Many years ago, Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the founder and rosh yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, sought advice on kiruv. He wanted to know how to attract and retain potential ba'alei teshuva (BTs). So, on a visit to the States he made a pilgramige of sorts to a small house on a Flatbush side street near Avenue R and Kings Highway. He went to meet Rabbi Meir Michel Abehsera, a Moroccan-born, France-raised, BT. Meir, a relative of the Baba Sali, the famous Moroccan tzadik and miracle worker, had become a Lubavitcher hasid. He and his wife Claude had attracted hundreds of Jews to Orthodoxy, and had done so without money and without any institutional backing. Weinberg wanted to know how.
He sits down with Abehsera and asks him this question: How do you get these kids? How do you convince them? How do you hold them?
Abehsera's response was immediate. He slapped Weinberg across the face*. "Stupid!" Abehsera shouted, "I don't "get" these people. These people are my friends!" Abehsera was absolutely serious. These people, every one of them, was his friend.
Abehsera then explained to a shocked Weinberg what should be obvious to anyone but is not. Manipulation is immoral. It only works in the short term. And God does not manipulate. Neither should we.
The lesson was lost on Weinberg and his fellow kiruv professionals. It was lost on much of Chabad, as well.
Abehsera and his wife run an open house. People drop by at all hours of the day and often of the night as well. Somehow, there is always soup on the stove, always another bowl, another piece of bread. More importantly, there's always a seat at the table. Abehsera has friends who went from being atheists 30 years ago to being Orthodox rabbis today. He also has friends who are still atheists. And everything in between.
Table talk will more likely be about music – when the Abehsera's moved to Jerusalem in 1994, his fixation was the Counting Crows, who he first heard while driving in Brooklyn and almost had an accident because the music so transported him he couldn't concentrate on the road. One of the first things he said to me when I stopped by to say hello after the move was to ask if I had heard them – I had not – and then gush about the music. He was, as always in these matters, spot on.
On any given day one might meet yeshiva students and rabbis, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and Sefardic kabbalists of note, along with old family friends, neighborhood characters and just plain Jews, all hanging out, talking about just about anything.
Abehsera's model is what Judaism should be. An open salon where Jews meet as friends, no matter their level of observance or complete lack thereof. Where ideas can be discussed or not, as the case may be. Where music, art and film have a place at the table.
As Abehsera has noted many times, God made this world by creating space for it, for us. We, too, must create space, to give people room to be themselves and to deal with their Judaism at their own pace and in their own way.
*[Did Abehsera actually slap Weinberg? I heard the story several times, including once from Abehsera himself and another from an Aish insider. The slap is in all versions. Knowing Abehsera as well as I do, I think he did (gently) slap Weinberg to shock him. If this is too difficult to believe, consider it an early version of a "bitch slap" or a "pimp slap," a figure of speech meant to convey a heightened level of irritation.]