Thoughts on the impact of the Coronavirus on the world of Jewish outreach

Applying lessons from Rav Yitzchok Hutner about the Holocaust to Jewish outreach at this time.

Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin ,

Renewal through Teshuva
Renewal through Teshuva
Noam Rivkin Fenton, Flash 90

As someone who has been a Jewish outreach-Kiruv worker for most of his adult life, I have watched as all aspects of Jewish and Torah life have gotten attention during the Coronavirus crisis, except for the world of Jewish Outreach-Kiruv Rechokim. Orthodox shuls, Heimish Shtiebels, Chasidisha Tischen and all sorts of Yeshivas have cancelled services but that has not stopped religious Jews from praying or learning Torah on their own.

Now they are slowly reopening to the relief of shul-goers and Yeshiva members, but what happened in the world of outreach, Kiruv Rechokim, during the Coronavirus crisis? In fact this may be a good point in time, when time has stood still so to speak, to ask ourselves what has been happening in the world of Kiruv Rechokim and Jewish outreach by the Orthodox world to the secular and non-Orthodox Jewish world in general?

It would be safe to assume that Jewish outreach in general suffered a great setback during the Coronavirus war. With the world encouraged to self-isolate and people avoiding each other, it is literally almost impossible to “reach out” to anyone in the simplest ways, let alone Mekarev-bring closer- in serious ways.

  • During this time of social distancing and mask wearing the phenomenon of inviting people to your house for Shabbat and Yom Tov meals is dead in the water.
  • At a time when grandparents and the singles had to stay at home for Pesach, obviously there were no widespread Seders open to those curious about Judaism to be invited either.
  • At a time when college campuses are shut and students sent home, at best continuing their classes remotely, there is no way to do campus Kiruv and classes.
  • At a time when social distancing is the order of the day, it is almost impossible to find people at the Kotel or at any popular gathering place to have an informal Shmuz laden with possibilities of further involvement with Yiddishkeit.
  • At a time when people stay home and stay away from their nearest and dearest relatives, they will not welcome a Kiruv rabbi or rebbetzin into their homes for an informal Shiur (class).
  • At a time when there are no live concerts, it is impossible for the many talented Jewish outreach singers to go on stage and influence people by stirring their emotions.
  • At a time when there are no live venues, it is impossible for notable Kiruv speakers to travel the speakers’ circuit to give lectures and seminars.

So the world of Kiruv Rechokim-Jewish outreach has pretty much come to a standstill at this time, and it is going to take a while before live one-on-one, group or audience size scenarios will resume in full force. And sadly during this time, many potential listeners will have been lost.

No doubt there have been huge efforts to do outreach via the Internet, such as on Facebook, Zoom, or simply keeping up with people by Email or the phone. But that is just trying to keep things running. And no doubt there are success stories via digital mediums and medias, but at the end of the day there needs to be real world and real life communication to accomplish the work of Kiruv Rechokim.

During this time, when the entire world seems to have been under the pause button, giving us time to reflect on our lives, maybe this is a good time to take stock of the world of Kiruv Rechokim.

Let’s begin by asking a simple question: When does the era of Baalei Teshuva (returnees to observant Judaism) and its concomitant Kiruv Rechokim (Jewish Outreach) begin in the world? This is not a simple question, but one can posit that it is a post World War Two (1939-1945) phenomenon. In America for example, it is symbolized and actualized by the arrival of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Shneersohn (1880-1950) in America in 1940 with his famous call to Teshuva (repentance) where he declared: “Le’alter Leteshuva, Le’alter Legeulah” (“speedy repentance brings a speedy redemption”).

The Counter-culture of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s broke down the mores and morals and opened up new ways for the youth to rethink the emptiness in their lives. In Russia, it was ushered in by the age of the Refuseniks in the 1960s. In Israel it was the aftermath of both the 1967 and 1973 wars that tugged at the hearts of Israelis. Chabad-Lubavitch is definitely one of the most successful modern Jewish outreach movements in the Orthodox world. They do not call it “Kiruv” rather they stress Ahavas Yisrael-Love of all Jews, based on the verse “Love thy friend as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). But it goes deeper, and it would take time before the Jews of the world would learn about and absorb the full shock of the horrors of the Nazis' “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”

(Note, the following section is a mere summary of a much longer article, only brief points are cited. All errors are due to my own limitations alone.)

