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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14 comments to Tempest in a Teapot

  • Ori

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

  • L. Oberstein

    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 named after her great grandmother, my mother, and now will actually live in the ways of her ancestors , is a great source of nachas to me. Don’t forget that the Forward is a Socialist paper and was always cool to religious observance. It is sour grapes that the Reform and secular complain. Let them do something positive to stop intermarriage, I haven’t seen it. Steinhardt is investing with this group because they succeed. All the Reform do is complain.

  • Aaron Leibowitz

    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 also believe it is a chilul Hashem, a desecration of Gods name, which the rabbi’s teach us uses the seal of Emet, Truth. Anyone representing God must be absolutely honest in the they present themselves and never be perceived as manipulating or lying.

  • smb

    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

  • Shlomip

    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 a good choice for themselves.

    That might not be to become observant, it might be to incorporate something they learnt into their lifestyle. At least they’ll be making a choice then.

    I truly want these students to be in that position to make that choice. If they evaluate and inspect Judaism, and they say “No.” I’ll still love them and respect them for their choice! I tell each student that when I meet them. “We are here for you as a resource and if you want to find out about your heritage, great, if not, so be it. I do believe you will not have actually made a proper choice.”

  • Dovid Goldman

    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 to make informed choices. You can “make someone frum” long enough to mess up their lives but never long enough for it to last. Those of us who counsel individuals who are on a learning path MUST be focused on providing them the support they need and want to bring Torah into their own lives, enabling them to say their own naaseh v’nishma.
    Certainly, as those who see the Derech HaEms as the ultimate tov, we want to see them get to the point where they are shomrei mitzvos. At the same time, in my own almost ten years of experience, I have seen the understanding throughout the kiruv world on all levels that whether someone “becomes frum” or not does not automaticvally determine our success or failure. Often, it is a success when someone reaches the point that they support their children’s decisions to learn and later embrace their frum life when they marry and have children, for example, or that speak openly in support of a kiruv organization and invite friends to events, etc. Their time to “become frum” may be somewhere down the line or it may not come at all. If you will judge them on that, you don’t belong in kiruv.
    Bottom line: Kiruv should be about supporting people along the Derech Hashem which is the best we can do for them. Where they choose to take it is their bechira, not ours. If you are really out to “make people frum,” you’re right that it is wrong – for your reasons as well as these.

  • Pinchas Avruch

    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 ultimate birthright (the source of our “birthright” to the Holy Land). Do I hope they’ll find Jewish meaning in Torah? Do I hope they’ll utilize Torah as a vehicle for personal growth? Sure I do…but I am open about that. I state very clearly, early on, that Torah is the G-d given vehicle I use to find meaning and purpose in life and I am trying to afford them the opportunity to do the same. But that’s far from an expectation that they will become frum.

    What ever happened to the value of one mitzvah? My Rabbonim and mentors told me that the definition of “success” (for lack of a better term) in kiruv is to help a Jew feel motivated to do A mitzvah that he didn’t care about doing before.

    Do I think their Jewish experience will be most rewarding, most satifying if they accept a life of Torah and mitzvos? Certainly…and when the relationship is developed enough I do tell them that. But the relationship is NOT predicated on that outcome.

    And as I have spoken to my colleagues about this specific issue, at conferences and in one-on-one conversations, it seems rather universal that the motivation of mekarvim is to enrich the lives of Hashem’s children by offering pathways to meaning, not to mandate change. And as someone who has long been uncomfortable with the expression of “making people frum”, I can tell you that in the kiruv circles in which I circulate it is an expression that is VERY rarely heard.

    I do agree that a deceptive approach would be offensive and disrespectful. But because I respect the intelligence of my students, I know that this approach will be counterproductive – that alone would discourage me from utilizing this tactic.

    But I have long said “Torah sells itself”: if, after all the Q&A, the student is motivated to embrace it then they will so choose; and if they are not so motivated, no amount of spin or cajoling on my part will make a difference.

  • Chezkel - 1A7B

    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 to the antagonist is called deception and subterfuge, to the protagonist is called salesmanship. Anybody with a product to sell knows its strengths and deficiencies. If he wants to be successful, he has to interest the customer with the strengths and do his best to play down the deficiencies. A salesman’s job is to show the customer why he should buy the product, not why he shouldn’t. Though it is obviously unethical to actively cover up the shortcomings or to deny them or misrepresent them, he doesn’t have to point to them and shine spotlights on them, either.

    If you are my age or older, you probably learned business ethics from Johnny Mercer:

    >>> You’ve got to accentuate the positive
    >>> Eliminate the negative
    >>> Latch on to the affirmative
    >>> Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

    >>> You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum
    >>> Bring gloom down to the minimum
    >>> Have faith, or pandemonium
    >>> [is] Liable to walk upon the scene

    This is what we call salesmanship and there is no reason to call it deception unless you are an antagonist.

  • tzippi

    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.

  • Bob Miller

    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.

  • Esther Miriam

    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 receiving end of both and can tell you that the first way is extremely insulting, transparent, an counter-productive – and common. This type of “kiruv” ends with putting down the person for not deciding to do things exactly you way. (In my case, for example, I decided to go to study in Israel for a year after college – but certain families who had been “doing kiruv” openly pressured me to only go to one specific seminary, which was not a fit for me at all but was a place that would have continued to press their specific vision of frum life.)

    On the other hand, genuine kiruv is what others have described here – respectful, genuinely warm toward a fellow Jew, honest. People aren’t stupid and know the difference. As with anything else, those in the Orthodox community can’t change what non-Orthodox think, say, or do by writing articles complaining about it, but rather all we can do is be sure to not be the negative example, to change if we are, and to try to prevent the negative from happening by others in our community rather than defending it.

  • dr. bill

    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 drush.

    And no Bob Miller, it is not an attack on kiruv. I work with two who are in various stages of the process of increasing their religious observance and must clean up after the tactics of kiruv organizations. I have little tolerance for fabulous proofs (codes, pseudo science, etc.) that implode under the test of reason.

    Interestingly, the saturday WSJ had a piece by Karen Armstrong that made the telling point, she talking of the church, about the consequences of scientific knowledge becoming a part of church doctrine. “Vie ess christelt zach, azoy yidelt zach.” IMHO such tactics tend to bring religion down a few notches. If you can read past her non-traditional views, there is an important point about science and religion.

  • Ori

    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.

  • Bob Miller

    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.