Friday, May 4, 2018

Guest Post: A Concerned Jewish Mother Speaks Out About Kiruv

Guest Post
Thanks to TB for submitting her account of her child's experiences with aggressive ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach.

Is the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Outreach movement “brainwashing” students?

By a concerned Jewish mother

Our family practiced Conservative Judaism. My son graduated valedictorian from high school and went on to the University of Pennsylvania where he was accepted into the Wharton school of business. This was the school of his dreams and economic and finance were his career aspirations.
Our son was a person who was always surrounded by a warm family and many friends. He excelled in almost everything he tried and he was the kind of person who always put other people’s needs before his own.
During his time at the University of Pennsylvania, he was active at the gym, joined a fraternity, and excelled academically. He won an award secured a position at a prestigious investment bank in New York.  My son was at the cutting edge of his field, with a bright future and a role model to others.
But then he became involved in Jewish outreach or Kiruv organization named Meor. During his second year of college my son was approached by Rabbi Shmuel Lynn of Meor. He was offered a large sum of money (for a college student) to attend a weekly lecture series, where he was supposed to become in touch with his “Jewish roots.” He was recruited into the so-called “Maimonides Leadership Program,” which purportedly would make him somehow become a “better person” and “successful leader”.   He would attend weekly seminars and Friday “Shabbats” with other students who were raised within secular Jewish families or families that practiced Conservative Judaism or Union of Reform Judaism. These seminars were led by Rabbi Shmuel Lynn and culminated in a “FREE” trip to Israel and Poland where they were to learn about the Holocaust, the existence of God, and the importance of getting in touch with your Jewish roots.
When our son came home from the Israel trip, he had changed. He began to keep Kosher. He began to isolate himself slightly from his fraternity and his friends. He began to become more heavily involved in the Meor program.  After graduating the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania our son sat down with his father and me one night while at a Sushi restaurant and announced, “I decided I don’t want to take my job at the investment bank.  Instead I want to study in a Yeshiva in Israel – at Machon Yaacov.”   
We pleaded with him to at least spend a few years working at the investment bank before make such an abrupt change.  His father and I asked him if he would at least work for two years. And if he still wanted to give the Yeshiva a try after that we would be more likely to support it.  He reluctantly agreed.
Our son moved to Manhattan and started working in the city for the investment bank. He lived with one of his fraternity brothers who also graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
My son went to weekly Shabbatons in New York and would met regularly with local Rabbis of the community. After one year of working at the investment bank he became involved in the West Side Kollel, Kollel Yisroel VeShimshon, where he met Rabbi Mordechai Prager. Shortly after that our son’s life took a drastic downward spiral.
First, our son declared that he would no longer work on Shabbat. And that he must leave work early to go and study at the Kollel. He also broke off an engagement after Rabbi Prager told him that he must honor “Chok Hanegiya” and was not allowed to be in the same room with his fiancé until they were married.
His relationship with his family also deteriorated. Our son’s behavior became erratic and he would run away in the middle of a sentence. He neglected his father, even when he became ill with lymphoma. He lost all care and interest in his niece and nephews.
Rabbi Prager and Rabbi Prager’s wife recommended that my son take time to study in Israel. He was then introduced to another rabbi in New York, whose name he never disclosed. This rabbi recommended that he go to study at Yeshiva Tehilas Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva school run by a group of Haredi Litvak Jews.   Our son was told by the rabbis not to disclose under any circumstances where he was going. He was also told to lie to his parents and told us that he would only be going for two months. And that he would be back soon to go back to work after completing two months of Yeshiva study in Israel.
Our son left in the middle of August 2017 to Yeshiva Tehilas Shlomo in Jerusalem, which is headed by Rabbi Pinchas Leibovic. At the end of September our son announced that he was not coming back. Not in one year. Not in two years. Now our son announced that he would stay at the Yeshiva for at least five years.  He had no intention of going back to work or coming back to live in the United States. 
My husband attempted to reach out to Rabbi Pinchas Leibovic. But his calls were not returned. My daughter’s husband tried to reach Rabbi Liebovic and after a dozen attempts, a disgruntled man picked up the phone and said “I can see why he left his family. If you were my family I would leave too.”
In December 2017 our family took a trip to Israel to visit a sick family member. Our son told us that he would not be able to meet with anyone or see anyone because it would cause too much conflict.
We decided to go to the Yeshiva he attended, which is located at Ramat Hagolan 57 in Jerusalem. We found our son living in a run-down apartment. He had not showered, was unshaved, pale, dressed in a black hat, white shirt, and a black suit, soiled and covered with stains. He looked unkempt and dirty. His face showed no emotion and instead he had a flat affect, and appeared subdued and depressed.  He agreed to go to a restaurant, but would not eat any food.   
At the end of our visit he thanked me, his father, sister, and niece for coming and gave them a hug.
We were able to persuade him to come home for a visit during Pesach. He returned home in 2018 six months after beginning his studies at the Yeshiva.  Our son planned to visit us for two weeks. Immediately after coming off the plane, his brother-in-law noticed that he was quite withdrawn. Our son seemed restless and agitated in the car when music was playing and walked with his head down, looking at the ground.  When he arrived home he announced that no one could enter his room to keep it free of Hametz. 
We soon found out that the restrictions set up by his rabbis were endless, extreme, and very difficult to accommodate. He was not allowed to eat in restaurants, even if they claimed to be Glatt Kosher and were in Orthodox religious enclaves, including New Jersey and New York. Our son obsessively inspected every piece of food for very specific Hekshers. He would not use a phone, not even to navigate when he had to drive. He would not look out the window.
We agreed to all of his demands as best we could. We koshered our oven, even catered strictly Glatt kosher food and purged every bit of hametz per his instructions, following every rule he had been told by his rabbis.
But our son stopped talking to us. He would only read and study the Talmud. He woke up at 5 AM, dressed in a suit and tie, never showered, and left for the nearest ultra-Orthodox synagogue to pray or to some Hasidic Yeshiva to study.  And when he was home he would pray by himself, reading his Talmud and isolating himself from everyone that was not ultra-Orthodox, including his family and old friends.  He also said bizarre and completely uncharacteristic things. For example, during a Seder he mentioned that women do not need to use a pillow because “Women don’t need to recline, only men do.” This was rude and confrontational, which is totally unlike our son.
The rabbis from Yeshiva Tehilas Shlomo called our son as soon as Pesach was over. They wanted to check up on him to make sure he was following their restrictions and regulations in our home. After those phone calls, our son’s mood changed for the worse. He became stressed, overwhelmed, agitated, and restless. He was ill-tempered and curt with us. He stayed in his bedroom totally isolating himself. He acted depressed and did not readily communicate with us.
We were very worried about his behavior and asked our son if he would sit down and have a serious family discussion to address our concerns.
The next day, he announced that he was unable to stay in our home, eat any of the kosher food we had purchased, and was so uncomfortable that it was necessary that his visit be cut short.  Instead of a two-week visit he ended up staying for only one week. 
We begged our son and pleaded for him to stay and talk with us and have some quality time devoted to family interaction and discussion.  He repeatedly refused. 
My son was living in fear. He acted like he was in a state of horror. His mind was not his own. 
Our son was transformed by Meor and a network of “Jewish Outreach” rabbis that completely changed his life through their undue influence. He was once independent, analytical, well-informed, free thinking, happy-go-lucky soul. Now he has been distorted into a miserable, tired, rigid, condescending, racist, and empty person dependent upon his “leaders” for every basic life decision. 
Beware of the Jewish Outreach movement promulgated by ultra-Orthodox rabbis like Rabbi Mordechai Prager. What they call getting in touch with your “Jewish roots” seems more like so-called “cult brainwashing” than legitimate Jewish studies. They recruit on college and university campuses much like controversial religious groups called “cults” preying upon vulnerable and naïve students. Everyone should be more aware about who they are and how they negatively affect families. Hopefully our story will help to enlighten people and serve as a warning.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Children of BTs and Converts: How They're Really Treated

