The New Face of Jewish Outreach


In a typical month in the Houston area, members of the Jewish community study aspects of Jewish law and philosophy with kollel rabbis, Jewish residents of a nearby suburb attend Shabbaton programs and lectures led by the rabbis of Houston’s largest Orthodox synagogue and Jewish students at the city’s public high schools spend their free time discussing basic Jewish concepts with Orthodox youth leaders.

Few of the participants in these activities are Orthodox.

Houston, which has grown into the nation’s fourth-largest city but is better known for Stetsons than for Borsalinos, is the new face of Jewish outreach in the United States. Its kiruv, outreach, programs represent the current trend of outreach efforts that bring traditional Judaism to the largely non-Orthodox American Jewish population.

Out-of-Town Outreach

Three decades after the early kiruv movement’s yeshivot and classes on Torah began fostering the thousands of ba’alei teshuvah who revitalized Orthodox Judaism, today’s successful outreach programs look different. For one thing, while kiruv organizations in New York City still offer a variety of innovative outreach activities, a growing number of start-up outreach programs are coming from other Jewish communities across the United States and Canada.

“Kiruv is much more sophisticated these days,” says Rabbi Steven Burg, international director of NCSY, the international teen organization sponsored by the Orthodox Union (OU) dedicated to connecting Jewish teens to Torah.

In the early years of the teshuvah movement, most of the successful programs originated in New York. But thanks to the ease of communications fostered by the Internet and a flowering of Orthodoxy in smaller communities across the United States and Canada, many kiruv programs today originate in a larger number of cities like Los Angeles and Toronto, according to outreach authorities.

Outside of New York, there tends to be a more open approach to Judaism, encouraging programs that transcend Jewish labels, says Rabbi Gavriel Jacknin, educational director of TORCH, the Torah Outreach Research Center of Houston. “Away from New York, the slower pace of life allows people to listen in the first place,” he says. “In New York, everyone is busy.”

(Although nowadays, with the economic downturn, even unaffiliated New Yorkers are finding the time to learn. More people have more time on their hands, says Rebbetzin Leah Kohn, director of the Jewish Renaissance Center, a Manhattan-based outreach center for women, and are using that free time to learn about Judaism.)

Rabbis without Borders
Once kiruv activities were based in sites like synagogues and Jewish schools, and participants traveled to the programs. Today, the programs go to where there are potential participants—to coffee houses and college campuses and public high schools.

“You are no longer going to find unaffiliated Jews in the JCCs or the synagogues,” says Rabbi Burg. “You’re going to find them in other venues. We have to engage them in their own territory, in their comfort zone.”

“It’s a new dynamic,” says Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of Yeshiva University’s (YU) Center for the Jewish Future. In other words, the onus is on the kiruv community to find and reach out to future members of the Torah-observant community.

“You are no longer going to find unaffiliated Jews in the JCCs or the synagogues. . . . You’re going to find them in other venues. We have to engage them in their own territory, in their comfort zone.”

Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, associate director of the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP), a pioneering kiruv group, agrees. The Jewish community is more spread out nowadays, with more and more Jews settling in areas with no identifiable Jewish neighborhood, he says. NJOP is based in New York City but coordinates non-denominational activities, like crash courses in Hebrew and Shabbat Across America, which brings tens of thousands of Jews together for an annual Friday night event occurring simultaneously at hundreds of locations in cities across North America.

“You have to work harder” than in the past to find unaffiliated Jews, Rabbi Rosenbaum says. “[Jews] are more scattered. They’re not looking for [Jewish enrichment].”

The new trend in kiruv has both rabbis and lay leaders seeking out Jews in high schools and college campuses, cafes, restaurants and office buildings. Think rabbis without borders.

Many of these programs serve as a magnet for Jews because they don’t take place in an obviously Jewish site. Thus, programs loosely wear an “Orthodox” or “outreach” label to avoid scaring away Jews who have little connection with traditional Judaism.

“The average kid who is not Orthodox is terrified by an Orthodox shul,” says Rabbi Burg. “It’s strange. It’s not what he’s used to.” That, he says, is why NCSY has located some of its most successful outreach programs in places like public schools and cafes. “Kids—even youngsters in families that belong to Orthodox congregations—are not in the shul anymore.”

