What could we do to substantially move the needle when it comes to combating assimilation? If money were no object, what kind of programs or initiatives would you envision? Are there areas for improvement and change in the world of outreach?
Rabbi Zvi Teitelbaum
As told to Barbara Bensoussan
In addition to being a rebbi, I work in kiruv rechokim. People sometimes assume that kiruv is a matter of rounding up unaffiliated Jews for a class or Shabbat, but the one-on-one is what really works to bring people in and keep them there. We need more frum Jews who care and are willing to reach out to build a relationship of trust with those who are not yet observant. It’s all about the relationship. We have to be more proactive.
The situation [among unaffiliated Jews] is very different than it was ten years ago.
Years ago, people were searching for the truth. If you could prove to them the truth of Torah, they’d change their lives accordingly. Today truth has become so relativized that people simply believe everyone has different “truths.” For them, it’s about meaning. They want to see what Torah can offer them in terms of personal development, relationships and providing purpose and a road map for their lives. If you can teach Torah in a way that resonates, they start to trust that you can help them, and, in turn, they begin to sense the authenticity of Judaism.
I also truly believe that when exposing an unaffiliated Jew to the depth, beauty and logic (emet) of real Torah, it will resonate with the neshamah. This will only have an impact, however, if the mekarev truly believes in the koach of Torah.
I do my best, but over the years I’ve come to terms with the fact that not everything is in my hands. The cheshbon isn’t just mine; these are Hashem’s children and it’s Hashem’s cheshbon too. People make their choices, and results often don’t show up until much later. If the Torah you’ve imparted doesn’t accomplish changes immediately, it might be absorbed and accepted later down the road.
The biggest problem in the professional Jewish world today is that we are suffering from a lack of talent. Ask the heads of Jewish organizations and they’ll tell you our problem isn’t so much a lack of funding as much as a lack of finding good staff. We can’t find and retain talent because there are too many systemic problems in the world of chinuch and Jewish nonprofits.
It’s a painful fact, but fewer and fewer people are choosing to work in Jewish communal and nonprofit organizations, much less stay there long term. Anyone who chooses to go into Jewish communal work is an idealist. But often such idealism has a short shelf life. Many become disillusioned because of the lack of support. They aren’t given the nurturance, appreciation or professional development they need to work in such an environment day in and day out, so how are they supposed to inspire others? The word has gotten out that a career in chinuch, kiruv or almost any Jewish non-profit isn’t a great career path. So many are underpaid and undervalued. If we don’t create a healthy professional work environment, we will never attract the “best and the brightest” to work for the Jewish people, and then we will be in big trouble.
Working for the Jewish people has also changed. What was effective in 1985 doesn’t work anymore; there are different needs, different distractions—it’s a very different world. If you insist on making people fit into old models of inreach and outreach, you just come across like a crotchety old man yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off his lawn. To be effective, you have to meet people where they are. In discussions, it’s extremely important today to stay far away from politics. Dial it down to zero! Politics puts up unnecessary barriers between you and the people you deal with and has no relation to people’s spirituality. I tell people, “I’m not left, I’m not right—I’m Up.” To label is to disable. The standards of what is acceptable in society have changed. Don’t judge people for the views they express; not only are they products of their society, we are too.
Unaffiliated Jews are distanced from Judaism not by what they know but by what they don’t know. So many don’t know anything about the basic tenets of Judaism or about the history and deep significance of Israel. When I was a kid, everyone rallied around freeing Soviet Jewry, but as Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, noted recently, for the first time in history, Jews are free to move around everywhere in the world. So the slogan is no longer “Let my people go,” it’s “Let my people know.”
Every Jew possesses a beautiful soul with a desire for meaning and connection. Most importantly, other Jews need to know and feel that we care about them. We have to set an example of joyous, moral living. As Jews we received our job description at Har Sinai: to be an “ohr lagoyim,” a light unto the nations. Are we doing our job? Unfortunately, today we are a very dim light.
My work involves engaging the influencer of the home, the Jewish mother. Momentum’s flagship initiative is our transformational tours to Israel. We have found that eight inspiring days in Israel can accomplish more than twenty-eight years of trying to engage women while in the Diaspora. It’s a real game changer when accompanied by a comprehensive one-year follow-up program through our over 250 partnering organizations in thirty-two countries. When Naftali Bennett served as the Minister of Diaspora Affairs, whose team took us from good to great, he asked me how many women we bring to Israel every year. I told him 3,000. He said, “We need to make it 30,000!” Wow—if we could really do that, we’d see a global shift within three years.
