One of the nation's top Jewish leaders has asked the policymakers of the million-member Reform Jewish organization to authorize a program of recruiting converts to Judaism.
The proposal, which would reverse the centuriesold tradition in Judaism against missionary activity, was made in a speech prepared for delivery in Houston last night by Rabbi Alexander Schindler to the board of directors of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
Schindler is president of the UAHC and immediate past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the most broadly representative organization of American Judaism.
Schindler told the 150 board members that it is "time for our Reform Jewish movement to launch a carefully conceived and adequately funded outreach program aimed at all Americans who are unchurched and who are seeking roots in religion."
He called his proposal "an effort of affirmative action to turn the tide, which threatens to sweep us away, into directions which might enable us to recover our numbers and recharge our inner strength."
The UAHC board is expected to approve Schindler's proposal today.
Ever since the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were killed, one of the deepest sources of anxiety within Judaism, of which the Reform movement is the most liberal wing, is the declining numbers of professing Jews.
According to the American Jewish Year Book, the number of Jews in the United States has decreased by 100,000, to 5,775,935 in the last 10 years, a time when the total U.S. population was increasing.
Trends in contemporary Jewish family life make the picture even bleaker. Earlier, Leonard Fein of the Center of Jewish Studies of Brandeis University told the UAHC directors that the birth rate among Jews is 1.4 children per family as against an overall national average of 1.7.
More than a third of the Jews who have married in recent years have done so outside their faith, thereby jeopardizing replenishment of the ranks by future generations.
Fein added that the divorce rate among Jews now "equals that of the population at large," with 38 percent of first marriages and 42 percent of second marriages ending in divorce.
Jewish law has traditionally defined a Jew as the child of a Jewish mother. In his address, Schindler raised the question of reinterpreting the law to include the child of a Jewish father in the case of a mixed marriage, a proposal sure to raise the hackles of Orthodox Jews.
"Reform Judaism has never been chained by the Halachah [Jewish law]," he told board members. "If we put our best minds to it we will find, as indeed we already have found, many other ways which will bolster our efforts in this realm.
"Why, for instance, should a movement which from its very birth hour insisted on the full equality of men and women in the religious life, unquestioningly accept the principle of Jewish lineage through the maternal line alone?"
In his proposal for the establishment of a new agency to seek converts, Schindler called for renewed focus on the non-Jewish spouse in mixed marriage.
He criticized most synagogues for failing to integrate the non-Jewish partner who does convert to Judaism. "We do not help them to make a Jewish home, to rear their children Jewishly or, more seriously still, we do not really embrace them or enable them to feel a close kinship with our people," he said.
Since the time of the Inquisition, when seeking converts to Judaism was punishable by death, Judism has not only declined to seek converts, it has actively discouraged such activity. In addition, because of conversions forced on them through the centuries by Christian zealots, the very words "convert" and "missionary" have negative emotional overtones for many Jews.
Schindler charged that Jews practice "a kind of reverse discrimination" against converts to their faith. "We question their motivations, as if to say that only a mad man would choose to be a Jew," he said.
Schindler made it clear that he was not advocating what Christians call "sheep-stealing" -- enticing away into another communion persons already enrolled in faith. Neither was he calling on Jews, he said, "to boast that ours is the only true and valid faith or to engage in eager rivalry with all other established churches." In recent years, evangelical Christians have increasingly attempted to convert Jews to Christianity.
"I want to reach a different audience entirely -- the unchurched," he continued. He was targeting, he said, "the seekers after truth who require a religion which tolerates, nay encouurages, all questions, and especially I want to reach out to the alienated and the rootless who need the warmth and comfort of a people well known for its close family ties and well known also for its ancient and noble lineage."
A Gallup Poll conducted earlier this year indicated that 41 percent of adult Americans fall into the unchurched category.
Alluding to the recent bizarre cult deaths of more than 900 persons in Guyana, Schindler said, "millions of Americans are searching for something... Many of the seekers have fallen prey to mystical cults which literally enslave them."
But Judaism, he said, "offers life, not death. It teaches free will, not surrender of body and soul to another human being... Judaism is a religion of hope and not of despair... Judaism has an enormous amount of wisdom and experience to offer to the troubled world and we Jews ought to be proud to speak about it frankly, freely and with dignity."