Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Is It Badly Done On Purpose

One of the challenges of  being a small town Rav is to maintain a momentum of growth in the community despite limited numbers with which to work.  This is important not only to fill the pews on Shabbos morning but also to ensure a functioning daily minyan and a reliable source of dues with which to pay the bills that pile up.
Naturally one way to attract people to shul is through kiruv.  There are, of course, many different ways to do that.  Some, like Chabad, use a two-pronged approach focusing on the larger number of people and approaching them with superficial things like parties and alcohol while keeping an eye out for the occasional serious recruit who might agree to adopting a shomer mitzvos lifestyle.
However, there is a downside to doing kiruv in a small town.  Because of the limited resources available, a serious baal teshuvah eventually discovered that he has outgrown the community he lives in.  Whether it's for a higher level of learning, a yearning to be around larger numbers of frum people, or a concern about proper educational institutions for one's children, the serious frummie-come-lately eventually sponsers a farewell kiddush and moves on to a larger Jewish community.  In other words, a really successful kiruv experience winds up diminishing instead of growing the local population.
I was thinking about this over Pesach as I spent time discussing the crappy job our low shul does when it comes to kiruv.  Despite an avowed interest in the field, the local Rav actually does very little in the way of showing potential new recruits what a genuine Torah observant lifestyle is about.  Whether it's the emphasis on social gatherings at which the only Jewish connection is a vague theme (support the local Hebrew day school!) or minimizing the Torah part to actual Jewish events-  ALL NIGHT GRILL!!!!! (and Shavous learning), HUGE PURIM PARTY WITH BOUNCING CASTLE!!!! (following Purim megillah reading), it seems the only real goal is to get people to walk through the front door of the shul.  They may never step inside the sanctuary or open a prayer book, let alone learn an actual word of Torah from a real sefer, but if they just show up they're considered to be mekareved.
Even those few folks who make friends amongst the frummies in town and start to adopt more observances in their lives never seem to make it past the frum-for-fun stage, adopting many of the superficial tapestries of religious living without ever going deep into what makes such a lifestyle unique.  And why should they when all they have to do to get a kosher seal of approval from the Rav is simply announce they want to keep kosher?
And as I was kvetching about that it occured to me that this might be the point.  As I noted earlier, the danger of succesful kiruv in a small community is losing the candidate to somewhere else where he can grown further.  Ironically the people I was kvetching to were former members of our community who had moved on to a bigger community because they had religiously outgrown our little town.  But if you never actually start to grow, if your entire experience of Judaism is just about fun and parties and you never really progress beyond that, then there's no danger of that happening.
Perhaps that's been the Rav's strategy all along.  If he avoids doing real kiruv he avoids two major problems.  One is the frum-for-fun family that suddenly discovers a Torah value that is at odds with secular liberal ones and has to make the wreching decision on which way to turn.  The other is the enthusiastic and successfully frum-for-fun family which decides it's time to go to the next level.  They never realize there's another level (or never realize that to be really frum you have to go there) and thus they never outgrow the limited setting of the small community.  Problem solved.
But is crappy kivuv better than no kiruv at all?


Michael Sedley said...

The problem of small communities hurting themselves with successful outreach is a known problem.

I grew up in very isolated small community (Wellington, New Zealand), the community has been around for over 150 years and has always followed the same pattern: people that become more comitted to their Judaism leave for bigger communities (typically Israel or Australia), people who become less interested in Judaism disapear through assimilation, and the samll percentage in the middle, those that care about Judaism, but not too much, are left to carry the community to the next generation.

This has been the pattern since the community was founded inthe 1840s.

SJ said...

If orthodox kiruvnics are dumb enough to dress in full uniform with heavy jackets and long sleeves during the summer (I've seen it before), I guarantee you noone will take them seriously unless a person is emotionally disturbed.

Bob Miller said...

In a sense, small communities can function as baseball farm teams, sending their best players up to the majors.

However, real farm teams have a steady influx of new young players, so they never run out of players. The typical small community attracts few new members, except if local employment conditions (including in nearby cities) are very favorable.

The only process that would arrest the flow of committed Jews from the boonies into large North American metropolitan areas would be mass aliya to Israel.

Garnel Ironheart said...

The irony of this community, at least, is that if every person who had ever become "too frum" to stay had stuck around, it would be a booming place able to support all the big city conveniences. Unfortunately there's never enough people to make up the "critical mass" that is needed to convince sufficient numbers to move here.

Bob Miller said...

As for the Rav allegedly preventing emigration by holding back some information, that can't work because of modern mass communications. Also, once the kids grow up and go to college, yeshiva, seminary or whatever elsewhere, they see where the grass is greener.

Y. Ben-David said...

What Michael Sedley says about New Zealand is true also in most of the Orthodox Jewish communities in the United States outside of the New York area. I became observant in Los Angeles while I was in university and I found the shidduch situation to be difficult there. I then went to Israel where I was successful. I see that many people who were born into the community also leave in order to find shidduchim. What happens then is that some religious people, after getting married, then find employment in Los Angeles, move there are raise their children, but then their children leave in turn, either to find religious educational opportunites superior to those found locally, or, again to find shidduchim. Thus, this fairly large Orthodox community ends up turning over every generation, which means there is not much multi-generational continuity there, and this effects the level of religious life and education there, which I found to be very inferior to what I have here in Israel. I bring this as one example of what is, no doubt, a much broader phenomenon.

Rye said...

I'd say this is a glass half empty/half full scenario. I agree with your observations, but not wholly with the conclusions you draw from them. I see new families sprouting up in observance and moving in to go to medical school. I think the rav has decentralized the kiruv movement here into splinter cells that operate individually.

After more thought, I think it is too early to judge. There was a mass exodus after the closure of the yeshiva, and then for 5 years after that as parents realized nothing was going to fill that void. Now the frummies still here have resigned themselves to their existence and pretty much learn independent of the shul. I hear the butcher shop has a good set of books.

Anonymous said...

interesting, I live in your community and am one of the "frummies", I learn with someone over the phone because of this exact issue.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Oh sure, call yourself "anonymous". How original.