The More Jews the Better?
Christopher and Marie O’Malley are sitting at home one evening when the doorbell rings. Chris opens the door to find a well-dressed couple on his steps, smiling politely.
“Excuse me, are you Jewish?” one of them asks.
“No,” Chris responds.
“Have you ever considered Judaism for your spiritual needs?” the interloper continues, reaching into her satchel for a bunch of brochures, which she hands over to the bewildered homeowner. “We’re holding a class tomorrow night. Perhaps you’d like to stop by and see what we have to offer.”
This would never happen, right? One thing that has always set Jews apart from Christians and Muslims, something we point to with pride, is that Jews don’t push their religion on other people. Jews don’t tell non-Jews that they’re going to hell, that they’ll be denied salvation if they don’t accept the halachic yoke. Jews don’t proselytize.
But we sure used to. Most Jews today may not be aware of it, but Judaism has a long history of not only welcoming, but encouraging gentiles to become Jewish. From the day Abraham picked up a flint and performed his own circumcision, thus becoming Judaism’s first convert, ancient Israelites openly spread their teachings among the nations they encountered.
Jewish proselytizing was so successful, it’s estimated that by the first century C.E. fully 10 percent of the Roman Empire was Jewish, close to 8 million people.
“It’s an incredible number, and it means that the Jewish community was not meant to be this tiny, minuscule group,” notes Rabbi Lawrence Epstein, founder and president of the Conversion to Judaism Resource Center in Commack, N.Y.
Jews only stopped open proselytism because of pressure from Christian and then Muslim rulers, beginning in 407 C.E. when the Roman Empire outlawed conversion to Judaism under penalty of death. But the internal, theological impetus to be “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6) persisted through the centuries, albeit undercover, advancing and retreating along with Jewish fortunes in the Diaspora.
“I welcome the idea of freshening up the gene pool,” says San Francisco sociologist Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research and author of Opening the Gates-How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community. “We’re doing a great mitzvah if we help make more Jews.”
What does “making more Jews” mean? Not just welcoming new converts once they convert, which virtually all Jewish leaders say they advocate, or being more open to inquiries from potential converts-here the Orthodox are more circumspect than the other denominations-but actually encouraging non-Jews to consider choosing Judaism.
Tobin calls it “proactive conversion,” the notion that Jews should stop playing hard-to-get and start issuing open invitations to spiritual seekers from outside the faith. Jews don’t need to go door-to-door or hold mass stadium rallies, he says, just open their eyes and realize there’s a growing number of non-Jews out there in America who are attracted to Judaism and who would, if given half a chance, make fine additions to the Jewish family.
“In America today,” Tobin notes, “people change religions all the time. Two out of every five Americans switch religions at least once.”
Proactive conversion isn’t a “magic bullet” for what ails the Jewish community, Tobin cautions. Education is key, for born Jews and for converts, so that every Jew is actively choosing Judaism.
Private Club vs. Open House
Tobin’s book caused considerable debate, as Jewish thinkers from across the religious spectrum considered how far Jews should go in encouraging non-Jews to explore conversion.
Many people oppose a more active policy. Some fear that Jewish missionary efforts will antagonize Christians and lead to increased anti-Semitism. Some believe that proselytizing is un-Jewish, and by engaging in such activities Judaism will somehow become “Christianized.”
But the main opposition Jewish outreach workers encounter is a feeling, deeply held by many, if not most American Jews, that they are special because they are few, endangered, and members of a select blood tribe.
The debate over encouraging conversion turns on competing visions of what the Jewish community is supposed to be. Is Judaism an elite club that only a chosen few may join, or a moral and ethical construct that many people could adopt?
Rabbis working in outreach claim that this is not an Orthodox vs. non-Orthodox debate, but in fact, that’s pretty much what it comes down to. Not surprisingly, the push to open the gates is strongest in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements. The Conservative movement is split, with much of the leadership favoring a more cautious approach, while individual rabbis and teachers are taking stronger stands in support of a more open attitude. And the Orthodox movement says it welcomes sincere converts, but certainly isn’t going to run after them, and will in fact continue to make it a difficult choice. Some Orthodox and even Conservative rabbis follow the tradition of turning away potential converts three times, a stance based on Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, telling her three times to return to her people (Ruth 1:8,11,12).
