Thursday, December 15, 2022

The Death of the Baal Teshuva Movement?


When Jews left Judaism and Orthodoxy in droves during the 1800s and early 1900s, the great sages of the generation took strong action. Great sages, from the great Chafetz Chaim to several Lubavitcher Rebbes, From Sarah Schnirer to the Alter of Novardhok and R’ Meir Shapiro, addressed the problems, did their best to implement improvements and remedies and fought heroically to fill the historic role Jewish leaders have taken throughout the generations to preserve Yiddishkeit through the countless challenges we have faced as a people.

They were not labeled as anti-Charedi for not towing party line or saying that everything is perfect; they acknowledged the problems and addressed them.

This being said, it is important we acknowledge the new reality of our generation, and that is that the Baal Teshuva movement, as we knew it is dead. It is no longer here. This is not just something that has to do with the world of Jewish outreach, it also can tell us a lot about the state of orthodoxy, and the rapidly changing world we are living in.

Is there an easy metric to show how much of a decline the movement has been through? Taking a quick look at the historical Ba’alei Teshuva yeshivas might help. Many of the Yeshivas and seminaries that used to serve the many young Jews who wanted to join our communities and study in a Yeshiva for that purpose, are now filled with students who grew up in some of the most frum communities and now find themselves in a program in one of these institutions. Sometimes it is because the Yeshiva/ Seminary could no longer fill its seats with Baalei Teshuva who are no longer knocking on their doors so they opened a program for graduates of frum schools, and other times a need came up in the community because there was no longer room for those students in our “conventional” Yeshivas. Students who used to fit in just fine to Yeshivas like Torah Vedaas or Chaim Berlin now might have to go find themselves a less conventional Yeshiva. If that does not tell you something about how our community has changed, I do not know what will.

In the wake of Chabad’s recent Kinus Hashluchim, some contrasted the photos of the 2022 Kinus Hashluchim with more than 6000 shluchim doing amazing work around the world vs. one of the first Kinus Hashluchim with just over 60 Shluchim gathered in Crown Heights. Seems like an amazing success. Yet in a recent article in Jewish Action, the figure for the total of ba’alei Teshuva per year in our community is held up to be at about 2000 a year between all Kiruv movements combined.

If we have 6000-10000 people working in Kiruv and 2000 coming in a year, with the possibility of more than 2000 leaving every year, one might say that the 65 Shluchim of the Rebbe were getting better results in the 1970s and 1980s.

Lehavdil Elf Elfei Havdalos, an article a few years ago covering young Mormon missionaries, who also seek to convert others to their denomination, found that the number of converts per missionary is 3.4. It does not seem like we are at a tenth of their impact. We cannot ignore such a huge change.

While the article in Jewish Action sought to find the reasons for the declining numbers of those joining our community, few of those reasons address the ways in which our own community has changed. Symbolic of that oversight was blaming the state of mental health on college campuses for fewer people joining our community. If I had to address young Jews on college campuses hesitant to join our communities, I would more likely say: “it’s not you; it’s me.” “Aval Ashemim Anachnu”.

So what should we make of the lack of those wanting to join our community and those who are leaving our community?

It is very simple.

The frum community owes its current growth to high birthrates, not to how appealing, pleasant, or meaningful our community is. Not only are few choosing to join us despite the resources we are investing in that, but many are leaving. Yet the worst part of it is that we do not care.

We have chosen as a society to give up on 10-20% of our children for the sake of certain standards of living, an unexplainable system of meaningless elitism, and making sure that our child does better than our neighbor’s child.

We have forsaken the idea of affordable day school education for all; while some communities should be applauded for making sure Jewish education is affordable for all, most communities have failed to do so. To understand this from a historical perspective: American Jewry, the wealthiest community in Jewish history, has failed in what every Jewish community throughout history saw as the most fundamental communal need–Jewish education for all. What Jews in Yemen, Lithuania, Tunisia, Galicia, France, and Persia, were able to do under the most dire circumstances, we were not able to do. We were not able to secure Jewish education for all, even while we possess the means to easily do so. At the same time, we spent lavishly and even promiscuously on other causes which we did not have to. Our institutions worked for some while failing others.

