Coming home

Kiruv in the 21st Century

By: Paula Levin

If you’re reading this sentence – it’s a miracle. It means you’re Jewish. And you know it. And you have enough connection to your roots to be enriching your knowledge about Jewish life. Maybe your children even attend a Jewish Day school and brought home this magazine. All miraculous. Two thousand years after the Jewish People were exiled from our homeland, dispersed across the globe, persecuted for centuries, and murdered in our millions, the very fact that we exist as Jews at all defies all reason[1]. That we have carried our laws, customs, identity, and heritage with us throughout this multigenerational ordeal is astonishing. But most remarkable of all is the fact that this phenomenon was predicted 2 700 years ago. “As for Me, this is My covenant with them, says Hashem. My spirit which is upon you and My words that I have placed in your mouth shall not move from your mouth or from the mouth of your seed and from the mouth of your seed’s seed, Hashem says, from now and to eternity.”[2]

I remember once learning that the Jewish People are eternal – this is G-d’s promise to us – but what is not promised is whether we, or our children, or their children will be a part of this eternal people. That’s up to each one of us. For decades, however, more and more of our fellow Jews have been intermarrying and assimilating. In 2020 the Pew Research Center found that 27% of American Jewish adults do not identify with the Jewish religion. Asked about their current religion they described themselves as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” rather than as Jewish. Four in ten Jewish adults under 30 answered the same. Among Jewish respondents who got married in the past decade, six-in-ten say they have a non-Jewish spouse. More Jews than ever are oblivious to the treasure they are abandoning, totally unaware that they are an essential link in a chain, or as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l calls it, “a letter in the scroll”[3].

“Secularisation is a relatively new phenomenon,” explains Rabbi Ari Shishler. “From our earliest history, there was no such thing as a secular Jew. Even in the times of the Second Beis Hamikdash when the Jewish people split into the Perushim (Pharisees) and Tzedukim (Saduccees), the split was over the Oral Torah. Even the Tzedukim kept the mitzvos. And throughout our long exile, Jews were religious. They may not have been learned, but they were always observant.”

Intermarriage was barely heard of – mainly because Jews lived in ghettos or insular communities, and they never mixed with non-Jews. There was zero appeal to socialising with illiterate peasants who harboured an undying hatred for us! The Enlightenment changed all this. The advent of secularism along with granting full equality to Jews gave rise to the phenomenon we’ve been seeing since the end of the Second World War – the disappearing Jew.

Counteracting this is “the Kiruv movement”, a massive push to educate secular Jews and try and inspire them to observe, to do teshuva. But what is it that convinces a person to transform their lives, return to the path of their ancestors, and indeed to their very essence? Is kiruv an intellectual, rational, emotional, social, or spiritual process? Are there any tried and tested strategies? To solve the mystery, I reflected on my own journey and then went directly to three of Johannesburg’s outreach experts, Rabbi Moffson, Rabbi Shishler, and Rabbi Sosnovik.

Although I got a solid religious Jewish Day school education and grew up in an observant baal teshuva home, making me Frum From Birth (FFB), I matriculated with complete apathy about whether or not G-d exists and little interest in Jewish observance. Let me be clear that this was through no fault of my educators or devoted parents who had themselves become religious through Chabad shaliach Rabbi Lipskar! Some seeds just take time to germinate, and my soul was buried under deep layers of youthful superficiality and indifference to what really matters. I was more interested in boys, clothes, parties, and getting a good degree. When I experienced a personal tragedy at age 20, I began to care for the first time if life and death were a haphazard random accident of fate or if life held some purpose beyond carpe diem. I was incredibly blessed to have been offered answers by several Jewish outreach giants – Aish HaTorah, Arachim, Neve Yerushlayim, and Ohr Somayach. I encountered professionals whose day job was to propel my search for meaning ever forward and prod me to keep caring about what life is about instead of falling back into complacency.