  I posted the link to this article on this blog's Facebook page yesterday but it was too important not to include a brief post about it here.
   I can only hope that "Children of Baalei Teshuva / Converts / Something to Think About During These 9 Days"goes viral. Parents need to read this. Potential recruits being missionized by ultra-orthodox kiruv professionals need to read this. The frum world needs to read this. People considering an orthodox conversion need to read this.
  In a nutshell, converts are supposed to welcomed into the community. They're not be reminded that they are converts. Baalei teshuvah are also supposedly on a higher level than those who are frum from birth, or FFB, since they supposedly overcame more obstacles and changed their way of life. Regardless, the frum community has always found a way to treat gerim (converts) and BTs (newly religious) with distrust and disdain, allowing and encouraging community members to treat them as if they are second class citizens.
  The children of BTs and gerim often face social and educational hurdles from a community that once pretended to accept their parents in order to convince them to become frum. Kids are often not  accepted into certain schools due to their parents' status as BTs or converts; some children are bullied in the schools that do accept them. Often these children face further social discrimination from orthodox parents who fear that their kids will somehow be negatively influenced by a family that has not always been frum.
  I have written about this before on this blog. I have sent articles and queries to other publications about this phenomenon, and about the issues within kiruv. The frum world doesn't want to hear it and the non-orthodox Jewish world doesn't believe it--not until their children are scooped up by the friendly rabbi on campus and indoctrinated into this lifestyle. Read the article. Share that article and others that shed light on what's really going on in the world of kiruv. Let's work together to educate people about the truth behind deceptive ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

