No matter how you look at the demographic studies, one thing is clear, the number of Jewish people is not increasing as we continue to lose Jews and potential Jews every day through intermarriage, assimilation, and alienation. Birthrates are also being influenced by economic forces; as the population becomes more affluent, Jews have fewer children. Even the Orthodox, who are largely seen as the sole engine for population growth, are feeling constrained by the rising cost of a Jewish education. Tuition costs are serving as a natural contraceptive in our community.
These trends cannot continue if the Jewish people are to survive and thrive.
Today, the world’s 15 million Jews are an infinitesimal percentage of the global population of more than 3 billion. If Judaism is to survive, we must, at a minimum, double our numbers, and the only way to do that is to have more children and to reverse our policy of not welcoming and seeking Halakhic (Jewish law) converts to Judaism.
Though it is commonly associated with Christianity, Jews did engage in proselytizing. Sue Fishkoff noted in “Try it You’ll like it!” Should Jews Proselytize?” that “Judaism has a long history of not only welcoming, but encouraging gentiles to become Jewish. From the day Abraham picked up a flint and performed his own circumcision, thus becoming Judaism’s first convert, ancient Israelites openly spread their teachings among the nations they encountered.” Fishkoff says Jewish proselytizing was so successful, it’s estimated that by the first century C.E. fully 10 percent of the Roman Empire was Jewish, close to 8 million people.” Jews stopped proselytizing, she said “because of pressure from Christian and then Muslim rulers, beginning in 407 C.E. when the Roman Empire outlawed conversion to Judaism under penalty of death.”
Unlike this earlier time, I am not talking about proselytizing to people who are devoted to a particular faith. We Jews do not believe that non-Jews who are in a relationship with God are upgrading their existence by becoming Jewish. But there are countless millions of people who live outside a faith framework. They want a spiritual life and I see no reason not to offer them Judaism.
Of course, my main target audience are people who are born Jews but don’t know it or do not identify as Jews. We must educate them in their faith. But I believe Judaism also has a great deal to offer people with no religion, those who find that religion does not speak to them.
The three great personal challenges of our time are these: an inability to stay married or sustain a loving, passionate, and intimate relationship. An inability to raise inspired children. And inability to be happy.
Judaism is uniquely attuned to catering to these needs because our faith is focused on the richness of everyday life; unlike other religions that seek empires or worry more about the world to come than the one we live in today. Unlike every other religion in the world, we Jews don’t claim a copyright on truth. We don’t believe that by becoming a Jew you come closer to God than you would as a Christian or Muslim. We respect the Godly qualities of other faiths that lead to a righteous life. But we also believe that Jewish light can illuminate the earth.
Part of that entails spreading the light of Jewish values. But part of it also entails having more Jewish converts.
We also need a critical mass of people who love and support Israel. The current Jewish population is simply too small. How can Diaspora Jewry pressure and influence their respective governments to support the Jewish state when the Jewish population in most countries outside the US is paltry? Will governments choose to side with 14 million Jews over half a billion Arabs?
In the United States, we have for too long relied on the super patriotism of Jews and their disproportional involvement in electoral politics. Here, too, however, the numbers are shrinking as a percentage of the American population. As the percentage of other minorities increases, the proportion of Jews decline. Today, Jews are barely 2 percent of the population; how long can we count on elected officials to take our concerns into consideration? How will we convince future elected bodies comprised of Hispanics and Asians and other ethnic groups that have no history of engagement with the Jewish community or Israel?
As we watch terrorism spreading in Europe and contemplate what that continent will look like as Christianity continues to subside, the answer just might be teaching Judaism to non-Jews.
It is often said that it is hard to be a Jew, and it is true that being a Jew comes with certain obligations to oneself, to our fellow human and to the one God. Jews also carry the heavy burden of history and, even today, remain targets of individual anti-Semites, religious zealots and countries such as Iran that seek our destruction. Still, during this period of violence, unhappiness and political division, the world needs the Jewish ideals of peace and harmony.
I believe that it is time for Jews to reach out and share the beauty, the morality and the spirituality of Judaism with those who are seeking answers to the difficult questions of modern life and want to find secrets for staying married, inspiring our children, and finding contentment and happiness. For those seeking to become Jewish, it is critical that converts go through an Orthodox conversion with a respected Orthodox Beth Din.
Central to an Orthodox conversion is the requirement to observe the Sabbath and Jewish holidays and refrain from their desecration. What better antidote is there than the Sabbath to today’s high stress, workaholic workweek than a day of rest for contemplation and time to devote to the family. My colleague Mitchell Bard suggested that Shabbat is a way to turn high-strung East coasters who spend all weekend talking about what they do during the week into laid back Californians who spend all week talking about what they did during the weekend.
Also vital is kosher food consumption and a kosher home as well as observing the laws of family purity, which heightens erotic desire and injects an element of erotic sinfulness into a relationship.
Judaism can be a light unto the nations. Why not give more people an opportunity to not only bask in that light but to join us in projecting it to the world? As the future of the Jewish people continues to grow more precarious, it is a moral imperative that we do everything we can to strengthen our community spiritually, politically and demographically. The time to spread the virtues of Judaism is now.
“America’s Rabbi,” Shmuley Boteach, whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America” is Executive Director of The World Values Network, which promotes universal values in politics and culture, and is the international best-selling author of 30 books, including his forthcoming, “The Israel Warriors Handbook.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.