Guide to Modern Orthodox and YU Kiruv

Part 2 in the 3 part guest post series on the 3 major factions of Kiruv

Part 2: Yeshiva University/Modern Orthodox Kiruv

I just want to reiterate the purpose of these postings (click to see the one for yeshivish kiruv). I’ve experienced and seen many things in my years in Kiruv, and like I opened my first post, the vast majority of people in Kiruv are fantastic people doing amazing things. People in this field are the true heroes in today’s Jewish world, and are working hard to curb the tide of assimilation. It’s a thankless job, and they should all be appreciated and respected more than they are.

Heshy had begun posting on these issues from his perspective, but I thought he lacked the experience to get to the heart of the matter. My purpose here is to discuss the differences amongst the different types of people who do Kiruv, and the political and cultural complications of Frum people doing Kiruv and living in different types of communities. I’m discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the different groups, and by doing so, shedding some light on the different cultures that have developed in the Frum world. So, here I am, in all my anonymous glory.

The YU/Modern Orthodox World

The first question you might ask is, “YU Kiruv? What are you talking about? That doesn’t exist! You might as well discuss “professional black golfers” or “clean Kosher pizza shops in Brooklyn”, these things just don’t exist, so why discuss them. To me, that’s what’s so interesting. Why doesn’t YU Kiruv exist? Now, I’m not a YU insider, so my views are based on conversations with many, many YU grads. I didn’t go to YU, but I have many friends and family members who did. Plus in my years in the field I’ve spoken to many YU grads, some of who have gotten Semicha and are in the field, as well as numerous YU and Stern students. So, I’ve got a pretty good picture, and my analysis will make clear if I know what I’m talking about.

The question remains, why isn’t there more YU Kiruv? In theory, it makes perfect sense:

1.      YU grads have secular educations and are mostly articulate and worldly.

2.      They are comfortable in Mod Ox communities, so would have a smoother transition to these smaller Frum communities.

3.      Have a better grasp of secular culture and its mindset.

4.      Without the black and white uniforms, they look and act more like secular Jews.

It makes so much sense, so why aren’t there 50 YU Kiruv Kollels around North America? I’ve asked that question ad nauseum, and this is what I think the answers are:

How Religious and Idealistic are YU students?

Going into Kiruv requires Mesiras Nefesh. You need to be willing to sacrifice some of your personal comfort, live in a small Frum community, etc. In order to do that, you need to be ideological and have strong religious fervor. The question is, do YU graduates have that? I would say they do, but not nearly as much as the Yeshivish community. You have to realize, that 30 years ago YU was full of nice guys who were Shomer Shabbos but not really learners. There was a VERY small percentage of YU guys who were really “on fire” with their learning, and the Beis Medrish was pretty empty during night seder. Plus, their Day School educations left much to be desired, and they really didn’t have the learning skills or drive necessary to go into a life of Jewish education.They went to YU to get a college education and stay in a religious environment, but not much more.

That all changed with the advent of the “Gap Year” learning in Israel that fundamentally changed the YU scene. Some of these places are for Hesder types (Gush, KBY, Shaalavim), American Yeshiva lite (Reishit, Mivatzeret, Or Yerushalayim, the former BMT-the early years), and Yeshiva/Rehab Centers for the bummiest and druggiest amongst us (Niveh, Neir Jake, BMT-the later years). There are also girls’ equivalents for all of the different niche schools, you know who you are. You now had a majority of the incoming class who spent the previous year or two learning in a Yeshiva environment.

Now YU students at least had the beginnings of a real Torah education, and were inspired to go into Jewish education fields. A decent number of these kids stayed in Israel, some in Yeshivish places, some in Hesder; but it started to create a student population that might want to do Kiruv. The problem was, YU students were so disinterested in doing Kiruv work, that YU had no infrastructure for that type of work. NCSY work has been popular for YU students and graduates for decades (thanks for Baruch Lanner, by the way), but beyond that, nothing.

For decades YU focused almost exclusively on preparing Rabbis for pulpit jobs, but not much else. That’s still what we have today. There have been many a community with a YU Shul Rabbi, and Yeshivish Kollel Yungerlite and Day School Mechanchim. Add two cups of sugar and watch the sparks fly! They do make very good pulpit Rabbis, and continue to graduate some of the best out there. But try as they might, YU Shul Rabbis still can’t find YU grads willing to take positions in the local day school or kollels.

Even with the newfound zest for learning, YU students are still not as idealistic as the Yeshivish group. As far as frumkeit and learning skills, the gap has lessened tremendously, but as far as idealism, the most idealistic YU grads usually make Aliyah and never come back, so there is a very small pool of idealstic YU grads who want to do Kiruv work. Plus, YU doesn’t have a network of Kiruv jobs available for them to take.

There has been more of an interest in Kiruv work, and some YU students have begun to dip their toes in the water, but there has not been a mass movement by any stretch. Plus, I think there are two other main factors at work:

YU is VERY New York Centric

As worldly and open minded as one would think YU students are, they stay in the NY/NJ region in shockingly high numbers. The Mod Ox communities have so infiltrated New Jersey that it’s surprising they haven’t gotten their own Jersey Shore episode (They have Snookie, we have Shaindy). Why don’t they leave NY?