How They Take Custody of Your Kids 101: Recipe for Alienation

Guest Post by Anonymous
Note from Rebecca M. Ross: Divorce is never easy. In the non-orthodox world, divorce can be traumatic for both children and adults as they experience the dissolution of the family unit. But in the frum world, if one spouse leaves orthodoxy and the couple divorces, bitter and expensive custody battles often ensue, children are alienated from the no longer religious parent, and whole communities take it upon themselves to shun the person who left. This recipe for pain and alienation is described in this piece. Those of us working on the Jewish Outreach: What Your Rabbi Isn't Telling You blog are grateful for the opportunity to reprint these words.

  Quick way and strategy they take full custody of your kids 101 and how one can easily fall for it--
1. They send very strong attorney letters to you saying you are mentally unstable and a danger to your kids. Very strong and intimidating and outlining clearly some crazy examples and such strong language that you are now very scared.
2. You attempt to get an attorney and you are told you need a massive retainer $$$$$ and the attorney tells you this won't be an easy case and may go on for years and this retainer will only last a few weeks.
3. You look for a free attorney and find out that is easier said then done and they are all lame and don't return calls and are so bad that you are guaranteed to lose.
4. During all this time you are broke. Trying to find work and realize that you will make less then enough to pay rent and actually eat too....
5. They have filed something with the court or they just simply aren't allowing you to see them and you have no recourse so while this is going on you do not see your kids or maybe you see them sporadically and you are starting to freak out.
6. You either hired regular attorney and are running out of funds and desperate and it's dragging on and retainer is almost gone you have no more funds for next payment and there is no end in sight or you hired free attorney and see they suck and kids are slipping away... time is passing....
7. Your ex (with financial help from anyone who decides to help save the kids neshamas) nasty attorneys are firing scary bomb letters to the court and you and you feel doomed.
8. IN MIDDLE OF ALL THIS... you get a call from a "kind" rabbi who wishes to HELP--
  He offers to make court go away... and will try really hard to help you and "convince" your ex to agree via Bais Din and he (this Rabbi) has a heart and wants to help from the bottom of his "heart" now he says... look you aren't as frum as you were and your house may have a TV, etc. so I propose that you see your kids not on shabbos or yom tov... you understand I will have to really work on your ex to him/her to agree to you seeing the children at all and get this concession and I will do it bec[ause] I really "care" about you and want you and the kids to be close.
Now in the process, you no longer will have to pay attorneys and we will agree to this in the beis din...he says.
You are broke--
Want to see your kids desperately
You can't continue paying attorneys that can guarantee nothing
So you agree
It is binding... in court of law.
Now since you have to work you get a few hours at night on a weekday
And Sunday... to see your kids. This is better then nothing and you aren't guaranteed this good deal with your attorneys that you can't pay for anyways... so you agree.
Soon they say your house is not suitable kosher, TV blah blah so no visitation in the house...
You can take them anywhere else
Pizza shop
Etc. Kosher places... No movies of course.
Then Sunday hours become less and less
9-5 becomes 10-4 and then 11-3 and then 12-2
After a while...
They have bombarded the kids against you.
Alienated them
Brainwashed them
The kids are sullen
The kids won't talk much
The kids don't show affection anymore
Midweek visits are gone bec[ause] they say there is too much homework and kids are tired after long day at yeshiva... so you only see them Sunday.
More time goes by... older kids act angry and nasty and start refusing to come... You may be relieved because they are acting so hurtful towards you anyways and it is so painful....
You can't force them anyway.
The nice rabbi says "oy we can't force him, what can I do?" He does nothing of course--this is all part of the plan.
The younger ones get older and do the same in short order....
Meanwhile you went through hell thinking up fun activities and cried a million tears and buying gifts they show no appreciation for.... No phone calls are returned by kids....
This is the recipe.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Aish Issues Apology for Controversial Meme, FB Users Still Angered

  On Friday, June 24, 2016, right before Shabbat in Israel, ultra-orthodox kiruv group Aish HaTorah's Facebook page posted an internet meme that quickly spread to 160 shares and a multitude of comments chastising them for their insensitivity over the 25 hours that was unable to monitor their Facebook page. The story was picked up by internet sites including Frum Watch and The Friendly Atheist during the hours that Aish's page lacked supervision. Aish has since removed the meme and issued an apology stating: apologizes for the graphic that was posted before Shabbat. The meaning of the Talmudic quote was meant to inspire people NOT to remain silent in the face of evil. Given the photo and lack of context, we regret posting something that contained an alternative offensive meaning. It was not our intention; we goofed.
  While many were quick to forgive the massive, well-funded international organization for their "goof," others were less than thrilled with their apology. Commenter Miriam Lichter wrote:  "I'm sorry but saying we goofed is not a sincere apology. This picture obviously was a trigger for many women who experienced something awful in their lives and the word 'goofed' minimizes and trivializes their experiences. Try for something a little more sincere."
  Others shared her sentiments.