I attended masterful classes at Aish HaTorah conceptualised by Rabbi Noach Weinberg ztz”l and delivered by Rabbi Yitzchak Sandler. I learned with Rabbi Ziskin who convinced me to attend a trip to Israel called Fellowships. Both families also welcomed me to their Shabbos tables. I was invited to several Arachim seminars where I was faced with irrefutable intellectual proof of the Torah’s Divine origins. Aish HaTorah also hosted a one-day Discovery Seminar with jaw-dropping proofs of the Torah’s authenticity. I decided to further my studies at Neve Yerushalayim where I spent three months immersed in learning. Starting my education again from scratch with their Mechina programme, Rabbi Lawrence Kellerman argued the case for the existence of G-d and the authenticity of the Torah, giving me rational “Permission to Believe” and “Permission to Receive”![4] I returned to a full itinerary of classes and events run by Ohr Somayach’s Rabbi Shmuel Moffson and Ohr Somayach’s Women’s Seminary. I am humbled and grateful beyond words for the unquantifiable amount of money, time, and effort spent by these organisations, their donors, and their warm, caring, passionate, professional staff, for catching me every time I fell back into complacency, reigniting my spark, and helping to bring me back from the abyss of secularity.

The word Kiruv comes from the phrase Kiruv Rechokim, to bring close those who are far. It’s a term with which the Lubavitcher Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson ztz”l took issue, teaching that no Jew is ever far, for the simple reason that a Jew’s soul is a “chelek Eloka mima’al mamash”[5], literally a piece of G-d on High, meaning that he/she can never be far from his/her own essence. “The idea of distance from G-d is impossible,” explains Rabbi Shishler. “This is not just a nice, comforting thought, it is reflected in practical Jewish Law. The Rambam’s Mishneh Torah is a work of halacha, not philosophy, and he writes that in the case of a man who refuses to give his wife a Get, we force him, until he consents. A Get has to be given willingly, or it is invalid, so how can forcing someone result in his willingness? The answer, explains the Rambam, is that it is the ratzon (will) of every Jew to do G-d’s will. Sometimes, however, he is hijacked by his yetzer hara. We also have a source in gemora that says that a Jew never transgresses unless a spirit of folly (ruach shtus) overcomes him. The Alter Rebbe, the first Chabad Rebbe, takes this even further saying, “A Jew doesn’t want to, and cannot transgress the will of Hashem.” [6]

The reason behind clarifying this point is to inform our approach when engaging with a Jew less knowledgeable or less observant. “Each chapter of Pirkei Avos [Ethics of our Fathers] begins with the statement: “Kol Yisrael yesh lahem chelek le’olam haba… Ve’amech kulam tzadikim…” [All Israel has a portion in the World to Come. Your Nation is all righteous.] The question is why? This statement comes from another tractate of gemora, so what is it doing in each chapter of Pirkei Avos?” asks Rabbi Shishler. “The answer is that Pirkei Avos is all about how to be a mensch – and that always requires seeing each other as intrinsically valuable, worthy, holy, and precious. There is no hierarchy, there is no ‘closer’ or ‘further away’.”

I saw this approach in action when waiting to begin my interview with Rabbi Shishler. As I stood nearby, I saw him inviting a member of his shul to join his seder, but she declined because she was planning on hosting her own one. She mentioned that she would be moving the Ciabatta bread her Italian husband loves into a cupboard in another room. After she left, Rabbi Shishler remarked how precious to G-d this act must be – even though she would most certainly be still cooking her husband pasta over Pesach!

I wondered aloud if this was enough, and how Rabbi Shishler would encourage her to do more. After all, we have limited time here on earth, and for many of the people he interacts with, there is still a long way to go towards observance! “We are not in control of outcomes – that is Hashem’s department. All we need to do is provide access – access to mitzvos, so that every Jew can reveal their innate G-dly soul. We don’t need to know what they did before or will do after. We need to provide access.” This is the Chabad approach and that is why you may have been approached by a Chabadnik asking if you are Jewish, and then offering you a chance to put on Tefillin, shake a lulav, or light Shabbos candles. “The famous Russian chossid Mendel Futerfas was once on an airplane when his fellow chassidim returned unsuccessful after trying to convince a man about the importance of Tefillin. He walked up to the man and in broken English said, “I Jew. You Jew. I Tefillin. You Tefillin.” The man then put on the Tefillin.”

