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Going Krazy With Kiruv

Imagine that a man was walking in midtown Manhattan and started throwing fistfuls of HUNDRED DOLLAR BILLS in the air while screaming "HEFKER" [or the english equivalent]. There would be a mad rush the likes of which has never been seen, to grab a few of the sought after pieces of paper [remember, money is just paper. Green paper with a picture of a dead politician]. The Zohar says that if we knew how much reward G-d has in store for someone who brings a Jew closer to Torah there would be a similar mad rush!! "Where is a Mechalel Shabbos? I need to speak to him now."
People, says the Zohar, would go crazy with kiruv!!

Kiruv is for EVERYONE!! Some full time. Some part time. But everyone is obligated. There are no less than 9 Mitzvos that one fulfills when they bring a Jew closer to Torah. And remember the Mishna in Pirkei Avos: Ohev es Habriyos Umikarvan LaTorah" - Love people and bring them close to Torah. It doesn't say [as Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook pointed out] to love people IN ORDER to bring them close to Torah. It says "love them" - sincerely and genuinely - and the outcome will be that they will come close to Torah. The following article is posted on the simple to remember website.

Our grandparents prayed for a melting pot. What they got instead was a meltdown!" - Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, Founder, National Jewish Outreach Program
As the year 2000 fast approaches, North America's Jewish population faces a disturbing set of trends that threatens the viability of Judaism on this continent in the next century -- The J2K (Jewish 2000) Problem. Unlike the persecution that the Jewish people have endured by the hands of others for over 3,000 years, Jews on this continent now face a "silent holocaust" stemming from within their very own communities and their very own households.

Today, of the approximately 6 million Jews in the United States, about 2 out of 3, either do not identify themselves Jewishly or maintain an affiliation with a synagogue. This staggering portrait of American Jewish life is perpetuated by a host of disturbing national trends, including a quickly growing rate of Jewish intermarriage, an extraordinary low birth rate, and a sharp increase in the number of children being raised as non-Jews.

In the past, Jews rallied together around a core of religious and ethnic traditions, such as synagogue affiliation, lighting of Shabbat candles and giving charity to Jewish institutions. These practices were first learned in the home and were enhanced over a lifetime of familial and communal interaction.
However today, North America's Jewish population has experienced an internal breakdown of both the family unit and the concept of community, that have unified the Jewish people for so long. As these ancient practices and rituals disappear, so do the number of Jewish people on this continent who consider themselves Jewish. So powerful is this meltdown of Jewish life, that Judaism in America, as we have known it for the last 300 years, will likely cease to exist in the new millennium.

Consider the following statistics*:

Jewish identity is declining sharply.

Of 5.6 million Jews, 2 million American Jews live in households identified as non-Jewish

60% of Jews below 40 years of age live in households identified as non-Jewish

20% of Jews over 60 years of age live in households identified as non-Jewish

Intermarriage rates are increasing dramatically.

Before 1965, 10% of Jews who married, did so outside the faith.

Since 1985, 52% of Jews who married have done so outside the faith.
Children are being raised as non-Jews.

1 million, or 54% of all American Jewish children under the age of 18 are being raised as non-Jews or with no religion.

Fertility Rates are not high enough to replenish the religion.
The average fertility rate of American Jewish women is 1.4 children per household.

The replacement level is 2.1 children.

Less emphasis is being placed on a Jewish education.

In 1962, 540,000 Jewish children were attending afternoon weekend schools, and 60,000 were enrolled in day schools. By 1990, fewer than 240,000 Jewish children attended afternoon /weekend schools and 140,000 attended day schools.
NET LOSS -- 220,000 Jewish children.

Traditional Shabbat observance is extremely low.

Only 36% of Jewish households light the Shabbat Candles.

Of the population that consists of people who were born Jewish and are Jewish by choice, only 11% attend synagogue weekly.

* All Statistics taken from Council of Jewish Federations' 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. This is the most comprehensive source of American Jewish data available

[My addendum- I think things have gotten MUCH worse since 1990]

