Quite Unconventional

When you attend a convention over Shabbos and several days later you still feel your neshama tingling, you know that what you experienced was rather . . . unconventional.

That captures the experience my wife, our daughter and I shared the Shabbos before last at the inaugural convention of Project Inspire (PI) in Stamford, Connecticut. PI describes itself as a grassroots movement with the goal, simply stated yet hugely ambitious, of nothing less than helping unify the Jewish people by strengthening the bond we all share: our relationship with HaKadosh Boruch Hu and His Torah. The project’s chosen means to that most noble of ends is to motivate those of us already Torah observant to reach out and draw close, one by one, Jews estranged from Torah, while energizing our own spiritual lives at the same time.

If there was one weekend program on the packed communal calendar not to be missed, this was surely it. No, not because it featured a truly stellar cast of presenters, both world-class Talmidei Chachamim and many of the Kiruv world’s finest talents, along with deluxe accommodations and sumptuous catering iber’n kop, as they say.

The convention’s uniqueness was that while ostensibly dedicated to tackling one huge, seemingly daunting crisis, the mass estrangement of secular Jews from their G-d and His People, it actually forged a tremendously hopeful path towards addressing many other issues of pressing communal concern. We attendees may have booked reservations for a weekend dedicated to Kiruv, and we certainly got that — but also came away much, much more than we bargained for.

Have you been told that Chassidic and Yeshivish communities seem so internally focused and oblivious to the spiritual aridness of the larger Jewish world? Then you ought to have seen and heard what chassidishe yungeleit – dozens were there with their families – are doing, with creativity and gusto, to debunk negative stereotypes of frum Jews and Judaism and to instead infuse secular Jews in the New York area and way beyond it, with positive Jewish experiences.

Have you been led to believe that more “modern” Jews are, by definition, religiously complacent and uninterested in growing spiritually? Then you’d have been enriched by seeing yidden with a decidedly non-heimish external appearance enthusing over one or another class they’d just attended – or giving one of their own.

And for those troubled by the way our diverse communities are so Balkanized, with precious little interaction between them, this Shabbos would have been a profoundly enlightening experience. After all that we regularly hear and read about the overriding importance of achdus in Klal Yisroel, here, finally, was 48 hours of honest-to-goodness unity, the natural, organic, kind, among a most diverse spectrum of frum Jews. A spirit of goodwill and shared purpose, plainly palpable and downright infectious, filled the very air of the meeting spaces, the capacious lobbies, the dining rooms at mealtime.

The memorable vignettes of inter-frum bonding over the weekend are many: A chassidishe yungerman leading the entire assemblage, 800 strong, in wordless niggun as all waited for Rabbeinu Tam’s z’man to arrive and then conducting a soulful havdalah. A clean-shaven South African physician, leather yarmulke, colored shirt and all, sharing the secrets of his success, for many years now, at hosting Shabbos se’udos for 40-50 non-observant guests at a time, with an enthusiastic audience from Monsey, Boro Park and elsewhere hanging on his every word – and its mirror images: a for-women-only session entitled Mommy, What Happened To You? From a Chassidishe Housewife to Inspired Kiruv Activist, and a Williamsburger (yes, named Yoel) sharing his fascinating exploits as a Kiruv entrepreneur.

The inter-communal barriers were down right from the convention’s outset, an authentic moment of k’ish echod b’leiv echad arriving just slightly ahead of schedule. All were in thrall to Rav Zev Leff’s exhortations to personal and national greatness; all were moved to laughter, then to tears, and back again, by Rabbi Paysach Krohn’s trademark mix of ma’aseh and message; all were caught up in the passion for Kiruv embodied by jack of all trades and master of ceremonies extraordinaire Rabbi Yaakov Salomon, PI founder Rabbi Chaim Sampson and its director of programming, Rabbi Mordechai Tropp.

Why is it that achdus within our camp, elusive so much of the time, was so easily achieved over these two days? I sensed several factors at work. One is that the entire convention was predicated upon a shared goal, a common cause and a particularly selfless, other-directed one at that: reconnecting fellow neshomos to Avihem Shebashomayim. When we stand shoulder to shoulder looking out at the challenge of embracing our fellow Jews — much as Klal Yisroel camped “k’neged hahar,” facing the har Hashem that we are summoned to scale — all is well among us.

