New Directions in Kiruv – Part One

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Kiruv is about bringing the old to the new. At last month’s annual convention of the Association of Jewish Outreach Programs (AJOP), its indomitable National Director, Rabbi Yitzchok “Itchie” Lowenbraun, staked the ranch on bringing the new to the old. By all accounts, he succeeded.

Rabbi Lowenbraun has been lovingly tending to AJOP for many years. You would have to try very hard to find something not to like about the Convention. It provides a great fix of spiritual adrenalin to the hundreds of people who work so tirelessly to bring Torah to anyone who will listen. People reconnect with friends, find ample time for productive networking, and listen to a variety of some of the best and most innovative presenters available.

This year, however, Rabbi Lowenbraun discovered a new mission. Like many others, he found the murmurings, the vague alienation and discontent within the FFB community worrisome. To be sure, the frum community is, BH, incredibly booming and strong – but there are too many sitting off to the side and wondering what it is all about. (One of the sessions I delivered was entitled “The Top Ten Reasons Frum People Are Unhappy With Their Yiddishkeit.” More on that at another time.) Rabbi Lowenbraun reasoned that kiruv professionals must have some of the tools with which to address spiritual dissatisfaction – and therefore a responsibility to address the problem. He banked on being able to take this new goal and interest an old profession to expand its horizons.

He made this hunch of his a theme of the convention in two ways. Many of the presentations to the professionals revolved around this theme. Additionally, he scheduled a second, parallel track concurrent with the convention for professionals. This track, open to the general public, was billed as an opportunity to hear from some of the best presenters in the world of kiruv, and to gain chizuk and inspiration from them.

Rabbi Lowenbraun had no idea whether anyone at all would come. Stamford, Connecticut is a bit of a drive from Flatbush and the Five Towns. But come they did – in droves. Days before the convention, he had to close registration when he maxed out at 300, and still had to turn down a few hundred more. Those attendees whom I spoke with found it more than worthwhile.

Where to now? Having demonstrated the demand for inspiration and the receptivity to kiruv presenters in the FFB community, where do we go from here? Many questions come to mind.

It would seem to me that Rabbi Lowenbraun’s hunch is correct. Kiruv professionals ought to have some of the goods that will be effective. In general, they are people people. As a group they are warm, caring, energetic, and dedicated. Equally importantly, they are a bit more open than others. They are not as afraid as some others to listen to new ideas or to make the acquaintance of new people. Because they have to make Yiddishkeit attractive to outsiders, they often have spent more time than others in both thinking through issues, and in studying the classic seforim that deal with them. They should be well suited to help FFBs deal with spiritual anemia and listlessness.

But what message or messages will they bring to the table? Will the arguments with which they interest a non-observant campus sophomore appeal at all to people with decades of yeshiva education? Much kiruv operates on the “ta’amu u-re’u” model. Bait people with good food and company, and they begin to take an interest in the rest of the package. FFB’s, however, don’t need bait, and don’t need to be convinced to give the fuller package a try. Been there, done that. Kiruv workers can sometimes rope ‘em in by painting an unrealistic, idyllic canvas describing the beauty of the frum community. They give out rose-colored glasses, which won’t work for jaded FFBs. Their glasses have been marred and scratched by realities within the community that leave them unhappy.

Kiruv professionals have been creative and inventive. They have come up with boilerplate arguments to overcome the objections of skeptics and scoffers. Many have been quite good. Some have been shallow. Some have been downright silly (I mean the Bible Codes, of course, still tragically used as snake oil by those who should know better), but that didn’t matter. Once new BTs involved themselves in mitzvos long enough to personally bond with HKBH and Torah, the arguments that lured them in became irrelevant. Or so the thinking went, even though there is ample evidence that this was not true, and new recruits later looked back with resentment at lines of argument that they later learned were inadequate.

Will we try the same strategies with the FFB world, developing new arguments for confident emunah that will appeal to those with years of experience? Will the arguments need to be more sophisticated, because the audience will be better educated in Torah content? Or can they be even less sophisticated, because so many in the traditional community have so little exposure to the secular counterarguments, that the unsophisticated argument conveyed with much enthusiasm will work quite well?

