Category Archives: kiruv

6 Things we can learn from the Kabbalah Centre

From the Kabbalah Centre website

Last month I found myself in a northern suburb of Chicago for a meeting. I arrived early and tried to locate a used book store I had read about on Yelp. It seems that the bookstore had closed, but I did see a branch of the Kaballah Centre. I knew they had a location in Chicago, but I had no clue they had a branch in Highland Park, IL. If you know me, then you know that I will often say that I’m not hardwired for Kabballah. I have tried reading  Inner Space by Rav Aryeh Kaplan zt’l, like, a dozen times and couldn’t get past page 30. I even tried reading it when I turned 40 and I still felt like my head was spinning. I could barely understand the essay at the beginning of  Horev titled “Samson Rafael Hirsch and the Kabbalah”.

However, the former kiruv professional in me was curious about a few things:
How long have they been in Highland Park?
How many Jewish people come and how many non-Jewish people come in?
What kind of programming they offer?
How many people that come in end up coming back again?
I walked in and was approached by a really nice lady who took time to get to know me. I got some answers to my questions and a quick tour. After speaking with her, I signed up for their email list. In the 15 minutes that I was there I saw 6 other people park their cars and come inside and were treated in the same friendly manner.
I looked around their massive location with multiple rooms and realized their approach was a mix of the following models: Barnes & Noble, the Apple store, and a little Starbucks.
I also realized that there are a few things that mekarvim could learn from this Kabbalah Centre (it’s the only one I have ever gone into).
  1. Brick and Mortar signifies that you are here to stay- In my opinion, the kiruv organizations and kollelim that have a real phyical address tend give an impression that “we are here to stay”. If you organization has always been run out of someone’s basement or using a desk and a phone in someone else’s office, the organization appear to be temporary.
  2. Let people get something free just for coming in- The Centre had a table right inside their entrance with bottles of water just sitting their waiting to be taken. Next to the bottles were multiple copies of a new book that they had just published. People like free things and getting some water to drink when you look around a shul, school, kollel, or outreach center automatically says, “Hey, we are really happy you came by today.”
  3. Brand, brand, and brand- Everything in the store that was for sale from DVDs, to books, to mezuzzah housings, to red strings and magnets was produced by the Kaballah Center. Chabad, I believe, is the only group out there that could even pull this off, since they have their only publishing house. The take-home-idea is that if people walk into your kiruv center they should get the impression that you are not only supplying books and one-on-one learning program. Today’s adults, even the empty nesters that have email and Facebook want to feel like they is more than just one items being offered in their search for authentic Judaism, people want to feel like they have choices. That why programs that offer a Hebrew School and congruent programming for the parents are so important.
  4. Be friendly and get a commitment from someone before they walk out the door- I was approached after I had been in the store of 40 seconds. The person was friendly, asking me if I lived in the area, have I ever studied Kabbalah, and passively insisted that she get my email address. She even said that I could unsubscribe at any time. Anyone who is anyone in Kiruv will tell you that you have to engage with each person and connect with them and you do your best to get contact info, unless it’s Shabbos and you know you aren’t going to remember anything. However, I have never heard anyone say that you can chose to unsubscribe to an email list, that’s the chiddush.
  5. Leather chairs and a quiet room are golden- This Kabbalah center had awesome leather chairs and a small sofa in a room on the side, with a DVD playing one of their video classes. There was a small bookshelf with a few books and a copy of the Zohar. I sat there for a few minutes and no one from their staff came into speak with me. They did walk by, but the idea was that this room is a “safe place” where people could just lounge around and chill.
  6. Inform don’t sell- During my conversation with one of the people who runs the Centre, I was informed about their study session on Lag B’Omer, the classes and workshops available and their other Centre in Chicago that was closer to where I live. I was also told about a number of free apps they have for both Android and iPhones and if I went to their website I could even order books that are free (shipping not included). There was no pressure to by anything, I just got information and signed up for emails.

