Sunday, January 27, 2013

Jewish Outreach on Campus: The Approach

This is the first of several posts that will address kiruv/outreach on college campuses.

Setting: A typical American College Campus, present day.
It’s the beginning of the fall semester. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fall out in the middle of September this year, and most Jewish students won’t be able to leave school to celebrate with family due to time constraints and distance. Accompanied by a few student helpers, on-campus Jewish outreach professionals, who have a chartered club on campus and a building that is used to host students for holiday and Shabbat meals, classes, religious services, and socializing, are outside, sizing up the students on the quad and approaching those look like they might be Jewish.

Rabbi L: Would you like a pamphlet on Rosh Hashanah?

Random Student: Huh? Oh, sorry. I’m not Jewish.

Rabbi L: No problem. Have a great day!

Random Student: Likewise.

Rabbi L: [approaches a small group of students.] Would any of you like a holiday booklet about Rosh Hashanah?

Lisa: Oh, hey. Um. [looks at friends.]

Jayden: Rosh Hashana. That’s, like, next week. 

Rabbi L: Tuesday night. We’ve got services and meals.

Sarah: My folks would probably want me to go to services. Are they orthodox?

Rabbi L: We welcome all Jews. 

Sarah: I’m Reform.

Rabbi L: Are your parents Jewish? 

Sarah: [proudly] Yes. And my grandparents. And their grandparents. But they weren’t religious. 

Rabbi L: You don’t have to be religious to be a Jew. [he smiles]

Sarah: Okay. Well, I can read Hebrew.

Lisa: Oh my God. I’m not good at Hebrew. At all. I don’t remember anything from my Bat Mitzvah.

Rabbi L: We’ve got English translations. And I’ll be there, explaining things as we go. And we’ll be having traditional holiday meals. My wife’s a fantastic cook.

Lisa: I love to cook! 

Rabbi L: Really? What do you like to cook?

Lisa: Everything. Except ramen. I can make chicken soup. Pizza. And I bake cookies.

Rabbi L: That sounds wonderful. If you’re free on Friday afternoon, you should stop by the Center. A group of kids usually show up to help cook for our Friday night Shabbos Extravaganza. Here. [he pulls out a printed calendar of events] This is a list of events for the next few months. 

Jayden: Cookies? Lisa, will you marry me?

Sarah: She can’t. Now that I know about the cookies, she’s marrying me.

Rabbi L: Let me sign you guys up for email reminders about our events and weekly happenings. And you really should come for Friday night. There’s nothing like a home-cooked meal when you’re far from home.

Jayden: I’m so there. With my two dates, of course.

[After signing up for emails and putting Rabbi L’s brochures into their bags, the three friends say goodbye, promising to bring their friends. This has been successful for Rabbi L, who now has three students who will hopefully show up on Friday and then the following week for Rosh Hashanah. He writes a few notes in his own notebook—their names, brief descriptions to remember them by, and a few words to recall the conversation. Lisa: likes to cook, had a Bat Mitzvah, might be interested in Hebrew refresher course. Sarah: likes cookies, proud, Reform, both parents are Jewish, slightly negative about Orthodoxy. Jayden: popular with women, seems open to anything with food. Happy to have met three new students, Rabbi L continues his work.]

What just happened?

          Rabbi L did the work he loves. When confronted with Sarah’s question as to whether the synagogue services would be orthodox, sensing that she or maybe her parents (who would love her to go to services for the holidays) might not be 100% comfortable knowing that worship would be done according to orthodox standards, with men’s and women’s seating separated by a mechitza (a divider or partition) between the genders, opted to explain that services are open to all Jews. Rabbi L was taught to deflect that question, understanding that non-orthodox Jews are often put off by orthodoxy. Instead of giving a straight answer, which would have been “yes,” he answered by reverting to the philosophy of inclusiveness and pluralism. This puts people’s anxiety at ease, making them more likely to show up to events that they wouldn’t show up to if labeled as orthodox. Rabbi L was also instructed in the importance of a low-key approach. Not every Jewish student is going to be open to orthodox Judaism. By not coming on too strong and by deflecting questions with prepared answers that address those wary of religious Jews, he can still convince them to attend, while making them comfortable with their choice. Rabbi L, knowing that according to orthodox standards, anyone not born to a Jewish mother is technically not Jewish, managed to find out if Sarah was Jewish without giving her a lecture or turning her off to possibly attending a program.

