_Honey Bee Kiruv
by Aliza Bulow for Horizon Magazine in '07
Rabbi T and his wife work hard to bring Yiddishkeit to college kids on a dynamic college campus in the Midwest. Esther loves the high energy environment of campus life and has a few dozen students who join her for Shabbos meals, challah baking, and an occasional class. A few are real seekers and she learns with them on a weekly basis. But now that their son is turning two and a second is on the way, IY”H, she is wondering how she’ll find the time to take care of all her “girls” like she’s used to. She called for advice, and was delighted when I offered to come for a visit. A few weeks later, we met face to face.
I love my job. Not only do I get to do kiruv, but I get to help others do kiruv as well. Sometimes I feel like a honey bee, flying right into the heart of a city’s kiruv flower, gathering the nectar of good ideas and getting covered by the pollen of excitement and dedication so prevalent among those devoted to Klal Yisroel, then I fly to another city and pollinate: spreading enthusiasm, sharing inspiration and strengthening spirits.
I work for Ner LeElef, a Jewish leadership training organization based in Israel, with branches throughout the world.
It’s goal is to generate growth and vibrancy in the Jewish people by cultivating strong leaders who can effectively develop and guide Jewish communities. In addition to training rabbis and their wives, and sending them out “into the field”, Ner LeElef seeks to ensure success by offering follow up care to it’s graduates as well as to other kiruv professionals.
Since I have participated somewhere in the kiruv field for over 25 years, I have been privileged to see many different aspects of it. First as a student mikarevt, both in Israel and on an American campus, then as a lay leader on Long Island, as a volunteer for AJOP, and as a budding professional with Partners in Torah in Manhattan, later as an Educator and Program Director for The Jewish Experience in Denver, Colorado and now as Ner LeElef’s North American Women’s Program Coordinator. While I still teach a few classes and host Shabbos guests in Denver, my main professional focus is to offer insight, training and support to women in the fields of kiruv and chinuch across the United States and Canada. My inner mission statement is, “Inspiring those who inspire others”.
The importance of follow up aimed specifically at the women was recognized by Chaya Levine, Ner LeElef’s overall women’s program coordinator. She has “pollinated” many communities around the world in her visits to care for her hundreds of graduates. With her time in such demand, she successfully lobbied for assistance with the North American women. She continues to be the resource person and expert to whom I turn when I need advice and guidance.
In my travels, I meet many women, in many cities: kiruv wives, chinuch wives and community rebbitzens who, while each an individual, face similar challenges. And I meet many of their husbands as well, who tell me about some of the challenges they face, especially when it comes to reaching out to, and educating, women.
Rabbi K runs a community kollel in a city with a Jewish population of about 70,000. Each of the six rabbis learn with several non-frum or becoming-frum men every week, and most teach a weekly class to men of varying backgrounds somewhere in the city. All of them have several children, all of their wives have a least part time jobs, all of them have guests for Shabbos on a regular basis.
Some of the wives have a chance to do some occasional learning with a few of the women who come to their Shabbos tables. One of them runs a series for working women where she gets outside speakers to address the women over lunch about every other month. Even though some women have asked, none of the wives has time to teach a regular class, let alone to prepare for it, and none of the rabbis have the rapport to teach such a class themselves. The women who are really interested will make do with tapes and books. The women who are just barely interested, and might attend a class for social reasons, won’t be fed what they need to fan their spark into a flame.
The situation is similar in many community kollel settings. Most of the rabbis learn and teach all day and part of the night. Men all over the city are thankful to get some of the rabbis’ time. But learning opportunities for women are far fewer, largely because there simply isn’t enough staff, or the right staff, to teach them.
Adina is a kollel wife in a medium sized city. She wants to offer a class, and many women are clamoring for her sunny disposition and interesting way of explaining Jewish concepts, but she feels overwhelmed by the amount of preparation necessary. She can carve the two hours out of her life necessary to commute to and teach the class, but she doesn’t feel that she can find the 4-8 hours she would need to prepare. One of my goals is to coax reluctant teachers out of the woodwork and give them the support they need to do what they are, or can be, good at. Over time, I hope to show Adina how to use the background that she already has to prepare a class in far less than several hours. Eventually, I hope to offer tele-shiurim to help women learn and prepare for kiruv teaching.
