When I was a kid, NCSY was the leading pioneer in Jewish outreach. Since that time, Baruch Hashem, many worthy organizations have joined the ranks. Nowadays, some 40 years later, much of the kiruv world is dominated by more right-wing Orthodox Jewish institutions, most notably Chabad and Aish. Just ask anyone who attends a secular college and they will be the first to tell you that Chabad is the place to be Friday nights. In Binghamton alone, the Chabad House gets upwards of 300 kids every Shabbos. When I asked about any other kiruv programs in the area, I was told their presence was weak at best.
It would seem the Modern Orthodox community would be best equipped to take on this challenge because of our Torah u’madah framework, but this is hardly the case. Why?
Steven Gotlib’s recent article for Lehrhaus magazine explains: “One of the biggest issues that prevents Modern Orthodox kiruv from being successful is that Modern Orthodoxy tends to be perceived as unattractive to those who are searching for a legitimate religious outlet. One need only look at the traction of Eitan Gross’s now infamous Times of Israel article in which he argues that the Modern Orthodox world is full of ‘glaring hypocrisy and internal contradiction.’”
Just look around at your average Modern Orthodox shul. While many love attending davening each Shabbat on a regular basis, many do not do so during the week. Except for those few shuls that are actually thriving, many Modern Orthodox shuls lack the enthusiasm one finds at a Chabad, a shtiebel, a yeshiva, or one of the few happening shuls usually featuring a rockstar rav (or in our shul’s case, two).
Several years ago, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, z”l, rav of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, New York since 1991, courageously penned an article discussing this very real dilemma.
He explained: “Strikingly, I have noticed that the young married generation does not come to shul. Period. I can’t think of any young married person who joins us with any regularity. I put the question out on a Young Israel Rabbis chat that I belong to: ‘Do you observe that young marrieds are not coming back to shul?” I was stunned by the number of answers that I received from rabbis in many parts of the country, with the exact same observation. One rabbi chats with me offline about this. I was surprised by the intensity of his words, as he vented his frustration with his young community concerning the minyan issue as well as a whole host of other problems stemming from apathy from this generation.
Case in point:
I went to Israel 10 years ago with my family and stayed in Talpiot for Succos. The atmosphere in practically every shul we visited was cold, unfriendly and boring and I could see my family was not having it. We decided to attend Chabad the next evening and immediately, the difference was palpable. The rabbi came over and introduced himself, offered me a drink and anything else we wanted to make us feel welcome. On our walk home, for a New York minute, we seriously considered switching shuls because of the happy atmosphere they engendered.
But don’t take my word for it. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of the Conservative Park Avenue Synagogue said of Chabad, that they “dress the part, they claim to be the real deal… and they make no judgments about who you are and where you came from. And you know what? Surprise surprise, they are the fastest growing segment of American Jewish life [emphasis added].”
Many in the Modern Orthodox fold go through the motions of religious life but are not that outwardly passionate about living a life of Torah, let alone bringing others closer to it. Even Rav Aharon Lichtenstein agreed with the contention that “the lack of either passion or spirituality is no accident, but the inevitable result of [the Modern Orthodox Community’s] interest in the cultural and political orders.”
Inadvertently testing a theory, I printed a few thousand 40-page booklets titled “Why Shabbos?” which features 10 compelling stories of people who kept Shabbos and experienced tremendous miracles.
I emailed a copy of the booklet to 75 non-Chabad Jewish outreach professionals, along with 50 rabbis working in Jewish Day Schools throughout the United States. I explained that someone had sponsored several thousand copies and would be willing to send them up to 200 for free. Out of 125 attempts, I only received 3 callbacks.
I even mentioned to every educator that roughly 35 percent of kids coming from Modern Orthodox families probably text on Shabbos or worse. The latest Pew polls are confirming these numbers, and the trend is growing because many Modern Orthodox Jews fail to see the value, beauty and power of Shabbos. Some Modern Orthodox educators even suggested that their job is to educate, not make them frum. Huh?
Juxtapose that response with my second Chabad encounter. I sent them the same email about the booklet and not only did they love it, but they thanked me, and even gave me a list of every single Chabad on Campus, where we successfully sent out over 6,000 books!
What accounts for this glaring difference between my Modern Orthodox and my Chabad brothers’ polar opposite attitudes towards outreach? Are we ashamed of showing our love of Hashem’s mitzvot? Why did one Day School actually admit that the Shabbos booklets would “probably be chucked into the garbage, because everyone’s just too busy.”
Really? Last I checked, Chabad is busy too. Busy saving Jewish lives. The only big difference is that they know what their mission is, and they do it consistently. Unlike many Modern Orthodox sects which are too busy trying to define just exactly what their mission statement is (Chabad grabs a pair tefillin, some Shabbos candles, makes a meal and goes out of their comfort zone to bring others closer to Hashem’s mitzvot. And with passion no less, consistently running towards the finish line.
They are not confused or unsure or insecure about their mission. They want to fill the light of G-d into a world of darkness, and the Rebbe was the unparalleled genius behind this nuanced understanding of Jewish purpose. To be fair, there are many institutions like Aish or Ohr Sameach who are focusing on outreach and doing unbelievable work, but like Chabad, they cannot do it alone.
Friends, we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on providing our children a proper Jewish education and that is commendable. Yet education is only the first part. We must inculcate what we learn and teach our children in school and make it a living part of actual practice in life.
We have to reevaluate what we think the purpose of Jewish Day School and our synagogues are. If shuls are just for congregating and praying, and education is about getting into a great college, well then, case closed. But if we believe that G-d wrote the Torah and we are obligated to continually grow in it, and bring others closer to observance – like our very own children – kiruv and passion must be part of the equation.
But when outreach is placed low on the priority list, and when our shuls lack enthusiasm and our rabbis are afraid to make our kids “too religious,” well, we can’t be shocked when one in three (and growing) of them could, G-d forbid, be mechalel Shabbos. Luckily, there’s probably a Chabad house around the corner waiting to proudly and passionately and lovingly show them the beauty of Torah Judaism.