I was talking with a buddy of mine who works in the kiruv industry about the different set of skills you need to make it as kiruv rabbi in the bay area and we both agreed that it would be tough for a straight laced fresh out of kollel guy to really get it. Would he be able to keep his shit together if one of his slowly frumming out protege’s told him that the reason he was interested in orthodoxy was that his boyfriend was frum.
I was wondering what it takes to be a kiruv rabbi on the front lines in places where most of the Jews don’t have much exposure to Judaism of any kind. For instance I was sitting at a meal today in a chabad in the middle of nowhere California when one of the guests whipped out her iPhone to show the rebetzin some pictures of her eldest boy. She then made another mistake by feeding some treife candy to one of her kids who didn’t take a special liking to cholent or Asian noodle salad.
I remember was davening in the Berkeley chabad house last year and one of the folks there for mincha was a rather yeshivish fellow. God only knows why he was in Berkeley, not exactly the frummest place, but after mincha he said something along the lines of “Nu Rabbi why are the nashim saying kaddesh?” The Rabbi tried to tell him to Shut the F up, but the guy clearly didn’t get it. It’s true that women don;t say kaddesh for the deceased, but if it makes them feel good, why rain on their good feelings with a little shulchan aruch – let them be – maybe some day they may actually learn the halacha.
When I lived in Dallas, I used to hang by the shul which the yeshivish kiruv industry views as one of the poster children for successful out of town kiruv. I once overheard an intense discussion about whether or not they were halachically allowed to sing benching since there was a chance of kol isha (hearing a woman singing benching may cause men to become aroused and waste seed) so I guess there is a skill when it comes to figuring out a way to do things without breaking halacha.
It’s almost like kiruv professionals have to throw out everything they’ve been taught about frumkeit and start anew. They need to learn the ways of the world around them, the world that doesn’t hold of daas torah, has no idea what the shulchan aruch is and isn’t really sure why you aren’t excited about the pictures of their wedding on their i[Phone in the middle of shabbos lunch.
Like anything, kiruv is basically a form of marketing, in this case it’s religious marketing. Some people take the traditional approach, like chabad ladies delivering freshly baked challahs on erev shabbos and showing their guests the beauty of family meals with 7 wild children all under the age of 5. Aish will prove to you that Judaism is fact, I have no idea how they managed to dupe so many people into believing, but they have an army of gung ho folks that do the kiruv marketing pyramid scheme as well. Then some folks will simply get you a free shabbos lunch, shabbat.com does this and in the process tries to get you to marry or at least bang Jewish chicks with their built in shidduch service – they do say there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
So what kind of skills do kiruv industry professionals need to have?
They have to believe wholeheartedly in their mission: I would suck at kiruv, I’m too much of a skeptic and a cynic, I would simply tell the truth about all the social problems of being frum and scare people away. Real professional kiruv artists learn how to ignore the crap and only show the beauty of what orthodox Judaism has to offer. There is no talk of the ridiculously high yeshiva tuition for the ridiculously low quality of education. There is no talk about Israeli politics, gender issues or how some communities may place wearing certain articles of clothing before actually believing.
Dealing with people who think they are Jewish: You find out the girl you’ve been teaching to read Hebrew used to be a man and isn’t really Jewish or that the family that comes to your house every week is not actually Jewish, but feels Jewish. You have to learn to keep a straight face and figure out how to deal with every kiruv professionals nightmare – how to tell someone they aren’t a member of the tribe.
Teaching the kids to be PC: There’s nothing like having some rabbis kid tell you you aren’t really Jewish because you don’t dress like tatti on shabbos – it’s funny to me – but said to the wrong person and it could have some damaging effects.