All in all, I left there, still not hardwired for Kabballah. I was, however, thinking that if non-Orthodox Jews are coming here seeking a way to connect to Judaism, then why can’t we, as Torah observant Jews offer them something besides Kaballah.

If you could come up with one idea or concept to help bring others towards Yiddishkeit, what would it be?


    Image from ABC

    Rav Simcha Wasserman zt’l taught that the mitzvah of kiruv falls under the category of Hashavas Aveidah, the mitzvah of returning a lost object.  I’ve read this in his name and also personally asked Rabbi Akiva Tatz (co-author of the book Rav Simcha Speaks) about this and he confirmed it for me.

    So, here’s my question, if Hashavas Aveidah can be applied to a person, then can I recite the tefillah of Rav Meir Baal HaNeis and give tzedakah in hope of finding myself?

    Why aren’t books like these being written for Jews?

    The books Dharma Punx and Hardcore Zen are real. I have seen them, flipped through both of them, and marveled at the way they were written. They are geared towards a specific demographic, those looking for something in Buddhism that fits into their lifestyle. Aside from reading Letters to a Buddhist Jew by Rabbi Akiva Tatz and David Gottleib, I don’t know much at all about Buddhism. I do know that these two authors and many within the non-Jewish religious publishing world realize that speaking a generation in their language is important when it comes to getting your message out there.

    So, why aren’t books or e-books like these being written for the not-yet-observant Jewish Gen Xer and Millennials? There are, as I see it, two reasons.

    1. It’s exactly the same reason punk music isn’t popular in the Jewish music world. Any BT with a punk music background or FFB who is into punk would rather use their talent towards more “mainstream” music, rather than create any frum punk rock. Once you create something that sounds clearly like non-Jewish music, the odds are that those nice boys (and girls) who listen to it will want to check out the original sources of the music. So, in essence, the frum musician would be indirectly responsible for frum kids listening to non-Jewish music and no one wants to deal with that on Yom Kippur.
    2. They just haven’t been written, yet. They are probably in the hearts, minds and hard drives of slackers who “sold-out” in order to pay tuition for their kids to learn in yeshivos and day schools. When I use the term “sold-out”, what I mean is that they realized that they can be just as individualistic, independent, and iconoclastic without having to look that way externally. Many (and I’d like to include myself) haven’t given up any core values, they have just focused than punk energy into things like Torah, Avodah, G’milus Chassadim, family, work, and community.

    Those involved in kiruv know that that Torah needs given over in a way that is customized for each generation. The success of both “campus kiruv” and Chabad on the university level is proof that you have to know how to market to your demographic. NCSY‘s initial success in the, in part, was due to their leadership realizing that teens had a tendency to rebel. They simply give teens the option of focusing their rebellion against the prevailing culture of the 1960 and towards Torah u’Mitzvos. Chabad‘s success, on a family level, is partially due to having excellent pre-school programs and providing amazing day camp experiences for both children and their parents. Ohr Someach and Aish HaTorah have capitalized on providing opportunities for college-aged young adults to get a “yeshiva experience” that give them a taste for more learning.

    These alternative sub-culture styled religious books, tend to take punk ethos in one hand and religion in the other and attempt to make the two fit together. With Yiddishkeit, the two can fit, but you have to be willing to accept that the priority is Torah.  The Torah is a constant.  It was around before the world was created and will always be here. I think there’s a whole segment of Jews that we are not reaching.  It’s not because their music is too loud, or their noise-reducing earbuds are to effective.  It is because we have yet to figure out a way to successfully communicate the idea that being mevatar yourself (withdrawing from your ego) or demonstrating bittul (nullifying your will) is probably the most hardcore punk thing there is.

    A lesson from Eeyore (rebooted)

    This week, finally, I had my initial “session” with my Partner in Torah.  The person I’m learning with is semi-local, so I decided that our first learning experience should be in person.  It was great.  He’s a really friendly guy.  Partner’s in Torah even supplied us with a curriculum, which made things much easier than the pressure of trying to figure out what to learn.