Rabbi Yitschak Hutner zts"l
Rudomin

In 1977 Rav Yitzchok Hutner, the Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn, New York, and of Yeshiva Pachad Yitzchak in Har Nof, Jerusalem, delivered a famous lecture to Jewish educators “‘Holocaust’ – A Study of the Term and the Epoch it is Meant to Describe” (originally published in The Jewish Observer magazine, October 1977, pp 3-9) reprinted in “A Path Through the Ashes: Penetrating analyses and inspiring stories of the Holocaust from a Torah perspective” (published by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, January 1986, pp. 39-55) covering many dimensions, aspects and consequences of the Holocaust on Jewish life. Of particular interest to the world of Baalei Teshuva and Kiruv Rechokim, Rav Hutner makes some salient observations:

  • Before the Holocaust Jews had been riding high on a highly assimilationist wave, being welcomed into the gentile world in an era of Enlightenment, of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. The French Revolution of 1789, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the opportunities and democratic freedoms given to Jews in Britain, Germany and the United States, in fact throughout the Western Liberal Democratic countries from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries were huge and unparalleled.

  • This all came crashing down during the mid-twentieth century culminating in the Holocaust. The prior trust that Jews had placed in the outside world was shattered and in place came mistrust and openness to renewing their Jewish roots. Rav Hutner states that this is in line with verses in the Torah that predict this at the end of days: God says “…this nation (i.e. the Children of Israel, the Jews) will arise and fall prey to the lure of strange nations and trust in them…And I will hide my face from them, and they will become as food [for their enemies], and great evils and troubles will come upon them; then shall they declare: ‘It is because my God has not been in my midst that these evils have befallen me’.” (Deuteronomy 31:16-17) Rav Hutner says that the interpretation of “the lure of strange nations and trust in them” follows the commentary of Onkeles since the verse is not referring to idolatry per se but to “the lure of strange nations”. Then, “the ‘great evils and troubles’ which are the direct result of trusting and relying upon the gentile world signify the impetus for the next immediate stage in Jewish history, a unique point in the teshuva-repentance process: Then shall they declare: It is because my God has not been in my midst that these evils have befallen me.

  • The next stage says Rav Hutner is not a perfect era of Teshuva-repentance. The Children of Israel, and the Jews of our day, did not and have not as a nation admitted that they have gone astray and sinned. This [based on] the Ramban [on Jeremiah 2:35: “Behold I do judgment with you for saying ‘I have not sinned’.”] Perfect Teshuva requires admission of wrong-doing and sinning. This stage is a “leaning toward Teshuva, yet not quite reaching the point of Teshuva Gemura, the complete penitence required by the Torah” says Rav Hutner. It is the beginning of the Teshuva process and this is what happened after the Holocaust to the soul of the Jewish nation. “This can only come about through promises rescinded, rights revoked, and anticipations aborted. The pain and anguish at the time of these shattered illusions is all too real and tragic; yet the events themselves serve to bring us to the recognition that ‘it is because my God has not been in my midst that these evils have befallen me’.”

  • Says Rav Hutner (in 1977): “Our new understanding of the essence of our era allows us some comprehension of the phenomenon of our ‘age of Baalei Teshuvah’ (returnees to Judaism).’ It has oft been noted that Teshuvah seems to ‘be in the air,’ and indeed the many movements currently succeeding to an unprecedented degree in bringing [secular and non-religious] Jews closer to [Orthodox, Torah-true] Judaism are but a reflection of the fact that the very climate is permeated with a kind of Teshuvah-readiness. [Speaking in terms of the post-Holocaust era during the 1970s] This climate is the result of the disappointment in gentiles, which demolished the first stumbling-block to Teshuvah, and forced the recognition that ‘it is because my God has not been in my midst’ that the awesome events of recent times have occurred. Of course, this is not to say that each individual Baal Teshuvah has experienced a personal disappointment in gentiles. There are characteristics and trends common to an entire epoch that eventually affect each individual in his own way.”

