*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
The kiruv journey started on our Birthright trip a few years ago. I went with my best friend Jake, as well as a few other people from our school. But it's not what you think. we were there to experience Israel and have a good time. There was absolutely no proselytizing of any kind on this trip. There wasn't even the slightest hint of deceptive kiruv. Most of my fellow classmates and new friends when back home and went back to their normal lives, as did we. The day after the trip, I went out with Jake and some other friends. We all agreed that we enjoyed the trip and went back to our regular lives in the weeks after.
I think I should introduce and explain my relationship with Jake before going any further in this post. I was born in the former Soviet Union, and came here when I was four years old. Both of my parents are Jewish and I was raised in a Russian-Jewish home. My family idn't consider themselves very religious. We attended High Holiday services at the local Chabad and I had my Bar Mitzvah, but that's about as far as my Judaism went. As with a lot of Russian Jews I know, my identity is "Jewish by association." I consider myself Jewish, most of my friends are Jewish, I only date Jewish girls, I go to High Holiday services, but that's about as far as things go. My friend Jake, on the other hand, was born in the United States. His great grandparents came to this country from Eastern Europe, so he considers himself American. His family goes to a Reform synagogue for High Holiday services, and that's about it. Aside from his family paying expensive membership fees, our families were pretty similar in terms of our commitment to Judaism. Neither of us kept kosher, observed the Sabbath, or did anything like that. Jake and I met in high school. We had been inseparable since we'd met--we did everything together. We were lucky enough to attend the same state school and our friendship continued to grow as strong as ever. We attended Hillel together where we met a bunch of Jewish people. It was a nice place to hang out and there was no pressure to become any more religious. When our Hillel director told us she would be leading a Birthright trip, we decided to all go together.
So what happened after our Birthright trip? I know you're expecting me to say that Jake had some sort of life-changing revelation that suddenly made him become an orthodox Jew during our trip. But no, that's definitely not the case. There was only one thing that changed. Jake wanted to go on another Birthright trip. But unfortunately, once you go on Birthright, you can't go again. But that didn't stop him; he went out to search for another free trip to Israel. That set the wheels in motion.
A few months after our trip, Jake called to tell me some exciting news. He found out about another trip to Israel! Now, it wasn't free, but it was very cheap, about $500. The trip was supposed to be just like Birthright, with lots of activities and touring. He didn't give any more details except that he would be meeting for coffee with the rabbi he contacted regarding the trip. I didn't think anything of it. After his meeting, Jake told me that he really liked him and that he was invited to the rabbi's house for Shabbat dinner. Jake invited me to come along and I didn't think anything of that either. It sounded completely innocent.
We went that Friday to the Rabbi's house. He and his wife were very friendly. They had multiple children, all who were very friendly as well. Numerous people our age were at their home. Most were like Jake and I, Reform or maybe Conservative Jews. I enjoyed dinner. The company was great and the food was pretty good.The rabbi told us stories about Judaism and we had discussions on different topics. We also spent time schmoozing with the other guests. The rabbi told lots of jokes and made us laugh. He was very friendly and I really enjoyed his company. After we finished bentching, (saying the grace after meals) Jake and I left and hit up some bars. It was just like any other night hanging out. Nothing changed. The following week, Jake called me again telling me that we were both invited back to the rabbi's house. We came back to a good meal with a large number of people our age, a few from the previous week, most were new. There was more conversation covering Jewish topics. We schmoozed with people our age. Then Jake and I once again set off for the bars.
The following week, I called Jake to see if he wanted to get together with friends that Friday. He told me that he was busy because he was going to Shabbat dinner at the rabbi's house. I didn't think anything of it (yet again), and told him I would just see him Saturday instead. Jake agreed and said he was selected to go on the trip to Israel he wanted to go on. I congratulated him. He told me he would spend half the the time at a place called Aish HaTorah, and the rest of it would be spent doing a variety of activities. He asked if I would consider going on the trip, but I was busy during that period, so I declined. We both went our separate ways on Friday and met up Saturday for lunch. He told me that the following week he would stay for "the entire Shabbos." It turns out that some of the people our age we ate dinner with would spend the night with another Jewish family in the neighborhood. That sounded pretty neat. But at the time I was pretty busy with school on the weekends and wasn't able to spend the night.
