6 Ways To Improve Kiruv

But, of course, kiruv, shlichut, outreach, whatever you want to call it, is a very young art.  It isn’t static but something that requires refinement and improvement.  It has resulted in amazing things, and as recent studies have shown that Jews in the non-orthodox world are losing their identity at an incredibly rapid pace, it is more important than ever.

But things also need to change.  There is so much room for improvement in the world of outreach that it’s essential a discussion takes place about how to improve it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this myself, as a baal teshuva who has loved the experience of becoming religious while also running up against some very real challenges.  And as I’ve made the move into an orthodox community where many of my fellow yeshiva-mates have moved to, I’ve observed even more of these challenges.

So, let’s change things, let’s look at things differently.  Let’s realize that kiruv/outreach/shlichut is ever-evolving, and all of our voices are essential to the discussion.

Below are six suggestions to improve the world of kiruv.  I would love to hear more suggestions in the discussion section as well.  Let’s talk.

1. Stop calling it kiruv

Kiruv which means “to bring close” is such a dirty, dirty word.  It implies, first of all, that that Jews who are not orthodox are “far”.  In other words, that you’re inherently better than them by trying to bring them close.  And that’s a big fat crock of BS.  It gives the “kiruv” person a fake sense of superiority.  One they, most likely, don’t deserve.

But there’s a much, much bigger problem with the word.  There is an implication in the word that the only job of a kiruv person is to bring a person “close”.  And thus, once they’ve convinced a person to be orthodox, their job is over.

This has destroyed and hurt more baal teshuvas than anything else in the kiruv industry.  I know far too many people that have fallen out of touch with the people that brought them close to Judaism not out of their own decision, but because their guide had it in their head that their only job was to bring the person through the door.

Which is so beyond fallacious and wrong that it boggles the mind.  To be a Jew is a lifelong struggle for a baal teshuva.  He will go through ups and downs, trials and tribulations, doubts and confusion.  And he needs a steady guide, or at least a helping hand when these moments come.

So, from now on in this article I’m going to call it outreach.  I’m not sure if it’s the best word, but it’s far better than kiruv.

EDIT: Someone told me that I should attribute this idea to the Rebbe, and they’re totally right.  In fact, I wrote about it in an earlier post.

2. Provide “community” classes for students in yeshiva

As far as I know, practically every baal teshuva yeshiva believes that their job is simply to stuff a person with as much Torah as possible and to make sure that by the time a person leaves, they have a passion and connection to Judaism that they never had before.

To be fair, that alone is a tough job.  And most baal teshuva yeshivas are doing an incredible job at it.  They deserve much more recognition than they get for the great work they do.

But there is one class (which also reflects a false mindset) that is missing from all these yeshivas: a class that provides practical tools and knowledge about what it is like to live in an orthodox community.

Too many baal teshuvas leave yeshiva starry-eyed, excited for the world they are about to enter, only to realize that so much of communal life within a religious community has nothing to do with what they learned and experienced in yeshiva.  Which is normal.  There’s no way a Jewish community could live up to the experience of a baal teshuva yeshiva.

But here’s the thing: baal teshuvas should know this before they leave yeshiva.  They should know what they’re getting themselves into.  So much of the pain that occurs from transition to Jewish communal life is about expectations.  It’s important that they understand that hardly anyone in their community is as amazing as their rabbis in yeshiva.  That people are fallible.

They should also learn day-to-day skills for interacting in a Jewish community in a healthy way.  They should know what the community will expect of them since so much of their Judaism has been spoon-fed to them, something a community won’t do.

And, most of all, they should know about the dating scene.  They should know what to expect, how to deal with it, the frustrations, who to reach out to for help, etc.

Many people would recommend a mentor for all this information.  I agree to an extent.  But this information also needs to be handed down systematically.  Not every baal teshuva has a mentor when they leave yeshiva, and some aren’t so good at finding the right one yet.

So, please, yeshivas, help them out.  Make this class just as essential as Gemora.  Because it is.

3. Create “absorption centers” in communities

Every community, ideally, should provide some sort of “absorption” center that can help baal teshuvas with their transition into a community.  These would be the logical extension of the classes in the yeshivas.  Places for baal teshuvas to talk to each other about the difficulties of the transition, give each other support, and have easy access to mentors.

Of course, not every community has the means to make such a thing to happen, or enough baal teshuvas to justify it, but if they can’t provide full-on centers, they should at least have a system for transitioning baal teshuvas into their world.  Baal teshuvas require a special attention than just a normal person moving into a community.  They need guidance, help, and support.

4. Work with other communities

One of the biggest complaints you hear from beginning baal teshuvas is that they are not sure what Jewish community they want to enter.  Some love mysticism, but aren’t sure they want to commit to a life within Chabad.  Some got sucked in through Aish, but want to learn Chabad chassidus.  Some are sephardi and feel lost as to how to connect to their roots.