Rabbi Dovid Refson founded Neve Yerushalayim in 1970. He believes that at least one-third of the nearly 40 000 women who have attended the seminary over the decades were first brought in by Rabbi Meir Schuster. “He was, in my opinion, the most successful person who ever lived,” Rabbi Refson told Jonathan Rosenblum who authored Rabbi Schuster’s biography: “A Tap on the Shoulder: Rabbi Meir Schuster and a Magical Era of Teshuva” (Artscroll). What was amazing was that Rabbi Schuster was painfully shy and socially awkward. Writes Rosenblum, “He had zero charisma and total sincerity.” Despite his shyness, day after day, for decades, he approached strangers at the Kotel and suggested they follow him to attend just one Torah class (Neve for women, and Ohr Somayach for men). Rosenblum adds, “Rabbi Noach Weinberg relentlessly drove his talmidim at Aish HaTorah to achieve more and spoke constantly of the ‘power of one’ to change the world. When he did, he would invariably point to Rabbi Schuster as proof that it is not one’s natural abilities that are the primary determinant of one’s impact on the world, and that such deficiencies as we possess are not nearly so great limitations as we imagine them to be.” One of the secrets to Rabbi Schuster’s success was that he didn’t see externals, only the Jewish soul inside.

Probably the biggest catalyst to creating access is the relationship you build with people, says Rabbi Shishler. “You have to be authentic, and you have to accept and love them for who they are, not where they are at. No one wants to feel judged, or feel that they are your ‘project’ or that they are not meeting your expectations,” he points out.

Hillel says: Be among the disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them close to Torah. Rabbi Osher Weiss points out that the mishnah does not say to love people in order to bring them close to Torah. Loving them, without any agenda, is what brings them to Torah!

Rabbi Menachem Sosnovik is co-director of OHRSOM with Rabbi Jarred Bloch. Together with R’ Daniel Alter they run many Jewish outreach programmes for young adults. Having worked in outreach for 20 years, Rabbi Sos is every bit as passionate as when he first discovered the beauty of Torah observance for himself. “I was living in Israel and was looking for a job as a waiter in Tel Aviv in the summer – which should have been simple – but I could not catch a break. I remember applying with 14 other people for a job at Planet Hollywood and all 14 got the job except for me! Looking in the classifieds, I found an off-the-beaten-track restaurant with a South African owner – and it turned out to be one of the only kosher mehadrin restaurants around. I was surrounded by religious men from Bnei Brak! A friend of mine from kibbutz who had been the wildest guy I knew had become religious through Sefardi Kiruv Rabbi Amnon Yitzchak. After looking into Eastern religions, he encouraged me to attend one gemora shiur. I had always thought spirituality meant meditating on a mountaintop. I discovered that nothing was more spiritual than Judaism and I knew I wanted more. I began learning at a yeshiva in the morning before work.” Years in yeshiva led to becoming a rabbi and then Rabbi Sos was approached by Rabbi Shippel to come to Cape Town and work in Kiruv. “Since that day, I’ve never worked a day in my life!” he laughs.

OHRSOM’s signature programme attracts post high-school students from SA, Australia, and the US from 98% secular backgrounds. The programme is a highly subsidised high-end nine-month gap-year in Israel offering work internships, a scuba diving course, experience with Magen David Adom, a skiing trip, a tour of Europe, as well as a trip to India to hike the Himalayas and do a tiger safari! Home base is in the heart of Jerusalem near the shuk.

