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?

Had we forgotten what we recite in the Passover Haggadah, our reminder that "in the beginning our fathers were idolaters," heathens and slaves, and that on Passover we celebrate not the birth but the becoming of the Jewish people?

Did we forget that every single day throughout the year, three times a day, we pray the 13th benediction of the Amidah, which singles out righteous proselytes" (gayray tzedek) as a blessing for us, and for God?

Had we forgotten that on the festival of Shavuot, which celebrates the revelation of the law, the rabbis selected not the book of Ezra but the book of Ruth to be read to the congregation. Did we remember that Ruth was a Moabite woman and that in the Torah the Moabite was prohibited to be married to a Jew and according to Deuteronomy, a Moabite was not to enter the congregation even to the 10th generation? And yet it is Ruth, the exemplary Jew-by-choice, who is celebrated as the great-grandmother of King David from whom the messiah is to spring.

It is important that the community be reminded that the rabbis in the Talmudic era proudly claimed Bitya, the daughter of Pharaoh, and Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses, Zipporah, the wife of Moses, and Shifra and Puah, the Egyptian midwives who refused to obey the edict of Pharaoh to murder Jewish males and saved Jewish lives, as Jews-by-choice. With pride the Talmud informs us that Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shemiah, and Abtalion were all descendants of proselytes.

"Them" and "Us"

But there were many voices from high sources in Jewish life who criticized our efforts and said that we should be spending more energy on "us" rather than on "them." But surely when "they" become "us," they are no longer "they." Moreover, what in fact did the Keruv Program do for "us," for the congregational mentors themselves? The numbers of synagogue mentors who came from our synagogue and attended all the lectures did so in a dedicated manner different from their attendance at other adult education courses. The mentors were enlivened by the Keruv Program because they felt possession of a significant cause. They were learning in order to teach.

Debunking the Myths

The bias against outreach searches for its own myths. "Judaism doesn't believe in conversion." Yet, the great Jewish historian Salo Baron has pointed out that 2,000 years ago Jews were 10 percent of the Roman Empire because they were extremely successful in converting pagans to Judaism. So successful were they that the emperors Domitian and Hadrian made proselytism to Judaism a capital crime. It was not Judaism that prohibited the proselytization of non-Jews, but Hadrian's laws forbidding Jews to circumcise non-Jews that proscribed proselytism. Not Judaism but Roman Christianity prohibited conversion.

Still other myths discourage pro-active proselytism. Secular Jews use other arguments to oppose an open door to Jews-by-choice. "Not faith but culture and ethnicity present barriers to conversion." But what cultural aspects of Jewish life do they who neither read Yiddish nor Hebrew have in mind that is beyond the reach of Jews-by-choice? The secularists refer to culinary matters, the joys of lox and bagels, of knishes and kugel, and a smidgen of Yinglish and Hebronics. But I know their children. They exhibit no proclivity toward gefilte fish or lox and bagels. Maimonides himself ate neither cholent [a Sabbath stew cooked overnight] nor tzimis [prune, carrot, and potato stew], nor understood "mame-loshen" [literally, native language, meaning Yiddish]. Did that bar him and his descendants from Jewish identity and loyalty? Neither ethnic culture or identity is innate. They can and are cultivated through the programs of keruv.

Speaking of Maimonides I turn to the magnificent answer he offered Obadiab, a convert to Judaism who asked Maimonides whether he, a Jew-by-choice, could recite the prayer "Our God and God of our fathers." Someone had told Obadiah that because his ancestors were not Jews he dare not recite that prayer. In Maimonides' response he writes, "By all means you should pray 'Our God and God of our fathers' for in no respect is there a difference between us and you. Do not think little of your origin. If we trace our descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, your descent is from Him by whose word the world was created."

Thinking back to my conversation with Kathy, I realized that these non-Jews who came to the lectures had not come to my office brought by a Jewish partner seeking my ceremonial imprimatur. Most of the non-Jews during these two years were not interested in matrimony. They were spiritual seekers; that realization enabled me to address them differently. Importantly, I never thought of them as making up for our terrible Holocaust losses or as surrogates for our lagging demographic statistics. I never spoke to them about their conversion for the sake of appeasing Jeff's parents. They are not to be used as means for our ends.

Either/Or

The Kathys in our midst have to contend with Jeffs who wonder why she spends so much time and energy on him, why in the world she would choose to be Jewish? In that incredulity lies one of the primary sources of our dissolution--the vacuity of Jeff's Jewishness. In truth, Jeff is unaware of the superordinate system of values and wisdom and spiritual depth in Judaism, not only wonders what it is that possesses Kathy to become Jewish, he wonders what possesses his parents to insist on a Jewish wedding. Both Kathy and Jeff must be encouraged to become Jews-by-choice. The outreach program is as much for the native born as it is for the searching stranger.

Either educate "them" or "us" is a perverse disjunction. If Judaism is understood as a faith and culture that has something of supreme value to offer the world, then outreach is very much part and parcel of Jewish teleology. Not either/or but both/and. The reluctance to share our wisdom with the spiritual seekers is less a sign of particularistic fidelity than a trivialization of Judaism. If we have nothing to say to the other who seeks, we have nothing to say to ourselves or our own. The seekers ask us hard questions. "Tell us why Judaism is so important? Tell us how it can enrich our lives and the life of the universe?" As much as they would know "how" and "when," they ask "What for?" That root question we must answer not only for them but for ourselves and our children, for all who choose to be Jews.

The Talmud observes that the precept to understand and to love the stranger in our midst, which the rabbinic tradition takes to mean the proselyte, appears 36 times in the Torah. The stranger in our midst is our self, our very selves. Proactive conversion must be placed high on the Jewish agenda of the next century. In the words of Gary Tobin, "Proactive conversion can revitalize the Jewish community."

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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.