Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Is Oorah's Girl Zone Camp Ethical?

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Previously I posted a letter sent around to orthodox college students, inviting them to engage in kiruv programs with non-orthodox students. The idea was to create friendships for the sole purpose of outreach. The letter in this post is from Oorah's Girl Zone Camp, which is specifically a kiruv/outreach camp, explains the requirements of prospective counselors who are required to do the same.
     The letter itself, sent to those looking to work at the camp, is very honest about the organization's goals, stating that "
Since the 1970’s, Horav Chaim Mintz,shlit”a, has been reaching out to our uninformed brethren to share with them our rich heritage of which they were previously unaware. Horav Chaim encompassed the total kiruv spectrum; making contact, inspiring, encouraging parents to send their children to Jewish schools, funding when necessary, educating parents, being their connection to frumkeit, supplying them with Yom Tov needs, and most importantly, giving them full moral, social, and spiritual support for the journey towards a Torah way of life"(page 1.) The goal of this camp is to groom children (not college students) for an orthodox lifestyle and the letter even states that the Oorah had grown immensely: "Horav Chaim is still the inspiration and guide, but now he is assisted by hundreds of others who reach out, stay in contact and help fund this massive kiruv initiative"(page 1.) Again, this letter does not go to the parents of non-orthodox children.
     On page two, we read that "[Oorah] want[s] our campers to experience Yiddishkeit and a Torah way of life during their stay at GirlZone that will inspire them and show them that a life of Torah and Mitzvos can include all the things every girl likes to do"(page 2.) That's wonderful news! You can be orthodox and still go to summer camp, but when the counselors and staff are following up throughout the year with these kids, and they find out that "Caitlin" is on the co-ed soccer team and singing in her school's mixed chorus for the Winter Choral Presentation, are they supportive of this? (I honestly wonder about this.) I also know that the activities that are done at an all-girls orthodox summer camp are very different from what is often done in orthodox communities of mixed genders. But that's another argument and off-topic.
     This paragraph, also on page two, makes me very uncomfortable:
The relationship between staff and campers just starts in camp. Our summer program is only a jump-off point for our year-round Kesher program. Each staff member in GirlZone is assigned a Kesher partner with whom she will be expected to maintain weekly contact throughout the year. We keep their kesher to Yiddishkeit and the GirlZone spirit alive throughout the year with Chol Hamoed trips, Shabbatons, parties and other get-togethers. GirlZone staff members participate and help run these events(page 2.)
After summer camp, it's natural to keep in contact with your counselors and friends if you so choose. But in this case, those employed by the camp are told that they must have a kesher (a connection) with a child that is maintained after the camp ends. They are assigned a kid to continue to influence on a weekly basis throughout the year. This kesher doesn't sound very kosher to me. It sounds very contrived. Even if it ultimately feels natural and a true friendship develops, the basis of this friendship is to bring these children (not college students) "towards a Torah way of life"(page 1.) Here is what is meant by the term kesher.
Kesher- Each staff member is assigned with one or two campers with whom she will develop a kesher. This includes a daily session of learning/schmoozing with each other during camp, a weekly phone call throughout the year, joining her at the various get-togethers throughout the year, whenever possible, (such as chol hamoed trips, shabbatons, birthday parties etc.), and keeping a specific interest in the welfare and growth of that particular girl(page 3.)
That sounds ridiculously involved for a camp counselor once summer camp has ended. Why all of this involvement? Because this is a kiruv camp, meant to bring young non-orthodox students to orthodoxy. This camp is heavily subsidized so that parents who want to send their kids to camp, or even specifically a Jewish camp, can afford to do so. The question is, how many realize what this camp's motivation really is?
     Page four offers this statement: 
You will develop a close kesher with a camper and become her guide, mentor, support and source of advice and encouragement in an effort to prod her along the path to a Torah way of life. You will become a proud member of the Oorah organization, an integral link in the chain of full spectrum kiruv work. You can gain from the warmth and guidance of Horav Chaim Mintz, shlit”a, and Rabbi Avi Davidowtiz, shlit”a, and others who are masters in kiruv and mentors to developing yiddishe neshamos(page 4.)
     Oorah is training its counselors for kiruv work. They're practicing and perfecting their techniques at summer camp on unsuspecting non-orthodox kids. In the comments' section of this blog, it has often been debated whether college students are fully adults or even if they have the experience and knowledge needed to make informed choices in dealing with kiruv, deceptive or otherwise. In this case, we have children who certainly don't have the experience or knowledge, and who generally accept what adults tell them. The question I ask is whether or not this is ethical. Do parents fully understand the point of this camp? Or are they lured in by the fact that it's Jewish, beautiful, and affordable, not realizing that there is another motivating factor behind this camp's existence?

Update: It has since been brought to my attention that Oorah uses different terminology and this may not be their most recent letter to counselors--making a kesher is really making a Torahmate. Regardless of the cute wording, the point is still the same.

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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Recruiting "Friends" Just for You!

     A university student received the following email from a frum (orthodox) student and passed it on to me. (I have removed any identifying information.) Basically, the outreach rabbi on campus is holding a Shabbos event, and wants to get orthodox students and families involved to take these non-orthodox students under their wings for the purpose of outreach. Notice how the student sending the email describes the rabbi as "the kiruv
Rabbi at University of XXX." That is the function of this rabbi and the reason why he is on this campus. As stated within the body of the letter, these kiruv volunteers will "create relationships" from this "amazing kiruv opportunity." And you thought they genuinely wanted to be your friend! The sad truth is that this whole experience is contrived.

