The Kiruv Imperative

While Dr. Schick has just contributed a new article, I think his previous one, about Jewish outreach, warrants further analysis and exploration.

To an extent kiruv (Jewish outreach) requires a suspension of reality. This is not necessarily a bad thing because from a religious Jewish standpoint, the reality of American life is harsh. The many good people who engage in kiruv blot out circumstances that suggest that their efforts are akin to a steady uphill climb. We should admire them all the more because of what they have accomplished.

While I understand Dr. Schick’s intent, I disagree that those involved with outreach cannot remain cognizant of the harsh reality of assimilation. On the contrary, I think it is a powerful motivating factor.

The largest Jewish group in America today is the unaffiliated. They have not found any meaningful form of Jewish expression, and are thus paradoxically more open to Jewish outreach than those satisfied with a non-halachic expression of Jewish religious involvement. There are millions of Jews to be reached, and who are open to being reached.

As I point out in my latest Jewish Week column, we are in the second generation of mass intermarriage. In most situations, the consequences of intermarriage are not reversible. It is certainly true that the impact of intermarriage is cumulative, so that with the passage of time, halachic ties to the Jewish people are weakened and this is also true of social ties. Put otherwise, with each passing year, the percentage of those who are identified as American Jews who are not halachic Jews inevitably goes up.

This is absolutely true. It is also true that with each passing year, the percentage of those who are halachic Jews who are not identified as (American) Jews goes down. But this makes our efforts more urgent, not less.

Our kiruv activities appear to be oblivious to this truth. Far more than we may realize, kiruv is conducted today much the same as it was conducted a generation ago. For all of the efforts, real or imagined, to restrict kiruv to halachic Jews, the statistics of American Jewish life suggest that this is not possible. I am not suggesting that we abandon kiruv; I am suggesting that we be more cognizant to what is happening.

Dr. Schick’s analysis is correct, but a certain level of “self-policing” takes place. The Jewish soul wants to feel purpose and meaning, and seeks us out. In every area of life you see Jewish people striving to do “more” than simply earn a paycheck and go home. I remember that in a college with a diminishing Jewish population, three out of the four most prominent campus student offices (senior class president, editor of the school paper, and president of the largest student organization) my senior year were all held by Jews. We are searchers, and I don’t think that is entirely attributable to upbringing.

In addition, people do learn more rapidly today what distinguishes a Jew from a non-Jew in Halachic terms, enabling an early and informed decision on whether to learn more. If a person sincerely desires to learn and observe as a Jew, we don’t reject converts. On the contrary, one year NCSY’s “student leader of the year” discovered that her mother had a non-Halachic conversion — and had a true geyrus (conversion) shortly thereafter.

If anything, our efforts today (as compared to a generation ago) make it easier than ever for interested non-Jews to learn Torah. and other outreach websites are an excellent example of this. The obligation to reach our fellow Jews is the overriding priority.

Interestingly, as we continue to reach out to those who are quite distant from religious life, we continue to do far too little to retain the many of a religious background who are falling away. One possible explanation is that kiruv efforts get more support and are more appreciated than inreach efforts.

That, again, is true. But when someone is falling away they have often made a conscious decision not to be reached. Many can be brought back, and more efforts are being made in this area (and to intervene long before the “falling away” stage), but sometimes this is more difficult — and those who wish to be reached can benefit from the same programs currently classified as “outreach.”

So while I agree with accuracy of Dr. Schick’s facts, I think the Kiruv professionals are keenly aware of them as they go about their efforts — and that these only motivate them to do better every year.

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