The Secret to Effective Jewish Outreach
My Jewish role models never made me feel I was far from anything. They made me feel whole and utterly special simply for being Jewish.
Many people in the Jewish world use the Hebrew term “kiruv,” to bring close, to describe Jewish outreach. There are kiruv professionals, kiruv organizations, even kiruv movements.
They are aimed at people like me. Or at least who they may have thought I was.
I grew up feeling personally close to God. I would sit in my walk-in closet and cry out to Him when things got tough, which, especially as a teenager, was often. While I didn’t know the first thing about keeping kosher, Shabbat or family purity, I felt comfort in my expressions to God.
I’ve read that the Lubavitcher Rebbe didn’t like using the term kiruv because, as he explained, we never really know who, deep down, is “close” of “far”. And who are we to judge?
Even now, more than a decade after I chose to become an observant Jew, changing my entire life and that of my children, I’m still sometimes “close” and sometimes not.
As I continually work to integrate the mitzvahs into my daily life, my relationship with and connection to God still waxes and wanes. It’s something I’m painfully aware of.
The days I’m spiritually pumped up are magical, empowering, inspiring. I take out my siddur (prayer book) and Psalms and can almost feel my ego getting a little inflated, too, if left unchecked.
And then there are those days where things are more grey, my kids are whining, my husband and I argue and in general it feels like the wind has been knocked out of me. In those moments, even whispering a simple prayer seems like climbing a mountain.
But I cover my hair, dress modestly, keep shabbos and kosher, send my kids to religious Jewish schools – so who would think that someone like me, a family like us, needs a dose of “kiruv,” outreach?
The truth is, I think we all need it at times, wherever we fall on the vast spectrum of religious observance, but not the type of kiruv many of us imagine.
As Jews, each of us has a personal and intimate connection to God that is so private it is nearly impossible to relate that relationship to others.
Kiruv, I think, is about strengthening my own personal relationship with God so that when I see others, it is with total, unconditional love. It means removing my own internal barriers so I am closer to God and therefore more easily able to connect with others.
The key is being loving and non-judgmental.
In my journey to becoming an observant Jew, I was often very aware of how others dressed, if they covered their hair and how. Were they like me or different? In a way, I used stringencies as a way to stay separate from others.
I felt I had discovered the “truth” and those who hadn’t were lacking, further away from God, further away from me. I wanted to inspire them about how great Judaism is. How great Shabbos is. But it’s not about the words, it’s about the feeling.
Inspiring someone to become more observant is really a noble ideal – living by Torah has created a framework for my own life that makes me a better human being and helps me better serve God in my daily life.
But I chose to become closer to those mitzvot because the people I met who lived that way were loving and non-judgmental. They never made me feel I was far from anything. But rather, they made me feel whole, complete and utterly special simply for being Jewish.
They respected me for who I was. I wanted to do what they were doing because I felt their unconditional love for all Jews. And because they seemed to live life with joy and simcha, with beauty that was both internal and external. Yes, they took care of themselves, dressed well, ate well, exercised – in addition to keeping Shabbat, kosher and the hundreds of mitzvot I had yet to discover.
The biggest role models in my life – who not only impacted me but also my husband, our children and God-willing generations to come – never used the term kiruv. To them, I was already close, simply because I am Jewish. And that makes me want to be even closer.