Bringing the Fourth Son Home

April 8, 2023

Elisheva Braun

Western Wall on Friday night, his first time ever there,

Strapped into his knapsack with his long and curly hair…

MBD’s transcendent voice paints the image of a backpacking youth on a search. Just one Shabbos was all it took to grow a drop of interest into a streaming river of connection.

What do our searching brothers look like today? How can we identify our lost family members that stood with us, shoulder to shoulder, as we received the Torah and fan the flames of spirituality and growth? How is Lakewood—the crown jewel of the Torah world—stepping up to the plate? And finally, what more can we do?

Revolution at our doorstep

The ’60s’ spiritual awakening was characterized by its refuseniks, renewed Jewish pride, and Kosel-side Shabbos invitations. The ’70s saw the birth of Aish HaTorah, Ohr Somayach, Neve Yerushalayim, and Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis’s response to modern-day “spiritual genocide,” Hineni.

What of the 21 century?

“There’s a kiruv revolution happening under our noses,” says Rabbi Aaron Grossman, director of the Lakewood-based Jewish Experience (JX), “and everybody can get involved to make a difference. The process is never simple; it’s very hard for people to make real, concrete changes in their lives. But lately, we’re finding it easier and easier to spark curiosity and interest around Yiddishkeit.”

Decades of apathy and indifference are slowly breaking away to reveal the yearning souls underneath.

Kiruv has become more accessible than ever before,” concurs Lakewood realtor-turned-business-owner Chezky Klein*. “People initiate conversations about Judaism sooner and engage in a deeper, more meaningful talks than they did years ago.”

The long way home

A teenaged Rich Levin stood on his hosts’ doormat. He was about to experience his first-ever Shabbos meal. A mix of thrill and nerves shot through him as he rang the doorbell and waited while it echoed. The door swung open, and the man of the house, his face flushed, gaped across the threshold.

“Are you nuts? You can’t ring the bell on Shabbos!” he cried.

Noach, Rich’s son, chokes up when he tells me, “That was the last time in many decades that my father expressed interest in Yiddishkeit. He and my Israeli mother raised me in Rochester, New York, where my father continued to show a lack of interest. My mother kept kosher in the house and ran a traditional home which included Seders, fasting on Yom Kippur, and the like.”

In 2004, Noach was working toward his marketing and organizational behavior majors at NYU. “My friend at NYU had grown up with even less Jewish knowledge than I had, and I introduced her to some of the basic concepts. A few months after I taught Kayla the aleph-beis, she was running circles around me in Torah learning. She was becoming more serious about frumkeit while my own growth had plateaued.”

Kayla’s rav referred Noach to Rabbi Aharon Eisemann, on-campus Meor rabbi and the son of Rabbi Moshe Eisemann of Ner Yisroel.

Intimidated by the insinuated ultimatum—either he’d learn with the rabbi or his relationship with Kayla would inevitably end—Noach chose the former. Meor’s promise of a subsidized trip to Israel didn’t hurt either.

“While watching him work tirelessly to reach college students, I was struck by Rabbi Eisemann’s passion,” Noach relates. “‘Why are you working so hard?’ I asked him. Rabbi Eisemann shared that as a teenager, he had struggled to find meaning in his avodas Hashem. Now that he had worked through the difficulties and felt so connected to Hashem, he wanted to spread the light as far and as wide as he could. Rabbi Eisemann’s story and mission struck a deep chord within me, and as I grew in my observance, I began to help him with outreach.”

Chezky picks up the narrative. “While Rich Levin’s son, Noach, was becoming frum, he still wasn’t interested. Then, years ago, I attended a real estate lecture Rich gave at a conference in Atlanta. After his talk, we got into a long conversation, and I ended up hiring Rich as a business coach. When I no longer coached with him, we continued with a chavrusashaft.

