Monday, July 14, 2014

Recommended Reading: Rabbis and their female followers – how close is too close?

 Sharon Shapiro posted a very interesting post on her blog Kol B'Isha Erva today, and I wanted to take a quick break from my hiatus (I'm working on several projects which have had to take the front seat these past few months) in order to mention her article. She writes about kiruv (outreach) rabbis crossing lines that are better left uncrossed, and often taking on the role of parent in the student/rabbi relationship. This isn't the first I've heard of this, but it is interesting to see it from the perspective of a woman who happens to have gone from non-orthodox Judaism to orthodox Judaism during her college days. 
     She writes in Rabbis and their Female Followers--How close is too close? that she "was shocked at how quickly this rabbi took over a parental role among [her classmates], almost acting in conspiracy against the biological parental protests. The girls were encouraged to keep certain secrets from their parents, in some cases in order not to cause hurt or machlokes (argument)."1 A close friend of mine told a similar story--her own child had begun to explore Judaism in college, causing a fast transformation to orthodoxy coupled with secrecy during the process. These scenarios do exist, no matter how much kiruv rabbis try to convince people that they don't. When people start speaking up, maybe these tactics will change, and perhaps those interested in doing Jewish outreach will begin to act more responsibly towards their students, the families of their students, and to the Jewish community as a whole. Please read Rabbis and their Female Followers. It's definitely worth the read.

1. Shapiro, Sharon. Rabbis and their Female Followers--How Close is Too Close?. Kol B'Isha Erva. 14 July 2014.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Kiruv in Israel: 10,000 Families to be Targeted by Outreach Professionals

     Haaretz reports that the Jewish Identity Administration, created by the Religious Services Ministry, will be putting together four kiruv/outreach programs aimed to attract secular Israelis to religious observance. These programs will be run by Ohr Torah Stone, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s conglomerate of educational institutions, according to Haaretz.
The four projects include appointing community-based “Judaism coordinators” to organize “activities in the field of Jewish identity”; a project to “deepen Jewish identity” among university students; one to arrange meetings between religious and secular families; and one to “increase synagogues’ influence on the community.”
The Judaism coordinators will be members of the communities they serve, so they can “foment the process from within” and not be seen as outsiders, the ministry decided.1

Laga’at Baruach, an outreach/kiruv organization in Israel meant specifically to target college students, will be "setting up study centers around [Israel.] In exchange for studying at one of these centers for 4.5 hours a week, students will get an annual stipend of 4,000 shekels. The goal is to recruit 800 students initially, all people with “proven abilities for the State of Israel and Israeli society.”"2 Like American ultra-orthodox kiruv programs, students are offered monetary compensation for the time they spend studying orthodox teachings taught by outreach professionals. This sounds remarkably similar to Meor's Maimonides Leaders Fellowship program, in which college students are enticed by the promise of being paid for their time, giving them some extra pocket money in return for allowing  professional kiruv workers the opportunity school them about their brand of ultra-orthodox Judaism.
     As with all ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach programs, they are rarely, if ever, done without a higher goal in mind. "The religious-secular meetings project is meant to reintroduce secular families to “basic characteristics of Jewish life” that they have lost touch with. The program will include reciprocal visits between religious and secular families from the same town, as well as “finding people capable of being leadership figures” who can provide “professional advice” on spousal relations, family life and rearing children."3 While this sounds innocent, the truth is that this program is subsidized the Wolfson Foundation, which "was launched by the late American ultra-Orthodox billionaire Zev Wolfson, [and] funds dozens of Haredi yeshivas – mainly in secular communities – whose students are asked to learn Torah with nonreligious residents."4 It's important to note that Zev Wolfson "supported nearly two hundred Jewish education or outreach programs in the United States, spanning thirty different states and scores of cities ... as well as Jewish education networks in Canada, France, the former Soviet Union, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Germany."5 Apparently, Wolfson had lofty goals, and pushed hard for success, collecting donations from fundraising efforts as well as government sources. With these funds, he was able to get countless outreach efforts off the ground, "typically supplying a third to half the operating budget, much of it with funds he received from government sources."6
      When Haaretz reports that "the goal [of this program] is to involve 10,000 secular families from 20 communities,"7 I can only hope that secular Israelis will be motivated to stand up to this blatant act of disrespect for their non-orthodox lifestyle. It is quite possible to live side by side without  missionizing one's neighbor. Hopefully, these kiruv professionals will see the light.

UPDATED 3/4/2014-Just to clarify, Riskin and Ohr Torah Stone are Modern Orthodox. My concern is that this programming is funded by the Wolfson Foundation, which is known to support ultra-orthodox efforts. The fact that non-orthodox Jewish organizations were left out is disconcerting.

