Is The Door Closing On Kiruv?

Gone are the days when kiruv professionals could pick baalei teshuvah like ripe, red apples. Today’s young Jews are less introspective, more technology obsessed, and less identified with Israel than ever before. Enter the determined mekarev, studied at his art, funded to the brim. But are the students listening?

It was Dovid’s first day on the job. The 25-year-old father of one had spent the previous year immersed in kiruv training courses and had conducted a personal study of every lecture by Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb and every book by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan he could find. He wanted to be ready for all the so-called “normal” kiruv questions that students would throw at him — the challenges to the Torah’s account of creation or attempts to disprove Torah by way of evolution.

As he stood in front of the small crowd of college students at the University of Kansas, he enthusiastically recited all the reasons why the Torah must be of Divine origin, exactly as he had practiced the night before. He even remembered a favorite joke. “I have a great joke about evolution. Unfortunately, it would take a billion years to explain…” But on this day, the joke would fall flat. One person cracked a half-smile, another let out a barely masked yawn. Whoa, tough audience, he thought to himself.

In fact, for the entire 45 minutes of his presentation, Dovid did not connect with one pair of eyes for more than a minute. Heads stayed down, a few souls stared out of the window, others chatted with a neighbor. A young man, probably around 19 and wearing a Kansas City Royals hat, sat in front, his fingers busily pressing and sliding the buttons on his cell phone. In the third row sat Mr. Textbook, engrossed in schoolwork.

Finally, reaching the end of his talk and reluctantly accepting defeat, Dovid tepidly asked his audience if there were any questions. No one raised a hand.

Has Torah been trumped by Twitter?

Immersion in technology is just one reason, among many, that professionals who work in the kiruv industry report a dramatic change in the business of invigorating Jewish souls. But there are other reasons for this sea change, including a focus on careerism, weak links to traditional Judaism and Israel, and broken bonds that result from intermarriage.

According to a recent article in Klal Perspectives, one leading authority claims that half as many young Americans today become baalei teshuvah as compared to ten years ago. Another professional puts it more starkly: The BT movement is drying up.

All this comes at a time when kiruv budgets are at their highest ever. One kiruv activist who wished to remain anonymous estimates the American kiruv budget at over $30 million per year, close to eight times the amount it was in 2000.

At a time when national studies forecast the rapid decline of non-Orthodox American Jewry, the stakes couldn’t be higher. As Conservative Judaism shrivels, Reform Judaism moves farther from its source, and secularism distances youth from authentic religious experiences, there are more and more Jews simply willing to leave their spirituality and Judaism at the door. It’s into this challenging environment that a kiruv rabbi ventures, smile at the ready, well-versed arguments in pocket. But, in the end, his efforts might not be enough.

Disappearing Jews

Not more than 20 years ago, a “Rosenberg” was probably Jewish. Same with Klein, Cohen, and Greenberg. If an Orthodox rabbi was approached by someone with the last name of O’Reilly or Jackson, most likely the fellow was looking to convert. But nowadays, says Julie Rupp, a JAM (Jewish Awareness Movement) kiruv rebbetzin, when she meets a student with a Jewish last name, she has even more questions to ask about the student’s background.

Why? Because chances are the father is Jewish, and the mother is not. Yet, when she meets an “Amy Donovan” who’s says she’s Jewish, it’s likely Amy is a halachic member of the tribe. Or, as Rabbi Dr. Dovid Refson, dean of Neve Yerushalayim, and phrase it, “The Yankee Doodle BT is fast disappearing.” This name confusion has also been observed by Rabbi Shalom Garfinkel, director of JET YP (Jewish Education Team – Young Professionals), a kiruv organization serving the Chicago area. Rabbi Naftali Reich of Ohr Somayach in Monsey concurs.

