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Taste-testing Judaism

Is a new Reform program proselytizing -- and is that a bad thing?


by Amy Klein

May 17, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Tom and Helen Sabo at their daughter Katie's bat mitzvah in 2004

Tom and Helen Sabo at their daughter Katie's bat mitzvah in 2004

Ingrid Vanderhope, an Australian-born Christian and practicing Jehovah's Witness, recently saw an advertisement in the Los Angeles Times picturing a spoon holding the words, "A Taste of Judaism," followed by the words "...Are you curious?"

Sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism, the ad offered three free weekly sessions "exploring the modern Reform Jewish perspective on living in today's world," and in boldfaced letters it stated, "For beginners, Jewish or not."

"Or not" being the operative word.

In the past decade, as Jewish leaders grapple with how assimilation and intermarriage have affected the numbers of Jews, many Jewish organizations, temples and synagogues are increasing efforts to reach out to teach Judaism -- both to secular and unaffiliated Jews, as well as to interfaith families.

"In-reach" and "Outreach" these efforts are called.

But this program, called "Taste of Judaism," which has already reached more than 75,000 people in 450 synagogues around the country, is taking outreach further than the usual embrace of people who are born Jewish, or who are married to Jews. It deliberately and forcefully moves into the mainstream world, extending an open door to anyone who might just like to get to know more about becoming a Jew.

Some would argue this is an overlooked opportunity, while others see it as one more step away from halacha: Proselytizing traditionally has been seen as taboo.

"There are so many people who are interested in Judaism," said Arlene Chernow, Los Angeles regional director of outreach and membership for the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ). "Somehow it's an urban legend that you're supposed to turn them away. It is halacha, but it also says that you turn them away with one hand and welcome with another hand."

Chernow has been with the URJ for 22 years and helped implement the pilot "taste" program 11 years ago.

"I think it really opens the Jewish community to people," she said. "It gives people a sample for how Judaism can have a positive impact on their life"

In three two-hour sessions taught by a rabbi, the class attempts to provide an overview of the three major aspects of Judaism: God, Torah, Israel -- or as it's called here, "Spirituality, Ethics and Community." Before teaching the class, each rabbi attends a training course, and then tailors it individually, using text study, discussion and handouts.

The program is not targeted solely at non-Jews. Unaffiliated Jews, Jews with no religious education, intermarried Jews and friends of Jews all have enrolled in the class.

"Our goal is large, meaningful, vibrant communities that are open to people who are born Jewish and open to people who aren't born Jewish," Chernow said.

And yet the new, very public push to promote the program in mainstream media around the country to all spiritual seekers, appears to turn on its head an age-old prohibition in the Jewish community. Which raises the questions: In modern-day America, where many ancient Jewish traditions no longer hold, should this one also be relegated to ancient times? In short, can Jews seek out converts? Can Jews proselytize?

These questions become particularly poignant this week, as we celebrate Shavuot, the commemoration of when Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai. This is the holiday that celebrates Jews-by-choice, and for it we read the Book of Ruth, the story of Judaism's most celebrated convert of them all, from whom King David is a descendent.

Ruth's story is seen by many as evidence that historically, Judaism, in fact, is meant to encourage conversion and early on even actively sought out people to join the faith.

"It is important to remember that Judaism began as a proselytizing religion," said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, a Conservative rabbi and the head of the popular Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at the American Jewish University (AJU) (formerly the University of Judaism). "The Book of Ruth is very pro-conversion. By the first century, according to Salo Baron, 10 percent of the Roman Empire had converted to Judaism. Proselytizing ceased when the church [in the fourth century] prohibited Jews from converting. Christians and later Islam [seventh century] prohibited Jews as well," he said.

Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, concurs with Weinberg's account.

"Historically, we certainly know that Jews in very early times converted people -- sometimes even forcibly converted people as recounted in the Bible in the book of Joshua," Sarna said.

He points out that the Talmud includes people who have converted -- and cites the major argument between Hillel and Shamai, where Hillel tells a potential convert that all of the Torah can be reduced to: "Do onto others as you would do onto yourself." He says in the early Christian era, the early post-Temple era, there was a certain amount to conversion to Judaism.

"But what happens in the Diaspora is -- especially as Jews become a minority -- the Jewish community could get into great trouble when they were seen as proselytizing," he said. "Once Christianity takes hold, whole Jewish community could be attacked because they were accused of Judaicizing."

Jews made a "virtue" out of not seeking converts, arguing that the prohibition became a point of pride, a differentiation between Judaism and Christianity. In modern times, in countries where Jews feared for their rights, like in England and Germany, the fear was that proselytizing "would undo the bargain where they were allowed to remain."

But this logic never really applied in America, which is founded on freedom of religious practice.

"American religion developed as a free market," he said. "Naturally, when you have a free market in religion, there are plenty of Jews who say, 'If they can convert me, I can convert them.' From a logical point of view how can you be in a market and refuse to compete?" he asked. "Hillel didn't seem to be worried when the proselyte came to him, so why should we?"

