Monday, October 09, 2006

Chizuk vs. Kiruv

I recently read a piece by Jay Michelson that said explicitly what I have been struggling to put into words.

“If vibrant Jewish culture causes more people to value being Jewish, it will cause more to want to raise children as Jews. But for culture to work, the content of cultural institutions must remain absolutely independent from the ulterior motives of keeping more Jews within the fold. As soon as culture becomes another word for advertising, it’s over”

The quote expresses what I find wrong in the work on kiruv, the process of bringing Jews closer to religion. It is totally evangelical, and therefore manipulative. It is insincere, in that there is this overhanging ulterior motive that permeates the entire exchange…how to get the other to become religious. It’s condescending insofar as it not a real interaction where both parties learn from each other and move towards each other. The direction is predetermined. Kiruv is a one way ticket from ‘nowhere’ to religion. And it’s all advertising using the tricks of Madison Avenue: acting techniques that enable the religious person to come on as cool and hip, pseudo science and shallow philosophical arguments. They utilize every tear jerker from anti-Semitism to the Holocaust. Whatever it takes to get the job done. They are kiruv professionals.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin was in Chicago many years ago, giving one of these $10,000 a- pop invited lectures. He was doing this ‘’we are modern, we are Orthodox, we are liberal, we are pluralist’’ lecture, in the style made popular by David Hartman and Yitchak Greenberg. (The late Arthur Hertzberg z’’l used to call this speaking circuit ‘’Orthodox for Reform’’.) He was going on about kiruv as a dialogue, and asked for questions. I got up and asked him if perhaps he would like to go out for a drink. Since kiruv is a dialogue I was thinking of being mekarev him, bringing him closer to my way of thinking. How did he, Rabbi Pluralist that he was, know which way kiruv was supposed to go? Being the smart man that he is, he realized bad news was staring him in the face, and responded with one word, ’Geonisdig’’, very clever, and proceeded to ask for the next question.

More would be accomplished on a macro basis if the emphasis was placed on creating vibrant religious and /or cultural Jewish communities all along the religious spectrum, and especially among secular Jews. All the liberal branches of Jewish life, from Conservatives to Jewish Renewal, don’t need kiruv they need chizuk….strengthening the already existent subculture. If Reform culture were vibrant, intermarriage would take care of itself. Ditto for all the other stripes. But everyone has learnt with their mother’s milk that to help a Jew less frum than you to be strong in his own space is an abomination. Can you imagine, I am advocating Orthodoxy should lend a hand to Conservatives and so on down the line? I must have forgotten to take my meds. Don’t I know that Conservatives and Reform are the enemy of Orthodoxy; the ersatz substitute for the real thing?

I once saw a documentary where this remarkable Skverer chasid was the basketball coach at Ramaz, the very Modern Orthodox ritzy day school in Manhattan. It was awesome. Even if he never taught a single teenager a word of Torah he was having an enormous influence on their subsequent development. His presence, the strength of his personality, his dedication and enthusiasm was all that was needed. The kids saw up front in a non- manipulative context what it is to be a chassidic Jew. The teenagers in time will find their own way to incorporate this powerful image into their own lives.

I think the most manipulative of the kiruv crowd is Lubavitch, followed by the Orthodox professional kiruv organizations. But every denomination is involved in this sort of come-on. They treat this whole process of a deeper, more serious, more religious life, as if it were a question of how to take vulnerable teenagers off the street.

Every kiruv organization is subject to the same statistical illusions. They overweigh their short term success with a few individuals, and minimize the overwhelming failure with most everyone else. The intermarriage rate remains at 50% with or without kiruv.

There was a retired couple in Evanston who had a long and active career as professional community organizers: labor unions, renters, Saul Alinsky type projects. They wanted to give back, and took upon themselves to go to the Ukraine and help Jews develop better communal organizations. They had no agenda other than helping the Jews of the various cities organize themselves to achieve whatever goals the community would develop. They used to say, whenever they came back to Evanston, that a big obstacle in their work was the local Lubavitcher and Zionist emissaries. The Lubavitcher had his agenda, the Zionist had his. Neither was particularly interested in strengthening the culture and life of the Ukranian Jews themselves.

There is so much that could be done if the goal was chizuk. Jews who were stronger in their outlook and practices would make themselves available to weaker Jews and help weaker congregations and groups. There is enormous amount of work that can be done on college campuses. A typical Hillel has 2 professionals, a rabbi and a director and a few thousand students. Think for a minute….here are a couple thousand kids away from home, free to date anyone, with all the issues of late adolescence, and there are 2 Hillel people to run the activities and services and provide the necessary pastoral care. The upshot is that no one looks at or befriends a majority of the Jewish students on campus.

There is so much that could be done to strengthen liberal Jewish life and so few are interested. And then everyone wonders why the intermarriage rate is so high.


At 11:56 AM, Blogger e-kvetcher said...

I think the most manipulative of the kiruv crowd is Lunbavitch

Is this misspelling intentional or a Freudian slip?


At 12:55 PM, Blogger Baalabus said...

Your best post yet.

At 2:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

>I once saw a documentary where this remarkable Skverer chasid was the basketball coach at Ramaz, the very Modern Orthodox ritzy day school in Manhattan.

MTA, not Ramaz.

Mayer Schiller

At 3:07 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

e-kvetcher...Hoisted by my own Freudian petard. I will correct it nonetheless.

baalabus...much thanks. It is always difficult for me to know how a post will be received.

R. Mayer Schiller- since I believe you are the man I was referring to I stand corrected, and my apologies. As I said in my post I stand in great admiration of your work.

At 3:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, great blog.

-another evanston Jew

At 6:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That reminds me of a similar distinction: "kiruv rechokim" (which characterizes the organizations that you critique) vs. "keruv levavos"


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