One Solution: A Pluralistic Outreach-Inreach Program

The author proposes that only an active program that combines inreach to "faithless" Jews and outreach to unchurched spiritual seekers can revitalize the Jewish community.

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In the first part of this perspective, Schulweis describes Jeff and Kathy, a prototypical and representative couple who have come to his office to request a token conversion for Kathy to Judaism. Whereas Judaism has some appeal for Kathy, for Jeff it is an emotional relic that embarrasses him and belongs to his parents. Both are products of a secular culture in which faith plays little part. To respond to this problem, Schulweis develops a pluralistic outreach-inreach program that he describes below--outreach to non-Jews and inreach to Jews. Reprinted with permission from the Summer, 1999, issue of Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life & Thought, published by the American Jewish Congress.

About two years ago, after many such mis-encounters with Jeffs and Kathys, I decided to organize and implement a keruv [literally, bringing closer, but more broadly, outreach] program that would be different in a number of ways. With the enthusiastic cooperation of Rabbis Edward and Nina Feinstein, we created a pluralistic outreach-inreach program with some distinctive features.

I sought a faculty that would be drawn from rabbis in the community, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, who would teach subject matters ranging from rites of passage to theology from their distinctive ideological points of view. The idea was predicated on the belief that God did not create denominations and that Judaism is not a seamless univocal tradition.

At the end of some 17 sessions of lectures and meetings those unchurched seekers who sought to become Jews had the chance to choose their own rabbis, their own batei din [rabbinical courts] so that they would choose to live Jewishly in a manner compatible with their own beliefs and convictions.

Following a few announcements in the Jewish press and in the LA Times we found people of all backgrounds and faiths, lapsed Christians and lapsed Jews, flocking to our lectures. Each session was filled with between 400 and 500 Jews and non-Jews.

Is It Jewish?

There were whispered criticisms. Is it Jewish? Does Judaism encourage conversion? Can a non-Jew become a Jew? Who are "they" to "us" and in caring for them do we neglect guarding our own vineyard?

We had occasion during the lectures to point out to the audience of seekers what many had forgotten, had not known, or never considered. Who are we Jews and where did we come from? Had we forgotten that the first Jew-by-choice was the founder of Judaism, that Abraham was mandated by God to "get thee out of thy country and from thy kindred and from thy father's house unto the land I will show you...and I will bless thee and make thy name great. Be thou a blessing and I will bless them that bless you and curse them that curse you and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed" (Genesis 12:2-3). Judaism's birth was through conversion. Who else was there for Abraham and Sarah to make into a people except the pagan non-Jewish population around them?

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Rabbi Harold Schulweis

Harold Schulweis is the senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. He is the founder of Jewish Foundation for Rescuers and the author of For Those Who Can't Believe.