Rime of the Modern Kiruv Mariner


Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

Ein mayim elah Torah. The water that slakes the ultimate inner thirst is Torah. The annual convention of the Association of Outreach Programs (AJOP) a week ago was awash with Torah. Hundreds of motivated and capable baristas of our life-giving elixir were on hand, serving up chizuk to each other. There was plenty of Torah to drink

A year ago, AJOP’s indomitable leader, Rabbi Yitzchok Lowenbraun, thought of opening the doors of this kiruv gathering to the FFB world. He reasoned that kiruv workers had done much of the heavy lifting in thinking through the issues, and formulating responses that made Torah life attractive to the uninitiated. Those same responses should be valuable in making Torah attractive to “lifers” who for various reasons found themselves in need of some passion and enthusiasm in their avodah. The inreach program last year was a sellout, and he expanded it this year to include a Shabbos before the program for kiruv workers began. He also invited in a wonderful national program of inreach to Orthodox students on campus, called Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus. Some people believe that outreach and inreach are two opposing choices vying for attention and funding, Rabbi Lowenbraun’s turning them all into bunkmates suggests a powerful alternative to competition: seeing both outreach and inreach personnel as a Torah community brain trust. The hundreds of klei kodesh who attended should be our community’s vanguard of helping the many maximize their connection to Hashem and His Torah.

My own experience was deeply colored by my position on the editorial board of Klal Perspectives. Our current issue stirred up enormous interest. The vast majority was positive; some pushback came from some people in the kiruv community who thought that we (including myself, for a few critical paragraphs of my review article) had undermined their work by placing demands upon them that they could not fulfill, or painted too pessimistic a picture of the attractiveness of the mainstream Orthodox community. The latter meant Rabbi Ilan Feldman’s piece, which has gone viral because it rang true with everyone else. The issues we raised were on people’s minds; two of the three sessions I participated in addressed these concerns. (A third was a solo presentation on how kiruv professionals can become more tolerant and less judgmental.)

If I came to the convention with hesitations about whether people heavily invested in the offering of Torah to the masses would be willing to rethink their priorities, they quickly dissipated. Participants in the Klal Perspectives debate (especially Rabbis Feldman and Buchwald) did not back down at all. They were convincing about their own track record in kiruv, and commitment to its goals. They nonetheless shared their apprehensions about changes in the Orthodox community (Rabbi Feldman) and changes in the cohort of the Jewish world that might be open to listening to a Torah message. A key face-off between Rabbis Buchwald, Mordechai Becher, and Avrohom Edelstein produced lots of spirit and drama, but fewer fireworks than anticipated. The way I scored it, there was at least a majority view that techniques of kiruv required a midcourse reevaluation, with greater reliance on social media – something that some groups like Chabad, Aish, and NJOP are already using.

The problem facing the modern mariner, then, is not a dearth of water. The somewhat unresolved question is the identity of potential drinkers. Do the numbers remain the same as they were in the past? Does that matter at all? If every neshamah brought back to Torah practice – or even making mild progress in that direction, a goal that continues to be debated between different camps – is of infinite value, is it pointless to ask questions about the bottom line? Or, at a time of excruciatingly difficult prioritization of community resources in a crippled economy, would failure to ask those questions be irresponsible? My greatest frustration in leaving an exhilarating two days was in not seeing any answers coming from any body of authority. The modern mariner should not expect to see a captain or captains taking the wheel firmly in hand.

Adrenalin-junkies were not disappointed either. If the jaw-dropping moments did not come at all the sessions, they were there during one of the most powerful and courageous presentations I have ever heard. A keynote panel brought (in this order) Rabbis Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Ilan Felman, Dr Abraham Twerski, and Moreinu HoRav Shmuel Kamenetsky together to consider the Castle on Fire – and ways to put out the fire.

Rabbi Weinreb led off, and did half the job. He was scathing and unsparing in describing the various fires. The session (and all others) will soon be available for download at the AJOP site. I will deliberately write more than less, in the hope that people will listen to the remarkable presentation.

He spoke about every form of abuse that we have come to recognize: domestic, child, sexual. The incidence of incest. By name. No hold barred. He spoke of community inaction regarding teen drinking (including rabbeim who still ply their talmidim with drink on Purim, only to see them rolling in the gutter later in the day), gambling, porn addictions. He spoke about how callous people had become to financial immorality and major fraud. He mourned the children who are already lost by second grade because of the rigidity of our curriculum. He decried ineffective school intervention against bullying. He argued that bullying is a problem when aimed at adults, and went on for some time about the practice of intimidation of people who speak their minds and voice unpopular views. He spoke about the retreat to positions hostile to the science of our day, and how counterproductive this was, as well as the airbrushing of women out of the picture of communual involvement.

He spoke of forgotten parts of the community, like widows and singles. He mentioned the scope of the shidduch crisis. He described how to’anim had destroyed the integrity of our beis din system, and how the use of unlicensed therapists destroyed our effectiveness in behavioral intervention, as well as our kedushah. Too many of us have become sanctimonious, hypocritical and prone to performance of mitzvos anashim milimudah.

He opined that there may very well be more people exiting the Orthodox world each year than those brought in by all the kiruv programs together.

Readers of Cross-Currents who followed the dialogue between Dr. Finkelman and myself about our muzzling of our own leaders will stand in awe of Rabbi Weinreb’s courage.