Orthodox Rabbi Yaacov Lerner of Young Israel in Great Neck, N.Y., runs Project Identity, an outreach program directed at disaffected Jews, not gentiles, although some non-Jews have participated. “I take a very traditional Orthodox stance,” he says. “We don’t go out and market Judaism. God gave us the Torah not because we were numerous among the nations, but because we were the smallest. We are interested in quality, not quantity.”
Orthodox-and many Conservative-rabbis and educators emphasize that they are not opposed to conversion, or to welcoming converts into their congregations. Rather, it’s a matter of setting priorities. Faced with limited resources and personnel, many of these leaders say the Jewish community should focus its attention on “core Jews”-born Jews who have drifted away from Jewish practice and identification-rather than on creating more Jews.
Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, founder and director of the [Orthodox] National Jewish Outreach Center, is an outspoken proponent of this view. Pointing to the 52 percent intermarriage rate cited by the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, and to recent data indicating that the number of Jews converting out of Judaism has doubled since 1990, he says that focusing money and attention on seeking converts is not only wrong-headed, it’s dangerous. “We need to stop the hemorrhaging before we can start proselytizing,” he says.
Those who support more active promotion of Judaism among gentiles maintain that the two goals are not mutually exclusive. How much does it cost to start talking up Judaism to your non-Jewish friends and family members? Basic Judaism classes cost money, but since they also educate Jews with little or no background, they are inreach as well as outreach tools.
Much of the initial interest in promoting Judaism among non-Jews was driven by the same demographic urgency that led to outreach programs directed at disaffected Jews: the intermarriage crisis and the resultant dwindling of the Jewish population.
“There is strength in numbers in America,” Tobin says. “Jews have been a potent voting force. If they don’t grow as a community, they will become more and more marginalized.”
The solution, Tobin believes, is upping the numbers by bringing in more Jews. “I think if we devote resources to the various target populations-people married to Jews, people who have Jewish heritage, people who are interested in Judaism-I believe that in 10 years we can have 10 million Jews instead of five and a half million.” Other advocates of a more open-door policy toward potential converts don’t deny the numbers problem, but place more emphasis on the need to restore Judaism’s sense of mission. Spreading the religion’s universal moral and ethical message to potential converts is, they say, a mitzvah from the Torah that should be revived for its own sake.
Even in the Orthodox world, there’s a growing feeling among rabbis that they should be more welcoming to potential converts with Jewish blood, particularly the children and grandchildren of intermarried Jews.
“If someone has a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother and expresses an interest [in converting], there’s an opinion that one can be more forthcoming with them,” says Rabbi Eli Stern, head of outreach at the Westwood Kehillah, a 50-member Orthodox congregation in Los Angeles. This attitude is, Stern says, “not universally practiced,” but has “become the norm” in Orthodox outreach.
Hands down, it’s the Reform movement that goes furthest in opening the spiritual doors to non-Jews. Faced with growing numbers of non-Jews in their own congregations, Reform rabbis and educators have come up with programs both to make these people feel comfortable with synagogue life and-gently-to encourage them to explore the conversion option.
Leo Baeck was the first major Reform leader to call for proactive conversion, stating in a 1949 address to the World Union for Progressive Judaism that the Reform movement should establish a “missionary center” in America to train Reform educators to go out and spread the faith. “Our self-esteem, our self-respect asks it of us,” he insisted.
The late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, longtime president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, issued a similar call in a landmark 1978 address in which he urged Reform Jews to begin offering Judaism to the “unchurched”-gentiles not affiliated with a particular Christian church.
Still, the message was met with resistance. The Reform movement’s outreach department was initially charged with facilitating conversion, not instigating it. It was only in 1994, a year after Schindler repeated his exhortation in another address to his movement leadership, that the Reform movement came up with an even more preliminary yet far-reaching program-a three-session course called “A Taste of Judaism,” conceived of as a “first taste” of Judaism for non-Jews at the initial stages of interest.
Since its inception, the Reform movement’s national outreach director Dru Greenwood says 45,000 people have completed the course. About half were non-Jews. A survey of the first 2,000 graduates found that 14 percent of the non-Jews went on to convert.
Some Jewish leaders from other denominations say the Reform movement’s active outreach to interfaith couples, and the fact that many Reform congregations accept non-Jews as full members, actually discourages conversion. Why bother to convert if you and your children are already part of the synagogue family?
