Saturday, August 31, 2013

Honesty: The Best Policy

     It was recently brought to my attention that this blog, Jewish Outreach: What Your Rabbi Isn't Telling You, is being discussed on Imamother,  a rather busy and diverse forum for orthodox women.  Imamother community users range from liberal Modern Orthodox to Far Right Charedi and everything in between, both Litvish and Hasidic, who come from a broad range of nationalities, and fall into a wide spectrum of ethnic identities. When I heard that my blog was reaching this group, I was both happy and concerned, unsure of how the views of this blog would be received. Given the extreme nature of the blog address ("stopkiruvnow" doesn't really make for easy alliances I've been told,) I was surprised to see that people even bothered to read any of the posts at all.
     But you know what I found?
     I found an intelligent, honest, four page discussion in response to my post "Aish HaTorah and Multilevel Marketing Scams." Many women, presumably of the orthodox world, agreed that kiruv is not always done responsibly. A few felt that it isn't right to try to make people religious, and someone stated that kiruv should not be done at all. Some felt that with so many other religions and cults existing, that Jewish outreach is doing what has to be done, e.g. using marketing tactics such as slick advertising, etc., in order to draw people in. One commenter expressed that
The reason the comparison [to multilevel marketing] is apt is because the MLM marketing hides the negative aspects of the product, and kiruv does also. You only find those out yourself after you have already paid the price. Then you resent the seller. I would have appreciated more honesty and transparency [in kiruv.]1
 She then listed some of the issues that are often withheld from those venturing into orthodoxy. What surprised me most was that there are people within the orthodox world who agree that dishonest and deceptive kiruv practices have to change.
     Blogger Shilton HaSechel posted his own rant against kiruv back in 2010 in which he stated:
Talking about manipulation, Kiruv Organizations should not be using marketing strategies. Sure if you're selling a vacuum it's bad marketing to mention that it's gonna die a day or so after the warranty - but this is something worse than a vacuum these are PEOPLE's lives. What do I mean by marketing strategy? Well, if a a non-frum girl goes and ask an Aish Hatorah guy what the status of woman is in Judaism he's not gonna whip out those delightfully backwards Gemarot which say tons of sexist things. Nope! Not even going to mention that a woman is considered in the Gemara too "crafty" to learn Torah, and too unreliable to be a witness. Kiruv Organizations sugar coat all the rough bits of Judaism and shelter their adherents from them until waaaay too late. THAT is pure manipulation - taking advantage of someone's ignorance about Judaism in order to only present the "fun" bits.

