Kiruv Goes On: the Models Change
Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler in his justly famous essay on Sukkos (“Bitul HaYesh”) brings a Midrash that compares our entry into the sukkah to a mini-galus. The Midrash explains why the mitzvah of sukkah follows Yom Kippur: Perhaps the Jewish people have been decreed for galus, exile, (or an extension of the current galus). And if so, perhaps HaKadosh Baruch Hu will accept our leaving our fixed abode to live in the sukkah for seven days in lieu of a full-scale exile.
Thus sukkah is, at some level, an antidote for exile. Rabbi Dessler explains how. Our current galus came about for the sin of sinas chinam, senseless hatred. From a materialistic perspective, which views the world as a limited pie, anyone else’s gain of a larger piece inevitably comes at everyone else’s expense. The primarily relationship between people is as competitors.
Leaving behind the security of our normal dwelling for an insecure, temporary dwelling, forces us to give up some of our reliance on the material and place our trust in Hashem. That move from a material to a spiritual perspective in turn allows us to see our fellow Jews as joined to us in a common spiritual enterprise, in which each one’s advance helps pull up the other, rather than as competitors over a limited pie.
If Sukkos is – at least from this perspective — an antidote to animosity and division between Jews, the Sukkos issue is an appropriate occasion to take up once again the subject of kiruv. Jewish unity comes through a common attachment to Torah. In Rav Saadia Gaon’s famous formulation, we are a nation by virtue of Torah: Only the Torah can ultimately provide us with the sense of common purpose.
A WELL-RESEARCHED ARTICLE in Mishpacha recently posed the question: “Is the Door Closing on Kiruv?” Echoing a point about which Marvin Schick has been shrying gevalt for nearly thirty years, the article notes that at the most basic level the pool of Jews to mekarev, draw close, is rapidly diminishing. As a friend who is the rav of a community that is home to a major research university told me nearly twenty years ago, if you meet a college student with a Biblical first name and a Jewish last name – e.g., Sarah Rosenberg – he or she is almost certainly not Jewish. The Biblical first name serves as kapparah (atonement) for marrying out.
And even when a college student is halachically Jewish, we have already reached the point where he or she is more likely to have only one Jewish parent. That means that such Jewish identification as that young person possesses is far more attenuated than a generation ago. A vague sense of Jewish identity and that being Jewish might be in some yet unknown way be important can no longer be assumed.
To the demographic challenge, author Sara Glaz added others based on interviews with some of the leading figures in kiruv. For one thing, it is harder than ever to gain the undivided attention of the plugged-in generation, whose minds are inevitably elsewhere or nowhere. And the rapid implosion of the Conservative movement has reduced what was traditionally the largest feeder pool for kiruv in the United States.
Finally, it is ever harder to persuade young people to take time off for prolonged study at Israeli ba’al teshuva yeshivos and seminaries. Many students now graduate college with loan obligations in the tens of thousands of dollars and facing a job market in which one out of four Americans between 25 and 54 is not employed. Yeshiva or seminary studies are simply too big a risk for all but the most committed, wealthiest, or those with the very best transcripts.
As an empirical matter, it is clear that the major institutions in which the ba’al teshuva movement was born – Aish HaTorah, Ohr Somayach, Neve Yerushalayim et al – find it increasingly difficult to fill their batei medrash or classrooms.
And as one who writes regularly about the “shallowing” effect of constant connectivity, I find it entirely plausible that part of the explanation lies in the difficulty of gaining the attention of those who are constantly maintaining their public personae in cyberspace. The odds are necessarily long against any particular young person dramatically changing his life and going against his peer group. And even more so when that decision involves trading in a present filled with a cornucopia of sensory pleasures for a very uncertain future about which he or she can have little real sense in advance. In general, only someone of considerable depth could contemplate, much less make, such a decision.
BUT WITH ALL THESE PROBLEMS, I have rarely talked to someone involved in campus kiruv who did not feel overwhelmed by the demands on his or her time or who felt that they were achieving nothing. I have spoken a number of times over the years for the MEOR program at the University of Pennsylvania and on other campuses, and the room has always been filled and the audience largely attentive.
