Who is Interested in Judaism?
We should overcome being afraid of who will be lost to Judaism, and seek those who will join us, including through proactive conversion. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and many other religions welcome newcomers. Jews should not stay locked in a self imposed ghetto, trying to keep people out. The potential for Jewish population growth around the world, especially in North America, Latin America, and Africa, is significant. Millions of people 1) have Jewish heritage; 2) identify with Judaism; or 3) are on the path to Judaism.
The separation of Jews from other minority cultures can be limiting and destructive. Diversity is one of the best ways in which Jews, especially younger Jews, identify more positively with Judaism and their community.
Sociologists of religion tell us that religious groups grow most effectively through expanding circles of friends and family, not by knocking on doors and seeking converts. Involving people who are part of our own families and friendship groups and communities all over world is hardly “outreach.” It is common sense.
“Opening the gates,” as well as our hearts, means continuing our efforts to include ancient and emerging Jewish communities everywhere. Yet, barriers to growth—organizational, cultural, and ideological—remain strong. If the Jewish community is to remain vital, it must find ways to be more adaptive and welcoming, and build diverse Jewish communities around the world.
There are seven types of individuals who are drawn to Judaism and the Jewish people. First, there are individuals who could be classified as religious/spiritual seekers. They are drawn to Judaism because it provides a spiritual home, an attractive theology, and appealing rituals. For some, the idea of one universal God, without anthropomorphic expression, is a powerful idea. The concept of a direct relationship with God, with no intermediary, is compelling. As one Be'chol Lashon interviewee explained, “I like to talking directly to the Boss.”
Religious/spiritual seekers find beauty in reading the Torah, the Talmud, and religious teachings of Judaism. Religious seekers can be drawn to the meaning of Jewish prayers. Putting on Tallit or lighting Shabbat candles has great appeal to religious seekers. Judaism is a religion rich in ritual observance, and represents a daily, weekly, and yearly calendar of observance.
Individuals are also drawn to the basic tenets of Jewish religious thought—including Jewish teaching about heaven and hell, forgiveness, and justice, for example. After all, Jews gave the world the idea of one God, Shabbat, methods of forgiveness and so on. All of these provide a powerful attraction to Judaism.
Looking for Ethnic Identity
The second group attracted to Judaism can be classified as ethnic identity seekers. Ethnic/identity seekers are looking for a sense of belonging to a group. Jewish peoplehood appeals to the ethnic/identity seekers because it includes a long history, a national identity, and an essential narrative that excites people who are looking for a way to define or redefine themselves. Jewish peoplehood is especially intriguing and magnetic because it transcends time (it is thousands of years old) and space, (Jews have lived in hundreds of countries, spoken hundreds if not thousands of languages) and race (Jews come in every color, cultural background, and ethnicity). Jewish peoplehood also provides a national identity, a strong association with the ancient land of Israel, and a contemporary nation state. In an increasingly global world, Judaism represents the ultimate expression of globalization; Jews have been everywhere over time and still maintained their distinct identity. For those who are interested in ethnic identity, Jewish peoplehood offers unlimited global possibilities.
The Appeal of the Story of the Exodus
Third, the essential story of Judaism is of the Exodus, a people that has gone from slavery to freedom. The story of the Passover, and the essence of the Torah, is built around God's deliverance of the Hebrew people from enslavement in Egypt. Jewish peoplehood, therefore, emphasizes a story of hope, redemption, and freedom.
Fourth, Jewish communal structure is attractive. This includes synagogues, Jewish community centers, Jewish day schools, and a vast array of meeting and gathering places for religious, recreational, and social purposes. The Jewish communal network is not only intricate in the United States and Canada, but impressive Jewish community centers can be found in Mexico City, Argentina, Hong Kong, and all over the globe. These institutions provide venues for communal worship, learning, physical well-being, and a wide array of cultural activities including music, dance, and public affairs.
From campuses to home, from synagogue to recreation centers, from educational institutions to job training, the Jewish community has a thousand possibilities for integrating individuals into a communal structure.
Finding Ancestral Roots
Fifth, Judaism is attractive to ancestral seekers. The world is filled with people who have Jewish heritage. In the United States alone, there are millions of individuals who no longer practice Judaism, but who have a grandparent, great-grandparent, or more distant ancestor that was Jewish. Generations of intermarriage, individuals abandoning Judaism and some who wanted to hide their Judaism to escape discrimination and persecution, have produced millions of descendents with Jewish roots. In Latin America, the Middle East, and the Iberian Peninsula there are tens of millions of people who are the descendents of the forced conversions of the Inquisition—Anusim—who are now practicing Catholics, Muslims, and other religions. The African continent has millions of people in Nigeria, Ethiopia, South Africa and elsewhere who are part of the lost African Jewish Diaspora. Vestiges of Jewish heritage can be found in many peoples. Some people are aware of their roots, because they cling to ancient Jewish practices such as lighting candles on Shabbat, kissing the doorpost of the home where the Mezuzah should be, avoiding pork. Vestiges of Jewish heritage can be found in many peoples. Others have no knowledge whatsoever of their Jewish roots. But the desire for historical continuity and knowing about one's family, and where one came from, are powerful motivators for many individuals.
Making Families Whole
Sixth, familial seekers want to make their families whole. Millions of Jews are now part of religiously mixed families. For a generation the intermarriage rate between Jews and non-Jews in the United States, for example, has been between 40% and 50%. Since the 1970s, at least one out of very four marriages has been between a Jew and a non-Jew. Similar rates of intermarriage exist in France, Britain, and Argentina.
Familial seekers want to have a single religious identity in the household. They want their children (or grandchildren) to be raised with an unambiguous religious identity. Many individuals come in to mixed religious marriages with a deep religious or spiritual background, but do not necessarily want to necessarily want to practice the religion of their birth. Yet Judaism appeals to them for all of the spiritual, ethnic, and communal issues discussed above.
A Framework for Social Justice
Seventh, Judaism offers a framework for making the world a better place and to advocate for social justice. It offers a wide range of institutions and programs that encourage people to volunteer their time and financial resources to build more just societies. Judaism emphasizes obligation and responsibility to help all people. It is a religion based on action, which appeals to individuals looking to be involved.
Judaism has a deep tradition of tzedakah, providing for the widow, the orphan, the hungry and the homeless. The concept of tithing, giving 10% of one's resources to the needy, is based in the Torah. One of the important mizvot in Judaism is the charge of Tikun Olam, repairing the world. These concepts and practices provide a framework for helping others and to fulfill the mission of being “a light unto the nations” to serve Jews and gentiles alike.