Be honest! I want every Kiruv Organization to be HONEST. If someones ask the Rabbi "Hey Rabbi what does the Gemara say about non-Jews" I want the Rabbi to say first "It thinks they're a bunch of donkeys with the emissions of horses" and only THEN make the excuses. I want the Rabbi to read all the demonology bits and read some choice Biblical passages about stoning and genocide. Go ahead! Present all the nice bits too BUT make sure to honestly present the good and the bad EQUALLY. If you lose "souls" 'cuz of you're brutal honesty then at least you know you're not lying to people. 2
Early on in his post, he feels the need to impress upon his readers that he is not against orthodoxy. I feel the same way, but unfortunately what seems to be the norm is the idea that if a person looks at aspects of Judaism or orthodoxy critically, that he/she is anti-Semitic, a self-hating Jew, or anti-Orthodox. While I cannot speak for everyone, I can speak for myself. I don't "hate" orthodoxy, nor do I hate Jews, and I actually kind of like myself. It's the deception that is used--not all of the time, and not by everyone--to pull people into a lifestyle that they otherwise might not have chosen on their own, that I find problematic. I've read forums in which comments were made that sharing the negative aspects of orthodoxy might turn people off to becoming more religious. I believe that more damage is being done in the long run by withholding information.
     Back in 2009, orthodox guest poster Chabakuk Elisha posted his perspective on kiruv from the world of Chabad, on the blog "A Simple Jew" in an article entitled "Kiruv vs. Soul Mongering." He begins with a few excellent questions.
Let me start by asking if kiruv can be considered humane, ethical, moral, healthy or good? Is it even mentchlach [humane] to try to convince people to reject their families, backgrounds, friends, perhaps wives and children, and completely change their lives to join a community that in all likelihood they will always struggle to be a part of? Is that even fair? Is that really good for the individual prospective Baal Teshuva?3
While Chabakuk Elisha ultimately believes that Chabad does better outreach (as a whole entity) than other groups, he is honest in stating that there are problems. These problems often stem from the perception of those within kiruv. He states:
I think sometimes people forget that the potential mekurav [recruit] is a real person. He/she has a life, family, background, etc. They were raised a certain way and have certain responsibilities. They love and are loved. And all those things are important and need to be considered carefully – I can’t reconcile carelessly ripping people away from all of that and turning them into virtual orphans superimposed onto a society that’s often quite foreign, and sometimes remains foreign forever. How can we do that to people?4
     This goes back to previous posts on this blog where I've pointed out that even orthodox blogs, such as Beyond BT, have discussed at length that people who became orthodox from non-orthodox backgrounds often find that the world that they joined was very different from the world that they were sold. And while some of this may have had to do with the community that BTs ended up joining, solving the problems by moving to other possibly more open or welcoming communities is not always an answer. This goes back to the idea of deception. Why not be upfront about the problems before they become problems, so that people who truly want to become orthodox can successfully preempt them, and so that people who may have second thoughts can follow a different path before they get locked into a lifestyle that may not suit them? The writer continues:
 I find it to be very troubling for some guy with nothing to lose to tell anyone to turn their life upside down, in every way, and to heck with the consequences ....  But it seems to me that some of my frum brethren find this unacceptable .... they feel that [a] family [interested in, for example, observing some aspect of Shabbat--the Sabbath,] must suddenly go all the way or none of the way .... To some, kiruv is along the lines of other missionary groups that are seeking to save your soul – they aren’t interested in any single act or progression – they are looking to only to for complete and total transformation to their lifestyle. 5
     What's important to note in all of these cases is that criticism and discussion of kiruv's problems is not relegated to a small subset of disgruntled former baalei teshuva who've since left orthodoxy. When people make that assumption, it's just another excuse to sweep real problems under the proverbial carpet instead of looking critically at issues that affect all who are in some way touched by Jewish outreach.

1. "Marina." posted at August 26, 2013, 10:13AM in "Kiruv = Multi-Level Marketing," on August  Imamother. August 25, 2013.
2.HaSechel, Shilton. My Rant Against Kiruv Organizations. Shilton HaSechel. September 7, 2010.
3. Chabakuk Elisha. Kiruv vs. Soul Mongering. A Simple Jew. March 5, 2009.
4. ibid.

5. ibid.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Shedding Light on Meor

This post is dedicated to my good friend, A.C.

      In researching campus kiruv/outreach a while back, I stumbled upon this letter on a site named "Parents of Meor Kids" and realized that I needed to look more into Meor.
Parents of Meor Kids. (click to enlarge)
Meor is one of many Jewish campus outreach organizations. They run the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship program, in addition to sponsoring highly subsidized trips abroad to destinations in both Europe and Israel. According to one of their many websites, Meor was "founded in the late-1990s at the University of Michigan [and] the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship has since spread to 35 campuses throughout North America and Israel. The program, spanning a college semester, engages students with the texts and concepts of their Jewish heritage in a mature and sophisticated manner."1