Though I certainly agree with the sentiments in this piece, one thing that sort of bothers me is the emphasis on using Holocaust imagery to bring home the point (I know you didn’t, so his really isn’t a gripe against you). It just has sor of been on my mind. Recently, I met up with an old friend whom I knew from my college days. We weren’t exactly the closest of friends then, but whenever we meet up, we do chat for a little bit. This time when we met, after discussing our current career paths, she abruptly halted the conversation and told me that she decided that she wasn’t going to intermarry. I was somewhat taken aback because once, I think it was during our senior year, she insisted that Jews who won’t intermarry are racist. Curious to know how she resolved this issue of racism, I pushed her to explain the reasoning behind her decision. “Because my grandmother died in the Holocaust.” A bit confused by this response, I asked her to elaborate. She pointed out that her grandmother fell to the hands of Jew haters simply because of her faith, and by marrying a non-Jew, she would essentially render her grandmother’s death in vain. And so, despite her conviction that marrying only a Jewish person is racist, in fear of the guilt of betraying her grandmother, she decided not to intermarry. I did not push the conversation any further. I commented that though her rational was a bit moribund, it nevertheless was reasonable and, for all intents and purposes, I endorsed it. After all, anything to prevent intermarriage. But, I did not like her answer. In fact, her answer really bothered me. This notion of using the Holocaust as a reason to cling to the faith is detrimental to both her future marriage and the Jewish people in general.

I feel like a lot of people only approach kiruv by trying to scare Jews into Judaism. That is to say, the only way for them to induce Jewish commitment to others is to paint a picture of our imminent demise – “you are no worse than Hitler, he was just active while you’re passive.” By doing such, they have created a one dimensional Jewish identity that revolves around the Holocaust and other such atrocities. Or better yet, they create an identity that revolves around death. People with such an approach believe that to combat assimilation and other deterrents to Jewish growth, guilt must be employed, telling people that if they assimilate, then all the martyrs of World War II died for naught or that they are no different than passive partners in a campaign that began in Germany, 1933. Rather than using Judaism to instill pride within the non-observant, we use the tragic vicissitudes history, injecting them with fear to perpetuate Jewish tradition.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, once observed that too often Judaism is reduced to a religion of the dead, a religion not worth living for. For many, Judaism has become merely a relic of generations passed, what our grandparents once did or believed and only something we now preserve as a tribute to them. And obsessing with the Holocaust only enhances this image. Emphasizing the Holocaust tells people that Judaism offers nothing to live for, nothing that is pertinent or meaningful for their daily lives, and leaves it only as an heirloom of another era.

Judaism is a religion that asks us to choose life, to live life – as Rav Podolsky says, “to live life the way it was meant to be lived!” It is not a religion interested in forcing or intimidating people into believing. Such a method can only last so long. Fear cannot be a foundation of faith for fear inevitably leads to indifference and sometimes even rebellion. What will happen when our grandparents die, will the guilt fade with our memory of them? What, then, will we have for ourselves? I cannot understand the effectiveness of telling non-observant Jews that they should stay Jewish because everybody hates us. It is only through positive reinforcement and the insistence that there is something alive for everyone that will lead to the rebuilding and strengthening of the Jewish people – like you said, we need to love people. Assuring Jews that the Torah is relevant and meaningful today will attract them and provide good reason for them to stay committed. People should refrain from intermarriage or assimilation not because they would be betraying their grandparents, but because they would be betraying themselves and their own commitments.

A few weeks ago, a girl at work asked me if I knew whether or not having a tattoo was grounds for not being admitted into a Jewish cemetery. When I inquired into the reason for her concern, she told me that she was thinking about getting a tattoo but was worried that by doing so, she would put her right to a Jewish burial in jeopardy. I thought her question to be a bit odd. After all, she was someone who had told me countless times that she has no interest in doing anything Jewish, that it was a dead faith and had nothing to offer her. And yet, when it came to death, she wanted to assure her place within the Jewish community. This obsession with dying Jewish only further emphasizes this image of a generation of dead Jews, Jews who live their lives without the vitality, joy and passion of the Jewish spirit. This mentality has led us to become a generation of Jews who desire to drop Judaism, but in such a way, like R. Motti Berger always says, “so as not to look like traitors to the faith.” My friend Saadia somewhat often proclaims, “Thank God for the Holocaust.” Admittedly, his words sound a bit insensitive, but they hone in on a very valid point. Through the worst of ways, we have been reminded that we are Jews, for the Holocaust remains that trigger device that forces us to remember our identity. But we shouldn’t see this trigger device as a reason to cry about our current situation. Rather, we should take it as a prompt to explore our Judaism and bring people close by showing what type of vitality Judaism offers. So, I must agree, I definitely like the psaht on the mishnah in avos, now if we can all just get on board with the program…

Genuinely scary! But what can we practically do? Pretty much all the Jews I have contact with are affiliated with Judaism and will marry Jewish. Does Rebbe have any pragmatic, day to day suggestions to alleviate this huge threat?

I personally have travelled a less frequent path than many of my counterparts and can confidently say that in America if one is not Observant (in the Orthodox fashion) there is little hope of avoiding intermarriage.

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About me

  • I'm Rabbi Ally Ehrman
  • From Old City Jerusalem, Israel
  • I am a Rebbe in Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh.
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