The More Jews the Better?

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

BY: Sue Fishkoff

 

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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.

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