Much has been bandied about regarding the health of the kiruv movement and whether it is “dead.” Frankly, from where I sit at One Western Wall Plaza, I don’t know of a greater fallacy traveling around the Jewish world. At Aish HaTorah, we see over 10,000 people per month at the Dan Family Aish HaTorah World Center and over one million people online every month. Our baal teshuva yeshiva saw over 600 young men cycle through in the last year. With this said, there is another rising issue in the Orthodox world that all of us must step up to solve.
Week in and week out, young men and young women from solid Orthodox families are turning up at what were ostensibly set up as kiruv classes and seminars. They are yearning to learn about the basic foundations of Judaism that were somehow glossed over in their educational institutions. As one young woman from a prestigious seminary said to me, “I know all the intricate laws of borer. I’m just not sure that I believe in God.”
The disconnect between observance and the Almighty is frightening. Many young Jews brought up in today’s world, where we do not have to fight for our religiosity, are starting to take the beauty of Judaism for granted. There is a new generation of Jews that is culturally Orthodox. They are brought up to talk a certain way and dress a certain way but they are lacking a connection to the Almighty. How can we stem this tide and reconnect these precious frum children to their Father in Heaven?
The Rambam in the Mishneh Torah discusses how idolatry became widespread in the world. He states that although the rejection of the Almighty was widespread, there were a few who knew the truth and were dedicated to Hashem, such as Chanoch, Metushelach, Noach, Shem and Ever. The world proceeded in this way until the pillar of the world, Avraham, was born and made the Almighty relevant again.
The Raavad asks why the famous founders of the first beit hamidrash, Shem and Ever, did not protest idolatry and break the idols as Avraham did. The Kesef Mishneh gives what amounts to an explanation as to how Judaism was created. He says that Shem v’Ever taught the truth to a few who were close students of their yeshiva. Avraham, on the other hand, chose to teach monotheism to the whole world.
It is as if Judaism at its inception could have gone in two different directions. We could have stayed an insular people under the direction of Shem v’Ever, and the lucky few who found their way into their beit midrash could have continued to pass down the truth to a small selected group. It is clear that this is not the path that the Almighty desired as Avraham Avinu spread the knowledge of Hashem to the world at large.
Outreach is not a passing fad that was created in the past few decades to round up some lost Jewish souls. Our entire religion was built on Avraham’s concept of kiruv. It has been with us for 3,000 years and will be a part of the Jewish soul forever. The question for us to understand is “Why?” Why was it so important for Judaism to be an outreach religion? Why is being a light unto the nations (and many times our own nation) so important?
There was a time in my career that I spent a lot of time lobbying. There was one time when I was sitting next to a lobbyist for the Mormon community waiting for a meeting to start. We started to discuss how children from each of our communities spent their post-high school years. Before the start of university, the Mormons famously send all of their children on missions around the world to recruit converts. I asked the gentleman how successful were their missionaries, meaning how many people converted to Mormonism. His reply startled me. He said we have no idea.
I said to him, incredulously, you spend millions of dollars sending your adolescents out missionizing and you have no idea how successful they are? He said we don’t send them out for the converts. We send them out to strengthen their own faith. If you spend every day for two years knocking on doors and having to answer questions about your faith you become so much stronger. The ability of these young men and women to articulate what they believe after a mission is rock solid.
It was then that it started to become clear why Judaism must be an outreach religion. Many would categorize Avraham as a “kiruv failure” since none of the 100,000 people from Charan that he convinced to believe in the Almighty stayed “Jewish.” Yet every time Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu had a conversation with someone about the splendor and grandeur of the Almighty, they themselves became stronger. We are a strong Jewish nation because of their outreach, not in spite of it.
The bottom line is that if kiruv is dead, then Judaism will die as well. The day that we are not passionate enough about the Almighty to want to share it with the world will be a sad day for us all. I believe with all of my heart and soul that we must inculcate the next generation of Jewish children with a passion for kiruv. We must invite Jews far from the Almighty to our tables so they can ask questions, and our children must hear our answers. Our children must hear how much we love the Almighty. Our children must hear how He is with us in good times and bad. Our children must understand that Torah and mitzvot are a means to an end. If at the end we don’t grow to love and come close to the Almighty then our Torah is for naught.
Many of the kiruv classes that were created to teach the basic tenets of Judaism must be taught in our educational institutions. Our children must know how to articulate their faith and love for the Almighty. They must all know that every Jew is a teacher at heart and every Jew must teach with their heart.
I believe that as a Torah community we must cease having unproductive cynical conversations about whether kiruv is “dead.” We have a job to do. We need to bring our brothers and sisters back to the Almighty. This is not just a job for kiruv professionals. It is incumbent on all the members of the Jewish family to make sure the Almighty is reunited with all of His children. If we do this, then rest assured the Almighty will bring us back to Him, rebuild His home on Har HaBayit and send us Mashiach speedily in our days.
By Rabbi Steve Burg
Rabbi Steve Burg is the CEO of Aish HaTorah.