by Rabbi Meir Goldberg
I wrote this article in December as a response to the Klal Perspectives Kiruv edition, and specifically the article by Rabbi Ilan Feldman. I first sent it out to Kiruv Rabbis via listserves, and after hearing much positive feedback, I submitted a condensed version to Mishpacha Magazine, which was more understandable to those not involved in Kiruv.
I prefer the original since it touches on many important issues relating to Kiruv, and it is more passionate as well.
The older generation of kiruv (Jewish outreach) professionals often waxes poetic of the kiruv glory days, which began sometime after the Six-Day War and ended in the early 90s. Rav Noach Weinberg’s dream of changing the world was, to a large extent, successful: tens of thousands became frum, and so many more were reconnected in some meaningful way to their heritage.
Over the last 15 years, the secular Jewish landscape and the kiruv response has changed. As a result, the editors of Klal Perspectives, an online magazine, asked 17 kiruv leaders to write about current outreach efforts, how success is measured, and whether kiruv has run its course due to assimilation and the lack of serious Jewish identity among young secular Jews.
While these are important questions to those involved in kiruv, I will try to illustrate how all of this relates to the general frum community.
The first generation of mekarvim dreamt that all secular Jews would eventually become frum. This was never realistic. The simple fact is that becoming frum is extremely difficult. The very reason why Jews are a tiny minority among the nations is the reason why the teshuva movement could never become a mass movement. Changing ones habits, surroundings, dress, friends, personal image, the way one relates to one’s family, culture, etc, is not for the faint of heart. To be a baal teshuva means that you are sailing into the wind, and that is not something that the masses can do. As an FFB I often ask myself and others if we would realistically ever consider becoming a Satmar Chassid, even if we thought that it was what Hashem wanted — to go from secular to frum is much harder.
Many of the authors asserted that there are less people becoming frum now than before, despite the vastly increased number of mekarvim. While this assertion was not necessarily borne out by the statistics cited by R’ Edelstein, it does behoove us to examine why, at least for campus mekarvim, it is harder to get students to Yeshiva now, than it was before. (It should be noted that there are more options for potential baalei teshiva today than before and some of the Yeshivos, such as Machon Yaakov and Machon Shlomo, are bursting at the seams.)
It’s important to distinguish the current situation with our students from the one that was preeminent in the much glorified heyday of kiruv in the 70’s and 80’s.
- Colleges today cost a fortune, with parents or students taking out major loans to pay for it. In order to land a good job nowadays, one must usually go to graduate school, which wasn’t the case back then. So when does a few years at a baal teshuvah yeshiva fit in for today’s students?
- Students back then were more willing to put up with little in the way of gashmiyus. Several prominent kiruv roshei yeshivah speak about how students used to sleep on mattresses on the floor in their yeshivos. Think that will fly today
- Students back then were ardent Zionists, and were usually very proud of their Jewish heritage, regardless of whether they were reform, conservative, or unaffiliated. And many secular Jews had grandparents who were proud of their Judaism and instilled that pride in their grandchildren.
- Jewish learning and serious examination of the Holocaust was quite normal for a secular Jewish child back then. Today, most students are completely indifferent to Judaism and Israel, and are sometimes pro-Palestinian. They have no connection to a Jewish past and most cannot even articulate what the Holocaust was.
- Most importantly, meaning in life, intellectual depth, morality, and idealism were big topics back then. People were still living with the introspection and soul-searching of the Sixties. “Finding oneself” was “in”. Today, all that counts is money, fame and teivah. While there are many passionately devoted secular Jews, my experience is that today’s typical secular Jew reflects the larger American society: Uninspired, materialistic, distracted, and deeply suspicious of overtly religious people, despite the fact that they have never had any real interaction with them. While we often are able to connect and inspire such people, most of our students come from the minority who are interested in and open to spirituality and growth.
Despite all these obstacles, there are tens of thousands of college students involved in serious Torah learning on campus, and over a thousand North American students have become shomer Shabbos over the last two years alone. And all of this is in addition to the tens of thousands of Jews that Chabad is working with worldwide.
