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.