A Call For The End Of Dishonest Jewish Outreach



I have been serving as a Jewish outreach professional for the last two years as the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel. I am so fortunate to be able to spend my days talking and learning with students about their life journeys. At its best, Jewish outreach provides a student alienated from Judaism with a warm, inclusive, sophisticated, honest entry point into finding his or her voice and place within the Jewish tradition and community. At its worst, outreach is deceptive, closed, and arrogant. It can be hard to tell the difference, because both types of outreach are done with a smile and bowl of cholent. 

Surveys of the American Orthodox community show the need for, and possible results of, kiruv (bringing another closer to the tradition). Of those adults who were raised in an Orthodox home, only 41 percent now identify themselves as Orthodox. On the other hand, 57,000 adults who were raised in a non-Orthodox household identified as Orthodox as adults. Among Jews attending synagogue, only 14-18 percent of those age 45 or older are Orthodox, while the percentage soars to 34 percent among those age 18-34. Since this study the numbers have increased significantly. The Orthodox outreach movement is working and only growing rapidly.

Orthodox groups engaged in kiruv include the National Jewish Outreach Program, with events at 3,700 locations throughout North America (and nearly 40 nations); Chabad, with its more than 3,000 emissaries (shluchim) in 70 countries; and groups such as Aish HaTorah, JAM, Maimonides, and Ohr Somayach. Of course there are thousands of other professionals (across the ideological spectrum) at Kollels, Hillels, shuls, and schools also doing significant outreach work. There are so many responsible and ethical Orthodox outreach professionals in the field that we cannot let those who are more narrow and deceptive ruin the perception of the rest. Outreach professionals are often courageous leaving their comfort zone to engage others in the tradition in inconvenient ways. However, many have been very critical of some kiruv tactics, especially among the Hareidi, for refusing to acknowledge any opinion but their own and for not answering difficult questions. One critical blog quoted Rabbi Emanuel Rackman’s critique of this closed, fundamentalist mindset that can be found:

A Jew dare not live with absolute certainty, not only because certainty is the hallmark of the fanatic…, but also because doubt is good for the human soul, its humility, and consequently its greater potential intimately to discover its creator. (One Man’s Judaism)

Kiruv, when done immorally, encourages a break from one’s family and friends who are not observant, pushes the student to make quick changes in observance, uses Bible codes and flawed philosophical logic with those who cannot detect the difference, uses alcohol to attract students, offers theological certainty, suggests that if one is religious they will be successful in all while dismissing the complexities of all human relationships and struggles, and promises a life of bliss if one merely chooses the true path.

When I was learning at an outreach yeshiva in Jerusalem, there was a sign above my bed that said “Don’t be so open-minded your brain falls out.” I was confused why open-minded thinking wouldn’t be in sync with sophisticated religious learning. I heard the most repulsive thing on campus once when I was in college which I have hesitated to even put in writing. I recall a group of us being told by an outreach professional (while being served “a l’chaim” – shot of liquor) that “shiksas are for practice” (that non-Jews, spoken about derogatorily, are for practice before one ultimately must settle down with a Jew). I was beyond appalled but also confused because this seemed to be a pious Orthodox rabbi giving me advice. While there have been many negative interactions, I am certainly very grateful for the great support that so many outreach organizations provided me during my religious journey.

We must call for an end to these practices. We must not become more concerned with charisma and gimmicks than truth, service, and piety. Are we willing to sell anything just to get five more “unengaged” Jews into the room or to prevent inter-marriage? Jewish integrity demands more. Bad kiruv claims the ends justify the means (i.e. do whatever it takes to make people more religious). Good outreach sees the individual as an end him or herself acknowledging their Tzelem Elokim (that they are created in the image of God). Further, the Rambam taught that “ki ha’seichel hu kavod Hashem” (intellect is the glory of God). To cheapen Torah to gimmicks is an affront to God and to man.

Irresponsible outreach prioritizes and encourages a more insular sense of community and a more narrow worldview. This is most troubling on campus when we should be educating young Jews how to be in the world not to escape from it. I have now encountered students at university who deny evolution, global warming, and the value of secular wisdom due to inappropriate kiruv influences.

To be sure, I am an Orthodox rabbi and one of my personal spiritual goals is to help others grow in their observance level. My colleagues and I strive to do that with honesty, intellectual openness, and on the terms that students are interested in. I would like to inspire my Jewish students to be more frum (inspired toward deeper religious commitments). But I want to guide others to where they want to go, not coerce them due to some alternative motive of mine.

Kiruv and pluralism need not contradict if one adopts a constructivist-contextualist approach. I can embrace the fact that very different responsible choices about one’s religious life are valid yet still want others to adopt a position more similar to my own. I respect their past narrative in its proper context and so I must respect their choices yet I also, as a religious educator, hope to partner with them to be inspired to reshape their future narrative not through an invasive imperialism of the soul but rather through a dual liberation. The one doing the kiruv should also expect to be mekaraived (be brought closer) in the process as well. To me, religious outreach is about engaging in partnered salvation from the world that is to the world that ought to be.

The best outreach involves chesed (acts of kindness). It is through giving to others, social justice work, service projects, and inviting others to have an impact in the world (all infused with Jewish learning and conversations) where we can empower others to learn and grow in their tradition, as individuals, and as citizens. It is the most honest and effective approach that conveys Judaism is ultimately about service and giving, love and justice.

The more we intentionally try to change young Jews, the more we mess them up. The great 15th century kabbalist Meir Ibn Gabbai taught that influencing humans is similar to playing a violin. If you place two violins with their strings facing one another and draw a bow across one string, the same string on the other violin across from it will vibrate as well. So, too, with souls. We do not manipulatively reach out and touch another’s soul. Rather we turn our soul on and encounter one another honestly. That is the way Ibn Gabbai teaches we can best achieve a spiritual awakening for ourselves and others. We owe our students the most attractive, powerful, and compelling models of Judaism. But more than that, we owe them honesty, patience, and respect.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel, the Founder & CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America.