Arnold D. Samlan
Jewish Educational Leader, South Florida

Putting the “Kiruv Movement” to Sleep

Back when I was a young rabbi and Jewish communal professional, I would often ask others in my overall field what their career track was. Some answers were predictable:  rabbi, teacher, principal, social worker, Federation professional, JCC professional, youth worker. But in those days, a whole new career track was beginning to rise in Orthodox communities: “kiruv work“.  That work, which sometimes meant being paid by mainstream Orthodox organizations to encourage more people to adopt Orthodox Judaism, also became a job title for those working in young, new organizations. Some of these were youth organizations, some were yeshivot, some were adult learning programs, and there were even a few day schools that considered this to be their primary focus.

Unfortunately, what began as a well-intentioned set of attempts to bring individuals to a life that would be lived in accordance with Orthodox understandings of Torah, led to abuse. Many of these kiruv organizations were deliberately vague in stating their goals. Some insisted that their success stories not only had to become better and more observant Jews, but that they would have to adhere to a subset of practices and beliefs that was unique to a particular minority group within the Orthodox community. Intellectual dishonesty became commonplace, and some of my colleagues even passed along correspondence showing that they were encouraged to misstate facts if it was necessary in order to bring an individual into Orthodoxy. More recently, an individual involved in this type of work stated publicly that he had “made thousands of people religious”, as though one person could build another human being into a person with the beliefs he was promoting.

Among the other actions I’ve witnessed or heard of are denigration of other groups within Judaism, and even within the relatively small Orthodox community. Modern Orthodox Judaism often receives the scorn of “kiruv professionals”. Some kiruv groups actively discourage adherents from secular education or learning. Other discourage support for the state of Israel. And most seem to encourage followers to disrespect the Reform or Conservative Judaism that, for many of them was what educated them to a point where they would engage with a kiruv organization to begin with.

In short, kiruv work has moved from what could have been a legitimate path to engage and educate Jews, and to bring them closer to the Jewish community, to become part of a sales force designed to sell a particular approach to Judaism and to distance followers from the vast majority of the Jewish community. This needs to end for the sake of k’lal Yisrael, the greater good of the Jewish people.

The job of bringing people closer to Torah wouldn’t end with the end of the kiruv movement. After all, the Mishnah in Avot says that we are all to “be like the followers of Aaron: loving peace, actively pursuing peace, loving humanity and bringing them closer to Torah”.  Notice that the love of peace and of humanity is what is linked to kiruv, bringing people to Torah, not the disparaging of others and of others’ approaches. And to be fully honest about it, the text doesn’t even say to only bring Jews to Torah; it says to bring God’s creatures to Torah. And it is the entire Jewish people that is responsible for helping to bring others closer to Torah.

The best vehicle for this is Jewish education. And the best Jewish education adheres to these principles:

  1. The teacher, be it a rabbi, youth worker, classroom teacher, or friend, is a guide to the world of Judaism, not a salesperson. Every individual has the right and obligation to choose his/her path.
  2. Truth is found in many places and some truths may very well contradict others. Reconciling the Genesis story with scientific findings isn’t a new challenge. Even Rashi wrestled with the question of a 7 day creation. Judaism can stop taking away my dinosaurs and get a grip on a world that has complexity and contradictions.
  3. Television, social media, rock and roll and hip-hop music and movies are, unquestionably, tempting distractions. And most of the prophets and ancient rabbis were engaged with the social and communal life of their times. So, don’t believe anyone who says that you must have an all-or-nothing relationship with the dominant culture and its expressions.
  4. Real Jewish education doesn’t candy-coat. There are real challenges that confronted the rabbis of the Talmud and post-Talmudic era and that confront us. They were as troubled as we are by the Torah law that commanded an act of genocide [against Amalekites], which is why they found ways to effectively disable that mitzva. They couldn’t fathom a religion that put people to death for so many crimes, so they effectively disabled the death penalty. Real Jewish education challenges us to deal with the Jewish texts and practices that drive us crazy, and to figure out what to do with the challenges.
  5. One size doesn’t fit all in Jewish education and in Jewish life. Indeed it is the diversity of Jewish beliefs and practices that have sustained us. And sometimes what was viewed as heretical in one generation became mainstream in another. Example: in most Jewish communities today, significant values of the Hellenists of ancient time were adopted by Jews and by Judaism (minus the idols). So, if you can’t teach one set of beliefs without dissing another, you’re in the wrong game.
  6. Intellectual honesty requires that we apply the same critical thinking to our Judaism that we apply to other areas of knowledge. If we accept the “miracles” of our tradition, then we have to admit to the possibility of “miracles” in that of others’. If carbon dating is good for science class, then it has to be good for the Torah class. And so on.

And, as the Mishnah suggests, may our Jewish education work always be based on peace and on loving for all humanity.

About the Author
Rabbi Arnie Samlan, Chief Jewish Education Officer of the Jewish Federation Broward County, Florida, Is a rabbi and Jewish educator whose work has impacted Jewish learners, community leaders and professionals across North America. All blog posts are his personal opinions and are not meant to reflect viewpoints of the Jewish Federation.