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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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."

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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.

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