A Solution: Keeping the Orthodox, Orthodox

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My theory is that most people who leave Orthodox Judaism, leave because they don’t like Orthodox Judaism. They have negative associations with religion and would feel better outside Orthodox Judaism. There are infinite reasons why someone would develop those negative associations, but generally, if someone likes Orthodox Judaism they will stay and if they don’t like it they will leave. Thus, I propose that beliefs are not the determining factor in observance.

I think that if we believe that this is even somewhat true, we have a viable solution at our fingertips.

In the 1990’s, a phenomenon of at-risk teens shook the core of the Orthodox Jewish community. Teens were leaving Orthodox Judaism and we had no idea what to do about it. Articles were written, conferences were convened, many yeshivas and Bais Yaakovs reevaluated their programs, and we made addressing this issue a priority.Light bulbs

At the precise moment that this was happening in the Orthodox communities, the exact opposite phenomenon was occurring outside the Orthodox community. Teens and young adults from non-Orthodox backgrounds were becoming observant in a great wave of young Baalei Teshuva. It seemed obvious that it would be worthwhile to examine the kiruv programs that brought people from the non-Orthodox world into our community.

Many people concluded that the Orthodox community should adopt an “emunah and bitachon” hashkafa curriculum to inculcate our youth with the fundamentals of faith. This included Discovery-like seminars that teach purported proofs for Judaism and Torah m’Sinai. Yeshivas and Bais Yaakovs hosted these programs in their schools. The schools that did not bring these seminars to their institutions, still were more aware that belief should be taught. I think it worked pretty well overall. The at-risk epidemic slowed and we are no longer in crisis mode.

Although fewer youth are defecting, a new crisis has emerged. Adults are either leaving or are unhappy or unfulfilled practicing Orthodox Judaism. That’s where we left off in the previous essay.

I think we adopted the wrong part of the kiruv model. It was a good idea, we just applied it incorrectly. Just as Orthodox Jews do not leave based on their beliefs, people don’t join Orthodox Judaism because of their beliefs. They do need to be able to reconcile their beliefs with Orthodox Judaism, but the thing that hooks them is not our unimpeachable system of beliefs. People join Orthodox Judaism because they like it more than their status quo. They like Shabbat. They like the family structure. They like the discipline. They like the kindness. They like the traditions. People become Orthodox because they like being Orthodox.

It’s not just the baal teshuva movement that demonstrates the superiority of experiences over beliefs. The fastest growing religion in America is Mormonism. The religion with the least attractive beliefs is also Mormonism. There are some extremely odd beliefs and quite a few very offensive beliefs in the Mormon faith. No one seems to care. People are joining by the truckload. The reason they are converting to become Mormons is not because of their beautiful beliefs. It’s quite simply because the Mormon experience is positive. People are middle class, they have designated family nights, there is a structure, people are kind, the community is nice, and they have a great looking package. That’s why people convert. This is despite the beliefs, not because of the beliefs.

So what we should have borrowed from the kiruv programs, and the Mormons, is the emphasis on positive Jewish experiences. People with positive Jewish experiences will want to be Orthodox. Kiruv organizations craft incredible Jewish experiences. Trips, Shabbatons, Shabbat meals, learning with charismatic teachers, and tons of personal attention and love are the ingredients for kiruv. They also are the clues we need to craft a solution for our struggles.

Advertising a product is not simply an opportunity to tell the public about your product. Most advertisements want to create a positive association between the consumer and the product. That’s why you’ll see good looking people in ads. The good looking people are there to make your brain excited about the advertisement. Your brain connects the excitement about the ad to the product. Now you think nice things about the product. A product might be perfect and still use this kind of advertising. It’s not an indictment of the product in any way to advertise in this manner. It’s just smart.

Kiruv is advertising. Time and effort is expended on crafting positive experiences so that the product feels good. That’s not to say the experiences are not genuine. They are genuine, but they are specifically designed to be positive experiences The intellectual parts of the kiruv program appeal to the intellect but the real magic is that they also appeal to the senses. It feels good to have the attention of a great teacher. It feels good to talk about important things. It feels good to have your questions validated. So even the studying part of the kiruv program is a positive experience.

This is what Orthodox Judaism must adopt. Everyone needs to have their light bulb turned on. It’s different things for different people. But at some point, Judaism needs to turn on the light bulb in our hearts and minds. Positive Jewish experiences are the thing that flicks the switch. We must figure out how to craft positive Jewish experiences for ourselves, for our children, for our communities, and for our institutions. At the same time, we need to eliminate the negative experiences as best we can.

It sounds so simple. It also seems impossible. It’s neither. The challenge is to create positive experiences without making it a sideshow. We have to make our actual Jewish experiences into positive experiences. That doesn’t mean we just give out candy whenever people are not enjoying themselves to distract them. I think the way to do this is by shifting our communal focus from knowledge and beliefs to rituals and experiences. Our creative educational energy should be concentrated on experiences. The Torah is a book of experiences. It tells the story of our experiences that brought us to the Promised Land and it instructs us in a cadre of religious experiences. Make those experiences meaningful. Don’t just rely on tradition or inertia to make those experiences meaningful. It doesn’t happen on its own for everyone. But it can happen for anyone under the right conditions.

