Everyone Has an Agenda
The myth of the free lunch should be widely known, but many parents in the Jewish community are genuinely surprised when their child comes home Torah observant after spending a year in Israel involved with Aish HaTorah or Chabad.
For the collegiate and young-adult set, there is no shortage of free or subsidized trips, Shabbat programs, supplementary classes and — ostensibly Jewish — alcohol-infused parties and meals aimed at drawing them into Orthodox religious observance.
These programs are part of the outreach attempt by kiruv (Orthodox proselytizing) organizations whose raison d’etre is to make every Jew Torah and mitzvot observant; as such, they are substantively different from mainstream Jewish organizations serving college students and young adults.
Whereas Hillel, Birthright Israel, Birthright Israel Next and Moishe House are nonsectarian umbrella groups, exposing young adults to broad-spectrum Judaism and empowering them to make their own informed choices, kiruv organizations are the opposite.
Campus groups like Chabad, and groups which specifically target young adults such as Aish HaTorah, portray their take on Judaism — which disenfranchises women and posits that non-Jews do not have a neshama (soul) — as the sole authentic one.
Kiruv organizations deflect criticism of their evangelism by claiming they are merely trying to educate assimilated Jewry, that they are “just Jewish” and do not preach a specific brand of Judaism. While a discerning adult can see that these responses are tailor-made for a culturally assimilated and religiously undereducated audience, students and many young adults cannot.
This begs the question: Is the best way to inculcate Jewish identity in the college and young-adult age groups to support institutions outside the Jewish mainstream?
The answer is a resounding no. Yet, other than some meager campus outreach, the main branches of liberal Judaism fail to effectively engage the young-adult community.
For the young adult who grew up Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist — and is lucky enough to live in a big city — there may be an independent minyan, Moishe House-style residence or other community for them to join. In lieu of a liberal religious community, there may be a pluralistic or nonsectarian Jewish institution such as a Y or JCC. But in most metropolitan areas, the kiruv organizations play an outsized role in the young-adult scene.
Wherever young people congregate, kiruv organizations are there and using the same general tactics — free or inexpensive food and alcohol followed by innocuous sounding classes — aimed at familiarizing participants with an anesthetized version of their heritage.
The picture these organizations paint is clear: All the Jews of yesteryear were a link in a continuous chain of a singular Judaism practiced the same way since Mt. Sinai. If one accepts this premise, the logical conclusion for each individual is that they too should be religiously observant.
The fallacy is apparent to most, which is why the vast majority of young Jewish adults who go through their doors ultimately do not adhere to Orthodox tenets. The issue isn’t the kiruv organizations’ low success rate, or the naivete of some parents; rather it is that the kiruv organizations are the only theological movement presenting their case.
Young Jewish adults are presented with a false choice between a religious Jewish understanding of the world that is only representative of Orthodoxy, usually a black hat if not haredi version, and the secular world. That the Orthodox kiruv organizations do not represent the values of the broader Jewish community goes without saying. What needs saying, or rather asking, is why, when it comes to Jewish young adults, are the Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and even Modern Orthodox branches missing in action?
Joshua Einstein, 29, is a graduate of Rutgers University and a founding resident of the Hoboken, N.J., Moishe House.