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

 

Continued from page 4

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.

Citing repeated studies since 1991 that show absent conversion of the non-Jewish spouse, only one child in 10 from an interfaith marriage will grow up identifying as a Jew, the Conservative movement has latched onto this policy as an appropriate response to the problem of increased intermarriage.

But that's the leadership. On the ground, some Conservative rabbis say the movement's New York-based leaders have to catch up with their constituency.

Since 1986, Rabbi Neal Weinberg has directed the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles-the Conservative movement's West Coast flagship institution. About half his students are non-Jewish, many of them involved in interfaith relationships. But growing numbers of his students aren't involved in an interfaith relationship at all. More than 8,000 students have come through his course in the past 15 years. About 2,000 have converted.

To critics who charge that he's running a conversion mill, Weinberg responds that in 16 weeks of three-and-a-half-hour classes, he gets to know each student personally and is able to judge the sincerity of their intentions as well as or better than a rabbi who meets weekly with conversion candidates one-on-one, the traditional method of pursuing conversion to Judaism.

Weinberg strongly believes that the Conservative movement should be "more proactive" in promoting Judaism to the outside world.

Why not set up Jewish reading rooms, he suggests, where interested non-Jews could stop by in a non-threatening atmosphere to pick up information? Why shouldn't local Jewish Federations fund positions like his, setting up their own non-denominational educational-cum-conversionary introduction courses?

The Orthodox view is that Judaism does have a universalistic mission, but it is to spread Judaism's ethical teachings among the gentiles without necessarily converting them to Judaism. Typically, an Orthodox rabbi approached by a potential convert will suggest that the person instead consider obeying the seven Noahide Laws-a Talmud-derived moral code God supposedly gave to the nations of the world, while the Torah was reserved for the Jews, his "chosen" people. The Noahide Laws prohibit idolatry, blasphemy, murder, sexual immorality, theft, and cruelty to animals, and mandate the establishment of a legal system (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 56a).

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, longtime spiritual leader of Congregation Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Encino, Calif., rejects the Orthodox approach. "If seven laws are good, 613 are better," he asserts. Turning potential converts away by telling them the Noahide Laws are good enough for them, whereas Judaism's treasures are to be saved for an elite few, is, Schulweis argues, promulgating a particularist notion of Judaism that is profoundly un-Jewish.

In 1997 Schulweis created a Keruv Center at his synagogue ("keruv," or drawing-in, is the term preferred to "outreach" by the Conservative and Orthodox movements). The Center was launched in conjunction with a lecture series on basic Judaism that Schulweis advertised in the Los Angeles Times as being open both to Jews "who seek a deeper connection" and to non-Jews "searching for a tradition of wisdom, truth, and meaning." More than 400 people attended that first series, which was taught by rabbis from all four major streams.

Jack Wertheimer believes that very few Conservative rabbis have followed Schulweis's lead. "At this point, it's a lot of rhetoric," he insists. "These are calls, bold declarations that have not really been followed up." Schulweis disagrees. "The leadership is behind the rabbis in the field on this," he asserts. "They don't really have the pulse of the people."

His Encino congregation isn't the only Conservative shul pursuing active outreach to non-Jews. Susan Lustig is the administrator for the Hillel Institute, a 24-week conversion course affiliated with Lawrence Epstein's Conversion to Judaism Resource Center on Long Island. In five years, 113 of the 189 course graduates have converted.

The Hillel Institute's approach is somewhere between welcoming converts and actively seeking them, Lustig says. "We're not out there on the street corners, but we are much more open about [publicizing] the availability of information and classes," she explains.

Greenwood says that although Gary Tobin's call for proactive conversion "may seem fringe," he is in fact describing the substance of what the Reform movement is already doing-an assessment, by the way, that Tobin does not share. But neither is Tobin's sense of urgency shared by the majority of Jewish leaders interviewed for this article. Epstein of the conversion center in Commack, N.Y., who is passionate about the need for Jews to restore their sense of universal mission, believes the Jewish community is not ready for the kind of wholesale conversion pitch Tobin advocates. Not yet, anyway.

Schulweis, on the other hand, feels there's no reason to hesitate. "Jews need to be convinced they have something unique to offer the world," he says. "It's all up to the rabbi and the congregation to make these people feel welcome. The synagogue should say, 'We want to meet you. We want to help you.'"

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