Our children spend their entire days in school. We take pride in the academic rigor of our schools. Even the schools that don’t study secular studies or only provide a rudimentary secular education take pride in their more rigorous religious instruction. Everyone cares about academics. After all, we assume that schools are educational institutions. So we put a lot of effort into providing our children with the best education possible. My father is fond of saying that schools are primary social institutions. He’s right. You can have the best instruction in the world. If the students are miserable all day and all night because they dislike school, we are are not providing them with positive Jewish associations and experiences. All they are getting is negative experiences. People who have negative experiences can’t be expected to want the thing associated with that negative experiences. They are not going to want to pass on that negativity to their children.

We should be placing at least as much emphasis on the school social experience as we place on the educational experience. It’s more important than book knowledge and harder to make up for after the fact. Students need to feel safe, loved, appreciated, and respected. They need to have friends and they need to enjoy their time in their primary religious institution.

It’s time to craft better school experiences for our children. Institutions are by definition clumsy. They don’t conform to the needs of every student. But we can try. We can make our schools as subjective as possible. We don’t need to churn out scholars as much as we need to cultivate pride, happiness, and joy in the religious experience.

Adults experience so much of their religious lives in synagogue. Some shuls take pride on inclusivity and fraternity in their communities. But many shuls do not care for such non-religious concerns. Shuls are also social institutions. People need to have good experiences at shul. Rabbis and lay people should be crafting shul environments that give people a reason to come back and a reason to bring their children. We can’t just rely on commitment to halacha. That doesn’t necessarily make for a good experience, especially if no one cares to create a positive experience.

Much of the remaining part of our religious lives takes place in our homes. Shabbos and Yom Tov meals, lighting Chanukah candles, the Seder, Purim, and all the rest of our life cycle rituals are not merely opportunities to observe Halacha. These are also Jewish experiences and we should be crafting positive Jewish experiences every chance we get.

This is the way Torah living is supposed to be. “Its paths are pathways of pleasantness.” It is supposed to be enjoyable. Every ritual, tradition, and Mitzvah can have meaning and value to us. We should be working on sharpening the tools that find new and relevant meaning in our ancient religious practices. Interpretations of our Mitzvot have evolved. The Sefer HaChinuch has a different approach than Rav Hirsch. They lived (probably) around 700 years apart. We can find our own taamei hamitzvot that speak to us. In fact, I think we should be doing that very thing. Religion should bring us joy. It can bring us joy if we do it right.

Many synagogues decorate their prayer halls with flowers in honor of the holiday of Shavuot. The idea behind this custom is that Mount Sinai was adorned with flowers when the Torah was given to the Jewish people so we want to reenact that moment during our celebration of the revelation at Sinai. But flowers weren’t the only thing on Mount Sinai during the revelation. There was fire and thunderous noises as well. But we don’t light bonfires and we don’t make raucous noises to reenact that moment. Torah is meant to be beautiful, like flowers. It’s not meant to be scary or threatening, like fire or thunderous noises. That doesn’t mean it’s going to seem beautiful and pleasant to everyone. But we should work hard to make it feel that way.

The Talmud in Sukkah states that when Rabbi Jonathan the son of Uziel would study Torah his learning was so intense that if a bird would fly above him, the bird would burst into flames. Tosafot provide one message of this teaching. When one learns Torah with the joy that is like the joy we experienced when the Torah was given, the fire of Sinai burns. In other words, Torah was given with simcha – joy, and that is the way it should be lived. When it is lived that way, amazing things happen.

This is how we ensure the future of Orthodox Judaism. Theology is part of Judaism. But it’s not the thing that makes or breaks Judaism. The most important thing is the experience. If we cultivate positive Jewish experiences and actively remove negative experiences, we are making the choice to stay in Orthodox Judaism much easier. Just because we believe that we are obligated to observe Jewish law, does not mean that we should not want to observe Jewish law.

The next essay in this series will discuss some practical examples and suggestions for crafting positive Jewish experiences on an individual, familial, and institutional basis.

UPDATE: Read Cultivating Positive Jewish Experiences.

UPDATE: Cultivating Positive Orthodox Jewish Experiences

  • MarkSoFla

    Where did they get flowers in middle of the desert?

    • Susan Barnes

      There can be flowers in deserts. The “desert sand verbena” for instance. Some cactus plants have flowers as well.

      • MarkSoFla

        Perfect timing! See my comment that mentioned you above. 🙂

        I was clumsily attempting to use the flower question as a kind of parable or analogy.

    • abbushuki

      Many with portable professions have discovered that yeshivot in Israel require no tuition. With 4+ kids, it’s something to be considered.

      • This isn’t 100% true. More accurately, “tuition for yeshivot in Israel is paid for by Israel’s higher tax brackets.” I’m not sure that at 4 kids, there really is a breakeven.

        Rather, the difference is that once someone makes aliyah, they expect their money to be tighter and people live accordingly. When you and your neighbors never expected the funds for a “higher” (read: cushier) standard of living, you aren’t frustrated by its absence.

