A Question of Identity; For Jews, a Little Push for Converts, and a Lot of Angst

TRADITION says that when someone interested in converting to Judaism knocks on a synagogue’s door, the rabbi should turn him away — not once but three times, to test the seriousness of the person’s intent. Unlike Christianity, Judaism emphatically shuns proselytizing.

But even if many rabbis today are not so discouraging as that, what would happen if they took a really different tack and encouraged spiritual seekers to embrace Judaism?

That idea is gaining attention — and some hot criticism.

Among its exponents is Gary A. Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, who advocates ”a positive, welcoming approach to non-Jews becoming Jews.” Mr. Tobin, the author of ”Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community” (Jossey-Bass), is not alone in the idea.

Six years ago, Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, then president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Reform Judaism’s synagogue organization, spoke publicly of the value of reaching out to the unaffiliated. Abraham’s tent, he said, ”was continually open on all four sides for fear that he would miss a wandering nomad and fail to bid him enter.”

In the years since, the organization has offered a free program, advertised in secular newspapers and hosted by synagogues around the country. ”A Taste of Judaism” has sessions on Jewish spirituality, ethics and community.

This program has attracted 17,000 people, half of them Jews interested in learning more about their faith, the other half non-Jews, according to the union’s director of outreach, Dru Greenwood. A union survey found that 1 in 7 among the non-Jews went on to study for conversion.

One ”Taste of Judaism” class this spring at the South Street Temple in Lincoln, Neb., drew about 80 people, including Jews, Christians, agnostics and others. Afterward, 10 non-Jews expressed interest in conversion; none of them were married to a Jewish partner, said Cantor Michael Weisser, the synagogue’s spiritual leader. ”I think what attracts non-Jewish people to Judaism once they get a tiny taste of it is the logic of it, the ability to argue with it,” he said.

No one, though, has suggested that Jews should be out ringing doorbells or passing out magazines. Jewish outreach efforts, like the union’s program and similar efforts elsewhere, are restrained, taking the form of invitations to study and directed primarily toward people with family ties to Jews, or those already seriously interested in Judaism.

Still, in a conference at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City last month, Mr. Tobin said the Jewish community would help itself by reaching out to non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages, their children, people with some Jewish ancestry and gentiles spiritually searching. Converts bring an enthusiasm for their new identity that inspires other Jews, he said.

NEW converts, Mr. Tobin said in an interview, are not a magic bullet to remedy Jews’ concerns about cultural assimilation, a low birth rate and the rise in marriages between Jews and non-Jews, which many fear often produces families without a clear identity. Rather, reaching out is an expression of American Jews’ position in a democratic, religiously pluralistic society. ”We’re strong enough and secure enough that we can think about growth,” he said.

Converts are already a presence in American Jewish life. Most who convert are married or engaged to Jews. Of the nation’s 6 million Jews, about 180,000, or 3 percent, identify themselves as converts, or ”Jews by choice.”

This discussion has taken place amid two larger trends. Anti-Semitism has declined in America, removing a barrier against assimilation but also making it socially easier for non-Jews to consider conversion. A widespread search for spirituality is also running at high tide.

Protestant churches lost their dominance of the religious culture years ago. Their influence was offset by what many perceive as a free market of faiths more or less equally competing for the attention of spiritual seekers, said Rabbi A. James Rudin, interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.

But whether Jewish groups should enter this free market is another matter. Some reject efforts at major outreach as faddish, a threat to provoke counter-efforts by some Christian groups or, at worst, a waste of time, talent and money.

”There is a deep concern about this kind of approach among people in all sectors of American Judaism,” said Jack Wertheimer, provost and professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.

Mr. Wertheimer said he was not against people converting to Judaism. But he objected to major efforts because they amounted to ”an expression of panic, a real lack of faith” in ”traditional methods of transmitting Jewish identity,” he said.

Just as critical is Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald, director of the Jewish National Outreach Program, which runs short courses in basic Judaism, essential Hebrew and a beginners’ religious service, all designed to bring Jews closer to their faith. Rabbi Buchwald spoke at Mr. Tobin’s conference, declaring that the Jewish community needed to invest far more time and money in educating Jewish children so they would not lose their identity.

Rather than ”expend Jewish resources trying to convince a gentile to put on a yarmulke,” Rabbi Buchwald said at the conference, the future depended on exposing Jewish children to the ”joyous, optimistic side of Judaism.”


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