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."
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.
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.
"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.