The Need for Empowering and Ethical Jewish Outreach

Helping handby Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

In my personal religious journey, I was fortunate to have found the right mentors and educators who supported and challenged me but also never attempted to manage my life journey. They cared deeply about my growth but the steering wheel was always in my hands. I strive to emulate that model in my own leadership and outreach.

Our forefather Abraham is the paradigm of Jewish hospitality and outreach. Even when he was advanced in years according to Genesis 18, he would run in order to greet passersbys and offer them food and rest. We, as his descendants, should feel called upon to follow this example: Jewish outreach should primarily be about giving and shared learning; it should not be, as it often is today, about persuasion or coercion.

There are many problematic forms of Jewish outreach that exist today. (I explored this theme in an essay last year.) Outreach must not be designed to make others in the outreacher’s own image, but rather to present a broad range of texts, ideas, and experiences and give people the tools to make their own decisions about their Judaism. Diversity makes us stronger, not weaker, and it makes our learning better when we participate in it with people who have a vast array of experiences.

Outreach professionals should educate those who haven’t had formative Jewish experiences to foster a deeper commitment to Judaism through the study of its traditional texts. The outreach should not cause more divisions and fractures but help to enhance the unity of the Jewish people by building bridges to connect Jews of different persuasions. Outreach should enrich lives and society by making the Torah’s wisdom more broadly available. Further, outreach is not only about “one’s own” and we must bring people of different religions together in mutual understanding and respect by engaging in deep interfaith dialogue.

In recent American history, Chabad Lubavitch was the first Orthodox Jewish organization in the United States to promote outreach (kiruv) as a means of recruiting ba’alei teshuvah, unobservant Jews who commit to living an observant lifestyle. More recently, in 1987, the AVI CHAI Foundation helped fund two new outreach groups, the Association of Jewish Outreach Professionals (AJOP) to work within the Orthodox and National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP) to work within the non-Orthodox community. Over time, the AJOP shifted from having a Modern Orthodox orientation to a more Ultra-Orthodox one, and is now an organization interested largely in kiruv and the recruitment of ba’alei teshuvah. A report from AJOP’s 2007 convention noted that there were now more than 700 non-Israeli organizations represented. Meanwhile, NJOP, led by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, has programs in more than 4,000 locations that claim to have reached more than 1 million Jews in the United States (along with other locations and participants in Canada). On the whole, there are estimated to be at most 2,000 full-time, and a few thousand more part-time, Jewish Outreach professionals.

The greatest controversy has emerged concerning the struggles of the former ba’alei teshuvah who were drawn in through the Ultra-Orthodox (haredi) tactic of kiruv. Specifically, these former ba’alei teshuvah complain that they were not told of the extent of demands that a haredi lifestyle entailed. In addition, these individuals shared that they faced discrimination from the haredim, from being ostracized because they were suspected of keeping in contact with their non-haredi family members to having their children harassed and discriminated against at school. Finally, it has been pointed out that the haredi community might do better by prioritizing supporting the many large families living in poverty who struggle to maintain an Ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, rather than devote so much funding for kiruv. Some data tend to support this position. While a higher percentage of Jewish youth affiliate with the Ultra-Orthodox, the data also reveal that only about 40 percent of those raised Orthodox remain Orthodox as adults. Solving internal issues may keep more within the community causing less of a survivalist need to constantly persuade new members. Communities must engage in in-reach and not just out-reach. Further, given the explosion of recent secular-haredi tensions in Israel (neither side without blame), we must promote respect and real dialogue as opposed to attempts to merely convert the other into one’s own ideological camp.

Some outreach programs are growing and some are closing down. Modern Orthodoxy only has a small program (JLIC) that is effective but only on target campuses. This summer the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism closed down Koach, the college outreach organization of the Conservative movement. Among other active outreach groups, in the fall of 2012 the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) initiated the first 16 affiliates of its Big Tent Judaism Professional program. The JOI is geared toward attracting many groups formerly ignored by outreach programs, such as interfaith families and anyone else who does or wants to affiliate with Judaism. We need Jews of all convictions engaging in campus outreach to help inspire young spiritually seeking Jews to explore their Jewish roots and to learn to take Jewish leadership.

I was very privileged to serve for two years as the Hillel Jim Joseph Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel. This program was committed to building relationships around meaningful Jewish experiences, leveraging social networks for peer to peer engagement, raise the bar on relational Jewish learning, inspire and empower young leaders and a culture of Jewish social entrepreneurship. Providing more entry points for deep and meaningful Jewish experiences is Jewish outreach at its best and should be scaled up.

It must be acknowledged that Americans in general are trending toward a less religiously affiliated life. A Pew Research Center poll in late 2012 found that about 20 percent of Americans listed no religious affiliation, and that 32 percent of adults younger than age 30 were unaffiliated. Thus, there are people who may “feel spiritual” but may not feel a calling for any of the religions they have experienced. They may be receptive to a positive message from honest, accepting, welcoming Jewish outreach workers and enthusiasts who attach no strings to involvement with them and engagement with their Jewish teachings.

We must honor that every individual has infinite dignity and thus should maintain her autonomy in having and owning a distinct spiritual life journey. One dare not overstep this responsibility by asserting oneself aggressively and pushing serious religious and overall lifestyle decisions onto others, least of which the spiritually and emotionally vulnerable. Further, relationships with one’s family and friends should be maintained even if transformative Jewish experiences lead a person down a new life path. Mentors must ensure that this policy is maintained, barring any cases of absolutist zealotry from others within the ranks of the outreach world.

The Rambam teaches that accompanying another on his journey is the greatest of all mitzvot related to showing kindness to others (Laws of Mourning, 14: 1-3). We must return to our Abrahamic roots of reaching out through love and giving to humbly create more room for others by expanding our tent. Our outreach need not make others just like us; rather we must help others along their journeys and openly be a sympathetic ear and loving supportive voice.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”