It Has Merely Just Begun

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.

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13 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Part of the disagreement among writers on this topic stems from the fact that the religious communities discussed are complex and diverse, whether they look that way superficially or not. A Jewish seeker can be exposed to a family and shul in one community and become inspired, but he can also be exposed to another family and shul in the same community and be turned off. Sometimes, the fault causing “failure” lies with the contacts or overall environment, and sometimes with the seeker. Sometimes no one is at fault, but things just don’t click. This points to kiruv as being an art more than a science, much as it is with matchmaking. In major league baseball, the best hitters, a small subset of all active players, succeed at bat only 30%-40% of the time.

  2. cvmay says:

    Lovely and insightful posting, Rabbi Goldberg.
    In essence, the Rov redefined Kiruv (from the old slogan of every secular Jew is seen as a potential baali tshuva) and brought it closer to home. We all need, desire and will benefit from a more intimate relationship with our creator. Go for it!!!

  3. Meir Goldberg says:

    Thanks. This is actually not the original article, but it gets my point across. If anyone would like to see the longer original (which also touches on left wing modern Orthodoxy and the myth of the ffb world funding kiruv) feel free to email me at [email protected]

  4. lacosta says:

    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.

    —– is there any data on any of this, or conjecture?

    2] could one argue that kiruv krovim with a goal of 100% fidelity would be an equally good use of the funding?

  5. Yahu Skaist says:

    Rabbi Goldberg, while I agree with your thesis that involvement in kiruv is a very elevating experience for the already frum, from my experience in “out of town” kiruv I agree with Rabbi Feldman’s contention. I have observed people, both mekarvim and mekuravim go through the entire cycle; from initial intense inspiration to a jaded sense of loving yiddishkeit but disillusion with its purported practitioners. The bottom line is that when you are mekarev someone the job is not done when they “move into the eruv”, much in the same way that all Jews need chizuk. My impression is that we are creating a “thin skinned” Jewish community; both the already observant and the newly observant are becoming increasingly dependent on second and third hand source material for learning and can not find their own place in Torah learning, common sense in people’s everyday decision making has become clouded with a superficial religious-feel-good “hashkafa” that ignores basic realities of the human condition, both in those that have immediate effects and in decisions that will destroy lives in the long run. Right now, one may feel good and become more inspired about his or her own yiddishkeit when involved in kiruv but that is not necessarily internal growth and if we do not pull ourselves together and get back to basics, eventually the thin “skin” of inspiration will burst. I’ve seen it burst in individual cases and I see it bursting at communal levels.

  6. L. Oberstein says:

    Pardon me for waxing nostalgic. 40 years ago I was a teacher for Pinky Bak z”l in Vancouver and we were doing kiruv on the students of the school and the NCSY. Visiting Toronto in 2013, some of these “kids” contact me and they are frum,raising frum families, learning Torah and they thank me for what little I had to do with their lives. It is very gratifying. Those on the front lines of kiruv are saving generations of Jews for Judaism.
    One problem I did see is that within our own camp, there are those who demand absolute fielty to their understanding of Torah and are quick to expell anyone who veers even a little bit off their path to truth.When I see a Kol Korfeh that saying that someone who has a divergent opinion is an apikorus and someone who says that someone who says that it is OK to include that person within orthodoxy despite his divergent views is also an apikorus, I wonder how many of us will be left who are not apikorsim when the day is done. How can we reach out to others when we eat up our own for thinking a little differently? In Pinky’s day, we were very tolerant, but, today so much of orthodoxy is thuggish.

  7. L. Oberstein says:

    I asked Rabbi Goldberg for the complete version of his article which he sent me. The disturbing statistic (if indeed it is a real statistic,which I do not know as the source is third hand) is that 50% of Modern Orthodox kids are not shomer shabbos two years after high school is scary. I recently asked a graduate of a Jerusalem high school-modern orthodox- and he said that 50% of his fellow graduates are also not frum any longer. He added that half of those who attended the school were not really strictly frum at the time either.
    In israel they call these people Datlashim, Datiim l’sheh’avar, formerly religious. We call them “off the derech” in this country.
    Forty years ago, Rabbi Steve Riskin cme to Vancouver to recruit Pinky bak to come to New York to found a Modern Orthodox high school that would instill the same “bren” for yiddishkeit and “mesiras nefesh” that Pinky instilled in numerous young people in Vancouver in the early 1970’s. Tragically, Pinky died less than two years later and that school long ago ceased to exist. Why can’t we instill enthusiasm and fervor in so many of our children? What is at the root of this problem and what can we do to correct it?

