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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Outreach’

Pushing the Boundaries of Outreach

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

One of the most difficult challenges of the 21st century was made very clear by the recent Pew study on American Jews. The fact is that except for Orthodoxy – Jewry is shrinking. I need not go into the statistics. They have been discussed ad infinitum by just about everyone. The shrinkage is due to a combination of factors mostly having to do with the lack of any significant meaning attributed to Judaism by those devoid of a religious education. Young Jews even with the highest of ethical values see no value in the religion of their forefathers. They see themselves as ethical human beings – same as anyone else with ethical values. They see all religious ritual adding nothing to their sense of ethics.

The question arises – what do we do about that? As Orthodox Jews who understand the value of the Torah and the importance of following Halacha – how can we change this new secular Jewish paradigm?

There are those who would answer: Nothing! There is nothing we can do to significantly change the attrition away from Judaism the masses are undergoing… that there has been attrition one way or another in every generation. Although they might wish things were different, they say it is virtually impossible to influence the minds of the vast majority of Jews whose secular – even ethical values were formed by a society devoid of Torah.

They will therefore say that we Orthodox should instead turn inward and work on ourselves and that the future of Judaism rests with us. While I understand that mentality and would certainly agree that we all need to work on our ourselves – I strongly disagree that we ought to ignore the rest of Jewry. We are not talking about a few Jewish souls here. We are talking about the vast majority of them. Fully 90% of all American Jewry is not Orthodox. Are we simply to just write them off? I don’t think so.

Thankfully neither do all the outreach organizations. They have had much success in reaching out to our secular brethren. But it is still a drop in the bucket. We Orthodox remain only 10% of the total. We may be growing, but a lot of that is internal because of our higher birth rate. The amount of successful outreach is still relatively small.

One way to reach more people is by interdenominational interaction. The problem with that is that some of the greatest religious leaders of the 20th century – including Rav Soloveitchik – have forbidden doing that. They forbade religious interaction of any kind because it would grant them tacit recognition. We cannot be seen to recognize movements that legitimize heretical thought. I understand and appreciate that.

Which is why the actions of the well intentioned Yeshiva Chovevei Torah are so problematic. Outreach is what motivated them to host leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism at a round table discussion during the installation of their new president, Rabbi Asher Lopatin. That certainly does seem to legitimize them. Both in the eyes of the leaders themselves and in the eyes of those who attended the session. While I support YCT’s intentions, I believe they have crossed a line here. As much as I would love to see cooperation between the denominations towards the goal of outreach that we all share – it cannot be at the expense of undermining our theology.

I know that YCT argues that such interactions do not validate heterodox movements. But it is impossible for those who attend to not see it that way – watching them all discuss their religious views as equals at the same table.So even though I agree with their motives, I disagree with what they did. That leaves the problem unsolved.

But there are other ways that we can participate with them and at the same time not be seen to recognize them. One way was when Yosef Reinman, a right wing Orthodox Rabbi from Lakewood, co-wrote a book with Amiel Hirsch, a Reform rabbi he had befriended… and then went on a book tour with him.

He was immediately – roundly criticized by the Agudah Moetzes for violating the ban on interacting with heterodox rabbis. They asked him to stop the tour and withdraw his book. He acceded to their requests but lamented the fact that he was now impeded from making the inroads he had started making with Reform Jews he would have otherwise never met.

Exacting Vengeance on the Gentiles?

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

Once again we are treated to the sight of very religious looking Jews acting like a street gang. A statue of a cross with a figure of Jesus on it was defaced by a group of Breslover Chasidim in Uman. The cross was recently erected opposite the grave of the founder of this Chasidus, Rav Nachman of Breslov – located in the Ukrainian city of Uman. From JTA:

“To exact vengeance on the gentiles,” reads the message, which was scrawled across the torso of a figure of Jesus. A further inscription on Jesus’ leg reads, “Stop desecrating the name of God.”

This kind of thing would not surprise me if it were being done by extremists from a community that embraces an isolationist lifestyle. But although they are hardcore Chasidim who dress and look much the same as Satmar Chasidim – Breslovers do a lot of outreach. I would expect them to know how to behave in a more civilized manner. They must have had a socialization process that taught them that or they could not do outreach. And yet here they have acted in a completely uncivilized way.

So it comes as a bit of a surprise that a Christian symbol near their venerated Rebbe’s grave site was desecrated with graffiti. I guess their socialization process goes just so far. A statue of Jesus so close to their Rebbe’s grave site was too much to handle.

I don’t know why the Ukrainian Government chose that site for its statue. I don’t think it was a wise decision. But at the same time, I don’t think it was necessarily meant to ‘stick it’ to the Breslovers either. It was probably just not a well thought out plan.

I can understand why these Chasidim felt outrage. They consider the Breslover Rebbe’s gravesite to be so holy that make annual pilgrimages to it. Tens of thousands of Jews (mostly Breslover Chasidim) from all over the world visit it during Rosh Hashanah – one of the holiest times of the year. It is almost as though they were making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem’s Holy Temple. Seeing the sight of Jesus on a cross must have made them feel like they were seeing Avodah Zara in the Beis HaMikdash.