Greenwood says that’s a spurious complaint. The evidence she’s collected shows that proximity to Jewish life breeds love for it, not contempt. Rabbis in the field report that non-Jews in their congregations begin by attending services, then they enroll their children in Hebrew School, and by the time the kids reach bat or bar mitzvah age, the non-Jewish spouse is often ready to convert.
The Conservative movement’s approach to outreach is still primarily focused on encouraging conversion of non-Jewish partners in mixed marriages.
Citing repeated studies since 1991 that show absent conversion of the non-Jewish spouse, only one child in 10 from an interfaith marriage will grow up identifying as a Jew, the Conservative movement has latched onto this policy as an appropriate response to the problem of increased intermarriage.
But that’s the leadership. On the ground, some Conservative rabbis say the movement’s New York-based leaders have to catch up with their constituency.
Since 1986, Rabbi Neal Weinberg has directed the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles-the Conservative movement’s West Coast flagship institution. About half his students are non-Jewish, many of them involved in interfaith relationships. But growing numbers of his students aren’t involved in an interfaith relationship at all. More than 8,000 students have come through his course in the past 15 years. About 2,000 have converted.
To critics who charge that he’s running a conversion mill, Weinberg responds that in 16 weeks of three-and-a-half-hour classes, he gets to know each student personally and is able to judge the sincerity of their intentions as well as or better than a rabbi who meets weekly with conversion candidates one-on-one, the traditional method of pursuing conversion to Judaism.
Weinberg strongly believes that the Conservative movement should be “more proactive” in promoting Judaism to the outside world.
Why not set up Jewish reading rooms, he suggests, where interested non-Jews could stop by in a non-threatening atmosphere to pick up information? Why shouldn’t local Jewish Federations fund positions like his, setting up their own non-denominational educational-cum-conversionary introduction courses?
The Orthodox view is that Judaism does have a universalistic mission, but it is to spread Judaism’s ethical teachings among the gentiles without necessarily converting them to Judaism. Typically, an Orthodox rabbi approached by a potential convert will suggest that the person instead consider obeying the seven Noahide Laws-a Talmud-derived moral code God supposedly gave to the nations of the world, while the Torah was reserved for the Jews, his “chosen” people. The Noahide Laws prohibit idolatry, blasphemy, murder, sexual immorality, theft, and cruelty to animals, and mandate the establishment of a legal system (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 56a).
Rabbi Harold Schulweis, longtime spiritual leader of Congregation Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Encino, Calif., rejects the Orthodox approach. “If seven laws are good, 613 are better,” he asserts. Turning potential converts away by telling them the Noahide Laws are good enough for them, whereas Judaism’s treasures are to be saved for an elite few, is, Schulweis argues, promulgating a particularist notion of Judaism that is profoundly un-Jewish.
In 1997 Schulweis created a Keruv Center at his synagogue (“keruv,” or drawing-in, is the term preferred to “outreach” by the Conservative and Orthodox movements). The Center was launched in conjunction with a lecture series on basic Judaism that Schulweis advertised in the Los Angeles Times as being open both to Jews “who seek a deeper connection” and to non-Jews “searching for a tradition of wisdom, truth, and meaning.” More than 400 people attended that first series, which was taught by rabbis from all four major streams.
Jack Wertheimer believes that very few Conservative rabbis have followed Schulweis’s lead. “At this point, it’s a lot of rhetoric,” he insists. “These are calls, bold declarations that have not really been followed up.” Schulweis disagrees. “The leadership is behind the rabbis in the field on this,” he asserts. “They don’t really have the pulse of the people.”
The Hillel Institute’s approach is somewhere between welcoming converts and actively seeking them, Lustig says. “We’re not out there on the street corners, but we are much more open about [publicizing] the availability of information and classes,” she explains.
Greenwood says that although Gary Tobin’s call for proactive conversion “may seem fringe,” he is in fact describing the substance of what the Reform movement is already doing-an assessment, by the way, that Tobin does not share.
But neither is Tobin’s sense of urgency shared by the majority of Jewish leaders interviewed for this article. Epstein of the conversion center in Commack, N.Y., who is passionate about the need for Jews to restore their sense of universal mission, believes the Jewish community is not ready for the kind of wholesale conversion pitch Tobin advocates. Not yet, anyway.
Schulweis, on the other hand, feels there’s no reason to hesitate. “Jews need to be convinced they have something unique to offer the world,” he says. “It’s all up to the rabbi and the congregation to make these people feel welcome. The synagogue should say, ‘We want to meet you. We want to help you.'”