Wednesday, March 25, 2009


I recently returned from a public forum to discuss the "tuition crisis" that purportedly plagues our population. I had earlier this month skipped the panel discussion about the "youth-at-risk crisis," and didn't even mark on my calendar the town hall meeting to solve the "shidduch crisis." Much of the reason why I don't attend these assemblies (aside from the long-on-problem/short-on-solution nature of these events) is that my time has become so constrained due to my personal involvement, as a financial planner and investment advisor, in the current "financial crisis."

Mi crisis es su crisis.

I don't mean to minimize any of the above issues. They are all important, alarming, disheartening and in need of solutions. But when every unfortunate circumstance that deviates from the relative comfort to which we feel entitled is labeled a "crisis," I do need to register some sort of protest by lending some perspective to the proceedings.

The rise of Nazism in Germany was a crisis. The displacement of Orthodox Jewry in the middle of the last century was a crisis. Even the sweeping assimilation before the Holocaust can rightfully be termed a crisis.

But having the privilege of paying for your children to study God's Holy Torah from committed, knowledgeable teachers can hardly be called a crisis.

I understand full well the prodigious pressure on parents to provide for an Orthodox Jewish family. According to my calculations, the cost is twice what it was a generation ago (that' adjusted for inflation). All in all, a frum breadwinner must put his family in the top 5% of American earners—at least $150,000 a year—in order to simply break even.

Nonetheless, it would do us all a bit of good to acknowledge all the advantages that we have today, advantages that bury the crises of the past. In terms of material comfort we are way ahead of any previous generation at any time and place in Jewish history. What would accurately be described as poverty today was an above-average lifestyle less than a century ago here in the United States, not to mention Eastern Europe. My grandfather's comment on shtetl life that "if we hadn't fasted every Monday and Thursday, we would have starved to death" is a great one-liner. Once upon a time, not so long ago, it wasn't funny.

Academically, in terms of Torah study—both quantitatively and qualitatively—we are far ahead of nearly every generation since Sinai. As lamentable as it is to watch yeshiva kids abandon their heritage, it's nothing new. In fact, it's the relative absence of such behavior that renders it a crisis. Two generations ago, staying on the derech was the odd decision. America was the melting pot and many a Jewish immigrant abandoned mitzvos or watched helplessly as his children did. That over ninety percent of Orthodox Jewish American teenagers behave as Orthodox Jews and not as American teenagers testifies to the success of our chinuch.

Anti-Semitism is at historic lows. In the United States it is virtually non-existent. When was the last time you were afraid to be seen in public wearing a yarmulka? We are a very long way from the days when pogroms were a regular concern.

Again, this is not to say today's problems are not serious and that we should not seek solutions to continually improve our lot. It is certainly not to say that we should rest on our laurels. Nonetheless, to refer to every challenge that confronts contemporary Orthodoxy as a crisis puts us in a mindset of weakness, when we ought to instead be working from a framework of success and strength.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Kaptain Kiruv—Revisited

A friend recently forwarded to me the following email that went out to a particular mailing list he is on. I don't know the sender, but since his words stuck in my head for over a month, I decided to respond to him nonetheless, and to share both emails here: First him (in italics) then me.


Thank you to those of you who have helped me in my search for a rabbi position. I am happy to announce that I am ready to put my 10+ years of yeshiva education to work!

I opted to start an independent kiruv organization in Boston. With over 225,000 Jews, the opportunities are limitless. I am leaving from Israel to Boston on Rosh Chodesh Adar, and would appreciate any contacts that you have in Boston. The plan is to call your contact and ask for a meeting over a cup of coffee, to shmooze with them about life and Judaism, and to see if they would be interested in learning Torah in a class or one-on-one.

I hope to focus on young professionals and families, with the long-term idea of starting a kiruv-shul. Aside from having a full Shabbos table, short term I hope to begin an executive learning program, coupled with giving shiurim in offices, doctor clinics, and Jewish cultural organizations. One idea is to focus on doctors, to give them a social and job networking opportunity, and a chance for them to learn the beauty of Torah through discussions on medical ethics. I would love to hear your creative ideas. What attracted you to your first shiur? What excited you in your first steps towards Torah Judaism?

Anyone with non-frum contacts, or with contacts of community leaders would be much appreciated. Anyone who wants to send a note of chizuk would be doubly appreciated!!

I haven't decided on a name yet for the organization. Any suggestions?

As things get more organized, I would love to host guests, giving anyone interested an opportunity to inspire others by speaking about your own personal spiritual journey.

Thanks for the ongoing support this wonderful community has created! May we all continue our life journeys upwards and onwards, to give nachas ruach to the Ribono Shel Olam!

Gratefully Yours,

Dear J.,

I don’t know you, so that makes this letter both easier and more difficult to write. More difficult because it is not my place to offer suggestions to someone whose background, talents, and personality I am unfamiliar with; and yet, easier, because the lack of personal connection will make me less squeamish about speaking the truth.

