Wednesday, March 10, 2010

I Drank the Kool-Aid

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Who in our world hasn’t heard of Oorah? Who isn’t in on the search for Fiveish? The most loveable, charming and memorable campaigns for any Jewish organization are no doubt those produced by and for Oorah. But who are the people behind Oorah? Do you ever wonder?
A few weeks ago, I met with some people at Oorah’s headquarters in Lakewood, NJ. Like many of you, I had viewed the organization as a goofy bunch of people with a catchy radio jingle and great advertising. I knew that they were into kiruv and had a camp or two, but I didn’t really know why they needed so much money and what they did with it. Intrigued, I took advantage of an opportunity to discover the answers firsthand.
What I found there was not only awe-inspiring, but an unexpected and wonderful life-lesson.
Oorah’s public image couldn’t be farther from the truth. A successful educational and outreach group, the only area in which this organization is lacking, ironically, is public relations. They spend considerable amounts on marketing strategies but forget to include an important piece of the picture: who are the individuals behind this unusual organization? What are they doing when they aren’t playing Fiveish?
The same genius Oorah activists have for marketing, they have for kiruv work, but they are too normal and self-conscious to hype up their own personal image. You run into this noble quality in some dedicated people who throw their time and energy into helping others. They are altruistic and bashful about their accomplishments and feel uncomfortable talking about themselves. But usually there’s a downside to their modesty: when they have to reach out for financial support from the community to be able to maintain their activities, they are surprised and disheartened that the money isn’t forthcoming.
It’s not hard to understand. With the economy in shambles, it is much tougher to raise money for charities. People aren’t earning enough income to sustain their lifestyles, pay steep yeshiva tuitions, while also being constantly solicited for extra donations to keep the mosdos viable.
For a long time, as the Jewish community expanded and yeshivos and days schools proliferated, the going was good. Some schools didn’t have to engage in real fundraising. To keep themselves going, all these schools did was squeeze the parents a little more and they were able to make a go of it. There was no need to maintain a healthy relationship with the broader community and to develop lasting friendships and a sustainable donor base.
We are feeling the painful fallout from that system now. It is only those who were enterprising enough to develop a wide circle of friends and supporters who are able to sustain the current downturn without turning to loans and other desperate moves in order to remain viable.
It is by building relationships and aiming to achieve something with our lives that we can go on to do great things.
In our fast-paced world, people are too pressured to notice anything but the exceptional. To win recognition, one must stand out, produce something unique and memorable. Yet we tend to copy what the other guy has done, instead of being original. We try to copy someone else’s campaign and then wonder why it worked for them and not for us.
In order to succeed in a crowded marketplace of ideas and causes, we have to be more proactive, creative and intelligent in selling ourselves and our product.
There are so many organizations out there competing for the same charity dollar that in order to have a chance of getting those funds, we have to be able to communicate to potential donors what it is about our organization that sets it apart and makes it worthy of support.
In an economy such as ours, you have to be prepared to spend money to promote yourself, or you will get lost in the shuffle.
This is what Oorah has done. It has made a career out of marketing its vision and its success has a lot to teach other mosdos. They’ve done it partly by building a solid base of support which can sustain them in good times and bad. They have considerable name recognition in the Jewish community.
We owe it to them and to ourselves to understand what it is that they really do and how they are unique.
Founded by a simple tzaddik, Rav Chaim Mintz, mashgiach of the Yeshiva of Staten Island, Oorah takes a cradle-to-the-grave approach to kiruv. The Mintzes don’t just introduce a Jew to Torah and leave them there to fend for themselves. They, and the organization they established, remain connected with them and their family, for the rest their lives, providing regular support to those who become frum. In essence, Oorah becomes their extended family.
They do this with a network of over 1,300 volunteers who are actively involved with over 2,000 families, impacting between 8,000 and 10,000 Jews on an annual basis.
They pay tuition for children at 100 different day schools and yeshivos. In fact, they spend over $130,000 a month so that Jewish children can receive the education they deserve.
