By Rabbi Yitzchok Lowenbraun, National Director of AJOP
Sometimes I reflect on a story I heard. A young baal teshuva once learned with an older talmid chachom. One day in early Nissan, the talmid chachom asked his chavrusa: “What’s Pesach all about?”
Surprised, the young man wondered aloud if he was really the right person to answer the rav’s question.
“No, you don’t understand,” the talmid chacham answered. “I know what the sfarim say about Pesach. I’ve been making Pesach since I was a baby. But you see Pesach with fresheyes. I want to know what Pesach means to you!”
I don’t know the end of the story. But I’m always struck by the depth and insight of that old rav’s question. After nearly four decades working with both those who became observant later in life and the people who introduce them to Torah, I’ve become sensitive to the spark-the excitement-that old talmid chacham was looking for.
A life of Torah life is a life aglow with meaning, with purpose. A young Jewish boy or girl who understands his or her tafkid and spiritual potential cannot help but live inspired, excited, and proud. There is an intrinsic excitement for those who feel close to Hashem and endeavor to live lives that please Him. Very often, those who chose to be Torah observant are alive with this excitement. We have much to learn from them. They come in to our world with an enthusiasm and passion that is lost to many of the people who grew up Torah observant.
Ironically, baalei teshuva are often better versed in inyanei emunah than those of us who grew up in the yeshiva system. They opted in to Torah observance only after their asking their most challenging questions-and receiving satisfactory answers. Not so, many of us who graduated from the local yeshiva or bais yaakov.
Many of our young people harbor questions-doubts, really-about fundamental points of Torah. Many lack idealism and a sense of mission. Some believe they have no contribution to make to Klal Yisrael.
And while many factors may lead young people away from Torah observance, ר”ל, what could be more toxic to a Jewish heart than the feeling that being religious is meaningless, joyless, or burdensome? The only genuine prevention for young people who are potentially “at-risk” is making Torah life as fulfilling and engaging as it ought to be.
It’s “kids at risk” who grab the headlines, the painful truth is we also have many, many adults at risk. The lack of enthusiasm for Torah has literally reached a critical level. We’re losing people. For too many Yidden, Yiddishkeit has simply lost its meaning. We must ask ourselves some hard questions about how Yiddishkeit was presented to us, and how we present it to our children. We must answer these questions honestly (and, honestly, we might not like the answers).
Kiruv field has much to offer
The kiruv community has learned how to transmit Torah values to people who are far from Jewish life. We understand the vernacular of the typical American Jew and have proven ourselves able to reach out effectively and present Torah concepts persuasively.
We often succeed in making our case to the greatest skeptics-those who feel they have nothing to lose by rejecting Torah observance. All the more so, kiruv professionals are uniquely prepared to tackle these sensitive issues within the frum world. With young people (and not-so-young people) a seasoned kiruv professional is uniquely capable of inspiring, answering, and stimulating.
In many classrooms, it is unacceptable to ask questions about inyanei emunah, and so these questions remain unanswered. Some children conclude the questions simply have no answers. In our day, we can no longer take for granted that our youth have absorbed emunah peshutah through some sort of spiritual osmosis. We must not assume that any child knows and believes the tenets of Judaism unless he or she was explicitly taught them.
The tactics that work in kiruv work everywhere. It begins with love and unconditional acceptance. It requires being open to questions and making it safe to ask anything. Observe, askanim who are most successful with “at-risk” kids are invariably the ones who are most accepting and least judgemental of the troubled youth they work with.
Kiruv is everybody’s issue, now
Some people have managed to keep kiruv issues under their personal radar for a long time. But these days, it won’t stay down. The issues that preoccupy the kiruv world have fast become the issues that preoccupy the entire frum world, and kiruv professionals have found a prominent new role in mainstream frum institutions. Kiruv professionals have a track record of relating to diverse types of people–even those far from Torah–and drawing them closer to Yiddishkeit. Surely they can help those already in the fold strengthen their conviction and draw closer still.
Simply put, Klal Yisrael needs the kiruv movement now. And as kiruv finds itself thrust from the margins to the center, the time has come for the askanim of our community to participate in discussions about kiruv-related topics.
For over two decades, AJOP’s annual convention has been one of the few venues where Klal Yisrael’s most sensitive subjects are discussed openly and frankly… and where real solutions have emerged.
On January 16 and 17 at the Twenty-Third Annual AJOP International Convention, many of these difficult topics will take the spotlight. It is the world’s largest gathering of top kiruv professionals, attracting people from across the world and across the Jewish religious spectrum (from modern to Chassidic). No experience in kiruv is necessary to help shape the conversations that help shape the future of Klal Yisrael. I invite concerned people from all walks of life to join and help shape these discussions.
I wish for you and your children to experience Jewish life with the same fervor and passion as the newly religious. To rediscover what it can mean to you, I urge you to learn from the lessons of the kiruv movement.