It’s Not (Just) About the Numbers

By Rabbi Adam Greenwald and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

In our last piece in eJewishPhilanthropy we argued for the necessity of investing in conversion preparation programs as a response to our communal demographic crisis. We are a small – and as the studies all suggest – dwindling people and so it is a numerical imperative for our survival that we not only retain the Jews we already have, but open the doors to add in all those who are potentially interested to join our family.

But the real reason to get behind active welcome and open arms is not about numbers, survival, or continuity. It’s about living up to Judaism’s highest ideals and a vision of Jewish life that centers around Torah, ethics, and inclusion. As usual, the values should drive the policy, not the demographics.

Through the sophisticated adult learning, mentoring, and reflection that takes place during the conversion process, Jews by Choice become some of our people’s most passionate members, advocates and even leaders. All of Judaism is enriched and ennobled by the presence of those who choose to tie their lives with ours. Consider some of the individuals who have recently gone through the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University:

  • Justin, a twenty-one year old African-American, made aliyah at the beginning of the Summer and is now preparing to join the IDF. He fell in love with Judaism when he was fourteen, and attended a Shabbat dinner at the home of his freshman girlfriend. He told me that he had never seen a family together around the table like that – talking, singing, simply being with one another in the light of the candles. From the warmth of that table, he reconciled with the God he stopped speaking to when his father abandoned him, and began a journey that has led to a new life in a new country.
  • Laura is a single mother of two teenage boys and mechanic in the US Army Reserve. Laura was brought up in the evangelical church in rural Colorado, but when her first marriage fell apart she felt shunned by her community. When she moved to Los Angeles she started coming quietly into synagogues and sitting in the back. Gradually, she started lighting candles with her kids on Friday nights. She self-published a memoir last year, which she called Out of Egypt and in its final chapter, in which she describes her experience at the mikveh, she writes: “Judaism offered me my full human dignity – something I truly had for the first time in my almost forty years. I was not subhuman because I was divorced, I wasn’t uninvited from the community but truly welcomed and embraced.”
  • George was raised in California’s agricultural Central Valley by deeply Catholic Mexican immigrants, but left the church when his priest told him that there was no space there for a gay man. George spent twenty years without religion, but had a moment of epiphany on a tour in Europe visiting Oskar Schindler’s factory. He calls that “the moment when my Jewish soul was born.” Since then he’s converted to Judaism, traveled to Israel, and just completed his adult Bar Mitzvah in a community that welcomes and embraces him and his partner.

On one hand, Justin, Laura, and George are just three individuals – hardly enough to stem the flood of assimilation and apathy that threatens our future. The several thousand converts to Judaism each year are a small consolation as the intermarriage rate approaches 75% in several communities and affiliation rates fall to historic lows. On the other hand, the passion, excitement, and deep gratitude that converts bring breathes new energy into an ancient people. The living fountain of their example reminds all Jews of why Judaism is worth saving in the first place.

Judaism is our communal treasure, and like so many treasures we have often thought we were doing the responsible thing by putting up walls and barriers to protect it. Now, what our glistening treasure needs is the opportunity to shine its light. We need to discover that we have more to lose by locking it away than we have by opening it up to all who seek. It’s not just a matter of numbers, it’s about welcoming in the presence of newcomers who add something essential to Judaism and promise to inspire and transform all of us.

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.