Take Latte and Learning, an NCSY program founded in 1996 in Detroit, which attracts middle and high school students to coffeehouses with an offer of free coffee and a Torah discussion. The program has spread across the country, from Seattle to Miami. Philosophically, NCSY is making essentially the same pitch it did years ago, when kids were still in the synagogues, Rabbi Burg says. “Torah hasn’t changed; what’s different is the packaging,” he says. “The kiruv movement is all about marketing Orthodoxy.”

Not everyone in the Orthodox community understands this out-of the-synagogue approach, Rabbi Burg says. One disapproving rabbi commented that “NCSY is not the National Conference of Starbucks Youth.” Interestingly enough, the NCSY chapter located in that rabbi’s community created a Latte and Learning program that now draws sixty to seventy teens each meeting.

But Rabbi Barry Gelman of Houston’s United Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) understands that a shul can be alienating. So three years ago he started UOS’ outreach to Sugar Land, a bedroom community thirty minutes from Houston with a growing Jewish community but no Orthodox residents. The UOS initiative may be the first such Orthodox synagogue program in the United States that specifically aims to influence a community without Orthodox Jews, Rabbi Gelman says. He continues to lead a monthly Sugar Land study group and last year hired Yeshiva University musmach Rabbi Moshe Davis, who coordinates the outreach and leads regular classes in people’s homes as well as a monthly Shabbaton in the social hall of an assisted living facility.

Interest in Sugar Land is still growing, Rabbi Gelman says. “People are more comfortable in their own homes or in the homes of someone they know.” Some participants in the Sugar Land program have joined UOS, some have become shomer Shabbat, some have moved within walking distance of an Orthodox synagogue, he says, but that isn’t the point.

“The most important goal is to inspire people by exposing them to Torah,” Rabbi Gelman says. “I’m interested in building a community that has lots of different types of Jews. We have a responsibility to teach Torah to whoever wants to have it.”

Niche Kiruv
In recent years, outreach was, or seemed to be, largely in Chareidi hands.

But today’s kiruv programs range across the Orthodox spectrum, from Modern Orthodox to Chareidi auspices. The road of twenty-first-century outreach was paved, in part, kiruv experts say, by Chabad, whose shaliach couples have for decades served as the lone outposts of Torah Judaism in isolated communities, and by Birthright Israel, whose young participants, after visiting Israel for the first time on the program, tend to return with a sudden openness to strengthening their Jewish identity.

Moreover, with a growing number of trained leaders involved in kiruv activities—some of them raised and educated as Torah-observant Jews, some of them young and culturally savvy—many outreach programs are now geared to specific, easy-to-identify niche communities. One-program-serves-all is yesterday. Today, it’s earmarked activities for teens and college students and women and Jews from Soviet or Iranian families.

“Because there are more and more people involved, there is more room for people to specialize,” says Rabbi Rosenbaum.

This is especially true in the émigré community of Jews whose families came from the former Soviet Union. In the early years of the kiruv movement, many of the programs geared for newcomers who arrived with little or no Jewish background were led by American-born rabbis.

Now, says Rabbi Eli Blokh, the Moscow-born founder of the Jewish Russian Community Center in Queens, New York, which concentrates its religious and educational efforts on people from the former Soviet Union, there are “many [Soviet-born] Russian-speaking people working in the field.”

Another example: Rabbi Mordechai Tokarsky, a native of St. Petersburg who heads RAJE (Russian American Jewish Experience) in New York, a specialized division of Gateways, an international kiruv organization. Rabbi Tokarsky’s colleagues, who are fellow émigrés or members of émigré families, have a better understanding of the immigrant mentality and are better equipped to tailor their programs to the participants’ needs.

“In order to be effective in kiruv, you have to share common ground culturally with the group you are reaching out to,” says Rabbi Burg. “You have to have grown up with the same Sunday morning cartoons.”

When it comes to outreach, specializing, experts say, makes sense. NCSY often gets referrals from kiruv organizations that have made parents frum but are unable to reach the teenagers in the family. “Teenagers’ brains are in a different place. They are not adults and they are not kids,” says Rabbi Burg. “Adult kiruv tends to be intellectual; teen kiruv is social. It’s all about hanging out.”

Thirsting to Learn
“Sage academic types were convinced that the teshuva revolution [of the 1970s] was running out of steam. It was part of a general American return to religion, or left-over idealism from the ‘60s, or a reaction to the devaluing of the individual, which eventually people would come to grips with,” Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, author and educator, wrote two years ago on his Cross-Currents blog. “They were all wrong. All those cultural trends have come and gone, and there is no end in sight. More and more people emerge each day who wish to learn.”

