Category Archives: kiruv

Reflections of a chassunah

Sunday night my wife and I attended a beautiful chassunah in Minneapolis. The chosson was a close family and childhood friend from my hometown of Wichita, KS. The kallah resides in NJ (where they are now living). Aside from meeting a group of the kallah’s friends from NJ, the chosson had family and friends come in from across the county (and E”Y). The mesader kidushin came in from E”Y and is a grandson of Reb Yaakov zt”l (and also a former teacher of mine). Some of his friends were from his summer camp days, others from college, and some were people who he had grown close with on his journey to observant Judaism. In addition to that, my brother was also there. Also I met up with a very old friend who is now very involved in a very important aspect of outreach.

For me, there were a couple of things that stood out from the whole event.

I was asked to be an “aid” (witness) under the chupah, which was humbling, I also ended up meeting a gentleman who is a Rav and originally grew up in London. I asked him (based on the fact that he looked old enough to have grandchildren) if he had ever had any contact with either Rav Dessler zt’l or Rav Lopian zt”l. He told me that as a young boy he met both of these lighthouses of Mussar. He also commented that his his “day” being a “Rav” or Rosh Yeshiva was an earned title of kavod. Unlike today, he told me, when everyone gets called “Rosh Yeshiva” and if you write a sefer or speak somewhere, then you are considered “popular”. He also mentioned that the emphasis on chiztonius is much greater today than when he was growing up.

Dancing was insane. It was the first chassuna I had attended since getting up from aveilus. The fact that it was for a family friend made it even more emotion for me. To dance with the chosson and his family was amazing! Especially since they were not at my own wedding.

For me, there was also an element of introspection (possibly brought on by a few l’chaims, I admit). By default, until recently, I was pretty much the only one from my “generation” and peer group from Wichita that became observant. While I gravitated towards NCSY, the chosson joined Young Judea and was involved with their camps and post-high school programs. While his observance might be viewed as “recent”, it was obvious that there was visible hashgacha pratis involved in every step of his journey. It’s refreshing to see that and usually it’s easier to view Hashem’s involvement with others, than to see Hashem’s hand in our own lives. As I watched him interact with Rabbis he is close with, friends from his past, present, and future I felt a sense of comfort, I guess, in knowing that another Yid has found his place.

In a brief conversation with the old friend who is involved in kiruv, he confirmed something that my wife and I had known for a long time, that my current profession isn’t really where I should be putting my energy into. I’ve know this for a long time, and while I am very thankful that Hashem has given me an opportunity to receive a parnassah, that feeling of fulfillment isn’t really there. You know, I look in the mirror everyday and I see that I don’t have much hair left. It doesn’t bother me that much, because I know that this is just how it is. I will lose more hair and my yarmulka will just get bigger. I deal with it. But when you have someone else point out that you don’t have as much hair as did years ago, then it sort of gets to you. Not in a bad way, but there’s that outside confirmation of what you’ve known for a long time.

To give me even more food for thought, when we boarded the plane (towards the end of our Hebrew anniversary) we found out that we were the only two passengers. Once I got over the feeling of being a rock star, I sat back and thought about the fact that ultimately in my own marriage it’s really just my wife and I alone in the plane that Hashem is piloting. I also thought about something said over in the name of the Alter of Novaradok.

The Alter said that someone not familiar with a Torah lifestyle might look up at a plane flying in the sky and see how small it is. He might even not believe that there could be people living aboard a plane because, to him, it just looks so small. However, once someone has begun to learn Torah and keep mitzvos, he realizes that you can be above the ground and life. You realize that what seemed so small is really quite big and can travel great distances very quickly. I think this applies to myself, as well as the chosson.

My Shabbos with the Men’s Club

In the summer of 2007, my family and I spent a Shabbos outside of Chicago at a resort with over 500 members of the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Club officers, die hard members and a few spouses. I was not a participant in their annual national convention, but worked as the event coordinator for a caterer that has a nationally know hechshar, who was hired to make the meals for these men and a few women. I had several interesting observations over the weekend.