          While Rabbi L may not personally agree with the type of flirting and banter between the young people, he chooses to not respond, instead, focusing on the students in order to find things to remember about them. He listens carefully to the conversation, responding to what the students say. When Lisa mentions cooking, he recognizes this as a way to reach her. Using this, he is able to tell her about other programming available, even offering a chance to take part in some cooking. Bringing students into the kitchen is a fun way for them to learn about keeping kosher, while growing the relationship between the outreach professionals and the students. While it is understood that not every student will decide to keep kosher or become orthodox, every student who has a good experience will bring others. Not only are these students potential candidates for orthodoxy and growing observance, but they and their parents are also potential donors who will help to fund further Jewish programming on campus. 

          So far, campus kiruv seems pretty innocuous. But outreach professionals are taught to take it slowly. They have four years to get each Jewish student involved on some level, and they know that not everyone who attends a program is going to become orthodox. Their first goal is to get students into their building (if they have one) so they can provide a positive Jewish experience and start developing a relationship. This will be discussed further in subsequent postings.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Questions to Ask Yourself When They Question You

Guest Post by Mechel Bukyer

“Excuse me, are you Jewish?”
In that one question – just a few simple words – many things happen. For starters, the questioner has now legitimized his or her entry into the target audience’s life (not that unlike the somewhat clich├ęd, “Is there a doctor in the house?!”)  Moreover, he/she has set the table to engage the mark’s natural societal desire to please others, and the asker has attempted to leap over the first line of defenses that we all intuitively have to protect us from those who may not have our best interests at heart…and there it begins.
So, you may wonder, what’s wrong with kiruv? Now, I don’t know that I’m about to say anything new – in fact, I’m sure it’s not – but I’ll add one more voice to the list and count off some of what’s so bad about it. Under normal circumstances the first questions we should ask ourselves when a stranger approaches us with any kind of proposition are: What do they want? What’s in it for them? How will this affect me?  And, is it good or bad for me? So let’s start by asking those questions:
1.     What they, in this case outreach/kiruv professionals, want is to add you to their ranks. Plain and simple. Their goal is to take you along on their ride, to live their life, with their rules and with their goals. All this at the expense of whatever you currently think, hold dear, care about, or desire for your future.  There can be no argument about this simple truth – no kiruv worker can deny it.

2.     How it will affect you is also not hard to imagine: You will, to some degree or another, turn away from your family, friends, career path, interests and freedoms, while devoting time, money, resources, and emotions to this endeavor. You will significantly change your personal relationships, as you recede from your world and enter theirs.
3.     What’s in it for them? Many things actually: The continuity of their hopes and dreams. Validation of their lifestyle. New blood and new revenue streams to add to the growth of their institutions and ‘market share.’ The individual’s personal ego and power trips that they get with each new doting student and fan, which includes the thrill of manipulating and directing someone else’s life (and this doesn’t have to be overt and obvious and ugly, but it is part of life, and generally exists even subtly or subconsciously.) And let’s say that this specific kiruv professional isn’t really (overly) like that, there is a lot of internal scorekeeping in mind. Each new recruit gives their life (or mission) additional meaning and scores them points for the world to come.  

4.     The question of whether or not it’s good for you requires a longer answer – one that might be beyond the scope of this piece – but there are things to consider that can help guide you. For example, are you prepared to be a second-class citizen, to become other people’s projects, to be dictated to about how you should live, to leave the security and current support group that you know with the non-guaranteed hope that the world you’re entering will do as well or better than the one you’re stepping away from? Are you willing to deal with the anxiety and stress of being an eternal outsider, of not knowing what parts of your past to share with your children, your friends or your leaders? Are you comfortable with the many varied and artificial limits (and by that I mean they differ from group to group and are often ubiquitous but without a clear basis) on what you can allow in your home or in your mind? Can you happily change your political views and embrace a world whose establishment is very different from the society that you are familiar with? 

There are many similar questions, and each person has to make their own specific list. But before I get too far down this road, let me clarify that I don’t mean to suggest that everyone’s (or anyone’s) non-orthodox life is flawless or rosy, but I do suggest that the changes and the risks are much greater than any ‘mekurav’ can ever realize.

