Reprinted from Yated Ne’eman.
I read your editorial last week with much interest, absorbing and actually cherishing every word. You hit the nail on the head when you wrote that Oorah, ironically, is not the best in marketing.
Permit me, to enhance your piece with some of my own firsthand personal thoughts. I have not been asked by anyone in Oorah to write this piece – however, being a Specialty Division Head this past summer in Oorah’s Camp BoyZone, I feel it’s incumbent upon me to share the lessons I have learned and nachas I have experienced, in order to counter the widespread unawareness of what Oorah does and why they need so much money.
When I first walked through the doors of Oorah, I also had many questions. Every kiruv organization displays so many pictures of children with their mentors’ hands around their shoulders and pictures of all the events they organize. Oorah’s ads, on the other hand, concentrate on two cute and charming individuals, Mr. Feivish and Mr. Kirby.
Being involved with Oorah for close to a year, I continue to be intrigued. I have witnessed Oorah’s awesome Boyzone Summer experience in action and I have also seen so many other Oorah-organized gatherings, including a Sukkos Chol Hamoed trip to New Roc City followed by a warm and embracing Simchas Bais Hashoeivah attended by hundreds, with dancing and zemiros continuing into the wee hours of the morning. I witnessed hundreds attending a very inviting Shabbaton in a hotel in Edison on Shabbos Chanukah. Parents of Oorah campers gathered for their own Shabbaton in a hotel in Parsippany a few weeks later. I saw over 200 children dancing at the commemoration of an entire winter season of Motzoei Shabbos Avos Ubonim learning. I was on hand to watch a warehouse of volunteers pack Arbah Minim for Sukkos and, later in the year, mishloach manos to ship out.
Where are the pictures of these events? Why are there not full centerfolds in the Yated illustrating these activities? Every organization floods papers with pictures. These events were not even reported.
While I still believe that such marketing is needed, especially in this day and age when people want to know where their dollar is going, nevertheless, in your editorial last week you so eloquently explained why such marketing is so foreign to such a temimusdike organization.
Oorah’s kiruv movement was started by Rav Chaim Mintz, a person referred to by many as a malach made out of flesh and blood. He is such an ehrliche, unassuming tzaddik, whose kiruv efforts began with knocks on people’s doors. Before he – or anyone – knew it, a large, international kiruv movement had hatched. The same individualized one-on-one kiruv that it started with continues to this day. The difference is that now there are thousands of such one-on-one efforts. The goal and method hasn’t changed.
Obviously, funding had to be procured to handle the rapid growth, so Oorah turned to creative marketing, but never mixed their marketing with their kiruv work. One – the marketing to raise funds – is a means to support their work and one – the pure, individualized kiruv – is avodas Hashem, done lesheim Shomayim, for which those at Oorah seek no recognition.
Additionally, I quickly learned that Oorah’s motto is that organizations cannot be mekarev. Kiruv must be performed by individuals. Public school kids should not feel that they are just another number in a large organization. To be effective at kiruv, the youngsters must sense and know that they are a very meaningful friend to an individual who really cares about them. Oorah’s job is to set up these individuals. Oorah is merely the engine behind-the scenes that gives the dedicated individuals the tools and the wherewithal to make it all happen.
I actually once asked a senior member of Oorah why the mosad shies away from marketing their kiruv activities. He smiled and said, “Why should we take credit? You are the one who is doing the kiruv! Organizations cannot be mekarev. Only individuals such as yourself can do so. Why should we take the credit?”
This, I believe, has been Oorah’s approach all a long and it is an outgrowth of the manner in which this entire massive kiruv movement started.
I believe it is due to this sincerity that Oorah has seen such immense hatzlacha.
Bearing witness to such wonderful activities, I feel that Oorah and its dedicated donors deserve a few lines here extolling Oorah’s virtues, philosophy, and enormous operation.
To be mekarev someone who is far from Yiddishkeit, one must first tempt them. To use an analogy, you must first get a person to come to your house before you can give them something to drink.