  • Many Men’s club members/officers I met told me that for all the work they do in getting people to commit to minyan (even once a week), wearing tefillin (they have a world wide campaign), and congregational involvement they lose some of their best to the local Orthodox shuls. This happens mostly because either those Conservative members feel they will gain more knowledge by involvement with Orthodox shuls, or in many cases the local “Chabad rabbi meets them and starts learning with them”.

  • Most of the topics of their educational sessions, based on my schmoozing with participants, lacked any discussion regarding a relationship with Hashem, and instead, focused on social responsibility. I grew up in a ‘traditional’ shul in Wichita, Kansas and experienced much the same with my own education. It wasn’t until my exposure to NCSY that God was even mentioned. That was one of the things that drew me to Torah observance. Sadly, this lack of discussing one’s relationship with Hashem seems to still be a problem.

  • The weekend took place during the Three Weeks and one participant walked out of services on Shabbos night, not because there was someone playing a guitar and singing Carlebach, but because he viewed the singing as a violation of “the prohibition of not listening to music and being joyful during the Three Weeks” (his words to me).

  • There were at least 6 times that someone brought me over to their friends and said “this is what my son or son-in-law looks like” (I have a trimmed beard and was wearing my Shabbos hat).

  • As a general statement, I will say that even the most educated of the group that I met were basically in the dark about the day to day life of an orthodox Jew. I got many questions asked to me ranging from tearing toilet paper on Shabbos to what kind of coffee to drink while driving cross-country.

  • They are (the Men’s Club, that is) very interested in Orthodox outreach techniques, why Discovery Seminars work, the mechanics of NJOP programs, and the word ‘keruv’ (their spelling) came up in many conversations that I had and was even printed on baseball caps that were sold on Sunday morning.  Of course, most of their interest is in doing outreach to intermarried couples, as I was informed. 

On man in his late 60s-early 70s came up and asked me why it was a problem to open Splenda packets on Shabbos. I told him because that it’s an issue of breaking the printed letters. He then said, “Well then cutting a cake with writing on is also a problem on Shabbos, right?”
I answered him and then said, “Thanks for the questions. You have a real Yiddishe kup.”
He smiled and told me proudly that he must have gotten it from his great- great-grandfather. He informed me that his grandmother’s grandfather was Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor z’tl. My heart skipped a beat and I got the chills. In fact, I have the chills right now typing.
I asked, “From Kovno?”
“Of course”, he answered.
I informed him that his relative was the authority on Jewish Law for his generation and that I had attended Yeshiva University, which is named after his relative. He told me that he’s been contacted several times by YU about coming out for a visit.

This man has been a former Men’s Club president, congregational president, and most recently in 1997 was the moving force behind for formation of Camp Ramah Dorom. He is, in fact, very close with R Tovia Singer of and has brought R Singer out to his community a number of times. While not following the direct path of his great-great-grandfather, he is nevertheless, someone who is very serious about his Judaism.

It was an eye opening weekend for me. I got a view of the Conservative movement that even some of the most experienced ‘kiruv professionals’ could only have dreamed of.  It confirmed much of what I heard about, but their thought-out interest in outreach was new to me.

I often read on blogs about how the Conservative movement is dying. I really can’t comment on this, since I’m Torah observant. I do know that, based on first hand knowledge from substitute teaching in a Reform congregation, that the Reform movement is attempting to attract families and make their congregations more of a social meeting environment, a gathering place.  Meanwhile Conservative Judaism, as a movement is losing people to both the left and the right.

If the Conservative movement is trying to adapt “tried and true” kiruv techniques and programs that mimic those within the Orthodox community, then we need to step up to the plate and offer something more. More feeling, more accessible learning, more being truly non-judgmental, and more of a meaningful experience in our observant lifestyle.

If You Were God (link) (aka Project Inspire) just posted part of  the text of one of my favorite original works written by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan z”tl.  To check out If You Were God just click here.

