Thursday, June 27, 2013

Emergency Soul Saving in Progress

      I recently viewed this video entitled "Rescue Mission--The Time is Now" put out by Project Inspire (a project of Aish HaTorah.) The video begins with a recap of the May 1994 search and rescue of Suri Feldman, the 14 year-old Hasidic girl who got lost in the woods up by the Connecticut-Massachussetts border. The introduction leads to a description of how much effort the whole community put into the rescue of this youngster, with people boarding buses from Brooklyn to aid in the search and rescue mission and bringing "provisions, lanterns, and flashlights--anything possible to save this one little girl." A few seconds later this story is tied into how this one girl is important, how "every nefesh [soul] is important, how everyone we can save is important." The rabbi takes this further:

 ...and now we're here today and we look at what's happening with the Jewish people. And we know that it's not just one Suri Feldman but it's millions, literally millions of nefeshes [souls] that are lost in the woods, not only in Connecticut, not only in Massachusetts, but everywhere. Where are the lanterns? Where are the buses? Where's the outcry of "help! We need to stop the assimilation, we need to stop what's happening to the devastation of the spirit of the Jewish people!' Of course that's what we have to do whenever we find someone in danger. But when klal yisroel [the Jewish people] is in danger in a big way, when HaKodesh Baruch-hu's (God) children are in danger with millions of nefeshes getting lost, we need to have that same kind of outcry.... We need to help save the Jewish people.1
When I was teaching high school English, I used to do a lesson with my classes when we read non-Western literature in which we discussed whether or not  it was fair of us to apply our Western values to the literature of other cultures. Were we, as culturally American, (regardless of our individual backgrounds) justified in interpreting the literature of other cultures using our own Western biases? Was that even fair of us? Would we ever truly understand the literature of another culture if we believed that certain things were always wrong or always right? Of course, the responses were always mixed, but the general understanding was that maybe it really wasn't fair. We didn't understand many complexities of all of the cultures we studied. Our information, no matter how vast, was always somewhat limited by our own lack of firsthand experience. I mention this because here we have a kiruv [outreach] group doing the exact thing that my classes and I strove to avoid. Project Inspire judges all Jews by the values and belief systems of their brand of orthodox Judaism. They say "hey, look at those Jews who aren't orthodox like us. They must be lost. We have a job. We have to save them." I wish that was an oversimplification of reality, but the reality is that to them, all Jews who are not orthodox are in danger of assimilation and can only be saved through orthodoxy--the orthodoxy provided by Aish HaTorah and its affiliates.
    A few hours ago, a good friend pointed me to Machon Cardozo's site where I found this quote:

See footnote 2.

This is definitely a legitimate criticism of ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach. While the article itself may be only calling for a change in kiruv [outreach] techniques and practices, I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with this paragraph, especially given that so many promising young people get swept off their feet by the glitz, glamour, and false promises that kiruv professionals sell. Instead of allowing people to find Judaism on their own, ultra-orthodox outreach seeks them out, investing time and money in order to mass produce more orthodox Jews. Having just watched the Project Inspire video about the urgent need to save the millions of lost Jewish souls, it hit me. There is this fabricated need to save all of these non-orthodox Jews and turn them into what Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo claims is "a religious Jewish community of artificial conformism in which independent thought and difference of opinion is not only condemned, but its absence is considered the ultimate ideal." Is this what orthodox Judaism is about? Turning young, thinking, questioning, professional-minded people into automatons? Surely, those most visible in these communities will disagree. But of course they'll disagree because they are the people who are visible to new recruits, to their parents, to their friends. And of course, those ba'alei teshuvah [newly religious, or people who weren't raised orthodox] who were able to maintain their ties with the modern world will disagree. But delve deeper, I dare you. Look beyond the outreach professionals who will promise you the world if you just take one more class, or keep one more Shabbos, or go on one more highly subsidized outreach retreat.  Look into the yeshiva classes and see what they're really teaching. Is it tolerance and equality for all Jews? Or are they mocking and belittling Jews who aren't orthodox?  Look at the parts of the community that shun the modern world, women's rights, and individuality. Look at the woman who told me, when I was orthodox, that now that I was religious, I couldn't attend Phish shows because they were no place for a bas yisroel [Jewish daughter.] Or the family who felt that it was wrong that my family attend my best friend's son's baptism. I wonder if this huge push to make people orthodox is really just masking the greater problems that exist within the orthodox communities and the real or imagined fear of the outside world at large, and then I wonder, who is it who needs to be saved?