        • brooklyn refugee sheygitz

          I’m not aware of higher tax brackets in Israel. frankly america has some of the highest tax rates in the world (see all the talk about corporate “inversions”). on a cost of living adjusted basis I would imagine that for Orthdoox Jews who send their kids to private religious schools k-12 (plus year in Israe), an “average” family is much better off in Israel these days than in the USA. Certainly in terms of sustaining a community that is not ipso-facto meant to be only for “the 1%” there really is no choice but Israel. US federal, state and local funds for private religius school tuition are simply not going to come in any time soon. there is an inherent double taxation (you pay local taxes for your neighbors school tuition and then pay private school tuition for your own kids) there in the USA which won’t go away. When you live in israel you don’t need to fund trips to Israel. or a year abroad in Israel.

          • MarkSoFla

            “I’m not aware of higher tax brackets in Israel”

            The income tax brackets in Israel have very steep progressivity. That means that a tech professional could easily find him/herself in a 45% income tax bracket. But that isn’t the main difference in taxation between Israel and the USA for a professional (places like NY and CA can also reach those levels of marginal tax rates pretty easily).

            Instead, it is all the OTHER taxes in Israel that severely eat into your purchasing power. For example, a 16% VAT on nearly everything you purchase. That includes home purchases, so if you purchase a home for $300k, you will also be paying VAT of 16% (unless a newly proposed law reducing that passes). Furthermore, there are all sort of purchase taxes on other things such as vehicles. You could easily pay an additional 80% when you purchase a new vehicle. So if you buy a [relatively inexpensive] minivan for $25,000, you will pay another $20,000 in purchase tax, and another $4,000 of VAT. For a grand total of $49,000!

  • “People join Orthodox Judaism because they like it more than their status quo. They like Shabbat. They like the family structure. They like the discipline. They like the kindness. They like the traditions. People become Orthodox because they like being Orthodox.”

    This is an important, and true point. However, what happens when any of these wonderful things falls short? How does the community deal with it? How does the individual (Orthodox) Jew deal with it? Yes, Shabbat is beautiful…but what happens when your career suffers because your higher-ups/peers don’t view you as being committed to your profession (well at least not as much as your non-frum peers)? What happens when the family structure deteriorates? Is the now dysfunctional family still welcome at the Shabbos/yontif tables of the community (or even the shul) or are they now pariahs? What happens when your Orthodox Jewish children lack discipline and people aren’t kind to you? If that is benefit of Orthodox Judaism, what type of Orthodox Judaism do you have when these aspects aren’t available?

    Once the Orthodox community can begin to address how to productively deal with these difficult questions in the community, it will be a starting point to retaining them within the community. Until then, divorcees, under-employed/poor people, couples with children off the derech and those who struggle to keep up with the “Katzes” socially will always be in danger of defecting.

    • Kelly Milotay

      Excellent, points, Rishona. You”ve said it better than I could have. We left Orthodoxy for many reasons but, essentially, our beliefs collapsed and our families weren’t supportive of our being Orthodox. The magic was gone and it was easier for us to leave than to stay.

    • Holy Hyrax

      >What happens when the family structure deteriorates? Is the now dysfunctional family still welcome at the Shabbos/yontif tables of the community (or even the shul) or are they now pariahs? What happens when your Orthodox Jewish children lack discipline and people aren’t kind to you? If that is benefit of Orthodox Judaism, what type of Orthodox Judaism do you have when these aspects aren’t available?

      So you mean there are challenges, like everything else in life. I mean seriously, who are these people that thought becoming orthodox (or anything in life) meant all problems vanish?

  • anony

    I lost you somewhere along the way once you wrote how great kiruv is doing. They are doing worse than ever before.

    • I didn’t say that they are doing great today. I was speaking about the 90’s.

  • Holy Hyrax

    I don’t understand, why do people need to stay in orthodox Judaism? Why is orthodox Judaism worth staying in (and saving), in the first place? Why don’t you advocate a network of different life paths (or something like that) where people can openly chose anything from the buffet? Orthodoxy can be one of vast options on the table that you can openly offer people? If it’s just about experiences, than are near infinite experiences to lead great lives full of meaning. Why is the orthodox experience a better experience than secular experience? You should be a true advocate for many kinds of fulfilling experiences.

    • Because Orthodox Judaism is not like the Bahai faith. Underneath all of it, the Torah is emet, and anything else is not. (<<< which is a core belief of 98% of the world's religions….)

      • Tuvia

        …and they’re just wrong about virtually everything else they believe…..!?

    • The assumption is that the person practicing Orthodox Judaism thinks it is true and worth living. I’m not here to convince people that they should do that. I am here to help people who want to do that and pass it on to their children.

    • abbushuki

      One answer: non-orthodox American Jews no longer reproduce. So if you want to see liberal Jewish organizations survive, you either have to commit to having as many children as the Orthodox and give them a yeshiva education or you must expect to have non-Jewish grandchildren if any. Them’s the real choices.

      • Susan Barnes

        Huh. News to me. I wonder where all those bar and mat mitzvah kids in my synagogue are coming from?

  • G*3

    > generally, if someone likes Orthodox Judaism they will stay and if they don’t like it they will leave

    If someone LOVES OJ they will stay, and if they HATE it they will leave. If they’re indifferent to it (or mildly like or dislike it) they’ll do whatever is most convenient.