Sarah’s husband runs an active kiruv center in the middle of a largely assimilated Jewish community. She has three small children, the oldest of which attends the local day school. She works part time as a speech pathologist, hosts large Shabbos meals, helps put together the center’s annual women’s conference and teaches not-yet-frum kallahs how to build a Jewish home. When asked to give a class on “How to organize a Jewish home”, she laughed and said she’ll teach it as soon as she figures it out herself.
Recently, I was in Jerusalem, sitting in on a kiruv training seminar for women, when I heard the following quip, “Behind every successful man there is a woman, and behind every successful woman… there is a mountain of laundry!”
Clearly, the success of many a man in kiruv is based on the foundation created by a caring and hardworking wife. Who else would put up with the long hours he spends out of the home, focused on others for the sake of klal Yisroel? Who else would cook and serve (and clean up after) meal after meal after meal, with a smile and a kind word and with an important insight for the guests to boot? Who else could create the environment of an open, and yet carefully guarded, home so that so many guests could pass through with a feeling of genuine warmth and welcome? Who else could offer wise counsel and tender encouragement to her husband to keep him going from success to success when he sometimes feels stuck in complacency with little to show for his efforts? This is the classic, and vital, portrait of the “kiruv wife”, the woman who stands behind her husband and facilitates so much of what he does.
But what about when the woman herself becomes active in kiruv? What about when she spends hours “tabling” on campus, or giving classes, or meeting women for coffee to build relationships (how much coffee can one drink?!), or learning one on one with women from the community, or creating and running events to forward the kiruv goals of an organization? One thing’s for sure, she doesn’t have a wife to back her up. It is still up to her to run the home, cook and serve all those meals, support her husband and somehow fill herself up enough that she can keep gracefully giving in such an intense way. Sometimes the laundry, or the dishes, do form a mountain. And if they don’t, it is often at the expense of her sleep, exercise, proper nutrition, or even her davening, that these things get done. Is it worth it?
The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Yes, women are desperately needed in kiruv. Yes, women can make a real difference. Yes, women bring unique strengths to the field. Yes, a woman can go places, do things and create effects that a man can not do. And their effect on other women is exceptionally powerful. Yes, there is no substitute for women in kiruv.
A woman’s first advantage is that she, of course, doesn’t look like a man. Many men in kiruv, most of them rabbis, have that look – that scary bearded, black suit, white shirt, yarmulked “he lives in a different world than me” look. In addition, a rabbi, or someone who looks like one, is often initially seen as stern, judgmental and coming with an agenda. Women, on the other hand, can dress in ways that make them almost incognito. Sure they cover a little more (okay, a lot more) than your average college student or community mom, but with a little flair, she can blend quite easily. This makes her much more approachable and gives her faster access into a conversation, and, ultimately, into a heart.
As part of my role at The Jewish Experience, I attended many community luncheons. I chatted with the Hadassah Ladies, schmoozed with the Federation women and opined with CHAI crisis line staffers. Soon, Hadassah asked me to write a Torah tidbits column for their newsletter and many of their women started asking for a class, which I taught for about 2 years. Federation called for me to offer a text study in “Torah Sources for Women’s Giving” as well as for a challah baking event. Several of those women have called me to speak for the own chavurahs. CHAI crisis line had me speak at their conference and many intimate “hallway” conversations resulted from that. I now have friends and “friendlys” throughout the community.
Even the husbands were affected. One of the 70 year old Hadassah husbands, born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, asked me to study with him for his conversion (he wanted to be buried as a Jew). Another called for a few sessions of spiritual guidance, so we met to discuss where he was holding vis a vie his spirituality, where he’d like to go and how he might get there. And when one of the women took too many sleeping pills as a cry for help, her husband called me to come hold her hand and help work things out (of course, I went to the Rosh Yeshiva for advice before I paid that call!).
