The Quite Necessary Death of “Kiruv”

Back when I was a young Jewish communal professional, I would often ask others in my overall field what their career track was. Some answers were predictable:  rabbi, teacher, principal, social worker, Federation professional, JCC professional, youth worker. But in those days, a whole new career track was beginning to rise in Orthodox communities: “kiruv work“.  That work, which sometimes meant being paid by mainstream Orthodox organizations to encourage more people to adopt Orthodox Judaism, also became a job title for those working in young, new organizations. Some of these were youth organizations, some were yeshivot, some were adult learning programs, and there were even a few day schools that considered this to be their primary focus.

Unfortunately, what began as a well-intentioned set of attempts to bring individuals to a life that would be lived in accordance with Orthodox understandings of Torah, led to abuse. Many of these kiruv organizations were deliberately vague in stating their goals. Some insisted that their success stories not only had to become better and more observant Jews, but that they would have to adhere to a subset of practices and beliefs that was unique to a particular minority group within the Orthodox community. Intellectual dishonesty became commonplace, and some of my colleagues even passed along correspondence showing that they were encouraged to misstate facts if it was necessary in order to bring an individual into Orthodoxy. More recently, an individual involved in this type of work stated publicly that he had “made thousands of people religious”, as though one person could “make” another person accept certain beliefs.

Among the other actions I’ve witnessed or heard of are denigration of other groups within Judaism, and even within the relatively small Orthodox community. Modern Orthodox Judaism often receives the scorn of “kiruv professionals”. Some kiruv groups actively discourage adherents from secular education or learning. Other discourage support for the state of Israel. And most seem to encourage followers to disrespect the Reform or Conservative Judaism that, for many of them was what educated them to a point where they would engage with a kiruv organization to begin with.

In short, kiruv work has moved from what could have been a legitimate path to engage and educate Jews, and to bring them closer to the Jewish community, to become part of a sales force designed to sell a particular approach to Judaism and to distance followers from the vast majority of the Jewish community. This needs to end for the sake of k’lal Yisrael, the greater good of the Jewish people.

The job of bringing people closer to Torah wouldn’t end with the end of the kiruv movement. After all, the Mishnah in Avot says that we are to “be like the followers of Aaron: loving peace, actively pursuing peace, loving humanity and bringing them closer to Torah”.  Notice that the love of peace and of humanity is what is linked to kiruv, bringing people to Torah, not the disparaging of others and of others’ approaches.  And it is the entire Jewish people that is responsible for helping to bring others closer to Torah.

The best vehicle for this is Jewish education. And the best Jewish education adheres to these principles:

  1. The teacher, be it a rabbi, youth worker, classroom teacher, or friend, is a guide to the world of Judaism, not a salesperson. Every individual has the right and obligation to choose his/her path.
  2. Truth is found in many places and some truths may very well contradict others. Reconciling the Genesis story with scientific findings isn’t a new challenge. Even Rashi wrestled with the question of a 7 day creation. Judaism can stop taking away my dinosaurs and get a grip on a world that has complexity and contradictions.
  3. Television, social media, rock and roll and hip-hop music and movies are, unquestionably, tempting distractions. And most of the prophets and ancient rabbis were engaged with the social and communal life of their times. So, don’t believe anyone who says that you must have an all-or-nothing relationship with the dominant culture and its expressions.
  4. Real Jewish education doesn’t candy-coat. There are real challenges that confronted the rabbis of the Talmud and post-Talmudic era and that confront us. They were as troubled as we are by the Torah law that commanded an act of genocide [against Amalekites], which is why they found ways to effectively disable that mitzva. They couldn’t fathom a religion that put people to death for so many crimes, so they effectively disabled the death penalty. Real Jewish education challenges us to deal with the Jewish texts and practices that drive us crazy, and to figure out what to do with the challenges.
  5. One size doesn’t fit all in Jewish education and in Jewish life. Indeed it is the diversity of Jewish beliefs and practices that have sustained us. And sometimes what was viewed as heretical in one generation became mainstream in another. Example: in most Jewish communities today, significant values of the Hellenists of ancient time were adopted by Jews and by Judaism (minus the idols). So, if you can’t teach one set of beliefs without dissing another, you’re in the wrong game.
  6. Intellectual honesty requires that we apply the same critical thinking to our Judaism that we apply to other areas of knowledge. If we accept the “miracles” of our tradition, then we have to admit to the possibility of “miracles” in that of others’. If carbon dating is good for science class, then it has to be good for the Torah class. And so on.

There are probably a good many other principles that should guide our practice of Jewish education today. I hope that those who comment on this post will add theirs.

And, as the Mishnah suggests, may our Jewish education work always be based on peace and on loving others.

 

 

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7 responses

  1. I want to work with you again

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  2. Sandra Lilienthal | Reply

    It is an honor to work with you! I agree with almost everything you stated, but would like to make one comment: while I think that being exposed to both the Jewish world in all its complexity and the secular world with all its complexity is the best option, if we follow the respect that you suggest in your post, we have to accept that there are those who believe in not having any contact with the dominant culture. I may not agree with them, but can’t say our position (yours, mine, and of the majority of Jews) is right, while theirs is wrong. Theirs is right for them, even if I think it is lacking at many levels.

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  3. You hit the nail on the head, Arnie. My family was starting to become observant and our encounters with “kiruv” workers and teachers stopped us dead in our tracks. I was told I was “making a big mistake” by sending my daughters to pluralistic Jewish summer experiences like BBYO and AMHSI because they were “not orthodox,” and one of my daughters was asked if she could ever envision herself giving up all her non-observant friends. Another daughter was told that anything that is not orthodox isn’t “real” Judaism. I can honestly say that these encounters turned my family off so much that, had we stayed “close” my entire family’s Jewish identity would have been at risk. I guess now we’re “off the derech” but our Jewish identity is as strong as ever.

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  4. Great article. Ideally, Jewish education is all of these things. Can you think of a single experience or even institution that models all of these attributes? And are they cross-denominational? Pluralistic, certainly, but I can list the institutions that DON’T sugar-coat Judaism on one hand. Kiruv has worked because of its delicious candy coating, and that success means that it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

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    1. Heschel School in NY. Hartman Institute. Mechon Hadar.

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      1. Exactly. Not a whole lot to choose from. And telling that they’re all in New York, where there’s a critical mass of interested learners. Not even in LA, or Chicago, or Miami.

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  5. Here’s an argument only partly for the sake of arguing. [And accepting that the world is full of shysters, half-trained advocates on behalf of one cause or another and small-minded zealots all driving the problem with kiruv you describe]

    What, in good conscience, should a kiruv worker do who believes that his form of orthodoxy is the actual and proper way of behavior? Who firmly believes (and I think this has a certain amount of validity) that television, the Internet and hip-hop are in fact behaviors that will prevent one from actually living an orthodox life as he understands it? Who believes (relatively harmlessly in my view) that accepting evolution is a path to heresy?

    We agree that the purpose of kiruv is “to bring close” – but if a kiruv worker’s belief system is defensible in halachic tradition and emunah in God, should he be asked to water it down in the name of not forcing people to accept that understanding?

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