Are arguments of any kind the way to go? There has been an ongoing, endless debate about whether arguments should be conveyed as “proofs,” in the manner of some of the Rishonim, or whether proofs simply do not exist, and argument should be conveyed as lines of evidence, allowing belief (as R. Leib Kelemen elegantly phrased it) or buttressing it in those who already believe? Perhaps arguments are not the way to go at all, and we should follow in the way of the Slonimer Rebbe in Nesivos Shalom, who stressed again and again that within every Jewish neshamah resides a primal will to believe and an ease of attachment to the Divine. In other words, perhaps we ought not to tell people what they should believe, so much as show them who they are.

This is all uncharted territory. I have some thoughts about some of these questions, but they will await future installments.

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LG
3 years 6 months ago

Having attended the InReach conference, I find myself confused by R. Adlerstein’s description of the event as being “an opportunity to hear from some of the best presenters in the world of kiruv, and to gain chizuk and inspiration from them” and these many commentaries about the nature of kiruv.

It was advertised that the InReach Conference was designed for “people who want to help themselves, their families, friends and communities come closer to H'” (as written in the advertisement) — in other words, not particularly related to “kiruv professionals” — I even asked at registration mai nafkemina for holding it concurrent with the AJOP convention and was told there was no connection!

Although there have been other attempts to inspire the velt — such as with R. Tauber’s Shalhevet organization, I never thought that this conference was designed as a “Gateways for frum people” — I.e. trying to convince us of the fundamentals of our faith. Rather, my expectation was that the attendees would be ma’aminim who were looking for MORE, more ruchnius, more vitality in our connection to H’. As such, I was disappointed in the classes.

My feeling was that although there were many nice thoughts and ideas expressed, there was not nearly enough of a focus on the main point — which is how to make our avodas Hashem INCLUDE HASHEM! This is an extremely different project than trying to convince the unconvinced that there is H’ in the first place! Furthermore, I’m not at all sure that “kiruv professionals” are equipped to teach to that point. What I heard was a lot of nice, general chizuk about “getting close to your spouse” as opposed to coming closer to H’ through the marital relationship.

Again, perhaps it was an incorrect expectation, but I thought the conference intended to address the many ways in which people have lost a sense that they are developing a relationship with the Borei Olam through the observance of mitzvos – to address how to avoid becoming hollow or shallow in our Yiddishkeit. And there were definitely others who were also disappointed that I spoke with, although they too appreciated the idea of the conference.

It’s absolutely wonderful that such a conference was organized — now I just hope that the next one will stick closer to the advertising blurb.

So with the greatest respect to R. Adlerstein, I am still perplexed on his take on the conference.

Formerly Orthodox
3 years 6 months ago

Dissatisfied as well as satisfied FFBs, who may be exclusively focused on the details of halacha and have lost sight of the big picture, could definitely benefit from a review of some of the fundamentals of Jewish belief that inspire the uninitiated. Every Jew should understand the nature of the mission of the Jewish people in the world, and how the performance of mitzvot helps to achieve that goal, in addition to the personal benefits of mitzvah observance. Individuals and communities perhaps need to make changes to their observance of Yiddishkeit in order to better accomplish the basic purposes of their religion.

On the subject of how kiruv should be conducted (which seems to be proliferating in the comments, if it is not the original message of the post), I would suggest that since the realities of the Orthodox world don’t always match up to the ideals presented by kiruv professionals, (as evident in articles such as the surprisingly scathing “In Praise of Diversity” by the author of this post which appeared in “Klal Perspectives”, Vol. 1, Issue 1), perhaps young BTs should be warned of the possible perils that await them. For instance, we would like to have been informed about the inferior quality of the secular education in Jewish days schools, which, despite the emphasis on middos, is not compensated by a superior level of classroom behavior. Many years after becoming frum, we were dismayed to discover that higher secular education is discouraged, and young people are not given the opportunity to acquire adequate skills to be able to fully support themselves as adults. The latter point applies mainly to right wing Orthodox institutions, but we were discouraged from exploring Modern Orthodoxy in the beginning by some of our teachers who had a disparaging attitude towards that movement. (However, we realize that parents who send their kids to MO schools have no guarantee that their kids wont “flip out” while studying in Israel). Of course, I’m being somewhat facetious, since kiruv workers wouldn’t want to scare off their recruits, nor could they anticipate what future events might present a challenge to the faith of particular individuals who they introduce to frumkeit.

