The More Jews the Better?

Some rabbis & Jewish leaders want to return to ancient Judaism's universalistic mission--making it more available to outsiders.

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Now in 21st-century America, where Jews are a privileged minority openly practicing their religion, powerful in every area of political, social, and economic life, some rabbis and Jewish leaders are suggesting that it's time to cast off the prohibition forced upon us by anti-Semites and return to our original universalistic mission. Judaism is a great religion, with much to offer today's society. Why shouldn't we make it more available to outsiders who might wish to join the tribe?

"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.

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"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."

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