Rav Rosenberg, zt”l, used to warn us that idealism is a product of the Yetzer Hara. As a young man at the time, interested as I was in a career in kiruv, this struck me as an odd statement; I had no idea what he was talking about. As I got older, however, the message began to sink in. There is a terrible take on an old Woody Allen joke: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t teach, go into kiruv.” What a terrible thing to say! And such nonsense. After all, Rav Rosenberg’s life was devoted to kiruv; as was Rav Noah Weinberg, Rav Shlomo Freifeld, and so many other deeply committed and talented rabbis, including our own Rav Gershenfeld.

At the same time, however, kiruv as a career does tend to attract many people who are long on idealism and short on the talent, persistence, and, perhaps most important, the scholarship that it takes to have even a modicum of success in the field.

For the fact remains, as Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald pointed out at the first AJOP convention about two decades ago, that the Association for Jewish Outreach Professionals had 3,500 members, while statistical studies were showing that approximately 2,000 people were becoming baalei teshuvah each year. This meant, said Rabbi Buchwald, that each kiruv professional was responsible, on average, for producing one-half of one baal teshuvah per year—not nearly enough. He predicted that if the numbers were not somehow increased dramatically, the door would close on kiruv in ten years.

It’s twenty years later.

But rather than dwindle, kiruv has become a cottage industry, with more and more people listening to the idealism whispering in their ears. For all the people involved in kiruv, for all the organizations, for all the fundraising letters I regularly get in the mail—the one thing I don’t see more of is baalei teshuvah. Maybe it’s because I don’t live in Passaic. Maybe it’s because they’ve been seamlessly integrated into the frum community. Maybe it’s because they’ve all run off to Israel.

And maybe, just maybe, it’s because, as I suspect, there just aren’t that many around. Perhaps, now, even fewer than two thousand “newbies” a year.

Yet, that doesn’t stop many people from believing in their soul of souls that they can be the one to turn it all around. And that’s the Yetzer Hara Rav Rosenberg was talking about.

As I already mentioned, I don’t know you. But after evaluating the words from your very own letter I would like to ask you a few questions—actually, I would like to know if you’ve asked yourself these questions.
  • You mentioned that you had been searching for a rabbinic position, and I vaguely recall an email blast going out some time ago to that effect. Question: Is this new plan of yours merely a default plan? Another question: What factors contributed to your unsuccessful search for a more traditional rabbinic role?
  • You say you “opted” to start this program. Question: Did you consult with your rabbe’im—not merely ask for their blessing— to help you arrive this decision?
  • You plan to launch this project in Boston. Question: What do you know about Boston, beyond the number of Jews in town? I would hope that you have more than a cursory familiarity with Boston’s Jewish landscape. Boston is a town of intellectuals (real and imagined) and can be rough on newcomers who come to give “instruction” on their way of thinking and lifestyle. Don’t forget, this is the town that gave Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik a hard time.
  • Furthermore, Boston already has quite a number of educational resources in place. Your comment that you would offer doctors discussions on medical ethics reveals a sweet naïveté. Question: How will you distinguish your program? Did you consult with anyone from the Boston Jewish community to see where you might fit in?
I have seen so many people go into kiruv with high hopes, and despite never achieving a fraction of what they had hoped to, they stick with it—not because of the idealism, which has long since evaporated, but because they are too far along to do anything else with their lives. It is far easier to convince yourself that you are “not a quitter” and that you are “doing God’s work” and that “the frum revolution is right around the corner” than to come to terms with the fact that “it just isn’t happening” (at least not for you; and maybe not for anyone).

And, of course, there’s the issue of money. I was once recruited by Rav Berel Wein to head a start-up kiruv organization. I asked what my responsibilities would be. Although he had a major benefactor committed to half the budget, Rav Wein informed me that fundraising would still be one of my responsibilities. I turned down the offer.

If most of your time is spent raising money, I reasoned, and most of the money is spent on covering your salary, then essentially much, if not most, of your time is spent “schnorring.” I have friends in kiruv who have come to me asking for donations to their organizations, which are “experiencing a budget shortfall.” Translation: I can’t pay my mortgage.

Last summer, the New York Times ran a profile of Aish HaTorah’s Executive Learning Program. Though the article was mostly positive, it left me feeling sorry for the fellows involved, many of whom I know personally. Essentially, they are hired hands—and viewed as such by their “students.” And while I have no problem with the essential trade-off of money for Torah study (all of my brothers are in kollel; I’m what you might call the white sheep of the family), receiving such direct compensation from wealthy irreligious Jews, who don’t appear much interested in spiritual growth, demeans Torah. After all, are any of these Executive Chavrusas going to risk losing the ten thousand dollars a year they receive by being honest with their patrons, and telling them that despite their charity and their study, the Torah still demands that they observe Shabbos and kashrus, not to mention letting go of the non-Jewish wife or girlfriend?

At the end of the day, we are still responsible for supporting a family. Those of us who can do so while tending G-d’s vineyard are blessed. But it is critical that our dreams do not turn our Holy Torah into a “kardom lachfor bah.”

My friend, I wish you nothing but berachah and hatzlachah in your endeavor. I simply implore you to review the above variables in your calculation, and most important, that you consult rabbe’im who know you for their guidance and advice.

All the best,