Friday, September 04, 2009

The Kiruv Con

A few years ago Telzer Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller wrote an article in the now defunct Jewish Observer. It was about deceptive practices by certain Kiruv or outreach Organizations. He went on to describe one such practice by a very popular international organization and he admonished them. His point was that if one wants to reach out to unaffiliated Jews one should to so honestly without deception.

I could not agree more. This is why an article in the Forward is so upsetting. Ohr Sameach, a Kiruv Yeshiva based in Israel is apparently doing just that. They are deceiving unaffiliated Jews in an effort to make them ultra Orthodox.

I of course have no problem with convincing Jews to become more observant. That is after all our mandate. God has directed the Jewish people to be observant of Torah law. Outreach is a way to do that. The point is to show unaffiliated Jews the vitality and beauty of the Torah way of life. And many Jews have indeed been won over this way – grateful for the opportunity they had to do it via the many wonderful outreach organizations whose programs have won so many people over.

But my applause only goes to those who have done so without deception. Ohr Sameach has apparently resorted to this tactic now. I am not going to get into details about the deceptive practices of some of other organizations. I have been there and done that and I’m not going to rehash it. Suffice it to say that they are in some cases still doing that and it is abhorrent to me.

I have my issues with Ohr Sameach. I have written about them in the past. This is not the first time I questioned their tactics. Their Hashkafos are very right wing but they don’t present themselves this way at first. Once you become a part of their Yeshiva you start hearing denigrations of Modern Orthodox institutions like Yeshiva University.

In an effort to broaden their 'field of play' they have taken a new track via participation in a program called “Birthright”.

Birthright is an organization that provides free trips to young Jews for the purpose of keeping them engaged in their Judaism. It is aimed at all denominations and does not necessarily promote observance.

Ohr Sameach saw this as an opportunity for outreach. They set up something called the Jewish Enrichment Center and have affiliated with Birthright. They bill it as a follow-up to those who have been sent by Birthright to Israel.

The problem is that they do not identify themselves as being an ultra Orthodox outreach organization. Yet that is exactly what they are. Their goal is to take these kids and make them - not only Orthodox but ultra-Orthodox.

Had they identified themselves as an ultra Orthodox Kiruv organization, I would have no problem with this. But they don’t. They present themsleves as an extension of Birthright.

It’s not that the actual Kiruv tactics by themselves are unreasonable or harsh. Quite the contrary. As described in the article - they are for the most part very warm and inviting. But that does not excuse the deception. People have a right to know the true goals and purposes of the organization they are involved with.

If Birthright is not a religious organization, it is not right for Ohr Sameach to set up shop there without billing themselves as Orthodox. They make no reference that. Or that they are using Birthiright as unwitting suppliers of Jews for Kiruv.

Ohr Sameach might say they are justified in doing so because without this setup they would not have been able to tap into this rich resource of motivated people. It would be a missed opportunity and all the people they had successes with would have been lost.

But is that really so? Perhaps a searching Jewish soul would have found another way. And for those who have become observant this way - perhaps once they find out the whole thing was a deception from the start - it will sour them forever on any form of Orthodoxy.

The ends do not justify the means. There have been too many instances where people who realize they have been ‘conned’ - rebel and go exactly the opposite direction. Instead of just being a lost opportunity they are now on a warpath with all of Orthodoxy. And if they become members of the media - as some of them do - they can do a lot more damage than the good was done by through deception.