At the same time, however, there are not as many willing to leave everything behind to go study Torah. Several decades ago, Rebbetzin Kohn says, people were anti-establishment and were quick to leave everything behind to join a yeshivah. Today, by contrast, they want to learn in addition to everything else they’re doing. It’s not that learning is less important, she says, but that in some ways “it’s a different reality. . . . [People] are more realistic and more grounded.”

Kollel Kiruv
TORCH in Houston represents another kiruv trend: ubiquitous kollelim that bring young scholars and their families to cities unfamiliar with advanced Jewish learning. The rabbis, and often their wives, dedicate significant time to teaching classes and participating in chavruta learning.

According to the Association for Jewish Outreach Professionals (AJOP), the major kiruv umbrella organization, nearly three dozen community-supported kollel programs—some are affiliated with the Mizrachi-oriented Torah MiTzion movement, others take a more Chareidi, Lakewood-inspired approach—are in operation in the United States, some in such unlikely Jewish settings as Savannah, Georgia; Des Moines, Iowa; and Norfolk, Virginia.

Local synagogues help establish the kollelim, NJOP’s Rabbi Rosenbaum says, as an investment in the future of their communities and the viability of their congregations. In addition, YU rabbis, sponsored by YU’s Center for the Jewish Future, take part in temporary kollel programs across the country during their vacation time.

The rabbis in ten-year-old TORCH are “Yeshivish—but not all the guys wear black hats,” Rabbi Jacknin says. They teach approximately one thousand people a month, including participants in well-attended women’s conferences and medical ethics conferences, he says. Many of the kollel classes are held in Reform and Conservative synagogues. “The shuls are happy to have us teach classes,” he says.

Upstate, in Dallas, the community kollel is developing a hands-on, user-friendly brand of Torah Judaism. Based on the campus of the Akiba Academy and Yavneh Academy, the kollel aims its activities at the parents of the schools’ students.

It offers an ongoing Shabbat Family Minyan, a “halachic prayer service” that features explanations of the tefillah and a Shabbox, a bi-weekly container that offers educational materials and family activities on a Shabbat theme, says Rabbi Joe Hirsch, program coordinator.

Facebook Outreach
The new blood in outreach has helped to generate new ideas.

It’s a revolution in tactics, or rather an evolution that has adapted over the years to new realities in the Jewish community, Rabbi Rosenbaum says. He calls today’s successful programs a Generation Y throwback to the popular mixed dances that Orthodox organizations sponsored as early as the 1920s to attract unaffiliated and marginally affiliated Jews. Then, they met at dances; today, on Facebook. Indeed, many of the Jewish community’s new kiruv programs use high-tech Internet initiatives and online social networking to spread their spiritual message. These programs include projectsinai.org, which concentrates on “personal growth”; theshmuz.com, which offers interactive forty-five-minute Torah lectures; jewishpathways.com, an Aish HaTorah-developed Web site and globalyeshiva.com, a source of videos, blogs and more. One can also study Torah via video podcast and mp3 audio.

“Kiruv has changed,” Rabbi Adlerstein wrote in Cross-Currents. “Kiruv has become familiar and comfortable with technology and sophisticated graphic presentation.”

People in all the new outreach activities “are thinking out of the box,” developing new techniques and new venues for reaching Jews unfamiliar with traditional Judaism, Rabbi Rosenbaum says. NJOP, he says, has turned to such innovations as Twitter, YouTube videos and e-mail updates to reach its hip target audience. “Society is changing. People”—especially young people—“don’t read newspapers. They read e-mails.”

“Many outreach professionals are using Facebook, Twitter, et cetera, for recruiting and communication,” says Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld, executive director of Jewish Spiritual Literacy, a Baltimore-based educational organization that seeks to revitalize Jewish spiritual education. “But I’m not sure this counts as a trend, because regardless of the trend, kiruv still boils down to relationships. These new tools are just that—tools.”

Rabbi Burg agrees. The NCSY web site features videos about its upcoming and past activities, and the youth organization is active in the world of Twitter.

“Everything we do is on Facebook, since that’s where the kids operate,” he says. “Of course, the most important thing is the one-on-one relationship; you can’t replace the human dimension.”

This article was featured in the Winter 2009 issue of Jewish Action.