The Klal Perspectives response that garnered the most attention was that of Rabbi Ilan Feldman, a respected Rav in Atlanta, Georgia. Rabbi Feldman fears that the American Orthodox community concerns itself primarily with observance and keeping out outside influences, rather than concerning itself with Kiddush Hashem and working up the confidence to welcome outsiders into the fold. “Sadly,” asserts Rabbi Feldman, “there is an open secret known to those who practice outreach: to effectively inspire people to become observant, the effort must be done in isolation from the established Orthodox community.”
In fact, I, and most mekarvim I have spoken to, have found the opposite to be true. The most effective way to be mekarev anyone is to expose them to the frum communities as much as possible. We have found a direct correlation between the amount of time students spend in frum communities and the chances of them attending a yeshiva. At Rutgers, our most effective program is the chavrusa program that matches frum men and women with our students. Our Shabbaton interactions in Lakewood, Far Rockaway, Highland Park, and other venues have been 98% positive. The campus program that has the greatest percentage of students going on to yeshiva is the Lakewood Fellowship, where students spend a week in the Lakewood community and yeshiva. Granted, it mostly attracts students who are already in serious growth mode. But if R’ Feldman’s charge that the frum world – with Lakewood presumably typifying its right wing – is one in which, in his words, “Strangers are suspect. The wagons are circled. Welcome comes only after a security check, and by then, it doesn’t feel like welcome,” then why does the Lakewood Fellowship inspire these students so much?
In actuality, there are hundreds of Lakewood men and women involved in kiruv on a regular basis, and they are quite successful.
Kiruv is a reflection of the wider frum world. Our community wrestles with challenges, issues, and problems. But I think we don’t give ourselves enough credit. Those who wish to deny that the frum world has had serious issues for centuries – quite similar to the ones we face today – are not students of history. If you compare the frum attrition rate today with that of the communities over the last 250 years, we are actually doing well. While we do not produce gedolim on par with those of prewar Europe, our baalabatim are certainly holding their own. And I would argue that the current chinuch system is quite an improvement over the cheder system of the shtetl.
Kiruv faces many challenges as well. But kiruv is growing, and there are still thousands of new baalei teshuvah each year. More students than ever before are engaging in serious Torah learning on campuses worldwide. Furthermore, the kiruv enterprise has energized many floundering FFBs who are now faced with the challenge of reinvigorating their own Yiddishkeit with more passion, understanding of emunah and hashkafah issues, and how to be mekadesh shem shamayim in front of their secular brethren. (It goes without saying – though it must be stated – that one needs guidance as to if, when, and under what circumstances one should reach out to others, as there are circumstances that would make kiruv inappropriate.)
Rabbi Ilan Feldman argues that we cannot hope to be mekarev anyone until we clean up our own mess. I feel that on the contrary, there will always be problems in every community until Biyas Go’el Tzedek. But in the meantime, engaging in kiruv elevates everyone. Rabbi Asher Israel, a chassidishe mekarev, has even started kiruv training in Yiddish-speaking Williamsburg! That’s right, Satmar chassidim doing kiruv! A wife of one of the trainees called R’ Israel and thanked him profusely because the training had ignited in her husband a new found appreciation and passion for Yiddishkeit. She had never seen her husband this excited to be a Jew.
In a previous issue of Klal Perspectives, Rabbi Yitzchok Feigenbaum, lamenting the lethargy experienced by young men and women in Yeshiva, wrote the following: “A student once exclaimed to me, “I wish I would have been alive during the Holocaust – I could have been a hero and someone would have written a book about me. Now I am just another good girl who does chesed.”
Rabbi Feigenbaum asked, “Where is the next Torah frontier to conquer?”
Rabbi Feigenbaum, kiruv is that next frontier — now more than ever. Not only because we must reach out to our secular brethren, but more so because engaging in Kiruv can elevate and bring the mekarev close to Hashem and give even a mediocre frum Jew a previously unknown sense of life and mission.
And I speak from experience, for I had never previously felt as alive as during that first year of being a campus Rabbi.
So in response to the query from the editors of Klal Perspectives, kiruv in America has NOT run its course.
It has merely just begun.