Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Come Together

An interview with Miriam Lowenbraun, who is working to bring Jews back to observance

Print Email
(iStockphoto)

Since its founding in the 1980’s, the Association for Jewish Outreach Professionals (AJOP) has served as a clearinghouse for Orthodox practitioners of kiruv, the Hebrew word for drawing near, that refers to efforts to encourage unaffiliated Jews to become more religiously observant. The Lubavitch have made kiruv a hallmark of their movement, sending emissaries to far-flung corners of the world with coolers of kosher meat and a mandate to start a synagogue. AJOP is, in effect, the organization for all other kinds of kiruv workers.

In addition to its annual conference, AJOP is hosting a special kiruv conference for women in the movement this week in Ohio. Miriam Lowenbraun, the wife of AJOP’s director, Rabbi Yitzchok Lowenbraun, has been working in kiruv since she was a child—her father was a rabbi—and her home now is ground zero for her husband’s recruitment efforts.

Ever mindful of the need for outreach, as I interviewed Lowenbraun, she suggested that I listen to rabbinic lectures on tape, recommended a fashionable rebbetzin with whom I might connect, and invited me to spend a Shabbat in Baltimore with her family.

Why have a separate convention for women? Do they have unique issues in their kiruv work?

Women face different challenges. Men are outwardly focused in the community, and women focus on their homes and bringing people into them. In most communities, the homes are the center of operation; you invite people for Shabbos, and people make connections there. Your home becomes the example of what a Jewish, Torah observant, home should be like.

A woman has to balance what’s going on in terms of the people coming to her home and her family’s needs. How do you balance the Shabbos table where you have guests who may need one thing and your own children who need attention?

Women also have to figure out how to present themselves as Orthodox and within the confines of Torah, but still be relatable, with it, and modern. In terms of physical appearance, how do you look good, but maintain the traditional Torah guidelines as far as how one dresses? Also, women have to know what’s going on in the world if people are coming into their homes and having discussions, and for women who are involved with children and daily issues, it’s more of challenge than it is for the men who tend to be more academically oriented.

What are the current issues generally that people working in kiruv face?

Assimilation is tremendous. And in our time it is very hard to find Jews; at one time you could identify Jews even if they weren’t religious because they were involved in a synagogue to some extent. Now there are people who don’t even know they are Jewish, people for whom Yom Kippur doesn’t even enter their life space. And there are many people who think they are Jewish who are not, people who may not be Jewish because their mother may not be Jewish. There are many people in America for whom it’s not an issue—they are so distant already from Judaism. And we are losing kids from Orthodox homes; this is a growing issue that needs to be addressed.

Why is kiruv important—if we all follow our own path, why must it be one of observance?

It depends on what your values are. If I believe that Torah is the core of all existence, and surely of all Jewish existence, and it’s the best life for Jews, and there are Jews who don’t even know the Torah exists, it’s incumbent upon me to reach out and expose them to it. What if someone told you you had a diamond in your family and you never saw it, why would you believe it? It might be hearsay. But if you saw it, you might have different attitude. If I know I have such a special treasure and I love my fellow Jew why would I not want to at least show them the diamond and if they choose to examine it they can? You don’t have free choice if you’ve never seen it.

Is kiruv something that has always been a part of Jewish life or is it a modern phenomenon?

As long as there have been Jews there have been Jews who have strayed, and the community has tried to reach out for them. In the 1700s and 1800s, the Haskalah, an anti-religious movement, tried to emancipate Jews intellectually, and it created a lot of problems, although I don’t think they were on the scale they are today. The phenomenon of losing Jews is not a new one, but the way we try to be more organized in how we reach out to people is a more modern thing. Technology has a lot to do with it. The world has become so small, and the recognition of the problem is better. During the Haskalah there were a lot of Jews who left Orthodoxy too, but they didn’t know about it everywhere. Now you know everything going on the minute it happens.

People are more aware of what the problems are, and there’s a concerted effort to address those problems in a more organized manner. Places like Etz Chaim in Baltimore are exclusively kiruv centers geared to reaching out and making classes available to people who are not affiliated. I don’t know that there were places like that before. The yeshiva movement began in Lithuania as a way to try to stem assimilation and help Orthodox Jews remain attached to Torah. But the biggest yeshiva in Europe had maybe 400 students, and now we have yeshivas with thousands.

I guess Facebook falls into that ‘more organized’ category. At the Women in Kiruv conference, there are two sessions about it.

They’re about how to use the technology for reaching out. It’s not about the halacha or hashgacha of using Facebook, but just practical.

But there are some people who don’t want to go on Facebook and don’t want to be open to just anyone, so AJOP also has their own internal Facebook-style program on our website for people to create their own groups without having to be exposed to the world.

Is kiruv different from the proselytizing other religions undertake?

