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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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.

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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.