Most of the women who participate are in their early forties and very distant from their Jewish identity and connection to Israel. They’re thirsty for wisdom on topics such as marriage and parenting. They quickly learn that Torah is not some dusty artifact from people who wandered in the sand dunes centuries ago—but it is bursting with relevant wisdom for their lives today.
I used to work in advertising and essentially I still do—it’s just that now I have the best product in the world: Torah. But in recent years I’ve found that people need a different approach, one that’s less “frontal”—i.e., less standing in front of them delivering lectures, which studies have shown do not create retention of the material. You have to make your teaching more experiential, by turning to the person beside you to discuss the question or by asking her to journal her thoughts.
If I had unlimited funds, I’d certainly bring many more people to Israel. I also believe that in the Diaspora we need top-quality, affordable Jewish schools that parents would line up to have their children attend. Jews value education, and even the most assimilated Jews will gravitate to neighborhoods where they’ll find the best schools for their children. If the word was out that we had Jewish schools on a par with the best public schools or private prep schools that were affordable or free, that prepares kids for any Ivy League college, secular Jews would enroll their children in a heartbeat. And once in those Jewish schools, the kids would need to be taught relevant, compelling Torat chayim, a Judaism that speaks to them and gives them meaning. And they need to be taught that they are part of a people, a very great people.
Too much community money is poured into memorials, such as Holocaust museums and monuments. But those same people who perished in the Shoah are now screaming out from Heaven, “Enough with the memorials, my great-grandchildren aren’t even Jewish!” The real need is for Jews to connect to their Judaism in the here and now. They will get there if we show them that we care for them deeply and can offer them the priceless gift of their heritage in a way that they can hear it, one that is truly meaningful, wise and inspirational.
Lori Palatnik is a writer, Jewish educator, activist and founder of Momentum (formerly JWRP), which strengthens the connection of Jewish mothers to the Jewish homeland and Judaism through organized trips to Israel. Momentum has brought over 20,000 participants from thirty-two countries to Israel and has reached millions through podcasts and online educational offerings.
“It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it” (Avot 2:16).
I believe this famous phrase from Rabbi Tarfon perfectly captures what our attitude should be in engaging our less affiliated Jewish brothers and sisters. Some leaders have shared that the problems of intermarriage and assimilation are simply too mammoth for us to make a real difference, and that it would be better to focus our communal resources on keeping the Orthodox Orthodox. After all, who said it was our responsibility to “finish the work”—to save every Jew from assimilating?
On the other hand, “we are not at liberty to neglect it.” The Torah’s obligation of “hochei’ach tochi’ach”—helping to improve our fellow Jew’s relationship with Hashem—and kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh—taking responsibility for those who did not have the benefit of a Jewish education—demand that we do what we can. Besides, given the incredible contribution ba’alei teshuvah have made to virtually every part of the Orthodox community and the talent and resources they bring to our communal table, how can we not strive to engage whomever we can in Orthodox Jewish life?
And so in the wake of the 2020 Pew study, what could we in the Modern Orthodox community be doing better to engage the unaffiliated? Here are a few ideas from my years in the field:
Improve the prestige of outreach: Ask any outreach professional what the most important commodity is in running a successful kiruv operation, and he will tell you the same thing: talent. The success of any outreach endeavor comes down to having the right people reaching out and teaching, and the fact is that there are simply not enough capable young Modern Orthodox men and woman who are interested in doing this. To successfully engage educated Jewish professionals who are not Orthodox, a well-read, articulate and charismatic personality is needed. Baruch Hashem, Yeshiva University produces dozens of smart and talented rabbis and educators each year, but few are interested in going into kiruv as a profession. The reason is partially finances (see my next subheader), but there is a deeper issue, and that is prestige. It is simply not considered prestigious in the Modern Orthodox community to go into kiruv. Years ago, when I left my last rabbinic position at a Manhattan synagogue to start MJE (Manhattan Jewish Experience), many of the ba’alei batim there asked why I couldn’t secure a rabbinic position at another synagogue. When I shared that I did have an offer to be a rabbi in another synagogue but I wanted to do outreach instead, they were perplexed. Outreach simply did not impress them, and I fear not much has changed since. Going into kiruv needs to be seen as prestigious if we are to attract quality people. That is why so many young people in the Chabad community are vying for kiruv positions all over the world. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, created a certain prominence to outreach, and we need to do the same.