I believe it was originally posted at

I’ve used this text for study goups with teens and adults of various backgrounds (in my previous career).  If you’ve never read it, please check it out.

Why most Jews light Chanuka Candles

From Rav Yosef Stern’s Sfas Emes sefer, Days of Joy:

There’s a halacha in germara Shabbos 21b that describes how certain oils and wick are “not acceptable for Shabbos candelabra, but are permitted for the Chanuka Menorah.  The substances are prohibited for Shabbos use because of the flame’s inability to cling to the wick.  Likewise, the light of Torah is unable to fully penetrate certain souls even on Shabbos.  Yet on Chanuka these rejected wicks may be used.  So too, souls that are not inspired by the weekly Shabbos are spiritually moved by the yearly observance of Chanukah. A certain spark, an inner purity, always remains burning bright in the heart of every Jew.  This spark, know as the Nekudah HaPinimius, constrained all year long from permeating the Jewish psyche, is liberated on Chanukah through the power of praise and gratitude, for the miracles that occurred at this time”

How to open the heart

In a shiur I recently downloaded (thanks to Hirhurim‘s Joel Rich)  given by Rabbi Benji Levene, a grandson of Reb Aryeh Levin, I heard the following story. Rabbi Levene once asked his zaide, “How did you manage to open up so many chilonim, non-relgious people, to relate to other people and open their hearts to so many beautiful things in Yiddishkeit? What was your mazel?”

Reb Aryeh answered:
There was one a son and a father that came to a rebbe and they were holding a winter coat that they owned.
The father said, “Rebbe, we have a coat. One coat only that we own. Coming winter now, I need the coat, I’m an old man. I need to have this coat. My son doesn’t feel the cold the way that I do.
The son said, “Rebbe, my father sits home the whole day and I go out and bring in parnassah. I go out in the cold, he’s at home. I need this coat.

The rav is left with a problem. He can’t say “cut it in half” because then they both won’t have a coat. He has to give them an answer, though. He thinks for a minute and says, “I’ll give you an answer tomorrow. Come back tomorrow, but when you come back each of you needs to take the other person’s side. Then I’ll give you an answer.”

They came back the next day with the coat and the father tells the rebbe, “I have a coat and it belongs to my son.”
The son then says, “I have a coat and it belongs to my father.”
The rav opens his closet to reveal a coat hanging there. The rebbe says, “It’s no problem, you both have a coat for the winter.”

The father looks at the coat and says, “Rebbe can I ask you one more question? When we were here yesterday, was that coat in the closest?” The rebbe answers that it was in closet yesterday.
“So why didn’t you give it to us yesterday? Why did we have to come back today?”

The rebbe replied, “You don’t understand. When you came to me yesterday and the father said, “I have a coat and it’s mine” and the son said. “I have a coat and it’s mine”, I thought, “I also have a coat in the closet and it’s mine.”
“When you came to me today and the father says, “I have a coat and it’s his”, and the son says, “I have a coat and it’s his”, I said to myself, “I have a coat and it’s yours.”

Rabbi Levene concludes, “If you want to open up another person’s heart to yours, then open your heart to that other person. You will see how wonderful, how much magic there will be in the way that other person will open up their heart to yours.” (End of story)

Aside from being a great story for anyone in kiruv or chinuch, I think as a husband and a parent, I will try in the upcoming year to really keep this story in mind. When the uniform clothes that were picked out (and aggreeded upon) prior to going to bed are not exactly what my daughter wants to wear when she wakes up or my son tells me that other kids go to bed much later than he does, I will try to put myself there and open my heart a bit wider.