Many of the arguments I’ve heard in this regard say that a the various yeshivas and outreach organizations should provide knowledge of all cultures.

I think that’s crazy impractical.  There’s a reason most outreach centers are so focused: it’s what they know, and it’s what’s effective.  To teach a million different lessons at once is a mistake, and will only confuse potential baal teshuvas.

Instead, what really needs to happen is that the various outreach organizations need to start working together.  They need to stop seeing transferring a student as a loss.  They need to recognize when a student doesn’t belong with them and would benefit going somewhere else.  And they need to know where that place will be.

That can only happen with communication between different organizations.

To turn outreach into a competitive game is to debase its goals.  A multi-derech approach is essential for the health of baal teshuvas.  I know too many that realized later in their progress that they regretted taking the path they took because they simply didn’t feel like they had any other options.  This is such a huge mistake.  And it only exists because of politics.

5. Realize that outreach isn’t only for secular Jews

Another problem with the word kiruv is that it creates a false dichotomy wherein the perception is that the only people that need a connection to Yiddishkeit are secular and “less religious” Jews.

And so what happens is that an entire segment of the Jewish world, the ones that grew up religious and are starting to leave the fold are often forgotten.  It’s something that is happening more and more, and is seen as a regrettable tragedy rather than a natural result of living in a community with certain boundaries and rules surrounded by a world without any.

It’s true, there are (amazing) places like Aliyah, for example, in Crown Heights, that provide a service like this.  But they are provided with much less support than places like baal teshuva yeshivas and Chabad houses.  They are also fairly rare.  And the ones that do exist usually tend to focus on specific communities rather than thinking more globally.

The biggest example of how this hurts Jews is the fact that Jews who leave more restrictive communities are provided absolutely no support by the frum world.  They are, essentially, on their own.  The only support they can find is from organizations like Footsteps which have their own political agenda.  There need to be places for people that simply want to leave those communities and have no idea how to.  And those places need to accommodate their specific needs, such as secular education and guidance in dealing with the secular world.

6. Stop only being nice to secular folks

This issue just has to be addressed.  And is, yet again, another example of how the word “kiruv” twists the way we look at bringing Jews close to Judaism.

I’ve talked to both leaders in the outreach community and “people on the street” who have told me that they are nicer to secular people because they need to be guided back softly.  And those same people will then be unafraid to attack and hurt their fellow orthodox Jews.  They will attack all of Chabad with sweeping accusations.  They will mock the “snags”.  They will be unafraid to attack people both online and in real life with which they disagree.

This is completely, utterly, insanely, backwards.

There is a part of me that believes outreach exists so that we learn how to treat all Jews, not just the ones who are “out of touch” with orthodoxy.  Imagine if every orthodox Jew treated every single Jew, religious or not, the way kiruv folks and others treat the Jews they are trying to “mikarev”.  Imagine!  What a world that would be.  A world where everyone is treated respectfully.

A Jew is a Jew is a Jew and his connection to Judaism is constantly in question.  There are so many Jews who act perfectly normal on the outside, but whose connection to Judaism is dying on the inside.  I know far, far, far too many people like this.

And almost always, the main reason they are feeling disconnected is because of the way they are treated by other orthodox Jews.  Of course, there are other reasons, but this is what pushes a person over the edge.  It’s what turns a person from hot to cold.

There are Jews in pain out there, and it is because we are so stuck in our way of thinking that we’ve decided we’re only going to be nice to the ones who are “away”.

But, of course, that’s not love.  True love means giving completely, no matter how much you see wrong in the other person.

May the world of kiruv, outreach, and shlichut help us tap into that love in a true and healthy way.





20 responses to “6 Ways To Improve Kiruv”

  1. tostien Avatar

    1) ‘Kiruv’ versus ‘outreach’ is semantics. Call it what you want. A person reaching out to someone, whatever it is, surely thinks they have something to offer the other person which is superior to what the person has now. One should not, as you have said, act superior towards another though, regardless.

    2) It would have been nice is someone in yeshiva informed me about the need to buy health insurance when I got married and that just because a person is frum doesn’t make him honest in business. Still, it’s a matter of leaving one world and going to another … ti’s kind of like asking Moshe to prepare the Jews in the midbar for what it would be like to become a farmer. Not sure how many people would even listen. I do, however, wish there was more aid and help after I left yeshiva, but I do understand their resources are thin and a lot of that simply has to do with distance and the connections you made with mentors while in yeshiva.

    3) They tried that in my community. Two problems: 1) lack of interest, 2) lack of money, especially on the part of those who would use it for free living and a lack of moving on with your life. It almost contradicts your point #2.