Trips and retreats are a premier attraction for many of the mitnagdic outreach groups. That’s how the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship program got started. The MLF is an offshoot of the University Heritage Society, which runs “Heritage Retreats” of a week or longer at California ranches.
The MLF also invites student applicants to participate in a semester-long program of Orthodox education and immersion, with a cash stipend as incentive. Students meet every week for classes in Jewish leadership and literacy, and for breakout discussion groups focusing on such issues as “dealing with relationships with family, with girlfriends,” according to the program’s founder, Rabbi Mordechai Kreitenberg. The students also spend weekends in Orthodox communities as part of the program.
The MLF’s Web site, where students can apply, shows no indications of the program’s Orthodox foundation. Indeed, it serves a population that is almost entirely non-Orthodox on entrance. But that isn’t to say that these students aren’t Orthodox when they leave the program. The MLF maintains statistics based on student surveys, in which 77.4% of last year’s graduates said they have taken or have plans to take “steps to increase your personal observance,” and 38% “attended programs in Israel or the United States that allowed them to further explore their Judaism,” such as those provided by Aish HaTorah.2
(Aish HaTorah is one of the largest outreach/kiruv centers currently in existence. Not only do their programs turn out ba'al teshuvas (newly religious people,) they also turn out kiruv rabbis--rabbis specially trained to recruit people into an orthodox lifestyle. Aish HaTorah's Beis Medrash Program's webpage proclaims that "our programs have produced hundreds of dedicated, qualified leaders, serving in positions throughout the world in kiruv, rabbinics, and other important Jewish leadership roles, as well as proud "rank and file" Jews to whom commitment to Jews and Judaism is uppermost in their lives."3)
     Meor's websites are beautifully made and filled with information, even going as far as to create several in-depth FAQ pages. So prepared is Meor for the inevitable questions from parents that they even provide a FAQ page specifically made in order to allay parents' concerns. Strangely, one of the questions they answer is this:

Does MEOR pressure students to become more observant?

No.  MEOR’s approach is to explain the “why” of Jewish traditions and practices, encouraging students to ask questions and think for themselves.  For example, students interested in social justice discover the foundational concepts in Jewish philosophy, ethics, Torah and tradition that are relevant to tikkun olam. Students who want to learn more about why someone might choose to keep kosher have the opportunity to explore the meaning of kashrut and issues relevant to contemporary life.4

Apparently, this must be a concern of parents if the organization feels the need to put it on their FAQ page. But what really makes me uncomfortable is this ad.

Ad for Maimonides Leaders Fellowship from the Meor at Emory site.
(click to enlarge)

Additional Requirement for Meor's Maimonides Fellowship.
(click to enlarge)

Meor offers students the opportunity to get paid to take their course OR to put their $300 towards an already subsidized Meor trip to Israel. They mention this on their Parent FAQ page as well: 

Why do the students receive a stipend? Are they being “paid” to study?

In today’s world of escalating college costs and financial pressures on families, MEOR recognizes that the time students are committing to the program is significant, valuable and not eligible for academic credit.  Thanks to the support of generous donors, we provide a small stipend to students who complete the Maimonides program.  Some students apply this stipend toward a MEOR-sponsored trip to Israel.5
How can they guarantee that there will be "an observant Jewish wedding" for their participants to attend?
(click to enlarge)

