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Leading Conservative Rabbi Steps Up Conversion Efforts

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The query came to Rabbi Harold Schulweis by e- mail.

“I am an 86-year old man and I want to become a Jew,” said the sender. “But I am worried about having to be circumcised.”

Schulweis responded, in part: “Abraham was 90 when he was circumcised, so you have four more years to arrive at a decision.”

Two months ago, Schulweis proposed in a sermon to his Valley Beth Shalom congregation that Jews actively seek converts among interested non-Jews who do not belong to a church.

The Conservative rabbi’s call, widely reported in the Jewish and secular press, triggered a rash of inquiries via the Internet and last week drew 450 people to his temple in Encino, Calif.

They came in response to an advertised “Invitation to Seekers” to attend the first of four talks on “The Uniqueness of Judaism.”

The invitation was addressed to “people of all faiths and backgrounds who are unchurched and seek wisdom, meaning and a community of warmth and welcome.”

There were a fair number of his congregants in the audience and other Schulweis followers, who rarely miss a chance to listen to the eloquent and visionary rabbi.

His remarks reflected his belief that in explaining the meaning of Judaism to outsiders, Jews come to understand and deepen their own faith.

“This is not an academic exercise,” Schulweis told his listeners. “In talking to you, I am talking to myself as well.”

In the same vein, Schulweis spoke equally to those who were born Jewish and those born Christian when he denounced “the pernicious myth that Judaism is inhospitable to non-Jews. Judaism is not a private club of those born to Jewish mothers.”

Jews who look askance at converts display “a shameful bias based on ignorance of Jewish theology,” he said. “The Bible and the Talmud repeatedly exhort us to accept the stranger with love and respect.”

Schulweis frequently emphasized the non-exclusivity of the Jewish “club.”

“Judaism has no monopoly on God,” he said. “You don’t have to be Jewish to be loved by God.”

He added: “Adam was not a Jew, Adam was Everyman.”

In a sense, Schulweis was implicitly responding to Orthodox and some other Conservative rabbis, who have criticized his conversionary outreach. He put his basic motivation in everyday terms.

“When you see a great play or read a great book, you want to tell your friends about it,” he said. “I feel the same excitement about the grandeur of Judaism.”

The hesitation of many would-be converts that they would not be accepted by Jews was confirmed by conversations with a number of non-Jews before and after the rabbi’s talk.

“I always perceived Jews as a closed group,” said Kathy Burns, a law enforcement officer. “I was raised as a Catholic, then became a born-again Christian,” she said. “I have a lot of unresolved questions about religion and I am encouraged that Judaism asks questions.”

Barbara Mack, also raised as a Catholic, agreed that she was always told that Jews did not accept outsiders. “It’s a good feeling to be welcomed,” she said after listening to Schulweis. “Judaism seems to be much more open-minded than I thought.”

Robin Carlson grew up in “a sheltered religion” as a Mormon in a small town without Jews, but developed an interest in other religions. She said she liked Schulweis’ emphasis on individual responsibility but felt he had not “covered a whole lot.” She promised to be back for the remaining talks.

In planning the four-lecture series, Valley Beth Shalom had done its homework. Each attendant was supplied with an extensive reading list on Judaism, as well as a list of some 17 Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis ready to respond to personal questions.

“I am not trying to win converts to Conservative Judaism only,” said Schulweis in a conversation. “If they connect with Chabad, that’s great.”

Pointing to the large number of electronic messages he had received about conversion, Schulweis said he was bemused by the perceptions of some of his Internet interlocutors.

“They frequently ask why the Jews didn’t accept Jesus, and many seem to have the notion that first came Jesus, and then came the Jews and rejected him,” Schulweis said.

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