  8. Meir Goldberg says:

    @Lacosta Which statement were you looking for hard data for? I assume you meant the frum attrition rate. There is much evidence that right wing modern orthodoxy and the Yeshiva/Chassidish communities are doing far better in keeping in our own than in Europe for the last 250 years. (Left wing modern orthodoxy is hemorrhaging at a 50% rate – they are in big trouble. I talk about that in my original article and I have been screaming about it to anyone who will listen, that Kiruv people must reach out to LW Modern Orthodox on campus)

    I have asked those who work with kids off the derech what the at risk rate is nowadays and it seems like it is somewhere between 5 – 10 percent (I admit that even 1% is too much). R’ Ronnie Greenwald stated at an AJOP convention several years ago that 80% of these kids eventually come back to yiddishkeit often more mature and better off.

    Compare that to Frankfurt of the early to mid 1800’s when almost everyone went off, America of 100 years ago when 90% went off, Vilna before WW2 which had something like 2/3 of it’s kids enrolled in secular schools (See The World That Was: Lithiuania page 35 that has quite a depressing letter from R’ Chaim Ozer). Rav CD Rabinowitz in his History of the Jewish People states that Eastern European Jewry was 50 years behind Western European Jewry in terms of spiritual collapse.
    See “Reb Yaakov” biography which quotes Rav Zeidel Epstein receiving instructions from Rav Shimon Shkop not to insist on marrying a girl who would cover her hair since he would never find a shidduch.
    Note the Mir Yeshiva bochurim not marrying until a late age since marrying a Yeshiva boy was something that few girls wanted.
    I can go on and on from first hand witnesses.

    The fact is the “failure narrative” about today’s frum world so popular in the blogosphere and in the frum media today is overly pessimistic. We all know the frum world has major problems which need to be corrected and dealt with in an open way, but when we overdo it we lose credibility.

  9. Meir Goldberg says:

    @Lacosta Re kiruv funding – As I point out in my original article, 2 families provide 50% of world wide kiruv funds, and much of the remaining Kiruv monies come from secular Jews and Baalei Teshuva. We do in fact spend far more on kiruv krovim. Furthermore, at risk youth is not necessarily a problem solved with more money. It has a lot more to with parenting, family trauma and abuse, middos and erlichkeit, emunah, people caring about another, etc, etc. Those are things unrelated to money.

    If you mean that we should spend more money on Kiruv Krovim efforts of left wing modern orthodox students, I make that point in my original article.

  10. Meir Goldberg says:

    @Yahu Skaist Doing Kiruv is not feel good Judaism. It requires the mekarev, whether s/he be full time or volunteer, to prepare real Torah material in a deep and clear way, to grapple with real questions about emunah, taamei hamitzvos, etc. To go out of ones way to do chesed, make a beautiful and inspiring shabbos meal, genuinely care about the person you are reaching out to and help them in all areas of life, not just spiritual needs. This is not skin deep, feel good Judaism. It is the essence of what Hashem wants of us.

  11. DF says:

    50%, 80%, 5-10% – these numbers are meaningless. All we have is antecdotal hunches based on our own experiences. And I dont have experience with the modern orthodx, but I can see clearly that there are many, many young people from perfectly mainstream orthdox families who are no longer frum. (I dont mean OU orthodox – I mean Agudah, Young Israel, Lakewood offshoots, as well as all the older legacy shuls.) For a long time I didnt realize this, since the population is exploding, k’h. You see so many kids in hats or velvets, you think everything’s great. But nobody notices the guys you DONT see. Its only on rare occasions, like a simcha, when we actually realize that hey, there’s another sibling in that family who you never see, and often more than one. It is absolutely rampant. And I’m not sure what conclusion can be drawn from this, nor am I convinced any should be drawn, nor am I sure this is not simply the way of the world as its been since time immemorial.

  12. Yahu Skaist says:

    Rabbi @Meir Goldberg, I know kiruv involves all of that, but when the “real” relationships fizzle because the person is now frum and the mekarev needs to produce more numbers to satisfy the 2 or three families who are footing the bill of his salary, we are left with some very big problems. I am not saying “Stop Kiruv!” If someone comes across our paths we have a mitzvah to be mekarev him with divrei Shalom, but the mitzvah to teach Torah applies to all Jews and we are losing possibly at least as many as we think we are saving.

  13. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I agree with the general drift of the conversation that inreach/kiruv krovim is very necessary, as is followup as well as targeting MO youth on secular campuses. I just want to add that outside the US and Israel, one of the major kiruv players is (gasp!) World Bnai Akiva. Look up their website and see what they do in Europe, South Africa, South America, Australia. Their clientele outside the US and Israel (although some there, too) are by and large not frum, in some cases facing very hard cases of isolation and secularism, such as in Scandinavia or in Catholic countries where anti-clerical socialism is rampant and there are Muslims about. Those in some (boldface that) hareidi communities who ask cleverly, “But what are they being mekarev them to?” are welcome to go out to Sweden or Italy and try their luck at the “real thing”. They won’t.

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