Monday, April 30, 2007

What Makes People Frum? II

UPDATED: HA! See this post at BeyondBT - Kiruv Models.

I was fascinated - and yet not surprised - by the range of answers people gave in response to the question I asked early last week. A couple of my favorite responses were the ones given by Chardal and Scraps, both of which touch on the incredible process involved. Another friend and blogger touched on this in a conversation: People's own views of what they were looking for change as time passes, as they delve more and more into whatever path they take. But I was most curious as to what people felt was the driving force behind what made people actually become "frum" as opposed to what drives them to search, and I felt that the answer to this was summed up most accurately by (ironically) Jewish Atheist:
Community and/or meaning.
I think that a search for meaning will get people to look, but it's the sense of community - whether the familial aspect of Shabbos or the closeness of Jewish communities or something similar - which truly "makes" people frum. To some extent, the reverse is true as well. A number of people brought up "what makes people stay frum" in the comments. I'm not sure that's the right question. I think people generally are happy and have no reason to leave. It is those who for whatever reason don't feel a part of the community, who aren't comfortable within the community, that feel 'driven away', or at the least, have nothing that they like about Judaism to make them want to stay, so they search for their own meaning and community elsewhere. Theology comes in a distant second to community and happiness.

But again, it's that search for meaning that gets people to look in the first place. Judaism does not claim to have all the answers, but it does offer a very wonderful sense of meaning, a sense of purpose in life for all. It promotes an incredibly moral lifestyle and sense of giving and humility which is attractive to people. There is a focus on the family and community which one doesn't see to the same extent anywhere else. What's so devastating about improperly acting kiruv organizations or cover-ups and the like are how strongly they turn people away in all instances, having taken away that sense of community, that morality, that feeling of caring.

What is most interesting is how some organizations know this... and that's actually what causes them to ruin things. There are those who understand that in the end, it's the community which "gets" people more than the intellectual discussions, even if that's what brings them to the door. They'll say lines like "the discussions bring people in the door, but it's the chulent which makes them stay." And again, they're often correct. But when they use this reasoning to justify a glossed-over, or even worse, a dishonest approach to get them in the door... that's where the end cannot justify the means.

I may turn this into a series, as there are many facets of this discussion which are important: From the differences between Orthodox and Conservative or Reform "kiruv", to what is the proper approach, to my own experiences with kiruv, and so on.


  1. It's an interesting question (lots of answers and more questions come up). I've been thinking about it a bit, I didn't really know what to respond to it as I've always been frum and while I have my challenges with it, I wouldn't change it for anything.
    But spot on with the 'community' aspect. I realised this when I was in LA, away from home, in a place without my family and friends from home.
    The frum community where I was staying is so warm and welcoming and inspiring, in a way that I think is different to home and the few other places I've been. From that experience, I think perhaps feeling comfortable within a community, being a part of it, gives meaning and would in turn motivate one to improve and grow and learn to be the best they can for themselves and those who are around them.

  2. It's so sad when organizations that have the potential to do so much good waste it when they take the dishonest approach. Ultimately, a house with shaky foundations cannot stand.

  3. Glad you liked my summary. :-) You might think it ironic, but the same issues hit you coming OR going. People leave when the meaning falls apart due to the kinds of questions and arguments you find on skeptical blogs, and our former communities essentially give us a choice of staying in the closet or being shunned.

  4. Interesting, cuz I find that it works the other way around. The chulent is what brings them in, but what keeps them there is the intellectual growth, and of course more chulent;>).

    As a result, I find that one of the big problems we have with baalei tshuvah's reversion to old ways, is that they become emotionally inspired, loving the community, the chulent, the stories and the songs, but in many cases not knowing where to go to move forward and learn more.

    Unfortunately many organizations stagnate at this level, and after a while the emotions get stale and unless there is a backbone of knowledge, it makes it that much more difficult to stay....

    Just my oen experience working with baalei tshuvah.

  5. Sarah - From that experience, I think perhaps feeling comfortable within a community, being a part of it, gives meaning and would in turn motivate one to improve and grow and learn to be the best they can for themselves and those who are around them.

    That's another great point.

    Scraps - Amen. :(

    JA - the same issues hit you coming OR going

    Agreed. I think (and I've said this many times) that a lot of that is due to teachers not being well-educated enough, and rather than face issues, they avoid them. This in turn breeds a new generation of teachers who think that the way one is supposed to handle issues like that is avoidance and mockery. It's a sick cycle. If teachers faced issues head on, showed different understandings, etc., the shunning would cease - and our communities become that much stronger. I actually want to write a bit more about that later on.

    O&SW - To some extent, it's both that bring them in; what I meant is what draws them in as opposed to anywhere else is the meaning. Lots of places have good food. :)

    One of the biggest issues which I want to discuss is what you touched on earlier: People stagnating. A lot of kiruv organizations focus on getting people in the door... but do little in terms of follow up. It's why what BeyondBT does is so important, allowing people to see that they're coming up against the same difficulties.

    Some organizations are trying now to work on the follow-up a bit better.

  6. Another MAJOR problem with kiruv organizations and the community at large is that they draw people in with this sense of warmth and community and so on, but they don't tell you that it only lasts as long as you can be an adopted nebbach kiruv case. As soon as it comes to being truly integrated into the community--getting married, getting your kids into schools, etc.--no one wants to go near you, at least in large, insular communities. I think that smaller communities are better at being accepting of learning curves and differences.

    Also, another major blow to the strategy of drawing people in with the community warmth, values, etc. comes when the frum community drops the ball big time, like with the sexual abuse scandals going on. There's nothing like trying to sweep a bad situation under the rug to turn people off.

  7. IMHO, it is very important that at the same time the community is putting its best foot (face) forward to attract baalei T'shuvah, it also emphasizes the difference between Judaism and Jews.

    People are people with their frailties and strengths, whereas Judaism being G-d given, has no frailties and mistakes. (OK, please don't hit;>)).

    The reason we have as halacha dictates as many restricions as it does, is because the Torah acknowledges human nature and urges, sick and not.

    Denouncing Judaism because of the bad apples, should not be an issue, but for this we need to acknowledgeour mistakes and face it, rather than as many of you said, sweep it under the carpet.