The outrage is understandable. But their expression of it is inexcusable. It is the kind of behavior that can bring tragedy upon the Jewish people. Uman is not Jerusalem. R. Nachman’s gravesite is not the Beis HaMikdash. The citizens of Uman are their hosts. Breslovers are guests. And the guests have just defaced the image of the god their hosts worship.

The more responsible Breslover leadership has apologized. Sort of. From JTA:

“We respect other religions, and don’t wish to damage symbols of other religions. But, unfortunately, not all of our coreligionists understand this. They could break or destroy the cross. That would lead to a genuine war between hasidim and Christians. We cannot allow that, so we request that the cross be moved to a different location,” said Shimon Busquila, a representative of the Rabbi Nachman International Fund…

It may have been a legitimate request. But it was made too late. If made at all it should have been made politely before the statue was vandalized. Nonetheless the deputy mayor of Uman agreed with it.

On the other hand the citizens of Uman were so outraged by the vandalism – that they will have no part of moving the statue. They promised retaliation against Rav Nachman’s grave if it is moved. I can’t say that I blame them.

I think the point to be made here is contained in the response made by Shimon Busquila: ‘…not all of our coreligionists understand this’.

That is exactly the problem. Why don’t they understand this? It is not enough for a leader to simply say that some of their co-religionists do not understand the consequences of being uncivilized – thereby damaging the property of their hosts.  Especially their religious symbols. No matter how upsetting it is to them.

The Chasidim who did this are taught to hate non Jewish religious symbols much more than they are taught to behave in civilized ways when encountering them. So when they get upset at the sight of one of those hated symbols, they react in ways that bring ill repute upon – and ill will against – our people. They do so without thinking or perhaps even caring about the consequences.

The Outreach Revolution

Friday, April 26th, 2013

I think I’ve said this before – or something like it. Jack Wertheimer is one of my favorite Conservative Jews. A recent article of his in Commentary Magazine could not be more positive about Orthodox outreach. In fact I think he is even more supportive of it than many Orthodox Jews.

Why would a prominent Conservative Jew be so supportive of Orthodox kiruv? I suppose that he believes in the values of Torah and mitzvot. Despite popular notions to the contrary, Conservative Judaism is not opposed to doing mitzvot. They actually support it. At least on paper. How they define mitzvah observance is where the problem lies. Another problem with Conservative mitzvah observance are the percentages of those who actually observe…

My guess is that the percentage of Conservative Jews who observe Shabbot in any meaningful Halachic sense – is very small. I believe that Professor Wertheimer is a part of that minority.

Theological differences exist too. But those problematic views are not mandated… and thus surmountable in an individual. That they are tolerated by the movement is beyond the scope of this essay.

Professor Wertheimer has done an excellent job of studying and analyzing Orthodox kiruv – in virtually all of its incarnations. He discusses its history, financing, appeal, and examines why it flourishes. He credits the Lubavitcher Rebbe for starting this revolution. And he correctly notes that many non-Habad kiruv workers have learned from Habad.

From Habad; to Aish HaTorah; to Torah U’Mesorah; to community kollelim; to Modern Orthodox kiruv… he lauds it all. He even concludes that Orthodoxy underestimates its own success. Success that he views with a very positive eye.

He also notes the friction created between Conservative rabbis who lead synagogues and kiruv workers. The claim is that Habad (for example) will set up shop and undermine the Conservative shul business structure by offering smaller friendlier shuls with little or no synagogue dues. They also offer to provide Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies without any minimum shul religious class attendance requirement (typically 3 years). Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations are a drawing card for membership. True to form, it seems that Professor Wertheimer has no problem with Habad doing that.

The realities of 21st century life in America have caused lofty kiruv goals of bringing Jews to full observance to be lowered. One of those realities is the massive attrition of Jews from the Conservative movement into secular lifestyles. The pool of Jewish kiruv targets from there has been diminished. Conservative Jews tended to give their children at least a minimal Jewish identity making them more receptive to kiruv. Those who have left it to become completely secular makes it much harder for them to be attracted to an observant lifestyle. I agree with him.

That the expectations have been lowered and that the Lubavitch model of linear success is increasingly becoming the model for non Lubavitch kiruv. Any increase at all in their level of commitment is now viewed a success. As such Professor Wertheimer contends that Orthodox Kiruv is having far more impact on American Jewry than anyone might imagine. Those who have come into contact with Orthodox outreach programs but do not become Orthdodox themselves take that knowledge and impart it to other non-Orthodox Jew is their shuls. These Jews might never come into contact with Orthodox outreach. Thus there is a sort of multiplier effect.