Thus far for the words of Rav Hutner. What can we learn from them? First of all obviously something cataclysmic happened to the Jews during the Holocaust. Not just the death of six million Jewish Kedoshim (martyrs) but the remaining remnant of both Holocaust survivors and as well as those who remained alive in the lands where the Nazis did not reach, some twelve to fourteen million Jews, let us say, were left in a state of shock. Whereas before the Holocaust the trend was to assimilate, other trends took over after the war. As we know, with the help of God, the Jews triumphed and produced the state of Israel. Judaism triumphed as Hasidic and Haredi yeshivas and dynasties transplanted themselves to America and Israel. As an outgrowth came learned rabbis and personalities, pioneers of Jewish outreach, who would marshal something that came to greet them, secular Jews searching for their roots.

The hopes of the founders and visionaries of the Kiruv Rechokim-Jewish Outreach movements and organizations starting from the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, was that there would eventually be a tidal wave of returnees to Torah-true Judaism (another way of saying Orthodox Judaism), but it has not come to pass. In America 2020, the non-Orthodox movements are still very strong and if anything most Jews are firmly secular. In Israel 2020 there is a huge non-observant majority, although within that majority many are traditional.

In both Israel and America there is growth within the Orthodox-Haredi-Hasidic-Sefardi worlds, but there is so far no tidal wave of Baalei Teshuva. It is definitely a trickle, perhaps a very strong stream or rivulet but there are no Nile or Amazon, Mississippi, Danube, or Volga Rivers flowing with non-Orthodox Jews clamoring to join the Orthodox Torah world. (Or maybe, as some say, they are FTBs “Frum-to-be”?!)

Years ago a Jewish educator was asked how to describe Jewish education before World War Two in America and he said that is was like a river “a mile wide but an inch deep” and it seems the same can be said about the state of Kiruv. The Baalei Teshuva in 2020 are not presenting themselves the way they did in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s. There is a lot of noise, and static, online as masses of YouTube videos and digital broadcasts take to the airwaves. But what really is the “cost-benefit” result of effort equaling quantifiable output? These are very difficult things to quantify, and time is running out because the more time goes by, the harder it is to reach the “target audience”!

At the end of the day we are forced to realize our human limitations. Some things can be accomplished by men and women in the real world in real time, but many other things are the job of a Higher Power. Which brings us to this era of the Coronavirus that happened to coincide with the miraculous Jewish holidays of Purim and Pesach, and now with Shavuot. It took a number of hidden miracles to save the Jews in the time of Esther and Mordechai, and it took open miracles to bring the Children of Israel out of ancient Egypt.

From Pesach to Shavuot we mourn for a time of plague during the Counting of the Omer period between Passover and Shavuot, and how there were miracles even then such as with Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai coming out of hiding and surviving on Lag BaOmer. The greatest miracle of all was the Revelation of God at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Torah to the Children of Israel.

We should be grateful that the Coronavirus has subsided and that it has claimed fewer lives than may have happened otherwise. But we are not out of the woods yet.

On Shavuot we read the Book of Ruth, and Ruth was known as the “Mother of Royalty” she was a convert and high-order “returnee” to Judaism who was privileged in the end to be rewarded by becoming the ancestress of King David. Indeed as anyone in Kiruv knows there are so many righteous gentiles who become righteous converts Geirei Tzedek. Sadly, at a time when we see an OTD (off-the-derech) movement among religious Jews. So there is traffic going in all directions.

Perhaps the greatest miracle was how a nation held in slavery for 210 years was transformed into a Torah nation in seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. So miracles can happen, even to us. As we sit in isolation, or come out of it.

To all of Israel and to all Jewish outreach workers, be strong and of good courage. Do not become disheartened. Your efforts are not in vain. The struggle continues. Victory is assured for the Torah Nation that will hopefully include all of our Jewish brothers and sisters.




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