1. Kashti, Or. "Masorti Fume as Orthodox Get Funding to Woo Secular." Haaretz. March 4, 2014.
2. ibid.
3. ibid.
4. ibid.
Thirty Days Since His Passing: Mr. Zev Wolfson Z”L, His Story, Ideals and What Made Him Great - See more at: http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/news/headlines-breaking-stories/140256/thirty-days-since-his-passing-mr-zev-wolfson-zl-his-story-ideals-and-what-made-him-great.html#sthash.glUsIG53.dpuf
5 Wohlberg, Andrew. "Thirty Days Since His Passing: Mr. Zev Wolfson Z"L, His Story, Ideals and What Made Him Great." The Jewish Home, reprinted in The Yeshiva World News. September 20, 2012.
6. ibid.
7. Kashti, Or. "Masorti Fume as Orthodox Get Funding to Woo Secular." Haaretz. March 4, 2014.
upported nearly two hundred Jewish education or outreach programs in the United States, spanning thirty different states and scores of cities. He also heavily supported Jewish education networks in Canada, France, the Former Soviet Union, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Germany. - See more at: http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/news/headlines-breaking-stories/140256/thirty-days-since-his-passing-mr-zev-wolfson-zl-his-story-ideals-and-what-made-him-great.html#sthash.glUsIG53.dpuf
upported nearly two hundred Jewish education or outreach programs in the United States, spanning thirty different states and scores of cities. He also heavily supported Jewish education networks in Canada, France, the Former Soviet Union, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Germany. - See more at: http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/news/headlines-breaking-stories/140256/thirty-days-since-his-passing-mr-zev-wolfson-zl-his-story-ideals-and-what-made-him-great.html#sthash.glUsIG53.dpuf
In addition to supporting Jewish causes in Israel, Mr. Wolfson supported nearly two hundred Jewish education or outreach programs in the United States, spanning thirty different states and scores of cities. He also heavily supported Jewish education networks in Canada, France, the Former Soviet Union, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Germany. - See more at: http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/news/headlines-breaking-stories/140256/thirty-days-since-his-passing-mr-zev-wolfson-zl-his-story-ideals-and-what-made-him-great.html#sthash.glUsIG53.dpuf
In addition to supporting Jewish causes in Israel, Mr. Wolfson supported nearly two hundred Jewish education or outreach programs in the United States, spanning thirty different states and scores of cities. He also heavily supported Jewish education networks in Canada, France, the Former Soviet Union, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Germany. - See more at: http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/news/headlines-breaking-stories/140256/thirty-days-since-his-passing-mr-zev-wolfson-zl-his-story-ideals-and-what-made-him-great.html#sthash.glUsIG53.dpuf

Sunday, February 23, 2014

On Crying Anti-Semitism

     This past week, I was quoted in The Photo News. Local reporter Nancy Kriz wrote this week's cover story, "It's Not About Religion," in which she interviews several Jews, myself included, in the Monroe area, on whether or not Kiryas Joel's attorney Steven Barshov's comments that Monroe residents are anti-Semitic were accurate. While local politics in my own town are probably not of great importance to readers of this blog, I'm sharing this because of the much larger issue raised.
     Does disagreeing with orthodox Jewish interests make one anti-Semitic?
     This has been discussed before on this blog, usually in the comments section when someone decides that it is anti-Semitic or anti-orthodox to criticize ultra-orthodox kiruv. We all know that I disagree. However, there seems to be an all too pervasive trend for people who disagree with orthodoxy or with opinions held by orthodoxy, to be incorrectly labeled as anti-Semitic, anti-orthodox, or if Jewish, as "self-hating Jews." Whether it happens on my blog, or in local politics, or on a global level, it is not only inaccurate to label those who disagree as anti-Semitic, it's also a bastardization of the term. It weakens the power of the word to describe actual anti-Semitism when it does occur, and it weakens the possibility of people listening and taking action in the face of legitimate anti-Semitism. The groundless rally cry of anti-Semitism turns into little more than the cry of the little boy yelling "wolf!" in the town square. After a while, people will cease to listen and heed his cry. When finally the wolf does come, those who would have protected the boy are no longer interested and ignore his pleas for help, because too often in the past, his screams were for naught.
    And so, I raise the issue here, among my readers. As people of the world, as the proverbial "light unto nations," as people with a history of discussion, debate, and study, I want to urge all of us--regardless of our stance on kiruv, regardless of our personal observance (or lack thereof)  of Judaism, to be strong in our arguments, to stick to the issues, and to not fall into the habit of claiming victim status in lieu of giving intelligent answers when hard  questions are asked of us. 
    


