A national information and advocacy organization is needed to welcome potential converts to the Jewish faith and improve their lives once they become Jewish. Such an organization can be a new one or a program or initiative of an existing organization.
Of course, any efforts to welcome newcomers to Judaism should not be intrusive or coercive. Such efforts should not, for example, include invading people’s privacy by stopping them in public places or arguing that their current faith is harmful in any way.
There are many people who might be interested in joining the Jewish people on its historic spiritual journey. They include people with a Jewish family member or ancestor, people engaged or married to someone Jewish, and people not attached to another religion who are on a spiritual search. Judaism should not be in some competition with other faiths but rather with confusion and anxiety, with a sense of being lost and a sense of not belonging. We should offer calming guidance and help to those considering becoming Jewish.
An organization that welcomes converts and advocates on their behalf should have several specific purposes. Here is a list of a few of such an organization’s potential tasks:
1. Develop a regular and social media program to promote conversion. The program should include efforts on Facebook, Twitter, a YouTube video, podcasts, articles on major sites, newspaper and magazine articles, documentary films, and so on.
2. Create a website listing rabbis willing to teach conversion candidates as well as conversion programs with information on such subjects as costs, schedules, requirements, and so on. Encourage retired rabbis to be part of this listing. Work with rabbis on the site to develop programs for individual congregations.
3. Establish and staff an 800 number to provide information and guidance about conversion including finding a rabbi or class.
4. Develop pamphlets with information about conversion and place them in public areas such as libraries. It is also possible that an organization at some point could consider creating Reading Rooms where a wide variety of books, pamphlets, DVDs, audiotapes, and so on would be available.
5. Establish a network of people interested in promoting conversion. They could write articles and letters to the editor in Jewish media, establish programs in synagogues, mentor converts, assist rabbis who are teaching converts, fundraise, and so on.
6. Create a Conversion Celebration in Jewish life. The best date for this is probably Shavuot when the Book of Ruth is read.
7. Provide subsidies for students enrolled in conversion classes. Some rabbis and teachers do not charge those who are converting to Judaism, but others do. And there are expenses associated with converting beyond paying for classes, such as other costs in the conversion process, and purchasing Jewish ritual items. The new organization can help students enrolled in such classes with these expenses.
8. Provide subsidies for the classes themselves. These subsidies might be used to initiate new classes or help defray the costs of the class instructor or rabbi or the cost of any course materials.
9. Serve as a national advocacy group for those converting to Judaism and those who have converted. In Israel, where many converts are struggling for their legal rights, there is the organization ITIM—Resources and Advocacy for Jewish Life, which, among its varied activities, helps converts navigate through the complexities of the Israeli religious and legal systems. A companion organization is needed in the United States to provide advocacy for converts in Jewish organizations and the Jewish and secular media. There remains some resistance among born Jews to the idea of welcoming converts and, to understate the matter, considerable friction among the various Jewish groups about converts from other groups.
10. Provide funds for promoting and advertising conversion classes. This has been done since 1995 by the National Center to Encourage Judaism. Among its various worthwhile activities, the Center supports ads in the secular (that is non-Jewish) media for courses open to Gentiles to learn about Judaism. Currently, grants are a maximum of $1,200 for up to half the cost of the ad. The Center provides a model for an organization to provide additional grants. A new organization can supplement these grants and provide new ones.
11. Make a mentoring program available. It’s important to work with synagogues and religious organizations to provide mentors to potential converts. There needs to be someone to ask questions privately, to seek guidance in dealing with the problems that can emerge during such a life-altering experience as conversion. An organization can help create a national data bank of those willing to serve as mentors and provide them guidance.
12. Offer supplementary help in training those who teach conversion classes. For example, the National Center to Encourage Judaism has established the Gerecht Family Institute of Outreach at Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement seminary. HUC holds Outreach weekends for third-year students.
This new organization is needed by potential and actual converts who too often feel alone as they make brave steps to their new lives. The organization is also needed by the Jewish community. Beyond the practical result of increasing the Jewish population, welcoming converts has deep roots in Jewish religious texts and practices and coheres with activities in Jewish history.
It is time to start such an organization.