A Historical Perspective

Article excerpt

MANY RECENT OBSERVERS HAVE EXPRESSED PESSIMISM about the uniquely Judaic religious and ethnic identity of the Jewish people in America. According to Alan Dershowitz, "[t]he good news is that American Jews--as individuals-have never been more secure, more accepted, more affluent, and less victimized by discrimination or antisemitism. The bad news is that American Jews-as a people-have never been in greater danger of disappearing through assimilation, intermarriage, and low birthrates." [1] Similarly, Nathan Glazer has complained that "[l]ess and less of the life of American Jews is derived from Jewish history, experience, culture, and religion. More and more of it is derived from the current and existing realities of American culture, American politics and the general American religion." [2] Perhaps most pessimistic of all, the sociologist Samuel C. Heilman writes that not only are American Jews as a whole having great difficulty maintaining their identity and passing that identity on from generation to gener ation, but even Orthodox Jews-the subject of much of his research-are also feeling a great deal of pressure in maintaining their institutions and preventing the attrition of their youth: "And when these most involved and active of Jews are in trouble, what optimism can there be about all those who are less involved and whose Judaism is less intensive, whose commitments may crumble under the weight of economic realities or erode under the tide of assimilation?" [3]

The opposite phenomenon is also well noted, however. A small number of Americans not born or raised as Jews choose to convert to Judaism. These "Jews by Choice" bring new hope-along with their numbers-to Jews despairing of a Jewish future in the United States.

Over the past two decades, a number of prominent American Jewish leaders and writers have suggested that an enthusiastic approach to conversion to Judaism could benefit both the Jews as a people, as well as Judaism as a religion. Gary Tobin, director of the Institute for Community and Religion in San Francisco, as well as the Abramson program in Jewish policy research at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, presented this argument at an invitation-only conference held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City in April. [4] At about the same time, Tobin's new book, Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community, was published by Jossey-Bass of San Francisco. [5] Here Tobin argues that the Jewish community is ready to engage in an organized proselytizing campaign that could bring in millions of new Jews, who would come from all sorts of religious and ethnic backgrounds. He argues that over the next several decades, the American Jewish community could utilize prosel ytizing to increase their numbers substantially, and that that increase in numbers could also mean a regeneration of interest in all aspects of Judaism. He, like many other American Jewish policy-makers, is deeply concerned with the potential loss of a substantial segment of the Jewish community in the coming years due to assimilation, and argues that American Jews should "Open the gates to all those who might choose to become Jews. Opening the gates reverses the Jewish community's current response to the reality of American pluralism. It means abandoning a paradigm that our children and grandchildren are potential Gentiles, and promoting the new belief that America is filled with potential Jews. Opening the gates means embracing proactive conversion, which is the open, positive, accessible, and joyful process of encouraging non-Jews to become Jews." [6]

Tobin appears to be indirectly influenced by the research of Rodney Stark, who has argued that "typically people do not seek a faith; they encounter one through their ties to other people who already accept this faith. In the end, accepting a new religion is part of conforming to the expectation and example of one's family and friends. …