A recent study from Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” shows that the intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews has skyrocketed to 71.5 percent. That’s up from 55 percent in the late 1990s. As the intermarriage rates continue to rise, the outlook for non-Orthodox American Jewry looks grim. Or, as Rabbi Steven Weil, senior managing director of the Orthodox Union, phrased it at a recent webcast hosted by the OU: “If we don’t spend a large percentage of our lives engaging and opening ourselves up to the majority of American Jews who are unaffiliated, we’re going to relive the experience of losing the Ten Tribes all over again.”

The Warmth of the Fire

So why aren’t there as many baalei teshuvah as there were two decades ago?
While they still delve into basic Jewish philosophy and question the truths of the Torah, the average baal teshuvah today has become much more of a passive intellectual compared to previous decades, according to experts in the kiruv field. In fact, many of today’s baalei teshuvah are more interested in the warmth and emotional stability offered by Orthodox Judaism than its answer to big philosophical questions.

Rabbi Naftali Reich sees the phenomenon play out time and again. “Nowadays, we’re seeing many more students who are attracted by the stability, family life, and living in a more wholesome environment,” he says. “The ‘searcher for answers’ is no more. Baalei teshuvah are just looking for warmth, acceptance, meaning, and of feeling fulfilled.”
“A teacher at Aish HaTorah told me that he now has to feed the questions to his students in order to get them thinking,” says leading educator and kiruv professional Rabbi Avraham Edelstein, founder of Ner LeElef, an organization that trains kiruv rabbis. “Then, he gives them the answers and lets them debate.”

And it’s not so difficult to discern why the average baal teshuvah may be searching for emotional stability and warmth. According to Rabbi Steven Weil, American and frum values weren’t so far apart in previous decades. But today, “the disparity is overwhelming, which leads many students to crave a lifestyle and culture that focuses on emotional health and stability.”

To illustrate this point, Rabbi Avraham Edelstein cites a story that he heard from a kiruv rabbi who worked at Tufts University in Massachusetts. The rabbi had lectured on campus about marriage. The following day, a critique of the lecture showed up in the local college paper. The crux of the criticism? The rabbi’s assumption that marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman. Worlds apart is an understatement.

Roadblocks to Growth

Since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, one of the main facets of a secular Jewish identity was pride in the Jewish state. Students would participate in Israel activism on campus, wave Israeli flags during Yom Ha’atzmaut, or even attend a Birthright trip. In the past, many students would not only transition from pride in Israel to a deep pride for their Judaism, but perhaps even question what it meant to be Jewish and explore becoming observant.

But, once again, the tides have changed dramatically. The bad rap that Israel faces in the secular media is at an all-time high, once again on display during the most recent conflict in Gaza, Operation Protective Edge.

That bad publicity filters down to college campuses, where anti-Israel sentiment is rampant. Universities across the country now debate the very legitimacy of the State of Israel and host movements to divest from, boycott, and sanction the Jewish state.

According to Julie Rupp, in past decades that kind of strident opposition to Israel might have invigorated pro-Israel students, but today college kids “will get fired up for a day or two, but then go about their regular lives.”

While on a July kiruv trip to Poland, Chicago’s Rabbi Garfinkel was surprised by the number of students who remained oblivious to developments in Israel and the Jewish world For example, Susan, a social worker and one of the students on his trip, was very close to her grandparents, many of whom she knew had survived the Holocaust. Wanting to visit her grandparents’ homeland, she signed up for the trip to Poland. She was shocked when Rabbi Garfinkel told the group about the three kidnapped Israeli bochurim. Even though she was an avid news watcher, the headlines out of Israel that she watched on CNN never caught her eye or interest.

To combat this indifference to their Jewish identity, Rabbi Garfinkel challenges his students to begin thinking about who they are and to which group they belong. “Klal Yisrael is like one body, guf echad,” he tells them. “If one body part hurts, the whole body hurts. So if you don’t feel the pain of the Jewish People, what part of the body are you? The edge of the fingernail?”

