A Response to “Thoughts on the impact of the Coronavirus on the world of Jewish outreach” by Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin
The truth is that Kiruv is dead! Now, before you respond that Kiruv is alive and well, let me explain. The old style of kiruv, in which a person would be tapped on the shoulder at the Kosel and then be taken in to a welcoming Beis Midrash to have all of his questions answered, is indeed dead. It’s actually been dead for a while already – maybe as much for as much as the last two decades. Kiruv has certainly gone through different phases. From 1967 to 1980 it was more about the idealists, while in the 80s and 90s it was about the truth seekers. As a child of parents who became religious in the 1980s, I grew up surrounded by the truth seekers – Toras Emes was their focus, while Toras Chaim was secondary at most. But around the turn of the millennium Kiruv turned into a profession, and in parallel the people who were drawn closer to religion were attracted by the Toras Chaim – the inspiration, the experience, the tears and the laughter, the friendships and the caring. Those Toras Chaim aspects became the focus of many Kiruv organisations. And in fact, only those organisations that adapted to the new mode of operation continued to thrive, while those who tried to remain tied to the tried and trusted methods struggled.
I once heard from Rabbi Joey Grunfeld, one of the pioneers of outreach in the UK, and the man responsible for my parents’ being drawn closer to religion, that you have a simple choice: adapt or die! Outreach really follows the same model as business in that respect. In business you’ll find a vast gap between those who feel like they can keep doing the same thing while tweaking little things here and there, and those who continually think out of the box – they are the ones who thrive.
Dayan Abramsky once said that we have to bury Moshe Rabbenu’s trumpets – he meant that even though the Torah remains Moshe’s Torah, the way we have to access it may change. Here’s an example: even though in Israel an immersive living experience has become less and less possible, in Los Angeles there are outreach organisations which are enabling visiting Jews to experience immersive living in Torah communities, and it has proven to be extremely successful.
I’ll admit that there was a big shift after the financial crisis in 2008, when people became less and less sure of their ability to take even one year off to learn Torah, because they were so worried about how it would affect their career prospects. The corona virus pandemic is probably in a similar category. Just like businesses have probably been pushed five years ahead of their time, outreach has been advanced to the extent that you have to innovate in order to survive.
I’m involved in organisations which have actually seen their reach extended by a factor of 50! If they were reaching 1000 people a week while welcoming people through the doors into a center, by going online they’ve been able to reach 50000 (!) people a week! Those organisations that have been able to adapt are running more on-on-one learning sessions and have reached more people, flourishing by putting their services online. Time will tell if this trend continues, but there’s no doubting the increased numbers we’re currently seeing. Of course nothing can replace real in-person human interaction, but smaller group sizes grounded with syllabus and Shabbos packs can achieve much of the same results.
Using technology and high-level options will vastly increase the extent of our ability to reach out, even though, admittedly, time will tell if this trend will stay for the long term. Just as an example though, in the JLE Rabbi Akiva Tatz has seen a huge increase in the number of attendees to his regular Shiur, and instead of being limited to those who live in Northwest London, he has hundreds of regular listeners around the globe!
So, it’s true that picking people up at the Western Wall 1967-style is dead, but picking people up at the Facebook Wall is alive and kicking. It might not sound as exciting, but that’s where we can find today’s youth, who are waiting for us to engage them.