A woman who served with her husband as one of the campus couples at the University of Wisconsin at Madison for two years recently wrote me about their experience. She can count six students who grew to full observance in their home, including two who married one another, with the husband currently learning in Telshe-Chicago Yeshiva. And she is still in touch after some years break with fifteen or so other students, who know that she cares about what is happening in their lives, even if they are not presently growing in mitzvah observance. She accounts them as successes as well.
I recently spoke to a young man who had just returned from eight months or so working with other young Israelis at kiosks in American shopping malls. He described working eleven hours a day and trying to initiate conversations with hundreds of people daily. Of those, perhaps 150 engage for any period of time, and of those three purchase anything. So why would anyone take on such an unpleasant job? I asked. “Because at the end of the month, the ones who are good at it can make $7,000-$8,000 a month,” he replied.
My informant was far too sensitive for high-pressure sales or taking advantage of vulnerable marks, and made only a fraction of that. But perhaps the experience of his less scrupulous colleagues serves as a moshol for campus kiruv: It is hard to get anyone to listen, and much harder to get them to buy. But the reward of doing so is very great indeed.
MY OWN GUESS is that kiruv in America is not coming to an end, but rather developing new models and targeting different age groups. The major kiruv institutions of Eretz Yisrael will, at least in the near future, probably not maintain their formerly dominant role in the world of kiruv. And that will prove disorienting for all, particularly the high (but diminishing) percentage of kiruv professionals who began their learning in these yeshivos.
As a consequence, there may well be fewer young men proceeding from Ohr Somayach to being avreichim in Mir Yeshiva and fewer ba’alos teshuvos whose goal is to marry them. But that is only one model of ba’al teshuva, even if it is the one with which most of us are most familiar.
In the last few years, I have spent time in at least three thriving communities – in the suburbs of Atlanta, Denver, and Toronto – where I did not meet a single congregant who grew up religious, and I have been in many congregations in which ba’alei teshuva and geirim constitute the majority. The Orthodox community of Dallas has more than doubled over the last twenty years, largely due to the DATA outreach kollel, and Aish-St.Louis had a powerful impact on that city. (This list is illustrative, not exhaustive.) The growth in these communities has been almost entirely internal, and few, if any, of the ba’alei teshuva had the opportunity for full-time yeshiva study.
Jews are, and will continue, to come closer to Torah, but they are as likely to be families with young children as college students. That process of community building through families will be more labor intensive and require developing ongoing personal relationships over years. For every family that achieves full mitzvah observance, there will be others who simply like the rav or the warmth of an Orthodox shul. Just as in time-lapse photography, the results in any time frame may not be numerically impressive, but over time entire communities have been built.
The manner in which last year’s Shabbos Project in South Africa has caught the imagination of Jews in communities around the world demonstrates that there are still plenty of Jews interested and willing to explore further.
THE GREAT VISIONARY of the modern kiruv movement, Rabbi Noach Weinberg, always insisted that no matter how many full-time professionals were employed in kiruv their efforts would have to be augmented by thousands of regular Jewish families. Project Inspire, which promotes the message that every Orthodox Jew has a role to play in kiruv, is the fulfillment of Reb Noach’s vision. In just a few short years, the annual Project Inspire convention has grown larger than many events on the Torah calendar for decades.
Kiruv workers regularly list Torah families, whether in Lakewood or Lawrence as one of their greatest resources. In Lakewood, students discover that Torah lived at its most intense does not feel like something alien. And in Lawrence, they learn that a full Torah life is no contradiction to their career aspirations. Today’s college students are not the searching backpackers of the heady early days of the ba’al teshuva movement. They need role models with whom they can identify. That is why talks by prominent Orthodox professionals, in a wide range of fields, are a staple of the college Maimonides programs.
And it is good that the entire Orthdoox world is awakening to its responsibility in this area. On Rosh Hashanah, we lifted our voices loud in song envisioning a world in which Hashem reveals Himself in His full glory to “let everything that has been made know that You are its Maker, and every molded thing that You are its Molder.” But those words describe not just an ideal vision; they pose a challenge to each of us: What are we doing to help our fellow Jews recognize their Maker, or at the very least to arouse their curiosity about Torah?