Plugged In and Tuned Out

In the kiruv world, the shabbaton was once a time to connect on a deep and spiritual level with searching Jews. Just the fact that students would attend a shabbaton virtually guaranteed an opportunity for the mekarev to focus on existential questions that might be bothering them. Shabbos was usually the time that transformations would take place.

But, once again, the playing field has completely changed over the past few years. The culprit: technology. Full immersion in a Shabbos or Yom Tov is almost impossible when there’s a Facebook status to update, texts to respond to, and Instagram photos to “like.” “Ten years ago, there was a limit on the text messages that could be sent per month,” says Julie Rupp. “We had pay-per-minute phone plans. Nothing was really ‘unlimited’ then. And, more importantly, no one had smart phones. Nowadays, we just hope our students don’t pull out their iPhones during a seudah at a host family’s house.”

Students no longer have the ability to disengage from their frenzied and superficial lifestyles, which proves to be a significant impediment to authentic spiritual growth. By the end of a typical Friday night meal, mekarevim notice that they are left with a bunch of tuned-out students who are waiting for the meal to end, just in case another text has arrived.

“On our shabbatons, I tell my students that if you can’t put your phone away for 25 hours, then your life is running you,” says Rabbi Garfinkel. “We challenge them to take control.”

Call of the Résumé

In addition to the challenges posed by intermarriage, a diminishing sense of Jewish identity and a hyper-focus on technology, the journey to frumkeit has become rockier due to careerism. The classic story of the seeker who finds meaning at a Shabbos table and puts his life on hold to attend yeshivah is going the way of a historic tale.

“It’s much rarer that people will sit in yeshivah for long-term, even, let’s say, longer than six months, because they have to put internships on their résumé,” Rabbi Edelstein says. “They are much more career-focused than ever before and they won’t take the time away from their career pursuits.”

For example, says Rabbi Edelstein, take a typical student majoring in computers or science. If he has spent six months or a year in yeshivah, he’s going to be questioned about that when he arrives for a job interview. If he says that he was learning about Judaism in Israel, he’ll give the impression of not being committed to his career. Who would hazard a risk like that?
Rabbi Shalom Garfinkel calls this the “Internship Craze,” in which the idealism of the ’60s and ’70s has been sold-out for the pragmatism of the corporate world.

But Rabbi Garfinkel notes there may be good reason for this new focus on careers and money: the 2008 recession. No longer does graduating with an undergraduate degree ensure a career like it did 10 or 20 years ago. Students realize that they have exorbitant student loans to pay back, and Mom and Dad aren’t necessarily helping. Even graduates of professional schools are struggling in this new economy, including new attorneys who graduate with student loan bills for $100,000 but no job.

One of Rabbi Garfinkel’s students, Eric, was a highly gifted and sought-after tech genius. While in graduate school, he became increasingly interested in learning Torah. Since he was so brilliant, he quickly picked up Hebrew and was able to speed through many Jewish texts. Yet he had school loans to repay and a high-level job that he was set to start in a few weeks on the East Coast.

“He would have definitely made the leap to observance if he had the yeshivah experience,” recalls Rabbi Garfinkel. Unfortunately, fear overcame him and requesting a later start date from his employer was out of the question.

What’s Eric up to now? “I got a picture of him hanging a mezuzah in his apartment. He had much more potential but he was too afraid to put his career on hold.”
Yet even as they rue the career-driven reality, the indefatigable kiruv activists have shifted their infrastructure to accommodate it. As collegiates have increasingly put less focus on their Jewish identities and spiritual growth and more on their corporate futures, kiruv organizations have actively adapted by offering internships in conjunction with learning opportunities.

For example, jInternships offers college grads a full-time internship component with an Israeli company while they also study Jewish texts. This arrangement directly addresses the problem of taking an extended period of time off to learn in yeshivah in Israel, which means not building a résumé, plus suffering a big gap in work experience that might cause employers to question career commitment. The jInternship program alleviates both concerns.