That's exactly how Rabbi Ron Stern feels. Stern, the charismatic teacher of the "Taste of Judaism" class at Stephen S. Wise (where Vanderhope is participating) thinks the world should know how great Judaism is. "Let people know about this incredible identity that we call Judaism," he said. "I'm a rabbi because I absolutely believe that the world needs Jews, and the Jews need Judaism. And if it's something that's wonderful, as I believe it is, why shouldn't the world know more about it? It's marketing."

One of the things that Christians do well is convert people, he said: "We're not going to stand at the airports and give out flyers like Hari Krishnas, but how we get them in the door to experience Judaism is an important question."

Stern called the fear against marketing and proselytizing "ghetto Judaism."

"In a world where we're fearful for the lack of Jews, why shouldn't we be doing anything possible to get people into Judaism? It's about promoting Judaism to people don't have a religious identity."

Some observers don't see such classes as proselytizing, but rather as "outreach," says Weinberg. His AJU classes, whose breakdown he said includes intermarried couples, children of intermarried couples and some looking to reconnect with their Jewish heritage.

"There are many non-Jews who no longer follow the religion they were brought up in. They may be curious and interested in exploring Judaism," he said. "This is a good entryway for them to begin."

Besides, some of the most committed Jews -- like the biblical Ruth -- are Jews-by-choice. "I have found that people who choose to become Jewish as adults really do so; they're enthusiastic participants," Stern says. "There's very little downside to bringing them in."

Not so said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, taking the Orthodox position. His argument is not historical but a spiritual/halachic reading of Jewish law.

"You're not doing a favor to anyone by broadcasting Judaism as if it's the panacea to spiritual woes, by offering this open invitation, when you take seriously the notion that Jews are responsible for 613 commandments and there are consequences for non-compliance," he said.

Non-Jews, according to the Torah, are only responsible for the seven Noahide laws (No idolatry, incest or adultery, murder, theft, cursing God or eating the flesh of a live animal; establishing courts of justice). A non-Jew following these laws would get a place in heaven, Adlerstein said.

"When you start off with this better expectation of the non-Jewish soul and where it was going, there was much less need to proselytize, and you were doing non-Jews a disservice when they were the wrong candidates for it," Adlerstein said.

Because once a person converts to Judaism, he or she must follow all the mitzvot as someone born Jewish.

"Once you convert them, you give them the opportunity to have a different spiritual level, but the life of a committed Jew is difficult," he said. "It's a big risk."

It's not that Orthodoxy is against converts, he says. (Although the Orthodox are the only denomination that still turns converts away three times, as proscribed in the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch.) They just don't go looking for them.

"We're looking for the special neshama," Adlerstein said, the one or two souls who really need Judaism. "We're looking for the needle in the haystack, not the whole haystack."

"Judaism is the greatest thing in the world for Jews," he continued. "It was never meant to be a universal religion. Even in the Messianic age we believe that not everybody is going to be Jewish. They will recognize and take seriously the oneness of God and know what it is to serve him," Adlerstein said. But "anyone who believes that 5 million Chinese people will be eating cholent on Shabbos is making a big mistake."

Aside from the halachic problems with proselytizing and difficulty of converting so strictly, the Orthodox have no need to go out and seek converts," Adlerstein said.

"The Reform Jews are proselytizing to offset the outflow of Jews from their community. Orthodoxy is growing by leaps and bounds and that happens to not be a concern at the moment."

But it is a concern for other denominations, particularly the Reform movement. In 1949, Reform leader Leo Baeck made a call for the movement to promote conversion, establishing a "missionary center" in America to train Reform leaders to spread the faith. In 1978, longtime president of the movement, the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, head of the Reform movement from 1973 to 1996, urged Reform Jews to begin offering Judaism to the "unchurched" -- non-Jews not affiliated with a particular Christian church. He renewed that call in 1993.

A year later, "Taste of Judaism" was born. Again, slightly more than 10 years later, in 2005, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, Schindler's successor as president of what is now known as the Union for Reform Judaism, renewed the call to push for conversion -- although the focus became more on interfaith members of the community than "unchurched" Christians.

Taste of Judaism ad Today, Stern said, "We're concerned about the Jewish future and the diminution of the population. One of the ways [to resolve the problem] is to bring in non-Jews. It's just logical. The other notion is that Judaism is a genetic identity, but you can learn to become a Jew and not have Jewish parents and be an incredible addition to the Jewish community, so why shouldn't we make that available to the Jewish people?" Stern said.

That's what Stern is trying to teach in the "Taste" class, where he uses a PowerPoint presentation.

"Judaism is the product of the Jewish people," Stern animatedly told his class of a dozen people in a small auditorium at Stephen S. Wise on the first of three Tuesday night classes recently. "The traditional view is that God came to Mount Sinai and made us Jews. I'm taking a cultural/historical perspective and saying that through that connection grew a religious identity and search for God and a religion that we came to identify with Judaism. Torah became a product of the Jewish people. Torah records what Jewish people did. The Israelites produced the Torah. That's a quick way of understanding that Judaism is much more than a faith, that people identify with it beyond a religious expression."Stern was conducting his "Israel/Community" class, addressing a common question for many non-Jews, this time posed by Susan Maleski, when everyone went around the room introducing themselves.