We don’t missionarize [sic], we reach out to people. A missionary wants someone to be just like they are and do what they do. Outreach opens a door to Torah for people, but everyone has to find their own way in. No two people’s contribution is alike; everyone is unique, and missionaries want everyone to be the same and want everyone to believe in their thing. Other outreach groups reach out to all different religions and want everyone to become their religion; we believe that everyone in the world over can reach G-d in their own way. We only reach out to Jews.

You say that people involved in kiruv don’t necessarily want everyone to be like them, but there are some limits. Professionals in kiruv never encourage women to become rabbis for instance.

Many times people will come from an unaffiliated background, and their first step is towards Conservative Judaism. When people are trying to explore what Torah is, they go through different stages. Personally, as an outreach person, I would like people I reach to connect in their own way, at their own time, and to connect in an authentic way. Everyone has his or her own process of growth and timetable. Everyone has to find their own way and develop their own relationship to G-d. Torah is a process—it’s the work and the process that’s important. Some people think you are trying to make people frum and make people over, but that’s not the goal of authentic outreach; the goal is to be a resource on everyone’s individual journey.

Samantha M. Shapiro is a writer based in New York City.

Print Email
Scott E. says:

Wow, these are some really hard-hitting questions. I’m being sarcastic. At least the Rebbitzen admits that orthodox kids are leaving the fold, which is not something you hear very often from the orthodox. But no follow-up questions on her bash of the Haskalah?! Like for example, where would Jews be without it? Not in Israel. Not in Congress. Not accepting Nobel Prizes. We’d be in the dark ages with the Islamic world, which never had a reformation of its own.

How about asking what kind of impact AJOP has had over its 30 years? Compared to say the outreach of the Reform movement. How do they evaluate their effectiveness?

“AJOP also has their own internal Facebook-style program on our website for people to create their own groups without having to be exposed to the world.” I thought AJOP does outreach; who are you reaching out to that would be afraid to be exposed to the world? Oh wait, maybe it’s the people DOING the outreach that would be afraid of exposure to the outside world. Yeah, that’s going to work.

Every time I try to tell myself Tablet isn’t a tool of the Right, a fluff-piece like this comes along.

Jane Durango says:

I agree with everything Scott E. said. This article is not just a fluff piece it’s a total waste of time from someone who is totally out of touch w/ the reality of Jewish outreach.

Jeff E. says:

“We don’t missionarize [sic], we reach out to people. A missionary wants someone to be just like they are and do what they do. Outreach opens a door to Torah for people, but everyone has to find their own way in. No two people’s contribution is alike; everyone is unique…”

Is she serious? So, if I try it her way, and decide I want to be Reform, she’s okay with that? Right.

marta says:

Haskala was not anti religious, was illumination

Sorry, but I agree with the other commenters. This sure reads like a fluff piece. You could have done the same interview with Jews for Jesus and they would have come out looking as good. There are plenty of censored Jewish media for this sort of stuff. Tablet’s edginess got dulled for this story.

Did you even think of asking her about the most successful kiruv organization of our times, Chabad? Some would say it is a halachicly observant version of Jews for Jesus. Her answer could have been interesting.

She could have been asked about Leib Tropper and how she and other kiruv pros would view them.

There are plenty of censored Jewish media for these sorts of softball interviews. Tablet’s edginess got dulled for this story.

I don’t understand these criticisms.

Miriam Lowenbraun comes off as an ill-informed but well-intentioned woman. Did you want the author to yell and scream at her like a Fox News commentator? The interview does a great job of exposing her efforts and ideas as fairly pathetic.

The thrust of her words convinces me that yes, she would be okay with you being Reform as opposed to being completely unaffiliated.

The author says in the first paragraph that this is the NON-Chabad outreach movement, so what’s the point of asking her about Chabad?

I think it’s pretty clear that this group’s approach isn’t going to work, but do you want Tablet to just ignore them, and only write about the edgy, iconoclastic people you approve of?

Jeff E. says:

“The thrust of her words convinces me that yes, she would be okay with you being Reform as opposed to being completely unaffiliated.”

That isn’t what I asked. I asked if she would be okay with my being Reform, as opposed to being Orthodox. I doubt highly that she would.

Shelley says:

From what I know of the Lowenbrauns, I think what she means is this: you do what you do. She is modeling a certain lifestyle and belief system, and she hopes you come along. But you will only go as far as you want, and it’s really not up to her. Is it.

Its a nice pr piece for Ms. Lowenbraun, its not journalism. If it is journalalism its high school journalism. You would have better off if you had published a brochure from Kiruv.

Umish Katani says:

yuch…..more of the same “religious dogma” kiruv should be rechok rechok…..!

2000

Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Come Together

An interview with Miriam Lowenbraun, who is working to bring Jews back to observance

More on Tablet:

Hamas Killed 160 Palestinian Children to Build Tunnels

By Myer Freimann — Militant group used child labor to construct underground network in Gaza