  Lisa Klayman Blonder, who had commented several hours before Ms. Lichter, stated "I don't think saying you goofed on a mistake as huge as the one you posted on Friday is an apology. Goofed is for a tiny insignificant error, you error on Friday was much larger than that!" 
  It seems obvious that Aish just wants this fiasco to go away. Commenter Yardena Winegust asked Aish "Also, why don't you mention what message you accidentally conveyed?" did not post a reply.
  Controversy erupted again when Yehuda R. Rabinowitz suggested that Aish have 24/7/365 monitoring of their site, and that anything less is irresponsible. While one commenter dismissed the error because of Sabbath observance,
Facebook user Mona Boeger explained that "Arutz Sheva is also Orthodox but has people in diffrrent (sic) countries run the web site during Shabbat because of the time difference, Aish is large enough to do the same. People were triggered by this photo, some probably revictimized. Sorry, they need to be more responsible!" Sexual abuse survivor Olivia Bender responded:
I was revictimized by that photo. I saw it commented to please take it down. I went and cried in my room and remembered the gag around my mouth. Trying to scream and it coming out muffled sob.... my comment was an excuse for them yes. But i prayed about it. I know that they have the best intentions. And they didn't mean it the way it came off. They also apologized. I expect no person, no company to be perfect. But they were sweet to apologize. Because i didnt even get that much from the people that hurt me in the first place. Im sorry if this was a bit much for you. But you just don't know. Walking in forgiveness and understanding that sometimes its better to just forget. Especially when you actually got an apology.
While Ms. Bender may be quick to forgive, she cannot possibly speak for everyone.
  Aish HaTorah is an outreach group that seeks to recruit young people to ultra-orthodox observance and can be found on college campuses and in areas with young professionals. Because they deal with non-orthodox people on a regular basis, they have a certain level of responsibility to be
aware of not just the goings-on in the frum world, but the complexities of the non-orthodox world. They dropped the ball on this one, making people question just how much this organization actually cares for its followers and potential followers. Gone are the days when potential BTs (baalei teshuvah/returnees to observance) can simply be wooed with the local kiruv rabbi's knowledge of baseball players or rock music. Like the Jewish parable that discusses the results of the spread of gossip in terms of the impossible task of trying to gather the scattered feathers of a ripped feather bed, Aish will never be able to gather all of the feathers of pain that their irresponsible posting has caused.
(Click on images to enlarge.)

Updated with the following comment photos. Some of the comments defending Aish are very disturbing and seem to be from Aish supporters.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Outrage Ensues After Aish HaTorah Posts Controversial Facebook Meme

 On Friday, June 24, 2016, the ultra-orthodox Aish HaTorah kiruv group's Facebook page posted a meme stating that "Silence equals consent" along with a picture of a young woman covering her face. Facebook users immediately exercised more than silence, berating the international outreach group for lacking sensitivity and common sense in posting a picture and quote with no context that evokes thoughts of rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and unwanted sexual contact.
  Readers of the Facebook page expressed their immense displeasure with Aish's post, rebuking them for a lack of sensitivity. Those knowledgeable in Talmud tried explaining the original post. Commenter Yardena Winegust wrote "One translation says "silence is regarded as admission" and then added "Shame on you. The choice of image, and choice of quote is exceptionally triggering to those who have experienced sexual assault." Others tried to be understanding of this horrific blunder. Shana Aaronson stated "Please remove this immediately. I assume (hope) that this was not your intention but this quote translated like this, especially together with this picture, is irresponsible, insensitive, triggering, and outrageously inappropriate." Commenter Meranda Prediger wrote:
This was very poorly thought out. In fact, I dare suggest it was not thought out at all. The quote relates to moral conduct and the need to stand up for what is right as saying nothing is the same as supporting. This image, combined with the quote and no further explanation inserts the wrong context. It is a very dangerous image as is right now.
(More comments can be read in the pictures on this post. Click to enlarge each section.)
  This PR disaster is more than just a little mistake on social media. It's indicative of a clear lack of understanding of the world outside of Aish's religious bubble. In a time when images on social media spread like wildfire, Aish has shown that they are not at all in step with the world outside of their community--even though it is the people of that world who they are trying to recruit. Scarier still is that Aish HaTorah serves as an umbrella for groups like MEOR Maimonides Leaders Fellowship which exist on college campuses throughout the United States. A mistake of this magnitude doesn't just reach a couple of people on Facebook. It travels back to college students and their parents--who are possible donors to Aish's many programs. It travels to people who will now be wary of Aish's mission, and it travels to people like myself--who are critical of ultra-orthodox kiruv.
  While many users called for the outreach group to remove the picture immediately, the picture remained posted (and, at the time of this post, is still online), most likely due to the onset of Shabbat in Israel, where it assumed the post was made.
  Update: Thank you to Hemant Mehta, at the Friendly Atheist, for writing about this and quoting this blog. At the time of this update,'s post has been shared 160 times and remains posted.
  Update 2: At the time of this update,'s Facebook page had been updated with an apology reading: apologizes for the graphic that was posted before Shabbat. The meaning of the Talmudic quote was meant to inspire people NOT to remain silent in the face of evil. Given the photo and lack of context, we regret posting something that contained an alternative offensive meaning. It was not our intention; we goofed.
While I'm not a fan of Aish HaTorah, I'm relieved to see that they had the sense to issue an apology after posting something that was so hurtful to so many. A screen shot has been included at the end of this post. Click the graphic to enlarge.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Cutting Ties to Family and Friends in the Name of Kiruv

