Try It, You'll Like It: Should Jews Proselytize?

Liberal Jews who support outreach claim that active proselytism was the Jewish tradition until the Roman Empire outlawed conversion to Judaism under penalty of death.

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"I welcome the idea of freshening up the gene pool," says San Francisco sociologist Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research and author of Opening the Gates-How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community. "We're doing a great mitzvah if we help make more Jews."

 What does "making more Jews" mean? Not just welcoming new converts once they convert, which virtually all Jewish leaders say they advocate, or being more open to inquiries from potential converts-here the Orthodox are more circumspect than the other denominations-but actually encouraging non-Jews to consider choosing Judaism.

 Tobin calls it "proactive conversion," the notion that Jews should stop playing hard-to-get and start issuing open invitations to spiritual seekers from outside the faith. Jews don't need to go door-to-door or hold mass stadium rallies, he says, just open their eyes and realize there's a growing number of non-Jews out there in America who are attracted to Judaism and who would, if given half a chance, make fine additions to the Jewish family.

"In America today," Tobin notes, "people change religions all the time. Two out of every five Americans switch religions at least once."

Proactive conversion isn't a "magic bullet" for what ails the Jewish community, Tobin cautions. Education is key, for born Jews and for converts, so that every Jew is actively choosing Judaism.

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Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is a special correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, based in Northern California and covers American Jewish issues, with a special focus on Jewish identity and affiliation. She was previously the associate editor of a weekly newspaper in Monterey, California and a regular contributor to the Jerusalem Post, Moment magazine, and other Jewish publications.