Some years back, the Rabbi's son watched me burst through the front door and run into the basement mikveh of our shul before the onset of Shabbos. Sruli (shortened from Yisroel) must have been 3 or 4 years old at the time, certainly past his upshernish.
"Hey Victor! Where are you going?" He was playing on the railing above the staircase that led to the basement.
"I'm going to mikveh, Sruli. Don't hang on the railing like that." He pretended not hear my warning.
I had maybe ten minutes to go before Shabbos. Ten short minutes in which to take a quick shower, jump in the mikveh, dry myself, run upstairs and change (I often stay at the shul over Shabbos), then race back downstairs for evening prayers. Watching my steps as I sped down, I answered him reflexively, before the door to the mikveh shut behind me.
"It's what we do."
I didn't give this exchange a second thought, and would not have recalled it these years later, except that I was confronted by Sruli's father at his Shabbos table a few weeks later. He thanked me for answering his son in the way that a child needs to hear. To a boy of three or four, logical legal arguments and esoteric mysticism are meaningless. It is sufficient, in fact ideal, that he simply understand "it's what we do". But you, the Rabbi continued, who are not a child, of you I want an explanation for why we immerse in the mikveh.
The many lively conversations around the table ended abruptly, as all eyes turned to me. As fortune would have it, I had just finished a small book on the halacha of building a mikveh and customs related to its use (this isn't it, but it's great). However, a spontaneous, public dressing down I was not prepared for. I muttered something about ritual purity before the Rabbi put me out of my misery. Thinking back at the company at that Shabbos table, I now realize that I was not the likely audience for a discussion about the importance of taharas hamishpacha (family purity).
Perhaps I'll address certain morsels of that discussion at a later time. What instigated this recollection is an article in The Forward on the tremendous growth and success of the Chabad movement on American university campuses. As someone who spent the better part of his twenties organizing on campus, both for secular, pro-Israel organizations and religious student groups with ties to Chabad, and who myself became drawn to Yiddishkeit through a Chabad community, I have some thoughts on the subject of outreach to Jewish students.
The prevailing trends in Jewish student organizations on campus - Chabad excluded - are to embrace pluralistic, welcoming and egalitarian expressions of Jewish identity. Yes, like many "young Jewish leaders" I've learned to articulate myself brilliantly without actually saying a damn thing. In reality, what all those words mean is a bunch of 18 and 19 year old students, with no formative Jewish education, being asked what they consider to be a positive Jewish experience. These are people whose last "positive Jewish experience" was eating their dead grandma's matzah ball soup when they were seven, or being dragged away from Saturday morning cartoons, kicking and screaming, to their Reform synagogue. The reason they are being asked is that the organizations in question - and those who run them - themselves don't know what constitutes a "positive Jewish experience". Never asked is why it is inappropriate to have a "negative Jewish experience". Fear not, these students are about to be introduced to many negative (though not Jewish) experiences.
We have blind leading the blind, and deflecting objective oversight by obfuscating their failure in layer upon layer of ever complex modes of expression. Instead of acknowledging their incompetence and promptly resigning before they do any more damage, these administrating sycophants and leeches drain community resources in a tailspin of failure that condemns generation after generation of young Jews to ignorance of their basic identity, and at a most critical time of their lives. It is in university that a young person begins to internalize who they are, what they stand for, who they want to be and what they want to do with their lives. As the great majority of young Jews, challenged by the critical intellectual environment around them, reach for their cultural roots one last time before they write off their heritage as dead artifact, they are asked, by "Jewish professionals" no less, "Well, what does Judaism mean to you?" My dead grandmother's matzah ball soup, that's what. If I already knew, why would I come to YOU?! Apparently it means bullshit, because that's all you're feeding me. Tell you what, there's a dirty, homeless guy outside, let's go feed him something more tangible than this Judaism you're showing me. Tikkun Olam. It's Hebrew (pause for effect) for "repair the world".
Chabad is successful on campus because they don't feed young Jews bullshit compiled through polling data and packaged in corporate marketing. Lubavitcher shluchim (emissaries) don't need to hide behind language and aren't embarrassed of being Jews and living like Jews. They don't ask stupid questions like, "What does Judaism mean to you?" of 18 year olds with no experience in life, much less Judaism! They show by example what Jewish life is, give young Jews the basic knowledge to make informed choices about their heritage and their future and then respect their decisions.
I'm about to save the organized Jewish community tens of millions of dollars in wasted research polling, consultants and failed programming, so listen closely. When a young adult, with a collective Jewish experience equivalent to a 3 or 4 year old child asks "Why?" a "Jewish professional" sweats from discomfort and squirms in embarrassment, trying to explain away the uncouth, the unmodern, the irrational ways of an ancient people's covenant with the source of our life. Untold resources are expended on suppressing, deflecting and evading the simple answer this young Jew seeks. A Chabad shaliach proudly asserts, "It's what we do" - we Jews, you and I, together - and then proceeds to explain why we do it. Tefillin. Shabbos. Kashrus. Circumcision. Torah. We're Jews and it's what we do, no apologies, no embarrassment, no squirming.
That's it. That's the secret formula to connecting with a generation exhausted of falsehood and cynical of marketing, free of communal guilt and parental pressure and yearning for something real, for something honest and beautiful in a world that makes a mockery of sanctity and love and truth, for the treasure of an identity they can feel and can't explain. Untold numbers of Jews have died to ensure a chain of faith unbroken by thirty five centuries, culminating in me and you. This is what we Jews do. Come, and let's learn why.