Reaching the Wrong Crowd

It was spring semester for the Yeshivot in Israel. The Ohr Sameach in Jerusalem had just been donated a full set of Artscroll Talmud. Many students cooed at the freshly printed books lining what was formerly a completely barren shelf. Only a handful dared touch the sacred tomes. Some days they simply sat there, gathering dust and sand that had blown through the open windows of the sweltering study room. One student in particular refused to use the new books. He proclaimed that using artscroll was “a crutch” for Talmudic study.

This same student was unable to read Aramaic when the year started, back in late August. He barely could get through a verse of Torah without struggling and looking at an English translation. Over the course of the year, within the walls of one of the two prominent Kiruv Yeshivot of Jerusalem, this student had gone from relying on others to bashing those who needed help.

I spent a year in Ohr Sameach, and for a lot of my time there, I questioned why I was learning in an institution devoted to Kiruv. I had always attended Jewish schools, was a regular attendee of services throughout the week, and could parse my way through a bit of gemara as well as the next average Chaim. But it was recommended to me by my high school Rabbi that I should go to Ohr Sameach, and so I did. It is not a choice that I regret.

Firsthand, I got to see an entire swath of Judaism that I have never had the occasion to experience. Even coming from a small Jewish community, I had still seen a large gamut of what a Jew could look like: a Conservative woman wearing Tefillin, a Modern Orthodox male fighting for his wife’s right to read Megillah on Purim, Lubavitch men drinking and partying for almost any reason at least once a month. But the wayward Jews seeking faith, the ba’al t’shuvas, were a portion of my people from which I was estranged.

These religion seekers were eager, hopeful, and altogether more interesting than the Jews I knew. Here were people that had done things I’d only imagined, such as substance abuse and sexual escapades. Sometimes they would talk about their pasts, these exploits that made them so fascinating to a boy who had never so much as prodded the perimeter of his religious bubble. It was taboo to ask them to bring up the subject, but once somebody started going, people came to listen and swap stories. In some way, they relived the experiences they were denying themselves from having again.

As the year progressed, these kinds of stories died out. Nobody wanted to talk about the horrors of a pre-religious life. I can recall one student who transformed radically throughout the year. He had come in curious, excited, and eager to talk to anybody who could pass on a tidbit of information. When he spoke of his life before Israel, it seemed like he’d had the potential to become a successful athlete. By the end of the year, his nose was forever pasted to the inside of a gemara. Getting two words out of him proved taxing.

I watched the people around me change and grow. They became more spiritual, while I became less so. Waking up for prayers in the morning proved too difficult. Sitting around for hours of learning was no longer exciting. I was bored. I was so far ahead when I first walked into the Yeshiva that the Rabbis juggled me between classes, trying to find the one where I would enjoy a challenge. It wasn’t until that spring semester that they found a class that forced me to do my best. The Rabbis didn’t know how to handle a student who didn’t need Kiruv.

They tried bribing me with food to get me to show up to class. They tried sitting me down for one on one sessions, rather than having me confound my study partners. On one particular attempt, when they found out I would be going to Yeshiva University the next year, they asked me to learn Jewish philosophy, in the hopes that it would sway my choice. None of these tactics worked. They could not convince me that what I was doing was wrong, for they could scarce comprehend how a student would be able to match wits with his teachers.

Where others fell into line, I continued to stray. And so I watched them go about their new lives, shedding the old t-shirts and shorts for garments of black and white. The tone and the atmosphere changed. Nobody talked about sex or drugs anymore. Now it was about the interested Rashbam that was being taught in class, or who was going to spend this Shabbat eating with head of the Yeshiva. Barely a handful of students still talked about video games, or sports, or recreational activities outside of Judaism. Some of them had simply resisted the never-ending barrage of Kiruv. For the most part, however, the unchanged students were the ones who had come to Ohr Sameach with knowledge in the first place.

Kiruv works on a specific type of person. It has the most success when a person actively wants to change, when he yearns for a religious life. In this case, the person will cling to every morsel of knowledge that graces his table of learning. Conversely, a person with no desire to change and learn will be largely unaffected by Kiruv tactics. Kiruv may have the opposite effect on this kind of person: he may become disenfranchised with his own beliefs when he sees them boiled down to simplicity for others.

Perhaps it was a mistake to go to Ohr Sameach, but I don’t regret my decision. If nothing else, it allowed me to see the inner workings of that mysterious beast known as Kiruv. There are flaws with the Ohr Sameach method, an approach the relies heavily on conformity and the power of knowledge. That approach cannot handle the student who knows too much. It causes a person to deny his past, and hate what he used to be, like the student who refused to Artscroll. It can not reach the student who needs an emotional incentive, the approach that institutions like Eish and Lubavitch use.

Yet both extremes – knowledge and emotion – need be used to target the wide array of personalities that exist. Kiruv organizations may be flawed in their approaches, but their intent is often noble. The goal is always the same: to bring those who are estranged back to Judaism, in one fashion or another.

Those who do not need Kiruv, however, would be best advised to not spend time within the walls of such organizations. The things that may be seen to help bring others near can easily drive those who are close away.