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Behind a Shared Purpose

Yonoson Rosenblum

The shared purpose of drawing Jewish hearts to Torah

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

 

 

I

’ve recently returned home from the Aleinu Conference of kiruv professionals and klal workers in England. I was particularly inspired by the achdus I witnessed, which was best expressed in the spontaneous circle dancing that broke out repeatedly at the first-night banquet, though also in the way all present mingled at meals and in the halls between sessions, without regard to organizational affiliations. 

That achdus is neither self-evident nor has it always been thus. Compared to the United States, the United Kingdom’s Jewish population is relatively small and highly concentrated. As a consequence, the three major national kiruv organizations — SEED, the Ohr Somayach-affiliated Jewish Learning Exchange (JLE), and Aish UK — are effectively competitors with one another for funders’ dollars and for Jews to be mekarev. (By contrast those who meet at the annual Association for Jewish Outreach Programs [AJOP] conference are unlikely to have much to do with one another throughout the year.) But in recent years a great deal of effort has gone into uniting behind the shared purpose of drawing Jewish hearts to Torah. 

For instance, for a number of years JLE and Aish UK combined on a jointly managed and funded campus kiruv operation called Genesis. Though a formal partnership no longer exists, an informal division of responsibilities continues on many campuses, with Aish UK focusing on efforts to bring large numbers of Jewish students to identify with Klal Yisrael, and JLE catering to those students already seeking more in-depth Torah learning. SEED, the oldest of the UK kiruv organizations, today concentrates primarily on work with families. 

The Aleinu Conference is another opportunity to increase unity. Though originally the brainchild of Rabbi Naftali Schiff, the former head of Aish UK and today the CEO of Jewish Futures, a platform for the development of multiple programs that can be scaled up and exported to communities around the world, the three major kiruv organizations are equally represented on the Aleinu steering committee, with two representatives each.

Also equally represented on the steering committee is the United Synagogue, the umbrella organization for the shuls to which most of Anglo Jewry belong. The United Synagogue’s representation reflects a second difference between the Aleinu Conference and that of AJOP: the presence of a large number of shul rabbanim. 

Because most of Anglo Jewry belongs to shuls that are officially Orthodox through the United Synagogue, younger Anglo Jews are less likely to have been poisoned by a steady diet of sharp criticism of Israel and Torah Judaism, and are more approachable by kiruv programs at university and thereafter. 

And the comparatively large number of Orthodox shuls also means that there are places close to their homes to send students whose curiosity has been piqued. The dividing line between shul rabbanus and kiruv professionals is thus much less well-defined in the UK, where a number of kiruv workers also double as shul rabbanim.

As a reflection of the close ties between shul rabbanim and kiruv workers, the conference honored three distinguished shul rabbanim and their rebbetzins from very different types of shuls who are retiring after over three decades to move to Eretz Yisrael: Rabbi and Rebbetzin Shimon Winegarten of Golders Green’s Bridge Lane shul, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Alan Kimche from Hendon’s Ner Yisrael shul, and Rabbi and Rebbetzin Joel Portnoy of Manchester’s Hale shul. 

THE FEATURED SPEAKER at the conference was Rav Reuven Leuchter, a highly original Torah thinker, who lecturers frequently on campuses around the world and has authored major commentaries on Nefesh HaChaim and Ohr Yisrael. (Further intellectual stimulation was furnished on the second day by Rav Zev Leff, who gave a shiur on two types of tefillah.) 

The conference opened with chavrusa learning between the rabbis present and balabatim whom they had invited to join, on the subject of yashrus (integrity). Afterward, Rav Leuchter focused on a particular aspect of yashrus, the breaking of bad middos (character traits). Yashrus emphatically does not mean being “true to oneself” in the modern parlance. That is more likely to be an excuse for not engaging in the difficult process of changing oneself at a deep level.

Later in the conference, in a discussion of the gender issues that plague campus kiruv workers, Rav Leuchter stressed, in a similar vein, that one must steer students clear of turning activities the Torah views as manifestations of the yetzer hara into the central element of their self-identity. 

Yashrus requires getting out of one’s comfort zone. Beyond breaking one’s bad middos, getting out of our comfort zone requires us to constantly ask “What does Hashem want from me?” rather than just imitating the behavior of our neighbors or community, no matter how outwardly observant. 

Rav Leuchter emphasized the primacy of creating a relationship with the unaffiliated Jew as the key to successful kiruv. At the roundtable discussions of kiruv professionals, much of the time was devoted to addressing the increasingly short attention span, distractibility, and seeming lack of depth of today’s younger generation. 

Rav Leuchter did not deny that it is often hard to immediately discern the kli kibul (vessel) for receiving kedushah. (The difficulty of doing so is one reason that we are such notoriously poor predictors of who will become a baal teshuvah.) But that difficulty of locating the kli kibul for ruchniyus does not excuse not making the effort to do so. For every Jew possesses it. The failure to uncover it reflects our shallowness — not that of the young Jew to whom we are trying to connect. 

Discovering the particular kli kibul, however, may require hours of discussion, and it may be found in surprising places, including activities that are far removed from Torah. Successful kiruv, it follows, requires that the mekarvim have time for long, unscripted conversations, and do not have their eyes on the clock, concerned with achieving numerical quotas. 

In his final talk, Rav Leuchter emphasized (quoting Rav Yisroel Salanter) that the proper way to learn with students is not “from above,” as someone who is bringing enlightenment to those previously living in darkness, but rather as someone approaching the text from below and learning it together with the student. 

I was reminded of something a successful kiruv professional, with a bad stutter, once told me. He said that his stutter had proven to be a great asset for him. One of the barriers in kiruv, he noted, is the discomfort of the unlearned Jew with his own ignorance and the vastly greater knowledge of the mekarev. A stutter, my friend said, helps to break down the feeling of distance between the mekarev and the Jew to whom he is trying to connect.

The elephant in the room in the roundtable discussions turned out to be that the Torah is not “politically correct,” particularly on the gender issues that play such a central role in modern-identity politics. The challenge facing campus mekarvim is how to avoid being dismissed out of hand before even gaining a hearing for Torah at all. 

There is no easy answer to that challenge. But I was struck by one thing Rav Leuchter said about the complementarity of man and woman. He began by asking a question that has always bothered me: Where do we see evidence of Adam’s missing rib from which Chava was fashioned? Men and women both possess the same number of ribs, and they are neatly paired. He suggested that the “missing” rib is the concave shape at the bottom of the spinal cord, below the rib cage, that appears to be almost scooped out. Most primates have a straight spinal cord, and, as a consequence, cannot stand erect. 

Only Man can stand upright. And only Man can therefore face his partner fully k’negdo. That is the secret of Chava’s formation from Adam’s rib.

In his final address, Rav Leuchter related how his great teacher Rav Shlomo Wolbe taught him that one must develop a sharp sense of smell with regard to bad middos, particularly gaavah. The Aleinu Conference, Rav Leuchter attested, was free of that putrid smell. And that was the precondition for the unmistakable achdus to be found there.  

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 747. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com

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