Tuesday, July 21, 2015

In Honor of Faigy Mayer

     In the wee hours of the morning, the Off the Derech Facebook community learned of the tragic suicide of Faigy Mayer, a bright young woman who, with extraordinary courage, had left the ultra-orthodox community to pursue her dreams. She was kind and caring, and understanding the difficulties in leaving the ultra-orthodox world, was working on technology to better the experiences of those going off the derech (path) of orthodox Judaism. She had many friends. I consider myself fortunate to have made her acquaintance in online forums. I know many others who knew her personally. We are all feeling the pain that this loss brings.

     In the wake of such an awful event, it is easy to lay blame. Rather than hurl accusations, it is important to remember several things.

  • Remember that family and friends should never ostracize someone for choosing a different path in life than the one in which she/he was raised. It is fine to disagree, but religion should never be more important than people. 
  • Remember that depression is an illness that can be treated, but not everyone who needs help gets it in time or, sadly, at all. Read NIMH's website for more information on depression
  • Remember that people who leave orthodox communities do not "have something wrong with them." This is a popular refrain often repeated within certain groups, in order to maintain the illusion that all is perfect within their communities. People leave orthodoxy for a variety of reasons, both emotional and intellectual.
  • Remember the importance of reaching out to people. If you are depressed or having a tough time, or if you know someone who may be going through a rough patch, offer support. A phone call, a cup of coffee, a few moments of your day may make all the difference in the world.
  • Remember, if you need help or know someone who does, reach out.
     May all who mourn be consoled. May you find inner peace and strength to get through the hard days ahead, and may you ultimately take comfort in your positive memories.

     If you feel you are in a crisis please call
1-800-273-TALK (8255) where you will be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7. You can also call the hope line for similar services: 1-800-442-HOPE. For people outside of the USA, please refer to http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html.

Read more.
Ex-Hasid Dies in Fall from Rooftop -Failed Messiah
We Don't Get It -Kol B'Isha Erva
Four Hours -My Derech, On and Off

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A Kiruv Organization Tells All: Recruiting Women, College Students

