NEW YORK (JTA) — Right now, there is just one way for someone who is not Jewish to become Jewish in a publicly recognized and officially authorized fashion: undergo religious conversion under the auspices of a rabbi.
Whether the path to Jewish identification follows Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or other auspices, conversion is explicitly and entirely religious in nature. These movements and their rabbis vary both in the preparation they demand and the religious commitments they seek of potential converts. But all require a significant measure of religious education, practice and expressed commitment to a Jewish way of life.
In the United States, interest in becoming Jewish has grown, owing in part to intermarriage, intergroup friendship, and more positive feelings about Jews and Judaism. As a result of Judaism entering the marketplace of ideas, Jewish thought and ideas resonate with many people. And with the melting of hard social boundaries separating Jews from others, many have entered into marriages, friendships and close working relationships with Jews.
Yet, notwithstanding the thousands of non-Jews who maintain familial, friendship and collegial ties to Jews, many with some interest in joining the Jewish people may be disinclined to do so for any of a variety of reasons. In the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011, 7 percent of adults who identified as Jewish reported that neither of their parents were Jewish. Of the 7 percent, 2 percent said they formally converted and 5 percent said they became Jewish by personal choice and not by way of religious conversion. How can we explain the popularity of people assuming a Jewish identity without undergoing religious conversion?
We believe that some prospective converts to Judaism feel that religious conversion demands what for them would be an insincere affirmation of religious faith. Perhaps they are agnostic or atheist or secular, or even committed to another faith tradition. Others may be wary of adopting Judaism as an exclusive religion so as not to offend their parents or other family members, or because conversion requires abandonment of religiously grounded customs and holidays like Christmas.
Even though significant numbers of Jews are secular, atheist or celebrate Christmas as a seasonal holiday, holding such positions and observing such practices present prospective converts with insurmountable barriers to conversion.
As a result, many would-be members of the Jewish people have no possibility of engaging in a course of study and socialization that would lead to public recognition of their having joined the Jewish people, and they have limited access to enriching their familiarity with “lived Judaism” — the actual culture and ethos of Jewish life as lived in families and communities. And we know that most people live out their Judaism more in the informal context of family and friends than in the more formal context of religious institutions.
In theory at least, broader access to Judaism beyond that already offered by rabbis, congregations, and religious movements could result in more non-Jews in Jewish families and friendship circles building Jewish homes.
To provide a viable alternative to religious route to becoming a Jew, we propose a second explicitly cultural pathway to join the Jewish people. This pathway, which we call Jewish Cultural Affirmation, would be clearly distinguished from Jewish religious conversion. Religious conversion would remain a rabbinic prerogative, and Jewish Cultural Affirmation would not assume an anti-religious ethos. Nor are we suggesting that Jewish Cultural Affirmation undermine or obviate the traditional path to conversion.
Rather, by offering an additional vehicle to acquiring a Jewish social identity, Jewish Cultural Affirmation would allow prospective Jews to acquire a measure of familiarity with being Jewish and to undergo a non-religious pathway toward membership in the Jewish people.
Candidates for Jewish Cultural Affirmation would undertake a course of self-guided study and experiences, outlined in a web-based curriculum to be developed by a panel of scholars, communal professionals and others. The curriculum would consist not only of reading, but of experiences of lived Jewishness.
Candidates would be encouraged to sample a variety of areas of Jewish civilization – such as politics, literature, music, comedy, social action, learning, organized community, Israel, chesed, and sacred and secular texts — and to achieve a level of familiarity with and competence in participating in American Jewish life.
Candidates would meet with mentors (in person and virtually), and gather from time to time in small group sessions, perhaps at private homes, restaurants, cafes or other convenient venues that are not explicitly Jewish in association.
For those who may come to desire official recognition, we propose a public ceremony that would need to be designed, and also a certificate of membership in the Jewish people, whose specific substance and formulation would need to be addressed.
Accomplished Jewish cultural experts — professors, writers, artists, educators, communal leaders, and others — would constitute boards that would oversee the program and would attest to the validity of the affirmation.
Jewish Cultural Affirmation would not preclude eventual conversion by rabbis, should they seek more traditional religious recognition of their Jewish status by religious authorities. Indeed, acquiring an identification with the Jewish people is a crucial segment in all approaches to religious conversion, implying that Jewish Cultural Affirmation can be seen by religious authorities as comprising a significant step on the path to religious conversion.
We welcome those who would like to support this endeavor to join us in the conversation so that this proposition might be brought to reality.
Steven M. Cohen is research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is executive director of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute.