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.
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.