We both went to dinner the following week. Once again, we had a good dinner and schmoozed with the people our age. I noticed that there were more new faces than old. Once dinner was over, I drove home. Jake stayed behind. Later that night, we texted back and forth. He said he was bored because there were no electronics on due to the restrictions of Shabbat. I thought it was kind of funny. When it got late, we both said goodbye and went to sleep. I didn't hear from him again until Shabbat was over. We met up Saturday night to hang out.
At this point, Jake was going to the rabbi's house for dinner and then spending the night at another family's house every week. I was still invited for the following weeks but I never stayed the night. We continued to text each other at night, but as time went on, he texted less and less until he finally stopped. He said that he was "able to keep Shabbos better" at this point. As the weeks progressed, I noticed that he stopped inviting me to visit the rabbi. If I didn't have plans on a Friday night, I would end up calling the rabbi and he would tell me to come over. Around this time, Jake signed up for the Maimonides course. It was run by the same rabbi and Jake was excited because it paid a $400 stipend. Due to my class schedule, I was unable to attend so I never took the class.
As Jake's trip date grew closer, we began talking less and less. When I would ask if he wanted to spend a Saturday afternoon together, he'd respond "I can't, man, it's Shabbos." No problem. I respected that. Then his big two week trip to Israel came. He ended up going to Aish HaTorah. He enjoyed it so much that he decided to extend his trip another two weeks. He told me that he was spending a good portion of the day studying Torah. When we talked on Facebook, he'd talk more and more about Torah and Judaism. We no longer talked about things we used to discuss.
I was excited for him to finally come home but something had changed. He was different. He would not see me on Friday or Saturday. In fact, at this point, he told me that I could only come to the rabbi's house if I stayed the entire time (Friday at sunset until an hour past sunset on Saturday night) because leaving early would desecrate the Sabbath. He also refused to go to any of our favorite restaurants because they weren't kosher. When we talked on the phone, he'd yell at me for the most random things. When I told him I had eaten at certain restaurants, he'd say "How could you?! That's not kosher!" Or when I tried telling him about my Friday and Saturday plans that no longer included him, he'd respond "You can't do that on Shabbos! What's wrong with you?!" I wish that I could tell you that he said these things in a joking manner, but he didn't. He was dead serious.
At this point, I felt like things were changing but I couldn't understand why. I wanted to mend our faltering relationship, so I told him that I would stay a full Shabbat weekend. The rabbi put both of us with the same family for the night. I was bored out of my mind. We spent the next morning in shul. Jake knew what he was doing. I was just daydreaming the entire time. I couldn't wait for it to end! At the end of Saturday night, he asked how I liked Shabbat. I told him the truth. He then yelled at me and proceeded to tell me something interesting. He asked if I realized a while ago that I was inviting myself to the rabbi's house and that he wasn't inviting me. It didn't occur to me at the time, but then I realized that this was indeed the case. He told me that this was due to my unwillingness to become more religious. He said that they "gave up on me." What?! I thought that the rabbi was there to host students so they could learn about Judaism. I never once thought that there was some kind of ulterior motive.
By then Jake was hanging out with some of the people I had met at those dinners. The men from those meals had already started to wear the typical clothes of orthodox men--the traditional black hats and suits. The women were all covered, wearing very long skirts, with arms and legs covered. What about the other people from the dinners that weren't doing this? The ones I added on Facebook no longer went to these dinners. In fact, they no longer engaged in any of these activities, period. It was only me going with Jake, and a few others who went consistently but didn't become religious (they too stopped at some point). Since Jake was too busy spending time with his religious friends, we drifted away.
I was confused. Everything had happened so gradually. He slowly started to become more religious over time. When we started going to Shabbat dinners, he thought things like shomer negiah (refraining from all physical contact with members of the opposite sex) were a joke. Now he takes it all very seriously. I stumbled upon the term baal teshuvah (newly religious). When I read more into it, I learned that Jake wasn't alone. Countless young Jewish people encounter these kiruv organizations and get sucked in. From what I've seen, it's a very slow process. It's not overnight like some people might think. It started with something as simple as going to dinner. Since the rabbis initially didn't make any effort to have people stay after dinner, they had time to get comfortable. Gradually they get sucked in further and they start to observe more traditions. When Jake started spending nights with orthodox families, he would text me from his phone. Gradually he became shomer Shabbos (fully observant of the Sabbath laws) and then this stopped. Once things started to get bad, he began criticizing almost everything I did. He criticized nearly everything he used to do too! It got to the point where I no longer wanted to spend time with him. The funny thing about this criticism is that the FFB (frum/orthodox from birth) Jews I know have never criticized me for doing anything. As I briefly mentioned earlier, the Maimonidies program is an easy way to target students. They attend weekly classes in order to get a stipend. But there's a catch. They most spend a full Shabbat in the orthodox community in order to get the stipend. That's how they reel these unsuspecting students in. While a majority of them will take the money and move on with their lives, a few will continue to attend dinners and get sucked in just like Jake did.