While it sounds very nice that they're looking out for finances, knowing that Meor is a kiruv organization makes this seem less than an innocent stipend. College kids are always looking for extra cash and this is a huge draw. One night a week for two hours (on top of a full course load, possibly a part-time job, certainly some sort of a social life...) should be fine, right? Two community shabbatons? Sure, great deal! A wedding? A cool dinner? Free food? Awesome! Meor at George Washington University in DC also gives some information about their program's requirements, and puts pressure on students to show up to all that is listed, otherwise they don't receive the full stipend. However, I have some questions.
  1.  If Meor didn't offer a stipend, would they have trouble drawing an audience for their program? And if that's so, then why not better the program so that it can stand on its own, rather than attracting people with promises of cash? A truly outstanding program should be able to attract people on its own merit and not need cash incentives, right?
  2. If these Meor programs are being billed as, for example "Meor at Emory," and their websites show the University name, then why are these universities not giving course credit? Or is Meor not really affiliated with any of these schools, and just happens to be on or near these campuses? By using the names of the universities on their websites, are they just really trying to earn your trust? Hey, if it has my school's name, it can't be bad, right? But is Meor really endorsed by any of these schools? (I'll give you a hint: I called U. Penn to ask about Meor this past spring semester and the best they could do was direct me to Hillel, because they knew Hillel was also a Jewish organization. Otherwise, the Registrar knew nothing about the Maimonides Program, and nothing about Meor. Meanwhile, I was sure, based on their website, that Meor was affiliated or endorsed by the university.)
  3. Who are these generous donors who are giving money to Meor? And why are they doing so? What is their goal?
  4. Based on Meor at GW University's statement, I'd like to know how Meor can guarantee that there will be an "observant Jewish wedding" for the students to attend. Is this program arranging weddings of former participants in order to facilitate this requirement? Are they working with kosher catering halls?
  5. Let's say a student really wants that $300 stipend. Maybe they want the cash. Or maybe they want to use the money to go on a Meor trip. If a student starts to do poorly in his/her university courses, but is spending a lot of time with Meor, how does the Meor staff handle this? Do they discourage the student from staying with Meor? Do they have a minimum GPA that must be maintained in order to remain part of Meor? Or is it a matter of once you're in, you're in, and you won't be turned away?
  6. Two hours a week isn't too bad. But what additional time constraints are really being put on students? How much time is actually being spent at Meor? Or is it two hours and that's it, they toss you out until the following week? For some reason, I don't think that two hours covers any more than the actual course time.

     I've had the honor of attending speeches given by President Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama.  I've sat through many classes given by prominent and not-so-prominent rabbis. And I've completed both a BFA and an MA, and had professors and advisors who were really fabulous. All of these people--teachers, religious leaders, political leaders--were intriguing. Their words made me think. And as a teacher, I know that a good discussion makes students think, question, and want to learn more. So, when I read this quote, supposedly from a student, on the Meor at Washington D.C.'s website, I was a bit concerned: 
There are few times in my life where I’ve been so enthralled in someone speaking that I literally feel paralyzed in both thought and motion.” SS GWU ’13"6 
See, because as a parent and an educator, when a student is enthralled to the point of physical and mental paralysis, I have to wonder. Does this mean that this student was so fascinated that his/her mind just stopped ... working critically? The use of the word "literally" makes me wonder if this is a cry for help. ("Help! I cannot move or think--literally--really--you've got to help!") Yes, I'm being a stickler for word choice here, and I'd do the same to my students or my own children if they wrote this line. And it makes me wonder if Meor thought about this statement before putting it on their site, and it makes me wonder about what was really going on in that student's subconscious when choosing those words.  
     While Meor's numerous sites give a lot of positive information on the work they do, it is necessary to look critically at Meor and all campus kiruv organizations and not allow our own critical thinking skills to become "paralyzed" in the face of ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach. 

1. Meor @ Emory University accessed August 8, 2013.
2. Weiss, Steven I., Orthodox Rethinking Campus Outreach. The Jewish Daily Forward. January 20, 2006. Issue of Jan. 20, 2006.
3. Aish HaTorah. Aish International. accessed August 17, 2013.
4. Parent FAQ page. Meor. accessed August 17, 2013.
5. Ibid.
6.  S.S. George Washington University. Meor Washington DC. accessed August 17, 2013.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

How About the Easy Gift of Respect?

