The Outreach Revolution

Posted Monday, Apr 1st, 2013
Commentary Magazine

Jack Wertheimer — April 2013

...Orthodox outreach, or kiruv (literally, “bringing close,” meaning closer to God and the commandments), first began in the United States after the Second World War. Inside the Modern Orthodox sector—those Jews who rigorously follow the commandments but do not seek to separate themselves from the commercial and cultural life of the country—educational programs were launched to teach returning war veterans and Jewish children enrolled in public schools about traditional Jewish observance. By the 1950s, the Torah U’Mesorah movement was energetically planting Orthodox day schools in communities around the country, most of whose students did not come from fully observant homes.

Then, sometime around 1958, the leader of the Lubavitch Hasidim, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, recruited the first small cadre of emissaries to fan out to communities across the United States and abroad with the mission of remaking those communities. Kiruv1 efforts picked up steam in the 1960s with the opening of yeshivas in Israel aimed at potential baalei teshuva (returnees to Jewish practice) and beginner services in American Orthodox synagogues. By 1988, enough personnel were engaged inkiruv work to warrant the creation of the Association of Jewish Outreach Programs, or AJOP.

Since the 1990s, the kiruv project has really taken off, led by Chabad. For younger Jews, Chabad runs early-childhood programs, Hebrew schools, day schools, day camps, and teen programs; Chabad also operates on 178 college and university campuses across the country and sponsors activities geared specifically to young singles and newly married couples in their twenties and thirties. In Dallas, for example, an emissary has converted a former bookstore into a meeting place for Jewish singles; he finds potential participants by frequenting bars preferred by this demographic.

For adults, Chabad also offers a panoply of activities: daily and Sabbath services, High Holiday prayer venues, educational lectures, and social programs. Some Chabad emissaries run hiking and skiing programs where they can connect with Jews in recreational settings. To this mix Chabad adds initiatives directed at sub-populations of Jews, including immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their offspring, and families with special-needs children.

Of particular note is the Jewish Learning Institute (JLI), by far the largest internationally coordinated adult-education program on Jewish topics, offering the same set of courses at hundreds of Chabad locations around the world, all on the same schedule. This means that Jews who are traveling can follow the same course from session to session, even if they find themselves in a different city each week. In the fall of 2012, nearly 14,000 American Jews were enrolled in JLI courses, and overall close to 26,000 participated in Chabad’s teen- and adult-education programs.

The Chabad network is striving to create a seamless transition, so that young people who attended its camps or schools will gravitate to a Chabad campus center when they arrive at college and later, as adults, will join Chabad synagogue centers. No other Jewish movement offers this kind of cradle-to-grave set of services. The participants in these programs, needless to say, range in their Jewish commitments, but with the exception of a small minority, all are drawn from the ranks of the non-Orthodox.... 

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