One of the most difficult problems facing Judaism today is its own perpetuation. This is not to say that it will not exist into the future. It will. And in fact observant Jewry is growing by leaps and bounds. One need not look any further than the explosion in the numbers of observant Jews in America and Israel since the Holocaust to see that. We were once so tiny a percentage of the whole that it was predicted we would one day be relegated to the ash bin of history. Now Orthodoxy the fastest growing segment (denomination) of all Jewry. But we should not be triumphalist. We have not yet triumphed.
As encouraging as these numbers are, there are far greater numbers of Jews that are not observant. Intermarriage is at an all time high. The Reform movement has had to redefine ‘who is a Jew’ just to keep their numbers up. And the Conservative Movement is struggling to keep attrition to a minimum. Both of those denominations have looked at the successes of Orthodoxy and have tried to take lessons from it.
While we might want to celebrate the triumphs of an educational system that has done so much to add to our growth both in numbers and spiritually – the fact is that we are still a very small percentage of the whole. The vast majority of Jews in the world are not observant… and most don’t care to be.
The sad truth for non Orthodox establishments – is their numbers will probably keep dwindling. The only thing that can help retain the large majority of Jews who are assimilating out of Judaism is outreach. That has to be done by teaching non observant Jews with little or no background or education – the beauty of observant Judaism.
The thesis of an article by Rabbi Ilan Feldman in the most recent issue of Klal Perspectives speaks to this issue and laments its current decline in effectiveness. The once great numbers of Jews who were inspired to become observant has dwindled. He proposes that if we want to reverse the trend back to previous levels of success, we need to change the paradigm. From one where we focus on how to better observe Halacha in virtual isolation from our brethren – to one where we become role models for a life of Torah and commitment to observance. We should practice the precept of Kol Yisroel Areivim Zeh LaZeh – every Jew is responsible for every other Jew. We cannot just look inward. We must look outward and act in ways that are a Kiddush HaShem if we are ever to influence our non observant brothers and sisters of the beauty of Torah.
I agree. This is a theme I constantly harp on. And why I scream so loudly when some self-absorbed Jews commit a Chilul HaShem.
Rabbi Feldman had an epiphany as a young man about non observant Jews that I firmly believe to be true and have said so many times. There are a great number of non observant Jews that are in fact ‘religious’. They are proud of their Judaism and want to live a more Jewishly committed lifestyle. Not knowing how to do it is perhaps their biggest obstacle. Opening up our hearts and homes in non-judgmental ways and leading our lives as role models of behavior can have a great impact on many of these people. They most certainly should not be written off, while we pat ourselves on the back about our successes.
Unfortunately the current trend especially among the right is to become ever more insular. Kiruv when it does happen in that community is an ‘out of sight out of mind’ occurrence. There is hardly any cross fertilization between the Kiruv professionals and the rest of the community. Which I think is in part the reasons so many Baalei Teshuva are so disappointed when they try to integrate with the mainstream. It is a fact of life, but a travesty nevertheless when newcomers are often kept at arm’s length instead of being honored for what they have achieved.
But it isn’t only about outreach. It is about in-reach. Like trying to deal with those among us who are at risk. Based on all the ink spilled on the subject even by the right wing, I have to assume that the numbers are quite large, and growing. These kids drop out for various reasons, including dysfunctional families, or having been sexually (or otherwise) abused. Or simply falling through the cracks of an educational system that is too narrowly focused on only one aspect of it (e.g. Gemarah or academics) and does not practice the proverbial advice of “Chanoch L’Naar Al Pi Darko.”
And then there are those who simply ask the “wrong’ questions” about matters of belief or contradictions between science and Torah. These can and often do steer people away from observance and belief.
Rabbi Michael Broyde says in response to Rabbi Feldman’s article that this last item is a problem in outreach that he did not address. When trying to persuade college educated youth to consider a Torah lifestyle, demonstrating the beauty of it may very well not be enough. Their exposure to the scientific knowledge of the day and the contradiction they perceive it to be to the Torah is a huge impediment to them in accepting Orthodoxy. Especially in light of the Slifkin affair. When the right rejects books that try in all sincerity to reconcile Torah and science by calling it heresy, very few college educated youth will be able to buy into that… and in fact will be completely turned off by such talk.
That said, I agree with Rabbi Feldman’s suggestion that we need to change the paradigm from one tending toward insularity to one of connecting to our fellow Jews outside of our own Daled Amos.
There are many ways to do it. Nothing works better than inspiration. When young people are inspired by the way observant Jews behave, they can become inspired to see what Observant Judaism is all about. But that alone will not work. Certainly not in every case. It has to be accompanied by a rational approach to answering difficult questions about science and Torah that will appeal to the educated mind.
I witnessed outreach at work in an amazing way over this past Shabbos. I saw public high school students become inspired over Shabbos – culminating with the classic NCSY Havdalah ceremony which includes stories of sacrifice by their peers standing up for their Judaism.
NCSY International Director, Rabbi Micah Greenland was at his best, infusing his own passion into the stories he told while soulful music was being played in the background. After the Havdalah was completed those kids danced excitedly to Jewish music with breathtaking intensity. Many of those kids were not observant at all. Except for their dress, one would never know they were not Frum. It was a sight to behold.
Inspiring the unaffiliated can be done through inspirational stories or through our own behavior as role models. We should always be thinking about how we look to others whenever we are in public. Or even in private for that matter. On the other hand when a Chilul HaShem is made by observant Jews, it will surely have the opposite effect
Nor can we afford to dismiss Rabbi Broyde’s comments… even at the high school level. As inspired as those kids I saw last weekend, many of them will eventually go off to college and be exposed to questions that may not have anyone at the ready to answer them at that time. There needs to be a paradigm change at both the interactive level as well as the educational level. Insularity must end. And so must ignorance.
I realize of course that the vast majority of non-observant Jews will probably still remain non-observant. And that assimilation and intermarriage will still be rampant. We will never reach everyone. But as our sages have told us, it is not for us to finish the job. But neither are we free to refrain from it (Avos 2:21). We can go a long way towards changing the world by changing course. Much further than we are now.
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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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