Focus on Issues: Proposal to Reach out to Converts Revives Decades-old Jewish Debate
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Focus on Issues: Proposal to Reach out to Converts Revives Decades-old Jewish Debate

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Gary Tobin wants American Jews to put out the welcome mat to would-be converts.

Reviving a decades-old debate over how to build a vibrant and populous Jewish community, the prominent demographer and frequent consultant to major Jewish organizations is proposing the creation of a conversion initiative aimed at, but not limited to, the non-Jewish spouses and children of mixed marriages and people with some Jewish heritage.

According to the proposal laid out in Tobin’s new book, “Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community,” the effort to bring in millions of new Jews from all religious and ethnic backgrounds would force the Jewish community as a whole to examine, expand and fortify “all elements of the culture,” from education to ritual practice.

Proactive conversion is “not a magic bullet to save Judaism,” but part of an overall strategy to strengthen the Jewish community, Tobin said at a conference he convened last week in New York to introduce his idea.

“If Judaism institutionally, communally, ideologically is strong and powerful, others will choose to join. The question is, Are we prepared to let them?”

For decades American Jews have been wrestling with this very question, with strong advocates on both sides of the debate. While some propose reaching out to unaffiliated Jews and to non-Jews, others, while not against such efforts, think the focus — and resources — should be “inreach” to already committed Jews.

With a declining Jewish population and an intermarriage rate of somewhere near 50 percent, the question has become particularly urgent.

“Since 1945, the American population has doubled, but the Jewish population in the United States has remained the same” — at about 5.5 million — said Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, the director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, which promotes national Jewish education and communal celebrations.

Due to a low Jewish birthrate and assimilation, “in just two generations, two out of every three Jews will disappear,” Buchwald warned at the conference.

“Our children are drowning,” he said, comparing the Jewish community to a sinking ship.

But he balked at the suggestion that “we throw a life preserver to the gentiles.”

Given these circumstances, he said, “it is immoral to expend Jewish resources trying to convince a gentile to put on a kipah,” or yarmulka.

John Ruskay, chief operating officer of UJA-Federation of New York, also advocated fortifying Judaism from within.

Communal resources should be funneled to strengthening the Jewish infrastructure, enriching formal and informal education for Jewish youth, engaging “the best and the brightest” as Jewish professionals and transforming “collective spaces” — synagogues, community centers and summer camps — into compelling and inspiring communities, he said.

“If we have such places, Jews will be there and others will be there,” he told the group of about 80 Jewish religious and communal leaders, philanthropists and social scientists gathered in Manhattan at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

Tobin’s multibillion-dollar plan includes the creation of a National Center for Jewish Inclusion to develop new ways to train rabbis and lay people for outreach to would-be Jews.

But cost, Tobin said, should not pose an obstacle for the Jewish community, which “is sitting on top of tens of billion of dollars.”

“The problem is connecting the money with the vision of community that excites and motivates us.”

Tobin, who runs the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research, was able to convey his own enthusiasm to several funders who sponsored the May 18 conference, including Michael Steinhardt, a major Jewish philanthropist.

In promoting outreach and conversion, Tobin believes that the “real way for Jews to ultimately integrate into society” is for the community to be “composed of black, Asian and Hispanic Jews.

Apparently sharing that view, filmmaker Steven Spielberg is funding a study of Asian, Hispanic and black Jews.

The spiritual leader of an African-American Jewish congregation in Chicago said he hoped such discussions would encourage Jews to consider that “every face, even a non-Jewish looking person can still be a Jew.

“We have three generations of Jews in my congregation,” Capers Funnye Jr. said at the conference, speaking of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation.

Although Tobin is not promoting proselytization, the concept is not new to Judaism.

Jewish missionary work was effectively banned by severe penalties leveled by the Holy Roman Empire, and fear of Christian backlash still affects Jews’ attitudes toward conversion, Tobin and others say.

In the 20th century, some rabbis and other communal leaders returned to the idea as a way to recover from the devastating losses of the Holocaust and to counter Jewish attrition in America’s open society.

Perhaps the most notable proponent of outreach is Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president emeritus of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, who in 1978 suggested that Jews actively seek the conversion of non-Jewish spouses in mixed marriages.

“There I found few objections,” Schindler said in a telephone interview last week. But his call for similar outreach to unchurched gentiles “was received essentially with derision.”

Schindler said he “couldn’t be more delighted that someone else is taking up the cudgels” for an idea that he first proposed 20 years ago.

Eventually, the Reform movement developed a full-fledged outreach program, and there are signs that the idea is gaining broader acceptance.

Valley Beth Shalom, a large Conservative synagogue in Encino, Calif., runs an outreach program led by rabbis from all Jewish denominations.

The weekly discussions attract regular audiences of 400 “unsynagogued Jews” and “unchurched Christians,” Rabbi Harold Schulweis said by telephone from his study.

Jews have been so focused on intermarriage, he said, “that we failed to deal” with the many non-Jews “who are honestly interested in Judaism.”

The community has “missed the boat terribly by a general misconception that Judaism is opposed to accepting these people,” said Schulweis, who characterized the typical reaction to such seekers as “condescension almost flirting on racism.”

Tobin agreed, saying at the conference that an overwhelming fear of intermarriage “spills over” into the discussion of conversion.

“If we can keep the stranger out, then we can keep our sons and daughters in. If the walls are permeable, then our sons and daughters can leave.” he said.

At the New York conference, Rabbi Rachel Cowan described her own feelings of rejection when she decided to convert to Judaism.

“We need a language of welcome,” she said.

Cowan and Dru Greenwood, the director of the Commission on Reform Outreach of the UAHC-Central Conference of American Rabbis, grew up together as Rachel Brown and Dru Crigler in the exclusive community of Wellesley, Mass.

“They say a successful Jew is someone who has Jewish grandchildren,” Cowan said.

Pointing to Greenwood, who also converted to Judaism, Cowan said, “Well, Mrs. Crigler and Mrs. Brown have Jewish grandchildren.”

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