    > In the 1990’s… Teens were leaving Orthodox Judaism … At the precise moment that this was happening … Teens and young adults from non-Orthodox backgrounds were becoming observant … Although fewer youth are defecting, a new crisis has emerged. Adults are either leaving or are unhappy or unfulfilled practicing Orthodox Judaism

    Assuming that all of the above is true, might it just be that there was something about the ’90s that made then-young and now-adult Jews question the lifestyle they grew up with? You and I were both kids in the ’90s.

    > the thing that hooks them is not our unimpeachable system of beliefs. People join Orthodox Judaism because they like it

    I realized a while back that there are many good reasons to be frum – but the unquestionable truth of OJ’s tenets is not one of them.

    > Kiruv is advertising.

    And sometimes crosses the line into manipulation and indoctrination. There has to be truth in advertising, and the big kiruv organizations aren’t very good at that.

    I’m not sure giving the schools MORE influence is a good idea. Many yeshivos already think that they have the right and responsibility to bring up their students, regardless of the parents’ wishes. And many already prioritize indoctrination over education. In an ideal world, formally charging the schools with instilling a love for Judaism in their students is a great idea, but in the real world, it’s just another way for the people running the schools to accrue undue authority and power.

    > Many synagogues decorate their prayer halls with flowers in honor of the holiday of Shavuot. The idea behind this custom is that Mount Sinai was adorned with flowers when the Torah was given to the Jewish

    A nice idea, and I like the point you’re making about religion being pleasant, but it’s more likely that we adorn the shul with greenery because Shavuos was originally a spring festival celebrating renewed plant life than because there were flowers on Har Sinia.

  • newyork1235

    “The religion with the least attractive beliefs is also Mormonism”

    That’s an awfully strong statement there. Worse than Sunni jihadism/salafism? Aum Shinrikyo?

    • I am referring to the fundamentals of faith. Not the practices. The story of Joseph Smith and how Mormonism was revealed is the most farfetched tale of religious origin that I know.

      • Tuvia

        Mormonism was a laughingstock for a hundred years; a cult. Eighty more years and it is a hit.

        One nuttier is Scientology, which was written in front of everyone’s eyes in order to get out of paying taxes. It will take a hundred more years, but a good candidate for a religion, soon.

      • abbushuki

        Even more than Mo riding his horsey Al Baraq up to heaven from Al Aqsa?

        • Yeah. Mormonism is based on a carnival huckster claiming he and he alone saw writing on gold plates in a language that never existed about people who couldn’t (miracles aside) exist, and repented. The power to make Joseph Smith repent is claimed to be part of the proof of the religion. Mind you, the evidence of the gold plates was kept from everyone but the “former” con-man. The 11 witnesses to the plates, all from Smith’s family or friends, felt something in a cloth and cannot attest that the cold metal was indeed gold. That really is a bit much, no?

          A carnival huckster and 11 of his nearest and dearest is pretty much the opposite of the so-called “Kuzari Proof”, no?

          They believe Jesus was an alien who lived on the planet Kobol, led an exemplary life, and therefore was given dominion over earth as his reward. And in fact any good Mormon (together with any wives he is properly bound with) will also be given a world to run as their afterlife reward. In their parlance, “God” is a collective noun, like “family” and in fact, Joseph Smith often spoke of “the family of God”.

          Can we agree this is the most farfetched of any of the significantly populated religious belief systems?

          • Tuvia

            Yes – most farfetched. Interestingly, if I were starting my own religion, national revelation is a clear loser — Xtianity is like 2.5 billion. Islam, two billion.

            Even the silly Mormons: five or six million here, five or six million around the world. Two huge universities (BYU, BYU Idaho.) And they seem immune to concerns about going on far flung missions, becoming educated, going to coed classes in college.

            Individual revelation is the absolute winner in terms of keeping people faithful and G-d believing.

            Frum Jews can barely figure out a way to go to college anymore (most can’t), or spy a girl’s elbow without starting a riot.

            What went wrong..? 🙂

  • Berel Dov Lerner

    I appreciate what you are saying, but it all seems a little one-dimensional to me. People do things that they enjoy, but there are other crucial factors such as loyalty. responsibility and – dare I say it – guilt. A lot of the most meaningful and valuable things people do are not enjoyable. I know people who spend quite a lot of their time and energy caring for parents who suffer from Alzheimer’s. In many cases, that is not at all an enjoyable task. Now I like Shlomo Carlebach songs, and I can get into a Carlebach Kabbalat Shabbat, but In Jewish terms, one hour caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s is more intrinsically valuable than ten hours of feeling good while singing Carlebach songs with one’s peers. If you want psychological cash-value, than I would say that duty is about living a meaningful life rather than a merely enjoyable one. Of course there is a place for joy in Judaism, but Judaism cannot survive without inculcating a recognition of Jewish duty and meaning.

    • Tuvia

      secularism is great because you can still believe in G-d, and you can have whatever conversations you wish to have. And you are still going to take care of your parents, and find meaning in that and other things.

      I find the intellectual part of OJ to be very unnatural for feeling those things (it’s just a program, and shut your mouth if it doesn’t suit you.) I also find it not morally smart enough.

      For me, it is like a bad marriage to a pretty ok person that I just personally can’t relate to. what i find on these blogs is that there are more of us out there than i ever thought.

