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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Much of the Conservative leadership agrees with that sentiment. "The issue for me is not whether or not we should enable people to convert, let alone treat them warmly once they have converted, but rather how aggressively should we go out and missionize," says Jewish Theological Seminary Provost Jack Wertheimer.

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.

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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.

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