While much has been written about growing conflict and distance between Orthodox and more liberal expressions of Judaism, there is actually more contact between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews today because of the former’s practice of outreach to those outside the fold, writes Jack Wertheimer in Commentary magazine (April).
Orthodox outreach, or “kiruv,” began in the U.S. after World War II, but especially intensified with the Hasidic Chabad movement in the 1990s. The movement runs everything ranging from early childhood pro-grams to Hebrew schools, campus organizations and the largest adult education system on Jewish topics in the world, most of which seek to reach out to Jews of all stripes. There has also been an explosion of kiruv work from non-Hasidic “ultra-Orthodox” or “heredi” yeshivas, such as with the Aish Ha-Torah.
This organization runs seminars on leading a Jewish life with locations in 20 cities and many college campuses. Haredi rabbis usually devote their work both to their own continuing education and to leading study groups for Jewish residents in their communities.Wertheimer estimates that there are as many as 3,000–7,000 men and women working full-time in outreach to non-Orthodox Jews. While many kiruv workers aim to turn non-practicing and non-Orthodox Jews into observant and Orthodox ones, many take a more pragmatic approach, finding that increasing Jewish knowledge and some form of practice are the more realistic outcomes of their work.
These more modest goals are partly a result of the shrinking pool of potential converts to Orthodoxy: conservative Jews have been the most likely to convert to Orthodox Judaism, but since the 1990s this movement has shrunk demographically. Today’s complex Jewish situation of mixed families from interfaith marriages (having non-Jewish mothers) has also made conversion to Orthodoxy more difficult.
While kiruv workers receive criticism from mainstream Jewish groups for sheep stealing and from Orthodox quarters for too close contact with the “heterodox,” Wertheimer sees outreach as expanding the menu of Jewish learning in most communities, as well as making possible some rapprochement between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox sectors of American Judaism.
“Individuals who have little contact with organized Jewish life are turned on to Judaism by kiruv workers and in many cases find their way into non-Orthodox synagogues and secular organizations.”
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