      • Holy Hyrax

        Side question: Is there a reason you hyphenate God?

        • Tuvia

          I want to live my life respectful of others (including G-d.) I don’t like religion because it doesn’t respect or like anything but itself.

          • Holy Hyrax

            So you disrespect God if you spell it out?

            • Tuvia

              yeah. I’m deferential to authority. I was raised in Queens around very middle class folks and Irish Catholics…

              • Holy Hyrax

                I;m deferential to authority too, but hyphenating God stems from a very specific context of not writing out Gods full name. That comes from religion, not authority in general and you seem to be very antagonistic towards religion.

                • Tuvia

                  i like religious practice a lot. I like tradition a lot.

                  I think the way religious people think about themselves/their religion is pretty toxic.

                  But I think the acts/rituals are fine. If someone keeps shabbot and says “I do it because it feels meaningful to me and connects me to a tradition that feels meaningful to me,” I’m interested.

                  If someone says they do it because they want to be close to G-d, I’m an apikorsos, they have a share in the world to come, I’m a kofer, they know what is right, I am going after my desires, they are the future, I am the past, they will survive, I will perish, G-d is on their side, G-d hates me, Jews are right and everyone else is wrong, etc. etc. etc.”

                  Well, since that is what i see in orthodoxy — I am working my way towards G-d, and away from them. Away from Torah, and towards G-d. Away from scummy ideas, and towards G-d. It’s all abuse. And I just have to stop thinking my abuser has power over me. But that is MY problem…

                  • Holy Hyrax

                    >Away from Torah, and towards G-d.

                    Well, when you find out which god you are going towards, let me know 🙂

      • G*3

        > For me, it is like a bad marriage to a pretty ok person that I just personally can’t relate to.

        That’s a great analogy.

    • Heil Hitler!


  • REF: Please explain how your thesis is not a tautology. It seems you’re saying that people who like being O will choose to remain being O, people who don’t like being O will leave being O, and you’re defining “like” broadly enough to include any possible motivation for choosing to remain.

    • This article is not about that. This article is just about making the argument that it’s worthwhile to invest time and effort into making Judaism more pleasant for more people because the experiences matter more than beliefs.

      As to your question, I agree that it is somewhat tautological. But it’s still true.

      • If you’re saying the Shabbaton and Shabbos table have done more for kiruv than all the philosophical books and popularized books of oversimplified hashkafah, I would agree.

        However, it’s not just the pleasantness; it’s also the fact that Judaism contains things that could be judged as enjoyable. IOW, it’s not just that people like Shabbos, it’s first the more objective fact that there is a Shabbos that people can find to their liking.

        Also, to shave some of the absoluteness off from the other side as well, an encounter with an unpleasant idea or an inspiring one is itself a experiential moment. Mathematicians call a proof beautiful because (as SciAm recently published) such proofs actually engage the same part of the brain as beautiful art does. People can like or dislike ideas on an emotional level. For example, that’s why the close of the first chapter of the Tanya keeps me from giving Chabad Chassidus a fair shake.

        • Sure. I agree. Intellectualism can work for people. But even those people that it works for, it is working on an emotional level.

      • MarkSoFla

        “it’s worthwhile to invest time and effort into making Judaism more pleasant for more people because the experiences matter more than beliefs.”

        There are streams of Judaism that have focused on experiences rather than on beliefs … and they are also losing people to secularism.

        • Incorrect. They are not focusing on Jewish rituals at all.

          • MarkSoFla

            You are completely wrong here. I hope @Susan Barnes comes by to disabuse you of this notion.

            • Susan Barnes

              Thanks for the shout-out, MarkSoFla. Reform does focus on Jewish rituals. I can’t speak for other streams. Although, I did recently attend a shiva minyan lead by someone using a Reconstructionist prayer book, and they seemed to focus on ritual as well.

              • MarkSoFla

                All the conservative (CJ) events that I’ve attended, including davening, seem to have focused on Jewish rituals. In some cases, it even appears as if they (CJ or RJ) focus more on the ritual than the orthodox do, who appear to be focusing more on the food than on the ritual.

                Another example of CJ and RJ focusing more on ritual than OJ does would be havdallah after shabbat.

                • Susan Barnes

                  OJ doesn’t do havdallah? Wow. That is such a lovely one!

                  • Elie Avitan

                    Of course OJ Does havdala. Except for oranges on seder plates and musical instruments during services(which comes from temple days, so technically not a reform invention) there is almost nothing in the way of ritual not sourced in OJ. After all, hlachically observant Judaism was the only option until a few hundred years ago. Also, the point isn’t to “do” or “focus” on more ritual, we do the rituals that were commanded by God as per the understanding and tradition of our sages. No more no less. The point, however is, to infuse them with depth, energy, simcha, conviction, vitality etc. In RJ the focus may be on ritual, but most kids drop most of them from the ages of 13- 30 or whenever they have kids. One reform rabbi calls it, pediatric Judaism. In OJ the problem is that we have drawn a line in the sand between believers and non believers and worked so hard to protect our belief that we have forgotten that belief is a by product of who we are, as much or more as who we are is a by product of belief. Had I been born in Saudi Arabia, I would not be Jewish. If I would still be a believing Muslim would depend on what my other options were socially and how positive/negative my experiences had been previously with Islam.