Rabbi Sos believes that many young people leave school without ever having seen the beauty and depth of Torah in a real way. He believes a little knowledge is dangerous because young people think they know what Judaism is. He is determined to do all he can to give people the opportunity to look deeper. “I spend a lot of time at King David. Being around young people keeps me young. I go on Encounter, doing sushi workshops, making cappuccinos, and I build connections with people. It’s all about being relatable and eventually learning something meaningful together – like Derech Hashem – an ancient work by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto all about why G-d created the world. 90% of people I ask say they believe in G-d. But this belief has no impact on their life. I try to help them to see how incongruous this is. The truth is not something nice to have – it’s essential. If G-d created the world, surely He had a reason! And surely He communicated that to us! We have conversations that kickstart an analytical process, an investigative mindset.”

Asked what outreach strategies work, and what don’t, Rabbi Sos says it’s not linear and it’s impossible to take any credit for success. “Anyone who does should take a long hard look at him or herself. No one makes anyone frum. It’s all Hashem. But I do think time away from a normal routine is a huge opportunity to get people to think more deeply about life. I used to run the Outdoor Jewish Exchange which took guys on exciting adventure trips. When people have more free time, you can kickstart a more intense relationship. It’s a challenge in this day and age to see beyond the physical, but when you do, an entire world opens up. Young people today are open to spirituality. They are looking for purpose.” Rabbi Sos has also led over 30 two-week trips to Israel for the price of an air ticket, the latest one attracting 100 applications. The experiences Rabbi Sos organises aren’t necessarily only ‘Jewish’ experiences, though many of them are Israel trips. “A spiritual life doesn’t mean one that is separate from worldly enjoyment. I think it’s important to keep a finger on the pulse of what young people are interested in and use that to open up a connection.”

Rabbi Shmuel Moffson has been involved in Kiruv in Johannesburg since 1985. “We were a group of young South African rabbis learning in Kollel Yad Shaul in Yeoville and we served as youth directors at various shuls. In 1987, Rabbi Larry Shain and I decided to create a centre for university students and graduates. We wanted to teach Torah in a way that felt relevant to their lives and at the same time create a space that was the place to be,” he explains. “Back then, there was very little going on for this demographic. Most of the work being done was in schools, so this age group became our niche. In 1990, Rabbi Akiva Tatz came to South Africa and he created a revolution. His classes grew till they attracted 500 people every Monday night for eight years, which also contributed to the energy of the place. In addition to it being a learning centre, we hosted Shabbatons, events, dinners, and parties for Purim, Tikkun Leil Shavuot, Simchat Torah, and Lag B’Omer which attracted hundreds of students. Another unique aspect was that the rabbis hosted Shabbat meals on a weekly basis for tens of students, creating more personal relationships. The centre became a social meeting place and many people found their soulmates at these events over a cup of coffee and around a bonfire. The highlight of the programme was the annual Shoresh Israel trip which attracted over 100 participants, where each learning and religious level were catered for. The success of this programme was the intense follow up, and the shul which had been created for this age group became a forum for them to grow and develop in their own Judaism, both emotionally and religiously.”

“The challenge today is that there are many other distractions and people are more materialistically ambitious.” says Rabbi Moffson. “They are not antagonistic or negative, they are just disconnected and uneducated. However, one thing that hasn’t changed is that they still have a need for real relationships. And the people that I’ve had the privilege to have had contact with for twenty years and twenty days are all unique and special, and they all deserve to see that.”

His latest project, the Arch, attracts young professionals who are serious about their careers. Rabbi Moffson organises talks by top businesspeople which attract crowds of young men aged between 25 and 32. This opens the door to a Shabbat dinner and an ongoing connection. “There are hundreds of mature, highly talented, good people who are here to stay in South Africa. My goal is to create a positive affiliation with the Jewish community and with Jewish identity. This way, hopefully they will marry Jewish,” he says.

