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.


  1. So why the sudden down on kiruv? If they don't like it, they can leave,right? I found it harder to get out of Girl Scouts....

  2. My problem with kiruv is that certain tactics can be deceptive. When literature meant for kiruv professionals makes statements that the goal is to get you in the building, or that they're looking to become a "surrogate parent" to newcomers, or that the person doing outreach must first use "innocuous" subjects for the first few meetings and not introduce Jewish content right away so that a relationship has already developed, I have to wonder about the goals of the organizations sponsoring such missions. Is it really to makes someone just more aware of their heritage? Or is there something else going on? While I know that not everyone who gets involved in Jewish organizations on or off campus becomes orthodox, I do know that those who do sometimes change their whole lives, opting out of university and opting in to yeshivas, and cutting ties with their families to do so. While I'm not keen on outreach professionals purposely reaching out to this age group, there needs to be more honesty about the true purpose.
    As for people leaving if they don't like it, there's usually not many options on campus. There is also a certain degree of peer pressure to stay. If your friends are there, you'll probably stay.


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