  While some rabbis claim that they would never influence ba'alei teshuva/newly religious to sever familial ties, Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Yitzhak Yosef believes in just the opposite approach. Earlier this week, Ynetnews reported that Yosef "has called for religious Jews to distance their children from secular or merely traditionally Jewish family members, and even to prevent their children from meeting them."1 The Chief Rabbi stated "There are ba'alei tshuva (once-secular Jews who have become observant) with non-religious families who take their small, 7-year-old, 8-year-old children to visit [non-religious family], and this influences the children."2 His concern is that secular influences such as TV and interaction with non-orthodox family will ultimately pave the way for kids to leave orthodoxy.
  The rabbi's words were countered by
Rabbi Refael "Rafi" Feuerstein, the co-chairman of the rabbinical organization Tzohar, [who] criticized the chief rabbi's approach and said, "The fruits of a disconnected and anxious education are that we treat the secular public with arrogance and contempt . . .  and only increases polarization and hatred in people."3
  Adding to the difficulty of changing one's life to become orthodox, the Chief Rabbi now wants BTs (ba'alei teshuva) to cause more strife and anger within their families. Bad enough that BTs have already informed their families that they cannot eat on their dishes or drive to them on the holidays, that they will not see them or take their calls over Shabbat, that they've given up many activities that they previously enjoyed with extended family, that their lifestyle is hugely different from that of their parents, and that they've taken on a strict interpretation of Jewish practice, they now are expected to sever bonds with their non-orthodox family to ensure their children's spiritual safety.
  In Margery I. Schwartz's book "What's Up with the Hard Core Jewish People? An Irreverent Yet Informative Approach to Judaism and Religious Devotion From A Reform Jewish Mother's Perspective" she talks about Aish HaTorah's grip on her son and how the yeshiva
encourage[s] students to reject their upbringing if it's not according to Torah. They believe that they are reprogramming our children in the proper path. Aish doesn't focus on the fact that a person from a non-Orthodox background most often cannot be integrated into the ultra-orthodox world without destroying old friendships and family connections.4
  While some readers might be thinking that Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef's words and even those of Margery Schwartz are inaccurate and that kiruv rabbis do not promote or justify severing ties with non-orthodox family, it only takes a Google search to find various blog posts suggesting just the opposite. Even Chabad Rabbi Tzvi Freeman's addresses a reader's question asking why a close long-term friendship suddenly collapsed as one of the friends became increasingly orthodox. Freeman states:
Many of us have been through this. You fall in love with a different way of living, rituals, study -- a whole new wave of life washes over you -- and your only way to deal with it is by blocking out the rest of the world. I've seen it happen not only to people getting into their Judaism, but with musicians, artists, career people, politicians. Although, yes, religion may be the most encompassing of all.
It's a sign of an earnest personality, someone who puts his all into anything he does. You can't achieve a total immersion into anything without first letting go of everything else. Perhaps it was that same earnestness that allowed such a strong bond between the two of you in younger years. This is a person who, wherever he is, all of him is there.5
  Freeman blames the BT's personality for alienating his friend and assumes it's because he is, perhaps, very earnest. He says it's the same thing that any person who is passionate about something might do. But Freeman does admit that this alienation may be more extreme when it comes from religion. The one thing that Freeman doesn't address is whether people becoming orthodox are being influenced, either subtly or overtly, to sever relationships that kiruv professionals and their organizations may feel are, in some way, not kosher.
  When we look back at Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Yitzhak Yosef's concern about being influenced by those who aren't orthodox, it seems like his ideas aren't so shocking. They're just the same extremist views that other kiruv organizations hold. The only difference is that he seems to have no problem saying them out loud.
1. Nachshoni, Kobi. Chief Rabbi: Keep children away from secular family. Ynetnews. March 13, 2016.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4.  Schwartz, Margery I.
What's Up with the Hard Core Jewish People? An Irreverent Yet Informative Approach to Judaism and Religious Devotion From A Reform Jewish Mother's Perspective. US. 2006. p. 18.
5. Freeman, Tzvi. My Orthodox Friend Cut Me Off!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Mark's Story

