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.


  1. Nice to see a blog devoted to exposing kiruv for what it is, especially by our very own bec!

    Check out this recent blog post by a kiruv woman addressing a letter she received from a BT with buyer's remorse.

    Also I hope you've seen the latest edition of Klal Perspectives which dealt exclusively with the kiruv business.

  2. thanks, sg! and thanks for the links. the comments on the kiruv woman's blog are very interesting. and yes, i have seen the klal perspectives kiruv edition and will be commenting on it on this blog at some point. thank you!

  3. Hmmmm..."exposing kiruv" and "deception"??? I dunno, maybe it's because I was in California and only ran into ONE outreach organization and that was Chabad. There was no question that they wanted people to learn--starting with Judaism 101 for the clueless and all the way up to Talmud for those with stronger backgrounds. It was also really clear that while they'd love for us all to be Lubavitch, they were really cool with any increase in Jewish knowledge and if you wished, application of that knowledge to your daily life. I understand from others that we had an exceptionally cool rabbi who was very nonjudgmental, and he saw his goal as primarily educational. Yeah, he'd like that you didn't drive on Shabbat, but as he joked with me, "You're going to drive on Shabbat anyway so you might as well drive over here." Maybe there's more "deception" in New York, but where I lived you had to be an idiot to not know that Chabad was about eastern European Chasidic based Judaism. Now living in Israel, I've discovered all kinds of variations but Chabad was a good grounding, my rabbi was terrific, the congregation very laid-back (well,of course there's always ONE) and it was a great intro to all the things we (husband and I) missed in our assimilationist growing up.

  4. And this, my dear, is what makes Chabad so insidious. See, growing up in NY/NJ, there are plenty of denominations to choose from. But in many parts of the world, Chabad IS Judaism and Judaism IS Chabad. Many parts of the former Soviet Union they were doing their thing when many other Jews basically abandoned them.

    If I had a dollar for every time I had to explain to a barely affiliated Jew how I was raised religious and no I was not Chabad, I would have paid off my student loans by now.

    Not to say that there aren't good ones out there. But by and large, Chabadniks I've met are guilty of exactly what Bec is talking about. My experiences with Chabad are for another thread. But I will say this. Get to know any of them more than first few Shabbos meals, the ugly head of intolerance begins to rear. But usually one has to really try challenging to them before it shows.

  5. I'll take your word for it--even my very cool rabbi and his wife warned me that some Chabad centers were intolerant---but overall, in California, that wasn't my I said, it was a good, fun, intro to orthodox Judaism, and moving to Israel I found other expressions of orthodoxy that aren't so stringent and run from chardal to dati-leumi lite...but I wouldn't characterize outreach or Chabad as "insidious" -- people really can't be so ignorant or so sheep-like as to not know what they're getting into...and if they are, well, shame on them for surrendering their capacity to think and choose.

  6. i just want to say that i'll be addressing this in more detail in future posts, and that i'm really glad to have all of your voices in this forum.
    i do agree, not every orthodox rabbi is looking to make non-orthodox jews religious. in this case, i'm speaking about kiruv professionals, and even among kiruv professionals, there are differences in how they approach people and what their personal goals are. some are looking to add notches to their belts, others just want to create a nice community where all jews feel at home.
    this comment "people really can't be so ignorant or so sheep-like as to not know what they're getting into...and if they are, well, shame on them for surrendering their capacity to think and choose" is understandable and i've heard it in a variety of situations. but it's easy to be an insider in the orthodox community or be someone who is familiar with orthodox groups and say "well, they should have realized." when an educated professional gets involved with landmark education (not a jewish group) or a secular jew gets unknowingly involved in jews for jesus, we don't blame them for not knowing what they were getting into. many non-orthdox jews don't realize that there are hundreds of kiruv groups, nor do they even have the correct terminology to google these organizations and effectively research them. i don't think that blaming the victim for being taken advantage of is fair, especially when so many people who become baal teshuvahs (returnees to judaism/religious jews) are young and impressionable when targeted by kiruv professionals.

  7. In Brooklyn on kings highway, it's reached a point that I can't go into the Kentucky Fried Chicken, because of the harrassment non-stop from the lubavitchers set up on the Coney Island avenue corner. They surround me - with my bucket of fried chicken in hand- and depending on the time of year and holiday it is nonstop verbal beratement to hassle me to light a Chanukah candle or shake a lulav. The only thing that I've been able to do to extricate myself is to get loud and obnoxious-which I hate doing- in my own home neighborhood. But I shouldn't have to avoid or dread KFC, because of the Kirov I'm going to face afterwards.. Just frustrating.


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