And so, too, when we look inward and find more than enough that needs fixing, we feel unable to afford the luxury of criticizing others; as the Nachal Kedumim notes, it was the sight of Har Sinai and the trait of humility it evoked that produced the unity of “as one man, with one heart.” It’s only when we lose sight of our own abundant shortcomings and swivel instead to face each other that we find the nits to pick and axes to grind that lead to loshon hora, strife and worse.

For all the can-do spirit and good vibes pervading the atmosphere, there was also a felt sense of urgency, borne of the acute sense that, as one speaker put it, we’re now “in the end game” of the American Jewish saga. The twin ravages of intermarriage and assimilation are causing the Jewish population to dwindle ever more sharply and making the possibility of even identifying who’s Jewish ever more difficult. Somehow, knowing that the days in which Kiruv is even an option are, cholilah, numbered, and that each one of us was placed in this concluding historical era by design, makes the mostly petty differences that divide us fade quickly from view.

Sunday morning arrived and a spiritually exhilarating weekend was soon to conclude – and then it happened. We all were subjected to a bait-and-switch. After numerous brief presentations on a host of exciting kiruv initiatives through Aish HaTorah and others, including highly motivated individuals who’ve simply rolled up their sleeves and begun reaching out in innovative ways, Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky rose to speak.

In a tour de force of side-splitting humor punctuated by sober reflections on where we are spiritually as individuals and as a community, Reb Dovid made a compelling case that the excitement for, and deeper understanding of, Yiddishkeit that involvement in Kiruv engenders is the last best hope . . . for us.

All weekend long, the message was about our brethren, distant from Hashem and so desperate, knowingly or not, for ultimate meaning, and that’s all true. But as Reb Dovid spoke, it dawned that the depredations of our new-found affluence and the crass American culture that seeps in willy nilly to even the most insular of communities have made us all “all risk,” of losing sight of what we’re here for – to live lives filled with the incomparable pleasure of connection to Hashem.

Bait-and-switch, indeed. But not one of us wanted our money back, only for this “un-convention” to not end.

Published in May 18 issue of Hamodia.

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11 Responses

  1. Yeshivishe Liberal says:

    Chabad had this idea 50 years ago. The rest of the frum world is finally waking up to the urgency and pretending like it’s something new. I can’t wait for the Litivishe mitzvah tanks.

  2. Eytan Kobre says:

    Dear Mr. Liberal,

    Must you be so negative and cynical about something you seem to agree is positive and encouraging?

  3. Bob Miller says:

    The self-described Yeshivishe Liberal alleged “kiruv patent infringement” as if that
    (1) happened in fact
    (2) makes non-Chabad achievements meaningless

    This foolishness looks like a way to stir up machlokes where there is unity of purpose.

  4. Shoshana says:

    I have to agree with Mr. Kobre. I wasn’t there and I am Lubavitch and although the Lubavitcher Rebbe disagreed with the terminology (He didn’t like the term “kiruv rechokim” at all) I’m also extremely INSPIRED by this write up and wonder if I’m doing everything I could be doing in my comfortable little neighborhood of Crown Heights. Also, I was impressed with the diversity of the people who were there. In Lubavitch we say that everyone is “on shluchus.” Whether we run a chabad house or not, we’re all able to do our part, but am I doing my part? Thanks for the food for thought.

  5. Eytan Kobre says:

    Dear Mr./Ms. Me (I’d address the commenter with “Dear Me,” but I’m afraid that’d be misunderstood),

    Your first question is precisely the one Rabbi Orlofsky addressed
    so well.

    As to your second point, could you provide an example of “flimsy, unsophisticated ‘proofs’ and ideas” in material produced by Project Inspire?

  6. Baruch Pelta says:

    FYI, as of this write-up, the comment of “Me” has not been posted, but Mr. Kobre’s 2:33 response has. I find it interesting that (IIUC) all the rabbanim whose names were mentioned in this piece are Litvish haredi.

    In any event, I went to Kiruv.com — “A Project Inspire Initiative” — and found a whole section of “proofs.” For example, they discuss the Kuzari Principle (“Did God Speak at Sinai”), which has been rather convincingly debunked in several places (I only don’t make the exact references because I’ve seen in the past Cross-Currents censors such references, as is their prerogative). I do think those of our rabbis, our websites, and our books who preach our worldview should be preaching things which are fundamentally true.

