By Chandrea Serebro
I’ll never forget the day I received a phone call from Joe. “Howzit? It’s Joe here. How are you?” Quickly racking my brain to figure out which Joe it was, I chatted normally and as laissez faire as I would with any of my pals, until he asked me if I would like to come to the Shabbaton he was organising the next Shabbos. It turned out, it was Rabbi Joe. I was embarrassed that I had addressed him so casually. We laugh about it today, but now I realise that it was this phone call, among others, that had a direct impact on my growth towards yiddishkeit: the personal attention; the care about whether I was coming or not; the personal touch; and even the first name basis. How I miss those days when I was just wetting my feet in the ocean of yiddishkeit; when the kiruv, or outreach, that I was experiencing was personal, direct, dogged, and inspirational. Rabbi Joe never gave up, until eventually he didn’t have to call me to get my answer for he knew that I would be there and that his work was done.
I recently chatted to Rabbi Chaim Willis about his new book ‘Sages Online’ – which presents the first chapter of Pirkei Avos and explains the wisdom of the sages and the time-tested tools for living that are as important and useful today to the modern audience, which finds itself in an increasingly distracted, empty, and meaningless world, as they ever were. He chose to stick to the first chapter of Pirkei Avos in his book because, he says, “The message of the first chapter is how we got from Sinai to the crazy, confused world we are in, and the wisdom we have needed to adopt to allow us to succeed in it.” Rabbi Willis has personally, as well as through his leadership as the Executive Director of Aish HaTorah, contributed to thousands of young South African Jews finding the inspiration and direction to explore and reconnect with their Jewishness and the Jewish people. “The way I see it, it’s like a snowball effect. The world of the Sages in the Second Temple period and their battle with Greek culture, the time of the wisdom of Pirkei Avos, leads inextricably to the very conflicts we have in our world today. It’s the same struggles, the same essential solutions. Pirkei Avos,” explains Rabbi Willis, “was written in a time when people were less connected than they had been, the Greeks were in power, and hedonism was rife.” And so, Pirkei Avos was compiled so that we could “build a relationship with G-d in these less than ideal circumstances.” It’s a “guidebook” to teach us how to live in the modern world, one that Rabbi Willis calls a “spiritually numb world, which started then and which continues up to today”. The need for outreach is ever growing with the impersonal, detached lives we lead. The goal is the same – helping Jews connect with G-d in a secular, detached world; bettering our lives and finding some meaning in it; taking something timeless and making it relevant where almost nothing meaningful is. Sounds like an impossible task for these rabbis. So I asked Rabbi Willis how it’s being done.
The State of Kiruv Today
“My teacher Rabbi Noach Weinberg ob’m, the founder of Aish Hatorah in Jerusalem, had a story he would tell to explain his philosophy of outreach. It was the story of the ‘wonder donkey’. Donkeys are known to be stubborn, lazy animals. They need to be beaten with a stick to get them to move. So when a man heard about someone selling a ‘wonder donkey’, he ran to buy it. This donkey, the seller said, would listen to its owner. If the owner said ‘Go’, it would move! The man bought the wonder donkey, took it home, loaded it, and said ‘Go’. It wouldn’t move. He tried many times, with the same result. He took the donkey back to the seller to complain. When the seller heard the complaint, he went to the donkey. He took a big stick, smashed the donkey in one ear, smashed it in the other ear, and said ‘Go’. The donkey went. ‘You see,’ the seller said, ‘you just have to talk to it. But first you have to get its attention!’”
“Rav Noach’s understanding of kiruv was that the wisdom for living in the Torah is powerful, unique, and absolutely necessary for people today. If you teach that wisdom to people, even those totally uninvolved in Judaism before, it will inevitably change their lives and get them more committed Jewishly. But you first have to get their attention! In the early days of outreach – I first came to Aish Hatorah in Jerusalem, a totally secular kid, in 1975 – getting people’s attention was comparatively easy. Aish Hatorah, Ohr Somayach, and Neve Yerushalayim promised people a free place to stay, a friendly atmosphere, and top-quality Jewish wisdom that connected with us and our lives, taught in a down-to-earth way by thought-provoking teachers. From that beginning, many young people committed themselves to Jewish lives. Yeshivot and seminaries grew in Jerusalem, outreach programmes were set up all over the world. New dynamic seminars for teaching Jewish ideas, like Arachim and Aish’s Discovery programme, were given in every place with a sizeable Jewish population. Many tens of thousands were directly impacted by these activities, and the indirect effect on Jewish communities around the world was even greater.”
“Today, there are more outreach programs than ever before. Kiruv is a part of every Jewish community. Yet most kiruv professionals – a profession that did not even exist 40 years ago – would agree that reaching out has become more difficult. We still get large numbers to our programmes; we make inroads with more groups than we did in the past – Jewish married women through JWRP, young professionals and business leaders through small group and one-on-one learning. But a lot of Jews – young Jews especially – are harder to reach than in the past. This isn’t because the nature of human beings has changed. People need the same wisdom about choosing a direction in life that has meaning, about developing a spiritual side to life, about making successful relationships. The ideas of Torah are just as powerful and necessary as ever. But, as we can learn from the story of the ‘wonder-donkey’, we first have to get people’s attention. And in the world today that has become significantly more difficult. The default position of today’s young person is spending time on his cell phone and communicating with friends on social media. It isn’t easy to get young people today to sit down and listen to ‘ancient’ wisdom, even if packaged in a modern way. And there are deeper problems to getting their attention. The pressure society puts on young people to get started in a profession prevents them from giving thought to deeper issues of what life is really about. The deterioration of the family structure – a large number of the young people we work with are from divorced families – has made young people less attached to anything traditional. The emphasis of today’s society on physical gratification makes people less open to wisdom and spirituality – lots of kids today would rather go to Thailand than Israel.”
“The challenge of outreach today – and we are working on it at Aish Hatorah all the time – is to come up with new approaches to get around those problems. How can we make Judaism more social and exciting, how can we use social media, how can we teach the eternal ideas of Torah in a way that young people of today, different from the young people of 40 years ago, can understand them? Most of all, though, the key to outreach today is to supply people with the one thing they can’t easily get in our cell phone and internet oriented society: personal relationships, rabbis they can talk with, and people who care are powerful in today’s world. Ultimately, it’s still the ideas of Torah that change people’s lives. If we adapt our methodology to the special nature of the time we are living in, we can still continue, and hopefully increase, the impact that the outreach movement has had on the entire Jewish world.”