    As we were learning, I admit, I felt rather grateful for my own Jewish education that I was able to receive after finishing public high school.  It’s funny how there are so many things I think of as givens within Jewish thought and law that, in fact, were so foreign to me years ago.  On the drive back I thought about an idea I learned from Eeyore many year ago.

    I’m telling you. People come and go in this Forest, and they say, ‘It’s only Eeyore, so it doesn’t count.’ They walk to and fro saying, ‘Ha ha!’ But do they know anything about A? They don’t. It’s just three sticks to them. But to the Educated – mark this, little Piglet- to the Educated, not meaning Poohs and Piglets, it’s a great and glorious A.” -Eeyore, summarized from The House at Pooh Corner (chapter 5)

    How each of us sees things is based on our own background and knowledge.  It’s very easy to live a traditional Jewish life and forget that to those not blessed with the same opportunites you’ve had, ‘A’ is just three sticks.

    If you can give 30 minutes a week on the phone to learn with someone who wants to grow in their Jewish knowledge, give a call to 800-STUDY-4-2.

    Note: This idea about Eeyore and kiruv is something I posted in 2007. After learning with my partner it popped back into my mind.

    Where MO might need to be headed

    Find this here

    Dr. Rabbi Alan Brill has a great post about a recent discussion with Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn here.  The observations by both Dr. Brill and Rabbi Einhorn are revealing and seem to be very on target towards my generation.  Here are a few great quotes:

    Einhorn describes the need for his age group, the younger gen x and older gen y rabbis to seek the experiential. They grew up with a strict halakhic diet and a rationalist worldview which did not sustain their cravings for religious experience that they were taught to value in Israel.

    Rabbi Einhorn is absolutely sold on Tony Robbins’s program for fire-walking to be transformed and to release the potential within.

    I commented on the actual blog post and recommend you check it out what Dr. Brill posted and some of the comments.

    Maybe the most imporant video/audio link posted this year

    Last Monday, February 13th, the Rebbetzin’s Husband posted about an interesting panel discussion that Toronto’s YU Torah MiTzion Beit Midrash Zichron ran in conjuction with the Aish Thornhill Community Shul.  The program, titled, “On, of, and after the Derech”.  The event featured Dr. Rabbi Nosson Westreich, Rabbi Avram Rothman, and was moderated by Rabbi Morechai Torczyner.
    The video can be seen here and the audio and is available here.

    Starubucks’ Blond Roast and kiruv

    In 2007 I wrote a post titled Kiruv Models for  In it used Starbucks as a model and today I find myself doing the same.  At locations across North America Starubucks revealed their new “Blond Roast”, a light roasted coffee being introduced to attract those who are buying coffee at donut chains and fast food joints.  “We know we’re not serving those customers now. We’re going to bring in new customers,” Andrew Linnemann, director of coffee quality at Starbucks, said of Blonde, in an article today in the Chicago Tribune.

    For the people like me, I love a dark roast.  That’s why I like Starbucks (at a cRc recommended kiosk).  I have never had McDonald’s coffee, but Dunkin always tasted watered down.  Over the years Starbucks has introduced “new” things into their stores that seem to grab customers like skim milk, soy milk, and blended frozen drinks.  Some have been more successful than others.

