“More Jews” and “More Jewish” are not mutually exclusive.
Recently my colleagues Brad Artson and Adam Greenwald wrote about the need for communal investing in conversion preparation programs. The responses to their suggestion have been predictable. Many have lauded their efforts. Some have damned them with faint praise, suggesting that our efforts would be better directed to investing in getting current Jews to be more Jewishly engaged with the traditional observance. What no-one yet has said is that this debate of “in-reach vs. outreach” goes back to the 1990 Jewish Population study if not earlier. Even then there were conversations whether communal resources were better utilized in making “more people Jews” vs. “Jewish people more Jewish.” If the recent Pew Report really tells us anything, it is that the trends identified in that 1990 study have continued to develop along the trajectories identified 30 years ago. This debate is not new. The only “new” thing is the most recent numbers indicating who is opting into and out of organized Jewish life.
Most contemporary Jews have no idea that until the rise of Christianity, Judaism actively engaged in seeking converts. Sometimes these efforts were born out of military conquests. The Hasmoneans forcibly converted entire communities they conquered in the Galilee. Sometimes this policy yielded horrible results. King Herod was the product of one such conversion; his father converted after the Judean conquest of Idumea (ancient Edom). While Herod was renowned for his great building enterprises including rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem and the new port city of Ceasarea, he was reviled for his murderous and decadent lifestyle. A much more positive example from the 1st century was Queen Helen of Adiabene. Her conversion to Judaism reflects how attractive Judaism was for many pagans, especially women, in the ancient world. The Talmud regarded her as especially generous in her philanthropy, and meticulous in her observance of Jewish law. Even beyond the official converts to Judaism, the ancient Jewish world in Asia Minor knew of many pagan “God Fearers” who found a spiritual home in the synagogues of Tarsus and other places, and a formal place within the Jewish community. Some inscriptions suggest that these pagans actively contributed to Jewish communal funds and that their donations were welcomed and appreciated!
In our own times, we see these same dynamics at work in the Jewish community. Sometimes people are forced into converting to Judaism. Usually they do so to appease an insistent parent of their fiancé. Time and again this coercion has wrought pain and anger from those who were subjected to harangue. These poor souls find no solace in Judaism, neither spiritually nor communally. There is reluctance to engage in the performance of fundamental Jewish practices such as brit milah and resistance to participating in congregational life. When these marriages end in divorce, the ex-partner frequently reclaims a non-Jewish religious identity, adding further difficulties and challenges in the religious identities of their children.
Sometimes, people have been searching for a theology or spiritual community and found it in Judaism. These are people who are inspired by Judaism’s timeless values: the insistence on a universal, non-trinitarian God, the absolute affirmation of human dignity, the role of family and community as vehicles for personal fulfillment. These men and women embrace and often elevate the Jewish identity of their households. They are far more likely to appreciate regular synagogue attendance than many “Jews by birth”, are often active in community organizations, and are the forefront in promoting their children’s commitment to Jewish education and participation in Jewish life.
There is also a contemporary version of the ancient God-fearers. These are people who connect with Judaism on deep levels, but for compelling reasons cannot commit formally to becoming Jewish. They might harbor deep theological doubts, and will not commit to Judaism in the face of those doubts. Often they are reluctant to convert because they have parents who would suffer terribly from a perceived rejection. Yet their love of Judaism leads them to support Jewish causes, and if married, to dedicate themselves to the Jewish identity of their home including observance of Shabbat, kashrut, and the Jewish education and involvement of their children. In many cases, their family rabbis would not know these Ohavei Yisrael weren’t Jewish by dint of their involvement and participation.
Rabbis Artson and Greenwald’s articles are spot-on: in the open market place of idea that is the mark of our age, Judaism has much to offer the serious spiritual seeker. At the same time, these passionate and dedicated potential new Jews have much to offer Judaism as well. The call to investing in Jewish conversion programs is an important call, and indeed many communities offer programs that are in part funded through Federation support. Yet, I feel that their plea does not go far enough, and propose a game changer.
The first part of the proposition is to identify all the rabbis and cantors who are interested and available to serve as the spiritual guides and sponsors of those considering Judaism. Only Jewish clergy with recognizable credentials would be included; the listing would indicate the national and local affiliations of the participants.
The second part of the proposition is to promote this opportunity actively through television and social media advertising. Imagine a 30-second Super Bowl or Emmy Awards commercial along the following lines: The phrase “Jew Curious?” appears on the screen, and is followed by vibrant scenes of Jewish life with Jews of all types, stripes, shapes, and colors or perhaps it shows a montage of famous, recognizable Jewish figures from history and contemporary society. The end of the spot features a toll free number or a web URL, 1-8XX-2BeAJew linking to the database listing.
Ultimately, I see the need for both “more Jews” and “more Jewish.” One does not preclude the other; if anything, they are complimentary approaches for the same result: the ongoing, vital contribution of Jewish values to our larger world.