The social stigma of the poverty we don’t like to talk about

photo from here
There’s type of poverty that we don’t hear people talking about too much. I read about it, but rarely do I hear people I know actually discussing it (of course, I’m writing about it and not discussing it also). Baruch Hashem, many opportunies are available in bigger Jewish communites for assistance with food, tution, shul dues, medical care, debt consolidiation, rides, learning, and homework. Financial aid committees are in place in most schools and many g’machs have been created to help with many of our phsyical needs.
The type of poverty that I’m not sure how we hear about, and one that has touched me from time to time, is being poor in emunah. So poor that there is nothing either your emunah checking account or your emunah saving account. It’s something we don’t really talk with our friends about at the Shabbos park or at a kiddush. Why? Well, I think that there is a social stigma that’s associated with it. To admit to having a lack of faith shows that we are not “100% frum”. I have read on various blogs over the years that people, both those frum from birth and baalei teshiva, tend to feel burned out or lose their emunah to some degree. Again, bringing this up to people is, for some reason, a taboo subject, almost like telling someone, “I almost turned on a closet light on Shabbos because we couldn’t see” or “I was so hungry that I almost bought a packaged salad at the grocery story…without a hechshar”.  We might think about telling others, but we recoil from what their reaction might be and how they would view us. 

I’ve seen a trend recently in seforim being published that deal with issues of emunah. R Lazer Brody’s The Garden of Emunah happens to be an incredibly popular sefer. The translations of Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh, Building A Sanctuary in the Heart (vol 1 and 2) are amazing and, for me, changed the way I saw many things and my relationship with Hashem. A translation of the Chazon Ish’s Emunah v’Bitachon, Faith and Trust, was recently published as well.

Many times I’ve seen statements online such as, “Why don’t they have kiruv programs that can inspire those who are frum without feeling?” or “How come there are no programs to help strengthen emunah?”.

I wish I could announce a brand new program for those who find their “lack of faith disturbing” (to throw in a Star Wars quote). I think it is something that kiruv organizations should look into. If lectures, workshops, or guest speakers are organized and people start attending these events, this stigma and state of emunah-poverty might be helped. This would be an idea solution.

However, with the economy in the state that it is right now, every organization is just trying to keep their heads above water and to secure more funding for a new program might not be in the cards.

I offer the following suggestion to anyone reading this:  Make an emunah book club or informal chaburah/vaad. A book club that is based on the many writings about emunah currently available might be just the right fit for many people.

Note: Also see this post on Rav Schwab on Emunah and Bitachon.

Amazing story about Rav Yaakov Weinberg zt’l

Posted with permission from Rabbi Avi Shafran
by Rabbi Avi Shafran

The unaffiliated Jewish woman attended three of the rabbi’s lectures in the 1950s, visibly intrigued by the ideas he put forth, about the historicity of the Jewish religious tradition. Then she abruptly stopped coming.

Another woman who had also attended the lecture series tracked her down and asked why she was no longer showing up. The first woman answered straightforwardly: “He was convincing me. If I continue to listen to this man, I will have to change my life.”

What a remarkably honest person. (I like to imagine that she came, in time, to pursue what she then fled.)

And what a remarkable man was the rabbi who delivered the lectures. He was Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, whose tenth yahrtzeit, or death-anniversary, will be marked on the fast day of Shiva Asar BiTammuz (July 9). He later became the Rosh Yeshiva, or Dean, of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore. He was my rebbe.

As an 18-year-old studying in the Baltimore yeshiva in 1972, I watched him from afar. His father-in-law, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman, of blessed memory, was the Rosh Yeshiva then; Rabbi Weinberg headed the Kollel, or graduate student program, and also delivered general Talmudic lectures. The depth of his knowledge, the power of his critical analyses of both Talmudic and worldly topics, his eloquence and his knowledge of history and the sciences all impressed me deeply.

But what I came to realize was that his brilliance and erudition were mere tools with which he was gifted. His essence was his dedication to truth, to Torah and to his students – indeed, to all Jews – and his humility.