Well, again, YU students aren’t too idealistic. Sure, they’ll go to some “out-of-town” community for Simchas Torah, but live there? That’s too crazy for them to imagine.

Also remember that YU doesn’t have satellites in other parts of the country. Since there were no Kollels or Day Schools officially connected to YU, students didn’t spend time there and get exposed to life in a smaller community. As opposed to Chofetz Chayim, who mastered that. (As an aside, I think Chofetz Chayim is the stealth kiruv champions. They just quietly help build communities by investing in Yeshivas, and send their guys out there to help build up the schools. So simple, yet so productive. Plus, Chofetz Chayim guys, on average, are much cooler than your typical Yeshivish guys. I’ve liked every Chofetz Chayim guy I’ve ever met, they really rock. It’s too bad they’ve formed a kind of incestuous club-like feel.  They’ve separated themselves from the pack a bit too much).

So, YU became very cloistered, with their best and brightest staying close to home, and not having a satellite division to work at in order to get exposed to life west of the Hudson River. YU couples always want to live in big Frum communities. Some have ventured out to LA, Boca or Chicago (someone needs to run the family’s old folks home), but that’s about it. So, going out and doing Kiruv is just not in the YU playbook, unless the Kiruv happens to take place in Teaneck, NJ.

YU Students Teach Very Intellectual Torah

Even If YU students en masse decided to start doing Kiruv, I’m not sure if they have the skills to do so. As worldly and open minded as you would think YU students would be, they’re not that worldly. YU focuses predominantly on the Orthodox world, and mostly in the New York area.  Plus they teach some dull Torah. The classes they often teach are a mix of Brisker style learning, academic learning and textual analysis. There is strikingly little heart in the Torah they teach. Now, they might teach a Halachic analysis about whether Mitzvot require Kavanah or not, or what’s the nature of Simcha of Yom Tov, but odds are those classes won’t actually contain much Simcha or Kavana.

To prove my point, I just went to YU’s Torah website, www.yutorah.org (which is great, by the way, and I use it all the time. Don’t tell my Rebbe), and here are the titles of the classes they are promoting:

  • Responsa that Changed Jewish History: Rav Sa’adia Gaon and Chivi HaBalchi
  • Kiruv Rechokim (A textual analysis of the Parsha)
  • Writing BS”D and B”H
  • Hilchos Tevilas Keilim
  • Family Structure: Halachic and Anthropological Perspectives
  • Zerizim Makdimin L’Mitzvah
  • Caring for Children on Shabbos

Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of those classes, I’m sure I would enjoy listening to all of them. But that’s the point, the target audience is ME. These classes are for Frum people with strong learning backgrounds.  A non-Frum person trying to learn about Judaism would get lost on this site, and find very little for them. They would go to Aish.com or Chabad.org in a heartbeat before Yutorah.org. This is because YU is not that interested in Kiruv, and the students end up teaching the way they have been taught. They often come across as cold and intellectual, without much heart behind the learning.

The amazing thing is that even the girls teach this way. I understand guys teaching intellectual nerdy Torah, but the girls too? The seminaries and Stern College have taught the girls to be Torah fem-bots whose classes lack messages of inspiration. As Ron Burgundy would say, “How’d you do that? I’m not even mad…that’s amazing.”

Again, not there’s anything wrong with that, but it clearly shows that they’re not prepared for teaching in the Kiruv world. The YU learning style lacks the heart necessary, and just is not relatable to the non-Frum Jew.

YU Students are More Career Minded

Students going to YU have real career options. I always love those Touro ads with the one student who got into a good law school (Georgetown chose him, and he chose Touro), but those ads just reiterate that he’s the exception to the rule. YU doesn’t need ads like that, because tons of guys and girls get into good med and law schools. Being in YU means having real career options that can make good money, and that’s a hard thing to pass up. When your night seder chavrusa is applying for jobs at investment banks, it can be very tempting to follow suit. To leave all that for a $50,000 (if you’re lucky) Kiruv job with no real career growth potential takes a lot of guts.

In Yeshivish Yeshivas, you don’t have many great career options. The truth is, going into Kiruv is probably just as good an option as the other careers you can try to get into. So it’s not that big of a career sacrifice. Shul Rabbi jobs are a little more stable, make more money, and seem like real jobs, so it appeals more to YU types. But a short term Kiruv job, living “out-of-town”, making little money with little career growth potential? That just doesn’t appeal to the Mod Ox sensibilities. Add all that together, with the lack of Kiruv options YU has for their students, and you end up with YU’s little to no impact in the Kiruv world.

Now, could YU begin to inspire their students for Kiruv work, create job opportunities for them, expose them to smaller communities and have students idealistic enough to do Kiruv work? Maybe. In some ways that process has started, but it’s still a long way away from coming to fruition, and I doubt if it will ever happen.

In part 3 I’ll tackle Chabad. We’ll talk about the good, the bad…and the Rebbi. Chabad is a very complicated movement, and we’ve all experienced them in our lives at one point or another. I’ll talk about the different types of Chabad houses, what goes on behind the scenes, Chabad as a self-appointed public face for the Jewish community , and how they interact with other elements of the Frum community.