Commentary Magazine

Outreach & Orthodoxy

To the Editor:

I read with great interest Jack Wertheimer’s essay “The Outreach Revolution” [April]. While he is correct in pointing out the political divergence between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, I came away with the impression that in many respects he had missed the mark.

I am the president of a small shul officiated by Tucson’s head Chabad shaliach rabbi and his son-in-law and am one of the roughly 2,000 people each year whom Mr. Wertheimer describes as having resumed or adopted a Torah-observant lifestyle. From this perspective, I found much of the criticism described in Mr. Wertheimer’s article invalid.

The majority of nonmembers who come to our Chabad-led shul and to other such centers are not being drawn from other movements’ synagogues, where they otherwise would have had to pay for High Holiday tickets or membership. By and large, this population of unaffiliated Jews simply would not have gone anywhere—they would have been further alienated and lost to the Jewish community. It is cynical to suggest that Chabad draws crowds because it is cheaper. Chabad is attractive because it offers something different and fills a void. The excuse offered by detractors for attrition at their own institutions has overtones of the argument liberals make against school choice: If an alternative model is attractive to many, then it must be considered a threat to entrenched establishment institutions and therefore something to be criticized.

The success of the outreach network created by Chabad can be attributed to the enthusiastic, confident, and very real people who, together with their families, become integral parts of the communities they serve. When Rabbi Yossie Shemtov arrived here 26 years ago, he was told he wasn’t needed. He stayed, and has since helped shape a vibrant Jewish community through a growing network of centers serving students, families, and the elderly alike.

The critics to whom Mr. Wertheimer gives voice veer off course when they criticize outreach efforts for not being initially more demanding. The idea is to create portals, not barriers. Perhaps, for example, when a young family walks into shul, the rabbi could come over not to shush their children but to assure them it’s OK to make a little noise, that they and their parents should feel comfortable and at home. Soon enough, they will be looking into the Torah on the bimah, participating in a children’s class, or kicking a soccer ball with new friends on the playground, connected but not intimidated. Every Jew is treated as worthwhile and with a sense of tremendous potential. This is not, as Mr. Wertheimer characterizes, a modest “non-result-oriented” goal. Critics demonstrate little understanding and even less respect for the endeavor when they describe reconnected Jews as “pickings,” “recruits,” “defectors,” or “low-hanging fruit”—insults Mr. Wertheimer repeats and that say more about the self-interested motivations of outreach detractors than anything else.

The notion that any of this qualifies as “Judaism Lite” suggests Chabad should be more judgmental. I disagree. That would be antithetical to its aim of dignifying, inspiring, educating, and loving every Jew. Latitudinarianism is not a symptom of low expectations. It is, if anything, a strategy for success. Only those committed to the status quo of declining Jewish involvement would use it as a pejorative today.

Jeremy A. Lite
Tucson, Arizona



To the Editor:

Jack Wertheimer writes: “It is an open secret that a growing divide now separates Chabad emissaries in the field from fellow Lubavitchers who reside and work in isolated enclaves in Brooklyn.” As a 31-year-old Lubavitcher who has lived in Crown Heights all his life, I can attest that this is totally untrue. I don’t know of any Lubavitcher who doesn’t support (financially or otherwise) Chabad emissaries. They are held in utmost respect, and the work they do is always applauded. Perhaps one could find an example to the contrary, but not many.

Itche Zalmanov
Brooklyn, New York


To the Editor:

I am one conservative rabbi who does not criticize Orthodox outreach workers for exploring Bible Codes or explaining away fossils, as mentioned by Jack Wertheimer. To the contrary, I am grateful to them for their honesty. I assume that they are engaging in “such sophistry” (Mr. Wertheimer’s words) because they believe what they are saying. To them, this is neither sophistry nor nonsense; it is truth. I am therefore grateful that, at least in this area, their fundamentalist beliefs are out in the open. In this way, the Jews they are approaching have a clearer sense of just what they are giving up, should they choose to follow them.

Rabbi Carl M. Perkins
Needham, Massachusetts


To the Editor:

Jack Wertheimer’s superb article surveyed the realm of adult kiruv in the United States. However, the article should have noted the pioneering efforts of the Orthodox Union’s own excellent youth movement, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, and its positive impact on Jewish identity, affiliation, observance, and Jewish education and continuity, and on Jewish adolescents since the 1960s.

Steven Brizel
Flushing, New York


To the Editor:

I commend Jack Wertheimer for his characteristic erudition and sense of irony, as expressed in “The Outreach Revolution.” American Orthodox Judaism—in many cases led by the sophisticated but nonjudgmental approach of Chabad—has indeed shed its insular self-image. It has emerged strangely triumphal in the 21st century.

What is deeply ironic in Mr. Wertheimer’s discussion of this phenomenon is the Orthodox use of the very mechanism (“outreach”), which was thought by liberal Judaism to be a green light for a revival of its spirit of openness and acceptance. Of course, the targets of liberal Jewish outreach were non-Jews, and the target of Orthodox outreach is Am Yisrael itself. The important difference, however, is in the composition of the “outreach” home base, as it were. The success of outreach depends not on the character of those you are reaching out to, but on the integrity of that which you are reaching out from.

Rabbi Clifford E. Librach
Danbury, Connecticut


Jack Wertheimer writes:

I am not surprised that my article on Orthodox outreach has elicited a range of reactions, and I am grateful to all my correspondents for taking the time to respond forthrightly. I can assure Jeremy A. Lite that my numerous friends in Chabad did not read my article as an assault upon their efforts, nor was it intended as such. What stirs criticism of Chabad in the Orthodox camp is the issue Mr. Lite addresses in the final paragraph of his letter: Is Chabad too latitudinarian? Would it move more people to Jewish observance if it articulated higher expectations? These are not simple matters, but surely it is no insult to Chabad to raise them.

Itche Zalmanov might wish to look at the scene through the other end of the telescope: Do Chabad emissaries (shluchim) feel they can relate to Lubavitchers back in Crown Heights who have little contact with the realities of American Jewish life? My sources tell me not so much.

I can assure Rabbi Perkins that Orthodox outreach workers are generally up-front in drawing red lines and making clear where they stand on the contentious issues of our times. It would be fascinating to learn how many liberal Jews are repelled by their views. From what I can see, the answer is far fewer than one might imagine. Rabbi Librach’s letter insightfully explains why that is so by observing that the strength of the kiruv movement lies in “the integrity of that which [they] are reaching out from.” The willingness of Orthodox outreach workers to assume a countercultural posture, their unabashed articulation of what they stand for and against, and, yes, their “welcome mat” together attract modern, liberal Jews to reconsider what the Jewish tradition offers.

Steven Brizel offers an important corrective to my necessarily brief historical overview of kiruv in America. The Orthodox Union, indeed, served a pioneering role and continues to be active in reaching out to Jewish students in public and private high schools and on campuses throughout the country. 

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