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Not Dead Yet: A Symposium

Edited by Gershon Burstyn

Is the Door Closing on Kiruv? That was the question we posed in our September 3 edition. Members of the editorial board had all heard varying reports of kiruv’s early demise. Baal teshuvah yeshivos were struggling, college kids in America no longer cared about their Judaism, iPhones were making young people iVacant. And almost as soon as the article was published, the letters started coming, mostly from kiruv professionals, raising objections.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Responding: Rabbi Avraham Edelstein … Founder and director, Ner LeElef Institute Mr. Farley Weiss… President, National Council of Young Israel Rabbi Azriel Burnham … MEOR senior educator, University of Maryland Rabbi Eitan Webb … Chabad House director, Princeton University   Kiruv’s Demise Premature Rabbi Avraham Edelstein The recent Mishpacha article, “Is the Door Closing on Kiruv?” was provocative in its title and thought-provoking in its content. Kudos to Sara Glaz who articulately wielded her pen to an exceedingly difficult topic. And kudos to the strength, integrity, and the honesty of the kiruv professionals who were interviewed for this article. Having said that, it was inevitable that dedicated mekarvim like myself would walk away from such an article dissatisfied, if only because a few pages cannot fully convey the vast complexity of the kiruv effort in which we are engaged. Kiruv activists are involved in an undertaking that defies common sense: the radical transformation of a population that, if affiliation be the judge, has claimed disinterest in the product being offered. From its very outset, wise people explained why the kiruv movement had no future. Yet here we are, over 40 years into the story, and the impossible has happened. We are now a full generation into the movement. Those we are meeting are indeed further away from Torah. It should have gotten harder — and it did. And yet the number of people walking through the door has actually increased. If we just look at college campuses, around 19,000 US students per annum come to at least one shiur or more. Just under 10,000 become seriously engaged in a semester or more of Torah study and activities. And that is before we factor in the efforts of Chabad! The cumulative effect of all these kiruv efforts has been enormous. We know the total number of baalei teshuvah in America through various studies that track those who grew up in a non-Orthodox home who now claim to be Orthodox. According to Pew Research Center’s recent study of Jewish life in the US, there are 150,000 baalei teshuvah in America today. The impact of this number is double because each person is leaving the non-Orthodox population and joining the Orthodox one. (The Pew study also showed a total of 600,000 Orthodox Jews, though I believe this number is closer to 1 million. Based on that larger number, baalei teshuvah account for 15 percent of the total Orthodox population.) There has been a lot of talk about the children of baalei teshuvah leaving the derech or even baalei teshuvah themselves returning to their previous lifestyles, but, although we can identify a few hundred of these, the study showed that the vast majority of those who left Orthodoxy were brought up in religious homes. Some 330,000 adults who are not now Orthodox say they grew up Orthodox. That is 48 percent of the frum population. So, despite the tragedy of dropout among the “native” Orthodox population, we see a large, stable community of baalei teshuvah who have become a significant proportion of North American Orthodoxy.

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