When I think back on the many times I telephoned Rabbi Weinberg from wherever I was living at the time to ask him a question about Jewish law or philosophy, or for his advice, I am struck by something I never gave much thought to at those times: He was always available. And, I have discovered over the years, not only to me. As I came to recognize all the others – among them greatly accomplished Torah scholars, congregational rabbis and community leaders today – who had also enjoyed a student-rebbe relationship with Rabbi Weinberg, I marveled. In my youthful self-centeredness, I had imagined him as my rebbe alone. Who knew?

And his ongoing interactions with his students somehow didn’t prevent him from travelling wherever his services were needed. A sought-after speaker and arbitrator for individuals and communities alike, he somehow found time and energy for it all.

More telling, he felt responsible to undertake it all. He (and, may she be well, his wife, Rebbetzin Chana Weinberg) gave so very much to others (as the Rebbetzin continues to do). That, I long ago concluded, is the defining characteristic of true Gedolim, literally “great ones” – the term reserved for the most knowledgeable and pious Torah leaders of each generation: selflessness.

How painfully ironic, I sometimes think, that small, spiteful minds try to portray Gedolim oppositely. Then again, as the weekly Torah-portion of Korach recently read in synagogue reminds us, no less a Godol than Moses – the “most humble of all men” – was also spoken of cynically by some in his day. Plus ça change…

It wasn’t just in his public life, in his service to students and communities that Rabbi Weinberg’s self-effacement was evident. It was in little things too.

In the early 1980s, he was asked to temporarily take the helm of a small yeshiva in Northern California that had fallen on hard times. Although not a young man, he agreed to leave his home and position in Baltimore and become interim dean.

My wife and I and our three daughters lived in the community; I taught in the yeshiva and served as principal of the local Jewish girls’ high school. And so I was fortunate to have ample opportunity to work with Rabbi Weinberg, and to witness much that I will always remember. One small episode, though, remains particularly poignant.

Rabbi Weinberg was housed in a bedroom of a rented house. In the house’s other bedroom lived the yeshiva’s cooks – a middle-aged couple, recently immigrated from the Soviet Union.

Though Northern California has a wonderful climate, its winters can be a bit chilly, and the house’s heating system was not working. The yeshiva administrator made sure that extra blankets were supplied to the house’s residents, and an electric heater was procured for Rabbi Weinberg (the cooks, it was figured, had been toughened by a truly cold clime).

After a week or two of cold, rainy weather, it was evident that Rabbi Weinberg had caught a bad cold. Suspecting that perhaps the electric heater was not working, someone went to his room to check it. It wasn’t there.

Where it was, it turned out, was in the cooks’ room. Confronted with the discovery, Rabbi Weinberg sheepishly admitted to having relocated the heater. “I thought they would be cold,” was all he said.

Another heater was bought. And a lesson, once again, learned, about the essence of a Godol.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]
All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission, provided the above copyright notice is appended.

A thought:  This post was titled an “Amazing story…”, but what is really amazing is that there a probably hundreds of stories similar to this one that people don’t know about Gedolim being sensitive to ordinary people.  That’s true Gadlus HaAdom.  -Neil

Hanging out: Teenagers

A friend of mine alerted me to this letter that was recently published in Where What When in Baltimore:

To The Editor,

I would like to address the ongoing problem of teenages going astray in our community. The question is where are the teenagers supposed to “hang out”? Some families in our community think they have the answer, which is to open their homes as the “cool” place for teenagers to hang out. These families do not always have teen-aged children themselves but permit actvities in their home that the teens’ own parents parents would not allow. Why would their home be the ideal place for teens to be? Perhaps they have a big television, a Wii for gaming, and other home entertainments that might not be at the teen’s home. Is that really the only solution we can provide?

What about Shabbos afternoons? Once again, there are families that think they can provide the perfect opportunity for teens to be supervised in a “kosher” environment. My question is, is this really in the best interest of our teenagers?

The shuls in our community have activities for yough children, such as Bnos and Pirchei, but nothing for our teenagers. Why can’t we offer our teens organized activities? There are so many opportunities available: like visiting nursing homes as a group, learning programs, games, and other organized activities geared for teens.

