Thursday, October 16, 2003

Rethinking Outreach

Outreach has been our primary domestic concern and activity for nearly a generation. Most of what we now do includes, at least to an extent, the goal of bringing unaffiliated, secular and marginally observant Jews closer to their heritage and our religious traditions. This is evident in all forms of Jewish education, formal and informal, as well as in synagogue life, youth programming, campus activities, camping, community centers and Israel experiences.

It’s probably impossible to statistically assess the efficacy of these activities. After all, we can no longer figure out how many American Jews there are. Our sociology needs to move away from the numbers games that have become our surrogate scholarship and focus on qualitative studies that describe what is happening across Jewish America.

We are taught that the saving of a single life – and this teaching encompasses a spiritual life – is equivalent to saving the entire world. It follows that from the perspective of those who are engaged in outreach, the statistic of how many have returned to Judaism though it is important cannot serve as the only yardstick by which to measure outreach success. The communal perspective is different, in part because so much has been invested in outreach and, more importantly, because this investment is a race against time, a desperate effort to keep hundreds of thousands of Jews from drifting further away from identity and commitment.

We need to know what the record is, whether in the aggregate our efforts have been successful. We also need to figure out which approaches have the optimum prospect for beneficial outcomes. In short, we need to rethink outreach in a spirit of admiration for outreach professionals and respect for their accomplishments.

The contours of kiruv or outreach were essentially set a generation ago by the Orthodox when two somewhat antithetical insights intersected. We suddenly awoke to the realization that unless we acted to prevent further losses, one day American Jewry would wake up to the shocking news of staggering defections. At about the same time, we sensed that contrary to long experience in the Diaspora, we could bring Jews back to Judaism, that the Tshuva movement was real and significant.

Because this movement was inherently religious in nature, the stress was on teaching religious texts and encouraging religious practices. Outreach meant a return to tradition and heritage, not merely remaining somehow connected to communal life. Indeed, in the early years of outreach activity, most of those who were reached out to were already connected to Jewish life.

Those who devoted themselves to kiruv have seen their labors rewarded, as tens of thousands have embraced a more Jewish, a more religious life. These returnees have strengthened our people. It remains, however, that Judaic abandonment has continued, in fact at an escalating pace. The powerful assimilatory forces that affect nearly all American Jews have taken a terrible toll. Our losses in the recent period dwarf our gains. There is no way to read the latest data without being appalled.

As American Jews have accepted intermarriage and secular versions of Jewish identity, outreach outside of Orthodox life has taken a secular turn, the message being that intermarriage and advanced assimilation, including Judaic abandonment, are not barriers to Jewish continuity. The idea is that if a whole loaf is beyond reach, a half loaf or quarter loaf or even less is worth having. Nearly everywhere Judaism is rapidly being defined downward in a desperate effort to stem further losses, the hope being that minimal expectations will maximize prospects for the disaffiliated to remain.

Outreach obviously has come a long way from when it was an Orthodox activity. If numbers count, the largest outreach enterprise by far is the Reform, which in addition to minimum expectations of those who are Jewish also includes a welcome mat to many who are not. Even Chabad or Lubavitch has adjusted its sails. While some who are attracted to its activities become observant, overwhelmingly the movement now accepts Jews as they are, making no more than a small effort to influence those who participate to become more religious. There is no other way to explain the remarkable paradox of Lubavitch’s enormous growth during the same period that has seen Jews being lost wholesale.

Orthodox outreach clings to a mindset that was forged before we lost a couple of million Jews and before another couple of million said that they do not care. Small comfort can be derived from statistics about the Orthodox. They constitute no more than ten percent of American Jews, this despite their extraordinarily high fertility rate. I have suggested that aliyah has significantly reduced the number of American Orthodox; still, the figure should be higher if the number of returnees to Judaism were as great as exuberant outreach workers have suggested.

Perhaps there isn’t anything that the Orthodox can do to improve the outreach landscape. This is an open society and those whose connections to us are tenuous may have greater incentive to leave than to remain. We live in a Jewish world that is radically different from the world that existed when many of today’s outreach activities were conceived. It’s time for re-examination.

Without abandoning any individual Jews and in full acceptance of the value of saving a single spiritual life, it may be time to acknowledge that outreach cannot in a statistical sense counteract the larger story of abandonment and loss. Even so, it would be useful for outreach groups to rethink their approach, to consider whether activities that are not text oriented but rely on, for example, music or the wonderful array of Orthodox programs that help the needy may offer greater hope for successful kiruv.