“As he began coaching more frum business owners, Rich was struck by their kindness and honesty. Once, there was a dispute over who had the rights to a large sum of money. One of the parties—a frum businessman—walked away and left it all on the table just to avoid fighting. Rich was awed. ‘In all my years coaching businesses across the US, I’ve never seen anything like this happen,’ he said. He decided to learn more about the religion that could enable such behavior.”

After graduating NYU, Noach enrolled in yeshivah and Kayla, in seminary. Later, the two got married and started a family.

Today, from their Ramat Beit Shemesh home, the couple spreads the light of Torah, Kayla as host of the How to Glow podcast and Noach harnessing his 14 years of experience in the hi-tech private sector as the new director of advancement for Meor. “My father is now a full-fledged shomer Torah u’mitzvos who learns daf yomi for two hours a day,” says Noach. “He moved from Atlanta to make aliyah with our family. Just last week, our eight-year-old son finished his third-to-last masechta of Seder Mo’ed and we celebrated his siyum together with my own on Seder Brachos.”

What is being done?

A kollel avreich at BMG and amateur photographer on the side, Rabbi Aaron Grossman was asked to take pictures at Torah Links’s opening night in the fall of 2006.

“I couldn’t make it to the event, but my curiosity was piqued. I ended up joining Torah Links, and I was given a part-time internship as a chavrusa in Twin Rivers, New Jersey.

“In 2010, I decided to do kiruv full-time. I was hired by Rabbi Meir Goldberg, a Lakewood native who also trained at Torah Links, to do kiruv work at Rutgers University, a scant 45 minutes from Lakewood, where there are over 5,000 unaffiliated Jews. We became partners in 2016, and after we were challenged in 2020 to double our impact, we’ve been steadily taking on new projects and locations throughout New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and even Chicago.”

Meor and Olami, umbrella organizations that help facilitate and fund kiruv organizations globally, as well as the Lakewood community and other partners throughout the US, have supported Meor JX in their efforts. At their locations in Rutgers, Columbia, Northwestern, and Montclair to name a few, Meor JX is reaching college kids on their own turf, offering opportunities for them to discover more and sharing the beauty and relevance of Torah and a Torah life.

“We offer paid marketing internships to college students. Their job is to reach out to Jews in their network who express an interest in Yiddishkeit and connect them to our programming. We concretize interest into consistency using a stipend for learning Torah. With meetings, classes, learning centers, Shabbatons, Meor JX houses, and trips, we show students the depth and richness of frum life.”

Learning in Lakewood

Founded in 1997 at the behest of Beth Medrash Govoha, Torah Links established kiruv communities in various parts of the state. In addition, Torah Links runs the Lakewood Fellowship and Internship Program, which provides chavrusas for college students and young professionals, and plans to soon open a yeshivah for ba’alei teshuvah returning from Eretz Yisrael. They also operate the popular Lakewood Ner L’elef training program, preparing men and women for leadership roles in kiruv as well as other forms of harbatzas Torah.

Both Meor and RJX (a branch of Meor) as well as kiruv organizations from across the globe are hosted by Torah Links in the brand-new Torah Links Center. Here, participants experience immersive frum living, learning in BMG, and spending Shabbosim with local hosts.

Rabbi Gruman, its director, says, “The Lakewood Torah Links building galvanizes Lakewood’s passion and talent for Torah and shares it with thousands of Yidden who are thirsting for Torah.

“Over the years, those who have spent winter breaks and summer vacations at BMG through the Torah Links fellowship program have been welcomed warmly by the local community. Hundreds of Lakewood families have already become a part of the Torah Links family, hosting participants for meals, learning with them, and, as they continue their personal journeys to Yiddishkeit, finding them jobs in the community and even redting them shidduchim.”

Kiruv from the couch

Through camps, programs, and school placement, Oorah spreads the light of Yiddishkeit far and wide. Its Torah Mates study and mentor partnerships are perhaps Oorah’s most impactful and easily accessible program.