Over 500 Jewish children and teenagers attend Oorah’s highly subsidized overnight kiruv camps, BoyZone, Boys TeenZone, GirlZone, Girls TeenZone, and Discover-U.
The camp staff members are bnei Torah of the highest caliber who dedicate their bein hasedorim and bein hazemanim to bring kids closer to Hashem. I was told that as you enter the boys’ camp, you feel as if you’ve entered one of the largest botei medrash in the mountains, with 200 yeshiva bochurim and yungeleit - from leading yeshivos – serving on staff.
The camps are entry points into a Jewish child’s life. Each child is set up with a yeshiva bochur or Bais Yaakov girl as a big brother or big sister to learn with at least once a week. These children continue receiving guidance not just in camp but throughout the year. The Torah Mates learning program was established to bring regular learning over the phone to these children and teenagers, as well as to adults. Over 1,400 adults currently participate.
There are also regular BoyZone and GirlZone trips and Shabbatons throughout the year to keep in touch with the kids and make sure they are progressing.
I am sure that many of you reading this article didn’t know about what I have shared. You probably also didn’t know that at a recent “Shabbat with Oorah” family Shabbaton, over 600 people attended and enjoyed the blessings of a Shabbos together with Oorah volunteers.
Did you know that Oorah hosts Avos Ubonim programs in multiple locations, providing the avos to learn with both avos and bonim?
I could go on and tell you about how many baalei teshuva were at their Purim seudah and how many mishloach manos they sent out, how many sets of arbah minim, how many Sukkos they put up, how many kids they took on chol hamoeid trips, how many shiduchim they redt, and all kinds of other tidbits of information, but I don't want to bore you. Besides, I am not their spokesman.
The Bnei Torah who head their divisions, staff their headquarters and volunteer by the hundreds, are a talented and dedicated group. They demonstrate a business acumen they could have used to enrich themselves. Together with the devoted hard-working Lakewood women who are the force behind Oorah, they are using their talents to enrich the community and Klal Yisroel.
The last time I was in Eretz Yisroel, I bumped into Rabbi Mintz. He told me that he was in Yerushalayim to check up on Oorah’s post-yeshiva program which helps Oorah-sponsored students through their yeshiva years as they learn in Israel. I had no clue that Rabbi Mintz maintains a satellite Oorah office in Israel with a full-time staff and volunteers who arrange trips and Shabbatons, and offer their talmidim regular home-away-from-home counseling and guidance. That is the degree to which Oorah views its responsibility to bnei ub’nos Yisroel.
Rabbi Mintz is so nonchalant about what he does, so humble and self effacing, that he was almost embarrassed to tell me what he was doing there.
This dichotomy, whereby Oorah is so well-known for its advertising, yet less known for its world-changing and global kiruv efforts, is striking.
We should recognize how unique, in our age of hype and self-promotion, is the kind of avodas hakdoesh performed under the radar that defines this organization. Hiding under our noses in plain sight is a remarkable organization that is bringing thousands of men, women and children tachas kanfei haShechinah.
We should commend Oorah for establishing an organization of this magnitude which sustains itself by maintaining a high level of professionalism and fundraising, permitting it to exist on small donations through grassroots efforts.
As the marketing arm of Oorah heats up in anticipation of its annual Chinese auction, we will be seeing more of the ubiquitous and lovable Fiveish and his antics. We should encourage other organizations to think out of the box, to come up with methods to sustain themselves and enable them to provide much needed services to the community.
True, we are strained and overtaxed. Tzorchei amchah merubim. There are so many good causes, so many needy people, and so many yeshivos and schools desperate for funds. Perhaps Oorah can open a new division and share some of its secrets. In the meantime, let’s pay homage to these unsung askonim camouflaged from view by their creation of Fiveish. Far from the spotlight, these dedicated people are bringing neshamos closer to the Ribono Shel Olam every day.
As we prepare for the Yom Tov of Pesach and search through all of our belongings and possessions to find what has accumulated there without our knowledge over the year, perhaps we should also look through Klal Yisroel and see what is “hiding.” Just as stores regularly take inventory, we should review what is going on in Jewish life, no less than what is transpiring in our personal lives. We should examine what is good and what isn’t; what needs repair and what needs to be junked.
You never know. So often we find hype with little substance behind it and sometimes, if we dig deep enough, we can find that elusive diamond in the rough that, like Oorah, is waiting to be mined, polished and appreciated.


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