The Debate On ‘Proactive Conversion’


Social scientist Gary Tobin acknowledges that some Jewish leaders think his bold idea to help save the future of American Jewry is part of a "lunatic conversation.

"Having said that, the San Francisco-based demographer launches into a carefully reasoned presentation of his multibillion-dollar proposal called "proactive conversion" to make Judaism more attractive to Christians, agnostics, non-Jewish spouses of Jews and children of mixed marriages.

Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, believes this approach will stem the problem of America’s shrinking Jewish population due to intermarriage, assimilation and a low birth rate.

The author of the new book "Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community" believes his plan could triple the number of Jews over the next several decades from the current 5.5 million. And he expected many of the new Jews to come from the black, Hispanic and Asian-American communities.

"I am advocating for a greater ethnic and racial diversity among Jews," Tobin said Tuesday before a group of about 75 Jewish communal leaders, experts on the debate over Jewish continuity, at a daylong conference at the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Battery Park. Tobin stressed that he was not talking about proselytizing gentiles.

"Jews need not knock on doors nor try to force Judaism on anyone," he said.

While experts argued over whether the American Jewish community is in a crisis or renaissance (some say both) because of dwindling numbers, most agreed that Tobin accomplished his primary goal to launch a serious discussion about the efficacy of spending billions to bring non-Jews to Judaism.

"I think he’s right on," said Dru Greenwood, director of the Reform movement’s 20-year-old Jewish outreach program. "We should be grateful to Gary for putting this on the table."

"He’s presenting a sound question to be asked," said outreach veteran Kerry Olitzky.

But several prominent outreach experts said Tobin’s proposal is wrongheaded and a waste of resources on non-Jews when the money would be better spent educating Jewish children and lapsed Jews.

"I say that as long as there is a single Jewish child or adult who needs to be reached, it is immoral (I said immoral) to expend Jewish resources trying to convince a gentile to put on a yarmulke," declared Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, promoter of the national "Turn Friday Night Shabbos" campaign.

"Our children are drowning … [and] Gary Tobin suggests that we throw the life preserver to the gentiles. Have we lost our mind?

Rabbi Buchwald called proactive conversion "another false elixir of quickie, simplistic and sexy solutions that we keep feeding the American Jewish public, to no avail."

He wondered what the sales pitch would be.

"Let us announce: ‘Unchurched ladies and gentleman, our ship is sinking, welcome aboard.’ "

City University demographer Egon Mayer said he was concerned that a Jewish conversion push would have a disruptive effect on the non-Jewish spouses in the 1 million intermarried Jewish families in America. He said these families can live "Jewish" lives without the non-Jewish spouse being made to feel they have to convert.

Making Judaism attractive is especially important in an American society where people increasingly experiment with religion.

"In America, denominational switching is a reality," Tobin said. "This is the first culture in the history of the world where people choose their religion. Our goal and real challenge is not preventing intermarriage but making Judaism as purposeful and meaningful as possible … so that others will choose to join."

That means, he said, a strategy to create a National Center for Jewish Inclusion that would promote conversion throughout the U.S., training rabbis and laypeople to become open advocates for conversion, and formulating a new 12-step conversion process and updated curricula.

He also said new rituals must be created for conversion, for a celebration on the order of a bar mitzvah.

Tobin said billions of dollars will have to be expended over a period of years, but that "the Jewish community has billions in reserve, and this is a compelling application for major investment."

One major stumbling block to his plan, he said: the panic in the American Jewish community over losing members through assimilation and intermarriage, causing an aversion to conversion.

"The fear of intermarriage is so overwhelming, it spills into the way we think about conversion," he said, creating a "circle the wagons" mentality that rejects a welcoming approach to potential converts.

Organized Jewry’s panicked approach to the shrinking community stems from "the overwhelming trauma of the Holocaust. We are fundamentally afraid of annihilation." (Tobin said there would be 32 million Jews in the world instead of 10 million if there had been no Holocaust.)

With philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and a representative of Charles Bronfman listening in the audience, some of the debate hinged on how much communal money is really available for both internal and external outreach, or whether one must be sacrificed.

Lutheran minister James Wind, a religious communal consultant, assured the group that the sea changes in American religious affiliation is affecting religious membership across the spectrum.

He emphasized the need to explain and stress beautiful Jewish rituals like the Sabbath to potential converts. Wind also warned that some Christian groups would be horrified at the prospect of an organized proactive Jewish conversion effort.

"Be mindful, not frightened," he said.

Rabbi Rachel Cowan, who converted to Judaism and is now director of the Jewish Life Program for the Nathan Cummings Foundation, said the proposal points out the essential need for synagogues and Jewish centers to revolutionize the way they interact with newcomers.

She said she was made to feel unwelcome for a long time because she was a convert.

Tobin revealed that Steven Spielberg is funding a study of Asian, black and Hispanic Jews, and discovered a thriving black synagogue on Chicago’s South Side.