I'd like to introduce Mark*, a long-time reader who contacted me a while back to tell me of his experiences with deceptive Jewish outreach. Mark is in his twenties and was previously targeted by kiruv professionals when his best friend began looking into options to go on a second Birthright trip. In this piece, he explains what happened to Jake* before, during, and after his encounter with the Maimonides (Meor) courses and Aish HaTorah.
*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Mark's Story
  The kiruv journey started on our Birthright trip a few years ago. I went with my best friend Jake, as well as a few other people from our school. But it's not what you think. we were there to experience Israel and have a good time. There was absolutely no proselytizing of any kind on this trip. There wasn't even the slightest hint of deceptive kiruv. Most of my fellow classmates and new friends when back home and went back to their normal lives, as did we. The day after the trip, I went out with Jake and some other friends. We all agreed that we enjoyed the trip and went back to our regular lives in the weeks after.
  I think I should introduce and explain my relationship with Jake before going any further in this post. I was born in the former Soviet Union, and came here when I was four years old. Both of my parents are Jewish and I was raised in a Russian-Jewish home. My family idn't consider themselves very religious. We attended High Holiday services at the local Chabad and I had my Bar Mitzvah, but that's about as far as my Judaism went. As with a lot of Russian Jews I know, my identity is "Jewish by association." I consider myself Jewish, most of my friends are Jewish, I only date Jewish girls, I go to High Holiday services, but that's about as far as things go. My friend Jake, on the other hand, was born in the United States. His great grandparents came to this country from Eastern Europe, so he considers himself American. His family goes to a Reform synagogue for High Holiday services, and that's about it. Aside from his family paying expensive membership fees, our families were pretty similar in terms of our commitment to Judaism. Neither of us kept kosher, observed the Sabbath, or did anything like that. Jake and I met in high school. We had been inseparable since we'd met--we did everything together. We were lucky enough to attend the same state school and our friendship continued to grow as strong as ever. We attended Hillel together where we met a bunch of Jewish people. It was a nice place to hang out and there was no pressure to become any more religious. When our Hillel director told us she would be leading a Birthright trip, we decided to all go together.
  So what happened after our Birthright trip? I know you're expecting me to say that Jake had some sort of life-changing revelation that suddenly made him become an orthodox Jew during our trip. But no, that's definitely not the case. There was only one thing that changed. Jake wanted to go on another Birthright trip. But unfortunately, once you go on Birthright, you can't go again. But that didn't stop him; he went out to search for another free trip to Israel. That set the wheels in motion. 
  A few months after our trip, Jake called to tell me some exciting news. He found out about another trip to Israel! Now, it wasn't free, but it was very cheap, about $500. The trip was supposed to be just like Birthright, with lots of activities and touring. He didn't give any more details except that he would be meeting for coffee with the rabbi he contacted regarding the trip. I didn't think anything of it. After his meeting, Jake told me that he really liked him and that he was invited to the rabbi's house for Shabbat dinner. Jake invited me to come along and I didn't think anything of that either. It sounded completely innocent.
  We went that Friday to the Rabbi's house. He and his wife were very friendly. They had multiple children, all who were very friendly as well. Numerous people our age were at their home. Most were like Jake and I, Reform or maybe Conservative Jews. I enjoyed dinner. The company was great and the food was pretty good.The rabbi told us stories about Judaism and we had discussions on different topics. We also spent time schmoozing with the other guests. The rabbi told lots of jokes and made us laugh. He was very friendly and I really enjoyed his company. After we finished bentching, (saying the grace after meals) Jake and I left and hit up some bars. It was just like any other night hanging out. Nothing changed. The following week, Jake called me again telling me that we were both invited back to the rabbi's house. We came back to a good meal with a large number of people our age, a few from the previous week, most were new. There was more conversation covering Jewish topics. We schmoozed with people our age. Then Jake and I once again set off for the bars.
   The following week, I called Jake to see if he wanted to get together with friends that Friday. He told me that he was busy because he was going to Shabbat dinner at the rabbi's house. I didn't think anything of it (yet again), and told him I would just see him Saturday instead. Jake agreed and said he was selected to go on the trip to Israel he wanted to go on. I congratulated him. He told me he would spend half the the time at a place called Aish HaTorah, and the rest of it would be spent doing a variety of activities. He asked if I would consider going on the trip, but I was busy during that period, so I declined. We both went our separate ways on Friday and met up Saturday for lunch. He told me that the following week he would stay for "the entire Shabbos." It turns out that some of the people our age we ate dinner with would spend the night with another Jewish family in the neighborhood. That sounded pretty neat. But at the time I was pretty busy with school on the weekends and wasn't able to spend the night.