Click to enlarge. Project Inspire (affiliated with Aish HaTorah) is
selling outreach gifts for the "less-affiliated."
     Yes, you know the drill. Same problem as usual: the use of the phrase "less-affiliated." I have mentioned this in several other posts about Project Inspire's holiday outreach campaigns. Read them here, here, and here. (I discuss this in other posts as well, feel free to search this blog using the search feature.)
     While I find terms that appear to pass judgement on anyone's affiliation abhorrent, I was thinking about something else when I read this advertisement. This ad, like many of Project Inspire's other ads,  subconsciously serves to drive a wedge into Jewish culture as a whole, dividing us, in the words of Pink Floyd, into "us and them." This further serves to widen the gap between people who profess a desire to bring non-orthodox Jews to orthodoxy but then once they become orthodox, inevitably treat them and their children as second-class citizens.
     Furthermore, while it is very nice to give people gifts, such gift-giving can be perceived as awkward and even inappropriate in certain settings. Certain questions crop up when gifts from "acquaintances" are received: Why am I receiving this? Do I give a gift in return? Do I now owe this person something? What are the motives behind this gift? If this is a person at work, are there now concerns about job status, favoritism, and the disrupting the delicate social balance that needs to be maintained in the workplace?
     This isn't to say that there's anything wrong with a well-intentioned gift from the heart. And I'm thrilled to say that my own mom bakes honey cake and gives me one every year, but I know that there is genuine love in that gift, in addition to what has always been unconditional acceptance, even when she disagrees with choices I've made. I'm lucky to have a wonderful and diverse set of friends who are similar in that regard: we all accept each other, warts and all, without feeling the need to change each other. Such a gift from any of these people would never be second-guessed.
     I'm not sure if I've previously mentioned this, but a justification I've often heard for kiruv, not from Project Inspire, but from Chabad, was that the Jewish people should be considered like a body, and if one part of the body is hurting, the whole body works together to heal; we don't just cut people off. I think that we need to take this analogy of the Jewish people--and all people, really,--much further. Like a body, there are many different parts, and each part has its own unique qualities that make each part important. We cannot all be the spleen, nor can we all be the esophagus. We cannot all clone each other and be the left pinky toe. In order to be a whole and healthy society, we need to accept that we're not all exactly alike and weren't meant to be copies of each other, and honestly, not everyone is going to become (or wants to become) orthodox. Instead, we should respect each others' differences and see the good we all bring to our diverse communities, rather than focus on an imaginary scale of affiliation.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Welcome to Kiruv City. Speed Limit: Faster! Faster!

In Defense of the Bitter Ex-BT Blogs
A Guest Post by DK

This essay was originally posted on The Kvetcher blog in January 2007. At the time, the new power and challenge of the Internet generally and blogs specifically were being reckoned with by the haredi world in an intense way.  This article was posted in response to "The Dilemma of the Talented ex-BTs,” by Ron Coleman on the baal teshuvah [newly ultra-Orthodox] support site, Beyond BT. His piece dealt with the problems of ex-baal teshuvah bloggers specifically to the kiruv [“outreach”] movement and beyond.  “In Defense of the Bitter Ex-BT Blogs “ was my defense of this specific subset of ex-baal teshuvah writers. The Kvetcher blog is currently locked.
The focus of this essay was restricted to defending the newly ultra-Orthodox bloggers who took it upon themselves to warn others about what they witnessed,  and critique the institutions and attitudes they experienced. This repost was inspired by Brielle Levy and others who seem unwilling to recognize entry problems cause by Big Kiruv.  But it is dedicated to all who have spoken out despite their shame and fear, willing to suffer ridicule and condemnation in order to warn others of the cost and realities of joining an ultra-Orthodox enclave.

Ron Coleman is a black hat fellow, as he has revealed in comments on this blog as well as elsewhere.  Naturally, he is not very happy with what the "bitter ex-BT bloggers" are writing about the haredi BT world.
Because ultimately my rather mundane point, of course, is that it is a special bitterness -- I cannot say wickedness; we all are tinokos shenishbu (compared to "captured children") -- that makes a talented former BT, man or woman, do this. They do not just walk away from what they think is a car wreck of a spiritual journey but flag everyone else tooling happily along the road and swear that the bridge is out, there are monsters waiting on the next exit and that it was actually much better where they were coming from and you can't U-turn fast enough to get back there.
 And he asks, "What motivates them?"

