By Nechama Preis
An “outreach pro” — who shuns the very term — finds multiple ways to extend a warm hand of welcome.
A steaming pot of cholent first attracted Janusz Legutko to Judaism. Every week for three years, the Polish-born custodian at Congregation Shomrei Torah, one of the largest Orthodox shuls in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, would receive Shabbos treats from Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, the synagogue’s longtime spiritual leader. And while the rabbi had no interest in proselytizing the middle-aged custodian, Janusz soon started looking forward to Shabbos instead of cholent. These days, Janusz attends the synagogue’s Daf Yomi shiur and chants the haftorah.
Janusz is but one of the hundreds of people who have changed their lives because of Rabbi Yudin. “Fair Lawn has become a haven for Russian and Israeli Jews who have become religious. Honestly, I think it’s because of Rabbi Yudin,” remarked one congregant.
Indeed, the high-spirited rabbi has, over the past three decades, been remarkably successful in bringing Jews back from the brink of faithlessness. Rabbi Yudin spends his days battling pervasive ignorance of Judaism with his 15-minute Friday-morning slot on WFMU radio, his rabbinical post in a community with an ever-growing population of estranged Israelis and Russians and his role as an instructor at Yeshiva University’s James Striar School for General Studies. At his full-time job at JSS, the 52-year-young rabbi introduces 18- and 19-year-old college freshmen from places like Jackson, Mississippi and Augusta, Georgia, to concepts like “muktzah” and “brachah achronah,” and shows them how ancient law addresses the most fundamental of human dilemmas such as failure, love, ethics and self-actualization. “It is a thrill to be their first exposure to Judaism,” says Rabbi Yudin.
The rabbi -_ who tends to refer to the irreligious as the “not-yet-observant,” -_ has a common sense approach to kiruv: let the Torah speak for itself. In truth, the very term “outreach professional” makes Rabbi Yudin wince. “To me, outreach is not different than what every Jew has to do every day. Everyone is responsible to one another. Each person should spend, at the very least, one hour a week reaching out towards others and teaching one-on-one,” says the rabbi. Surely, Rabbi Yudin’s unique brand of social consciousness and soft, non-judgmental style is inherited from his community-oriented father. In the 1950s, Rabbi Yudin’s father, a venetian blind salesman, would often make house visits to install his wares. When he would discover that a mezuzah was missing, he would deliberately leave behind a tool so that he could return along with a mezuzah.
In 1969, when Rabbi Yudin -_ then newly ordained by Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary — moved with his wife, Shevi, to Fair Lawn for his first rabbinical position, his congregation had a mere 30 members. Competing with the Conservative and Reform temples in the neighborhood, Rabbi Yudin would scour the streets on Friday nights in a desperate quest for a tenth man. “We came to a community lacking the bare essentials,” recalled the rabbi. “I had the privilege of starting from the ground up. First we raised the money and built the mikvah. Then we put up an eruv. We even started a chevrah kadisha.” Today, the thriving synagogue boasts 275 member families.
While Rabbi Yudin is famed for his erudite shiurim, the single-handed transformation of a spiritual desert into a thriving Torah center required more than sophisticated pedagogical skills. Many claim that Rabbi Yudin’s phenomenal success is rooted in what one congregant termed “his ability to dance comfortably in every circle.” “Rabbi Yudin’s strength is being able to relate to people on whatever level they’re on,” said Michael Reinheimer, a congregant for the past 25 years. Others assert that while most outreach professionals speak to the mind, Rabbi Yudin speaks to the heart. This remarkable ability to emotionally identify with people of all ages and all walks of life is perhaps nowhere more evident than on Friday mornings, when he spends a few minutes explaining the weekly Torah portion to the 3- and 4-year-olds in the shul nursery. “They love him,” exclaimed congregant Elaine Reinheimer.
Despite an exhausting teaching schedule -_ which starts with a 7:15 a.m. Gemara shiur — Rabbi Yudin conducts most of his outreach outside of the classroom.
“Often there will be a person who will stop into the shul just to say Kaddish. Most likely you can’t take that person to the Gemara shiur. That person will begin his education around the Shabbos table,” explained the rabbi.
The “kiruv-around-the-Shabbos-table” approach has definite advantages over dizzying — and often futile — debates debunking Darwinism and positivism philosophy. For one thing, many newcomers to Judaism require an emotional comfort level with religion that philosophical arguments often fail to provide. “I can give a drashah Shabbos morning. It can be good; it can be not so good. It can be inspiring or not so inspiring. But my wife’s cholent never misses,” explains Rabbi Yudin. “A family invited on Shabbos will derive more from the zemiros, the good food and the good conversation than any initial formal education.”
On any ordinary Shabbos, one would is sure to find between 10-20 guests ranging from a long-haired teenager to an elderly couple from the former USSR, all huddled around the Yudin Shabbos table engrossed in a heated debate over a puzzling passage in the weekly Torah portion. “It’s a virtual United Nations,” says 31-year-old Nisanel, one of Rabbi Yudin’s seven children. “On a slow Shabbos, we’ll have only five or six guests.” “There’s no furniture aside from the table in our dining room,” says 20-year old Andi Yudin, explaining that his parents want to have the optimal amount of space for the endless parade of guests who pass through his house; some end up living in the house for months and even years. “We’ve had so many people living in our house. There was a woman from Poland who stayed for 2 or 3 years, a teenager from Mexico — it’s almost like a halfway house,” said Nisanel. People suffering from illness, marital problems, financial straits — virtually the entire range of human experience — inevitably end up finding their way to the Yudin home, dubbed by neighbors the “Yud-INN.” Indeed, Shevi and the rabbi’s unique blend of warmth and sensitivity has earned them a reputation that extends far beyond the community of Fair Lawn.
“The Torah tells us that Abraham planted an Aishel tree,” explains Rabbi Yudin. “Why does the Torah need to tell us about our patriarch puttering in the garden? Our rabbis explain that AiSHeL is an acronym standing for achilah, shetiah and linah -_ food, drink and lodging. These are fundamental elements in successful outreach.”
Yet Rabbi Yudin’s latest outreach project is “on paper”: His writing of an extensive commentary for the first-ever unabridged transliterated siddur is tailored to meet the specific needs of the beginning worshipper. The Seif Edition Transliterated Siddur is published by the Orthodox Union in conjunction with ArtScroll. Rabbi Yudin’s commentary draws upon a myriad of sources including the Vilna Gaon, Abarbanel, and contemporaries including Rav Soloveitchik. Why a transliterated version of the siddur? “Prayer, especially prayer in Hebrew, enables the worshipper to join with the historical past,” explained the rabbi. “Hebrew prayer is like type O blood, the universal donor. It’s able to satisfy and express the feelings and needs of all people living in all times. Isn’t that a meaningful way to reach out to other Jews?”
Nechama Preis’s previous contributions to Jewish Action were “Baiting the Trap of Spiritual Genocide” (Summer 1997) and “First Aid for the Soul” (Winter 1997-8).