Oorah’s creativity has resulted in one of the most fun and exciting camp atmospheres around, drawing public school kids to want to spend a summer of a lifetime in a Jewish environment. Getting these children to even attend such a camp is a monumental accomplishment in itself.
Once they enter the camp, they are introduced to over 200 loving and caring bnei Torah volunteers and they create a lasting relationship.
The next move is to get them into a yeshiva. Tuition, though, is a big obstacle for people who either do not have the money to pay for yeshiva or who are not holding yet at the point where they feel comfortable spending thousands for a Jewish education. Oorah saves the day – and neshamos. Tuition for these children are paid by Oorah. There are preconditions, however. The family must commit to maintain an ongoing relationship with a Torahmate – another special program run by Oorah. The Torahmates setup for the parents is similar to the program that is done for the campers where a learning partner, calls them weekly to learn on the phone. Many rewarding prizes are provided to further stimulate the child to turn away from his former lifestyle and embrace Torah and mitzvos.
Many year-round events, including those mentioned above, are utilized to rekindle the ruchnius spirit felt at various intervals during the year. Arbah minim, sukkahs, tefillin, and other items are provided to help these Yiddishe neshamos be mekayeim mitzvos and build upon their Yiddishkeit.
At the beginning of this past summer season, I met children who could not read Alef Bais. Every day at BoysZone, Oorah’s camp for boys, they came to shul, read the English from an ArtScroll siddur, put on tzitzis, and expressed a desire to learn more and more about their heritage. Such is the success of caring individuals. Such success can be seen in an atmosphere that is non-threatening, very inviting and entertaining.
Eventually, there are Oorah boys that go on to regular, mainstream yeshivos, including Brisk and Mir, eventually settling in Lakewood. This is not an exaggeration. The kiruv accomplishments of Oorah are nothing less than extraordinary.
I have spoken about the boys, because that is what I have seen firsthand. Oorah has an entire separate division for girls throughout the year. Their achievements are just as remarkable.
To sum it up, no single person in Oorah is living it up. The heads of the organization live in very simple homes. The money that is donated or raised is wisely spent. Following non-conventional methods of raising money has allowed Oorah to raise significantly more money and has directed resulted in more dollars being spent to pay tuition and bringing children and their families closer to Yiddishkeit. Paying tuition is literally an endless expense. The more money Oorah raises, the more funds there are available to utilize to persuade children to leave public school and enroll in yeshivos. Paying tuition, running two camps, holding events throughout the year, and arranging countless programs costs lots and lots of money. It is due to tremendous siyata diShmaya, as well as the creativity and determination of Oorah, and the generosity of those who believe in their holy work, that this amazing kiruv empire is able to continue its avodas hakodesh.
At the same time, most of Oorah’s kiruv work is done by volunteers. Few people are aware that Oorah has over 1,000 volunteers. No staff member in either of Oorah’s camps receives a salary – not even the head counselor. Salaries are one of the largest expenses in any organization or camp. Oorah saves tens of thousands by hiring staff members who are committed to a cause and wish to join a fun and uplifting atmosphere. The money that is saved is used instead for kiruv. It is as simple as that.
The fun aspects of Oorah’s activities also draw the attention of donors who would perhaps otherwise not pay attention to Oorah’s advertisements, but would instead flip the page and say, “It is just another organization.”
In addition to relying on fundraising from the Jewish community, Oorah also raises money from businesses it has created. It has created a national charity through which it receives car donations and sells telecommunications services to people across the United States. Unfortunately, when anyone is matzliach in the non-Jewish world, especially a Jewish organization, one encounters people who look to cause hardship. There is jealousy and often downright hatred. This all comes with the territory. But the goal, as I see it as an Oorah volunteer, is always to maximize the staff and the funds in ways that can bring more Jews back to Yiddishkeit.
This massive network of individualized kiruv is a true kiddush Hashem. It is something that every Oorah volunteer is proud to be part of.
So are you still asking the question, “What does Oorah do?” and “Why do they need so much money?” I hope my own personal experiences sheds some light on this.
Rabbi Elli Bohm, Oorah Boyzone Specialty Division Head
Reprinted with permission from the Yated Ne’eman.