In an article at Pop Chassid, Elad Nehorai wrote – with a big headline – “Kiruv is a lie.”
Why? Because it creates the illusion that Judaism is “fun” or “easy.”
Because it lures people in with songs or cheap spirituality or tasty food and then – bait and switch!!! – it turns out Judaism is a hard life and so the Judaism you thought was all about fun fizzles and you drift away from Judaism.
And those who do stay religious, who move into religious communities like, I’m assuming Monsey or Lakewood or Boro Park or Jerusalem, suddenly discover that religious Jews are like anybody else, not all “souls on fire” but just regular people trying to make a living, playing loud music, behaving obnoxiously, speaking loshon hora, even stealing from each other in various horrible and petty ways.
Nehorai’s solution is a little fuzzy – he recommends “improving the qualitative state of our communities.” By this I’m assuming he means make every Jewish person behave nicely instead of just a few kiruv rabbis. As we say here in Israel, halevai – if only. If only it were that easy.
I could be wrong about his message, and I hope somebody corrects me if I’ve misunderstood. Whatever his goal is, it seems both vague and also almost certainly impossible.
There is no “Bad Kiruv”
Here’s my two cents: There’s nothing wrong with kiruv, and I think kiruv professionals mostly have the right idea, even if they do sometimes paint an unrealistic picture of what Judaism looks like, and what the person being drawn in will look like in five, ten, or twenty years down the line.
I think that first of all, some of these tensions are created by the institutional context. Nehorai derides this as “bad kiruv,” the kind that treats people “like numbers that just need to go through the turnstile…punch a ticket and enter the world of orthodoxy.”
OBVIOUSLY, the idea of kiruv is not just "acting the part," as a good friend claimed on reading Nehorai’s article, but sure, it can definitely seem that way.
Once you're looking at an institution like Aish with hundreds of people passing through the door (in Jlem) every year, then the statistics and "good stories" ("he was a tattooed biker almost dead from an OD and now he's a rabbi with fifteen grandchildren living in the Old City...") start to take on disproportionate importance, simply because they’re impactful. Our brains are “wired for story”; good stories get results.
The TRUE Goal
Now, I absolutely think (hope, pray) that if you talk to any good kiruv person the only goal they'll express is not just numbers but connection to Hashem, and yes, you do what you can to build that connection in any way that appeals to the individual: through art, through music, through logic, through rituals that give life meaning.
Having different ways to connect people isn't some kind of trick that kiruv people do, it's a reality of the rainbow of personalities that is humanity. Some people won't click with logic but they'll hear a particularly heartfelt "tzama lecha nafshi" or whatever and be like, "yes, my soul longs for something - I'm thirsty and maybe it IS for Hashem." Some people are a little OCD and like knowing that every second of their lives is being conducted in exactly the right way and halacha (with a touch of minhag) is really good at that. ("Am I putting on my shoes right? Cutting my toenails right?")
But again, I want to emphasize: that's not a trick, it's simply good educational practice, to appeal to every learning modality. We know there are shivim panim leTorah, and sure, it's not about the Torah, it's ultimately about Hashem, but the Torah is the best clue we have as to what Hashem wants.
So if you're a kiruv person, you draw people in to Torah and Hashem any way you can. And then... maybe you do follow some kind of kiruv handbook and go step by step, drawing them into the kind of life you believe is closest to what Hashem wants and matching them up with a like-minded person and enjoying the nachas as they have and raise the next generations of Jewish children and grandchildren.
I don't see anything sinister here. I don't think anybody goes into kiruv for any reason other than drawing people closer to Hashem. Not to halacha and not even to Torah, just Hashem.
What about people who leave?
And for the person who was mekarev, if whatever drew you in doesn't "hold up," maybe you'll find something else, or weigh all the pluses and minuses, and stay or else leave. I know plenty of people who have done both.
But if you choose to leave, don’t resent the kiruv people who showed you the way to Hashem, or tried to. What are you, a baby?
I don’t mean to sound harsh, but seriously, if somebody tells you they fart and it smells like roses, I’d want to check out their claim because they might just not have a working sense of smell.