His illustrations of intimidation – especially one threat aimed at him – were mind-boggling. He mentioned, inter alia, that there have been organized mass protests (including rock throwing) outside the home of Rav Ahron Leib Shteinman, shlit”a, because of positions of his that others do not like. Rabbi Weinreb asked people to imagine what would happen if the Dati Le’umi community would mass kipot serugot outside Rav Shteinman’s home to chant and throw stones. There would be bloodshed! Why are people more tolerant of unacceptable bizayon haTorah when it comes from people garbed in black?

(I’ve wondered about that for a long time. When we all pondered the clashes in Beit Shemesh a year ago, many argued that the problem was a handful of crazies, and attributed no blame to the leadership of that community. Can that really be true? When you read the pronouncements of that community (and there will be more today, on the eve of the election), can you fail to see what effect a chinuch of contorted logic and absolute bitul of everyone else has on people? Why are we so undiscriminating about our tzedaka that we continue to support institutions (and I am only speaking about institutions, not individuals) that spew venom? Why do we grovel to get a Badatz hechsher on products, when the same people produce the kind of drivel they routinely do. Look on and weep at the words from the Edah publication about the current brouhaha concerning Anat Hoffman and her sister agitators. “Under the burden of the Zionist occupation [ the Kotel has turned into] an entertainment center, Heaven forbid, which attracts gentiles and hookers who arrive to corrupt this place of Divine presence, Heaven forbid….[It became a place for] every gentile head of state…[to visit the site and holding] “different shows [like] the swearing in of soldiers of the impious army.” Why are we so tolerant of these aberrations of what we believe, and so quick to accuse so many different “outsiders” of their perfidy. Some of our readers undoubtedly are still sympathetic to the message, but what about the rest of us who stopped believing in this stuff decades ago?)

None of those who followed Rabbi Weinreb tried to put a dent in the substance of what he said. They offered hope that HKBH would not abandon the burning castle, and the certainty that it would survive the conflagration. What emerged, therefore, was a challenge to mull things over and regroup after more thought and soul-searching.

Why did Rabbi Weinreb choose this forum to make all the challenges we face explicit? I believe that he believes what Rabbi Lowenbraun believes – that you will find no group of people under the Orthodox umbrella more willing to listen to problems and find solutions than the kiruv community. Perhaps one of the first steps towards developing solutions is to regard them as a brain-trust of the Torah world.

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2 years 8 months ago

I meant when I ‘said’, not ‘aid’

2 years 8 months ago

Rav Alderstein and Chizki,

Thank you for your responses.

When I aid the attitude was ‘ingrained’ in Chazal, I didn’t mean to the absolute exception of other ideas.

Unfortunately, I think the sources you cited are the exceptions that prove the rule. RSR Hirsch and Rav Kook are hardly in the mainstream. I know that there are many sources in Chazal that stress the importance of compassion to all ,but I think they’re lost in a sea of general negativity, to the point where there are all kinds of Halachos (Chillul Shabbos for a non-Jew, even marrying non-Jews etc.) that it’s very difficult to know whether they represent Divine will or are the result of an interpretation of the Torah that’s based on societal attitudes towards non-Jews. That people like Rav Hirsch and Rav Kook been able to rise above all of this and have stressed the compassionate side is a tribute to their unique personalities. Unfortunately, the existence and preponderence of the negative side are undeniable, in my opinion.

The Chofetz Chaim did not live all that long ago, yet he very candidly and seriously discusses not being Mechallel Shabbos to save the life of a non-Jew. You can try to explain that away until the cows come home, with every philosophical rationalization you can think of, but it is discussions like that one that cause most (but not all) people who are engrossed in Torah to acquire the attitudes of ‘bitul’ and worse that they do.

[YA – I am not quite sure anymore where to find the “mainstream.” Also not sure that it matters. Wherever it is, people participating in blogs are probably less part of that mainstream than they would like to believe. Maybe our first step is for those of us who are concerned to look into these sources, all well based, and make sure that we, our children and talmidim all have a chance to see them as well.]

Steve Brizel
2 years 8 months ago

Is there a link to R Weinreb’s comments?

[YA – There will be. AJOP still hasn’t posted all the presentations]

2 years 8 months ago


“Sadly, an honest appraisal of their attitudes towards ‘everyone’ else, especially non-Jews, can only really lead to the conclusion that ‘bitul’ is ingrained in our tradition. I wish it weren’t so, but it is.”

I see why people can arrive at this conclusion, but it simply isn’t true that it’s the only valid outlook within Judaism. R’ Hirsch’s works are amazing (I finally got around to purchasing my own copy of Feldheim’s recent re-release of R’ Hirsch’s commentary on the Chumash, and I absolutely love it), but it can be difficult to discern whether his universalist ideas are rooted in the mesorah (which I believe they are) or whether they are “merely” his own chiddushim. If you want a ready list of marei mekomos on the topic going back to Chaza”l and Rishonim, the book you need to get is “Compassion for Humanity in the Jewish Tradition” by Rabbi David (Dovid) Sears (published in 1998 by Jason Aronson, Inc.). Anyone who’s read this book, or have come across the textual sources compiled in it through other avenues in their own learning, would find it impossible to deny that concern and love for humanity as a whole is an integral aspect of Yiddishkeit that is built into it from the ground floor up.

Bob Miller
2 years 8 months ago

If A’s hashkafic position is to shun B, that prevents constructive interaction between A and B even if B’s hashkafic position is the opposite.