                    For me growing up it was simple. The people I met who were orthodox simply led what I felt to be deeper, more focused, happier lives. The rest – belief, observance, understanding, search for truth etc. all came later.

                    • MarkSoFla

                      OJ “says” havdallah, CJ and RJ “do” havdallah. An OJ havdallah takes 30-60 seconds, add another minute or so if your minhag is to also say ‘gott fun avrohom’ in addition to havdallah. A CJ and RJ havdallah can take 5-10 minutes, and I’ve seen some that took more than 30 minutes and included dancing, etc.

                    • tesyaa

                      Lord have mercy. Have you ever attended an NCSY havdala? Thirty minutes would be SHORT.

                    • MarkSoFla

                      FFB and stayed away from NCSY all my life. My daughter actually went to her first NCSY event a week or two ago! In any case, I’m looking at the AVERAGE havdallah style. Very few would disagree that on average an orthodox havdallah is short compared to a CJ or RJ havdallah.

                    • So then you’re comparing apples and oranges. Havdalah is rare among C and R Jews altogether. The fact that when they do make havdalah it is a special occasion ceremony around it makes their sung havdalah more like the kiruv rarity than the quick havdalah you might be making at home.

                      We also are conflating ritual with ceremony.

                      And can we seriously debate whether O has more or less ritual than the liberal movements? Want to compare the amount of rite required to live according to the Mishnah Berurah plus all those English popularizations that came out lately vs CLJS standards? Or is the readership simply a debating club willing to argue any topic raised?

                      Or for that matter, topics not raised. This post wasn’t about kiruv. REF’s critique was about mainstream education’s overemphasis on academics at the expense of giving them a Judaism they would actually want.

                    • MarkSoFla

                      “Havdalah is rare among C and R Jews altogether.”

                      I’m not sure why you say this. I’ve always found it a little interesting that after a day of shopping, travelling, whatever-ing, that some of my CJ relatives come home and do their whole havdallah thing.

                      “And can we seriously debate whether O has more or less ritual than the liberal movements?”

                      Of course not! See my comment(s) from last night. The question isn’t the NUMBER of rituals, but rather the level of FOCUS on the rituals they do have.

                      If you want to talk about numbers of rituals, OJ beats all other streams of Judaism and probably beats all other religions as well (maybe even combined … heh heh).

              • Rabbi David Wolpe felt strongly enough to write an op-ed about the lack of rituals in Conservative Judaism as a reason for the demise of Conservative Judaism.

                • MarkSoFla

                  Maybe Rabbi David Wolpe is wrong. And did he say “lack of rituals” or “lack of adherence to detail of rituals”?

                  • Really? This is silly. Conservative Jews generally do not lay tefilin, attend daily minyan, study Torah regularly, Shabbat is minimally observed. I mean of course there are exceptions, and I’m not making a judgment about their connection to God or the validity of their observance, but there are fewer rituals in non-Orthodox Judaism and it’s not even close.

                    • abbushuki

                      Their real demise is that Conservative clergy may not perform intermarriage. So when the time comes, families hop to the nearest Reform temple and goodbye Conservative dues. 68% intermarriage today has to come from somewhere and it’s totally draining the Conservative movement.

                    • MarkSoFla

                      “goodbye Conservative dues”

                      Dues at reform temples are as high or higher than conservative synagogue dues.

                    • MarkSoFla

                      “but there are fewer rituals in non-Orthodox Judaism and it’s not even close.”

                      I don’t think anyone disagrees with this statement. I think it is patently obvious that orthodox Judaism has, by far, the most rituals of any stream of Judaism (and perhaps even of any religion that exists today).

                      But that’s exactly why this statement of yours from the post above is so confusing – “I think the way to do this is by shifting our communal focus from knowledge and beliefs to rituals and experiences.”

                      You want to shift focus from knowledge/beliefs to ritual/experiences, but we ALREADY are overloaded (certainly on a relative basis) on ritual (as you clearly stated in the comment above). Are you suggesting that we add even MORE focus on ritual? Ask any high school kid if they want more focus on ritual, ask them if it will strengthen their joy of religion. You and I, and the rest of us, know exactly what the answer to that question is. And experiences? As orthodox Jews, we experience far more religion, on a far more regular basis, than any other stream of Judaism (and again, probably more than any other religion, except perhaps those ruled by fundamentalist regimes).

                      I think you ned to be clearer about what you mean by “increasing ritual and experiences”, a few examples would be very welcome.

                    • That’s precisely the content of the next essay.

  • DF

    Don’t we all acknowledge that people go off for different reasons? Like everyone else, I’m sure, I know people who left because they simply don’t believe in orthodox Judaism. (Don’t forget, you not only have to accept the truth of everything in the Bible, you also have to accept that for some never-really-explained reason you are bound to the way the rabbis of 5th century Bavel understood it.) In the internet age, where a lot of hitherto uncommon biblical criticism is now at our fingertips, that reason is, I think, more prevalent than some people think. But I also know people who left for no reason in particular. They met a girl they liked, or they had a good group of friends in school, and there was no real reason to stay orthodox, so they just left.
    Given the above, what is there to talk about? How can one address a problem, when there is no real source of the problem?

