I have a problem with ultra-Orthodox Kiruv. I have a problem with the full-color glossy Kiruv, sold with carefully worded posters, programs, videos, and double standards. I have a problem with the Kiruv that loudly declares that they welcome all Jews, but then denigrates their backgrounds when they think that nobody is listening. That’s the Kiruv that I find to be problematic.
Kiruv makes me cringe. Until I started researching Jewish outreach, I didn’t realize how widespread a movement it was. I didn’t realize that outside of the big name Kiruv organizations were so many smaller, grassroots Kiruv efforts, even among your typical orthodox man or woman on the street. I didn’t realize just how many inside publications and websites existed in order to educate people on how to do effective outreach and promote Orthodoxy, many with explicit instructions detailing how to attract the “less-affiliated,” as some Kiruv organizations have begun calling their non-Orthodox recruits. That term alone makes me shudder. Who is considered “more-affiliated?” Who is only “affiliated?” Is there someone out there who is the “most affiliated?” As an American of Jewish descent, it never occurred to me that my observance, or lack thereof, was being viewed as part of a competition.
Back in March of 1997, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis for the United States and Canada (Agudath Harabonim) publicized their opinion that Conservative and Reform Jews, while still technically Jewish, are not practicing Judaism. With all of the focus on reaching out to non-Orthodox Jews, one must wonder if they were even aware of how insulting their statement really was. Whenever I come into contact with Kiruv workers, I’m tempted to ask them if they share the following with their potential recruits:
We appeal to our fellow Jew, members of the Reform and Conservative movements: Having been falsely led to believe by heretical leaders that Reform and Conservative are legitimate branches or denominations of Judaism, we urge you to be guided by this declaration, and withdraw from your affiliation with Reform and Conservative temples and their clergy. Do not hesitate to attend an Orthodox synagogue due to your inadequate observance of Judaism. On the contrary, it is because of that inadequacy that you need to attend an Orthodox synagogue where you will be warmly welcomed.(1)
I wonder if potential recruits on college campuses, in Mommy & Me groups, and in Jewish clubs in high schools would have a problem with Union of Orthodox Rabbis’ statement. Had I read it even when I was Orthodox, I would have been appalled. Now, as a former b’aalat teshuva who has since gone off the orthodox derech, I find that statement wholly offensive. It makes me regard Orthodox Jews with suspicion when they make friendly overtures. Are they being genuinely friendly, or do they see me as a potential Kiruv project? The same document even has a statement taken from the late Lubavitcher Rebbe stating that “the doctrines and ideologies of the Reform and Conservative movements, can only be classed in the category of heretical movements which have plagued our people at one time or another, only to disappear eventually, having no basis in our everlasting Torah, the Torah of truth, the living Torah, Toras Emes, Toras Chaim.”(2) Imagine if all of the world’s Chabad Houses and Chabad Centers on college campuses were required to post a sign with that statement by their front doors. Not only would people likely be turned off of Orthodoxy, but current and future non-Orthodox donors would be discouraged from funding their programs.
Back when I was in college and dabbling in Orthodoxy, I wanted to create a pluralistic community where all Jews would truly accept each other as equals, regardless of denomination, gender, sexual orientation, race, and so on. The Kiruv movement has since taught me that this will never be a possibility, not as long as statements like that of the Agudath Harabonim are made and echoed throughout the Orthodox community. I fail to understand how, despite this huge movement to bring non-Orthodox Jews to Orthodoxy, the ultra-Orthodox continue to make comments disparaging Jews in the more liberal movements. And what I really don’t understand is how Kiruv professionals can live with themselves, knowing that while they are outwardly trying to recruit for their movements, the words that they use to identify those Jews who aren’t Orthodox are completely demeaning. This is the kind of Kiruv that I find problematic.
1. Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada. “On Reform and Conservative Judaism.” Truejews.org. Jews Against Assimilation, n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.
The Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada (Agudath Harabonim) originally made this declaration in March of 1997.
Rebecca M. Ross authors the blog Jewish Outreach: What Your Rabbi Isn’t Telling You at www.stopkiruvnow.blogspot.com. Her work has been featured on By the Overpass, By the Millpond, The New Vilna Review, Scribblers on the Roof, Unpious, and Errant Parent. Rebecca also blogs about writing at www.rebeccamross.blogspot.com.