A recent New York Times article tells of an exciting young rabbi, Rigoberto Emanuel Viñas, who has revived a dying Conservative congregation in Yonkers, New York, through an emphasis on greater diversity and inclusion, as well as through a love of Jewish practice and spirituality. I had the pleasure of meeting Rabbi Viñas at this year’s Be’chol Lashon conference (which I blogged about here), and he explained his belief that there could be literally millions of people in the Latin-speaking world who trace their roots to Jewish ancestors and might be interested in learning more about their Jewish heritage and even returning to Judaism. In fact, Rabbi Viñas—who traces his roots through Cuba to Spain—has helped a number of such Latino families do so. The Times article explains:
The personal histories of the new Latino members are varied. Some are the children of Holocaust survivors who settled in Buenos Aires. Some are New York City-bred Puerto Ricans who married Jewish sweethearts. Others, like Ms. Rodriguez, believe their ancestors were among the Jews who were forced centuries ago to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition. They are known as anusim, a Hebrew term that refers to Jews who forcibly converted. Rabbi Viñas welcomes them, too. Over the last decade, Rabbi Viñas has performed dozens of “ceremonies of return” for people who grew up in Roman Catholic homes watching their grandmothers perform rituals they believed were strange family customs, such as lighting candles on Friday nights.
This wonderful work somehow rankles a few leaders in the Jewish community. The Times article continues:
“It’s certainly not something that people would say is a priority,” said Steven Bayne, the national director of contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee in New York. “We are focusing on retaining the people we already have, not churching the unchurched.”
Okay, so here you have a synagogue that is growing within a movement that is shrinking, and Dr. Bayme (the Times spelled his name wrong) thinks it’s not a priority? “Retention” is apparently the new, more desperate key word for the Jewish community in the Aughts the way “continuity” was in the Nineties. That’s very disturbing.
By suggesting that we’re “focusing on retaining the people we already have” (i.e., the Jews), Bayme is, it seems, admitting that we are not currently retaining them, thus the need to focus on it. Certainly Bayme knows that among the reasons we’re not retaining Jews is because many of them too are “unchurched,” and he therefore wants to focus on chuching them. So if you really look deeply at that quote, what he’s saying is that we should only church the unchurched JEWS. In other words, why bother encouraging converts?
The reason to welcome and embrace converts, or those anusim who are returning to Judaism (and are perhaps in a whole different category) is contained in the very same article, which we hope will give Dr. Bayme a new angle on the issue:
For the graying veterans at Lincoln Park, which has about 120 families, the new blood is welcome. Many of them know that Rabbi Viñas has helped many people convert, but no one bothers to make the distinction about individual worshipers. … “Everyone here has blended in perfectly with each other,” Mrs. Katz said. “I imagine that if we were overwhelmed, you’d have people commenting, ‘All he is bringing in are Spanish people.’ But we have children again. We have energy again.”
Is there a more persuasive argument for outreach than that?