When dealing with the topic of Kiruv, there is always a little bit of a double-edged sword. Back in high school, I remember that a Rabbi once described NCSY to me as, “Mekarev HaRechokim Umerachek HaKrovim“: it brings closer those who are far [from Orthodoxy] and pushes away those who are close. While my experiences as a firmly Orthodox teenager in NCSY were solely positive, I cannot deny that the statement has a bit of truth to it. Many people will meet bad influences and experience religious doubt by spending time with those less religious than they. But it is a risk that we all must share, and, if we think ourselves strong enough to withstand it, a risk that we must ultimately take.
Real Kiruv is not an expression of any superiority complex. Someone does not apply to be an NCSY advisor or a teacher at Aish because he feels that he is better than someone else or because he wants to lord his religiosity over others. Someone who thinks like that would never be successful in Kiruv anyway. Anyone can see through insincerity. Real Kiruv comes from someone who has an intense desire to help other Jews do what he believes is God’s will.
Kiruv is a bit of a paradox, really. We find two types of attitudes toward non-religious Jews in the rishonim, sometimes even within a single authority’s opinions. The first attitude is that we must hate those who deny God and His Torah, and they must be shunned at all costs due to their danger to religious society. The second is that we must attempt to draw them back toward Torah and mitzvot. This paradox is something that we have to navigate. The Rambam, for example, differentiates between someone who has himself chosen to deny God or someone who was taught a lack of belief in the first place. But that is not the only way to look at things.
At some point, we have to differentiate. We have to put up barriers around what we do because we believe that we are doing what God put us on this Earth to do. We need reminders and safeguards to show that we believe that people who follow other paths in Judaism (e.g. Conservative and Reform) are not doing that, and we need to be sure that we are not influenced by those who we believe are doing something that God doesn’t want. At the same time, we need to show love and kindness and outreach to those people. The goal is not to help others become religious for our own sakes, but for theirs. We believe that all of Israel is responsible for one another. That means that I, as a religious Jew, am fully obligated to do everything in my power to help as many Jews become or stay as religious as possible.
Kiruv is not for everyone. Someone who knows that he would be easily influenced by those whom he is attempting to be mekarev should stay away. Someone who knows that he does not have the patience, attitude, or ahavat yisrael necessary to wholeheartedly want to help others improve should stay away.
There are paradoxes here, but they are not really paradoxes. The necessary attitudes depend entirely on the situation of each and every person. Those who want to lump all people working in Kiruv together and those who want to lump all non-religious Jews as those “needing Kiruv” have already missed the point. Everyone is different. Every situation is different. The true Kiruv people – those who honestly attempt to help everyone lead what they believe is a better life in the long run – are those who recognize that.