  We both went to dinner the following week. Once again, we had a good dinner and schmoozed with the people our age. I noticed that there were more new faces than old. Once dinner was over, I drove home. Jake stayed behind. Later that night, we texted back and forth. He said he was bored because there were no electronics on due to the restrictions of Shabbat. I thought it was kind of funny. When it got late, we both said goodbye and went to sleep. I didn't hear from him again until Shabbat was over. We met up Saturday night to hang out.
  At this point, Jake was going to the rabbi's house for dinner and then spending the night at another family's house every week. I was still invited for the following weeks but I never stayed the night. We continued to text each other at night, but as time went on, he texted less and less until he finally stopped. He said that he was "able to keep Shabbos better" at this point. As the weeks progressed, I noticed that he stopped inviting me to visit the rabbi. If I didn't have plans on a Friday night, I would end up calling the rabbi and he would tell me to come over. Around this time, Jake signed up for the Maimonides course. It was run by the same rabbi and Jake was excited because it paid a $400 stipend. Due to my class schedule, I was unable to attend so I never took the class.
  As Jake's trip date grew closer, we began talking less and less. When I would ask if he wanted to spend a Saturday afternoon together, he'd respond "I can't, man, it's Shabbos." No problem. I respected that. Then his big two week trip to Israel came. He ended up going to Aish HaTorah. He enjoyed it so much that he decided to extend his trip another two weeks. He told me that he was spending a good portion of the day studying Torah. When we talked on Facebook, he'd talk more and more about Torah and Judaism. We no longer talked about things we used to discuss.
  I was excited for him to finally come home but something had changed. He was different. He would not see me on Friday or Saturday. In fact, at this point, he told me that I could only come to the rabbi's house if I stayed the entire time (Friday at sunset until an hour past sunset on Saturday night) because leaving early would desecrate the Sabbath. He also refused to go to any of our favorite restaurants because they weren't kosher. When we talked on the phone, he'd yell at me for the most random things. When I told him I had eaten at certain restaurants, he'd say "How could you?! That's not kosher!" Or when I tried telling him about my Friday and Saturday plans that no longer included him, he'd respond "You can't do that on Shabbos! What's wrong with you?!" I wish that I could tell you that he said these things in a joking manner, but he didn't. He was dead serious.
  At this point, I felt like things were changing but I couldn't understand why. I wanted to mend our faltering relationship, so I told him that I would stay a full Shabbat weekend. The rabbi put both of us with the same family for the night. I was bored out of my mind. We spent the next morning in shul. Jake knew what he was doing. I was just daydreaming the entire time. I couldn't wait for it to end! At the end of Saturday night, he asked how I liked Shabbat. I told him the truth. He then yelled at me and proceeded to tell me something interesting. He asked if I realized a while ago that I was inviting myself to the rabbi's house and that he wasn't inviting me. It didn't occur to me at the time, but then I realized that this was indeed the case. He told me that this was due to my unwillingness to become more religious. He said that they "gave up on me." What?! I thought that the rabbi was there to host students so they could learn about Judaism. I never once thought that there was some kind of ulterior motive.
  By then Jake was hanging out with some of the people I had met at those dinners. The men from those meals had already started to wear the typical clothes of orthodox men--the traditional black hats and suits. The women were all covered, wearing very long skirts, with arms and legs covered. What about the other people from the dinners that weren't doing this? The ones I added on Facebook no longer went to these dinners. In fact, they no longer engaged in any of these activities, period. It was only me going with Jake, and a few others who went consistently but didn't become religious (they too stopped at some point). Since Jake was too busy spending time with his religious friends, we drifted away.
  I was confused. Everything had happened so gradually. He slowly started to become more religious over time. When we started going to Shabbat dinners, he thought things like shomer negiah (refraining from all physical contact with members of the opposite sex) were a joke. Now he takes it all very seriously. I stumbled upon the term baal teshuvah (newly religious). When I read more into it, I learned that Jake wasn't alone. Countless young Jewish people encounter these kiruv organizations and get sucked in. From what I've seen, it's a very slow process. It's not overnight like some people might think. It started with something as simple as going to dinner. Since the rabbis initially didn't make any effort to have people stay after dinner, they had time to get comfortable. Gradually they get sucked in further and they start to observe more traditions. When Jake started spending nights with orthodox families, he would text me from his phone. Gradually he became shomer Shabbos (fully observant of the Sabbath laws) and then this stopped. Once things started to get bad, he began criticizing almost everything I did. He criticized nearly everything he used to do too! It got to the point where I no longer wanted to spend time with him. The funny thing about this criticism is that the FFB (frum/orthodox from birth) Jews I know have never criticized me for doing anything. As I briefly mentioned earlier, the Maimonidies program is an easy way to target students. They attend weekly classes in order to get a stipend. But there's a catch. They most spend a full Shabbat in the orthodox community in order to get the stipend. That's how they reel these unsuspecting students in. While a majority of them will take the money and move on with their lives, a few will continue to attend dinners and get sucked in just like Jake did.
