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In the News: May 22, 2005



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Rabbi extends a rare invitation


Westminster leader seeks to make Judaism more accessible to those looking for a spiritual path.

By ANN PEPPER
Sunday, May 22, 2005
The Orange County Register

WESTMINSTER Rabbi Nancy Myers is putting together bags stuffed with books on Judaism, little goodies from Israel and some music from the cantor at her synagogue, Temple Beth David in Westminster - because she's getting ready to step out of line a little bit.

One thing that traditionally sets Jews apart from members of the other two religions of Abraham - Christianity and Islam - is that they don't actively proselytize. So Myers is doing something fairly unusual today when she engages in a bit of proactive evangelizing.

"I sense an opportunity," said Myers, 35.

"Since I arrived here in July I've had 10 phone calls from people asking how they can convert to Judaism. I'm very curious to find out how many others are out there."

Her own congregation is largely supportive of the idea.

Recently, some liberal Jews have been pointing out that active Jewish proselytizing was the norm until around 400, when the Roman Empire outlawed conversion - and backed up the ruling with the death penalty. Before that, Jewish proselytizing was going pretty well. By some estimates fully 10 percent of the Roman Empire - close to 8 million people - had converted to Judaism.

Lately, however, the numbers have been falling.

A 2002 study by the United Jewish Communities indicates the U.S. Jewish population declined by 300,000 over the last decade.

Some rabbis have been considering options and in 1999 sociologist Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, wrote "Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community."

Not everyone likes the idea.

Some Jews fear encouraging conversion could cause animosity among other religions and increase anti-Semitism.

"If a person wants to convert we are happy to welcome them, but we've never gone after conversions because Judaism doesn't believe it has a monopoly on the truth," said Rabbi Mendy Paltiel of Chabad of Central Orange County.

Myers already has about 10 people studying with her - and they come from a variety of faiths and ethnic backgrounds.

Among them, Rahim Azizzi said his father converted to Islam, but his grandmother was Jewish - a secret his father kept for many years.

"I had always felt drawn to Judaism," said Azizzi, 32.

"With other faiths, like Christianity, I felt there were a lot of things I couldn't question. You have to accept things on faith. If you try to debate something, you are told you are blasphemous.

"But I felt God gave me a mind and I needed to use it."

Maria Gonzalez, 45, grew up Christian, but always had a lot of questions - and was criticized for it - in particular by her pastor, who at one point told her she was going to go straight to hell.

She said when she found Judaism, she felt she had come home.

"I can have my opinion and not feel looked down upon. ... They will argue with you, but they give you the right to speak. And they say, number one, God will always be there."

or Azizzi, Gonzales and many others, Judaism also provides a sense of community, Myers said. "So what I'm offering is an opportunity for anyone who has ever been intrigued and is still trying to find their religious identity to see what Judaism has to offer," Myers said with a smile. "No strings attached."

Copyright 2005 The Orange County Register


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