Attorney Steven Barshov

Monday, February 17, 2014

Rabbi Meir Schuster, Heritage House Founder, Dies at 71

Photo credit: Heritage House
Failed Messiah reports: "Rabbi Meir Schuster, who spent decades searching out young non-Orthodox (or, sometimes, Modern Orthodox) Jews at places like the Kotel (Western Wall) and trying to get them to sit in on classes at Ohr Somayach, Aish HaTorah, Neve Yerushalayim or other smaller ba'al teshuva (missionary outreach) yeshivas and seminaries passed away today."
I urge you to click the above link and read what I believe to be
a very fair portrayal of Rabbi Meir Schuster. He was certainly a character in the Old City. While I may not have agreed with his  methods or his life's work, I do recall him from my travels and, I have to agree wholeheartedly, the man was definitely genuine. Despite my often harsh criticism of kiruv, my heart goes out to his family and to all who loved him. May all who mourn find comfort, strength, and peace.

Rosenberg, Shmarya. Baruch Dayan HaEmet: Rabbi Meir Schuster. Failed Messiah. February 17, 2014.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

All of the Benefits, None of the Kool-Aid: A Review of D. Gutbezahl's Article on Kiruv

     I recently had the pleasure of reading David Gutbezahl's article "Eat the Food Without Drinking the Kool-Aid: How to Get the Most Out of Orthodox Outreach Programs." After telling readers about his background--David Gutbezahl fits in somewhere between Conservative and Reform and has spent time studying Judaism at Pardes in Jerusalem--he informs his readers that his desire to learn more brought him to consider, and ultimately take part in, the Lakewood Fellowship, an ultra-orthodox study program in Lakewood, New Jersey. One of Gutbezahl's concerns was that he "would have to spend a week living in the homes of extremely observant orthodox Jews, experiencing the way they lived."1 He tells his readers "I was definitely a bit nervous, I think my parents might have been more scared, but I went along with it...."2 Having heard many stories from parents of college kids who opted to study at ultra-orthodox institutions and ended up "frumming out" (becoming religious,) I can completely understand both his and his parents' concern. However, Gutbezahl appears to have clearly understood that this is the program's goal--to bring people into such a world and hopefully convince them to make the move to an ultra-orthodox lifestyle. He states:

Don’t get me wrong.  I think they all actually would like to see me start wearing a black suit and white shirt. These sort of programs don’t just exist as a way to teach a little Torah and get us to be more accepting of their lifestyle—that is a goal, but there is a further agenda too. Torah Links is a kiruv organization, meaning they are Orthodox outreach, and their goal is to “convert” people into Baalei Teshuvot, secular Jews who have “returned” and become more religious.3
     Gutbezahl advises people attending such kiruv/outreach programs to go in with a healthy level of self-confidence. He wisely tells us that "if you go in with no confidence in the way you live your life, convinced that your beliefs and your Judaism is wrong or inferior to theirs, guess what? You’ll likely suck up everything they say, leaving no room for your ability to think a bit for yourself."4 Sadly, in some programs, mentors will often stick negative quips about other forms of Judaism into their lectures, so participants who are already unsure of their Judaism may fall prey to their own lack of confidence in their own belief systems. While I completely agree with Gutbezahl's advice, I can easily see how those with minimal exposure to a Jewish life can fall victim to ultra-orthodox outreach. If kiruv professionals undermine the way prospective recruits were raised (whether they were raised as secular, cultural, Atheist, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Humanist, etc.,) and those recruits aren't too sure about their own beliefs for whatever reason, they become an easy, or easier, target than those who are already sure of their beliefs or lack thereof.
     Readers are also advised to "think with your brain, not your stomach."5 This is invaluable advice. I remember going to someone's home for a Shabbat meal when I was in college and remarking that the chicken was delicious. I was told that it was good because it was on a higher spiritual plane due to it being kosher. That's not why it's good, folks. It's good because it's been soaked and salted. Anyone can brine a chicken. It has nothing to do with elevated spirituality.
     David Gutbezahl reminds us to "remember while you’re having fun, or after really, that half the fun and half of what you’re seeing is partly just show meant to get you to want to adopt this lifestyle."6 This is the most important thing that non-orthodox participants in outreach programs need to really internalize. Families that may seem perfect while you're a guest in their homes may be wonderful people and may really love their lifestyle, but that doesn't mean their life is perfect, or that they aren't struggling in some way, or that they walk around blissed out on regular day when they have no guests. Adopting an ultra-orthodox life doesn't suddenly absolve people of their problems, just as being secular, or Christian, or Buddhist (you see where I'm going here?) doesn't suddenly absolve people of their problems.
     While Gutbezahl tells us that he can see himself being more observant (but not orthodox) after taking part in the Lakewood Fellowships, it seems that this outcome wasn't a direct result of this program. He appears to be someone who has been Jewishly inspired throughout his life, and was looking to find another learning opportunity. I believe that his advice to those interested in these programs is sound. Gutbezahl was already aware of the purpose of  outreach programs and this awareness enabled him to go in with an open mind, as well as a clear strategy for walking away with only what he wanted to gain from the Lakewood Fellowship. For people in his shoes with his wisdom, these programs can serve to enhance one's life. It's those lacking this awareness, and lacking the self-confidence that David Gutbezahl writes about, who may end up having their lives changed in ways they weren't necessarily expecting.