I recently spoke to a prominent menahel of a well-known and widely respected school and asked him if it was true that many parents are having a hard time getting their child even into the first grade in a school. He told me he recently needed to intervene and use his prestige and connections to get his grandson into the first grade in Lakewood. While the madness of having to use all the connections you have to simply get a regular child into first grade is more unique to Lakewood than other communities, the rising bar of meaningless exclusivity has been increasingly dominating our community. Those who are at the top of this pyramid are okay with a system that benefits them, even if it heartlessly cuts our others, and too many people find themselves on the outside for no good reason.

This brings me to where Kiruv is at today and why this is all about so much more than Kiruv. The reason for low numbers joining our community is the same tragic reason some leave our community: we simply don’t care. Orthodoxy’s birthrates are high, our institutions are full to capacity, no one would like to upset the status quo, and our mosdos are all in an excellent position to reject a large number of people without anyone losing their job. Who wants someone else to join our community when parents struggle to simply get their child into summer camp? True, we culturally applaud this celebrity or that celebrity becoming frum, but that is just to raise the already high status of the top of the social pyramid in our community.

The people who are doing Kiruv out there are doing the most amazing work that has ever been done. Sadly, too often, there is nowhere to bring people to. All of the doors are closed, and the beautiful fruits of being frum are often too high to be reached. Does this mean those working in the field of outreach are doing something wrong? No, it means we as a community need to start doing so much better. If we continue to foster an environment in which self-congratulation is all that is permitted and do not reflect or self-improve, we sin to who we are as a people and are complicit in all those who leave because we could simply not be bothered to make space for them.

The writer is an eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is a member of the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America.


Anonymous said...

> When Jews left Judaism and Orthodoxy in droves during the 1800s and early 1900s, the great sages of the generation took strong action.

Yes, they built higher walls, invented more chumros and announced that better 1000 should leave than institute any accomodations.

Cohen Y said...

Welcome to the show.
Have been saying or similar for more than a decade.

Cohen Y said...

Which Poupko is the author? Some are more shady than the rest. Besides being a left leaning marcher for BLM and worse

Anonymous said...

Its that one .Elchanan. corrupt and Democrat as it comes. But puts on good disguises

Anonymous said...

There are no BTs because there is no more push for it.
In the wake of Woke-ism and BDS, we as a people have taken the message of the holocaust to unite us as Jews HOW EACH PERSON IS as a people and keep as such. The notion of helping a neshama has taken a backseat to (what appears to me to be) a rectifying of the pre-war attitude of “you’re a sinner and need to be on the right side to be worthy of saving us as a people”. We are more focused nowadays on our unity AS WE ARE vs. trying to make a BT to make us a קומה אחת שלימה

FYI said...

"there is nowhere to bring people to. All of the doors are closed"

You can go to the tomb of the Lubavitcher Rebbe shlita, at the cemetery in Cambria Heights, Queens, NY.

bklynlady said...

We can't keep our own kids interested, of course we can't attract newcomers!

Cohen Y said...

There is a push actually but its nearly useless.
Since the movers for our communities have gotten so smug, plush, flush with conspicuous consumption , and increasing ever further domination from those previously mentioned top heavy demographics,that the sincere ones have little cause to consider joining.

Unlike in the past, furthermore,its hardly any sort of secret today with social media everywhere

Anonymous said...

The idealism of the hippi movement brought baalei Teshuvah, today its a very different story. Tha whole of society is more consumer oriented. There are many people doing outreach and there much success. but to compare against the idealistic early os not a true comparison. chabad focuses on keeping Jews connected not making them religious. So the article saying that they are not successful has no basis. Chabad Shluchim are actually very successful at their stated mission