SAN FRANCISCO (Oct. 25)
The president of the Reform movement, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, has proposed a controversial plan to spend $5 million to attract non-Jews to the movement.
The proposal was made during Schindler’s keynote address to more than 4,000 Jews gathered at the 62nd biennial of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations held here Oct. 21-25.
Schindler’s call raised eyebrows among delegates at the convention and leaders of Judaism’s other denominations, whose discomfort reflects Judaism’s long-standing tradition of not evangelizing among other faiths.
We “should pave a missionary path to the heartland of this continent if not the world!” Schindler proclaimed in his sermon at Saturday morning’s Sabbath services.
“Judaism has an enormous amount of wisdom and experience to offer to our troubled world, and we Jews ought to be proud to proclaim it with fervor and pride,” Schindler said.
I “call to reach out to those of our neighbors who belong to no church or other religious institutions,” he said.
Schindler urged the movement “unabashedly and urgently to resume our vocation as missionaries, as champions of Judaism.”
The Reform rabbi’s proposal to missionize was provocative.
“Wouldn’t something like this dilute Jewish values?” asked convention delegate Maryann Fenster, a member of University Synagogue in Los Angeles and president of the western region of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods. “This is not something we should be focusing on.”
Sheldon Rudoff, president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, said proselytizing has “historically never been something we’ve done.”
“It is another aberrational activity (of the Reform movement) that we have difficulty understanding,” said Rudoff.
“It is another step by Reform which widens the gap between us,” he said. “The concentration should be on making Jews committed” to Judaism.
ANOTHER PUBLIC RELATIONS GAME?
Rabbi Moshe Sherer, president of Agudath Israel of America, said Schindler’s proposal “is a further step to undermine the identity and continuity of the Jewish people.”
“It would seem that this group has launched another public relations numbers game to increase its constituency. Unable to accomplish this goal within the Jewish community, the Reform leaders are once again reaching out to the non-Jewish world to bolster their ranks,” he said.
Sherer was referring to the Reform movement’s 1983 decision to adopt the principle of “patrilineal descent” and thereby accept the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as Jews.
That decision broke with the tradition of defining Jewish lineage through the mother. No other Jewish movement defines Jews by the father’s religion.
“Our job today is to reach out to Jews to be Jews, instead of to non-Jews to be pseudo Jews,” said Sherer.
Schindler, in an interview after his speech, said that, in fact, Jews historically did missionize to others, but that their efforts ended when the societies in which they lived began prosecuting them for their efforts.
“Conversionary zeal has been praised throughout Judaism,” he said.
The prophet “Isaiah said ‘My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples,’ ” said Schindler. “That’s Jewish tradition (which is) 2,500 years old. There were schools of missionaries in the Maccabean period,” in the first and second centuries before the common ere, he said.
“The prototype of the proselytizing Jew was Abraham, whose tent was continually open on all four sides for fear that he would miss a wandering nomad and fail to bid him enter,” said Schindler. “We must reclaim that which we let go.”
He first called for such efforts when he instituted outreach to the unaffiliated 15 years ago.
But the movement’s Outreach Commission has focused instead on involving and integrating into Jewish life the non-Jewish partners in intermarried families that belong to the Reform denomination’s 850 congregations.
The founding chairman of the Outreach Commission, David Belin, will lead the effort to raise $5 million.
Schindler suggested that money he wants to raise to further the Reform movement’s missionary program might be spent on advertising synagogue programs that teach non-Jewish spouses about Judaism.
Renni Altman, director of programs for the unaffiliated at the UAHC, said in an interview that the money would have to be spent through “the individual synagogues which could reach the unchurched population.”
“It means creating more welcoming congregations which potential converts see as exciting and spiritual places, not that we’re going to stand on street corners” preaching, she said.