The More Jews the Better?

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

Continued from page 4

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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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.

"We're seeing a great increase in people who are converting later in life," she says. "Through the act of raising a Jewish family they find that their sense of self and Jewish identity has shifted."

The Conservative movement's approach to outreach is still primarily focused on encouraging conversion of non-Jewish partners in mixed marriages.

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