We need converts
It is rare that a distinguished group of leaders gathers to think about the Jewish future, rarer still when they come up with an idea that is as simple and constructive as it is radical. This constellation of events seems to have taken place recently at the Wye Plantation in suburban Maryland, where the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute held a conference on “Alternate Futures for the Jewish People.”
The conference, which included Jewish university presidents, authors, current and former ministers, rabbis, social scientists and prominent philanthropists, considered two scenarios. In the first, dubbed a “realistic nightmare,” the world Jewish population drops to 10 million by 2025, six million of whom live in Israel. In Israel itself, Jewish identity is waning as our society chooses “normalcy,” but Israel’s position in the Middle East is precarious; anti-Semitism is growing globally.
The second scenario for 2025, called a “realistic vision,” has 18 million Jews in the world, two-thirds of whom live in Israel. Jewish identity is on the rise in the Jewish state, along with the economy and regional security.
Israel is an increasingly attractive model for Jews and the world, and Jewish political strength and social influence is growing, as are the Jewish people as a whole. Anti-Semitism is on the wane, both because Jews are less convenient targets and because of democracy’s advance and defeats for radical Islamist regimes and movements.
Such thought experiments are useful to concentrate the mind. The credibility of both possibilities, as divergent as they are, cannot be denied, even if the likelihood of either the worst or best case scenarios coming about may be low. More often in the real world, events do not all break in the same direction. Indeed an important component of these scenarios-the success of the global war against militant Islam-is not within the Jewish people’s sole ability to determine.
So the contribution of the conference was not simply in presenting these scenarios, but the twin ideas they spawned-one conventional, the other much less so. The first, in the words of the conference’s closing statement, was that “the Jewish People lacks spiritual leadership capable of formulating new inspirational content for Jewish identity that will inspire, provide meaning, and gain relevance, particularly for the Jewish majority which is not Orthodox, and for the younger generation”.
We did not need this collection of great minds to tell us that Jewish education in concentrated forms, such as day schools, summer camps, and travel to and study in Israel, is critical for the rejuvenation of Jewish identity and purpose. We as a people know that, yet we also know that our vast financial and human resources as a people-perhaps the greatest of any era in history-are not being directed in an urgent and concentrated way to act on what we know. Still, it needs to be said again, while we wait for Jewish leaders, inside and out of the Jewish establishment, in Israel and the Diaspora, to assign to the Jewish future the sense of urgency that the struggles to create Israel and save Soviet Jewry once generated.
What was more striking was the second recommendation: “The Jewish people must welcome those that feel part of it and choose to become partners with its history, fate and future. Obstacles that prevent the many who wish to join the Jewish people from doing so must be removed. Major initiatives are needed to integrate the mixed families from around the world, as well as those coming from the former Soviet Union whose Judaism is currently under question.” n short, to stop shrinking, we must grow. And to grow we must stop making it so difficult for non-Jews, whether they are already part of Jewish families, have Jewish ancestors, or just want to be Jews, to fully and formally join the Jewish people.
Those who think this is not a Jewish approach should think again. It is no coincidence that we read the Book of Ruth, the paradigmatic story of conversion on Shavuot, when Jews commemorate receiving the Torah at Sinai. Shunning converts is not just un-Jewish. On the level of the Jewish people, it is suicide.