  When I stumbled upon this blog, I was shocked. It was as if Rebecca Ross was pulling the words straight out of my mouth. I read about kiruv tactics and realized that they tried every move on both of us. It started with love-bombing at simple dinners, and then escalated to more serious things. Once Jake went to Aish HaTorah, that was it. Interestingly, no one from this kiruv organization ever made their intentions clear. All Jake wanted was another trip to Israel just like Birthright. He got so much more than he, his family, or I bargained for. I only joined him for the dinners. I was completely oblivious to the fact that they were proselytizing! That's how deceptive these organizations are. While I genuinely enjoyed the dinners and other events (they are good at getting people to like them with their love-bombing), and while I loved my other experiences with them, I grew to hate them once they pulled Jake out of my life. I hated the fact that they would deceptively break apart families. Here's what I don't understand: orthodox Jews usually feel that it's a travesty when another orthodox Jew goes off the derech (goes off the path of orthodoxy, usually for a non-orthodox life), but they feel that it's inspiring when non-orthodox Jews alienate their own friends and family to become religious. That doesn't make any sense to me. I read quite a few anti-kiruv blogs, and then eventually started reading things posted by baal teshuvas. I read some posts on Beyond BT, and I found them to be incredibly depressing. I'm not sure how breaking the bonds with family is supposed to be inspiring. I even saw a blog where baalteshuvas were discussing how they should cut ties with their families because they wouldn't want their children growing up seeing how bubbe and zayde (grandma and grandpa) drive on Shabbos or eat treif (non-kosher) food. Then I saw countless comments on another blog where baal teshuvahs would say that their friends and family unfortunately haven't experienced "the beauty of Torah." That sounds like nothing more than simple brainwashing.
  Recently I went to Jake's wedding. He found a shidduch (a marriage partner for an arranged marriage) and they married within a few months of meeting. A week before his wedding, I attended a Reform friend's rehearsal dinner and wedding. You could just see their faces and know that both families were incredibly happy and excited to see their children get married. The next week I went to Jake's wedding. It was odd. All of the orthodox people at the wedding were incredibly happy. They were festive. There was lots of dancing. But what about Jake's family? I talked to them because they were like a second family to me. They didn't look happy at all. In fact, his grandmother told me that she hopes his new wife will go off the derech so that he will go back to his "normal" self. This was the unhappiest wedding I have ever seen, at least from his family's side. I wasn't happy either. I never imagined my former best friend's wedding would be like this. But this is what happened. The process was so gradual that it was impossible to see this coming.
  Since losing Jake, one of my friends confided in me about her crush becoming more religious. Since I'm friends with him on Facebook, I was able to watch his gradual change. I was able to explain everything that was happening step-by-step. It was like clockwork. This time, I saw someone go from a Reform Jew to an orthodox Jew just like Jake did--but this time I knew what was happening. It was difficult seeing my friend lose someone she cared about, especially since I knew what the ultimate outcome would be. I wish I could have told his parents what was happening and make it stop. But I couldn't. At least by writing this post, I can show the world what kiruv does. I want the world to know how they stole my best friend from me. I also want them to know that I was a target. They tried to work their magic on me and they failed. I was shocked when I was told what they were trying to do--they were that deceptive!
  I'd like to leave this long post with a simple message for both parents and current baal teshuvas. For the parents of college students, please explain to them what kiruv is. Instead of having them do the Maimonides course, just offer to pay them $400 instead. It's a small price to pay for not losing your child. Also, I wouldn't worry about Birthright as long as they aren't doing Aish or any other orthodox-run trip, but be wary of any subsidized trips after Birthright like Aish or Jewel because these are created for the purpose of proselytizing your children. For the baal teshuvas who believe it's better to alienate your family and friends who care about you because they "don't see the beauty of Torah," who do you think would be at your side if you were halfway around the world and seriously injured? I'll give you a hint. It won't be the people standing next to you at shul.