Blowing The Head Off Of Outreach


I’m flipping the tables around and am hoping to share something with you instead of you sharing with me. Thank you for your emails and messages. It’s nice to know some very successful friends and acquaintances of mine have both been through tough times and are in my corner. I’m going out on a limb- hoping not to get clobbered – for the following post where I blow the head off of outreach or in less dramatic terms demystify it.

The following information has been collected from kiruv (Jewish outreach) veterans, kiruv all stars, and kiruv golden couples. In other words, people who have been doing outreach for a long time and/or people who are wildly successful at it. This article refers to campus outreach as opposed to all other kinds, which by my estimation, is distinguished by its accelerated pace since young people tend to be more open to new ideas and transient. A powerful combination – I hope I’m still as open and willing to developing myself at 30 as I was at 20.

I once overheard a kiruv rabbi say that someone should systematize the steps that are required to mikarev (bring someone close to Judaism) a student. Full disclosure: I cringe when I hear the term “mikarev” as it completely robs all choice and effort made on the student’s part.

The perspective that rings true to me is that kiruv is as much for the rabbi/teacher as it is for the student. An ideal mikarev (one who {professionally} reaches out to other Jews) endeavors to build him/herself into a role model for others- a Torah personified- and then creates a marriage, family, and home where guests can see Jewish values manifested in all areas of life. Imagine such a person conducting a Shabbat dinner table. Who leaves richer? The guest who ate good food, participated in interesting conversation, spent time in an observant Jewish home or the host who has built this spiritual mansion? I’d venture to say the host. Throughout all my years sitting at someone else’s Shabbat table, there is no greater feeling than being in the position to give that experience to others.

I’ve heard it said that kiruv is manipulative, contrived and (the winner of most played-out term in this category) brainwashing. So, for the sake of complete transparency, let’s systematize the steps of kiruv and see what happens. Any kiruv professionals reading my blog or anyone at all, feel free to argue with me but this is my understanding of the system. Any students reading this, at least read until the end before jumping to conclusions 🙂

There are a few types of students educated outreach professionals tend to seek – that is not to say it’s exclusive- my husband and I became incredibly close with vastly different types of students during our stint at USC. The idea is that if the assimilation rate is skyrocketing at the speed of lightening, who will your time and effort resonate with best? (The following is culled from an informational interview I conducted with a “superstar”)

1. Middos – good character traits. Nice, normal students. Is this person nice, punctual, helpful? These are questions my source tells me are critical to ask before investing serious time.

2. Intelligence. Torah’s philosophy is brilliant and true- and completely adverse to many ideas we have in the Western world. A student is required to question what s/he thought to be true about priorities and ideas. Such a person (obviously) must be a thinker but proceed with caution if the person takes too much pride in his/her intelligence (see #1)  or has an addiction  (not aspiring) to perfect grades.

3. Inner Strength. A student must have the emotional strength and wherewithal to stand up for what is right or walk away depending on the case. Change is very difficult but change in the face of possible peer or parental pressure requires nothing less than complete grit.

There were many more criteria to keep in mind but these three stood out as the “biggies”. The “Are you Jewish?” question is necessary but more often than not doesn’t change how to proceed as long as the student considers him/herself Jewish, s/he is treated accordingly.

Part two are the steps someone in outreach should take if they meet someone who fits the criteria and ..well…seems to like the rabbi/rebbetzin. In the scenario that follows, I’m the rabbi/rebbetzin and you’re the student:

Step 1: We meet. We connect. I ask you for another time to meet and connect.

Step 2: We do this consistently, talk about important philosophical ideas that most people don’t slow down long enough to consider, and we share our lives with one another through these conversations.

Step 3: I invite you over for Shabbat. You eat my food. You meet my family. I enjoy your company. We repeat this cycle often. Before or after Step 3, I throw in other invitations to social or educational programs that take place frequently (example: Maimonides)

Step 4: Our relationship is stronger now.  I invite you to a Shabbaton in a Torah-observant community. You have the opportunity to meet different types of religious  personalities and families to give you a more well-rounded perspective on what it means to live an orthodox life.

Step 5: I invite you to learn and tour in Israel on a short (10 day to 2 week) trip that’s an intense whirlwind of inspiration and gives new meaning to Judaism.

Step 6: We plan a longer trip for you to study in Israel and integrate Jewish ideology into your everyday life and future.

A nice tidy package, huh? Obviously this is an over-simplification but meant to be a generalized structure for creating an environment where positive relationships and a Jewish student community can flourish. Truth is, anyone who hasn’t engaged in provocative ideological debate, immersed in an authentic and all-encompassing Shabbat, and learned with the best in Israel has missed out on something very profound.

An aside– In my class about Chanukah today, my seventh grade girls were “totally freaked out” (their words) when they discovered the historical journeys of the Jewish people as going something like this:

Very large number of Jews move in to X (substitute any country Jews have ever settled in history here) > Jews Flourish, Succeed Academically and Financially> Country Flourishes> Jews Assimilate> Country Persecutes Jews by Levying Unfair Tax, Slavery, Violence, and/or Attempted Genocide > Country Suffers Irreparably in War > Jews Pick Up the Pieces and Move to Y (substitute any country Jews have ever settled in history here). I am not wise enough nor dumb enough to conclude anything about this- I only wanted to lay out those facts.