    That being said, I do think we need more of a “honest-to-goodness unity, the natural, organic, kind, among a most diverse spectrum of frum Jews” and I find it a good — nay, great — sign that haredim were clinging onto the words of a physician in a colored shirt with a leather kippah and that he showed up to participate in an event run by (IIUC) Aish Hatorah. That is Aish at its best.

  7. Eytan Kobre says:

    Dear Mr. Pelta*,

    Why do you find it interesting that “all the rabbanim whose names were mentioned in this piece are Litvish haredi”?

    As to your point about the Kuzari principle having been “convincingly debunked,” do you therefore believe it constitutes a “flimsy, unsophisticated proof” in the words of “Mr. Me,” or merely one to which others having responded in ways that you find compelling? You use of the term “debunk” would seem to indicate the former, but why?

    In any event, I believe the Kuzari principle, at least when correctly explicated, is alive and well and quite as strong as ever as evidence (I abjure proofs, as you apparently do) of the Torah’s origins. Please do contact me off-line; I can’t wait to see how its been “convincingly debunked.”

    * Thanks for using your own name; how refreshing!

  8. Shades of Gray says:


    First, thanks for the illuminating description, which I enjoyed, of the rather unconventional Convention !

    Perhaps when discussing the Kuzari Principle you should start by defining whether the Kuzari is “emunah peshutah” or “chakirah”; even more fudamentally, to define what “emunah peshutah” is. If the Kuzari is “emunah peshutah”, and not the same type of thinking as “chakirah” of Rishonim, how exactly does one present it in kiruv as “evidence” ?
    (incidentally, the term “chakirah” originated , I believe, with issues such as unity of God, a different ikkar than the 8th).

    Put differently, the issue might be how the Kuzari Principle interacts with any challenges to traditional Jewish history through the time period of the entire chain of mesorah. The Kuzari can be presented as a super-logical idea, but some of the challengers, I think, are not looking to debate logic, but are looking from outside sources(eg, issue of Bayis Sheni years, or any other issue). The issue for them would be to deal with the outside sources directly; on the other hand, that might enter a negative aspect of “chakirah”, ie, dealing in depth with challenges that have the potential to create doubt in the mind of those unaware of them. Certainly the outside challenges aren’t presented publicly to frum audiences in, say, Project Chazon or Project Inspire.

    Another point is that some/many frum person or potential BT’s might lack backround in outside sources, or(l’havdil) a solid grounding in Nach and other relevant sources(many people, myself included, never learned Doros HaRishonim, which interestingly, some gedolim learned cover to cover and valued), so that is why the seminars might go with the Kuzari which is basic.

    You can contact me offline if you prefer, post this, or subsume this in a response, but I think the above might be behind some of those questioning the Kuzari, or at least the way it’s sometimes presented. It is always useful to clarify what is behind a question, and this might shed some light on it.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    We ought to distinguish between proofs and very plausible arguments or demonstrations. Our life on earth is designed such that we need to be able to exercise free will, so an absolutely conclusive proof that no one whatsoever could question should be hard to find. We go on with faith based on our best information and judgment, sometimes risking or losing our lives defending Torah principles. I wonder if Baruch Pelta really leads his life in “show me 100% provable certainty or else go away” mode.

  10. Baruch Pelta says:

    I have emailed Mr. Kobre my response.

    I wonder if Baruch Pelta really leads his life in “show me 100% provable certainty or else go away” mode.
    Well, that’s an easy one: I don’t. Good thing I never said that. I live my life in, “What do I believe is the most plausible” mode?

  11. Jewish Observer says:

    “We ought to distinguish between proofs and very plausible arguments or demonstrations”

    – building on this, it is common practice in Talmud for Rishonim or Acharonim to bring “proofs” to their positions that can obviously be refuted by their thought-opponents. Every kushya that Tosafos asks on Rashoi can be answered by Rashi, and TOssafis KNOWS the answer (if I do he / they surely do!). So are the Tosafos biewng disingenuous by cuuting these as proofs?? No!!! Calling them proofs is a shorthand for saying that these “proofs” suggest to Tosafos to lean his way versus Rashi’s. As has been suggested here, it comes down judgment of what is most reasonable, after weighing the pile of “proofs” on either (or all) side(s) of an issue. Do we have “proof” that bank into which we deposited our money will give it back to us?? YES, if you are willing to use the word colloquially as reasonable people do.

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