My Grade Ten science teacher told us on the first day that he had no sense of smell. He said you could fart freely in his class and he couldn’t tell the difference between that and a field of roses. It’s a bit of a disadvantage in a science teacher, because sometimes in science you do need to smell things, like sulfur.
I think some kiruv professionals legitimately lack their “sense of smell.” They see only good in Am Yisrael or at the very least, believe there’s enough good that after they release you into the broader frum world, you will be embraced and loved and nurtured just the way you were in the baal teshuva yeshiva where you studied.
And maybe you will be, and maybe you won’t be. They don’t know, because they don’t have a sense of smell.
But if you are an adult, or close to it, and you are not using your critical senses, perhaps you have been lulled by wily kiruv professionals or perhaps you just very much want to believe that somewhere “over the rainbow” there is a place where every Jew is a mensch and vice versa.
You are in for a comedown, and maybe a nasty landing, but I wouldn’t say that’s the kiruv professionals’ fault.
“Be yourself… no matter what they say” (Sting, “Englishman in New York”)
And then there's me. I enjoy being a smart, cynical, thinking person these days, being a Jew, being an Israeli, and finding myself as all three.
Two years in a row now (next year will be a chazaka, iy"h!) I've gone to the top of the Aish building in Yerushalayim for my birthday.
And I sit there and I stare at the kosel and I stare at the black-hat American tourists also on the roof and think about how I'm still frum but not like them and never will be. But I'm more me than ever, the same smart, cynical me that I started out being, but a little more Jewish but maybe not as frum (which hopefully equals "close to Hashem") as I hoped I'd be but still working on it, still wrestling with it almost but not quite every day.
And also, I look at them and say, even though they have extra layers of shirts and sheitels and stockings (the ladies) and black hats and suits or whatever (the men) that I don't really know what the heck is the deal between them and Hashem. I don't know if they're closer or I'm closer. I can't compare us, I only know me and my journey and I'm more comfortable than ever with that.
(I’m the one in the shadow!)
I don't think I'd have gotten to that point anywhere else in the world.
Why Israel is different
Living here in Israel, you sit in the ladies' mikveh and see women come in in tank tops and you think, "Wow," because in Canada they wouldn't even know what a mikveh was. You see an edgy-looking guy with a bunch of weird earrings (and maybe tattoos) across from you on the train and suddenly he pulls out a kippah and starts saying tehillim. The secular girl you tutor in English stops you when you start writing to remind you that you didn't write "BS"D" at the top of the page.
I see something pure and innocent and totally free of any artificial kiruv "gloss" in all that. In Jewish life in Israel.
Just all of us standing pure and sometimes literally naked in front of Hashem, saying "Take me as I am, warts and all."
Seriously, there is no better place in the world to wrestle with being a Jew in all its hilarity than this place. The warts and also the kedusha, the incredible holiness in every single Jewish person.
…And back to kiruv
So where does kiruv fit with all of that? To me, kiruv is convincing people to start wrestling. That's all you can do, ultimately, but sometimes, it's a lot.
Nehorai compares kiruv to advertising as if that’s a bad thing. It isn’t, at least, not necessarily. If you’ve learned anything about social-media advertising, for example, then you know that it primarily has to be non-spammy and genuine. You have to offer to solve people’s problems (with some degree of convincingness), you have to have a product you genuinely believe in.
And look at that word: product.
You can put together all the car ads in the world and they can be amazing – hilarious, clever, and entertaining – but if you don’t have a car to sell, you’re not going to convince anybody.
Is Judaism a product? Is Hashem? Okay, yes, I’m willing to say they are. So why not advertise them?
If I’m selling a car, I advertise the car, people weigh the decision, and then they buy the car.
After that, they own a car. Whether or not it’s a good car is another matter. There will be a period of evaluation, followed by either satisfaction or disillusionment.
If whatever made you buy the car doesn't "hold up," maybe you'll return it, or weigh all the pluses and minuses and hang onto it or else sell it after only a couple of years. I know plenty of people who have done both.
None of that means that what you bought wasn’t a car.