Hi everyone,
For those that don't know Rabbi XXX  is the kiruv Rabbi at University of XXX. He is arranging a Shabbaton on XX/XX/2013, for the secular Jewish students that come to his classes. He is having around 25 students come into the  XXXX area for the Shabbos. I am working with him to have the religious students together with any wives/husbands come and join them for the Shabbaton. This is an amazing kiruv opportunity to create relationships with the other students that will hopefully last throughout your time in college and beyond.
We are in the planning stages right now and in order to plan accordingly we need to know who would be able to join us and for which meals. Please email me if you can come for Friday night and Shalosh Seuodos meals if its free, if it costs a nominal fee or if you can only make it for one of the 2 meals. For anyone not in the XXXX area we can try to find hosts for you if needed.
If you notice any frum jews I missed in this email list feel free to forward them this email or to let me know.
Please try to respond asap so we can plan accordingly.

Thank you,
Looking forward to spending a Shabbos together,

     This is the other side of the story. Sure, people who get involved as volunteers in kiruv genuinely believe they're doing a good thing and believe that they're influencing their guests in a positive way. But so do cultists, and missionaries, and the salespeople who give out free dinners in order to get you to buy a timeshare in Florida. None of them are making the invitation because they think you'll make a great friend. They simply think you'll make a great recruit.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Pre-Halloween Kiruv Zombie Apocalypse

Don't judge zombies by zombies.
     I can count on many hands the number of people who, at some time or another, in an attempt at kiruv, have said to me "don't judge Judaism by Jews." Usually this response comes in the course of a conversation in which we're discussing why I, after joining the world of orthodoxy, decided to go back to my secular life. There are many, many reasons why I left, but as soon as I mention topics like the lack of acceptance of BTs (baal teshuvas/the newly religious) or the bad behavior that runs rampant in many communities (speaking badly about non-Jews, non-whites, non-orthodox, people in other sects of both orthodox and non-orthodox Judaism, sexual abuse, emotional blackmail, agunot--women whose husbands won't grant them a Jewish divorce, sexism, hypocrisy, etc.,) the line that is delivered, as if on cue, is always "don't judge Judaism by Jews." (Strangely, this statement may be one of the few things that most kiruv professionals have in common.) While I do agree that groups should not be judged by the actions of some of their members, after hearing about so many negative stories, it's understandable (not justifiable) how people might end up doing just that.
     Let's take pop-culture's appropriation of zombies for example. In films, cartoons, comics, and literature, we read about people rising from the dead and often following the direction of a sorcerer or head zombie. They feast usually on the flesh or brains of the unsuspecting. Most would-be victims see a zombie and run, hide, and/or try to protect others from certain death. Now, imagine if there was this one zombie who said to people "hey guys, this is wrong. You can't judge all zombies based on these experiences. Don't judge zombies by zombies." Would people stop running and hiding? Would they suddenly start thinking that the zombies coming towards them are just looking for friendship? It sounds like a ridiculous argument because we accept that zombies don't really exist, but, as with anyone, if we grow accustomed to bad behaviors, we often become conditioned to expect those behaviors. Such conditioning often leads to distrust and fear on one hand, and an unwillingness to overlook the bad, in order to see any good that does exist.
     So, if we're not judging Judaism by Jews, then how are we judging it? Let's go back to our zombie analogy. So, let's say you were a zombie and you left zombie culture to become a non-zombie. "Well," a member of the zombie community says to you, "you should come back. Don't judge all of us because some of us eat brains, have a lack of communication skills, (we're conversing right now, are we not?) have pale gray skin with unhealed wounds, and a one track mind." The zombie pauses while you process. "I actually used to be a film student/singer/photographer/physicist/surfer before becoming a zombie. I don't eat brains. In fact, I'm a vegan. I'm not like the other zombies. And I know many others who aren't like those other unscrupulous zombies out there." Of course, that doesn't mean that one should drop his/her whole life and become  zombie for the first time, or even go back to being a zombie if one was previously a zombie. A good idea would be to take an independent look at zombie culture and do my own research. Should I let my new very unzombie-like friend try to convince me that his zombie'ism is really not like that of the other zombie'ism that I may have experienced?
     Now, not every zombie is going to be like the ones you meet on the street in the dead of the night. And that's fine. There are a great many wonderful zombies out there. But the thing is this: just because this nice guy is a zombie and thinks it's fabulous, doesn't mean that you should change your whole life to become a zombie. Just because he's having a great time, and he's happy and it works for him, doesn't mean that you should quit your degree program and walk around with your arms outstretched, scaring the life out of people. You can have a great time at his house eating that vegan dinner but you don't have to become him. Just because he doesn't think you should judge all zombies because of the actions of some zombies, is still not a justification for adopting his lifestyle. "We don't all eat brains. Why don't you be a zombie who doesn't eat brains, like me?"
     Not everybody wants to be a zombie. It would be great if kiruv professionals would realize that, just like becoming a zombie, not everyone is looking to become orthodox, either.