    • Because if any of the people mentioned in your comment liked being Orthodox, in all likelihood they would have stayed anyway.

      • The difference between someone deciding an issue is insurmountable and deciding that there must be an answer out there that awaits discovery is whether or not they find the experience of Orthodoxy meaningful or to their liking.

        People really aren’t motivated by ideas; we use ideas to buttress our motivations. If we were motivated by ideas, why would people who know overeating is unhealthy still grab that pizza instead of the salad? The gap between thought and motive was probably Rav Yisrael’s most fundamental psychological finding.

      • DF

        Not really. Two of the people I’m referring to in the second group are my own brother and brother in law. Neither had anything against orthodoxy, and both grew up in perfectly normal orthodox homes. They didn’t like or dislike orthodoxy anymore than they liked or disliked breathing – they were just indifferent. When you’re indifferent to something, you just end up following the majority – which are not orthodox.

        • Indifference is the same as not liking something. If you like it, you’re not indifferent.

    • Also, read the previous post.

      • And I was on the verge of repeating my comments on that post. We have the same thesis, albeit VERY different perspectives on it.

  • Susan Barnes

    You could take the ideas in this post and apply them to Reform Judaism just as easily. We deal with the exact same questions of how to provide members with a deep, meaningful experience and sense of community that makes them feel they want to keep coming back.

    The real sticking point with Orthodox Judaism, which will always turn off some people and will never allow some of us to feel comfortable enough to join it no matter how good it gets at everything else, though, is the treatment of women. As long as women are not treated as equals, (and here I mean opportunities to be rabbis and other leaders, to sit in services alongside men, to have no more clothing restrictions than men, to sing with men, etc.), nothing else the Orthodox movement does will hold or attract us. I expect the same will be true of some others, such a some of those in the LGBTQA community.

    • I’m not debating your perspective Susan (it is yours…therefore it is valid). But it has always baffled me at how egalitarianism has been highlighted as an issue which pushes Jews away from Orthodox Judaism. I was in the Reform community for 6 years before I ever entered an Orthodox synagogue. I had heard, for most of that time, how unequal women were within Orthodox Judaism. And it terrified me. However, I felt nothing but incredible ease and relief at sitting in the women’s section…with little to no pressure to be completely comfortable with the service. So yes, I did feel like a spectator…at that point. As time passed, I still felt comfortable behind the mechitza. You see, I can daven/pray anywhere. I don’t need to be called up to the bima to feel like I’m participating in the service. It’s like I don’t look at the Rabbi, giving his drasha and thinking, “Wow…I feel left out…I can’t get up there and speak!”. It may be a personality thing…I don’t know. But I honestly never, ever felt marginalized as a women within Orthodox Judaism. Now as a Black person…well, that’s an entirely different story! 😉

      • Susan Barnes

        Rishona – I agree, it is absolutely a personality thing. Some women feel comfortable behind the mechitza, not being able to become a rabbi, etc., and others do not. That is one reason why I hope various streams of Judaism remain strong and vibrant – so people with different needs, desires, and personality types can all find what works for them.

        • There is no behind the mechitza in our shul. The mechitza is down the middle. 🙂

          • Aviva

            With all due respect (really) – sounds gimicky. Almost patronizing. The essential issues remain.
            (Sorry – this was a reply to R’ fink – not Susan)

            • Sure, but we are not going to sacrifice the good for the perfect. It’s a lot better than a balcony or rear section.

              • Aviva

                OK – I hear that

              • Aviva

                I hear you. What would “the perfect” be?

        • Aviva

          I thought religion is about what G-d wants – not about what works for me. ‘Cause what works most for me personally is that there not be a god and for me to do whatever I please. But being that I believe there is a G-d I’m stuck doing what works for him.

          • Susan Barnes

            I believe what God wants is for us to be in relationship with God and to follow God’s commandments. When I say “what works for them” I mean what works for them in facilitating them to do these things. If not for Reform Judaism, I would not have a relationship with God, and I would do far fewer mitzvot.

            I am very sorry that you feel stuck doing something that does not work for you.

            • Aviva

              No – please don’t feel sorry. We are both doing what we believe G-d wants us to be doing. Nobody is forcing me to do anything – if I chose a different “lifestyle” I wouldn’t be at peace because it wouldn’t seem honest to me. Nobody wants to live a lie and that’s how it would feel to me. So essentially we’re each doing what works for us.

            • Aviva

              Please don’t feel sorry :). We’re each doing what we believe G-d wants from us. I could easily make the same choice you’ve made but I couldn’t live with myself because I don’t believe it IS what G-d wants. For that reason YOUR choice wouldn’t work for ME. But my choice does. And it goes both ways. You should not be living as I do b/c YOU don’t think it’s what G-d wants!

      • Aviva

        I’m going to agree with you on the personality thing. I’m a CFB (Chareidi from birth – though we didn’t know to call it that then – we thought we were just plain ol’ religious Jews) raised on a steady diet of “According to the Torah women are different than but equal to men” and ” Whereas the secular world objectifies women, the Torah reveres the Jewish woman”. yada, yada, yada. And yet there has barely been a day in my life when I’ve been at peace with the Torah’s approach to women. The absolutely most humiliating experience of my life was my wedding. I was standing under the chuppah and my insides were screaming at all the spectators “why are you standing there gawking? Don’t you understand how humiliating it is to be bought? Why are you all standing there watching? Why don’t you at least turn your face away to spare me some shame?” But nobody would know any of this b/c I’m a typical shaytel-clad Orthodox Jewish woman raising a nice frum family B”H.