Similarly, if somebody “advertises” Judaism, it’s because there’s something genuine there. I absolutely believe that “something genuine” may be tied in with the Big Three that Nehorai mentions – since this is where I totally agree with him. These Big Three are:
- The desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves
- The desire for meaning
- The Jewish soul
Nehorai says you don’t have to “advertise” Judaism. Because of these Big Three, you just have to “offer it up on a platter” and because of our Jewish soul, we’d all gobble it up.
I don’t think that’s true, simply because most of us wouldn’t know about it that way. Without kiruv, we wouldn’t have found out that living Jewish lives was even an option in the modern era.
Imagine, in my car analogy, that I made a car, and whether or not it was a good car, I chose not to advertise it at all. Sure, it was in stores (car stores!), but there would be no signs, no price tag, no information brochures. I think people would probably walk right past and buy the cars they’d heard of, the cars they knew about, the cars whose full-colour posters they’d seen outside the dealership (sorry, car store).
Certainly, nobody in other places would buy my car. They wouldn’t know about my car. I’d be bankrupt within the year.
“Advertising” isn’t necessarily an evil word; it’s how businesses survive. “Kiruv professional” isn’t an evil word either; it’s how kiruv organizations survive to teach Torah and let people know that Hashem has a plan for their lives.
Sure, you have to do due diligence. You have to go in with eyes wide open, and maybe that’s hard when the glossy ads are dancing in front of your eyeballs.
But once you buy in, you get something in return. Whether or not it’s the car you wanted—I mean, the religious lifestyle you wanted—well, that’s another matter altogether.
Sure, maybe you’ll be disillusioned later. That could happen. It does happen.
I don’t have an answer for that except that if you’re going to be a disillusioned Jew, there’s no place better to be one than here in Israel. Here, you can wrestle to your heart’s content and you can find a place where you belong, where nobody will judge where you are with Hashem.
Teshuvah, Israeli Style
I heard a couple speaking last week: Eden Harel and Oded Menashe, TV personalities (she was a VJ on MTV Europe in the 1990s and he was a kids’ TV host) who have started living a more religious lifestyle and are now going around speaking to audiences about the journey (they also have six kids, which adds to the hilarity).
So what struck me, listening to their story, told in Hebrew for an Israeli audience, was how smooth the transitions had been, compared to kiruv and becoming a baal teshuvah if you’re in North America. They already spoke Hebrew. They already knew about Shabbat and Kashrut and had almost infinite support around them for both things, with shuls everywhere and religious schools for their kids.
Oded said during their talk that someone convinced him that if he ever kept two Shabboses in a row, that was it – he’d be in for life. And then his wife convinced him to keep Shabbos Shuva, the Shabbos between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. After which, he looked at the calendar and realized that the following Shabbos was Yom Kippur itself—meaning he would HAVE to keep 2 in a row… and that was the beginning of the end for him.
I’m not saying their journey was easy. But the journey was more laid-back. For an Israeli, it’s possible to keep Yom Kippur, or a single Shabbos, and then go back to a secular lifestyle. There’s more porosity between a religious and a non-religious lifestyle – lots of “non-religious” people here, as mentioned above, do some religious things, if not all.
So it feels less artificiality, and maybe there’s less need to “sell” the kiruv experience the way there is to English speakers and others who are so, so distant off in the Cold Lands of North America or Europe or wherever. Israelis can dip their toes in and out until they’re fully comfortable jumping in.
If North American Jews were more fluent in Jewish traditions, this would maybe be the case there, too, but it isn’t. So they come here or some other intensive learning setting (Crown Heights or wherever) and discover the whole Torah world for the first time. It is eye opening and intense and wonderful, but that initial intense infatuation can’t last, just as romance turns into marriage, which is far more prosaic.
Israelis who become religious know already that the magic can’t last. They know enough religious people to know there is no magic land where people are all frum and happy dancing the hora together.
So maybe instead of dropping kiruv altogether, which maybe Elad Nehorai would have us do, we should think about how to do it more the Israeli way. How to get people to see that dipping their toes in was enough… just get one toe wet and pull it out. Now another.
Maybe you’ll get all the way in someday, maybe not. That’s not for me to decide, or for a kiruv professional. It’s up to you and it’s up to Hashem. Beyond that, I don’t have all the answers. Nobody does, really. Not even the kiruv professionals, even if they imply that they do.