Don’t get me wrong. I think they all actually would like to see me start wearing a black suit and white shirt. These sort of programs don’t just exist as a way to teach a little Torah and get us to be more accepting of their lifestyle—that is a goal, but there is a further agenda too. Torah Links is a kiruv organization, meaning they are Orthodox outreach, and their goal is to “convert” people into Baalei Teshuvot, secular Jews who have “returned” and become more religious.3Gutbezahl advises people attending such kiruv/outreach programs to go in with a healthy level of self-confidence. He wisely tells us that "if you go in with no confidence in the way you live your life, convinced that your beliefs and your Judaism is wrong or inferior to theirs, guess what? You’ll likely suck up everything they say, leaving no room for your ability to think a bit for yourself."4 Sadly, in some programs, mentors will often stick negative quips about other forms of Judaism into their lectures, so participants who are already unsure of their Judaism may fall prey to their own lack of confidence in their own belief systems. While I completely agree with Gutbezahl's advice, I can easily see how those with minimal exposure to a Jewish life can fall victim to ultra-orthodox outreach. If kiruv professionals undermine the way prospective recruits were raised (whether they were raised as secular, cultural, Atheist, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Humanist, etc.,) and those recruits aren't too sure about their own beliefs for whatever reason, they become an easy, or easier, target than those who are already sure of their beliefs or lack thereof.
Readers are also advised to "think with your brain, not your stomach."5 This is invaluable advice. I remember going to someone's home for a Shabbat meal when I was in college and remarking that the chicken was delicious. I was told that it was good because it was on a higher spiritual plane due to it being kosher. That's not why it's good, folks. It's good because it's been soaked and salted. Anyone can brine a chicken. It has nothing to do with elevated spirituality.
David Gutbezahl reminds us to "remember while you’re having fun, or after really, that half the fun and half of what you’re seeing is partly just show meant to get you to want to adopt this lifestyle."6 This is the most important thing that non-orthodox participants in outreach programs need to really internalize. Families that may seem perfect while you're a guest in their homes may be wonderful people and may really love their lifestyle, but that doesn't mean their life is perfect, or that they aren't struggling in some way, or that they walk around blissed out on regular day when they have no guests. Adopting an ultra-orthodox life doesn't suddenly absolve people of their problems, just as being secular, or Christian, or Buddhist (you see where I'm going here?) doesn't suddenly absolve people of their problems.
While Gutbezahl tells us that he can see himself being more observant (but not orthodox) after taking part in the Lakewood Fellowships, it seems that this outcome wasn't a direct result of this program. He appears to be someone who has been Jewishly inspired throughout his life, and was looking to find another learning opportunity. I believe that his advice to those interested in these programs is sound. Gutbezahl was already aware of the purpose of outreach programs and this awareness enabled him to go in with an open mind, as well as a clear strategy for walking away with only what he wanted to gain from the Lakewood Fellowship. For people in his shoes with his wisdom, these programs can serve to enhance one's life. It's those lacking this awareness, and lacking the self-confidence that David Gutbezahl writes about, who may end up having their lives changed in ways they weren't necessarily expecting.
1. Gutbezahl, David. "Eat the Food Without Drinking the Kool-Aid: How to Get the Most Out of Orthodox Outreach Programs." New Voices. January 21, 2014.