NEW YORK, April 27 (JTA) — The great rabbis Hillel and Shammai, it is said, considered a question familiar to Jews today: whether would-be converts to Judaism should be welcomed or discouraged by the Jewish community. For the next 1,978 years, the general reaction among Jews followed the example of Shammai — would-be converts were discouraged in a test of their sincerity — or the question was pushed aside. Then, in 1978, the Reform movement took a firm step in line with Hillel. In a groundbreaking speech, the president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations launched an organized, movement-wide program of aggressive outreach to converts and the partners of mixed marriages. “We must remove the ‘not wanted’ signs from our hearts,” Rabbi Alexander Schindler said to a national board meeting of the UAHC in Houston. “We are opposed to intermarriage, but we cannot reject the intermarried.” Welcoming “the stranger” would remove the stigma associated with conversion, Schindler said. An attitude of openness would increase the potential for non-Jewish partners to convert or to commit to raising their children as Jews. Twenty years later, the precise demographic effect of the Reform Jewish outreach is not clear. The movement’s leaders say that it has brought tens of thousands of new congregants to its synagogues. Critics say that contrary to its goals, outreach has legitimized or even encouraged intermarriage. What is clear is that Schindler’s proposal brought into the open a discussion that had been simmering under the surface of American Jewish life for years. Last week, the Reform movement celebrated two decades of “keruv” Hebrew for “bringing closer” — with an anniversary symposium titled “Expanding the Covenant: Fulfilling the Mitzvah of Keruv.” The three-day gathering was the first-ever national meeting of members of both the movement’s Jewish outreach and synagogue affiliation committees. Speaking April 18 to about two-thirds of the 150 expected delegates, the UAHC’s current president said that more needed to be accomplished in terms of drawing in unaffiliated Jews and the non-Jewish spouses and children of mixed marriages. Still, Rabbi Eric Yoffie called the movement’s outreach work “nothing less than a triumph.” “The easiest way to measure the extent of our impact is to ask, ‘What would have happened if that speech in Houston had not been given?’ ” he said. “We all know the answer.” In the absence of outreach, he said, vast numbers of intermarried couples “would be forever lost to the Jewish people”; “innumerable Jews who marry non-Jews would be denied all but the slimmest hope of a Jewish future”; and there would be fewer Jews by choice. “I see our work with the intermarried as our most distinctive achievement,” Yoffie said, standing at the pulpit of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “We have been especially aggressive in our efforts to make the intermarried feel at home in our congregations, and we alone in the Jewish world have developed a strategy to envelop them in a network of Jewish learning and support.” In the years following Schindler’s speech, the UAHC joined with the movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis to create an outreach commission. Lydia Kukoff, the commission’s first director, said the biggest initial challenge was “to bring people beyond the point of denial” about the reality of intermarriage. According to a 1990 survey of the American Jewish population, more than half of all marrying Jews were choosing non-Jewish partners. Revised estimates put that number closer to 40 percent, but few Jews have not been affected by the phenomenon. Still, Kukoff said in an interview at the symposium’s end, “Elevating the level of discourse was no small feat.” An outreach department developed a range of programs to sensitize American Jews to the issues surrounding intermarriage and conversion and to introduce unaffiliated and would-be Jews to Jewish religious life. In 1994, the UAHC launched a “Taste of Judaism” program in which 17,000 students have enrolled, according to Dru Greenwood, the current director of outreach and synagogue affiliation. Greenwood could not say how many new congregants or eventual converts the class and other programs have brought in, but delegates at the symposium attested to the effect the movement’s outreach has had in their local congregations. During the past 20 years, outreach has quadrupled the membership at Jenny Broh’s synagogue in Cincinnati. Creating an atmosphere where feelings of intermarried couples and their families can be shared and addressed, she said, has been a “phenomenal process.” “When we make these couples feel welcome” and show interest in their children, she said, “when we say, ‘We want you there,’ they’re going to join.” But the outreach effort has attracted a great deal of criticism as well, most of it asserting that outreach does not adequately discourage mixed marriages. Steven Bayme, the American Jewish Committee’s director of Jewish communal affairs, commends the Reform movement for “restoring the issue of conversion to the Jewish communal agenda.” But, he said in a recent telephone interview, the more open environment has created a “cultural transformation” that makes discouraging mixed marriage “politically incorrect.” “I would argue that the Jewish community has never been neutral toward intermarriage,” he said. He cited an actual decrease in conversion rates during the past two decades. Moreover, he said, studies show that most intermarried couples are not interested in Jewish life, leading him to question whether outreach represented a “misplaced set of priorities in terms of Jewish communal resources.” Yoffie addressed this concern in his remarks last week. He urged outreach volunteers and professionals boldly, but sensitively, to encourage conversion— an area, he admitted, in which outreach has met with “partial failure.” But Yoffie and others at the conference proudly pointed out a significant by-product of outreach: that keruv efforts also bring in born Jews who had lost their Jewish connection. “We have many years of work to do before we can declare victory for our principles of inclusion,” Yoffie said. “At the same time, the fact that outreach and inreach efforts so frequently converge should serve to strengthen our claim on community resources and attention.”
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