The Time for Inreach has Come: Let’s Inspire the Orthodox

If you were raised as an Orthodox Jew, people tend to make certain assumptions: that you believe in G-d, know most of the the Torah, can navigate a prayerbook cold, and have all the Jewish holiday rituals down pat.

Truth is, maybe they wouldn’t be too far off.

In school, Jewish education mostly consists of organized prayer, learning halachic minutia, and delving into Biblical text. If you are part of the Hasidic community, you are taught all sorts of esoteric teachings about multiple worlds, animal and G-dly souls, Sephirot (G-dly emanations), and mystical understandings of Torah passages– very deep stuff.

However, conversations about whether or not G-d exists, why good people suffer, the chosenness of the Jewish people versus the status of non-Jews, seeming contradictions between faith and science, amongst other things, are typically not included in yeshiva education.

And while I really thrived during my school years and loved learning Torah and its mystical undercurrents, there was something missing for me, too. I longed to approach my Judaism and my relationship with G-d not just from a top-down approach, but through inner exploration and discovery, like I imagine little Avraham found G-d at age three.

I no longer wanted to be spoon fed.

So when I applied to go to the requisite year of Israel studies after high school, I looked for a program that would allow me to spread my intellectual and spiritual wings a bit and explore.

Because there was no school like this for Orthodox girls like me, I applied to a seminary for Ba’alei Teshuvah, unaffiliated or new-to-the-fold Jews who were just beginning to travel the terrain of Torah Judaism.

Common lore goes that when an Orthodox person starts to look outside the realm of traditional Jewish education, its usually because there’s something ‘wrong.’ Yet I wasn’t a ‘bad girl’ or on the ‘fringe.’ I didn’t need a ‘special program’ or ‘help’ in any way. I simply wanted to learn more about my heritage in an environment that allowed for questioning — with no assumptions in place of what I already knew or believed in.

In order to be accepted, I had to have a phone interview with the school’s Head Rabbi. He was kind, but suspicious. Why would an observant girl (particularly a Chabad girl) want to attend a school geared to unaffiliated or newly Orthodox Jews? I was like a native joining a bus full of tourists, eagerly exploring a new land. It made no sense to him.

To make matters more complicated, I didn’t want to enter the classes they offered for seasoned learners. I wanted to start in their most basic class, mechina, geared for those who had little to no knowledge about G-d and the Torah.

I had to convince the Rabbi that I didn’t know too much about G-d to still question Him. I had to persuade him that as an observant girl, my presence and participation wouldn’t ruin the experience of those in my class who were not yet practicing.

I was successful. And though it was in no ways a perfect experience, for me, it was life changing: spending hours learning about fundamental concepts in Judaism (How do we know G-d exists? What about evolution? Do miracles really happen?) with no pressure to conform, only the opportunity to ask questions and probe deeper.

For the seminary, however, I remained somewhat of an anomaly, especially as I spent most of the year in their advanced learning department — they still couldn’t figure out why this Chabad girl was learning in a Ba’al Teshuvah school. (I’m not kidding. More than once my main teacher looked at me quizzically, almostly disgustedly, and asked, “What are you doing here?!”)

And maybe they were right. Why was it so hard for me to find a place to learn within my Orthodox community that would allow me to approach my relationship with G-d with no assumptions in place, despite my observant background?

I grew up in a community that values outreach. Even as young children, we’re armed with passion and portable mitzvot (tefillin, lulav and esrog, shabbat candles) to bring Torah to Jews who have not yet joined our battalion. The focus is consistently on bringing the light and teachings of the Torah OUT to the world, to attract unaffiliated Jews to do one more Mitzvah, to deepen their relationship with G-d and and their souls, even just a little bit.

We create beautiful schools using modern educational methodologies, impeccably designed mikvaot, content-rich seminars, innovative programing — all sorts of things to attract not-yet-practicing Jews to our communities and rich tradition.

We accept Jews of all stripes into our shuls, Hebrew schools, and community centers with open arms, asking no questions about their religious observance, showing only genuine love and care — no strings attached.

We entertain any and all questions, never tiring from deep dialogue about our beloved Creator and His meaningful commandments– no matter how ‘basic’ the question.

From Rabbis to community leaders to philanthropists, it seems we are enamored with outreach and the unaffiliated Jew. Yet, I ask myself: What about those that are already on the ‘inside,’ practicing Judaism?

What happens when those who were born into observant families, went to yeshiva, and practice all the major commandments, but for some reason or another, feel alienated and disenchanted? Or have burning questions that remain unanswered? Or remain uninspired, despite years of rigorous learning?

Are they getting the same care and opportunity? Are we as patient with them? As available?

And whose responsibility are they?

There are so many observant Jews (including those who have become ba’alei teshuvah) who are feeling disengaged and apathetic. Their lives are fragmented; their actions do not necessarily convey their beliefs. They feel trapped in an uninspired life — the rituals they perform resemble a tired robot on its last leg. These Jews within our communities absolutely need the same love, care and inspiration we give out to the world. Why we are not as invested or interested in making Judaism look beautiful and meaningful for those who are already practicing?

In my work as a fundraiser, I typically encounter generous funders who seem far more enthused by the opportunity to support and invest in outreach organizations than initiatives that focus on orthodox people and communities — and sometimes, our own schools and organizations deeply struggle because of this.

Unless we begin to focus this kind of attention on our own communities, we are at risk of losing so much. In a community that values connecting with the unaffiliated Jew, we ‘groom’ our best and brightest for a life of self-sacrifice and outreach. Yet how can we continue to have the strength to inspire others if we are not fortified ourselves? If we are not raising our children with a truly integrated, enriched relationship with G-d, how can we expect them to continue the mission of bringing Judaism’s beauty and relevance out into the world?

And what message does it send to our orthodox communities that approaching Judaism through deep exploration, beautiful and content-rich programming, and open dialogue about the meanings of our traditions is only reserved for those who have not yet entered our tightly-knit group of practicing Jews?

At the very least, we too deserve to have that which we work so hard to bring out to the world.

Since I went to seminary fifteen years ago, there has been a shift. I am proud to be a part of initiatives like Lamplighters Yeshivah, Hevria, and my shul, Chevra Ahavas Yisroel, that are making strides in focusing the warmth, positivity and acceptance of outreach-centered Judaism onto our observant communities. We realize that our own students, neighbors and community members need more — and that we cannot afford to push them elsewhere.

There’s this chassidic teaching that “If you know Aleph, teach Aleph.” The general understanding is that to reach and inspire another Jew, one only needs to be willing to share what he or she already knows — even if its the smallest, most ‘basic’ teaching, like the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This simple, yet beautiful lesson is typically meant to arm individuals with the strength to engage in outreach; no matter what, we have something to teach and with which to reach another Jew.

I think it integral that we shift the focus of this teaching to encompass every Jew, including those that are already observant. If you know Aleph, teach Aleph — no matter what, regardless of who we are engaging with, let’s start with Aleph — at the beginning, with no assumptions in place of what one already knows or believes in.

Aleph: We can be available and accessible to our children, students, and fellow community members in their quest to know and understand G-d.

Aleph: We can be open and listen to each other’s questions and struggles without judgements and presumptions.

Aleph: We can create opportunities to explore our faith within our homes, schools, and synagogues without shame, guilt or fear of challenging the status quo.

As we continue our quest to make inspired, meaningful Judaism accessible to Jews everywhere, let’s continue to engage not just in outreach — but INreach as well.

Assumptions are dangerous. And you can never know enough about G-d to not question Him.