It is time for the rabbis and community organizers to take action to protect our teens and direct them to use their time in a productive and true Torah way.


I’ve been sitting on this post for a few weeks.   I wrote a letter to the editor.  What follows is the basically what I sent in.
I realized that that the author is trying to address two issues:
1)  Kids hanging out in private homes
2)  Lack of organized Shabbos activites for teens

Regarding the first issue, what’s really so wrong with teenagers “hanging out” in a private home with parents supervising?  I know, as a parent, I would much rather have my children spending time at someone’s home instead of sneaking around with me knowing under adult supervision.  If a family doesn’t chose to have a television in their home and they don’t want their child “hanging out” with kids watching television, then tell you child “No”.  I understand the Yetzer Hara to condemn another family for making a “cool place to hang out” must be incredibly stronger than the Yetzer Tov to actually be a parent that is involved and has a relationship with their on child.  A relationship that allows a parent to say “No.  I don’t want you watching television or playing Wii”, has to be based on true respect and honesty between parent and child.  A relationship like that takes time and hard work.  Most of us can’t even find time check email mail, these days , let alone attempt to forge a relationship with our children.

However, would you rather have your teenager hanging out with other teens unsupervised behind your back?  Trust me, there are plenty of nice “frum” boys and girls who do things secretly that would make their mothers flip their sheitels.  I think it’s great that someone is opening their home to teenagers in a supervised way.  I take my kids to the “Shabbos park” and I notice groups of teenage boys hanging out without girls around.  I also see teenage girls chilling out without any boys around.  I also, every so often, see a mixed group.  If the teenagers are not at the park then they must be someplace else and doing something else.

Now, the second issue is something that seems like common sense.  Why not have organized programming available to teens is a community?  I think if NCSY, Bnai Akiva, or a local Agudath Israel or a community Kollel were to set up options like the letter writer suggested it would be awesome.  Of course, then we get into the issue of should the program be separate-gender.  I would suggest there be various tracks, so children and parents can choose.

My oldest uber-child is only 9 years old.  I’m not sure if a co-ed program would interest him when he’s a teenager.  I do know that unsupervised hanging-out isn’t the best option.  I spent plenty of years (pre-observance and after I became observant, as well) hanging out at homes when parents were not around.  I will only say that we hung out at these homes, dafka, because parents were not around.  If parents take the initiative to open their homes, the better off those teens are.

Rav Noach Weinberg and the lesson he taught me

The founder of Aish HaTorah, Rav Noach Weinberg was nifter on Thursday morning.  I never officially attended Aish HaTorah, but while learning in Eretz Yisrael (my first year) in 1991 I spent a good amount of time in the Old City at Aish attending classes personally given by the late Rosh Yeshiva.  I heard all of the “5 Levels of Pleasure” discussions, about 10 of the “48 Ways”, and was part of a small group that met in his office for 4 or 5 times for various “Outreach Seminars”.

During his discussions about Kiruv he repeated the following several times:

It’s important for those of us who believe in Hashem’s Torah to show the world that while we live according to the Torah, we do it with joy.  You must always show the Simchas HaChaim, the joy of a Torah life.  I love ice cream and I don’t mind letting you know that.  Why?  Because it’s a pleasure to eat it.  Hashem doesn’t want us to push aside thing we love that are permitted in the Torah.  Show people that you can obey all of the commandments and still like ice cream. 

This is a lesson that so important for everyone.   It makes no difference if you are in kiruv, chinuch, business, or just a parent, child, or silbling.  Enjoy life the way Hashem wants you to.  He was a true Gadol B’Kiruv. He was almost larger than life, yet totally accessable to everyone (well, this was my observation).   It is inspiring to see what effect one person can have on the world.

By the way, my favorite ice cream is Mint Chocolate Chip.

Rabbi Maryles also posted about Rav Weinberg here.
Audio downloads of the “48 Ways to Wisdom” are available here.
Text and audio of the “5 Levels of Pleasure” are available here.