    4) Can’t say I had this problem, but I had spent much time in many communities before/during yeshiva to figure it out.

    5) Totally agreed. The Shmuz tries to address this.

    6) Totally agreed. Kol avodas Hashem toli v’tikkun hamiddos … your entire service of G_d depends on fixing your character. I have the same complaint against yeshivas where kids misbehave in secular classes because they’re seen as less or not important. What, like that’s not going to spill over into your character in other areas, or G_d isn’t watching when you read Wuthering Heights? (Man, I hated Wuthering Heights. Whenever my kids complain about something they have to read or learn, I tell them it will be worse in 10th grade. I digress.)

    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      Very interesting points, and a lot to chew on.

      I really only have one big issue with what you said. Your first point: I never understood this argument that semantics is “just semantics”. Linguistics matter. They change the way we look at the world. They affect the way we treat others. Read the article and you’ll see how this skewed use language has affected the people in charge of the system. Semantics matter.

      1. tostien Avatar

        Okay… how about: semantics sometimes matter.

        Saying “The zionist entity bulldozes 2 year old’s home” is certainly very different than, “Israel bulldozes radioactive remains of mass murderer’s house after bomb intended for civilians prematurely detonates.”

        However, I don’t think there’s substance to calling it “kiruv” versus “outreach”. Same difference.

        1. Golda-Rochel Avatar

          I think that outreach and kiruv both have problems semantically. Outreach implies that the one doing outreach is “inside” and the other person isn’t. Not that different from the idea of close and far. Teaching, enabling mitzvot, making Jewish ritual and learning more accessible? I don’t know I don’t know that there is a good word for it but yes, outreach and kiruv have much the same semantic problems.

          That said I love the post and especially 6. So true.

  2. Yosef Avatar

    I didn’t have time to read through the whole article at the moment but some bold lines captured my attention about teaching Yeshiva boys about outreach, when I was in Israel 5 years ago there was a great class every other Motzaei Shabbos during the Winter Zman at Zvhill across from the Mir Yeshiva of Jerusalem with Kiruv experts teaching Yeshing boys practical ways of doing outreach and (including a big challenge from Rabbi Moshe Zeldman to do something about it – which resulted in a book titled “putting out the fire” by Aharon Ungar, a few years before) this program is called Achim Kiruv Training and is run by R’ Chaim Hirsch

  3. Chana Avatar

    Wow. We had this discussion yesterday about the word “kiruv”. In most cases, I don’t think it is used in a derogatory fashion. It’s just become common slang. Is there a better Hebrew word or expression?

    Absorption Centers would be wonderful, but staying in an observant home can also be helpful to see the reality of putting it into effect. Watching or helping with Shabbat/Yom Tov prep work, set-up, clean-up can give a sense of what’s really involved. We do this and we let our guests ask questions (including the tough ones) about dating, shomer negiah, mivkah, etc. We discuss both the benefits and headaches.

    One of the issues I see is not letting BTs know how Yiddishkeit varies from community to community. BTs often don’t know that what is ok in one community will be viewed differently in another. Yes, it gets complicated, but BTs need to know that one rabbi’s approach or even a community philosophy may be viewed completely differently elsewhere. This can be done without putting down others.

    As for Ahavas Yisroel (point 6), Amen.

    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      This is such a great comment.

    2. Rivki Silver Avatar
      Rivki Silver

      I completely agree about staying in an observant home. I had the good fortune of getting to board in a frum home for about a year, and it was an invaluable experience. I learned so much about how to be “normal.”

      1. Chana Avatar

        Now that you’ve discovered how to be “normal”, can you teach the rest of us?

  4. Rebecca K. Avatar
    Rebecca K.

    I think all the points here are good and important, but my reaction is the opposite:

    We should view every minute of the day as kiruv. Not just kiruv rechokim, but kiruv kerovim, too.

    People with special needs need to be brought close. And people coping with divorce, people with physical or mental illness in the family, people who just need a smile, people who have less money or are new to town — they all need to be brought close to us, too.

    Hashem sends us opportunities all day, every day to choose to connect with people or push them away. If we met these challenges, we wouldn’t have most of the problems you describe in your post: we’d smile at everyone, we’d remember the BT who can’t cope with their kids’ yeshiva needs a little advice or practical assistance, we’d have communities that are less disappointing to BTs (and frankly many FFBs) when they leave the sheltered (in a good way) world of yeshiva or seminary.

    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      You’ve discovered the hidden message of the post, actually.

      1. Rebecca K. Avatar
        Rebecca K.

        It’s my secret X-ray glasses that did it.