Besides looking different than a man, a woman also sees differently than a man. Often, a woman can see more of the whole person. She is frequently curious about and remembers personal details. This helps her see a person on a journey rather than a person who needs to be mikareved. This, in turn, allows the person to feel valued for who and where they are, and gives them more space to grow and explore without feeling like they are being judged.
In addition, because men and women have different fundamental connections to Torah, their general overall kiruv patterns are different in their essence. This really could be a whole article in itself, but for now, suffice it to say that a man’s fundamental connection to Torah is through learning it, and a woman’s fundamental connection is through living it. This loosely translates into the question that drives most men as, “How can I get this person to learn with me, so that I can get them to see the beauty of Torah, so that they will want to keep it?” Whereas the woman’s question is more like, “How can I create a relationship with this person, so they can see the beauty of a Torah life, and want to have a part in it?” In the end, the goal is the same, but the pathways are vastly different.
In today’s world, both women and men benefit from both the male and the female pathways. There are many women who really need to sink their teeth into learning to feel like they have acquired Judaism for their own, and there are many men who really need to feel wanted and liked to feel that they are at home in Jewish practice and in the Jewish community.
Interestingly, although most kiruv professionals would agree that, “If you are mikarev a man, you are mikarev one neshama, and if you are mikarev a women, you are mikarev a whole family,” the majority of kiruv efforts are directed toward men. In general, this is for the simple reason the majority of kiruv professionals are men. In most cases, there simply isn’t the woman power to go around to all the females in need of kiruv. And, since so few women are employed in kiruv, there also isn’t the kind of feminine thinking woven into the programming to successfully attract and retain women.
While many kiruv organizations boast a staff of rabbis, the role of their wives is often reduced to running the large catering organization that is their home (among her other myriad duties). In addition, she often holds down a job, outside of supporting her husband in his, to help make ends meet. Imagine if those efforts could be directed toward kiruv instead. Imagine if she were also hired to pour her time and talents into the community. In a world where women are so desperately needed, and so vital to the kiruv process, it saddens me that their talents are often under-used and under-appreciated.
Of course, a woman who chooses to work in any field must draw her lines carefully. Family must be first and foremost, and she must figure out some way to take care of herself as well. But if she can, or must, work outside of home and family, the kiruv calling can use every spare minute she has. And since most women have so few spare moments, I would like to see kiruv organizations more carefully calibrate how they use the time that women can offer them. While almost anybody can peel vegetables, wash dishes, do laundry or clean a house, and many people can enter data, run an office and make phone calls, very few can learn and share with women, creating relationships that solidify Torah in the world.
I would like to see kiruv organizations hire help for kiruv couples, and for kiruv offices, so that the limited time of the kiruv wives can be spent doing the most important things. I would like to see donors value the time of the kiruv wives as potential partners and professionals in their own right, and be willing to pay for their precious time as well. And, I would like to see more training available for women who would like to go into kiruv professionally, as well as increased follow up care and continuing education for those who do.
I am thankful that in my role, I have the opportunity to offer assistance and chizuk (encouragement) to women in the field, whatever the role they play. There’s no question that we need the talent of many more women in kiruv, we just need to think creatively, and spend what is necessary, in order to get it. If that happens, then the mountains behind the successful woman in kiruv will be mountains of mitzvos, with generations of families scaling their heights.
What can you do to help?
Many women have talked about how alone they feel so far away from the communities of their origin and so far away from frum friends. In most of the cities I visit, there are no kosher restaurants, kosher bakeries or places to buy prepared food. Women must be their own sheitel macher, bake their own treats and be on high alert for tzinus clothes hiding among the regular racks. In addition, they have to import Uncle Moishie tapes, explain to friends why they don’t let their child watch TV when he plays over, and be ever cautious about what their child is being offered to eat. Usually there are very few, and sometimes there is no one, who speaks her language—literally: among many other things, she has to say “G-d willing” instead of “Im yirtze Hashem”. Keeping up your friendships, or establishing new friendships, with women who have chosen to go “out of town”, offering a Torah thought, sharing a Shabbos cooking tip or repeating some divrei chizuk you heard from a friend or at a shiur can go a long way toward making a woman who is far away feel, if not close at least, connected. Everyone needs to feel supported. You can help support those whose life is built around supporting others.