What if Judaism were a religion that preached to the masses, sought converts and tried to span the known world? That was a hypothetical question Jonathan Benthall asked on the panel “Tomorrow’s Religion: Part of the Solution or Part of the Problem” at last week’s Presidential Conference.
Indeed, the world would have been very different. But maybe seeking out converts should be Judaism’s strategy. Speaking strictly about North American Orthodoxy, that’s already the policy de facto. Kids from outreach programs target assimilated families, including many with only one Jewish parent; half of whom have a non-Jews mother — like me. On campus, I knew half a dozen other people studying to convert, some whose processes were nearly derailed by procedure and by no fault of their own. Orthodoxy’s outreach designs should consider these conversions’ eventuality and accommodate demand.
Outreach efforts are pervasive but vary in success. They look for non-religious Jews but deal with people who would need to convert. They aren’t the objective, but make up a large portion of outreach “success stories.” Orthodoxy hasn’t adjusted itself to that, which leads to two issues: First, programs minimize their effectiveness trying to narrow their outreach to matrilineal Jews. In an assimilated society, that targeting is impossible. To reach more people, it needs to be willing to cast a wider net. That brings up, secondly, the fact that the community lacks enough religious courts for conversion in the US and Canada. The Rabbinical Council of America has downsized the number of courts that can manage conversions to 15. Estimates are they only accommodate 150 conversions a year. By limiting the number of new members the community can take in, we limit the potential success of outreach.
Tackling assimilation is a tall task, so it’s absurd to think we can extract some unified Jewish community from the highly integrated population of North America. It necessitates a wider-ranging tactic, wherein outreach engages people across all of Western society in religious dialogue — not just Jews, or in discussions only relevant to the internal dynamics of Judaism. Most importantly, this will contribute fresh perspectives on religion to a stale public discourse dominated by extremely conservative Christianity and increasingly cynical secularism. That sweeping strategy will reach more people of Jewish heritage than today’s expensive and narrow-targeting outreach programs. With the internet, it’s probably cheaper, too.
The number of courts and people they convert hardly reflect the demand from such a large number of mixed-heritage people in the United States. (Considering the Jewish People Policy Institute thinks as many 12 million Americans are eligible for aliya, there’s got to be about seven million mixed-heritage Jews living in the US.) It creates an implicit limit to the amount of new members. Maybe this considers some might not finish the process. However, if we think the majority who start will never finish, we presume these programs cannot instill the passion or discipline they’re actually intended to impart. We adversely affect their capacity to succeed. We won’t allot the resources outreach campaigns need because we don’t expect them to be too successful.
The success of outreach is interwoven with the converts the community gains, no matter how strict rabbinical organizations become on the procedure. They reflect the dynamism and relevance of Judaism for people living outside the community context – whether Orthodox or not — creating a ping effect that will inspire individuals’ perception of the religion and its community.