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Demographer Urges A Warm Welcome For Converts; Rabbi Opposes Exclusivist Religion

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
May-June 1999

Gary Tobin, director of the Institute for Community and Religion, wants American Jews "to put out the welcome mat to would-be converts," reports the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (Washington Jewish Week, May 27, 1999). "Reviving a decades-old debate over how to build a vibrant and populous Jewish community, the prominent demographer and frequent consultant to major Jewish organizations is proposing the creation of a conversion initiative aimed at, but not limited to, the non-Jewish spouses and children of mixed marriages and people with some Jewish heritage."  

According to the proposal set forth in Tobin’s new book, Opening The Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize The Jewish Community, the effort to bring in millions of new Jews from all religious and ethnic backgrounds would force the Jewish community as a whole to examine, expand and fortify "all elements of the culture," from education to ritual practice.  

"If Judaism institutionally, communally, ideologically is strong and powerful, others will choose to join. The question is are we prepared to let them?" asks Tobin.  

With declining Jewish population and an intermarriage rate of approximately 50 percent, the question of Jewish "continuity" has become a top priority for many Jewish organizations. Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, says that, "Since 1945, the American population has doubled, but the Jewish population in the U.S. has remained the same" — at about 5.5 million. Buchwald warns that "in just two generations, two out of every three Jews will disappear."  

Gary Tobin calls for the establishment of a new "National Center for Jewish Inclusion" and argues that in the next several decades the American Jewish community could grow to between 8 million and 15 million by welcoming potential converts.  

The Forward (May 14, 1999) reports: "Mr. Tobin’s conversion initiative represents one of the more radical proposals for reversing the Jewish population trends linked to assimilation, intermarriage and low birth rates. As such, it is engendering lively debate and challenging some of the most dearly held principles in the Jewish community. For one, Mr. Tobin disagrees with the notion that the community should always discourage interfaith marriage. ‘If somebody says they’d rather be among other Jews, meaning born Jews, that’s unacceptable,’ he said. ‘If someone says they’d rather marry a born Jew than someone who embraces Judaism – I find that so limiting,’ he said. He said the Jewish community has the financial resources to accomplish any task to which it sets its mind."  

Tobin laments that the Jewish community is fixated on "preventing disaster when we should be attracting Jews . . . If we rebuild our institutions and organizational network and strengthen Judaism, what difference does it make if someone was born Jewish or becomes Jewish? Are we saying that we can’t afford for our synagogues to double in size? . . . Are we so locked in a sense of doom . . . that we’re not prepared for growth?"  

In Tobin’s view, the resistance to converts stems from the fact that "Jews are used to being a small, threatened minority" and a "circling-the-wagons mentality is an outgrowth of that fear."  

A prominent rabbi arguing for more conversions is Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Sholom of Encino, California. He states: "Judaism is a universalist tradition . . . If Jews are not interested in sharing Judaism it makes us an exclusivist, almost racist tradition. A vulgar ethnicity . . . impoverishes us and makes us look like another Slavic group. We do our people much damage by insulating ourselves and not letting these spiritual seekers find great joy and great wisdom."  

Gary Tobin is director of the Abramson Program in Jewish Policy Research at the University of Judaism and is an informal adviser to a group of Jewish philanthropists known as the "mega group." He writes in his book that his wife’s "journey in becoming a Jew" inspired him and helped guide his thinking.

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