Professor Wertheimer has the highest praise for Habad. They seem to be the most successful and the most organized. For example he points out their JLI program:

Of particular note is the Jewish Learning Institute (JLI), by far the largest internationally coordinated adult-education program on Jewish topics, offering the same set of courses at hundreds of Chabad locations around the world, all on the same schedule. This means that Jews who are traveling can follow the same course from session to session, even if they find themselves in a different city each week. In the fall of 2012, nearly 14,000 American Jews were enrolled in JLI courses, and overall close to 26,000 participated in Chabad’s teen- and adult-education programs.

The Chabad network is striving to create a seamless transition, so that young people who attended its camps or schools will gravitate to a Chabad campus center when they arrive at college and later, as adults, will join Chabad synagogue centers. No other Jewish movement offers this kind of cradle-to-grave set of services. The participants in these programs, needless to say, range in their Jewish commitments, but with the exception of a small minority, all are drawn from the ranks of the non-Orthodox.

But he also notes the explosion of non-Habad Kiruv organziations as well – including the far more insular world of Haredim. There are about 50 or so community kollelim that do outreach. My only real quibble with Professor Wertheimer is that these kollels are really more about in-reach than outreach (although they do outreach too). They tend to reach the already observant world and raise the level of observance and limud Torah. There are drawbacks to this too which I have discussed in the past but are also beyond the scope of this essay.

Atheist Birthright Founder and Rabbi Buchwald to Do Battle

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

The “Mother of All Debates” will take place next Tuesday at the National Jewish Outreach Program’s  (NJOP) 25th anniversary dinner next Tuesday at New York’s St. Regis Hotel.

The debate, which features the question of the future of Jewish continuity, will be moderated by renowned lecturer, author and thinker Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.

“We have agreed to disagree on stage, in public… which may be explosive!” said Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald.

“We do not see eye to eye on many issues, but we both have a deep, unshakable belief in and commitment to the future of Jewish continuity. It will be equal parts honor and thrill to share the spotlight with Mr. (Michael) Steinhardt,” he said.

The debaters will address issues ranging from the efficacy of modern-day programs intended to engage Jews, such as Steinhardt’s Birthright and Rabbi Buchwald’s Shabbat Across America, to how the American Jewish community will look 50 years from now.

The audience is restricted to “invitation only” and will include both supporters of Steinhardt and Jewish Outreach and local Jewish community leaders.

“It was with great urgency that we founded NJOP 25 years ago,” Buchwald stated. “The entire unaffiliated American Jewish community was at risk of vanishing. Thank God, we have reached many of them, but the challenges we still face are daunting.“

He established NJOP in 1987 in response to the spiraling losses of Jews from Jewish life due to assimilation and lack of Jewish knowledge.

NJOP sponsors Shabbat Across America/Canada and the Read Hebrew America/Canada campaigns, establishes “Beginners Services” and offers the Turn Friday Night Into Shabbat, Passover Across America and Sukkot Across America programs, Holiday Workshops, as well as free “Crash Courses” in Hebrew Reading, Basic Judaism and Jewish History.

Rabbi Buchwald was a student of Rabbi Dr. JosephB. Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, where he was ordained, and he served from 1973 for 15 years as the Director of Education at Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York.

Newsweek has listed him as on of America’s “top 50 rabbis” the last three years.

Steinhardt made a fortune as a hedge fund manager, financier, investor and newspaper publisher, and he is a philanthropist to Jewish causes.

He has been critical of non-Orthodox Jewish life and has charged that the Reform Judaism and Conservative movements have done “a poor job under-educating our next generations” by failing to distinguish Jewish values from Christian values.

Steinhardt also has asserted that that educators spend too much energy and time on the Holocaust to raise the flag of anti-Semitism in the United States, where he thinks is much less than believed.

The emphasis on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism detracts “from our ability to think about the Jewish future – because it’s hard to be focused intensively on the Holocaust and, at the same time, to think about what we want to accomplish and what we want to be in the 21st Century,” he said in an interview with Shalom TV three years ago.

Steinhardt has defined himself as an atheist but supports Jewish cultural identity.

The Diaspora “is a moribund Jewish world, continuously losing its young people, whose tzedakah has dramatically changed where only a small fraction of total philanthropy is going to Jewish causes; interest in Israel is declining; the number of American Jews going to Israel is not growing; where the culmination of Jewish life seems to be (for the young person) the bar mitzvah – and from there it is all downhill,” he added in the interview.

He founded the Birthright program, which sends young people to Israel for their first visit. Steinhardt has called Israel a “substitute for religion” but mourns the atmosphere in Israel, claiming it often is “easier to be a Zionist in Manhattan that in Tel Aviv.

However, he added, “I could forgive almost anything vis-à-vis Israel. Israel was and still is my Jewish miracle!”

His autobiography, “No Bull: My Life in and out of Markets,” notes his father, Sol Frank Steinhardt, who also was known as “Red McGee.”

“Red” Steinhardt was convicted in 1958 on two counts of buying and selling stolen jewelry, and was sentenced to serve two 5-to-10 year terms.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/news/atheist-birthright-founder-and-rabbi-buchwald-to-do-battle/2013/01/30/

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