I Have a Dream
I have a dream.
Really. Rutgers University professor of sociology Chaim Waxman said so.
In response to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporter's query about a speech I presented at Agudath Israel of America's recent 81st national convention, the academic opined that he was "unaware" that, aside from Chabad's activities, Orthodox outreach to non-Orthodox Jews in America is "a reality," that it was "anything more than Avi Shafran's -- let's call it -- dream."
Dr. Martin Luther King's dream of a society where people are judged "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," unfortunately, is still a way off. But, with all due respect to Professor Waxman, Orthodox outreach to other Jews has long left the realm of dreams and become a rather prominent reality on the American scene.
On January 16, the Association for Jewish Outreach Programs (AJOP), with which hundreds (yes, hundreds) of Orthodox outreach organizations are affiliated, will begin its annual 5-day convention; it will be the group's sixteenth such annual gathering.
Among AJOP's members are a large number of community kollelim -- or Torah-study centers -- that offer study-partners, lectures and discussion groups to the Jewishly educated and non-educated alike. Such kollelim thrive in places like Phoenix, Des Moines, Norfolk, Boca Raton, and Palo Alto, not to mention larger cities like Atlanta, Dallas, Seattle, Memphis, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia and Cleveland (and many more -- including locations in South America, Canada and Mexico).
Agudath Israel of America, for its part, pioneered the Jewish Education Program (JEP) 30 years ago. Among its many programs JEP, in a number of communities in the United States and Canada, operates "release time" and after-school outreach programs for Jewish children who attend public schools, and has, over the years, brought countless youngsters closer to their religious roots.
In fact, at Agudath Israel conventions over the years, revered rabbinic leaders of the Orthodox community have spoken movingly and repeatedly about the responsibility Orthodox Jews have to help their less Jewishly-aware brothers and sisters reconnect to the fullness of all Jews' mutual religious heritage. At one recent Agudath Israel convention, a man from Texas who had discovered Jewish life and observance through a local community kollel, delivered an address of his own at a convention plenary session. He chided his listeners for not doing even more outreach -- and received a standing ovation
Orthodox day schools in cities across the continent, are themselves in effect "outreach" centers, as most of them enroll Jewish children regardless of background or family observance level. Many also offer adult-education programs aimed at parents with limited background. Scores of Orthodox shuls and yeshivos offer similar outreach programs.
Torah Umesorah, the national Orthodox network of yeshivos and day schools, has for over a decade run a phenomenal outreach program called Partners in Torah (1-800- STUDY-4-2). It matches Orthodox men and women with Jews of limited or no religious background for regular one-on-one text-study sessions, in person or by phone. Study partners, of which there are currently thousands, are often separated by thousands of miles but forge close ties through their joint Torah-study endeavors.
Entirely apart from Chabad's prodigious efforts, Orthodox outreach offerings are everywhere on the Internet. Sites like Aish.com, Torah.org, ProjectGesher.org and JewishAmerica.com, are visited by thousands of Jews daily. And one of the most successful educational ventures in American Jewish history is undoubtedly ArtScroll/Mesorah, the Orthodox publishing house whose hundreds of offerings have brought traditional Jewish knowledge and perspectives to innumerable Jews.
And the fruits of all that Orthodox outreach are hardly hidden. Rare is the Jewish community where one cannot find Jews living vibrantly Jewish lives as a result not of their upbringing but rather of their contact with other Jews involved in one or another of the aforementioned efforts. Orthodox outreach not only exists, it accomplishes.
I don't know if Professor Waxman, who went on to opine that "the haredim have [long] had the fortress approach of 'we'll take care of our own,'" is simply uninformed about the Orthodox world's outreach efforts, or whether he chose for some reason to ignore them. But he can rest assured that if Orthodox outreach is a dream, it is a dream come true.
Which is not to say, sadly, that the outreach efforts are radically changing the American Jewish scene. The recent National Jewish Population Survey 2000 results made that depressingly clear. The American Jewish community as a whole is shrinking, its birth rate is below replacement level and its intermarriage rate is pushing 50%. With the exception of the Orthodox community, American Jews are being rapidly reduced to a mere sprinkling of matzoh-meal in the American melting pot.
And worse than the prognosis for American Jews as a group is the prognosis for American Jews as individuals. If the American Jewish community continues down its current path of assimilation, the result will be not only a seismic shift in a population but the more tragic estrangement of millions of Jewish souls from their spiritual birthright.
That frightening scenario was, in fact, what I shared with those gathered at the Sunday morning session at Agudath Israel's recent convention.
We cannot, I stressed, suffice with our outreach organizations and institutions, active and impressive though they are. At this crucial moment for American Jewry, we all as individuals have to reach out more than ever to our Jewish friends, neighbors and relatives -- even chance acquaintances -- who are living less than vibrantly Jewish lives.
And so I suppose I do indeed have an unfulfilled dream, one that every Jew who cares about other Jews should share: that, somehow, the masses of American Jews can in fact be reached by the hands and hearts reaching out to them. For, despite all the prodigious efforts, there are so many more of the former than the latter.
I don't claim exclusive rights to my dream. I hope Professor Waxman -- and
all Jews concerned with Judaism and the Jewish future -- will dream along
with me, and that we set ourselves more determinedly than ever to the task
of helping make our dream a reality.
posted to JLaw.com: 12-29-03