Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Kiruv Genius

Urim Publications recently published A Circle in the Square, a book that is a combination of a biography of R. Shlomo Riskin until his aliyah in 1983 and the story of the innovation that is Lincoln Square Synagogue. Aside from learning the history of R. Riskin and the synagogue -- about which I had heard many legends, some of them not particularly accurate -- I also gained great insight into the outreach methods they pioneered that have shaped the Orthodox community today.

The author of the book, R. Edward Abramson, is a former congregant and student of R. Riskin so there is an obviously positive bias. R. Riskin is described as a charismatic and brilliant iconoclast. However, from all that I've heard, including from those on the right who don't like a lot of what R. Riskin has said and done, that description is fairly accurate.

Click here to read moreSome interesting and true stories in the book include the rabbinic advice (and interaction) from R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, R. Samuel Belkin and R. Menachem Schneerson about whether to accept the position at Lincoln Square; the attack on R. Riskin from The Jewish Observer and how R. Belkin supported R. Riskin in an emotionally significant way; the innovation of the "Torah Van", which was inspired by a Lubavitch mobile sukkah but preceded the "Mitzvah Tank"; outdoor Passover sedarim; turning Barbara Streisand away from the Beginner's Minyan; and much more. There is an entire chapter about "Women and Judaism" and the major theme of the book is that R. Riskin's focus was on teaching Torah as both an intellectual subject and a way of life.

What is the secret to outreach success? From what I gather from the book, it requires four character traits:

1. Profound Torah knowledge
2. Eloquence in teaching that knowledge
3. Excitement about Judaism that is contagious
4. A personal interest in people

With that, you need to experiment and innovate (if and when necessary, and always with the guidance of Torah giants) to create the right programs to fit your audience. You also need to develop an honest and open relationship with your audience so that even when you cannot do what they want, they will know that you understand their needs and are working together with them.

I found the book to be fascinating, particularly that much of what was started in Lincoln Square has now become standard in the Modern Orthodox world. R. Riskin's successes at outreach are legendary. I only heard him speak once, around 20 years ago in a lecture to my high school, and I still remember how exciting and uplifting his speech was. The final chapter has short descriptions of rabbis he trained, including R. Kenny Brander of YU's CJF, whose success in Boca Raton is also legendary.

Here is a video of R. Riskin on this week's Torah portion, although I suspect that he is much less animated than usual because he is talking to a camera and not an audience (I hear the same on some audio lectures, where the speaker is less interesting because he is speaking to a microphone and not an audience).

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