As we near the finish line of history, our generation is tasked with finishing the work of all those who came before us, those who sacrificed everything to keep the flame ignited at Sinai alive and burning bright. Former secular Israeli turned Jewish educator and founder of Arachim, Rabbi Dr Shalom Srebrenik, described the situation vividly at a seminar I once attended. “My father was a holocaust survivor, but he passed on the torch of Judaism to me. I took that flame and used it to light my cigarette.” But if you’re Jewish and you know it, you too can be a ‘kiruv professional’ and inspire those in your circle of influence. The Lubavitcher Rebbe would often quote the lovely Chasidic saying: “If you only know alef (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet) – teach alef!” And like the role models profiled in this piece, do it with love for your fellow Jew, without ego, without expectations, and with the absolute trust that G-d will do the rest, so that we all greet the Moshiach, speedily in our days, with all Yidden present and accounted for.

Having heard from our community’s outreach experts, I turned to Jewish educator Brigitte Youngworth to get the perspective of someone who once was secular and now teaches much more than alef! Brigitte teaches brides the laws of Taharas Hamishpacha, is a teacher at Torah Academy, and gives weekly parsha classes and lessons on Shaar Habitachon from Chovot Halevavot (Duties of the Heart). Her journey only deepens the mystery of what ignites a Jewish soul!

Brigitte’s family were traditional Jews who moved from Italy to Belgian Congo to South Africa. “I remember a trip to Israel when I was nine years old and seeing religious Jews. I remember clearly thinking how weird they looked and my father commenting that they were a dying breed.” But Brigitte felt a strong connection to G-d and when she moved to King David Victory Park in grade 4, she began trying to keep Shabbos discreetly, without her parent’s knowing. After school, however, her interest waned as she got busy with life. After university, she attended classes by Rabbi Tatz and was interested in Jewish observance, but struggled with Judaism’s restrictions. “I felt like G-d was very strict and that I was being judged.”

“I started dating my husband when he was serving in the air force and he told me he was not wasting his weekends on Shabbos. So I gradually let go of my religious observance and became interested in other forms of spirituality. I was seeing an alternative healer who did some kind of auric ritual with me and, overnight, I began suffering the most terrible anxiety. I felt imprisoned in fear and depression. It was extreme. After months of feeling this way, I remember thinking that there was no quick fix to feeling good and that I needed to follow a healthier spiritual route by going back to Judaism, but I still had issues with its restrictiveness. When we got engaged, my husband, who had been brought up Reform, became interested in authentic Judaism and began learning with Rabbi Carlebach. Before we got married, he told my husband it was time to buy a pair of Tefillin. Then we moved to London for a few years and enjoyed being invited out for Shabbat meals but didn’t really progress in our observance. When we came back, we began attending the Sefardi shul led by Rabbi Kazilsky. My husband became more religious and grew a beard. It became a real point of contention because I knew I had given up observance for a reason. It had felt cold and heavy and uncomfortable. The turning point was when my husband started davening on weekdays at Chabad House and I started to attend some women’s classes there. I remember clearly one day when Rabbi Shishler was teaching parshat Noach. He said G-d told Noach to come into the teivah, the ark – for safety from the flood. The Baal Shem Tov taught that the word teivah also means word. This means that when we take refuge in the word of Hashem, we find safety from life’s turmoil. He also gave over a teaching of the Rebbe that the light in the tevah was called ‘tzohar’, which is the same letters as ‘tzarah’ – anguish – to teach that every difficulty has the potential, depending on how we use it, to become a source of light. I remember clearly feeling a flood of hope, relief, and happiness. The Torah I learned with Rabbi Shishler, Mashi Lipskar, and Rabbi Masinter was filled with warmth, love, and acceptance. And from that point on, I was passionate about learning, to the point that Rabbi Masinter eventually asked me to teach young brides. Eventually I began teaching parsha at Rabbi Shishler’s shul. Today I could not imagine my life without Torah and mitzvos and particularly Chassidus. It took time, and my journey was not a straight path, but I am so blessed to have found my soul’s purpose.”

  1. Jewish survival is one of many irrefutable proofs of G-d’s existence – a subject well worth exploring in more detail.
  2. Isaiah 59: 21
  3. His book Radical Then Radical Now contains a chapter with this title that is essential reading!
  4. Also essential reading.
  5. Tanya
  6. Hayom Yom

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