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
5 years 11 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.

5 years 11 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
5 years 11 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 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.

Esther Miriam
5 years 11 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 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.

Bob Miller
5 years 11 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.