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Welcoming adults who have chosen to become Jewish is one of the great joys in the life of our community. It is an affirmation of the power of the Torah and of the success of the Jewish family, at least as idealized, to attract spiritually sensitive and intelligent people.
The most common attractions of Judaism, as stated by adult גרים gerim (converts) at BEKI, is the open-mindedness, the encouragement to challenge authority and ask questions, and the associated respect for intellectual and religious integrity; the strength of the ideal Jewish family; the support of the caring community; and the sense of mission in the world, that is, the objective of creating a better world through education, law, hesed and justice and promoted in the Torah and rabbinic teachings, or said differently, “Jewish values.” Converts wish to fully become part of the community, including participation in public ritual and leadership roles reserved for the legally Jewish.
Gerim are a great blessing. They are an “independent” affirmation of our lifestyle and mission; they are a boon to our gene pool and provide some relief to our demographic crisis; and they bring their ideas, labor and leadership to the community. King David himself was the grandson of a Moabite woman who joined the Jewish People, as told in the Book of Ruth. Indeed, all of us are descendants of converts, whether from the time of Abraham and Sarah, the mass conversion at Sinai following the Exodus (Yev. 46b), or through the ages. That is obvious by our complete range of “racial” characteristics and confirmed by genetic analysis. Our synagogue leadership and staff comprise many gerim and children of gerim. That being the case, one might wonder why we don’t actively encourage גרות gerut (conversion).
Many people have heard that the potential convert is turned away three times, in order to ensure that only the truly determined succeed in their quest. But as a rabbi who guides many converts, I don’t do that, because I find that when, upon further study and experience with the real Jewish world, candidates encounter plenty of realities that would turn them off, and turn them away. The realities are harsh enough to sober the greatest idealists.
There was a long period in which proselytizing, that is, actively encouraging gerut, was the norm. From the time of Abraham and Sarah through the early years of Roman occupation, the Jewish People grew in large part through welcoming the righteous ger. Later, under Byzantine rule and in other settings, when we became an oppressed people, conversion was not only unattractive and dangerous, it was illegal. Jewish communities developed an attitude of distrust toward “outsiders.”
In our day, I believe our reluctance to actively encourage gerut stems from our own resentment toward a segment of the surrounding society that seeks to convert us to their ways. We find those attempts at the least annoying, and often disrespectful and outright dangerous. Our response is to make sure we don’t do unto others as we don’t want others to do unto us. However, the truth is that, at least in America, far more Christians convert to Judaism than the other way around. Very few Jews convert to Christianity, since for the educated and devout Jew there is really no attraction, with all due respect, in part because of the similarity. We already have mystical movements, messiah figures, endless ritual, nationalist devotees; or, alternatively, if you prefer, humanistic, Reform, or other approaches, we have that, too. There is already something for everyone. Jews who leave Judaism tend to either become secularists or Unitarians or pursue Eastern religions.
The other reason is that you don’t have to be Jewish to be Jewish. A non-Jewish person is genuinely welcome to all of the classes and services at the synagogue and to serve on various committees and volunteer projects. We even accept their often generous donations – how much more welcoming could we be? Sincere effort is made to be kind and respectful to extended non-Jewish family members at life-cycle events. Indeed, many non-Jewish people participate happily in most aspects of our synagogue community. Even more so at other Jewish institutions such as the Jewish Community Center or Jewish Family Service; everyone is most welcome. And more importantly, many non-Jewish people have achieved great success in raising Jewish children. It’s not the easiest way to raise kids, but it can be done.
Part of rabbinic teaching is that we assume that the Almighty loves and values each person unconditionally, and judges us by our deeds and by what is in our hearts, not by what membership cards we carry. You don’t have to be Jewish to be loved by God or to be “saved” or to enjoy the “world to come.” Being Jewish should help in those departments – like belonging to a health club can help you stay healthy if you actually make use of its facilities. But you don’t have to be Jewish to be a good person.
My hope is that our potential gerim will understand our apparent “soft-sell” approach in this light, and realize that we do truly delight in formally welcoming them to our community. Membership does have its benefits. You don’t have to be Jewish to be Jewish, but it helps.
הקדוש ברוך הוא עצמוֹ אוהב גרים
The Holy Blessed One especially loves the convert.
Rambam, Hilkhot Deot 6:4