Perhaps it is centuries of being subservient to Christian and Muslim rulers, perhaps it is the age-old burden of forced conversion, perhaps it is the belief that there are no religious requirements for Jews in the afterlife. Whatever be the reason, Jews have traditionally been known to oppose the concept of proselytization. Yet, a Jewish foundation in Maryland is defying the taboo of proselytization by sponsoring outreach programs to non-Jews so as to bring them into the religious doctrine of Judaism.
“Our primary purpose is to support programs that publicize Judaism to non-Jews,” Ellen Gerecht, executive director of the National Center to Encourage Judaism (NCEJ), said from her second-floor office in Silver Spring, Maryland. “We think Judaism has a lot to offer.”
When asked if the ultimate goal of these outreach programs was to convert non-Jews to Judaism, Gerecht said yes, before elaborating how NCEJ believes great things about the religion and its adherents.
“That would be the goal down the line,” she said.
NCEJ was established in 1995 and it currently owns $2.3 million in assets as well as generates $375,000 every year, according to its tax information from 2013. That particular year, the foundation is believed to have donated $50,000 to Jewish Institute of Religion of the Hebrew Union College in New York and another $28,000 to other synagogues across the United States.
Michael Feshbach, a rabbi at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, who has served the foundation at previous pulpits in New York and Pennsylvania as well as his own synagogue, is a good friend of Gerecht’s father, Ash, who founded NCEJ years ago.
“I know that this foundation believes some of the greatest and most important spiritual ideas in the world are in our tradition, and we don’t show it enough,” Feshbach said.
Feshbach has utilized money from NCEJ’s funds to publicize a thrice-a-week introductory lesson to Judaism called Taste of Judaism. He has also headed the program that has been conducted approximately a dozen times at his synagogues across America since 2010. The next course is set to begin this fall. Even though he ran most of his advertisements in local newspapers, Feshbach said that Taste of Judaism was primarily intended to cater to people of Jewish origin. He clarified that apart from some congregants, most attendees are usually accompanied by a Jewish parent of partner, who wants them to learn more about Judaism. However, he said that the introductory lesson has also managed to draw adherents of other religions, including a small lot of believers from an African-American church in the vicinity.
“It’s been the most amazing assortment [of participants] of anything I’ve done,” Feshbach said. “Speaking personally, I can say the more we learn about the people around us, the better we are. Sometimes, yes, this leads to continued interest. Of course we welcome that. … We don’t view it as we need to convert people to save their souls.”
Orthodox Jews traditionally oppose proselytization even though Jewish organizations such as Chabad and Aish HaTorah continue to conduct outreach programs for the non-Orthodox.
Below is a traditional Jewish view of the matter from Aish HaTorah’s website:
“It would be discriminatory for Judaism to proselytize and try to convert those not of the religion. That would imply that everybody needs to be Jewish in order to make a relationship with God, participate in the Torah’s vision of repairing the world, and get to heaven. Yet this is not so.”
Gerecht sees the same issue through a historical lens rather than a theological one. According to her, Jews have not proselytized in the past because they were never in a strong position to exercise that privilege but she believes now, things have changed. She stressed that if Jews do not start spreading their religion now, Judaism would eventually perish. Still, she insisted that her foundation promotes something, which is more like welcoming congregants rather than proselytizing them.
“When you think about proselytization, you think going door to door. We are not advocating that,” she said. “We are going to try and get the word out.”
Most synagogues that are affiliated with NCEJ are also part of the Reform movement, which has started to focus on intermarried families as a priority. As long ago as 1965, this movement approved a resolution to missionize and proselytize converts to Judaism from among those who were not already part of a synagogue or church.
Gerecht said that there was also a growing interest in her foundation from the Conservative Movement, which has been fighting falling numbers forever now.
“Last year, Arnold Eisen, the chancellor of the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote, ‘Wanted: Converts to Judaism,’ calling on Jewish leaders and rabbis to ‘actively encourage non-Jewish family members in our midst to take the next step and formally commit to Judaism,’” said Gerecht. “It used to be novel to reach out to singles and now that’s common. … From an overall standpoint, we all want Judaism to grow.”
Photo Credits: Times of Israel