  • BY

    The theory is a massive assumption, and there is no evidence to support it in the article.

  • Elie Avitan

    As someone who has become frum, watched others become frum, watched some go otd, helped some come back, taught in Yeshiva, started a shul and lived on a college campus doing kiruv, I can tell you all that R’ Fink is, IMO, absolutely right. About every single point. There are many factors that always swim around in our heads but the bottom line is that if we enjoy something, we will find a way to keep doing it, if we hate it, we will find a way out. It’s a survival instinct. And a great one at that, it keeps us happy enough to keep living, even through struggles. There are maybe a handful of people who do things for purely intellectual, non experiential reasons, and I imagine that they are miserable. Everyone I know personally who either became frum or came back to OJ after leaving it did so because they LOVED something about it that they never found elsewhere, be it community, torah, inspiring role models etc. And everyone who left has had either one or many negative experiences. True, lots of people just ‘lost the spark’ and just go through the motions, but even they stay bc they feel its better than any other alternative. They may not be totally halachically observant, but they are Orthodox.

    The more geshmak, fun, warm, communal, homey, and inspiring OJ is, the more people will want it, no matter how much they struggle to believe. I have had a brilliant, total athiest tell me this exactly. He comes because he just enjoys it. He doesnt feel that way about reform judaism or yoga meditation. This is a realization that we must come to if we want to even approach the issue of the future of OJ. Thank you R Fink.

  • hmaryles

    I actually agree with your post in its entirety. What you suggest be done in Kiruv – is already being done in spades by NCSY. You do know that, don’t you?

    • Huh? I didn’t make any suggestions about Kiruv. And NCSY is not the model here. When you see my actual suggestions you will see what I mean.

      • hmaryles

        Well… what did you mean by this then?

        what we should have borrowed from the kiruv programs, and the Mormons, is the emphasis on positive Jewish experiences. People with positive Jewish experiences will want to be Orthodox. Kiruv organizations craft incredible Jewish experiences. Trips, Shabbatons, Shabbat meals, learning with charismatic teachers, and tons of personal attention and love are the ingredients for kiruv. They also are the clues we need to craft a solution for our struggles. Advertising a product is not simply an opportunity to tell the public about your product. Most advertisements want to create a positive association between the consumer and the product.

  • Baruch

    The problem is that for many of us, the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle is very difficult and pressure-ridden. We are encouraged to have large families, which means we need to earn enough money to support lots of kids, and thus have to balance work pressures with the pressure of lots of kids. Shabbos and Yom Tov preparations are fraught with stress. We’re supposed to fit into to our daily schedule three minyanim, time for learning and community/social events. For those of us who aren’t exceptionally organized and who need a good night’s sleep, frum life is a never-ending rat race trying to get it all done and always being under pressure. I can easily see why those without strong belief in the fundamentals of Orthodox belief would not want to live this way.

  • hmaryles

    I wonder how many people are observant but non believers? I decided to try and find out – at least among my own readership. So I put up a poll there. It’s far from a scientific poll but still it might tell me something at least about those who read my blog. For those interested in taking the poll: http://haemtza.blogspot.com/2014/09/how-many-orthodox-jews-are-believers.html It involves choosing from among 4 categories and will take only a moment to check off one of them.

  • Crazy Kanoiy

    Foolish nonsense. Do you think it is fun to fast, keep kosher and keep taharas hamishpacha? Do Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Kotler and Rav Soloveitchik strike you as people intrested in feeling good. Harry Maryles does a fine critique of your article. There is something called emunah and yiras shomayim. The hedonism of Venice Beach is very far removed from the passion that drives religion.

    • Your handle is perfect. Never change.

  • Chana

    Ritual is nice and all that, but if we canto prove by our lives that Torah is about honesty, decency, consideration and ultimately tikun olam, then Orthodoxy isn’t actually worth very much. At least that is what the haftarot keep saying….

    • Jezebel’s brother

      I think the haftarot are saying that while Orthodoxy should be a conduit to better behaviour, it’s not as effective as it should be. If I understand Rabbi Fink correctly, he’s trying to keep people in the conduit in the first place.

      • The hafataros in question (mainly Yeshaiahu) are saying that the point of the Torah is to be a toolset to recreating oneself as a better person, and if you’re not trying to be a better person, you’re just annoying G-d with all that ritual stuff.

        Orthodoxy, however, is a social construct. I am not convinced that it — in any of its leading forms — is still promoting Torah. Rather than “frumkeit”, which historically meant a use of ritual as a way to assuage the instinctive search for holiness. With no thought to becoming a better person, making sure G-d’s Will is done, etc…

        (Simple self-test to distinguish frumkeit from avodas Hashem: If someone else does the charity work you wanted to, more effectively than you could have. Do you feel thrilled that what you wanted to see in the world came to be? Or do you feel like someone robbed you of an opportunity to be the savior of those people in need?)