    This trend of attracting those who are not part of your market share has always been important in kiruv.  In the past few years this has surfaced in the following ways:
    • The success of The Mussar Institute, popularity of Dr. Alan Morinis’ books, and the introduction of “Mussar” as a buzzword among non-Orthodox branches of Judaism prompted Aish’s Jewish Pathways (self-contained distance/online learning) to get Dr. Morinis to author a “Mussar Program” offering.
    • Popularity of the Maccabeats’ pop music parody vidoes have spawned (time and time again) private individuals and kiruv organizations to put out their own “Jewish” versions of music videos (of course Shlock Rock originally and skillfully did this eons ago).
    • NCSY, the most successful Orthodox youth group, has cornered the market of teen outreach since its’ inception.  In the two years Chabad has begun massive outreach in the form of CTeen,.  “CTeen is a social club where teens learn about themselves and their heritage through giving to others and participating in interactive, hands-on activites.  With over 85 chatpers, CT is the fastest growing network for Jewish teens.”  They even are hosting a massive shabbaton in NYC next month.

    If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then I guess those who serve light roasted coffee (a code word for watered down coffee) will be thrilled.  In regard to the bullets above, I’m not sure what the approach should be.  The Mussar Institute has made Mussar relevant for thousands of people (their Facebook group alone has almost 800 members).  More and more I read about Reform and Reconstructionist groups running Mussar programs.  I think that it’s about time adult kiruv groups serve up “Blond” mussar programs to the non-Orthodox community.  The Maccabeats had two very successful parodies and this Chanukah they went with a more traditional route by covering a song by Matisyahu.  NCSY continues to be on the cutting edge of programming, but Chabad has massive funding behind all of their programs.

    Opening up your doors to a new market is always a risk.  As is changing the way you make your signature product.  We do, however, have an amazing an unique product to offer…Hashem’s Torah.


    The bottom line in Judaism

    On Monday, I finished listening to an amazing shiur from Rabbi Michael Skobac, the Director of Education and Counselling for Jews for Judaism (Canada).  The shiur, titled “THE FOREST BEYOND THE TREES: What is Judaism’s Bottom Line?” is available for streaming or downloading here.

    As Jews, there are things we learn and things that our teachers view as “givens”.  I remember going though my entire freshman year at Yeshiva University’s James Stiar School without being taught the importance of working on oneself (mussar, with a lower-case “m”).  It wasn’t until my first night seder in a yeshiva in E’Y that I opened Mesillas Yesharim and realized there is a bigger picture than observing mitzvos.  It wasn’t until I read about a started listening to shiurim on Bilvavi Miskhan Evneh by R Moshe Weinberger and learning the Bilvavi seforim that I understood the importance of building a relationship with our Creator.  Unfortunately, I tend to over complicate things.  Rabbi Skobac does not.  In a clear, understandable way with examples that hit home, his shiur introduces the listeners to the real deal!  The reason that Hashem created us and what the big picture is in life for each Jew.  Some of the things discussed on the mp3 are based on teachings from the first chapter of Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh vol I and this shuir not only opens up one’s soul to those teachings, but allows you to listen to a master educator.  Regardless of your affilation or observance, listening to this shiur is an excellent use of 53 minutes.

    R Skobac has also authored the following Jews for Judaism publications, available for viewing downloading here:
    Missionary Impossible: Counter-Missionary Survival Guide
    The Da Vinci Code: A Jewish Perspective

    Isn’t "half-Shabbos" only half bad?

    This is probably not a surprise, but I’m not in favor of “half-Shabbos”.  In fact, I strongly suggest that if you haven’t read Rabbi Maryles’ post on the subject from last week, then you should.

    Of course, it’s not just high school age teens.  I know of twenty-somethings that do this, too.  Like germs, technology trends, fad diets, and a funny clip on YouTube… it’s everwhere.

    If I found out that my own son or daughter was texting on Shabbos, I’m not sure what I would do (it would probably involved some screaming, sadly).  Most likely, I’d start playing the blame game.  It’s pretty easy to blame the school and the parents for not teaching our youth to appreciate the beauty of Shabbos.  It’s even easier to look at our shuls, Rabbanim, and community leaders and think that if there was more real leadership or a feeling of passion about Yiddishkeit then these kids would feel some busha about texting in parks or behind closed doors.  I’ve read about this in blogs for almost a year.  I’ve seen the comments, schmoozed with a few friends about this and there’s one question that I haven’t heard.

