As Rosh HaShanah of this very strange year approaches, it is time for introspection, and thinking of perhaps making some changes. This unprecedented year, as has been endlessly commented upon, has been mostly a disaster. We stand before U’N’saneh Tokef once again and – as never before in my lifetime – wonder who will live, who will die; will it be in a calamity, or a plague, or by trouble breathing? Who will be at peace and who will be subject to riots? How can we – how should we – pray differently? Is that what is needed so that this coming year will be better?
I find myself repeatedly saying that if we learned nothing else from the coronavirus, it is that we really truly do not know. We don’t know anything. We do not know why things happen, and indeed what will happen or when or why.
All the great predictions made at the beginning of the pandemic lie broken before us. Society around us is in tatters. We really do not know anything about what will be. The best that we can daven for was summed up by Eli HaKohen (Shmuel I 3:19): “He is G-d; He will do what is proper in His eyes.”
However, besides prayer, we must, of course, focus on t’shuvah. Every person has his or her cheshbon ha’nefesh (personal accounting) to do, and I leave it for my readers to figure out what that is for themselves. Nevertheless, I have been reflecting, and think that others might benefit from my ruminations, particularly for those who deal with Jewish outreach.
Lonni and I are going through a major change, once again. Two and a half years ago we had the incredible privilege to come on aliyah to the beautiful but completely secular community of Lavon in northern Israel. Those who are familiar with my writings know that we moved there in order to make a difference. By living in peace and harmony with our non-observant brothers and sisters, avoiding judging people, and befriending people as they are, we had hoped to eventually bring more respect and appreciation for Jewish mesorah and learning. With the help and support of the wonderful Ayelet HaShachar organization, we endeavored to strengthen the local shul, to invite people for Shabbos meals, to learn in various formats, to bring programs before the various chagim, to distribute mishloach manos, and to offer interesting entertainers; we even had the Chief Rabbi in our home to greet those who would come. We had some success and had some nachas, while also encountering some strong animosity. But two months ago, after being able to do almost nothing for half a year (only partially because of the coronavirus), and in consultation with my rebbe shlita, we decided to invest our energies elsewhere.
I could write at length about why we came to that feeling, but it really came down to one basic fact: the majority of Israelis (and non-observant Jews everywhere) are simply not interested.
They are not anti-religious (although they have way too many legitimate gripes about the behavior of too many religious Jews). They are not mean-spirited. They simply feel that they have fine values, morals, and ethics, and do not need outdated religious ideas to enlighten their lives, thank you very much.
Not only does outreach not touch them positively, but they look at us as “missionaries” who come to threaten their way of life and turn their children away from them. Any hint that their values and way of life lack something is taken as offensive and hostile, no matter how it is sugar-coated.
We in the Orthodox world tend to look to them with a mix of compassion, incredulity, and even some pity. We feel bad that they are missing out and do not know the warmth of Shabbos, the majesty of Torah learning, the beauty of an observant community, the closeness that one can feel to Hashem that we can feel during davening.
We hear stories of baalei t’shuvah who describe their relatively empty lives before finding the beauty of Torah, and take pride in ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu (how fortunate we are). We thus usually approach outreach with the notion that if we just found the right way to show them the beauty of Torah, we will be able to touch their hearts and neshamos and they will come back.
While, of course, that works for some, the sad truth is that for most nonobservant Jews it is seen very differently.
So with a heavy heart, we came to the conclusion that the likelihood that we would have any meaningful impact in the next ten years was minimal, at best. There was thus not much reason to justify staying in a community with no minyan for the long term. (See Pirkei Avos 6:9.)* We have left Lavon and will be writing the next chapter of our lives in Migdal HaEmek. (“Why Migdal HaEmek?” will wait for another essay.)
But I’ve been thinking a lot: What might we have done differently to have a better result in Lavon?
A conversation with some of my new neighbors in Migdal HaEmek brought me to the point that Israelis would call “the asimon fell.”
The answer is summarized well by the Chofetz Chaim in his beautiful book Ahavas Chesed, in which he extols the importance of acts of kindness (II, 5).