When I stumbled upon this blog, I was shocked. It was as if Rebecca Ross was pulling the words straight out of my mouth. I read about kiruv tactics and realized that they tried every move on both of us. It started with love-bombing at simple dinners, and then escalated to more serious things. Once Jake went to Aish HaTorah, that was it. Interestingly, no one from this kiruv organization ever made their intentions clear. All Jake wanted was another trip to Israel just like Birthright. He got so much more than he, his family, or I bargained for. I only joined him for the dinners. I was completely oblivious to the fact that they were proselytizing! That's how deceptive these organizations are. While I genuinely enjoyed the dinners and other events (they are good at getting people to like them with their love-bombing), and while I loved my other experiences with them, I grew to hate them once they pulled Jake out of my life. I hated the fact that they would deceptively break apart families. Here's what I don't understand: orthodox Jews usually feel that it's a travesty when another orthodox Jew goes off the derech (goes off the path of orthodoxy, usually for a non-orthodox life), but they feel that it's inspiring when non-orthodox Jews alienate their own friends and family to become religious. That doesn't make any sense to me. I read quite a few anti-kiruv blogs, and then eventually started reading things posted by baal teshuvas. I read some posts on Beyond BT, and I found them to be incredibly depressing. I'm not sure how breaking the bonds with family is supposed to be inspiring. I even saw a blog where baalteshuvas were discussing how they should cut ties with their families because they wouldn't want their children growing up seeing how bubbe and zayde (grandma and grandpa) drive on Shabbos or eat treif (non-kosher) food. Then I saw countless comments on another blog where baal teshuvahs would say that their friends and family unfortunately haven't experienced "the beauty of Torah." That sounds like nothing more than simple brainwashing.
Recently I went to Jake's wedding. He found a shidduch (a marriage partner for an arranged marriage) and they married within a few months of meeting. A week before his wedding, I attended a Reform friend's rehearsal dinner and wedding. You could just see their faces and know that both families were incredibly happy and excited to see their children get married. The next week I went to Jake's wedding. It was odd. All of the orthodox people at the wedding were incredibly happy. They were festive. There was lots of dancing. But what about Jake's family? I talked to them because they were like a second family to me. They didn't look happy at all. In fact, his grandmother told me that she hopes his new wife will go off the derech so that he will go back to his "normal" self. This was the unhappiest wedding I have ever seen, at least from his family's side. I wasn't happy either. I never imagined my former best friend's wedding would be like this. But this is what happened. The process was so gradual that it was impossible to see this coming.
Since losing Jake, one of my friends confided in me about her crush becoming more religious. Since I'm friends with him on Facebook, I was able to watch his gradual change. I was able to explain everything that was happening step-by-step. It was like clockwork. This time, I saw someone go from a Reform Jew to an orthodox Jew just like Jake did--but this time I knew what was happening. It was difficult seeing my friend lose someone she cared about, especially since I knew what the ultimate outcome would be. I wish I could have told his parents what was happening and make it stop. But I couldn't. At least by writing this post, I can show the world what kiruv does. I want the world to know how they stole my best friend from me. I also want them to know that I was a target. They tried to work their magic on me and they failed. I was shocked when I was told what they were trying to do--they were that deceptive!
I'd like to leave this long post with a simple message for both parents and current baal teshuvas. For the parents of college students, please explain to them what kiruv is. Instead of having them do the Maimonides course, just offer to pay them $400 instead. It's a small price to pay for not losing your child. Also, I wouldn't worry about Birthright as long as they aren't doing Aish or any other orthodox-run trip, but be wary of any subsidized trips after Birthright like Aish or Jewel because these are created for the purpose of proselytizing your children. For the baal teshuvas who believe it's better to alienate your family and friends who care about you because they "don't see the beauty of Torah," who do you think would be at your side if you were halfway around the world and seriously injured? I'll give you a hint. It won't be the people standing next to you at shul.