“When I was in tenth grade, I signed up to be a Torah Mate,” says Esti, a Lakewood newlywed. “I was paired up with Jennifer, a girl from Jacksonville, Florida, who wanted to expand her Jewish education. We began learning together every week. We covered a variety of topics, but I most appreciated exploring tefillah with Jen. Learning through the viewpoint of someone uninitiated was eye-opening. I remember discussing Adon Olam and later, Ashrei and being blown away by the fresh meaning I saw in the words.

“For such a small investment of time and effort, the payoff was incredible. It was amazing to see how fulfilling it could feel to connect with someone from a different background. Unfortunately, Jen and I lost touch when she went to Israel after graduating,” says Esti. “But I’ll never forget the renewed appreciation for Yiddishkeit that I gained from our sessions.”

Be proud that you’re a Jew

What does it take to change someone’s life?

“Anyone can do it,” Rabbi Grossman asserts. “You don’t need to have the most magnetic personality or the greatest oratory skills. You just have to be ready to understand the backgrounds and mindsets that others have and be willing to learn to identify the Torah concepts they will relate to.

“More and more Lakewood residents are joining kiruv trips and programs. Yungerleit and women deliver Zoom shiurim and commute to our learning centers, college campuses, and off-campus dormitories.”

Chezky says, “A lot of Jews in America today don’t know what it means to be a Jew or, worse, they have a terrible perception of what Judaism is. They think that being religious means being primitive and restricted and not enjoying life. They don’t realize the beauty of a religious lifestyle. It is sad to think of what they are missing and what they could have.

“As much as the secular world represents itself as being the progressive, accepted way of life, the reality is that they have nothing going for them. Unfortunately, they have no past, no present, and no future. They’re not coming from a heritage, and they are not maintaining a legacy or upholding a distinctive lifestyle. Most have nothing to look forward to besides retiring to the golf course.

“We come from a rich mesorah and are creating our own families. We have everything going for us, and that’s a cause of jealousy for our brothers who are searching for a more meaningful life. Questions are welcome; we don’t need to be afraid of them. If we don’t know the answer, that’s fine, as long as we internalize how lucky we are. We should be so confident in our way that any person that we come into contact with should be able to engage us in conversation and walk away with the feeling that they’d like to have that lifestyle as well.”

Never a fail

Kiruv comes with a lot of work and a lot of disappointment. Many of the people who join kiruv programs aren’t ready to change their lives, and many kiruv students leave college completely unchanged.

“It can be disheartening,” says Rabbi Grossman, “but we have learned that there’s no one highway to success. Our impact goes far beyond the recorded numbers; we don’t know when the seeds we’ve planted will sprout and bear fruits. Sometimes, we get to see the yields years later when we bump into them and see that they’ve come full circle, and that gives us hope to keep on trying.”

Why now?

“I just interviewed a fresh batch of students at Rutgers,” says Rabbi Grossman. “Most of them believe in G-d—that wasn’t the case years ago. They may not believe in the Torah, but almost everyone accepts that there is a Higher Power. People today are so divorced from spirituality; they aren’t fighting against religion as much they used to. The neshamah is always searching for meaning. Especially today, it is not satisfied with what the world has to offer. I think there’s a higher level of searching today than there was in the past.”

“Now is an ideal time to get involved in kiruv,” says Rabbi Meir Goldberg, Rabbi Grossman’s partner. “The prevalence of depression and negativity, chaos, and emptiness all make people a lot more open to meaning and community. I’ve been doing outreach for over twenty years, and I’ve never seen this level of interest in our message.

“Today, it’s easier than ever for kiruv ‘nonprofessionals’ to get involved. At JX, we’re looking for yungerleit to learn with students and young professionals, either over Zoom or in person. We’re also creating a network of volunteer and paid women to do online or on-campus work.”

