Sunday, March 24, 2013

Have A Sexy Passover?

Using sex to sell Judaism?

     With the understanding that much of Jewish outreach uses marketing techniques to get non-orthodox Jews involved in Orthodox Judaism, I have to say that I was still rather surprised to see that Jeff Seidel's ad for Passover Hospitality had a picture of Israeli supermodel Bar Rafaeli, hands clasped as if bound, staring sexily at the camera. This is the part where you, the reader, should glance at the ad and say "Hey, isn't Jeff Seidel the guy that everyone meets in Jerusalem? The guy who sets up hundreds of kids for Shabbos with ultra-orthodox families?" And then, you, the reader, take another look at the ad and say "What does this picture have to do with Passover?"
     That's exactly it. As a woman, I'm tired of companies exploiting women's bodies to sell products. But in this case, I have to wonder why Jeff Seidel needs to resort to using sex to sell an orthodox Jewish experience, when this is the antithesis of what Orthodoxy is teaching. This is a new low for kiruv organizations. Jeff Seidel's Jewish Student Information Centers have been around for decades during which Jeff has been setting high school and college-age people up with families who adhere to the stringencies of orthodoxy, such as  taharas hamishpacha (family purity laws which demand that married couples refrain from sex at certain times,) and strict rules of gender separation and tzniut (modesty) among others. Not only is Bar Rafaeli's sexuality being used to turn young men on to observance, but blatant sexuality is strongly discouraged in the world into which these young people are entering.
     In the spirit of Passover, I have four questions, each which should be asked with a glass of wine:
1.What makes this Passover outreach campaign different from any other Passover outreach campaign?
2. Is Bar Rafaeli aware that her picture is out there, selling orthodox Judaism?
3. Does Jeff Seidel know that Bar Rafaeli dates guys who are not necessarily Jewish?
4. Are Jewish outreach organizations so desperate to attract possible adherents, that they're willing to embark on advertising campaigns that paint them as blatant hypocrites?

*Thanks to Failed Messiah for linking back to this page.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Deception on All Fronts

Deception. Never a good thing.*
When orthodox Jews leave orthodoxy, it is said that they've gone "off the derech," which is basically "off the path" of what is usually orthodox Judaism. As part of an ever-growing network of off the derech Jews (which I'll now refer to as OTD,) I've noticed that there really isn't just one path that people are leaving. There are people leaving who were once baalei teshuvah (returnees to Judaism) leaving, as well as those leaving who had long family histories of Jews practicing in the orthodox tradition. They come from all walks of orthodox life, from the very religious to the more modern. In looking at the communities that these Jews have left, I've found a surprising similarity in how leaving is perceived. Communities all over the orthodox spectrum (and not all communities, but a large number, based on informal conversations with Jews of varying religious backgrounds,) cite a few reasons why religious Jews go OTD. Many in the orthodox community will point to the person being unstable, possible child abuse, the lure of the secular world--including drugs and sex, the desire to rebel, mental illness (because, hey, you must be mentally ill if you don't want to be within the religious community,) and probably a few others that I'm neglecting. Religious leaders will swear that technology is the cause of the problem. In reality, the reasons given by the formerly frum (formerly religious) range from intellectual disagreement with orthdoxy, Judaism, and a lack of proof of the existence of God, to the feeling that their own education and creative pursuits were being stifled. Many just didn't fit into the ready-made mold to which their communities assumed that they'd conform. Just as everyone is not meant to be a nuclear physicist, not everyone is meant to be an orthodox Jew.
     On the other side of this can be found the parents and families of those who are either secular or are members of the more liberal Jewish denominations (such as Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc.) As a parent (and as someone who has parents,) I think that probably most of these parents want to support their children's decisions, whether they are choosing a major in college, finding a suitable career path, or even pursuing their own spiritual journey. However, what happens when parents find that their college-age child has gotten so involved with a Jewish group on campus that he or she has begun to distance him/herself from the family that has always been supportive?
Let's toss in a few facts:

1. Orthodox observance requires strict adherence to certain set rules.
2. Many on/off-campus Jewish groups are funded by and/or affiliated with ultra-orthodox factions.
3. While strict observance isn't pushed upon initial contact with students, those who seem interested are pushed into other programs in which ultra-orthodox thought and practice are taught. These programs may be offered by the "campus rabbi" and his staff or they may be programs run by the larger organization with which his group is affiliated. They may be innocently billed as a fun-filled spring break in Florida or Israel or New York with touring and learning about Jewish culture/heritage. These trips may seem cheaper because organizations may offer subsidies for interested students.