  5. daniel.saunders Avatar

    My religious journey didn’t involve formal kiruv organizations much, and I was starting from a different point to many other people as I had a background that was traditional rather than totally secular and my family supported and eventually followed me in becoming more observant. All that said, from what experience I have had of kiruv organizations and from my observations of other people I’d make a few points:

    1) Make sure ba’alei teshuva don’t take on too much too fast. I’ve seen people go from a secular lifestyle to keeping umpteen chumrot almost overnight and then go back to being secular equally rapidly. Obviously I don’t know all the details of their stories, but I’d be surprised if taking on too much too fast didn’t help to burn them out.

    2) Be alert for signs of mental illness. Universities are increasingly on the lookout for signs of mental illness, particularly depression, in students and yeshivas and sems should be the same – intense study in a new environment, often combined with living away from home for the first time can trigger latent problems and that’s without the added stress and upheaval of taking on a whole new lifestyle and worldview. Of the people I mentioned above who went back to a secular lifestyle, two had serious mental health issues too that only appeared after they became frum.

    3) Don’t denigrate secular culture/other religions. This just looks insecure and will turn off some people. Judaism has enough virtues that it doesn’t need to be promoted by rubbishing everything else. Kiruv should be about letting people see the beauty of Judaism, not about making every other society look bad.

    1. HS Avatar

      Agree – especially with #3. I’ve seen way too many people make that mistake.

  6. yossi Avatar

    I am puzzled by kiruv. Is the agenda of kiruv to make non-Orthodox Jews Orthodox? I though the Lubavitcher rebbe rejected the labels of orthodox and non-orhtodox. Is it to persuade Jews to observe “more” mitzvot. This seems like it can’t be right either because when we put on tzitzit we pray that this is equal to all 613 — so mitzvot are not the sort of thing you can count — they are more of a holistic system. I’m interested in having a deeper relationship wtih Torah and other Jews but don’t want to get a new identity — my old identity such as it is is fine. Is that okay?

    1. yossi Avatar

      by the way this is Eric Kaplan not “Yossi” — I don’t know why this posted as “Yossi”!

      1. HS Avatar

        Hi Eric,
        Part of Elad’s point is that the “agenda” of kiruv shouldn’t be to make a non-Orthodox Jew Orthodox. As he said, that creates a false separation between frum Jews and non-frum Jews, as if a hierarchy exists among the different groups. The point of “kiruv”, or as the Lubavitcher Rebbe called it “Hafatzat haMayanot” (Spreading of the waters), is to make Jews more aware of their identity as Jews, and what that means regarding their relationship to other Jews, to G-d, and to the world.

        You say you don’t want a new identity, and I totally agree with you. Getting in touch with Torah shouldn’t mean drastically changing your personality – it means learning about your REAL identity, your essential identity, which is that you are a Jew.

        It’s cool that you recognize mitzvot as a “holistic system” instead of just a numbers game. It took me a while to see that. Nevertheless I want to note that we shouldn’t be intimidated by the amount of stuff there is to do or learn. Even doing one small mitzvah has a tremendous impact on ourselves and the world, even if we’re not aware of it.

  7. Rivki Silver Avatar
    Rivki Silver

    I’ve been thinking about this lately, mainly because we just moved into a very heterogenous neighborhood, with non-Jews, intermarried couples, secular people and the Av Beis Din of our city all within a couple blocks.


    So I was thinking about all the hard-core things I heard from my kiruv people when I was coming around, and I think about how I would never, ever say half those things to someone who isn’t shomer mitzvos. Like, ever. But it worked for me, so why won’t I use it? I don’t know. I guess I appreciate nuance so much more, and I think that, for me, presenting frum life in a more nuanced way just feels like a more authentic way. Because it’s not utopia. But it *is* something that should at least be shared.

    I agree that sharing it from a perspective of “I’m frum, and you’re not, nebuch for you” is not ideal. Proselytizing in general makes me queasy, but my life has been so improved by adhering to frumkeit that I would be remiss in not at least sharing some of the nuggets of awesome that are found in Torah.

    On the topic of frum absorption centers, I think Mishpacha had something about that, a website created by a ba’al teshuva. Of course I can’t remember what it is, but if you contacted Mishpacha, they would probably know.

    1. Nina Badzin Avatar

      Rivki, I think you do an excellent job of this–of showing what you value about living a Torah observant life. (You too, Elad!)

  8. Yosef Lifchitz Avatar
    Yosef Lifchitz

    Rebeim for the most part are out of touch with the real world. The Balai battim are the ones that need to teach a course in Yeshiva on approaching the world as a frum Jew.

    In regards to outreach – the best outreach is when one walks the walk. Being good, kind, caring, compassionate, non-judgmental and accepting. These are the qualities that resonate. Torah should speak for itself.

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