Growing Pains

While the kiruv world has evolved and adapted according to the changing climate, it has also suffered its own growing pains. One of the most widely recognized frustrations among those in the field is the attention that donors pay toward numbers — in other words, how many people the kiruv worker has swayed toward Jewish practice.
The “numbers game,” as it’s called, is openly tolerated, yet privately despised by a majority of kiruv workers. Anecdotal evidence suggests a number of talented professionals have left kiruv altogether rather than play the game.

The kiruv movement is also dealing with an issue of its success. While many baalei teshuvah have blossomed into spiritually strong and contributing members of both “frum-from-birth” and BT communities, many have also struggled, even five to ten years after taking on observance. While some attribute their hardships to the difficultly of reconciling religious values with once secular values, others suspect the kiruv world has failed to provide ongoing support, especially in the areas of community integration, shidduchim, shalom bayis, and chinuch. While the problem is well known among kiruv personnel, right now the great majority of the money provided for kiruv is only earmarked for the initial stages of the process. Little if any money is available to nurture integrated and emotionally healthy BTs in the long term.

But Rabbis Eli Bloom and Yonason Quinn, codirectors of Jewish Routes in Los Angeles, are out to change that. Their organization, which creates programs that allow young people to explore Judaism, see the tide changing for how organizations view the “goal.” While the goal once might have been to send every student to Israel to learn in yeshivah or seminary, they now see a growing emphasis on creating a long-term stable and emotionally healthy baal teshuvah. In the past few years, they helped open a shul in the Pico-Robertson community that is filled with FFBs, veteran BTs, as well as new BTs. Their organization puts more emphasis now on keeping many of their students in Los Angeles, as opposed to sending them to a place where they may not get the attention they need. Jewish Routes works to ensure that female baalei teshuvah are partnered with women mentors while men are paired with a rebbi, and have a minyan to attend and a set time for learning each day, before or after work.

One such “success story” involves David and Rebecca, who began learning through Jewish Routes and eventually went on short trips to Israel. While they liked the yeshivah and seminary experience that the Holy Land offered, they ultimately decided to go back to Los Angeles. In previous years, a decision like that could have spelled the cessation of serious spiritual growth. But Jewish Routes was able to help David and Rebecca continue their journey, despite their distance from the powerful resources they’d discovered in Israel. David attached himself to the local kollel and began learning several hours a day while building a now-thriving career. Rebecca, in turn, developed relationships with many rebbetzins in the community. They are now married and an integral part of the community.

The Future

While we can’t know what the future will hold, we do know that the kiruv movement has reached a crossroads. There may be more money in the pot, but old methods are no longer working and the students and their needs have changed dramatically.

In the meantime, dedicated kiruv professionals like Dovid in Kansas City keep up the fight, despite the seeming non-interest, despite the changed landscape, and despite the focus on “numbers.” In a struggle for Jewish souls, there can be no letting up.

Accountant, Business Owner…Kiruv Rabbi?

At the same time that the baal teshuvah profile has shifted, the American kiruv movement has also seen a near complete change in kiruv personnel. Once a job done by an idealistic individual or the community rabbi, kiruv has now become a full-time career, with hundreds of professionals active worldwide.

During a typical week, the kiruv rabbi (or rebbetzin) meets privately with about 30 to 40 students. These talks can include shmoozes about life, or debates about the Torah’s validity. There are daily Torah lectures to give, events to plan, cold-calling, meetings with potential donors and, of course, the cell phone is on 24/6. Shabbos promises little time for relaxation and seudos are always brimming with students. Then, of course, they have their own families to attend to. Or, as Rabbi Garfinkel puts it, “Basically, it’s about trying to keep in touch with more people than humanly possible, as well as being an organizer, planner, therapist, salesman, teacher, rebbi, mentor, and fundraiser.” But, even in light of the intensity, he adds, “I feel incredibly blessed and privileged to be doing what I’m doing.”

For a kiruv worker, days blur into nights and nights blur into days. While college campus kiruv positions tend to be the highest paying careers within klei kodesh, they are also the most liable to burnout, when the intensity, stress, and expectations of the job become too much.

