By Rabbi Adam Greenwald and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
Resisting the storm of ethnic panic that erupted after last year’s publication of the Pew Study of American Jews, the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU) is an oasis of calm. Sit in on a class and you’ll see a Persian Muslim lawyer struggling to learn her Hebrew phonics, next to a tattooed Harley Davidson rider who is saving up for separate meat and dairy dishes and a single mom studying Talmud with her teenage son. Crisis? What crisis?
Conversion programs are the single most powerful (and cost-effective) vehicles to ensuring Jewish continuity and growth in an era of steep decline. Programs, like the one at AJU, which provide adults with serious Jewish education and personalized support in preparation for conversion succeed in welcoming newcomers into the Jewish People at a cost of around $2000 per person, significantly less than the cost of subsidizing a single Birthright participant. The return on that tiny investment is a Jew by Choice who represents the start of an entirely new Jewish family and a legacy that will shape the Jewish People long into the future.
As over two decades of studies have conclusively demonstrated, the American Jewish community faces an existential demographic challenge. Among non-Orthodox Jews who have married over the past ten years, nearly three-quarters (72%) have married someone who is not Jewish. Of those, less than half (43%) will produce children who consider themselves Jewish and among their children, only 17% will marry Jews themselves. The effect of such trends over a few generations is clear – the future of Judaism in America appears to be in grave peril.
As we have been advocating throughout our respective careers, the time has come to put aside old prejudices and remove unnecessary boundaries, to actively welcome those who might wish to join our community. That means a shift in the attitudes of our communal leaders and institutions, who have long met converts with ambivalence, suspicion, or even hostility. It’s time to put aside our fear that welcoming might turn into proselytizing, and make Judaism available to all those who are seeking a path of meaning and community.
In addition to a shift in mindset, we need serious communal financial investment in helping conversion-oriented programs to flourish and serve all those who are interested in linking their life and loyalty with Judaism and the Jewish People. Newcomers to Judaism are confronted over and over again with costs and fees – for classes, for books, for mikveh immersion, for synagogue membership, and so on. At every step along a convert’s journey, they are asked to open their wallets – hardly the best way to communicate our profound gratitude to someone who would chose to share our path, even as so many of our own are walking away. If even one new potential Jew decides not to enter into or complete a program because of cost, a whole Jewish family is lost.
That investment must not stop with the mikveh. In our focus on the immediate goal of conversion, we often fall short in providing the ongoing support necessary to help new members of the tribe navigate the long and sometimes arduous process of integration into the Jewish community. Instead, they are often offered little more than a handshake and a blessing as they are handed their documents and told to go out and find a place in the Jewish community. Many have no clue what to do next.
It is a sad fact that for some Jews by Choice, the most Jewishly they will ever live is in the lead-up to the mikveh, not during the balance of their lives as actual Jews and it is not uncommon for such people to ultimately lose the spark that brought them to Judaism to begin with. We need a real communal commitment to develop resources and programs to help brand-new Jews translate their passion into action. We need mentoring programs, a universal policy of complementary synagogue memberships and religious school subsidies for converts and their families, ongoing learning opportunities, and affordable Israel experiences for those whose connection with Eretz Yisrael is not inborn. We cannot simply leave converts “dripping at the mikveh,” our community must come together to support our newest members for the long process of building Jewish identity.
A famous Midrash teaches that God esteems converts above all others, because they have chosen their identity not out of compulsion but out of love. Today, there are thousands of individuals who are standing just outside our doors – in our synagogues, in our families, and in our broader communities, who just need the door opened and to be invited to step inside to taste the wisdom and beauty of Judaism. It’s time we welcomed them in, and provide the funding to make that welcome real.
Rabbi Adam Greenwald is the Director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program of American Jewish University. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University.