Saturday, May 01, 2004

I used to joke that it was a good thing that they'd hired me to work for the Outreach Department of the URJ (then UAHC), because otherwise I'd have been found standing outside meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention, grabbing people by the lapels and telling them, "Let me tell you about Torah!"

"Jews don't proselytize." The first time I was told that, I was in my 20's, I asked a Jewish acquaintence "whether you had to be born Jewish" and that was his answer. I took that to mean, Jews don't take converts (which is not the same thing, but what did I know?) and that was that for another fifteen years or so. In that time, I spent three years in an Episcopal seminary community, one year in a nondenomenational graduate school of religion, and the rest hanging around various religious communities, with lots of Jewish friends and acquaintences. Not until 1994 did I hear that sometimes people convert to Judaism as adults, and not only in connection with a marriage.

In the meantime, I heard "Jews don't proselytize" many times, usually from Jews. And I continued hearing it after my own conversion (finally, in 1996, at age 46.) I repeated it myself, always thinking, gee, I was stupid not to realize that "not proselytizing" is not the same as "not accepting converts."

Then this past six weeks, as I have studied the history of conversion in the Reform Movement, I made a startling discovery. Several of our leading rabbis, some of them presidents of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Union for Reform Judaism, have proposed exactly that: that we stop apologizing for ourselves and actively seek converts! They made it clear that they were not talking about the sort of behavior we find offensive in missionaries from other religions: not going door-to-door, not bothering people who are already affiliated, but making ourselves visible and available to those who are quietly seeking a spiritual home.

The movement as a whole has mostly avoided the issue, for a variety of reasons. We have a long history of persecution that masqueraded as Christian mission. We have a long history in which a few of those individuals who have converted -- either direction! -- have been dangerous to us. Many of us have been irritated, annoyed, or deeply offended by the tactics employed by Christian missionaries. Some of us have lost children, or grandchildren, to the proselytism of other religions. And we don't want to engage in bad behavior; we don't want to cause that kind of pain.

That's all good -- but what about the seeker who may only ask once, out of respect? What about the seeker who has already left whatever affiliation they had by birth, but who feels drawn to the Jewish people? We can be a pretty clannish bunch, and even the friendliest of us seem intimidating from outside "the tribe." Do we really need to put an obstacle course ahead of every yiddishe neshomah [Jewish soul] trying to find its way home?

There's a program called "Taste of Judaism" that the URJ offers, that simply makes Judaism visible as a house with doors and windows. It offers unaffiliated Jews a dignified way to check out the possibility of coming home to the synagogue. It also offers that yiddishe neshomah a place to ask questions and get accurate answers. And (just a nice by-product) it also lets allies of our community find out more about what we really believe and do.

As Martha Stewart would say, it's a good thing.

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