Saturday, February 23, 2013

Outreach: Tearing Apart Families on Both Sides of the Holy Spectrum


I know that there are many people who aren't thrilled that I'm publicly writing against orthodox outreach. Dishonest attempts to cause non-orthodox Jews to leave their current lifestyles and become orthodox are, at best, disrespectful to those Jews and their families. At worst, kiruv can cause irreparable damage to families for years at a time, sometimes for life. Good friends of mine have told me horror stories of their own children getting caught up in irresponsible Jewish outreach and breaking all ties with their families, believing that this new lifestyle requires that they isolate themselves within the orthodox community. While not all outreach professionals outrightly encourage young people to break familial ties, they all promote a lifestyle which, through its stringences alone, subtly pushes people to alienate, or become alienated from, their families. People who are new to religious observance may feel pressured to do everything perfectly and may not have the ability to balance their secular upbringing and family with their new religious lifestyle. In an effort to please their rabbis, mentors, and God, many inadvertently push their secular friends and family away.
     That brings me to the image that I've included with this post. (Click on image to enlarge or read the original post here .) I took this from Imamother, an online forum for married orthodox Jewish women, from a thread entitled "Who Here is Shrewd and Creative? Need to Arrange Kiruv." (Don't even get me started on the use of the word shrewd.) This particular thread is about a woman who wants to be mekarev (bring closer to God in an effort to become more religiously observant) a young woman and is looking for ways to introduce her to someone who might inspire her to become orthodox. (I'm only commenting on the post in the image, but feel free to read the original post. Just to make this easier, everything in blue was stated by "Mummiedearest" in response to the block in white, which is another commenter quoting and responding to a different set of text posted by Mummiedearest. In the quoted material, I included the definitions of Hebrew terminology in parentheses following the italicized word.) Although this conversation is from 2007, I think a lot of what Mummiedearest states is still relevant.
     Mummiedearest, an orthodox woman, states:

I think we have to realize that we are not superior to non-religious Jews.... Why is it that so many baalei teshuva (newly religious Jews) have a hard time fitting in to frum (religious) communities? I get it, let's be mekarev them and once they're frum enough and don't need kiruv, we can shun them with a clear conscience. Kiruv is NOT a project, hobby, or career. Kiruv should be done out of ahavas yisroel (love for fellow Jews), not because of a superiority complex.1
She seems to be appalled by people with little or no experience turning non-religious Jews into their pet projects and by those involved in outreach thinking they're better than everyone else. Even though she doesn't think that all outreach is bad, the fact that she recognizes some of it as problematic is good. It gives me hope that maybe more orthodox people will realize that not every non-orthodox Jew is fair game in what often seems to be a recruitment hunt.
     The following quote is my favorite. While Mummiedearest and I would probably have some key differences in our feelings about God, she makes a great point regarding those who ended up religious despite that never being their intention:

I know people who were pushed to become frum, became frum, married, had kids, and finally said enough. They weren't ready, felt pressured, and eventually left their families to fend for themselves. We have to think of people as people, not chessed (kindness) projects, not "nebuchs,"(poor, unfortunate people,)  not "badly in need of kiruv." Yes, a person's soul wants the closeness to G-d. Absolutely. But the person has to recognize it.2
 While I would disagree on "what a person's soul wants," I have to hand it to Mummiedearest. She's right on point when she states that "the person has to recognize it." A major problem I have with Jewish outreach is that kiruv agents assume that everyone, whether they realize it or not, yearns to be religious. But Mummiedearest, an orthodox woman--notice how I keep stressing her background, feels that the person him/herself needs to recognize this need within him/herself. She doesn't think outreach should be done deceptively and even mentions later on that a person will ask questions if interested and will find her own mentor if she desires one. Mummiedearest seems to see the big picture, the reality of what happens to people who are pushed into religious observance and realize later on that they are totally miserable in this lifestyle. What kiruv professionals often don't realize is that experiences like these tend to turn people off to all Judaism, not only orthodox Judaism. 

1. "Mummiedearest, member since July 24, 2007, New York qtd. in "Who Here is Shrewd and Creative? Need to Arrange Kiruv" on December 27, 2007. Original thread posted by Anonymous on December 26, 2007. accessed 2/23/2013 at 3:28pm.
2. ibid


  1. These people have a goal: make them frum; I mean bring them closer to god. The only kink any of them see is how to do it in a way that keeps them from getting in trouble. It is a disgusting blemish on all of Judaism. Why other Jews do nothing about this is beyond me.

  2. Thanks for another thoughtful post.

    Check out this post by a kiruv woman unabashedly defending her deceptive kiruv practices to a recipient of her kindness who now has buyers remorse.


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