As always, I appreciate the efforts that Rabbi Adlerstein is making to enlighten the Orthodox world, and to affect changes that will bring Klal Yisroel closer to fulfilling G_d’s ultimate plan.

David F.
3 years 6 months ago

A. Shreiber,

“But by the same token, there are countless strands or shades within orthodoxy, or the charedi world, yet it is still possible to discuss the basic common denominators through a convenient shorthand label. It’s the same thing with Kiruv workers.”

I heartily disagree. If you want to speak about nuanced topics with any degree of accuracy, you’re best off not lumping everyone together even if it’s more convenient and helps you feel that you’re right in your larger point. My point is that within the Kiruv movement, there are some groups that can be categorized albeit imperfectly, but that the kiruv world is much larger and more varied than those groups even if they garner the majority of the attention.

“In reality, many in the field dont think themselves successful until they’ve convinced someone to become shomer shabbos,”

Thank you for making my point. I noticed that you used the word “many.” And just as many don’t believe that for a second, yet you and so many others believe that “all” merkarvim are hell-bent on getting to shmiras shabbos no matter what. My point was that some do see it as “Shmiras Shabbos or bust,” but there are plenty of mekarvim who don’t use that yardstick even if they pride or satisfaction in knowing that some of their students have become Shomrei shabbos. I trust that you don’t view that as a bad thing, do you?

“at which point the BT is largely abandoned, and the kiruv worker moves on to the next target. If you dont think this is well-known problem, then you are simply out of touch.”

This was a point that I didn’t address in my initial post and I certainly agree that it is a problem. I’ll be the first to say that many mekarvim are guilty of this and I’ve railed against it for years. There are some who are better at this, but the movement on the whole has failed to address this need adequately.

“The role of the kiruv worker is to teach Torah, as best as he or she knows it, to those who have otherwise no exposure to it. IT DOESNT MATTER If THEY BECOME FRUM. Lord knows there are plenty of problems within orthodoxy, and our chain of “masorah” is nowhere near as pristine as we claim it is to outsiders. All we can ask is that Jews become a little more knowledgeable about their traditions and people. That, by itself alone, is the true measure of success.”

And that my fried is YOUR opinion. Many mekarvim agree with you [Chabad etc.] and many do not. I presume you can accept that there is a difference of opinion on this point and you can respect others who feel differently than you. If you ever dip your toe in the water, you’re free to do as you wish. In the meantime, try to respect those who feel otherwise and take a few minutes to pause whether they’re truly deserving of freestyle criticism or perhaps they deserve some respect and appreciation. That was my main point in my initial post. There are areas where criticism is warranted [see above], but there’s plenty of unfair and stereotypical criticism as well. Discerning folks should be able to distinguish between the two.

Bob Miller
3 years 6 months ago

If the field of kiruv is as large and varied as David F wrote above, it might be impossible to make blanket statements about it or its participants. It’s natural for the dissatisfied “customers” to make more waves in blogs than the satisfied ones who have other fish to fry.

A. Schreiber
3 years 6 months ago

David F., everyone knows that kiruv workers are not automatons, and are not ordered about through some central authority. We know that. But by the same token, there are countless strands or shades within orthodoxy, or the charedi world, yet it is still possible to discuss the basic common denominators through a convenient shorthand label. It’s the same thing with Kiruv workers.

You claim that very few view their role as Torah salesmen. Would that this were so. In reality, many in the field dont think themselves successful until they’ve convinced someone to become shomer shabbos, at which point the BT is largely abandoned, and the kiruv worker moves on to the next target. If you dont think this is well-known problem, then you are simply out of touch.

The role of the kiruv worker is to teach Torah, as best as he or she knows it, to those who have otherwise no exposure to it. IT DOESNT MATTER If THEY BECOME FRUM. Lord knows there are plenty of problems within orthodoxy, and our chain of “masorah” is nowhere near as pristine as we claim it is to outsiders. All we can ask is that Jews become a little more knowledgeable about their traditions and people. That, by itself alone, is the true measure of success.