Jewish Missionaries

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I recently found an interesting blog written by Rebecca M. Ross, entitled Stop Kiruv Now.  Her blog discusses the pitfalls of the Jewish kiruv (“bringing close” in Hebrew) movement.  It is interesting reading and makes me think back to my own journey into orthodoxy in my early 20s.  Rebecca’s main complaint with the kiruv system seems to be the aggressive and sometimes dishonest intentions of those charged with bringing non-observant Jews into the fold of orthodoxy.

One of the points brought out is that Jewish kiruv workers often target high school and college age kids who are still in their formative years and more susceptible to the influence of others.  I listened to an online radio show that interviewed Rebecca, where she discusses in more depth her issues with the kiruv movement.  I had to laugh at the image portrayed of college campus kiruv workers standing in the middle of the quad and asking each student who files past, “Are you Jewish?  No? Are YOU Jewish?”  The Hillel director at my college campus was famous for trying to identify potential Jewish faculty and students.  It became a running joke among the Jewish students.

Often, these campus groups start out by speaking to students in their common language.  They impress upon these kids that they can be both religious and immersed in the 21st century at the same time.  They inform students that they can both meet their educational and career goals while at the same time achieving their full religious potential.  Oftentimes, college students will be offered free or highly subsidized trips to Israel under the guise of Jewish student leadership conferences, but once the student arrives, they find themselves spending full days learning in orthodox seminaries and yeshivot, and being offered the chance to remain there for an  indefinite period of time.  In a year’s time, some students find themselves fully immersed in Torah study, wearing long skirts and sleeves, black hats and jackets, and fully into the baal teshuvah scene, college but a distant memory.

As a baal teshuvah, I can clearly remember attending classes that instructed newly religious Jews that kibud av v’aim (honoring one’s father and mother) does not apply when your parents ask or advise you to do something which is against the Torah.  Likewise, if one wants to make aliyah to Israel, but their parents want them to stay in America, one does not have to obey them.  So many rifts are formed between newly religious young people and their non-religious parents, based on the guidance of kiruv workers.

Not that any kiruv professional would ever advise a child to be chutzpedik (disrespectful) to a non-religious parent, but adherence to Hashem and halachah come before, say, eating the annual treif Thanksgiving meal prepared by your mother.  You must respectfully ask that your mother make the entire meal kosher (keeping in mind that you are not having the meal for a holiday seudah but a random family get together because Thanksgiving is really a non-Jewish holiday), or show up with your own kosher food, or show up but don’t eat anything, or decline the invitation altogether – all the while being pleasant, polite, and reasonable in your requests and ultimatums.  How could these options possibly have a negative impact on shalom bayis?

One aspect of kiruv that has always bothered me is that no matter how integrated a baal teshuvah (BT) becomes into orthodox society, they will still be considered as a separate sub-society to the larger frum from birth (FFB) community when it comes to areas of importance, such as marriage.  The all important yichus (family lineage/heritage) is alive and well when it comes to shidduchim (matchmaking).  I know someone (FFB) who dated a boy from a prominent Lubavitch family going back many generations.  She told me that in the Chabad Lubavitch world, BTs and FFBs are almost never set up as marriage prospects.  The FFBs marry the FFBs and the BTs marry the BTs.  It seems very hypocritical that a movement like Chabad, which is so involved in bringing Jews back into the fold, would make this distinction.  Yes, you are good enough to be my neighbor, go to my shul, attend my schools, but don’t think about marrying my daughter!

I saw a recent video of the chassana (wedding) of two Hasidic African American converts in Boro Park.  I believe that they are Nikolsburg hasidim, but I could be wrong.  The dancing was very leibedik (joyful and lively), and the comments on the article remarked on the beauty and wonder of such a scene.  Nothing validates frum people more than folks hailing from completely different cultures, religions, or ethnicities who find orthodox Judaism so enticing that they abandon their former ways and join the tribe.

Looking at the chosson and kallah on their happy day, surrounded by hundreds of smiling white hasidim, I have to ask the obvious and unpopular question – which of the joyful guests at this wedding will allow their sons or daughters/grandsons or granddaughters to marry this couple’s children in twenty years?  If the kiruv cultured Lubavitch movement doesn’t want baal teshuvahs, who look like them, to marry into their Lubavitch dynasties, how will this African American ger (convert) couple fare in the Nikolsburg sect?  Only time will tell, but unless Nikolsburg has a growing baal teshuvah population to widen the marriage pool, my pessimistic side tells me that there will be a bumpy road ahead.