Judaism Reaches Out to Converts

When Valley Beth Shalom, a large synagogue in the San Fernando Valley, wanted to invite people to an intensive four-month lecture course on Judaism, it bought advertising space in The Los Angeles Times and other area newspapers.

”An Invitation to Seekers,” one advertisement beckoned, while another carried pictures of the rabbis — from Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues — who would lecture, stressing that ”people of all faiths and backgrounds” were welcome.

As a result, the series has drawn up to 500 people, said Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, the synagogue’s spiritual leader. Most are Jews who are curious to learn more about the faith, but others are non-Jews, of whom 20, he said, have already declared an interest in converting.

Intensive courses in Judaism are not hard to find, but for a synagogue to reach out so broadly and so publicly is unusual. ”We’re not taking tambourines and going to the airports,” Rabbi Schulweis said. ”We’re simply advertising the fact that if you would like to learn, come and we will teach. That seems to me a profoundly Jewish notion.”

Judaism has historically embraced sincere converts (the biblical figure of Ruth offers a famous example), but it has long rejected proselytism. Tradition holds that a rabbi should turn a potential convert away, as a means of testing that person’s sincerity.

But these days, some rabbis and Jewish officials — arguing that Jewish institutions ought to shed their inhibitions about embracing religiously unaffiliated non-Jews — are actively reaching out as never before with widespread advertising in secular mainstream media and large public lectures on the basic tenets of Judaism.

Gary Tobin, director of Brandeis University’s Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, said, ”You have to be open to new ideas.” He added: ”It doesn’t mean for a moment that we have to abandon standards.”

Mr. Tobin, author of a coming book, ”Opening the Gates: How Active Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community,” recently wrote an article in the Jewish Theological Seminary’s magazine saying, ”Jews cannot continue to hoard their heritage as a birthright only and inhibit others from swelling and reinvigorating their ranks.”

Although no one is advocating that Jews go knocking on doors or preaching on street corners, Rabbi Schulweis and others say that Jewish religious leaders need to respond to the fact that many people are unconnected to any faith and are spiritually searching. In addition, others say, Jews face a potential crisis of numbers arising from a high rate of interfaith marriage, a trend that could diminish the Jewish population by producing a generation that does not identify itself as Jewish.

But new efforts at outreach, especially through advertisements in newspapers, have disturbed some, even triggering a debate about what being Jewish means.

Ismar Schorsch, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, said that while Jewish institutions should reach out to the non-Jewish spouses of interfaith couples, to go beyond that crosses a line. ”It turns religion into a kind of supermarket, where you go shopping for the most interesting religion,” he said. ”That kind of mobility in American society is well known.”

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said he worried that the idea of Jews as a distinct people, rather than simply as members of a religious faith, could be eroded. ”I think my concern,” he said, ”is to insure that Judaism does not become a denomination in the Protestant sense, with a great many people coming in and a great many people going out.”

It is probably too early to accurately measure the impact of the new efforts. Sociologists say that no evidence of such a trend has turned up in national polling data and that pressures to convert on non-Jewish spouses in interfaith couples may even be declining. But anecdotal evidence suggests that over the last decade more single people, and occasionally couples, have been turning up in conversion classes.

About 180,000 Americans describe themselves as converts to Judaism, ”Jews by choice,” in an oft-used phrase, representing about 3 percent of the nation’s six million Jews. The vast majority of people who convert are men and women married or engaged to a Jewish partner.

Although the debate about reaching out may be only beginning, an opening shot was fired five years ago by Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, then president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which represents more than 800 Reform synagogues. In the course of a sermon at the organization’s annual meeting in 1993, he argued for reaching out to unaffiliated gentiles, in the spirit, he said, ”of the proselytizing Jew, Abraham, whose tent was continually open on all four sides for fear that he would miss a wandering nomad and fail to bid him enter.”