1. Gutbezahl, David. "Eat the Food Without Drinking the Kool-Aid: How to Get the Most Out of Orthodox Outreach Programs." New Voices. January 21, 2014.
2. ibid.
3. ibid.
4. ibid.
5. ibid.
6. ibid.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Kollel Wives and Kiruv'd College Kids

     I recently read a post on one of many forums for orthodox women that addressed a woman's concern that her post-high school stint at seminary (most likely in Israel) served to mislead her about the type of life she'd ultimately be living. She asked the group if seminary brainwashing jeopardized their marriage, and the discussion grew to about 14 pages by the time I'd finished reading. Many of the issues raised in this thread by this very insightful group of women, who range from Modern Orthodox to Hasidic with various levels of education and who live all over the world, are issues that I've often raised on this blog.
     Those who felt that they'd been "brainwashed" in seminary, talked about how they were only seventeen and eighteen years old (college-age) and just out of high school with no real world experience. They were convinced by educators whom they'd trusted that they should marry a guy in kollel (who learns Torah full-time, or for the first five years of their marriage,) and weren't taught to plan for the future. They discussed how men, upon leaving the kollel yeshiva, weren't prepared to make a living, and this burden often fell on the shoulders of the wives, who had to work to support a growing family as well as a husband who studied all day. Several mentioned that financial responsibility for the couple and their children was shared by their own parents or in-laws. The women questioned why the yeshivas were encouraging financial dependency, and criticized the fact that they were taught to look derisively upon those studying in college for a career. They pointed out that men who learned well into their thirties and beyond, were then too old to start a career at the bottom--by then they had large families to support. Some women felt that their educators had overstepped their bounds and had given advice that was detrimental to the lives of the very impressionable college-age seminary students they were encouraging.
     I know that many of the women on this particular forum do not agree with my stance on what I tend to call "deceptive kiruv," mostly because many believe that kiruv is a meritorious pursuit. But if we divorce the main issues--kiruv and kollel wives--we have several overlapping factors: young, impressionable high school graduates; young people away from home and away from daily interactions with family to whom they can relay anything they may find questionable; skilled educators pushing a certain agenda and undermining parents; lack of experience in the wider world; youthful idealism without the wisdom to be more skeptical about what it is they're learning.
     An argument that I've often heard to counter my issues with kiruv on the college level is that if kids are over 18, or old enough to fend for themselves, then they're fair game for kiruv workers, and they should be able to recognize such "brainwashing" for what it is. I don't agree with this argument at all. But now, married orthodox women are bringing up the very same issues regarding people of the same age group. Deceptive kiruv is not isolated from the rest of the orthodox world. It is an issue that must be addressed on many different levels because it affects many different people, often for life.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Auschwitz Kollel and Kiruv Center? Oh My.


    On January 28, 2014, Failed Messiah reported about the new Auschwitz Jewish Memorial's Kollel and Kiruv Center on site at Auschwitz, set to be launched in April of 2014. This is a sticky issue. Here are my questions:
  1. Why are other non-orthodox groups not stepping up to join forces here and offer either a non-denominational Jewish center or an all-encompassing Jewish center? I understand why people feel the need to have a spiritual place, after all, many Jewish (and non-Jewish) groups visit Auschwitz throughout the year. 
  2.  A kollel is a full-time yeshiva for married adult men. I can understand the desire for a community center for visitors, but why a kollel? And why at this location? Is it because the words "Auschwitz" and "Holocaust" inspire a certain emotional reaction that make it easier to raise funds to support an institution that if placed randomly in, let's say, Queens, New York, might not raise as much money? Isn't that taking advantage of the victims of the Holocaust for financial gain? 
  3.  Having visited Auschwitz while backpacking through Eastern Europe with a friend back in the 1990s, I can promise that it's a pretty sobering experience that can often leave people in an emotionally vulnerable state. My concern is that this kiruv center would serve to take advantage of people in this state, and push an ultra-orthodox agenda to those searching for meaning in the ruins of a place where their brethren were slaughtered. What gives the Auschwitz Jewish Memorial's Kollel and Kiruv Center the right to exploit people's very real emotional vulnerability in order to push their personal agenda?
     These are just a few of the thoughts that I had upon learning of this. Again, I understand why some may feel the need for a Jewish community center of some sort--it could be helpful for those who may want to regain their emotional balance upon entering or leaving the site of the camp. However, to put up a kollel and kiruv center at Auschwitz just seems like an underhanded way to push an agenda that is not representative of many of those who perished there, nor is it representative of many of those who visit.