R' Pete Stein Rebuffs Cole K. on Conservative Kiruv

Rabbi Pete Stein has written us in response to Cole’s recent post on Conservative proselytization, and asked that we share his remarks with our readers.
[Update] UJ’s former dean of rabbinic studies, Aryeh Cohen, asked that I relate this message to R’ Stein.


Dear Cole,
I am sorry that you chose to write an entry on your blog without first contacting me to learn more about my outreach efforts in New York. Had you taken the time to write or call me (and, these days, it’s not so hard to find people when you really want to) you would know that your characterization of my outreach effort as “proselytizing” that “talks ‘to’ people” instead of listening to them bares no resemblance to what actually went on this year at the corner of 112th Street and Broadway.
First off, “Torah Minute” was not at all an effort to proselytize. When I approached people on the street, I would say “Hi. Are you Jewish? Do you have a moment for the Torah?” The entire point of starting out this way was to avoid the appearance of proselytizing. Many passersby said “No, I am not” and I would just say “thank you,” wish them a good day and step away. Never for a moment did I give them the impression that I was trying to convert people to Judaism, and nobody that I was aware of thought that I was. On the other hand, there were actually quite a number of non-Jews who stopped who were interested in speaking with me because they had genuine questions about Judaism and about the Torah and I was a resource to whom they could direct their questions. I had some very interesting conversations with devout Christians who were simply curious about our religion. Anybody who stood and watched me for even five minutes or who had taken the time to ask me about my experience would know that the charge of proselytizing is completely unfounded.
The larger issue seems to be the discomfort you and some others feel about this kind of outreach work. I understand that there are people who feel that way and I can respect that. But there are also many, many Jews out there who are in fact very appreciative of this kind of outreach work and who are open to sincere Jews who take the time to reach out and show an interest in their lives.
Let me start by sharing with you what did go on by my little card table on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. When my initial question turned up a Jew, that person, or group of people, would stop and ask me what I was doing. I told them that I was learning a bit of the week’s Torah portion with Jews on the street (thus the name “Torah Minute”) and asked them if they would like to learn. If they said yes (which most did), I handed them a source sheet that had a few verses of the week’s parsha, a Rashi and a few follow up questions. We would read the verses together and discuss them and then read Rashi’s comment and discuss it. The conversation was always two-way, and many of them came up with interpretations or angles I had never thought of. For each parsha, I would try to wrap up the “minute” by learning a moral message relevant to our day out of the verses and Rashi on the page.
Sometimes a Jew would stop briefly, express interest in learning, but lament that he/she did not have the time to learn. For these occasions, I came prepared with an alternate form of my source sheet that presented the texts, Rashi and moral message in a narrative form. I watched many people read this sheet as they walked down the block away from my table.
The response to this effort was overwhelming. While I am generally not one to measure success by numbers, in this case, I do think they say something important about the nerve I touched on. Each time I went out, I stood on my corner for about two and a half hours and, in that time, upwards of twenty people, on average, stopped to learn the parsha with me. On one outing, that number got as high as 30. Another 20-25 would take the narrative version of my sheet to read on the run.
And the people who stopped were not people in kippahs or long skirts. They ranged the entire spectrum from regular shul-goers to people completely disconnected from the Jewish community. They were 20 somethings, college students, middle-aged, young mothers with their kids. They were high school students, college professors, activists. Most were American, some were Israeli, a few were British. Most were white Jews, but one was a black Jew, and several others were Black Hebrews. Some had grown up in yeshivas and gotten away from Jewish practice. Others had never studied Torah before. But no matter their background, the one thing they had in common (besides being Jewish) was that, for some reason, the opportunity to stop and learn Torah for a few minutes appealed to them.
Far from being offended by my presence, most of these people thanked me and many went out of their way to tell me that they thought this was a great idea. A number even told me they were happy to see davka a Conservative rabbi doing this type of outreach. In fact, I can only think of two people who did not have positive reactions. One was a 20-something woman who expressed some discomfort with what I was doing, but who was willing to spend 20 minutes talking about it. The other was an elderly woman who told me that it was rude to ask people their religion and then walked off.
One might ask what I hoped to accomplish by this means of outreach. My objectives were three-fold:
1) I believe that any amount of Torah study, even two minutes on a street corner, is an inherently valuable thing.
2) I was trying to provide a meaningful, accessible Jewish experience with no strings attached for Jews who might not set foot in a synagogue or adult education class on their own initiative.
3) I did all this with the belief that one never knows what small experience will ignite a flame within somebody’s neshama that someday may turn into a desire for greater Jewish learning or practice. For so many of us who did not grow up religious, myself included, we can trace our Jewish involvement back to a simple gesture or seemingly insignificant experience that made something click. It could be that two minutes of Torah on the street will be just that spark. Most likely, I’ll never know. But if that does happen for even one person, it would make the entire effort worthwhile seventyfold. And if not, it was still worth it simply to engage people in those few moments of learning Torah.
The only thing I lament about this effort is that I could not do better follow up. Had I not been a student about to graduate, living in a dorm with modest resources, I would have set up a larger program of classes and Shabbas meals for those people who expressed interest in learning more.
The thing that concerns me most about your post is that it criticizes my efforts without presenting any alternative for how to find and engage those unaffiliated Jews who aren’t setting foot in our shuls. One of the standard complaints about the Conservative Movement has always been that its leaders, specifically the faculty and administration of JTS, exist in an ivory tower, oblivious to the realities of Jews out in the real world. Unfortunately, as ‘grassroots’ and ‘alternative’ as the internet and blogosphere might seem, they run the risk of being just as much of an ivory tower as JTS has ever been. I applaud the existence of forums for discussing and debating the pressing issues of our day, but at some point the discussion needs to leave the chat room and produce results on the street. It’s easy to write scathing posts about my effort. But please tell me what you think would work better. And then go and do it.
In the meantime, I remain more convinced than ever of the need to do this sort of street outreach. My experience at 112th and Broadway showed just how powerful these efforts can be and just how many people are out there waiting for someone to share with them a few words of Torah. If you don’t believe me, just try it. I would invite you to come out with me (assuming you are in NYC), however, I have recently moved to New Haven, where I plan, with God’s help, to start a new outreach effort, very much based on the Chabad model. If you or any of your readers would like to try Torah Minute for yourselves, please contact me and I will help you get set up. It’s not too hard and can be extremely rewarding.
All my best,
Rabbi Pete Stein