"I'm here because my boyfriend is 'Jewish,' and he said it would mean a lot to him if I learned about Judaism," said Maleski, 49. "But he doesn't believe in God. He doesn't go to temple, but he identifies very strongly with being Jewish, and I don't understand why," she said.

Most of the people in the room were part of interfaith relationships. Daisy Cain was Colombian, a Christian, and she came with her husband Steve Cain because he wants to raise their 16-month-old daughter as a Jew.

"It's time for me to figure things out," he said.

Skander Lemseffer, who was born Jewish but didn't know much about the religion, came to the class with his girlfriend Lana, who is Greek Orthodox, because he's hoping she'll convert before they have children.

A few of the people, like Robin Parkinson and Marcia Goodman, were born Jewish but wanted to find out more.

"I was not raised with any religion, but with Jewish roots, I want to hear about it," said Parkinson, a 50-something-year-old woman who studied religion in college "but not Judaism."

There were a few people who were simply interested in Judaism. Carl, an elderly gentleman who preferred not to give his last name or age, said he was originally Roman Catholic. "I have been studying the Jewish religion out of interest now."

Some, like Carl and Ingrid Vanderhope, the Australian-born Christian Jehovah's Witness, have been searching for religion their whole lives.

"I haven't been really happy in Christianity," said Vanderhope, 62, who was brought up Christian, but decided to become a Jehovah's Witness when her children were young so they would have God in their lives. Recently, she joined a group of Christian believers who follow the Sabbath and the Torah and the festivals, and that's what brought her to the "Taste of Judaism" class. She brought along her husband Maury, a reluctant, non-observant Jew who left after his bar mitzvah. "He's fed up with it, and I'm still searching," she said.

Vanderhope is a typical "Taste" attendee, according to URJ's Chernow, not because she's married to a Jew, but because her ancestors were Jews. Chernow calls them "Madeline Albright" Jews, people who find they have Jewish ancestors. For Vanderhope, it was her father, a doctor whose family survived the Holocaust who didn't want to raise his children Jewish.

"He felt we would have a better life without the pressures he went through," Vanderhope said.
But she fondly remembers her Jewish grandmother lighting Sabbath candles -- and perhaps it is this tradition and sentimentality that draw people like her to the class.

It's easy to see the appeal of "Taste of Judaism" classes, where smart, lively rabbis present the best of the religion in sound-bytes and engage interested adults in meaningful conversations about God, ethics, eschatology and the purpose of life. It's a far cry from Hebrew school classes of yesteryear, and a definite step up for many people on the mundane Britney Spears discussions of regular life.

But what will happen after the classes end?

Some of the attendees said they may go on to the AJU's 18-week Intro to Judaism class, which is a first step before conversion. Some, like Vanderhope and Daisy -- both from more fundamentalist backgrounds -- found the Reform's viewpoint too lax ("I think it's nice to be obedient to God if he went to all the trouble he did," Vanderhope said), and they might want a more spiritual and stricter form of Judaism. Others felt the Reform outlook fit in perfectly with their values and lifestyle.

"I want to know the history, the culture, and possibly some ethics," said Parkinson, who said she wouldn't be attracted to any other denomination of Judaism. And for a few people, the class awakened a latent sense of Jewish identity they didn't know they had.

"The way I was raised, it was not just a religion or faith but an identity," said Steve Cain, who admitted to cutting most of Hebrew school to play basketball in the park. "I feel like it's my responsibility to carry on not only the religious rituals but also the identity."

It's too soon to tell what will happen to the individuals who attended the "Taste of Judaism" class this spring, but consider Helen Sabo, who took the course 10 years ago.

Sabo, 44, had never thought much about how she wanted to raise her children religiously. She herself was born Jewish but had never gone to temple, and she married a non-Jewish man. But when her father died 11 years ago, the question began to bother her. Especially when her 5-year-old daughter pulled a book about the baby Jesus off the shelf at the library and asked her mother to read it to her. "I can't read her this book. This is not our story; this is not the story I want to tell our children," Sabo thought.

"I thought it was more important to give our children an understanding of our Jewish identity, but I had no idea how to do that," she says. The how came shortly after, when she went to temple with her mother for her father's yahrzeit, on the first anniversary of his death. "It was just so moving on that occasion and people were so welcoming and I wanted to find out more," she said. She took the "Taste of Judaism" class, and then joined Temple Adat Shalom. Within a year, after attending special beginner services, she ended up on the temple's board for the next seven years. She also ran outreach programming. "That was very meaningful to [share with] other people in that situation, who had no idea about Judaism that there was a really a wonderful world of a Jewish community," she said.

On May 19, Sabo's son is becoming bar mitzvah.

"It's so amazing, because if you would have said to me 11 years ago 'Are your kids going to have a bar or bat mitzvah?' I would have laughed and said, "What, are you kidding?"



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