More balanced funding: The Orthodox community needs to invest more heavily into outreach to the non-Orthodox. I respectfully take issue with my mentor Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, who argued in the previous issue of this publication that given Pew’s findings on the significant number of Orthodox Jews who leave the fold, we need to focus more on the Orthodox community. To be sure, Rabbi Schacter’s perspective does not in any way imply that he cares less about our unaffiliated brethren than he does about the Orthodox. MJE, which is dedicated to engaging the non-Orthodox, would literally not exist today if not for Rabbi Schacter, who helped me establish the organization back in 1998 and has continued to advise and support me ever since. But how much more do we continue to invest in the Modern Orthodox community? Between twelve years of yeshivah day school, religious summer camps, one to two years in Israel, NCSY Kollel (and other trips designed to provide more positive religious experiences), OU-JLIC on college campus and the plethora of synagogues and organizations that cater to the Orthodox, I think we can more than justifiably maintain that we are already heavily invested in keeping the Orthodox Orthodox. We could always invest more, but what about our responsibility to the much larger number of Jews who have had virtually none of these positive Jewish experiences and whom we are losing in much greater numbers? There needs to be a balance. Even if we factor in the amazing kiruv work NCSY does, as well as some other outreach organizations like NJOP, MJE and the like, the Modern Orthodox community spends a fraction on kiruv to the unaffiliated* compared to what it spends to keep its own connected.
Rebranding Judaism: We can be doing more to show the relevance of Torah and how it speaks to the issues young people grapple with today. Two examples that come to mind are “mindfulness” and “digital detox”—buzzwords for millennials looking for ways to deal with the overstimulation of technology and social media. We can easily demonstrate how reciting berachot and certain tefillot brings about mindfulness and how observing Shabbat offers the peace and serenity young people are seeking in their yoga classes and digital detox trips. It’s the same Torah but repackaged to make it relevant and thus more attractive to the non-Orthodox. This is just as important for our own community. Just a few weeks ago, my daughter (who is seventeen and a senior at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, New Jersey) invited four of her friends to our home for Shabbat. When I asked the group what their favorite mitzvah is, they unanimously responded—Shabbat. When I asked why, they also all said the same thing: “Because we get to turn our phones off.” I was surprised to hear this because they all seem to be glued to their phones during the week, but apparently they love putting them down on Shabbat! Marketing and publicizing this and other Jewish traditions that demonstrate the relevancy of Torah will make our community more attractive to outsiders.
Inviting others to Shabbat meals: The Modern Orthodox community has two very special assets that are not currently leveraged for outreach but could easily be: we all sit down to beautiful Shabbat meals each week, and we all have some connection with someone not Orthodox, be it a work colleague, friend or relative. We must integrate those strengths and institute a program whereby each Modern Orthodox family or single (with him or her friends) invites a fellow non-Orthodox Jew to their home for a Shabbat meal. This is probably already happening here and there, but not systematically or in any significant numbers. Even inviting one to two people once a month would make a huge difference. As my teacher Rabbi Shlomo Riskin once said years ago: “For the price of a chicken, you can save a Jew,” and it’s still the truth. The spiritual journey of many of MJE’s ba’alei teshuvah and so many others (including my wife) started at someone’s Shabbat table. Such experiences can also greatly benefit our own families. Exposing our children to those who are sincerely inquisitive about Judaism can be incredibly positive for our children’s spiritual growth. I know this from my own kids. Each of my children’s religious development has been positively impacted by the amazing people they’ve gotten to know at our Shabbat table. And as another one of my teachers, Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, pointed out, we’re more likely to share words of Torah, sing more zemirot and speak less lashon hara when we have a beginner to Judaism at our table!
Enhancing our synagogue’s tefillah experience: Improving our shuls’ davening experience is critical if they are to be places of destination for those not raised in the Orthodox community. Our synagogues could always be friendlier and more welcoming to newcomers, but more importantly, we need to seriously up the ante of the singing and inspiration at our shuls. Besides being necessary for ba’alei teshuvah, we need it for ourselves and for our children. Davening should be uplifting. To that end, I’m currently working with Legacy 613 and a group of talented rabbis to propose certain practical ideas to enhance the tefillah experience in Modern Orthodox synagogues.
There are, of course, other things that we as a community can do, but I believe that each of these ideas on its own can make a real difference. The Modern Orthodox community today is strong enough to take care of itself and, baruch Hashem, also has the means to engage those outside our community. We don’t have to finish the task; we just have to do our part. May Hashem bless our efforts with success.
*Birthright Israel and Olami, each with an excess of a $100 million annual budget, are other examples of significant investments in outreach to the unaffiliated, but neither are Modern Orthodox initiatives.
Rabbi Mark Wildes is the founder and director of the Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE), a warm and open community for millennial men and women.