11 thoughts on “R' Pete Stein Rebuffs Cole K. on Conservative Kiruv

  1. I just wanna applaud R. Stein for his efforts. Not only is he “Takin’ It To the Streets” but he’s doing something that is for most people, far more approachable that the Chabadnikim.
    First, taking a minute for Torah requires no fumbling with Hebrew blessings, no donning of kippah and wrapping. No, its just listening. But in listening and reading a handout, the Torah Minute is a simple yet intellectual approach that I think gives people more real insight and menaing than laying tfliln. Okay, granted, perhaps that’s what you get from a JTS grad, an intellectual approach, but people aren’t stupid and a moment to learn something real is a refreshing change to the bombardment of media hype we get every minute of the day. The simplicity of the idea is brilliant.
    Also, the Torah Minute is obviously open to all, whereas wrapping with Chabadnikim is for men only. I think something that Olitsky and the JOI people have right, and something I think many of us in the “Nu Jew” arena (and Chabad) share instinctively is the understanding that Jewishness in public spaces can have a powerful impact on an affinity based generation increasingly removed from institutional affiliation. In short, Go Pete!

  2. Other than the important correction that Black Hebrews are not Jews (I refer specifically to that group and not African (American) Jews), Kol HaKavod to Rabbi Stein. And I agree – how wonderful that a C rabbi is doing that.
    I wonder, in fact, if his not growing up observant played any role.

  3. Thank you mobius for posting as I am at a conference with little email access. Pete, thank you for writing and clarifying your work, and giving a good reminder that it would have been a more fruitful post if I had contacted you first, so apologies for that. I commend the work you are doing. As I said even in the comment role, this to me isn’t about you as an individual. I do have issues with the methods and I have said enough about that.
    I have to say that while I did not put in this post methods for people to get involved, I do that in many other posts that I put on here.
    So, I’ll say back to you what you said to me, which is that if you had contacted me, you’d know that I am deeply involved in community work, through groups like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and other groups that are not Jewishly based. So before you scath me, hold yourself to the same standard you ask of me. And if you are serious about wanting to know what I think, then you apparently know how to contact me via email.

  4. This story warms my heart. Spiritual activists belong in the streets, as much as, say, activist-y types and advertisers. The approach described sounds very inoffensive, esp. when compared with some of the Christian wingnuts with portable loudspeakers.
    AND I think it perfectly reasonable to actively solicit non-Jews to become interested in our tradition. Not because other faiths are ‘less true’ when compared to ours, but because there is so much excitement at the margins of faith communities. Look at how much benefit we have derived from Jews migrating in and out of Buddhist and other ‘Eastern’ religions.
    In my opinion, slightly wider margins of people moving in and out of faith traditions, boundaries might a bit more porous, would be a boon to Jews, to other faiths, and to society in general. (This applies to denominations within Judaism as well…)
    I don’t want some mash-up of all faiths, I don’t believe in dilution, but it sounds great to see some ‘marketplace of ideas’ style excitement out there! Kol Hakavod…..

