Monday, July 02, 2018

Bringing Jews Home

Image from Project Inspire
Kiruv. That is the term used by Orthodox Jews involved in trying to reach out to non observant Jews to help them become observant. This is based on a biblical command of Arvus. All Jews are responsible for one another. And since we believe that all Jews are required to follow God’s will as outlined in the Torah and interpreted by our sages throughout the generations, we would be remiss if we ignored them.

I belong to a Facebook group where OTDs and observant Jews dialogue. One of the observant participants there asked a question about how OTDs would feel about Kiruv.  I started to think about that. The following includes some of my thoughts about 2 very distinct types of Kiruv. One is towards those that were never observant. The other towards those that once were - but no longer are.

In our day, most non observant Jews are not observant through no fault of their own. It is mostly out of sheer ignorance.  Educating such Jews will sometimes generate a willingness to try observance out at some level. On the other hand most such Jews probably won’t - simply because they have been raised to see nothing wrong with their non observant lifestyle and are quite content to live they way they were raised. Which in our day has become slippery slope out of Judaism altogether.

It is also true that even for those non observant who are serious about their Judaism, it is difficult to change a lifestyle of complete freedom to one of many restrictions.  

In some cases non observant Jews have been so strongly indoctrinated to believe in a Judaism that has been reformed for purposes of assimilating into the modern world, they will resent Kiruv. Once you reject any semblance of a particular Jewish identity and substitute an amorphous ideal like Tikun Olam -  you have in effect rejected Judaism entirely.

Tikun Olam can apply to any human being that cares about others. Not just Jews. Why then why bother with  the label ‘Jew’? Who cares about that when all that matters is social justice? This is the sad reality infecting an increasing number of the 90% of American Jews that are not Orthodox.

Be that as it may, that is what Kiruv is mostly about.  The question is how do we go about it? How do we reach out to non observant Jews most of whom are ignorant of their heritage - giving them a chance to know what Judaism is really all about?

And what about a Shana U’ Pireish – someone that was raised to be observant but went of the path of observance - most commonly referred as OTD the acronym for Off the Derech?  Derech is Hebrew for path. (I use the term OTD only as an easy way to identify them. Not because I particularly like the term and understand why they don’t.)

Reaching out to those with no background is what the vast majority of Kiruv groups do. Chabad and NCSY being 2 of the more successful among them although by far not the only successful ones. I am not personally involved with any Kiruv group. But I have seen them at ‘work’. The best way I can sum up their successes is in how they present the ‘product’ - observant Judaism.

The basic component of success  is to focus on the positive side of observance - avoiding completely the ‘fire and brimstone’ approach. To show the beauty of living an observant lifestyle that by virtue of that observance. Where family values are stressed. For example  by emphasizing the Mitzvah of getting married and having children – and the fact that family time is enhanced by the most identifiably observant Mitzvah in all of Judaism: Shmiras Shabbos (Sabbath observance). 

Perhaps of greater importance is to become a role model. I believe that is the best way to promote an observant lifestyle. The idea is that if people like you and like what you’re ’selling’ they will want to be like you and want to buy your product. What about the ideology behind observance? That comes later.

While this is a bit of an oversimplification, I believe this is in essence how Kiruv works best.  I should add that this is all done at a pace consistent with the ability for each individual to change his or her habits. In most cases this means incrementalism. Doing it all at once can and often does end with not doing it at all. New observance is best when initiated by the individual themselves and not by the person doing the outreach. One Mitzvah at a time done in the most lenient method possible.  

But what about Kiruv for those who have gone OTD? Is that even possible? The fact is that most Jews who have gone OTD resent the term. They do not consider themselves to have gone of the right path. They have just chosen different path. One which to them is more legitimate than the one they left. 

How do we convince them that they have made a mistake? They will surely say that we are the ones that are mistaken in our observance! Frankly, I’m not sure there is a good way to answer that question. The things that you are trying to convince them to do, they have done and rejected.

Let me suggest however that not all of them are lost to Judaism forever. A lot depends on why they left in the first place. And there are probably as many reasons or combinations of reasons as there are Jews that went OTD. I don’t think any of those reasons can’t be challenged. But some are more difficult to challange than others.

The hardest reason to disabuse OTD Jews of is when they question the very existence of God - the so called weak-atheist or agnostic. Not that it is impossible to reach out to them. But is extremely difficult.

Then there are those that may believe in God but question the truth of the Torah by virtue of its contradictions with science. And/or various disciplines that offer alternative explanations of the bible which are unacceptable to Judaism. Those too are difficult (but also not impossible) to reach out to because of the evidence they find which supports their doubts.

I believe that the vast majority of OTDs are those that have left for emotional reasons. In some cases they also become aware of those contradictions and/or alternative explanations making it difficult to reach out to them as well. Again, this doesn’t mean we should try. But I admit it is a very steep uphill road to climb – and beyond the scope of this post.

That leaves those who have left for emotional reasons mostly having to do with some sort of abuse, be it mental, physical, or sexual. Whether in the home or in school or by peers (as in the case of bullying). They have become so disillusioned by the pain and suffering they have experienced that they have stopped believing in a religion that would allow them to be treated this way.

We all know of tragedies that have happened to these kinds of OTDs. It ranges from turning towards a destructive life style (of sex, alcohol, and/or drugs) to suicide in some cases.
How do we reach out to them? I wish I had the perfect formula for that. Or any formula at all. I don’t. I will however suggest that they can reasonably be reached. It takes a lot of effort. And perhaps more importantly a lot of training in the field of mental health. And some overcome the trauma that led them to go OTD and eventually lead normal productive lives without being observant at all.

I think the key ingredient  in reaching out to OTDs is to not be judgmental. To befriend and accept the individual for who he is now. And respect his views no matter how much you disagree with those views. Even if he is not observant at all. To be sympathetic to his issues. To not preach at them at all but instead to be a role model - demonstrating in a passive way that an observant religious lifestyle is still the best option for a Jew to live by… the best path to a meaningful and fulfilling life.

You may not succeed, but what have you got to lose versus what you will gain in fulfilling the Mitzvah of Arvus?

Just some of my thoughts.