Considering Orthodox Outreach to NonOrthodox Jews in the summer “Jewish Action” issue
One of the biggest topics in the communal discourse in American Jewish life has been the results of the Pew Forum study on Jews in America, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans”. In this summer’s issue of “Jewish Action” (available in-print and online), a special section, “After Pew: What Will It Take to Save American Jewry?”, was dedicated to articles concerning the topic from various Orthodox Jewish authors. I am very glad that they decided to not only take up the topic, but also that they dedicated a special section to it.
One of the reasons that it was great that they decided to take up the topic is because there is a lot of hand-wringing going on for other Jews, but not as much for Orthodox Jews, as Dr. Erica Brown points out, “Virtually every aspect of neglect and loss that, not surprisingly, surfaced in the Pew report has not impacted the Orthodox community.”1 She also points out that “Few Orthodox people even bothered to read the Pew report”,2 which is another reason that it is good that they are dealing with this matter (I, by the way, am one of those Orthodox people who have not read the Pew forum report, but I am seeking to remedy that). Indeed, as Dr. Brown points out “Many who did concluded that it was someone else’s problem as opposed to our shared and collective responsibility. We have become so fragmented that the identity hemorrhaging that is currently taking place is regarded as an “I told you so” phenomenon rather than a remarkable opportunity for change and a religious challenge.”3
A similar thought was espoused by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg:
The survey points to the struggles of the liberal movements that are hemorrhaging members—and perhaps relevance—rapidly. It is easy for the Orthodox community to read the survey and react with a sense of triumphalism, but that would be a horrible mistake.4
Dr. Brown also points out that
We need to learn more about the American Jewish community at large and ask what we can do to strengthen in-marriage, community building and Jewish education for those who do not share our denominational commitment—precisely because we are the best equipped to do so. We have richer and better Jewish education than the overwhelming majority of American Jews. We have tight-knit synagogues that take prayer, Israel and Jewish identity seriously. We shine at building communities based on chesed and responsibility. We invest in Jewish education on every level.5
In fact, the notion that the Orthodox need to outreach to our non-Orthodox brethren was a leitmotif amongst the articles in this section. Every author advocated for Orthodox Jews to engage in reaching out, such as:
We can not afford to relegate kiruv to the professionals. Each and every one of us must get involved. Of course, we must be cognizant of the fact that we will not reach our spiritually estranged brothers and sisters by being condescending or preachy. Our job is to engage and stimulate. We need to open up new vistas; expose nonreligious Jews to the power and depth of Torah.6
…we must focus our energies and resources on outreach, recognizing that it is up to us to plug the dam that has turned from a slow leak into a full-fledged flood of intermarriage and assimilation. Kiruv must not be the domain of rabbis and outreach professionals alone. If we are to move the needle on these statistics, we will need to make outreach a communal imperative and mandate incumbent on every Orthodox individual and family.7
Many mistakenly assume that rabbis, rebbetzins and educators are best positioned to succeed at outreach. While we may have more technical knowledge and be more comfortable in the role of teacher, we cannot compare with the power of a genuine and sincere relationship between an “ordinary” Orthodox Jew and someone Jewishly inexperienced. Don’t be hesitant or afraid. The Orthodox community could easily touch the lives of tens of thousands of secular Jews every year if we simply make it a priority and recruit all of our members to get involved.8
The growing insularity of American Orthodoxy is a tragedy because we carry on as if we are all who matter. I was deeply upset and saddened to hear that one of the prominent members of our community stated publicly on various occasions that the Pew report is not all that alarming because committed Jews were, historically, always a minority and that this report simply describes the most current iteration of that phenomenon. While this may be historically true, it dare not absolve us of the responsibility to do what we can to raise the level of engagement of other Jews with Judaism, one by one by one. This effort needs to be included in the list of the current priorities of the contemporary Orthodox community.9
