Wednesday, September 10, 2003

RJJ Newsletter - September 2003

There was a ready explanation when the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey indicated that more Jews had moved away from Orthodox affiliation than those who had become Orthodox. It was evident that during the extended decline in religious commitment and practice among American Jews throughout much of the 20th Century, a considerable number of the lapsed Orthodox had been Orthodox in affiliation only. Although they were no longer particularly observant, they retained the Orthodox synagogue affiliation that had been something of a family tradition. Their children, however, had moved into Conservative ranks or even further away. That is why the 1990 data showed significant Orthodox abandonment, even during a period when there were abundant signs of Orthodox vitality.

Still, NJPS was – or should have been – disturbing because it also showed that for all of our large spiritual and resource investment in kiruv, there were fewer returnees to Judaism than our outreach professionals had claimed. Of course, the value of kiruv cannot be reduced to numbers, especially in the contemporary American Jewish environment. We must always be mindful of the well known Talmudic teaching that saving a single life – and this includes spiritual salvation – is equivalent to saving the entire world. Yet, the statistics that showed more modest kiruv achievements than we thought to be the case were unsettling.

We still do not have the results of the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, a project that has been so poorly managed that when its findings are released, as is expected shortly, they are certain to be challenged as unreliable. There is, in any case, a sense that is shared by people in kiruv that the outflow away from Orthodoxy and religious commitment is more pronounced than the beneficial results of outreach. In short, we are losing more than we are gaining and whatever population growth we are experiencing essentially results from the high Orthodox fertility rate. While we can fault the powerful assimilatory pull of our host society, we can no longer say that our losses are in the main comprised of Jews and their children who are Orthodox in identification alone and not in practice and belief. We are now losing core religious Jews.

The yeshiva world has made kiruv a priority activity. Along with others in outreach, we have achievements that we all ought to be proud of. There is, just the same, a need to take stock, to consider whether kiruv activities are properly focused and whether approaches that were once effective are as relevant today as they were years ago. The yeshiva world and others engaged in kiruv must reflect on why we are losing so many, particularly among our young and particularly in an era when economic and other forces that in a previous period impelled religious Jews away from their heritage are no longer significant factors.

I have long believed that the functional division between kiruv and chinuch – outreach and Torah education – is a tragic strategic blunder. The two activities must be organically integrated in day schools (as they are in our Jewish Foundation School Division), else they cannot be effective. Incredible as it may seem to some, the number of outreach students in Orthodox day schools has declined, this despite fanciful claims to the contrary, notably by a group that boasts about having taken many thousands of students out of public schools and placed them in yeshivas and day schools. This is a dangerous falsehood.

It obviously is more difficult to reach out to non-observant and unaffiliated Jews than it once was. A great number of American Jews no longer regard themselves as Jewish. Those who still do, mostly observe very little and are secular in their orientation. They scarcely listen to any of our messages. Intermarriage has taken an ever-escalating toll, which is also to say that it inevitably reduces the number of Jews who can be reached via kiruv. This is a critical point that is being lost on much of the kiruv community. Increasingly, we are reaching out to Jews whose halachic status is in doubt.

The kiruv movement must engage in self-examination and, as I suggested in the previous newsletter, Orthodox leadership needs to have a lesson in American Jewish geography. It is not smart or effective to concentrate, as we often do, on small communities that are distant and where the intermarriage rate may be 75% or more, while at the same time we neglect larger communities, such as Staten Island, that are in our own backyard and where kiruv can be effective, especially if it is tied to chinuch. Of course, it is more exotic to go out West and exotic locales are conducive to more effective fundraising.

Whatever directions kiruv may take, we need to examine why too many are moving away from Orthodoxy, why we are losing many who were “frum from birth.” We must take a hard and honest look at what is occurring and see what we can do to reverse the trend.

There are, I know, situations that are beyond our reach. This is a large country and an open society and people can choose where and how they live and how they wish to be identified. We could do everything right and yet there will be some Orthodox who decide to abandon a religious life. Besides, America has been enmeshed in a drug culture which entraps the young, some of whom are our own. It may also be that we are losing adherents because of our own failings. I will not develop the thought here, except to say that whether or not we are more prone to wrongful business practices and other ethical lapses than persons who are not Jewish or not Orthodox, the moral condition of Orthodox life is in serious need of repair. Moral laxity by presumably Orthodox Jews serves as a deterrent for other Jews who might consider returning to Judaism. Likely, it is also the case that our derelictions serve as an incentive or excuse for some who want to abandon a religious life.

At a Torah Umesorah dinner years ago, I said that while we focus on Kiruv Rechokim – reaching out to those who are distant – we are Merachek Kerovim, turning away those who are close. This is sadly too true, at times, of yeshivas and day schools.

I will say once more, although I have no hope that my words will have an impact, that in too many instances yeshivas and day schools have become catalysts to Judaic alienation, as when they expel students because of even minor failings, whether behavioral or academic. We estrange these children and often their parents, as well.

The yeshiva world reveres the memory and teachings of the Chazon Ish. I do not understand why we violate so routinely his determination that the issue of expelling a student from a yeshiva is a question of “nefashos,” of life, and therefore requires a beth din of twenty-three. This teaching is routinely ignored, especially by yeshiva and day schools principals who feel that they can unilaterally decide which students shall stay and which shall not. This is an unconscionable violation of Torah law and together with other dubious practices relating to admission and retention costs us dearly among students and their families.

We point routinely and, at times, boastfully to the Talmudic ruling that saving a single life is equivalent to saving an entire world. There is, of course, a second part to this ruling, which is that destroying a single life is equivalent to destroying an entire world. Isn’t it time that we were faithful to this teaching, as well?