Monday, June 06, 2005

Is Outreach Out of Our Reach?

Thirteen years ago, Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald gave his final speech as president of the Association of Jewish Outreach Professionals. Relying on data from the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey - that gloomy research which set off alarms throughout American Jewish life - he estimated that, on the average, each year each outreach professional had produced fewer than a single person who returned to Judaism by keeping Shabbos and eating kosher. Rabbi Buchwald - he is Effie to me - revisited the issue in a recent speech before the Rabbinical Council of America. This time around, he had "some good news to share." He now estimates that the number of baalei teshuva [returnees to Judaism] had doubled since 1990, so that "each outreach professional now produces about 1 2/3 baalei teshuva a year."

I wonder about the reliability of this more upbeat assessment. Effie knows that outreach is exaggeration-prone. He knows that Judaism is losing far more than we are gaining, that "the hard cold fact" is that since 1990 "80,000 Jews a year walked away from their Judaism." In short, we have "nothing less than a tragic Jewish meltdown." We need to ask why kiruv or outreach is "abysmally unsuccessful."

No one is better suited than Effie to deal with this question. For a generation he has led the pioneering Lincoln Square Synagogue's beginners service. He established the National Jewish Outreach Program, which he continues to head, to market the beginners service concept, turn Friday Night Into Shabbos and other creative outreach activities. His achievements transcend the organizational. Kiruv is his life mission and he brings to the challenge a wonderful blend of humor and seriousness as he has directly touched the lives of thousands, many of them at Aidel's and his Shabbos table.

Not all of these contacts result in the desired outcome, but certainly not for lack of commitment. We live in an open society with multiple exit points and too much that impels too many Jews to exit Jewish life.

Effie believes that outreach is less successful than it can be because we are at once "too demanding" of those who are exploring a return to Judaism and too enamored of quickie outreach activities which we foolishly believe can produce instant results. The return to Judaism is a spiritual journey that inevitably entails a number of stages and difficult issues. It is a journey that requires patience. Outreach workers must use multiple strategies and even then they often do not succeed.

Education and especially day schools have become a familiar mantra in contemporary Jewish life. There is no quarreling with the concept; the problem is the execution. Too many factors, including high tuition and inadequate philanthropic support, have reduced the capacity of day schools to be effective vehicles for outreach. The sad decline of the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools means that this organization that had been the driving force in creating schools that could reach out is now AWOL. Nor does it help that outreach functions nearly everywhere in North America as an independent activity, without an organic connection to religious education. Many of the day schools that have engaged in outreach activity are too feeble to do the job we need them to do and too many day schools established to serve the non-Orthodox are too feeble religiously to do the job we need them to do.

Even with adequate funding and all necessary resources abundantly available, outreach is a difficult enterprise because, to borrow from Paul Cowan's apt phrase, the majority of American Jews are orphans in history. The Ten Lost Tribes never returned and millions of lost American Jews are not returning. Perhaps in some distant future there will be a Hillel Halkin to discover their remnants in ashrams in the Far East.

Yet, there are Jews who can be reached and we are obliged to reach out to them. The starting point should be involved Jews who are at risk, the synagogue attendees and day school families and others who participate in our religious life but who may be lost. As noted, the openness of American society and modernity make this task far more difficult and it does not help that too often yeshivas and day schools contribute to the deficit through indefensible admission and retention policies. Our schools too hastily expel "problem" students and they turn away applicants who should be accepted. I am ashamed that the field that I have given so much of my life to contributes to Judaic loss.

Outreach must encompass more than what schools can provide and more than what adult education can provide through the study of texts. Study often results in growth in commitment and observance, yet Effie is right that we need to reveal the joy of Jewish living and the nobility of Jewish living. We need to employ music and song far more than we now do in our effort to attract those who have moved away.

One of the glories of our religious life is the incomparable array of voluntary chesed or charitable activities sponsored by religious Jews that help people in need. Few people outside of Orthodox life know about Tomche Shabbos which provides free food in a dignified way to thousands of families each week. They know too little about the hundreds of yeshiva and day school students who visit the frail and sick and lonely in nursing homes and senior facilities. They know too little about the Bikur Cholim volunteers who each day tend to those who are hospitalized. We must think of ways that involve those whom we want to reach out to in our chesed activities. We need to link their spiritual needs with our spiritual elegance and achievements.

That is the standard that Effie Buchwald has lived by in his truly noble efforts as our premier outreach leader.