Back to our topic and back to Pew. Assimilation is staggering. Synagogue membership is at an all time low and not identifying as a Jew is nearly as common as identifying as one. In a world of skewed values, in America where divorce and anti-depressants are commonplace, Torah principles and Jewish values provide the infrastructure for our happiness and success.

So I’ve proposed a problem and a solution. Problem: Assimilation. Solution: Outreach (complete with a how-to) Post over, right? Not quite. If People had a subsidiary magazine called Kiruv People and the newest issue was titled “Top 10 Most Influential Kiruv People of the Generation”, you just might see this:

Zev Wolfson, who died at 84 in 2012, was said to have been the greatest philanthropist who ever lived and sought to make massive waves in the movement (in addition to many other causes he held dear) of Campus Kiruv. Because of Mr. Wolfson’s initiative and funding, kiruv campus job growth exploded in the last ten years. He funded (and his foundation continues to fund) a large percentage of every salary of every campus rabbi in North America- not including educational programs and study trips. In case you were wondering, there are around 100 couples hired in total under the Wolfson family’s auspices.

The problem is the return on investment is weak. There are a couple Big Name Philanthropists, including the Wolfsons, who make campus kiruv possible. For all the money they’ve poured in, what’s the expectation and what do they get back in reality? The answer: Very, very low numbers. The magic number ‘7’ (annually) sets the bar for where a campus outreach couple wants to be but realistically that number is lower. Keep in mind, placing even one student into this group of 7 means s/he has been so intensely impacted by Judaism that Shabbat observance is now consistent. That’s asking a lot. Even dynamic, charismatic, determined. hard working kiruv professionals would have great difficulty reaching the number 7 and I dare say never do. So why do these (albeit few) philanthropists opt to invest in such a low performing stock? Furthermore, why do outreach professionals channel their time, energy, and tears in something that could possibly yield very few or no fruit?

My proposal is that we do it for the moment. Let me explain. I don’t know about you but it’s a rare day that I don’t consider my own mortality and possible purpose in this world. I’m of the opinion that (other than God) people can transcend time as we analyze and resurrect the past or dream about the future. A profound book I picked up on the recommendation of Rabbi Aryeh Nivin (Personal Development Coach) is “Slowing Down To The Speed Of Life”. This short book is filled with insights that I try to integrate even after I’ve read and reread it years ago. The book asserts that people live happier, better lives when they embrace the moment – sounds simplistic but very difficult. Take a cue from young children. They can commit themselves to the present wholly: when dancing, playing, laughing, or even crying.

It seems like a losing battle this war on assimilation- it always has been and I suggest it is meant to be that way. We are supposed to feel that the odds are against us and, when analyzing hard data, make very little headway. But it’s for the moment- the moment we are involved in battling the assimilation- the moment, more accurately, that we’re involved in connecting with other Jews, caring for other Jews, praying for other Jews. It is those moments that make it all worthwhile.


8 responses »

  1. It’s an interesting, though sobering point that even successful kiruv professionals have a low “success” rate. But since saving a life is saving a world (and all those potential generations), I suppose that also makes it worthwhile. But yeah, it’s a formidable challenge, from both ends really.

  2. to quote my art teacher (may she rest in peace): I love you but you are not my friend.

    Kiruv is tricky if you assume the Torah is true. It may be brilliant, but True is not clear. There are people now who dress in white shirts and black velvet kippas who say it is from hundreds of years and multiple hands.

    You should check it out (you seem to suggest people should check everything out — how about yourself? Let the rabbis who say the Torah is from many years and different hands show WHY they think this is true.)

    You think the debate should be real? Then get real…!


    • I did check it out. I was raised in a relatively open home religiously. My mom is a BT who was quite modern orthodox while I was a child and my father a traditional Jew. Both very proud to be Jewish but I definitely needed to do my own investigations to feel that I wanted to pursue a religious life. I’d be glad to give you plenty evidence that Torah is true or better yet, point you to amazing links that can tell you all about it if you’re interested. Let me know 🙂

  3. something that is always on my mind as we endeavor to impact our fellow Jews. Bottom line, if we really believe in Hashem and that He is in control, there is no better place to act on it than with Kiruv. You plant, you build, you cry, you invest, but like everything else in life, the results are up to Hashem. We’re trying the best we know how, which I believe makes the RB’Shel Olam proud; being models of love and Torah and trying to spread it. Beyond that, ‘the return on investment’ is our own growth, our family’s growth, and our Olam Habah. Results in any area of life are simply not up to us.
    Rachel, love your blog. Hatzlacha in whatever comes your way. Maybe now that your MIL is moving back to the ATL, we’ll get to see you!

    • Thank you for your comment! So true and a wonderful perspective in a (sometimes) high-pressure environment. Would love to see you too – I might be more excited about her move than she is!

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