…we need to prioritize extending ourselves outside of the American Orthodox community to warmly encourage other Jews to join us in these fundamental mitzvot.10
The Orthodox community dare not be smug about the latest report on the state of American Jewry. The Pew report is only as useful as our response to it. Our responsibility extends to all our brothers and sisters.11
We must unite around a shared sense of mutual responsibility, of kol Yisrael arevim zeh lah zeh.12
What struck me about this imperative that each of these authors espoused is that most of them don’t provide a reason and the ones that do, don’t come out with a strong reason as to why. This seems to strike me as a bit odd – if this is a major imperative for Orthodox Jews in America, then explain why. Let’s take a look at the reasons actually proffered:
…there is no doubt that by coming together, by uniting as one people and working toward a common goal, we can build a more secure and vibrant tomorrow, for our entire community.13
If we continue to emphasize the importance of observing Shabbat and studying Jewish texts, we will hopefully maintain the transference of the mesorah even in these times. If we wish to go one step further and strengthen the transference of the mesorah so that the next Pew survey yields more encouraging results regarding the future of American Jewry, we need to prioritize extending ourselves outside of the American Orthodox community to warmly encourage other Jews to join us in these fundamental mitzvot.14
What happens to Jews across America matters to us because we are connected to them. We are one people.15
So, I see that there are opinions that, since Jews are all connected, we need to reach out to them or if we want to encourage them to be involved in doing Jewishly and being involved. That sounds nice. I think the person who best provides a reason is actually not found in that section, it’s to be found in an interview with Allen Fagin, the newly-named Executive Vice-President of the OU:
We must try to address the rapid decline of American Jewry. Each individual must decide what his response will be. There are those who engage directly in outreach, and others who provide financial support to those who engage in such activities.
As Modern Orthodox Jews, we in particular have an enormous opportunity and responsibility to influence our coreligionists. We must model appropriate behavior, language and speech. We represent Orthodoxy to unaffiliated Jews who oftentimes have no other contact with religious Jews.16
Fagin asserts that we need to reach out to help stem the decline of American Jewry, which is not so dissimilar to Rabbi Dr. Schacter’s or Silverman’s reasons provided above (n13 & n15). I find this broader communal approach to be interesting. Yes, Dr. Raskas points out that we can help observance amongst non-Orthodox Jews (see n14), which is a bit more of a religious angle.
It would have contributed to a much more robust conversation as to why Orthodox Jews should reach out to our non-Orthodox brethren or even to have opposing viewpoints: why it’s not as important to engage in outreach to non-Orthodox Jews and inreach is. Who knows? Perhaps in a future issue, they may be able to have such a discussion. Neverthless, I am glad that they devoted space to considering the report and the Orthodox community.
1 – Dr. Erica Brown, “Jonah’s Sukkah and the Pew Study”, Jewish Action (Summer 2014), 51.
2 – Ibid.
3 – Ibid.
4 – Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, “The Pew Report: A Wake-Up”, Jewish Action (Summer 2014), 53.
5 – Brown, loc. cit.
6 – Rabbi Steven Weil, “Taking Our Cue from Pew”, Jewish Action (Summer 2014), 48.
7 – Goldberg, “The Pew Report”, 54.
8 – Ibid., 56.
9 – Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, “The Pew Report: It Really Matters”, Jewish Action (Summer 2014), 60.
10 – Dr. Daphna Raskas, “Safeguarding Our Vertical Mesorah in an Increasingly Horizontal World”, Jewish Action (Summer 2014), 62.
11 – Rabbi Daniel Friedman, “Reclaiming the Disappearing Center”, Jewish Action (Summer 2014), 64.
12 – Jerry Silverman, “Lessons from Pew”, Jewish Action (Summer 2014), 67.
13 – Ibid.
14 – Raskas, loc. cit.
15 – Schacter, op. cit., 59-60.
16 – Mayer Fertig, “Talking with Allen I. Fagin”, Jewish Action (Summer 2014), 12-13.