     By the time parents realize that the kid they sent away to school in September is slowly being indoctrinated into an orthodox lifestyle, it's often already too late. The kid they thought was "just learning Hebrew" with the self-appointed "campus rabbi" is now refusing to come home for a weekend because he/she is spending every Shabbat with either the rabbi and his family or with religious families he/she is set up with. The kid they expected to come back for Passover seders now feels that he/she really should go to an orthodox family for the holiday to further his/her religious learning. There is often a degree of guilt felt by students in this situation--they feel obligated to the rabbi and his family (or organization) for meals, classes, etc., and when they are offered an opportunity to have holiday meals/observance organized, they feel like they can't say no. It's easier to brush off their parents with excuses than it is to brush off the rabbi and his organization, because by now, the group is a large part of the student's campus life.
     In the beginning of this post, I mentioned why some orthodox communities think that orthodox Jews leave the fold, in addition to actual reasons why many choose to leave (often with great personal ramifications.) What I've found is that when non-orthodox parents realize that their kids have been scooped up and alienated from them by ultra-orthodox organizations, similar excuses are made by the orthodox community as to why this has happened: the baal teshuvah (newly religious person, who I will now refer to as BT) came from an abusive family; the BT comes from an unstable family environment; the family lacks morality and/or Jewish education. Not only are non-orthodox Jews unaware of the deceptive nature (and often, existence) of kiruv/outreach, but many of those within orthodox communities are also often lacking an understanding of the deceptive nature of ultra-orthodox kiruv. The more I read about this and the more personal stories I hear, the more it seems that many college-age BTs and those in their 20s, seem not to have made a conscious decision to become ultra orthodox, but rather, through a series of well-orchestrated moves by kiruv/outreach professionals, have found themselves in high-pressure situations in which guilt, seclusion, and separation are used in order to enforce conformity to a culture that may not necessarily have been their choice.

 *image from

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Birthright: An Orthodox Rabbi Blogs Against Deceptive Outreach

A friend of mine directed me to the blog Emes Ve-Emunah where I found a very interesting post about Birthright's affiliation with Ohr Somayach. Rabbi Harry Maryles, the author of the blog, wrote a fine critique of the kiruv (outreach) yeshiva's use of the Birthright program to find recruits for their program which indoctrinates unsuspecting college students into ultra-orthodoxy. He mentions that Ohr Somayach set up the Jewish Enrichment Center and pushes it as a follow-up to the Birthright trip. Read his 2009 post, The Kiruv Con, here.
What I hope you'll notice, in addition to the information about dishonest Jewish outreach, is that Rabbi Harry Maryles is an orthodox (not ultra-orthodox) rabbi. While he and I would probably disagree on many fronts, I respect the fact that he has decried deceptive kiruv/outreach tactics and has used his blog to bring this issue to light. I hope you'll take a look at his article and leave a comment. And leave a comment here, as well. If more rabbis would take a stand against deceptive kiruv/outreach, it could strengthen their own movements--whether Modern Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and other denominations. Standing up against deceptive kiruv also shows that you respect the rights of your fellow Jews to choose their own path. Jews have been angered over the sometimes deceptive tactics of non-Jewish missionaries attempting to proselytize and convert Jews to their religions and way of life. This is no different.
Ultra-orthodoxy, as a lifestyle, should technically be able to stand on its own as a viable choice for the orthodox-curious. If their organizations must resort to deceit in order to pull in recruits, then maybe there are more problems with this lifestyle than they're telling you. My advice is this: research. Question. Question those on the outside. Insiders will not give you the whole story.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Thank You!
     I just want to take this opportunity to publicly thank Eli and Arthur for having me as a guest on The Kurdled Jew podcast this past Saturday night. This particular program, entitled The Missionary Position, can be found here. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss kiruv, Jewish missionaries, and some of the organizations represented on North American college and high school campuses with my wonderful hosts and their callers.
     I also want to thank my readers, both those who comment and those who don't. I want to thank those of you who have offered support for this project, either through private messages or on online forums. And I'm very grateful to those of you who have been helping to publicize this blog, either by suggesting my posts to other organizations to put on their link lists, or by posting in your own online groups, web pages, blogs, etc. I want to thank those of you who have unselfishly sent me books for this project. Thank you to those who have guest posted here and to those who have written valuable articles in the past, which have found their way into my research files. Some of you have come to me with suggestions for posts, information on organizations, personal stories, compliments, and criticisms. I am grateful to all of you. You folks are my inspiration and the backbone of this project.
     When I started this blog a few months ago, I had one goal: to provide awareness of kiruv/outreach groups, their  tactics, and how they operate,  in order for people to make informed choices. I've gotten a lot of positive feedback. Even those who have disagreed with my point of view have provided me with valuable insight. A very good friend made the point that we all learn from each other. I couldn't agree more.