Now, nothing that was said until this point should be remotely surprising – and, no doubt, for this reason it is only a statistically few people who actually take the kiruv plunge. But it brings us to the next set of questions to address, such as: Kiruv techiniques. The ethics and morality of Kiruv. Kiruv professionalism (or lack thereof).  But I think I’ll leave that for next time.   

The author is a currently grey-haired product of various orthodox institutions of, at best, mediocre learning, and one of the many formerly religiously inspired members of the orthodox community, who now continues to mumble Hebrew words throughout the day because he thinks he knows where his bread is buttered. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Who is Really Affiliated? Hanukah and the Ad that Makes You Wonder.

         Although Hanukah has since passed, I wanted to share an ad that I find troubling. It’s on the Project Inspire website, geared specifically to those involved in doing outreach to non-orthodox Jews. The ad targets orthodox Jews involved in kiruv on some level, suggesting they give a small Hanukah gift to someone who isn’t orthodox in an effort to inspire them religiously. This is part of the Chanukah Easy Outreach Campaign  created to “bring the light of Chanukah into the lives of [one’s] less-affiliated acquaintances” during the holiday season. The gift is lovely. Who wouldn’t want to be the recipient of a box of holiday-themed cookies, chocolate, and a pretty dreidel? It really is a nice gesture, provided the giver doesn’t have any ulterior motives. If that gift came with an invitation to his/her home, your host may have sent the story of your visit during the holiday back to Project Inspire to be entered into a raffle for two free tickets to anywhere in the USA. What a great incentive to do some light outreach work. But even that doesn’t bother me that much. 

However, what I find troubling about this ad, is the language used.

First of all, the term “less-affiliated,” is deeply disturbing. The word “less” implies a quantity of something that is fewer than something else. Having grown up a Conservative Jew in a non-observant household, I was never taught that any one form of Judaism is any more or less affiliated than any other. The denominations may be different, but no one Jewish person is any more Jewish than any other Jewish person. The problem here is that I’m speaking from a very liberal perspective, one with which those who practice kiruv disagree. Kiruv professionals and outreach organizations do not view a person’s affiliation with a denomination other than existing forms of orthodoxy as valid forms of Judaism. Therefore, one’s affiliation with, for example, the Reform movement--even if that person keeps a kosher household, attends temple on a regular basis, is an active member of the temple’s Sisterhood, celebrates the holidays, sends her children to Hebrew school--will cause her to be considered a “less-affiliated” Jew. In this case, affiliation has little to do with how active one is in his/her Judaism but is judged as part of a hierarchy, with Orthodoxy at the top and considered to be more, or most, affiliated. 

Or rather, just “affiliated.”

If orthodoxy is “affiliated,” and at the top of the hierarchy, it is safe to assume that all others must be “not” affiliated. Or “un-affiliated.” Or “less-affiliated.” Except that it’s not just my assumption. 

Here. Let me share some background with you.

In 1997, Agudath HaRabonim (the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the US and Canada) issued a declaration stating that “Reform and Conservative are not Judaism at all.  Their adherents are Jews, according to the Jewish Law, but their religion is not Judaism.” Due to the Union of Orthodox Rabbis’ belief that Conservative and Reform Judaism is a clear distortion of Jewish law, they further stated that “there is only one Judaism:  Torah Judaism.  The Reform and Conservative are not Judaism at all, but another religion. …Despite their brazen usurpation of the titles “Judaism,” “Jewish Heritage,” “Jewish Tradition,” “Jewish Continuity,” Reform and Conservative are not Judaism at all.  They are outside of Torah and Outside of Judaism.” (qtd. from the document on, accessed 1/22/2013, 2:47pm.) According to this document, there is no question that the practitioners are Jewish, (provided they are born of a Jewish mother, in the tradition of matrilineal descent, or have been converted by an orthodox rabbi,) yet they are still urged to immediately sever their ties with these non-orthodox denominations and begin attending orthodox synagogues.

          Included in this document is a statement by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, stating that “the doctrines and ideologies of the Reform and Conservative movements, can only be classed in the category of heretical movements which have plagued our people at one time or another, only to disappear eventually, having no basis in our everlasting Torah, the Torah of truth, the living Torah, Toras Emes, Toras Chaim.” It makes sense that they would quote the Lubavitcher Rebbe in this document, especially when the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, best known for their massive world-wide outreach efforts to non-orthodox Jews, is one of the largest outreach organizations in the world.