1. qtd. from Project Inspire. "Rescue Mission--The Time is Now.
2. Cardozo, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes. "Judaism: Thinking Big (1)." Current Thought to Ponder. Machon Cardozo. posted June 27,  2013.

Judaism: Thinking Big (1) – (TTP-350)

- See more at:
Outreach programs, although well intended, have become institutions that, like factories, focus on mass production and believe that the more people they can draw into Jewish observance, the more successful they are. That their methods crush the minds of many newcomers who might have made a major contribution to a new and vigorous Judaism is of no importance to them. The goal is to fit them into the existing system. That their outdated theories make other independent minds abhor Judaism is a thought they do not seem to even entertain. To them, only numbers count. How many people did we make observant? Millions of dollars are spent to create more and more of the same type of religious Jew. Like the generation of the Tower of Babel, in which the whole world was “of one language and of one speech,” we are producing a religious Jewish community of artificial conformism in which independent thought and difference of opinion is not only condemned, but its absence is considered to be the ultimate ideal. We have created a generation of yes men. - See more at:

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Spanish Speakers, Be(a)ware!

Partners in Torah wants to know! ?Hablas espanol?

(click to enlarge)

     An email update I received today from Partners in Torah requested that Spanish speaking mentors contact them in order for them to reach Spanish-speaking non-orthodox Jews in South and Central American countries. Partners in Torah is an outreach organization with the goal of teaching orthodox Judaism to their non-orthodox "partners" who are interested in learning about Judaism. While some realize that the organization is teaching orthodoxy, not all who get involved are aware that their goal is to subtly push orthodox Judaism.
     This email mentions that Partners in Torah is partnering with JWRP--the Jewish Women's Renaissance Project, whose mission statement is "to create a movement that brings values back into the world." While the group's original eight women were a mix of orthodox and non-orthodox women, One of the JWRP's major projects is bringing women (specifically women with kids under 18 years old) on TAG (Transform and Grow) retreats to Israel. JWRP's website states:

Our flagship program, T.A.G. (Transform and Grow) Missions to Israel, offers women a special gift: a highly subsidized 9-day action packed trip to Israel. Women travel as a group, grow as a group and continue their journey back to their communities as sisters, having shared an incredible experience together.  They share a common vision of self growth and personal development to reach their potential as Jewish women, wives and mothers. To date JWRP has brought close to 2,000 women from 40 cities and 7 different countries.  In 2013 we plan to bring 1,000 more from around the world. Please note that this trip is primarily designed for women who have children at home under the age of 18.1

Based on this email, it seems that the women Partners in Torah is looking to reach are Spanish speakers who recently returned from a TAG trip to Israel. In what appears to be an effort to push these women towards greater orthodox observance, Partners in Torah is jumping in.
     While many kiruv organizations seem to work independently, they all seem to have a common goal and often unite in order to more thoroughly push their collective agenda. These groups refer people back and forth in order to keep participants on the orthodox track. While this is obvious to the average orthodox person, this is not evident to the unassuming non-orthodox person who has never heard the word "kiruv" and has no reason to believe that any of these organizations are looking to push him/her towards orthodoxy.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Partners in Intolerance, Part 2