    What were these people doing on Shabbos before they started texting and using their phone on Shabbos Kodesh?  Probably tearing toilet-paper, picking out the bad jelly-beans from the good ones, watching movies on Shabbos with their iPhones on Netflix (with headphones), chewing treif gum or even something worse.  The odds are that someone who is keeping “half-Shabbos” by texting has been involved in other less-headline grabbing aspects of chillul Shabbos for some time.  I know, you’re thinking, “You are right, Neil.  I’ve read countless articles in the Jewish Week, Jewish Press, Chicago Jewish News, and the Baltimore Jewish Times about so many high school age teens that are being rebellious by double-knotting their shoes on Shabbos.”  In fact, if we assur’ed lace-up shoes, then we could stem the tide of kids at-risk.

    If we want to really isolate the blame as to why “half-Shabbos” has become a trend then we have to swallow the hechshared or other-the-counter-approved pill and look at the person reading this (I’ll take care of looking at the person writing this).  It’s us.

    We are to blame.

    If you choose to blame the schools or the shuls, then stop.  If you think the schools and shuls should be more involved in promoting the concept of Ahavas Hashem and the importance of building a relationship with Hashem then you have to be the one to discuss it with those people in charge.  If you think that parents who try to be friends with their kids instead of being parents are to blame for not being more aware of what their kids are doing, then learn how to approach the parents.  Now, it could be that parents and educators don’t have the tools needed to approach those that keep “half-Shabbos”.  Then we need to pull together Rabbis, educators, Kiruv-types, and adolescent psychologists to figure out a game plan.

    I’m an optimist by default.  This “glitch in the matrix” is just that, a glitch.  This is just a trend.  We, as an observant community, have dealt with both youth and adults not keeping “full Shabbos” in the past.  In fact, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter encountered it when he moved to the port city of Memel of Lithuania, a community that wasn’t so into keeping Shabbos:

    Reb Yisroel did not take a harsh, uncompromising stance against Sabbath desecration in that setting. Instead, he resorted to a soft, graduated approach. In his first sermon he explained the concept of Shabbos to the people on their level, concluding that chillul Shabbos at the port was intolerable because of the writing involved – the major Sabbath desecration of running a business. He did not discuss the actual portering of goods. Many agreed that they could postpone their writing until the weekdays, while the loading and unloading continued.

    Some weeks later he suggested that without too much sacrifice, it should be possible not to send shipments, even if goods did arrive. Slowly this approach too became acceptable to the merchants. After a period of time, he convinced them that even the unloading was not vital – and the Jewish merchants of the city ceased all their port activities on the Shabbos. A revolutionized Memel emerged.  (From Tnuas Hamussar vol 1, page 186)

    One of the many things to learn from the above story is that you can’t always have an “all or nothing” approach.  That doesn’t work all the time.  In fact, we don’t even need to look to a story about Jewish life in 1860, I can look to our times.  There’s a group called Reboot who started a campaign a few years ago called the Sabbath Manifesto.

    It wasn’t started by a kiruv organization, an outreach yeshiva, or an umbrella organization that represents Torah Jews.  It was started by diverse group of non-Orthodox Jews.  They try to and have been successful in getting people to reduce using communication devices on Shabbos.  They even sell a cool sleeping bag to put your cell phone into.  The had a national day of unplugging in March and had thousands of people unplug from their phones for a Shabbos.

    Most social trends like inter-marriage, assimilation, and substance abuse tend to start outside of our own dalet amos and eventually filter into our heimishe velt. Maybe trend of unplugging will reach those choosing to keep “half-Shabbos” and filter into our own heileigah homes and schools.

    In the meantime, if you’re one of those who keeps a “half-Shabbos” then remember, you’re still half-way closer to “full Shabbos”.

    * A special thanks to R Yitzchok Lowenbraun and AJOP for featuring this post in their weekly newsletter.