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Of All the Dishonest....

The Beacon's logo.
I have a problem with ultra-Orthodox Kiruv. I have a problem with the full-color glossy Kiruv, sold with carefully worded posters, programs, videos, and double standards. I have a problem with the Kiruv that loudly declares that they welcome all Jews, but then denigrates their backgrounds when they think that nobody is listening. That’s the Kiruv that I find to be problematic.....

Read the full article over at The Beacon.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Upcoming News and A Non-Outreach Encounter

Upcoming News: This coming Saturday, March 9, 2013, at 7pm EST, I'll be a guest on The Kurdled Jew podcast over here. I'll be discussing "The Missionary Position" with hosts Arthur and Eli, and will cover all things related to dealing with missionaries, especially those of the kiruv variety. I hope you'll tune in. 
Later this week, The Beacon will be publishing an article of mine about one of the (many) aspects of kiruv/outeach that I find troubling. I'm particularly excited to have the opportunity to open up dialogue with the Modern Orthodox community on this issue. As soon as it is up on their website, I'll post the link.

     This morning found me in the supermarket, doing my weekly shopping with seemingly everyone in my town. I was dreading having to run into the Passover aisle for a box of  egg matzoh, one of two Passover weaknesses I have (the other being Polaner's seeded Raspberry preserves,) and must purchase weeks in advance of the holiday. I expected to find, amidst the holiday displays of matzoh and gefilte fish, young orthodox women giving out booklets on holiday observance. The thought of having to navigate already crowded aisles with a full cart was mind-numbing, and while I'm usually open to conversations with strangers, I was in a rush to get home. Much to my surprise, the section reserved for Easter and Passover shopping was relatively empty, save for two couples who reminded me of the parents of my childhood friends.
     The slender woman with the large glasses and the most incredible brown Jew-fro I've ever seen, was discussing their Passover shopping with her husband, who held a case of Yartzeit candles. She stood with her arms folded over the shopping cart handle, listing the pros and cons of purchasing their kosher for Passover perishables during this shopping trip. The other couple stood by the immense stacks of matzoh, deciding which five pound box to take home.
     The few minutes that I spent in that section of the store, observing these couples--both women in pants,  their hair uncovered, talking with their husbands who wore neither kippahs nor hats, and filling their carts--these few minutes made a huge impact on me, and reminded me why I'm involved in anti-kiruv activism. Moments like these, when I catch regular Americans who happen to be Jews, engaging in something as mundane as shopping for an upcoming holiday, give me a feeling of contentedness that I don't feel when I see Lubavitch women standing behind a table, handing out literature. People should be able to shop in peace, without pressure to conform to an orthodox standard, without their own observance being undermined by a stranger pushing his/her belief system because he/she doesn't approve of anything not orthodox. With so many Jewish holidays celebrating how people managed to maintain their beliefs in the face of opposition, contemporary non-orthodox Jews shouldn't have to face opposition from their orthodox counterparts in order to celebrate in a way that is personally meaningful.