Wherever you go, whatever you do

“My connection to kiruv developed many years ago at a trade show in Manhattan,” Chezky relates. “I was there with my wife and baby, and we were stopped by the lawyer who sat at the entrance confirming that attendees wouldn’t steal the sensitive industrial information on display at the show. The lawyer asked the most popular question I get as a religious person: ‘How many children do you have?’ I gave a roundabout answer, and he responded, ‘Kenayna hara.’When I raised my eyebrows—the lawyer had an Irish last name and seemed as non-Jewish as they come—he said, ‘I’m as Jewish as you are; my mother is a Jew.’ We shared a very deep conversation during which the lawyer decided he would visit the Chabad house in his Carolina city.”

Since that interaction, Chezky has been astounded by the level of interest his obviously frum appearance never fails to elicit in nonreligious Jews. “It starts with bageling, and soon, we’re discussing the deepest concepts,” he says.

“There are so many incredible kiruv organizations, but we shouldn’t leave the job to them. Each of us has an opportunity to be a positive representation to every person we come into contact with.”

Having experienced both ends of the outreach process, Noach shares, “When a Jew does what’s right in the eyes of the Torah, he has no idea how great his impact can be. When I was learning about Yiddishkeit, my father was curious about the religion that was inspiring me to change. People whom he would never otherwise have associated with were warm, inviting, and open to him. He was treated with respect and kindness and was never made to feel like an outsider.”

Spread the light

Kiruv can feel foreign, like something better left to the professionals.

Just contemplating the huge proportion of Klal Yisrael that is lost can be daunting. We may wonder what impact our efforts can have in the big picture. We may doubt our abilities or be skeptical about the way outreach is done.

Rabbi Grossman says, “To those who feel apathy toward kiruv, I say, come see what we do. Speak with the individuals whose lives have been transformed because someone cared. Visit the centers where kiruv is done—by people just like you!—in the most beautiful and appropriate ways.

“Ultimately, kiruv is all about harbatzas Torah; it’s all about spreading the light of Hashem. It’s something every person can and should be involved in.”

Whether we’re at the Western Wall or NPGS, doing kiruv on college campuses or going about our daily lives, there’s always a chance to help reunite our family.

*Name has been changed.


A Soft Landing

Rabbi Yosef Ribner, yungerman-turned-mekarev, speaks:

“I was recently on a retreat in Colorado with a group of students from Columbia University. After a long day on the slopes and while still jet-lagged, we sat down to learn together.

“Exhausted, I introduced my shiur by asking the boys, ‘How many of you have learned Gemara before?’ Almost none of them raised their hands.

“I realized the opportunity I had, how high the stakes were, as well as the achrayus I had to them and their future generations, that I would be molding their entire perception of what Gemara and real Torah learning is. Immediately, adrenaline began to run through me. I had all the energy in the world.

“Forty-five minutes later, when the shiur ended, two boys were staring at me, not budging. I asked, ‘What’s the matter?’ and they replied, ‘We don’t want you to stop; please continue!’

“As recently as two years ago, I would’ve never dreamed of teaching college students or young professionals. However, a little over a year ago, after having learned in BMG since 2014, I started thinking about my future. I confided in a friend of mine that it would be a shame to keep the skills acquired in 20 years of Gemara learning to myself. Additionally, the fear of an abrupt landing, going straight from kollel to meat boards, made me uneasy. I was looking for a softer landing.

“My friend advised me to go to the BMG placement department, where I ended up meeting Rabbi Moshe Katz from Torah links. Rabbi Katz and the Torah Links staff worked tirelessly to find a situation that would allow me to be marbitz Torah in a way that would maximize my talents. Ultimately, they connected me with Rabbi Avi Cassel from Olami and Rabbi Aaron Grossman from JX, where I was granted the opportunity to teach college students and young professionals on a full-time basis.

“I was recently at an event where the speaker, a man with much life experience, said something that I found to be very powerful and true: ‘Responsibility creates ability.’ Teaching sophisticated university students and young professionals has created an accountability and clarity in my learning that I never even realized were lacking before, as well as added a new dimension and understanding in my Yiddishkeit.”