Our Manifesto for Conversion

There are minorities and then there are minorities. Fifty-four million Hispanics, forty-one million Blacks and seventeen million Asians are all considered minorities in a melting-pot of three hundred and eighteen million Americans.

Then there are the Jews, all five and a half million and not growing. Jews, like Heinz 57, come in many varieties to include: ethnic, reform, conservative, orthodox and unaffiliated among many other incarnations. Most analysts have concluded that growth in the Jewish community is unlikely. Low birth rates; intermarriage and secularism have stifled growth. In order for Judaism to survive the faith needs to find ways to bring more people into the tent.

The Chabad movement has done a terrific job of bringing unaffiliated Jews back into the fold. The conservative and reform movements try to appeal to intermarried couples and drifting young people. Those efforts have met with limited success. They have barely added enough new Jews to maintain current numbers, let alone grow the Jewish population.

Jews have handicapped themselves by refusing to institute a robust proselytizing movement. Might I suggest that recruitment is a resource we need to pursue. There appears to be no prohibition in the Torah.

There are reasons that spreading the Jewish word has been discouraged in the past. Since Jews believe any righteous person can go to heaven, there is no purely theological rationale to compel conversion. Also Jews have been the victims of heavy-handed proselytizing from Christians and Muslims for centuries. Intolerance, taxation, rejection and murder have come out of movements demanding religious uniformity. Jews have been the targets of religious intolerance too often. Hence, Jews have a bad taste in their mouths for the idea of proselytizing. Weighing a reluctance to proselytize against a demographic timeĖbomb, Jews should reconsider.

The bottom line is that there is no religious imperative against encouraging conversion. The time has come for the Jewish community to reassess its aversion to recruitment for the good of sustaining the faith.

I believe itís time for the major denominations in Judaism to begin to spread the good Jewish word far and wide. Instead of Rabbiís rejecting potential converts three times, they need to reach out and encourage a genuine commitment by newcomers. Seek out those who will embrace basic Jewish values, traditions and the covenant. People searching for an identity to bring meaning into their lives are primed for conversion. Work to expand the family.

There are tens of millions of Americans searching for a reason for their existence. Some seek out paths of substance; some commit to dangerous ideologies and others are attracted to frivolous causes. Those who worship the environment, political extremism, diet and health can be drawn into a profoundly more compelling faith. People searching for a religion to embrace after having abandoned their faith are ripe for picking. Whatís wrong with tempting them with an ancient faith that can be spiritually, ethically and emotionally uplifting?

Colleges, jails, soup kitchens, rehabilitation facilities and homeless shelters are filled with people seeking meaning, tradition and community. Judaism can open all those doors in deeply meaningful ways.

Promoting membership in the faith that brought the world ethical monotheism seems appropriate. One reason proffered for anti-Semitism has been the imposition of a moral code that placed restrictions on behavior. I might suggest that it is that same moral code wrapped in wondrous traditions that have sustained Jews for millennia under the worst of circumstances. That is a track record that can function as a magnet for those seeking meaning and direction. In the same way that kids do much better with structure and rules, adults who have gone astray or whose lives seem aimless, if properly nurtured, might be drawn to embrace Judaism enthusiastically. Converts are among the most enthusiastic and faithful.

I am not suggesting that Jews solicit conversion among people comfortable in their own religion. That has been an irritant directed at Jews for a long time. Itís not a tactic most Jews would like to emulate. But with the growth of secularism and rising numbers of religiously uncommitted there is a rather large target audience to draw from. The campaign should be directed at those who donít consider themselves part of any religion or those seeking a new faith.

Jews have an ancient, morally compelling and enriching story to tell. It need not be communicated in a heavy-handed manor to be effective. The very fact that Jews donít claim to posses the only path to God has an allure all its own.

Promoting an exclusive club that is inclusive is not necessarily a contradiction in terms. Judaism will remain small even if it grows rapidly (exclusive), yet it is open to anyone willing to embrace Jewish values and traditions (inclusive). Hence, an inclusive exclusiveness within the Jewish family. At a time when tolerance and inclusion are buzzwords for meaningless political correctness, a faith that fully recognizes multiple paths to God has a very contemporary appeal. Encouraging people to choose the Jewish path might just help sustain and grow a tiny community worth saving. Couldnít hurt.

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