Rabbi Meisel's response, part 1. Click to enlarge.
Part 2. Click to enlarge.
     The last post I wrote (Parters in Intolerance, Part 1,) discussed the negativity that kiruv/outreach volunteers volunteering with Partners in Torah have towards Conservative, Reform, and public schools. After eight weeks of reading responses to Rabbi Meisels initial question regarding which type of school is best for a non-orthodox Jewish student to attend, he finally gave his response this week. He writes: "I would therefore suggest that one not adopt a universal approach to the question. Instead, one should take into the particulars of the case [e.g. family, school, public school, etc.] before making a decision, and then only with the input of a recognized authority competent to evaluate such a question." While I agree that one shouldn't take a universal approach to most issues, I have trouble with the second half of his statement. In my experience as a former public school student, a parent who has sent kids to both orthodox yeshivas and public schools, and as an educator who spent many years teaching at a public high school, most parents who are involved in, and concerned about, their children's academic success take many factors into consideration when approaching the school years, and it is often a very personal decision. Expecting parents to consult a "recognized authority" before making decisions on the schooling of their children is preposterous and, to modern parents, insulting. This insinuates that non-orthodox parents are incapable of making these decisions on our own. Instead, we should contact a "recognized authority." From an orthodox perspective, this is usually one's local orthodox rabbi (or LOR, as it is often abbreviated.) Most non-orthodox parents are not about to involve a rabbi in their decision-making process on the education of their children unless specifically concerned about their kids' Jewish education. Most (non-religious Jewish and non-Jewish) parents I have met were more concerned with giving their children a well-rounded kindergarten through twelfth grade education that would enable them to get into either a trade school or college so that they would be prepared to take on the world. Most public school parents who want their kids to have religious training in the religion of their choice send their kids to after-school programs that meet their needs. Parents who feel that their needs are not being met by these after-school programs usually remove their kids from public school and send them to private schools that are religious in nature.
Part 3. Click to enlarge.
     What I have described here differs greatly from the original intent of Rabbi Meisels' originally posted question. In my explanation, the parents are making the decisions. How a family chooses to educate its children is a very personal decision. In the original question, and in last week's blog post, we can see that it's not the parents who are trying to figure out which school to send their children to, but rather, the kiruv worker/volunteer who is trying to influence the parent with whom he is working and convince him that there is a need to remove his children from public school and put them into a more Jewish environment. The original question directed towards Rabbi Meisels expressed the exasperation that the kiruv volunteer was feeling, having worked for three years with this person who still has his children in public school and seems to have no intention of changing this arrangement. The failure here is not in the parents for not pulling their kids out of public school, but in the kiruv workers and volunteers for not accepting that people have different values, different familial arrangements, and different religious preferences. Their responses (summarized in the pictures in this post, and shown in last week's post) prove that outreach from Partners in Torah isn't about the individual, but rather about pushing their own brand of orthodox values that don't take into account the reality that is today's world and the reality that is very often part of today's families. Pulling a child out of public school, or a liberal Jewish school, so they won't be exposed to "the downward spiral of western culture," assumes that we're all starting with the same values and that we all feel that we're on a downward spiral. At some point, non-orthodox Jews who are working with Partners in Torah will start to realize that it isn't a lighthearted Jewish identity that is being celebrated, but rather, an orthodox Jewish agenda that is being pushed. Pushing these beliefs to the point of trying to convince people to change their lives is counterproductive to Judaism as a larger culture and serves to alienate the very people these outreach workers are hoping to inspire.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Partners in Intolerance, Part 1

