July 13, 2024
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July 13, 2024
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If I Am Only for Myself, Who Am I? An Argument for Modern Orthodox Kiruv

What do we think of when we think of kiruv (i.e., bringing non-observant Jews back to Jewish observance)? Most likely teenage Chabadniks working the train stations on Erev Shabbos, Aish HaTorah’s Discovery seminars, or Ohr Sameach’s baal teshuva yeshiva in Jerusalem.

What is missing from these pictures? Aish and Ohr Sameach are more closely affiliated with yeshivish/right-wing Orthodoxy/charedi practice, and Chabad is, well, Chabad.

I do not mean to slight these amazing programs and the devoted people who run them; they have made a difference in the lives of thousands and thousands of Jews, and I am incredibly grateful for that.

The missing ingredient, however, in these classic kiruv paradigms is representation of “Modern Orthodoxy”—the range of observance associated with Yeshiva University, the day school movement, Bnei Akiva, Young Israel, etc. To be sure, there are some forms of kiruv that originate in the Modern Orthodox community. NCSY’s outreach to public high schoolers comes to mind. But this is one example, not many, and this is most likely not our first thought when we think of kiruv. In short, while the Modern Orthodox community has dabbled in kiruv, to say that it is a priority for the Modern Orthodox community is probably untrue. Far more important, I would say, is Israel advocacy, aliyah, tuition affordability, and the intersection of Orthodoxy with modern social and cultural trends, to name a few areas of focus for the Modern Orthodox community.

Why should this be? Why should it be that Modern Orthodoxy does not devote substantial resources and attention to kiruv? If we step back, it would seem that Modern Orthodoxy would be a natural fit for a kiruv-oriented community. There are much stronger cultural ties (in terms of world view, fluency in secular culture and mannerisms, integration in the modern economy, college attendance, etc.) between the Modern Orthodox community and the secular Jewish (or Reform/Conservative/etc.) Jewish communities. From my personal experience coming to Modern Orthodoxy from a non-observant background, I found that while there were certainly very substantial differences between an observant and non-observant lifestyle, the cultural milieu of Modern Orthodoxy was very similar to that in which I grew up. Namely, even after becoming frum, I did not feel out of place in my community. The same would not be true if I had become affiliated with more right-wing communities in Boro Park, Lakewood, etc. Culturally, and sometimes literally (e.g., yeshivish speak—farkert, l’maaseh, etc.), these communities speak a different language than the language I grew up with.

Beyond the cultural ties between non-observant and Modern Orthodox Jews, there are other reasons why Modern Orthodox Jews would be a good fit for kiruv. Since Modern Orthodox Jews are more thoroughly integrated into the non-Jewish world, they tend to have more natural encounters with non-observant Jews. Perhaps most importantly, kiruv of a non-observant Jew to a Modern Orthodox community is, in my opinion, more likely to “stick” than kiruv to a more right-wing community. Becoming Modern Orthodox is an “easier lift” for a baal teshuva. It is less foreign to the person, less threatening to their family members, and the community is a more natural fit, with the result that retention of baalei teshuva in Modern Orthodox communities will be higher than retention in more right-wing communities. I have seen cases of baalei teshuva who were mekareved in a more right-wing model and then became disenchanted with Orthodoxy because the form of Orthodoxy they were encountering was not a good fit. Had they been mekareved in a Modern Orthodox way perhaps this would not have been the case.

I’ve addressed why the Modern Orthodox community would seemingly be a good fit for kiruv. But why should the Modern Orthodox devote precious resources—personal and financial—to this cause? Of course, there is the traditional kiruv rationale that every Jewish soul is special and the Messianic view that spreading observance among the entire Jewish people will hasten the coming of Mashiach. Those are valuable reasons that are well established in our tradition, and I accept them. I want to highlight, however, other compelling reasons that we may have overlooked.

First, each non-observant Jew who is brought back to the fold, as it were, brings with him or her an enormous amount of energy and financial resources that, but for the return to observance, would have been lost to Jewish causes. For example, a typical baal teshuva family likely gives thousands of dollars, and hours of time, to Jewish institutions (just think day school tuition!) and causes (not to mention grocery stores and restaurants) each year. If this family was not observant, that number would be much, much lower. Related to this point, while not every observant Jew makes an enormous difference in their community, we have all witnessed highly motivated people who have made enormous contributions to their communities and the Jewish world. Certainly, some potential baalei teshuva would make such contributions. In addition, baalei teshuva often bring a surge of enthusiasm with them to Orthodoxy that a person who is FFB may be less likely to have, as well as fresh ideas and connections that can strengthen the observant community.