He reminds us of our patriarch Avraham, who excelled primarily in performing acts of kindness; that is why he was chosen to be the father of the Chosen People (B’reishis 18:19), not due to his scholarship or adeptness at philosophical arguments. He then says:
“In our time, when the midas ha’din (strict justice) is ascendant in the world, and there seems to be no way to be saved from troubles that constantly arise, we certainly should increase our effort to engage in chesed… In Egypt, the way the Jews merited the Redemption was to come together and act kindly towards each other, and also to serve their Father in Heaven with Torah. By mutual covenant, they gathered to help each other and be kind to each other, and through that, to merit that Hashem acted kindly towards them. This became the reason for the Redemption, as it says: ‘In Your chesed You led the people You redeemed; in Your strength, You guide them to Your holy abode (Sh’mos 15:13).’”
Based on this source, on our experience, and the experience of my new friends in Migdal HaEmek, I came to realize that the right way to do outreach to most Jews is not to focus on Torah, or observance, or Shabbos, or coming to the shul – or anything “religious.”
The right way is to focus primarily – and with some, exclusively – on doing chesed.
Be as good a neighbor as possible.
Be friendly and helpful and to have no expectations that they will change their observance in any way; be giving and loving. Period.
See to it that “the Name of G-d will become beloved through you by having an exemplary character that people come to admire (Yoma 86). Model the bein adam l’chaveiro values of the Torah to become a splendid mentch.
That, and only that, is the path to win hearts and minds over to our way of life. Only then, when they express openness to knowing more about Torah, can we offer to show them that the bein adam l’chaveiro is connected to our relationship with the Almighty, and there is so much more that they might also consider.
Some of the outreach sponsors that I have worked for have demanded monthly reports in which they wanted to know how many people had come to observe Shabbos and at what level, whether they still shave with a razor, and whether they wear a kippah publicly, etc. In my opinion, this is so wrong, on so many levels. It totally misses the mark and is so counter-productive.
Our focus should be on creating relationships and good feelings, and let Hashem bring them along when they want to explore more.
If only we had focused more on finding opportunities to do chesed, and less on trying to get people to come and learn when they had no interest. If only we had run an after-school program to help kids with their homework, rather than get them to come to a Chanukah program. If only we had delivered meals to those who could use the help rather than fruitlessly trying to invite them to Shabbos meals that they found frightening and threatening. That might have led to us feeling that we really made inroads with more than just a few individuals.
When discussing this with my daughter Ashira, she rightly said, “What do you mean? The frum community has amazing chesed organizations, gemachs, and so many people doing chesed!” Of course, she is right; the observant community does excel at chesed. But I daresay that (with few notable exceptions, such as Yad Sarah and ZAKA) it is mostly inner-directed to helping those within the community, and only peripherally to the community at large.
One might also argue that this goal of doing chesed is at the core of what the Federation and UJA have been doing, with little to show for it in terms of having aroused greater appreciation for the Torah. To which I respond that although the chesed that these organizations has done is mostly excellent, to a large extent it has been divorced from an affinity for Torah and learning and ritual observance, and thus resulted in no such connection being made. In those few cases where it was done, such as the wonderful UJA-sponsored Bikur Cholim annual conferences that I used to attend in New York, a huge kiddush Hashem was made.
We all sense that we are living in momentous times and that the End may be near. We need to pull together our brothers and sisters with avosos ahavah (ropes of love) – as in the famous formulation of the Chazon Ish. Let us find our fellow Jews and love them. Period.
Let us remember the glorious example of Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev who – while being an astounding Torah scholar – worried not about how observant other Jews were, but if he could find ways to be kind to them, assured that their way to observance would follow.
Personally, I hope to continue to work with Ayelet HaShachar here in town and in the neighboring moshavot and kibbutzim: doing chesed, certainly being more than willing to respond if interest in Torah arises, but that will not be the primary focus of activity.
If we do so – sincerely, with no expectation of anything in return – Hashem will eventually fill their hearts, as well, with love and appreciation for Him and His Torah.
* An interesting footnote is that although there was no minyan in Lavon for almost seven months prior to our leaving, there has been a minyan every single Shabbos since we left. I am unclear why this is so. Is it that they are finally taking responsibility for the minyan without me there to champion it, or that there were people who were annoyed by my presence, who now felt comfortable returning? Life is certainly funny sometimes.
Rabbi Yehuda L. Oppenheimer is a rabbi, attorney, tour guide and writer, and served as the rav of several congregations in the US, most recently of the Young Israel of Forest Hills. He has made aliyah and writes and seeks to promote Jewish unity from his home in Migdal HaEmek.