Coleman offers that, "My armchair psychology tells me that they would rather believe the journey is an eight-lane disaster than consider whether they themselves forgot to check the oil under their own hoods before setting out."

Well, Ron is assuming that none of us take any ownership for our actions. In fact, many of us do, and frequently do not forgive ourselves for doing so.

The newly religious are "encouraged to
drive quite fast and reckless."
In the haredi BT world, you are frequently discouraged from checking under the hood. All too often, you are sent to the races, and encouraged to drive quite fast and reckless. And sometimes--go figure--you end up in a few fender benders, and get dizzy, and feel like you are going nowhere except in circles. Then when you announce you don't like this race anymore, people start changing. No one in the racetrack wants to help you, especially the referees on the side wearing the black and white outfits of authority. Instead they yell at you you for riding off the racetrack. If you're lucky,--very lucky--someone might secretly whisper in your ear that it's okay if you stop racing like you have been. But almost everyone at the racetrack just tries to get you to race some more. And then things get ugly. Because you want to reclaim your car, and some people don't approve of changing tires, new brakes, or adding gas. Definitely not adding gas.
So you go outside, and you stay kinda quiet. And you don't tell people about your racing days. Only a couple of people know. But then you see that they are opening more racetracks, and adding bleachers to the old ones, always recruiting new racers. And you see that the referees were the same ones who were there when you used to race, and are making the tracks even more dangerous in accordance with management's new rules for still better racing.
And you feel a sense of solidarity for the new racers, especially the young ones.  You want to tell them what you know about racing. And make sure they do check the oil, and make sure they don't drive too fast, that they get enough gas, and quite frankly, not to trust that the referees are on their side. Because they are not. They are simply there first and foremost to make people race as fast as they can make them, in accordance with management's wishes.

So you announce you have some questions; you have some concerns. But you are told that you have to go to customer service if you have a complaint. But they don't want to listen; they just want you to shut up. They even tell you that they will only listen to your complaint if you ask very, very nicely and politely, and don't say anything bad about the racetrack. And you see the customer service manager through the window, and it turns out, the manager is the same referee you have a problem with, or at least, is related to him.

But one day, outside the racetrack, they invent a bullhorn. And you pick it up, and stand outside the racetrack. And you start protesting the treatment of the racers, and the insanity of the racetrack.  And some people hear you, and they start listening. And you find other protesters of the racetrack, other former racetrack racers. Sometimes you stand together, sometimes you stand alone. But because you are saying bad things about the referees and even criticizing the racetrack itself, you are all declared haters of racing.  Even though some of you privately still race on your own terms, though not at a racetrack, and yeah, some of you indeed don't race all that much anymore.
But it isn't racing itself you are really against. It's the referees and the specific demands they make, as well as concern of what is expected and demanded of the racers, who seem less of a priority than the race itself, and whose individual needs and limits are casually and assiduously brushed aside, even delegitimized.

But my goal--and I believe frequently the goal of other former racers like me--is not really to stop the racers from racing, though admittedly, that isn't my concern. My concern is the racer. Because the owner of the racetrack does not speak directly, and I don't believe that the managers report to him as directly as they claim. For if they did, the racers would be surely be treated differently, and the race a different experience altogether.

If the referees and managers cannot dispute our charges but neither can they change the house rules of the race, but can only call the protesters "racer haters," then their racetracks are simply not to be considered appropriate for most new racers, particularly the youngest racers.
There are other racetracks, slower ones with wider lanes and service roads.  These must be utilized instead, or built from scratch. I don't claim to have the perfect balance. I don't claim to have all the answers. But I do have the questions.
And if the recruits don't know how to ask them, and their parents don't understand the real questions either, and the FFBs certainly have no interest in raising them on their behalf, and even the best and seasoned BTs are only willing to hint at the crucial questions lest they draw a yellow flag (it isn't hard to do), then who will ask them if we don't? Who, Ron?

DK is a blogger at

Ed. Note: This post was reposted with all of the original links intact.