  5. Obviously, I strongly support your work, Rabbi Stein, and was thrilled to learn about it when contacted by the JTA reporter. And I’m excited to read this post and learn not only about the impact this outreach seems to have had on the participants, but also on you yourself, and I agree that it can be extremely rewarding.
    Your comment about the woman who became offended when you asked her religion brings up an interesting issue, and may point to some divergence between your outreach and JOI’s “Public Space Judaism” model. The programs we run in the public space purposely lean towards the cultural rather than religious celebration of Judaism—even when it might include rituals like lighting Hanukkah menorahs. That’s because we’re trying to cast a net that will be inclusive of intermarried families, in which not all members can answer “yes” to the question “Are you Jewish?”. We are also trying to reach the many unengaged Jews who would say “I’m not religious” (though they might also say “I’m spiritual”) and show them that there are many aspects of being Jewish — and even of Jewish “religion.”
    I haven’t seen your materials (and would love to, if you’ve posted them online anywhere or feel like emailing them), but am wondering, how much of what you’re doing is “religious” and how much is the intellectual grappling that makes Judaism so much fun? Certainly, there is room for non-Orthodox religious outreach, and I would applaud that too. If however it’s more intellectual than religious, could the opening line of “Are you Jewish” actual push away some of the folks in your target audience? For example, does it create a quandary for the knowledgeable patrilineal Jew, who may consider himself 100% Jewish but know that you may not?
    When Chabad asks, “Are you Jewish,” it’s because they really see no point in showing a non-Jew how to wrap teffilin (for example), an overtly religious act. If what you’re saying is that you spent time in conversations with both Jews and non-Jews, I’m wondering what you think might have been different if you skipped the first question and went straight to the second (or a modified version of the second question)? Would you have been overwhelmed by non-Jews? I’m genuinely curious. One of the methods we use to work around this is to identify the EVENT as Jewish, without asking the participants to identify themselves one way or the other. We’ve found that the overwhelming number of participants are still Jews.
    Anyway, keep up the great work and we look forward to hearing great things out of New Haven. And we’re happy to help if we are able.

  6. There has been increased discussion of proselytizing over the past few years, with some Jewish leaders advocating it. I forget who, but some rabbi on the West Coast has a weekly “want to learn about Judaism?” lecture. It’s not a conversion class, it’s just “are you curious?” There are other things like that but I can’t remember them right now.
    Anyway Jews were active proseyltizers in the Roman era, it’s estimated that at one point 10% of the Roman empire was Jewish! And Jewish sages were consulted by wealthy Romans (where all those Talmudic stories about rabbis and Roman matrons come from). Romans would go to synagogues to hear well-known preachers. We stopped proselytizing because Christian rulers made it a crime punishable by death. And we had too much experience of them trying to convert us (and still do).
    But it’s not inherently non-Jewish to proselytize, so I think we should be willing to share what we love about Judaism, as long as we do it politely and don’t harrass people. We have plenty of examples over the past 2000 years of how NOT to do it.

  7. I tend to agree with the last comment.
    While what Rab. Stein is doing is valuable work, there is no reason for other Jews not to take the next step of informing Gentiles of what Judaism is all about. As for we Jews in America, Gentile Americans, even generally intelligent Gentile Americans, typically don’t have a clue regarding the content or enterprise of Judaism.
    American society, at least, is not drifting in a stable and libertarian direction, and it is likely to become very dangerous for Jews and other “mnorities” who can be recharacterized as a demogogue desires. It may, therefore, be very important in the not too distant future for many more Americans to have a much firmer understanding of Judaism [for our self-defense, if for no other reason]. This is not “seeking converts,” albeit I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if a number of Gentiles decided to convert once they were more fully informed.

  8. For some interesting ideas on this topic, you might want to check out: “Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community” by Gary A. Tobin, 1999.

  9. I cannot see for a moment how what R. Stein is doing could be construed as proselytising. I’m sure he doesn’t need me to defend him, indeed his reply is one of the more concise and refeshingly intelligent replies to criticism I have had the pleasure to read in quite some time. That said, a few points if I may.
    1. It should not matter that R. Stein is a ‘Conservative rabbi’. He is a rabbi and, most importantly, a Jew. It seems to me that his actions are the very embodiment of Tikkun Olam, and labels shouldn’t matter when a Jew is trying to better the world.
    2. How interesting that, instead of attacking one another’s viewpoints or motives, we are listening and learning from one another. I have noted the adoption of certain Chabadnik tacticts to engage Jews within my own movement here in the UK (Masorti, in case you were wondering) and, whilst Chabad probably won’t agree with our viewpoint, engaging Jews in intelligent discourse about Torah has got to be a good thing.
    3. Whilst the intentions and sentiments by a few commentators is I’m sure pure, I don’t think that outreach programmes which actively engage the rest of the world regarding Judaism are a positive step forward. If non-Jews engage one in conversation and queries whilst we discuss Torah with other Jews, fine. But the point here is to get Jews involved and talking to one another about Torah.
    Personally, and my rabbi won’t be kind to me for saying so, I couldn’t care less how or why someone gets involved with other Yidden. For me it is important that they just get involved, that we light the spark, and the rest will take care of itself.
    Kol Ha’kavod to R. Stein and anyone else who takes up such a call.

  10. Very interesting blog entry and comments… I enjoyed this very much.
    I think that outreach to Jews is important and worthwhile (assuming it’s done right) but I do think believe that most Jews will remain uncomfortable with proselytizing to Gentiles for many reasons.
    I would add – I think it’s very important for Jews to make an effort to explain our theology and values to society as a whole – particularly to the Christian right in a time when religion is taking a more prominent role in society and politics.
    Most Christians have a very inaccurate view of what Judaism is about – and very often will throw around the term “Judeo-Christian values” when espousing a viewpoint that is profoundly Christian and not Jewish at all…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.