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?

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16 Responses

  1. Lisa Liel says:

    Kiruv, and the whole baal teshuva movement, is bound to bog down so long as we don’t have a central halakhic decision making body. Call it a Sanhedrin or don’t, but our resistence to lo titgodedu is killing us.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    Do Kiruv professionals ever do referrals to other kiruv professionals outside their own institution or circle when they feel the other professional will be a more suitable advisor to the person being helped, or do they feel obliged to keep it within the “family”?

  3. Mr. Cohen says:

    How can kiruv succeed with a new scandal hitting the Torah world every month?

    Israel-bashing newspapers and reporters have succeeded in blackening
    the name of the State of Israel, which makes kiruv more difficult,
    even though the State of Israel is not governed by Torah law.

  4. Michael says:

    I think that you touch on something important but then you get sidetracked by other issues (such as claims that modern social networking makes kiruv more difficult). It is certainly true that the kiruv model needs to adapt, and the needs of potential BTs need to be taken into account. It’s interesting that you mention UW-Madison. I was there a number of years ago when Aish was first setting up. I was already religious, and found them to be very off-putting. Specifically, their only real interest seemed to be in getting me to take time off from my schooling and spend time in Yeshiva (which, given the nature of my program, was not a possibility). You touched on this in your article, but you didn’t seem to have a solution, other than bemoaning the fact that few were capable of doing this. At UW, there is also a Chabad house, which was involved in increasing student learning and observance without them leaving campus. Overall, I think that Chabad has been more successful (at least at UW) than Aish for precisely this reason, and I know several individuals who became BTs through Chabad. With a multitude of learning resources on the web, and yes, on social media as well, I think that kiruv needs to take this into account and focus more on educating potential BTs within the course of their careers rather than trying to get them to temporarily (or permanently) abandon their other plans. I think that there will be far less resistance from potential BTs, and even those who do not become religious will still leave with greater knowledge and observance than those who don’t even start. In other words, I think that kiruv should take the approach of continuing adult education, which which people can pursue their interests (in this case Torah) along with their career goals instead of having to choose between them. In my own experience with Aish, once they determined that I was not able to take time off, they pretty much ignored me (except once when they needed a favor), and discouraged me from participating in their programs. They seemed to only be interested in getting people out of University, and had little interest in those who couldn’t take time off. I think that this needs to change if Aish wants to make further progress in kiruv programming.

  5. Esther says:

    The Shabbos Project in my community may not have had the turn-out of the non-frum that we’d hoped for but it had, for me anyway, a very important, though not anticipated result, and that was the beginning of open dialoguing within the community amongst the frum. A courageous and persistant guest, questioned some of the inconsistencies in what the Torah says and how some members of the Torah-community behave. And instead of our usual sweeping these issues under the rug, our panel of rabbis in the ask-the-rabbi session spoke honestly, not afraid to disagree with one another, and I think possibly, at least for myself, if not other attendants at that event, helped to be mekarev kerovim. Maybe that needs to be the direction we have to go, rather than cutting another notch on the kiruv belt, to focus inward, and to be more open and honest with ourselves and each other (and not only on blogs such as this one, which a portion of our community is forbidden to look at, whether they actually do or not), so that not only will Torah-Judaism be a desirable place to aspire to join, but will perhaps be a place where so many of us who are leaving, may yet return.

  6. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    We desperately need to get away from the “my way or the highway” approach to kiruv. Kiruv people who belong to a particular organization fervently say that they are happy to have people come closer to Torah not necessarily to their organization. But then they start talking about “the right hashkofa”– their ideology. I don’t know many people who are open enough to recognize a person who belongs in Bnai Akiva if the mekarev is yeshivish, or chasidish if they are litvish, or hareidi if they are MO. We need to instill and facilitate a true attitude of 70 faces of Torah, perhaps with a website introducing them all and made available for both outreach and inreach. Such and approach can help people starting out and also prevent some kids from going off the derech.

  7. Jewish Observer says:

    How does Rav Nota Schiller factor in?

  8. Steve Brizel says:

    Kiruv will and should always be an important mission and committment of the Charedi and MO worlds-yet, you have to use today’s tools and means, and realize that teens, millenials and adults have to be reached via different means, and that Kiruv remains a one mitzvah personal growth so that someone can progress via a port of entry to become a BT and find a comfort level within the Torah observant world, and is aware of demographic changes such as the simple fact that a Jewish last name is not a sign that a person is Halachically Jewish.

