The Times of Israel has an article from January, 2016 that puts some very good perspective on the Jewish kiruv/outreach movement and its effects on Jews worldwide.
Rabbi Arnold Samlan is the Executive Director of the Central Agency for Jewish Education in Broward County, Florida. In the article he notes the descent the kiruv movement has taken from being well-intentioned Jewish outreach, to becoming an idea sales force that looks at Jews more like points to be scored, or projects to be built, than as people. His focus of kiruv as a sales force is primarily on the selling of ideas and not the big business angle that exists in many, if not most, kiruv/outreach organizations.
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.
Though he doesn’t specifically mention Chabad above, I read it through a ‘Chabad lens’ since that is the outreach movement with which I’m most familiar. The intellectual dishonesty is present in their approach to teaching “Judaism.” Often a hasidic custom will be presented as “Jewish.” Likewise a custom exclusive to Chabad-Lubavitch may be described to their audience as “hasidic.”
Again, not specifically mentioning Chabad, he elaborates on a behavior that describes their approach well.
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
Now it’s obvious that they’re Lubavitch hasidim and we would expect them to practice Judaism according to their customs. However, Chabad claims to be bringing Jews “to Judaism” when in fact they are only presenting their version of it. And it is commonly presented in a manner that suggests it comes to us from Chabad Rebbes, especially Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe and a messianic figure to many of the sect’s followers. It’s highly unlikely you will ever hear a Chabad rabbi suggest you explore other types or branches of Judaism to see which one, if any, suits your life best. The majority of the times I’ve heard a Chabad rabbi discuss other branches of Judaism, was when it was to denigrate them. Rabbi Samlan addresses this in his article as a general problem in the kiruv movement.
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.
Rabbi Samlan suggests that more honest and less sugar-coated Jewish education as an alternative to outreach organizations that offer less honesty in hopes of achieving more “success”. He offers a very common sense, 6-point outline of the principles that the best Jewish education should adhere to:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.