                Clicking on the text to submit your kiruv story will find you on a page giving you the opportunity to download what Project Inspire calls their “Chanukah kit,” a booklet filled with “tips and explanations to make your invitation a success” ( The fact that this organization feels the need to guide and support potential hosts in having non-observant guests in the first place, would make me suspicious if I didn’t already know the true nature of the organization. However, most non-orthodox Jews are not aware of the true nature of organizations such as this, and even though it’s always wonderful to receive a Hanukah gift and invitation, it’s even better to receive one with no ulterior motives.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Excuse me, are you Jewish? A litte bit about kiruv/outreach professionals.

"Excuse me, are you Jewish?" She was about seventeen years old, with a bright round face and shining eyes. Her dark hair was tied in a ponytail. Aside from the skirt that reached just below her knees, she could have been any local teenager. Except that she wasn't. She was one of hundreds of young emissaries sent out to reach out to non-orthodox Jews. Standing at a small table near the seasonal display section in the local supermarket, this young woman and two of her peers repeatedly asked this same question to passersby, and when given a positive answer, sweetly offered information booklets on Jewish tradition along packets of candles to usher in the holy days.

“Excuse me, are you Jewish?” He stands near the train station with a friend. Both are in their early 20s, their beards still short and fresh. Wearing black hats and white shirts, they unabashedly approach any man or teen who they think might be Jewish, and attempt to engage him in conversation. And once a rapport is established, they ask if he’d like to put on tefillin, the little boxes containing prayers that are wrapped on the head and the arm. 

“Excuse me, are you Jewish?” They are a youngish couple with a few kids. He’s a rabbi and she, in a stylish wig and funky skirts, is his wife. Approaching college students on campus and offering them a hot meal on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath,) spiritual conversation, Jewish programming, and a place to hang out and learn about Jewish traditions away from the social pressures of college life, is their life’s work. 

“Excuse me, are you Jewish?” I overhear a woman at the mall, when she approaches a young woman in jeans who has just called her son by a Jewish sounding name. “I run a Mommy and Me group….” 

Kiruv Professionals: those involved in doing "Jewish outreach."  Kiruv professionals generally reach out to Jews they consider "unaffiliated," "under-affiliated," "semi-affiliated," and "not yet orthodox," regardless of whether these Jews are affiliated with other movements, and regardless of whether these Jews want to become orthodox. Generally, a kiruv professional will try to get another Jew involved, often through casual encounters or through outreach organizations.
What kiruv professionals do: Outreach. Kiruv professionals run programs such as community seders for Passover, Purim parties on or near college campuses for students, reduced-priced or free Hebrew school, holiday, and social programs for children ranging in age from toddlers through the teenage years, free holiday synagogue services, and free opportunities for non-orthodox Jews to learn about (orthodox) Judaism. Kiruv professionals may invite you to their homes for Shabbos (Sabbath) meals or study sessions. They may run Shabbatons, overnight getaways usually for teens, in which young people can spend all of Shabbat (the Sabbath) with orthodox young people and families.
Different kiruv organizations offer different programs. Some offer basic Jewish learning. Others allow you to choose what you're interested in learning about and set you up with a chavrusa, or study partner, either in person or on the phone. Some organizations run programs, ranging in length from a full day to a few days, meant to awe and inspire further study, and then offer follow-up programs at yeshivas in Israel. Many offer a variety of programs targeting different age groups, using tactics meant to appeal to each specific demographic, e.g. teens, parents of young children, college students away from home. They may refer a potential recruit to a program that they feel better meets their needs. Some organizations run thousands of programs in many different languages, worldwide.
Larger kiruv/outreach organizations offer full-color, glossy, high definition, exciting Judaism that they believe non-orthodox Jews need in order to get interested in Jewish life. They lure the unsuspecting in with a vast array of free or highly subsidized programming. Free and reduced priced yeshiva-affiliated programs to Israel  are made available and are meant to inspire further observance in participants. 
So, what's the problem here?
These programs run on deception. People get involved, believing that they are being taught about their heritage, when in fact, they're being taught Judaism from a strictly Eastern-European orthodox perspective. Kiruv organizations do not tell you that they are working to make you orthodox. But if you search closely, you'll find that the Jewish outreach movement really is all about marketing one brand name: orthodox Judaism.