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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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Maybe it’s time to welcome converts

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Jean Gerber

It was a perfect Vancouver day for building a sukkah. The Hebrew school dads gathered and began to build it, under the direction of one of the sons.

(Their kids made sukkot out of gingerbread and candy with sprinkles – sort of like a good-witch-in-the-woods house. It was gone before the parents arrived.)

“You know,” someone said to me, “not one of the people building that sukkah was born Jewish.”

Not one dad born Jewish? Every man a Jew by choice – JBC? 

What’s going on here?

There’s much hand-wringing every time a report on Jewish affiliation comes out. Will North American Jews disappear, leaving only a cadre of haredim to carry the flag, so to speak? Who will save us? Help!

Well, as Fareed Zakaria says every week on his CNN show Global Public Square, here’s my take.

During Second Temple times, Judaism, a licit religion in the Roman Empire, became a vigorous, proselytizing religion. Early Christian authors of what would become the New Testament were aware of this, lamenting that the Pharisees would cross land and sea to convert one proselyte. In other words, Judaism was cutting into their territory.

We know that within the Jewish community, God-fearers were recognized, those – we assume men – who, not going all the way to conversion (maybe because it involved circumcision), were attached to Jewish communities, perhaps through their wives.

It was left up to the rabbis to create, as they wisely did, a mechanism for conversion, since biblical modes of attachment – the wife became an Israelite by marrying into a tribe – was no longer a possibility. What probably brought the expansion to a halt was the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish homeland and the resultant exile.

Today, it’s considered necessary to reject initial approaches made by a potential convert, ostensibly to make sure the request is sincere. Given the past 2,000 years of Jewish history, one can see why there would be institutional reluctance to begin anew a process of attracting converts.

But maybe we need to rethink that reluctance. Why be afraid to showcase the attractions of Judaism? Those people putting up the sukkah were certainly enthusiastic. They were also a mixed bag. Some had grown up in a robust Christian tradition, while others came with absolutely no religious experience whatsoever.

Yet all were bound by a commitment they made to a religion, culture and history that’s so rich, so inviting and so different from anything else.

It’s not that we should begin to propagate a version of Judaism lite, but we could try to find out what, besides a potential or existing mate, brought them to the decision to convert. What have they found that satisfies them? What are their expectations? What do they enjoy learning about in the sea of Jewish thought and life?

Surely there are things we can learn from JBCs that would make our institutions stronger when it comes to meeting the needs of potential intermarriages, as well as those that have already taken place, so that the converting partner can see what wonderful things are available to him or her.

I realize there are many, many problems with probing peoples’ personal choices and innermost emotions about such a step. But my goodness, we survey every other little facet of a person’s life, and with Facebook, Twitter and such glitter, people are much more open about their personal choices and opinions than ever before.

People come to explore Judaism not just for the sake of marriage. Single folk are also attracted by its sense of a strong community, high ideals and traditions.

As an aside, I see that our rabbi is actively inviting people to explore Judaism via his information and conversion class.

So what holds us back from finding out what attracts people to our community and what our synagogues are doing to meets these needs, or, conversely, what are they doing that repels an approach? We’ll be surprised to find out that becoming Jewish is for many people a fine idea, one that would stand them, and any subsequent family, in good stead – and strengthen the existing community in the bargain.

We should be proud of what we have, and open to those who are inquiring, yet unsure. Bring them in. There’s plenty of room in the boat – er, sukkah.

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