     I recently found Rabbi Yitschak Rudomim's website for the Jewish Professionals Institute: Adult Education and Outreach organization. At first I assumed, incorrectly, that I'd have to spend a lot of time trying to prove that they were using certain tactics to appeal to non-orthodox Jews in order to draw them in. Well, I was wrong. JPI's statement of purpose specifically mentions that Rabbi Yitschak Rudomim and his organization are fighting an "unconventional war on Jewish ignorance" and that they are "called upon to adopt the methods of marketing, salesmanship, and advertising in order to "sell" Judaism to Jews, because of my love for my fellow Jews."1 Whether this is an effort to be transparent to all who are interested in his work, or simply a way to gain additional financial support, or perhaps an oversight (maybe he doesn't expect that people will be criticizing his tactics) on his part, Rudomim is telling you exactly what he and all kiruv organizations do.
     Rudomim clearly states that there is no place that is off-limits to outreach rabbis, including (but not limited to) "the home, work, college, or any informal domain,"2 and that it is his goal "to penetrate these other areas."3 Rudomim's end goal is "to touch the lives of so many of our ignorant (Jewishly) brethren and inspire them through deed and thought to undertake the quest for self-betterment through increased commitment to study and observance of Judaism."4
Jewish Professionals Institute: Statement of Purpose
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         I've included a letter of recommendation for Rabbi Rudomim and JPI written by Rabbi Yehudah Fine, director of The Jewish Family Institute which, according to Seattle, Washington's Jewish Transcript, is both an orthodox rabbi and a family therapist whose "Jewish Family Institute provides outreach to families in crisis, including individual and family counseling, crisis intervention, outreach for individuals and families in need, lectures and seminars for Jewish communities and youth groups."5 Back when the article was written "Fine said that he was probably best known for his work in counseling Jewish families dealing with a family member who has joined a cult."6 Yes, you read that correctly.
     Within Fine's letter of recommendation he uses emotional manipulation as part of his request for financial support. He refers to the "silent Holocaust of American Jewry," using the Holocaust as a marketing tool in order to gain monetary contributions and appeal to people's emotions. He then lists several statistics without citing his sources, which makes me wonder if these statistics are even legitimate.
Letter of Recommendation for JPI by Rabbi Yehudah Fine
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Recruiting Women
     Director of JPI, Rabbi Rudomim, includes a piece on his site entitled "Women of Valor" in which he details kiruv's expectations of the women who are recruited to an ultra-orthodox lifestyle. He appears to understand that "it is not a simple matter for today's liberated Jewish woman to accept separation of the sexes, the laws of Family Purity, bearing many children, covering her hair and many of the other observances by women leading Torah lifestyles."7 and then he states that due to kiruv efforts, these women now "run to accept more, not less, of what Yiddishkeit proclaims to be the role of the true woman of valor: A devoted and loyal mother and wife."8 Through outreach, these formerly non-orthodox women "then go on to marry and establish Torah homes."9 Rudomim briefly mentions a few seminaries, including the well-known Neve Yerushalayim women's seminary, that were created in order to deal with the "special needs" in terms of recruiting young, non-orthodox women. He mentions Rabbi Manis Friedman of Chabad, "one of the most charismatic teachers of previously secular Jewish women in America." Rudomim appears to celebrate such charismatic leaders. In this case, they are expected to convince people to change their perspective, their views, and even their lives.
     Rudomim mentions The Jewish Women's Journal, put out by the Jewish Renaissance Center in Manhattan and clearly states "this special newspaper . . . whose motive is outreach" uses a "sophisticated style and accessibility [to] appeal to even estranged Jews. It provides a non-threatening glimpse into Jewish life."10
     What Rudomim fails to mention is what these women are giving up in order to embrace an ultra-orthodox lifestyle. He doesn't mention the careers that may be put on hold, the family discord that is often caused but less-often talked about, and the relationships that suffer as a result. But he is honest, at least, about what he believes to be the role of the Jewish woman--that of wife and mother of many.
"Women of Valor" Rabbi Yitschak Rudomim
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Women of Valor, Part One
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Women of Valor, Part Two
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Recruiting College Students
     Rabbi Rudomim's article about college students traveling in Israel describes in alarming accuracy the tactics employed by kiruv professionals in Israel to recruit impressionable college students to an ultra-orthodox lifestyle. He mentions that the phenomenon of traveling college students has been a boon to kiruv because "many young assimilated college students go off to explore Europe and Israel . . . [and so] and entire outreach apparatus has evolved to provide yet another option for these wandering happy-go-lucky young people."11 Rudomim brazenly states that "Indeed, at the Kotel, (Western Wall), there is a polished network of outreach professionals who specialize in offering hospitality, and an opportunity to learn Torah, to the previously disinterested Jewish traveler."12 It's true--I was once one of those "previously disinterested Jewish travelers," Rudomim's words, not mine. What I failed to understand at the time was that I was falling for pickup lines, marketing strategies, and salesmanship that were, and still are, used on "on [the] thousands, yes thousands, of young Jews [who] have been enrolled in famous Baal Teshuvah Yeshivot in this fashion."13
     Rudomim admits that Aish HaTorah's famous Discovery Seminar is meant to sweep people off their feet. He writes:
Fascinating lectures proving the validity of the Torah, existence of G-d, and the relevance of Judaism to modern life are presented, and more importantly, accepted by many listeners. Enough to convince them to stay on for a few weeks, or months, or years, and even make Aliyah.14
Rudomim is not hiding the fact that Aish is offering a program meant to convince unsuspecting young tourists that they ought to stay in Israel--attending kiruv programs meant to push them into ultra-orthodoxy--for lengthy amounts of time that weren't originally in their plans. Again, I recall sitting in the office of a prominent Jerusalem rabbi as he tried to convince my husband and I (we were newlyweds in our early twenties) that we should stay in Israel and attend yeshiva and seminary programs. Our response was that it was irresponsible, since we both had jobs and school, but this didn't deter him from his hard-sell tactics. Instead, we agreed to allow a prominent New York kiruv rabbi to contact us upon our arrival home. While our curiosity was piqued, we were definitely turned off by the exorbitant amount of pressure put on us to stay and change our plans. To be honest, I remember feeling intimidated by this rabbi,  but strengthened by the fact that my husabnd (and best friend) and I were in this together. Had I been alone, I might have been afraid to say no to someone I perceived to be a spiritual leader. But I digress.
     Rudomim also mentions that Aish's Jerusalem Fellowships are supported by the Israeli government because they see this as an opportunity that could lead to more people making aliyah, a permanent move to Israel. Politically, this is good for Israel, as it keeps the population growing.
Traveling in Israel, Part One
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Traveling in Israel, Part Two
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Traveling in Israel, Part Three
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      To be completely honest, I was completely thrown off by Rudomim's Jewish Professionals Institute's site. Rudomim's blatant explanation of what kiruv organizations do and how they do it was shocking and unexpected. I'm sure that my readers who are pro-kiruv are smiling and saying "happy now?" because one of my criticisms of ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach is that there is a lack of this type of information. (In truth, this information is lacking and still inaccessible to people unfamiliar with the lingo needed to plug in appropriate search terms, but that should be understandable.) Let me take a second and address the question as to whether or not I'm happy to have found this information.
     On a personal level, I realized that my experiences in Israel were contrived and that the warmth and hospitality I experienced as a student, and then as part of a newly married couple, were contrived. In many ways, this makes me second-guess the integrity of those I encountered who tried to sell me experiences that were not real or unique--I was just another warm Jewish body.
     Speaking on a professional level as a critic of kiruv, I'm curious as to why Rudomim gives all of this information away so easily. Who is the expected audience of his website? Surely, it isn't me or those who kiruv professionals are recruiting. If so, why tell people that they're simply clients being manipulated by deft salespeople with polished techniques? Will this help to bring us in?
     As a final thought, the articles on JPI's website reminded me of Edgar Allen Poe's stories, in which the guilty party cannot keep the secrets and details of his crime to himself. Through a series of events--both psychological and physical--Poe's protagonists often lead the police, the other characters, and the reader right to the scene of crime, exposing the gory details because the guilty party can no longer bear his secret.
     As always, I welcome reader comments.

Works Cited
1. Jewish Professionals Institute. www.jpi.org. website.
2. ibid.
3. ibid.
4. ibid.
5. Gordon, Richard. Former Bellevue Resident Heads Jewish Family Institute. The Jewish Transcript. September 11, 1986. p.11.
6. ibid.
7. Rudomim, Yitschak. Women of Valor. Jewish Professionals Institute. www.jpi.org. website.
8. ibid.
9. ibid.
10. ibid.
11. Rudomim, Yitschak. Traveling in Israel. Jewish Professionals Institute. www.jpi.org. website.
12. ibid.
13. ibid.
14. ibid.