The original email to Partners in Torah from Sholom R.
(Click to enlarge.)
 Several weeks ago, Partners In Torah's "Mentor Talk" email focused on an email sent in by an orthodox chavrusa [study partner] complaining that despite working with his partner for several years, his partner has made little progress and has not made any move to pull his children from public school and enroll them at least in a local non-orthodox Jewish day school. During the weeks that followed, Rabbi Meisels posted some of the advice that other "partners" sent in about this issue. Many were very adamantly opposed to public school, believing it to be a cesspool of immorality. Many expressed the same opinion regarding Conservative and Reform schools.
     What is especially upsetting in the original
email from "Sholom R." is that he believes that he has the right to insert himself into the decision-making process regarding how his study partner and significant other have chosen to educate their children. His non-orthodox study partner's decisions on how to educate his children "frustrates" him and he writes in, asking for advice on how to "get him to reconsider his decision." Ironically, the only word that comes to mind here regarding this email is "chutzpah."
Dov's response, part one. (Click to enlarge.)
     An emailed response from "Dov" on this issue prompted several responses to his take on this situation. "Dov" feels that no Jewish child should attend a public school. He elaborates in the second email to Rabbi Meisels, showing his clear lack of tolerance to anyone and any values that are not what he would consider to be Torah values. To him "the values being inculcated in the public schools are amoral to the point of immorality." In response to children in public schools learning about LGBT families, Dov claims that "militantly atheistic values utterly inimical to those of the Torah" are being promoted. He further claims that "public libraries have become mine fields to be negotiated cautiously," not considering that many non-orthodox families support libraries, public education, and liberal social values such as equality--the same equality that open-minded Jews supported back in the 1950s when fighting alongside civil rights activists for an end to segregation.
Dov's response, part two. (Click to enlarge.)
P.A.'s response. (Click to enlarge.)
    Taking this further was a response from P.A. who claims that "while it's true that public schools are bastions of filth ... it's naive to imagine that the problem does not exist in many Conservative, Reform, and pluralistic schools." P.A. then mentions that there is a "deviant lifestyle club" in a non-public, pluralistic school in his/her hometown. While I have my doubts that any school actually has a club that is called "the deviant lifestyle club," I find it very interesting that this writer is afraid to even mention the accepted name of this club. Is P.A. perhaps afraid that by saying "LGBT," he/she might catch a bit of gay? Perhaps P.A. is concerned that something will rub off on him/her. This blatant homophobia will be carefully hidden when learning with P.A.'s partner in Torah in order to keep the relationship growing. The people writing these responses to Rabbi Meisels of Partners in Torah are the same people who are getting on the phone with you, your college-aged child, your partner, and your friend, and exposing them to an orthodox approach to Judaism.
E.M.'s response. (Click to enlarge.)
     When you read E.M.'s response, it's easy to see the disdain that this orthodox partner in Torah has for the Conservative and Reform movements. From the condescending tone of the email to the insults hurled at Conservative and Reform practice, it's not hard to tell how those doing Jewish outreach feel about non-orthodox belief and practice. If you can get past the obvious lack of respect shown for non-orthodox Judaism, take a quick look at the bottom of E.M.'s email. E.M. states that even though "those who receive a Conservative education may be a few steps ahead if they pursue Torah-true living, they are often more difficult to bring closer to a Torah-true lifestyle, for they feel they know Judaism well and need not look into it any further." That statement right there is an admission that these "Partners in Torah" are there specifically to bring people to orthodox Judaism, which is what they consider a "Torah-true lifestyle."
"Public schools are a cesspool of immorality."
(Click to enlarge.)
     Another response given, in which the writer claims to be a public school teacher, mentions that public schools are "a cesspool of immorality and educate the children to believe that there are no absolute values, it's okay to "do your own thing," and all forms of self-expression are okay." He/she further states that, as a preschool teacher, "we are already expected to depict alternate lifestyles to the children and pretend they're legitimate alternatives." The writer continues to state that public school is "not the place for a Jewish neshama [soul.]" Having spent many years as a public school teacher, I find this to be both offensive and inaccurate. First of all, families come in all forms. Teaching children that some kids come from single parent households, some from homes with a mother and a father, some from homes with two fathers, some from a home with extended family, and some from homes with two mothers, should really be a non-issue. Secondly, some of these kids may even be Jewish. And it's even possible that the mom of the second grader to whom you're teaching the Hebrew alphabet is going to get off the phone with you and have a cup of tea with her wife before they go to sleep--together. This is reality. Nobody is pushing the writer of this email to have a same-sex relationship. The writer also shows his/her ignorance by assuming that people choose who they are attracted to. His/her very concern that Jews don't belong in schools where this is taught implies that perhaps they will be negatively influenced. Does the writer think that by teaching that what used to be considered a non-traditional family is finally acceptable, that kids will suddenly decide that they must marry someone of the same gender? Is this simply mass homophobia disguised as a justified concern for other Jews?
Response from a ba'al teshuva.
(Click to enlarge.)
     Finally, an email was sent to Rabbi Meisels from a ba'al teshuva (one who became religious later in life) who, I'm pleased to say, actually gave a response not based on intolerance, homophobia, and fear. The writer stayed on-topic and addressed the issue. This married couple asked several people for their responses and gave a summary of their answers, feeling that sending kids to Jewish (but non-orthodox) schools was good in that it laid a framework if they ever did become religious and that it also helped to prevent intermarriage.
     At this point in time, Rabbi Meisels has yet to give his own response to the question, and when that is sent in the weekly email, I will post it.
     It sickens me that Partners in Torah, might actually put mentors in place who omit information and are dishonest about their intentions and true beliefs. The word "partner" implies some sense of unity, sharing, and honesty. The orthodox side of this partnership has no problem sharing amongst each other their blatant intolerance for anything not orthodox. At what point in this Torah education partnership will they honestly share their true feelings for the beliefs and practices of those Jews who are not orthodox? And if they won't, what kind of partnership is this?
(image from
(You can read Part 2 here.)