At JOI, our work is basically divided in two halves – working to make the community a more welcoming and inclusive place, and working to encourage people to discover the value and meaning in being Jewish. By design, our work almost exclusively aims to reach those who already have connection to Judaism – whether by choice, by intermarriage or a child of intermarriage – but don’t yet participate in Jewish life. What would the Jewish community look like, though, if we took Jewish advocacy in another direction and began actively seeking those who don’t have a connection, those who are unaffiliated to any religion?
Writing in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, Mark Paredes, a Mormon who often speaks on the issue of Jewish/Mormon relations, believes the Jewish community could grow even stronger if we shifted our focus from “Judaism: the Best Way for Jews to Live,” to “Judaism: The Best Way to Live.”
Paredes began thinking about this after reading an article in the Huffington Post by Paul Golin, JOI’s associate executive director. Golin’s thesis was that the biggest divide in the Jewish community is between insiders and outsiders, and finding a way to bridge that gap is the key to Jewish survival in the future. We believe, as Golin wrote, that this can be accomplished by finding the best way to share the “hope and meaning that those of us on the inside have experienced.”
But why focus on those only with a Jewish connection? Actively promoting conversion, while not a new idea, is still a somewhat controversial topic. The late Gary Tobin was one of the few vocal advocates who believed it was a viable strategy for growing the Jewish community. He saw it as a natural extension of outreach. If we are going to spend time and money trying to articulate why the Jewish community is so great, why it’s so wonderful and fulfilling, why not share the same enthusiasm with non-Jews?
Paredes raises some interesting points that we believe are worthy of deeper discussions in the Jewish community, particularly the relationship between non-Orthodox Jews and Judaism itself. But before we reach a point of promoting conversion, we still need to get to a place where Jewish institutions are better equipped to reach those on the periphery of the community. There are far too many intermarried families and unaffiliated Jews who aren’t participating in Jewish life. Our future will be determined by how many continue their exodus or turn back to Jewish engagement.