Generally, according to Rabbi Edelstein, 50 to 60 percent of kiruv personnel are not BT themselves and have spent a significant amount of time learning in Eretz Yisrael. With a very idealistic nature, they tend to have that “Go, go, go!” personality and are looking to make a difference in Klal Yisrael. Many, though, are not naive about the job description coupled with the financial pressures that go along with a position in kiruv. Rather, some look at it as a first-step klei kodesh career move — a way to support their young families while transitioning back to the United States.

Within the last decade, the college campus kiruv scene has exploded with kiruv organizations sending young families to campuses across the United States. While some live and work close to established Jewish communities, others do not. For example, according to Rabbi Edelstein, the biggest undergraduate Jewish population in the United States is in Gainesville, Florida. Other kiruv hot spots are Santa Barbara, California; Champaign, Illinois; and Madison, Wisconsin. Most kiruv couples know that when going to such locations, the chances of staying past five years is slim as families will need day school options for their own children. While sometimes these families are able to create an Orthodox infrastructure for themselves and new BTs, other times they are not so successful.

But with all the change that has occurred recently within the world of kiruv professionals, there have also been gigantic steps toward creating a support system for them. They are no longer sent out to college campuses and expected to sink or swim. The Ner LeElef program, along with the Afikim Foundation and Torah Umesorah, has staff members who focus on keeping contact with kiruv couples via personal visits, telephone calls, and Skype. According to Rabbi Edelstein, “Personally, I don’t know of any North American city with a kiruv rabbi that doesn’t get visited at least once a year by one of these organizations.”

Reaching the Russians

While the typical third- or fourth-generation secular American Jew is seemingly being swallowed by intermarriage, a new trend has emerged in which first- and second-generation Russian, Bukharian, Persian, Syrian, and Israeli Jews are becoming Orthodox or moving toward a more Torah-observant lifestyle.

What’s the push? Groups such as these have their roots in more traditional upbringings with conservative values, thus making the transition to a Torah lifestyle easier. “Their Jewish identities are much more at the surface,” notes Rabbi Naftali Reich of Ohr Somayach in Monsey.

According to Rabbi Avraham Edelstein, founder of Ner LeElef, many of these young Russian Jews, while Americanized, maintain a kind of exclusive subculture. “Go to Brighton Beach and you’ll hear the young people speaking perfect English, no accent, but they’re hanging out exclusively with each other.” This phenomenon has contributed to the success of a relatively new kiruv movement called RAJE (Russian American Jewish Experience), which allows participants to socialize with like-minded individuals while they learn the basics of Judaism.

Before RAJE came along in 2006, kiruv organizations were frustrated when working with Russian-American Jews. At events, Russian Jews would eventually find each other, creating their own subgroup within the group, frustrating attempts of the mekarevim to create a cohesive unit. In fact, young Russian Jews, including their communities and neighborhoods, were once avoided.

But Rabbi Mordechai Tokarsky, cofounder and director of RAJE, made the dynamic work for him instead of against him, and used this group identification as an intrinsic piece in his kiruv model. Not only was RAJE designed specifically so that Russian-American Jews could socialize with each other, but it also became a forum where they could express their unique, shared heritage.

Another unique aspect of the RAJE kiruv model is the students’ intense excitement for the trip to Israel. While it’s growing more and more difficult for kiruv personnel to send the third- and fourth-generation American Jews on trips to the Holy Land, it’s a big draw for RAJE students. “Bring a trip of Americans to Israel, give them an afternoon off, and they’re trying to find things to do,” Tokarsky says. But with RAJE kids, “they all have to go visit close relatives.”

So is RAJE “successful”? Since 2006, 3,260 participants — or over 11 percent of all FSU Jews between the ages of 18 and 30 — in New York and Philadelphia have completed a RAJE semester-long program. In fact, it has become the ‘in” thing for Russian American Jews and the beginning of a more Torah-observant lifestyle.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 525)

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