  9. L. Oberstein says:

    Rabbi Nota Schiller was very offended and wrote an article that someone shared with me. He felt left out and his institution neglected. He seemed pretty bitter about it. I guess there is internal dissention in the kiruv movement about how to go about it and who is the leader . Sad but that is life.Maybe C-C will publish his response to what he feels is a hatchet job on Ohr Samayach.
    I know a lot of kiruv professinals and they are sincere and each does it his or her way. They all have successes and failures. The best one I ever knew was the late Pinky Bak who turned around Vancouver in the 1970’s, but he died young and no one else could sustain the momentum.
    On a personal level, I have much hakaras hatov to Lubavitch. Whenever any of my children have reached out they have been there with ahavas yisoel. In today’s “me generation” their formula is very appropriate. For people who live in a self centered, narcissistic, consumer generation, the fact that someone cares about me and will show me how much he wants to help me is what appeals. I know all the criticism, but my children have always found Chabad there for them wherever they lvie and whatever the circumstances. G-0 bless them.

  10. Cvmay says:

    Why has changes in the KIRUV MODEL been a surprise for all?

    Nothing stands still, we are inhabitants on a constant evolving universe. Without innovations, new ideas, different strategies – the world of Kiruv ( building binding relationships) will collapse or just stagnant.

  11. lacosta says:

    traditionally the college campus was both the age-space that the Seeking student re-evaluated the life values he was raised with and the only age-space where the haredi kiruv worker could access young jews of other stripes . it probably remains the greatest source for free access to potential ‘converts’ [ ask Campus Crusade why they are there]. but i think that is true if one views success as total buyin to a yeshivish lifestyle [ Michael implies this , a la Aish]. certainly that is not the chabad model—their goal is one mitzva right now , at any age . one can argue which approach is more ‘successful’ , but that would neccesitate quantifying what types of improvement count how much : how do you equate various levels of observance improvement–is one turned into a Kollelnik count more that 1000 still treif that dont marry a goy? is there a rav dessler type formula- pushed thru to gadlus worth more than the 1000 he was mined from?

  12. esther says:

    I don’t think that anyone is keeping points when a secular Jew performs a mitzvah. As others have pointed out, different forms of kiruv appeal to different personalities under different circumstances coming from different backgrounds, etc. etc. We are only responsible for the effort, not the results. The results are in Hashem’s hands.

  13. tzippi says:

    Last year I heard Rabbi Steven Weil speak about the changing face of outreach. As one example, JCCs aren’t the chosen venue, Starbucks is. People are so much less affiliated, and have minimal to no Jewish frame of reference. In fact, he clarified something for me, an incident the year or so before I’d found disturbing. A kiruv organization featured a well-known speaker on hasbara and other issues, and prior to his speech showed a very pro-Israel video. However, the video was practically devoid of anything religious. I regret that I’d linked the speaker to the video; one really had nothing to do with the other yet in searching for an explanation of how exactly this video, shown on many campuses, was actually constructive, I may have given the speaker a hard time. When I heard Rabbi Weil I understood how outreach had changed, and how this was a necessary hook to get the viewers’ interest. (I hope R’ Rosenblum will accept some belated apologies.)
    I’m heartened by the investment in opportunities for real spiritual growth even for people who won’t take off a year or more to go the old route of yeshiva immersion, but hope these yeshivos and seminaries will still flourish.

  14. Zalman says:

    Today’s model: Be a mentsch.
    Works with all demographics.

  15. Cvmay says:


    Why did the showing of the video bother u?? Every organization has what they call a “hook”. It could be a quickie Chinese Auction, wine tasting, mini fashion show, exotic cigars, wine & cheese, outdoor BBQ….& then the speaker begins. One has nothing to do with the other.

  16. tzippi says:

    First of all, let me mention I was fasting, hot, and tired. But I do remember bouncing it off someone older and if not wiser, a clear thinker and she was also discomfited. I wasn’t bothered by the video as being the hook for this function as much as by the thought that this was what was going to appeal to our kids on campus. It seemed so sterile and so devoid of any Jewish content and I figured that the speaker would be able to clarify why so much was invested in such an effort when they could have produced something so much more meaningful and beautiful. Pretty unfair of me since, as you say, different parts of an organization’s function have nothing to do with each other.

    I hadn’t realized at the time how necessary, and I hope effective, such hasbara was and is in instilling Jewish pride. And while I want to say, and may it be a stepping stone to bigger and greater things, the pride in knowing that we strive to maximize our resources and make meaningful contributions to our world and the world at large, in and of itself, is no kleinigkeit.

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