Within a year of Rabbi Schindler’s speech, the organization started an outreach program called ”A Taste of Judaism,” a series of three free lectures on Jewish spirituality, ethics and community, open to the curious, Jews and non-Jews alike. It has been offered in various cities, always with a heavy dose of advertising. ”We do serious advertising in the secular press,” said Dru Greenwood, the organization’s director of outreach.

”I think there are two imperatives for doing what we’re doing,” she said. ”One is there are huge demographic pressures on the Jewish community because of intermarriage and we have to do something about this.” In addition, she said: ”It’s about holding up the light of Judaism. We do see it in terms of welcoming people to come close, to take part in our community and our covenant with God.”

Ms. Greenwood said 12,000 people had attended the lectures. Two years ago, in a mail survey, the organization found that attendance was divided between Jews and non-Jews. Among non-Jews, about 1 in 7 went on to conversion classes.

Some say Judaism would seem the logical destination of Americans who are spiritually seeking and familiar with the Bible, but are not attracted to Christianity.

”What are we going to do,” asked Rabbi Neal Weinberg, of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, ”with people who believe in God, and seek a value system, but don’t believe in Jesus?”

Since 1986, Rabbi Weinberg has run the introduction to Judaism program under auspices of the university’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, teaching regular 18-week classes, with discussion groups and weekend retreats, that attract 40 or 50 people each. His students include Jews who want to learn about the faith, and non-Jews as well. The latter include many people married to Jews, non-Jews who want to know more about Judaism, and some single men and women interested in converting.

One of Rabbi Weinberg’s former students, Barbara Schiller, 33, an actress studying for a bachelor’s degree in finance, said that as an African-American child growing up in Denver, she developed a lifelong interest in Judaism after being befriended by a young Jewish girl in her neighborhood.

”As I grew up, I grew further and further away from Catholicism,” Mrs. Schiller said. She discovered it was possible to convert to Judaism only four years ago in a casual conversation, she said. She enrolled in Rabbi Weinberg’s class, underwent conversion and has since married a Jewish man.

Conversion to Judaism is a demanding process, involving months of study under a rabbi’s supervision. Men must undergo ritual circumcision.

Rabbi Deborah Bronstein, spiritual leader of Congregation Har Hashem, a Reform synagogue in Boulder, Colo., said, ”I don’t work with people who can’t meet with me for at least a year.”

In Los Angeles, Rabbi Schulweis said that interest in Judaism by sincere seekers benefited Jews. In his synagogue, he has enlisted lay people to serve as mentors to those interested in conversion, to answer questions and include them in home rituals.

And he has high praise for those who do convert: ”Once they make the commitment to join, they will be the most active, the most articulate, the most involved.”

Such a description might seem applicable to Jeannette Martinez, 26, a restaurant owner who comes from an evangelical Protestant family and is taking the course at Valley Beth Shalom with an eye to converting this summer. She began studying on her own two years ago, she said, and now keeps kosher, avoids radio and television on the Sabbath and attends a Conservative synagogue. ”It was the law that attracted me,” Ms. Martinez said, ”because it tells me what to do with my freedom.”

Another person attending the lectures at Valley Beth Shalom is Brooke Parker, 56, a lapsed Roman Catholic who has been married for 30 years to a non-observant Jew. Her husband, Lew Parker, a Los Angeles police detective, said he ceased his religious observance after his bar mitzvah.

But when their adult daughter began investigating the faith in recent months, the couple became interested, too. Mr. Parker said, ”When Brooke found out more about Judaism, she said, ‘Lew, you’re sitting on a gold mine.’ ”

The couple began attending the lecture course at Valley Beth Shalom after seeing the advertisements. ”I’ve been looking for something for a long time, but I didn’t think I’d find it,” Mrs. Parker said.


Related Articles

Archive Search

Search the world's largest online archive of material about Jewish diversity.

Archive Search

Search the world's largest online archive of material about Jewish diversity.