children. I am trying to share with them the… Read more »

Dovid Goldman
6 years 2 months ago

R’ Aaron #3,
If I may, your understanding of kiruv as expressed in this comment is both somewhat shallow and completely unrealistic. There is no such thing as “making someone frum” and if you have been around long enough you must know that. Kiruv programs exist to provide a path to people FROM where they are FORWARD. They exist to provide them with with the kinds of opportunities that can be part of a process of meaningful learning and growth.
It must be, and eventually always becomes, the responsibility of each individual to find their own derech as they learn enough… Read more »

6 years 2 months ago

I currently work in an Outreach position on campus. Call it Kiruv, call it whatever you want.

When I came here, I had one objective. To enable Jewish students to make a real choice. We all know that choice implies that there are two things someone is weighing up and that after inspection, the person decides on one of two options. How do I achieve that objective, I try being a kiddush Hashem as best as I know how and allow these students to ‘experience’ Judaism. I do believe most that come to have a positive experience, will then make… Read more »

6 years 2 months ago

Unfortunatly, when Jews are not taught much about their heritage and the importance, then they don’t understand the importance of supporting Jewish causes.

Museums are nice and have good info, but when we help a Jewish cause like Birthright, we are helping to make an impact on people that will last a lifetime. Plus, if philantropists give to Jewish education, then more children can be able to receive it. The impact is both physical and spiritual and lasts for eternity

Aaron Leibowitz
6 years 2 months ago

I think you completely miss the point here. As someone who has been active in teaching Torah to the non orthodox for years, and seen the kiruv circuit from the inside, I can absolutely say that deception and subterfuge is part and parcel of the system, and we all know it. The only reason we are offering these programs is to make them frum, but we would never wear that truth on our sleeves,because then they would not come. That is a deeply disrespectful posture to assume towards anyone, and no one should be surprised when offense is taken. I… Read more »

L. Oberstein
6 years 2 months ago

My sister’s granddaughter went on a Birth Right trip prior to college. She met an orthodox boy at a Birth Right reunion and now ,with help from me in guiding her to Gateways, she is now observant and engaged to marry a shomer shabbos young man. This is due to the Birth Right follow up program and reunion, which I now learn is really Ohr Samayach. Kol Hakavod. As far as I am concerned it was all worth it if this one young woman has “returned” to an observant life style after 3 generations .The fact that she is… Read more »

6 years 2 months ago

In general, journalists seem to not get the free market. It’s not just a matter of Orthodox Jews spending their money.