Second, as non-observant Jews move further and further from Yiddishkeit, their likelihood of being partners and allies in Jewish causes becomes attenuated. The classic example is Israel. In his book “Trouble in the Tribe,” Dov Waxman argues that the American Jewish consensus of robust support for Israel has fractured. Jews, typically those who are non-observant or less observant, now openly criticize Israel and sometimes identify with and support the Palestinians and groups that are hostile to the Jewish state. As Waxman argues, the loss of these allies materially harms the effectiveness of American Jewish support for Israel.

Third, and most important, let us honestly consider the future of non-Orthodox Jews in America. In a report released in October 2013 summarizing the results of an exhaustive survey of Jewish Americans, the Pew Research Center found that Jews were becoming less likely to identify as being Jewish on the basis of religion (93% in the Greatest Generation versus 68% of Millenials) and more likely to intermarry (60% of respondents who have married since 2000 versus 17% of those married before 1970), and that intermarried Jewish couples were much less likely to raise their children as Jewish (20% compared to 96% of those Jews with a Jewish spouse). The trend is clear: American Jews are becoming less likely to identify as Jewish on the basis of religion, more likely to intermarry, and less likely to raise their children Jewish.

What we are witnessing in modern-day Jewish America is nothing less than the slow-motion disappearance of millions of Jews, a modern-day ten lost tribes of Israel. In the Modern Orthodox community we are certainly aware of these trends. But very seldom do we ask what, if anything, should we do to stop it. Very seldom do we articulate that the only effective means of stemming this loss is to bring these Jews back to meaningful Jewish observance.

Why? How can we explain the blind spot in Modern Orthodoxy to the crisis of assimilation that is happening before our very eyes? Perhaps we think that kiruv is for Chabad, for Aish, but not for us. Perhaps we view kiruv as a form of proselytizing, which has never been part of Judaism and makes us uncomfortable. Perhaps we don’t have the resources or bandwidth to focus on this issue because we are so focused on issues of immediate concern to the Orthodox community. Perhaps—though I certainly hope not—we are not fully convinced that ours is the true path and are loathe to advertise it as such to others.

Whatever the objection, we must set those objections aside. All observant Jews have a role to play in kiruv, not just Chabad, and Modern Orthodox kiruv could well be more effective than right-wing kiruv has been. Regardless of how thinly stretched we are, we find the time and resources for that which we believe is important, and what could be more important than stemming the loss of millions of American Jews. And with respect to whether ours is the true path—we must not only practice what we preach, but we must also preach what we practice.

Kiruv also can serve an important ideological role in the Modern Orthodox community. With its emphasis on the State of Israel and aliyah, I often feel that Modern Orthodoxy has no appealing ideological rationale for Jewish life in America relative to Jewish life in Israel. Kiruv could supply that answer. Only Jews living in America can engage with American Jews on the brink of assimilation and bring them back. It is very difficult to be mekarev someone when you are an ocean away.

So, practically, what should we do? We—the Modern Orthodox community—need to create a machinery of kiruv that is much more robust than that which we have now. Taking a page from the book of Chabad, Aish and others, we should build up the apparatus of outreach to those who are young and most likely to be open to Orthodoxy—high school and college students, recent graduates, young professionals, and newly married Jewish couples. More robust development of these programs requires time, money and effort, but that is time, money and effort that we should absolutely be spending.

As we approach the holiday of Shavuot, when all of Bnei Yisrael effectively became baalei teshuva—ascending from the 49th level of tumah to the highest level of kedusha—let us consider how we can make that same ideal real, right here, right now, in a way that is both modern and Orthodox. Let us summon the courage and strength to step into the role that history has set for us. Let us follow the entirety of Hillel’s teaching from Pirkei Avot, not only asking, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” but also “If I am only for myself, who am I?”—and most importantly of all: “If not now, when?”

By Steven Starr

Steven Starr lives in Hillside, NJ, with his wife Keshet and children Ellie, Moshe and Meira. The Starrs are members of Congregation Adath Israel. Steven practices corporate finance law in New York.

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