As we keep looking at non-Orthodox American Jewry, the numbers of religious Jews keep decreasing as the new generations are revealed. The number of "Jews of no religion" has grown in each generation culminating in the Millennials, people born after 1980. Thirty-two percent of Millennials claim to have no religion. As Alan Cooper, deputy director of the Pew project, told the New York Times: "Older Jews are Jews by religion. Younger Jews are Jews of no religion."
This stark generational difference is more than a matter of belief because two-thirds of Jews with no religion do not raise their children as Jews. Seventy-nine percent of non-religious Jews have a gentile spouse. Only 20%of these families are raising their children as religiously Jewish.
While there are many other alarming statistics about non-Orthodox American Jews in the survey, this decline in religiosity is the most troubling because it is the gateway to assimilation. Therefore, the principal challenge for the American Jewish community is to increase the number of religious Jews.
The painfully difficult question, though, is how to do that. The most difficult reality to face is that all the Jewish community’s heroic and expensive efforts at outreach, synagogue renewal, new and interesting programming, and much else have had very limited results.
Surely we can re-double the methods we have been trying. We need a way to make synagogues more inviting and engaging. We need to re-think how we deal with interfaith couples. The long argument between inreach and outreach will undoubtedly continue, and proponents of each side will want their programs to proceed. Some will emphasize traditional religious practices and institutions (synagogues, schools, and camps, for example) and others more recent attempts to entice Jews to their traditions such as being openly accepting to the intermarried.
These are arguments for the sake of Heaven. What the Pew Survey dramatically illustrates, however, is that current practices have not been working sufficiently well. Perhaps this is because they need new ideas, more support, more funding, more personnel.
Whether or not that is the case, however, what is abundantly clear is that the Jewish community needs a supplementary way specifically to increase the number of religious Jews.
The new way with the most promise is for American Jews to engage in a widespread and active program to encourage those who sincerely wish to convert to Judaism and join the Jewish people on its historic spiritual journey.
No competition with Christianity
More converts means more religious Jews, not just more Jews. Partners in conversionary Jewish marriages (in which the partner born gentile converts to Judaism) raise their children as Jews, belong to synagogues, donate to Jewish causes, and so on at rates virtually indistinguishable from couples in which both partners were born Jewish and at rates much higher than intermarried couples. Perhaps it is because conversion is a religious activity involving a rabbi that converts make such good religious Jews. For whatever reason, if we need more religious Jews, and we do, the best way to get them beyond the traditional methods of Jewish life, is to welcome converts.
Of course, such a program should be free of intrusive invasions of a person’s privacy, such as by knocking on someone’s door or stopping them in public places with the intention of seeking their conversion. Jews have suffered too much for too long from such missionary methods to engage in them.
Efforts to welcome converts similarly need to be free of emotional pressures such as attempting to induce guilt or fear. Such efforts should avoid triumphalism such as by refraining from such claims as that Judaism is the only assured path to salvation or necessarily the best faith for that person.
Surely, we should encourage seekers to examine their birth religion as they explore the right spiritual path for themselves. We don’t seek to grab people from other religions. Seeking converts does not put Judaism in competition with Christianity or any other religion; it puts Judaism in competition with what would otherwise be meaninglessness in a person’s life.
There are many Americans who might be interested in becoming Jewish. They include: (1) Those romantically involved with Jews, such as the intermarried; (2) people with a Jewish parent, grandparent, or ancestor; (3) people who already think of themselves as Jewish in some way but who are not accepted as such by the Jewish community. The Pew Survey called them “people with a Jewish affinity.” They might have Jewish relatives or friends or consider themselves partly Jewish for another reason; (4) people who find Judaism attractive for one reason or another. Perhaps it’s because of Judaism’s encouragement of a questioning attitude, or family closeness, or love of lifelong learning. Perhaps they are like that dentist on "Seinfeld" who converted because of the jokes; and (5) people who are spiritually lost, on a search who are looking at all religions and no religion.
It is time for us to welcome sincere converts to Judaism more openly and vigorously than we currently do. Let us start with discussions – in religious organizations, communities, the Jewish media – about the best ways to welcome converts.
And let’s start before the next survey unveils an even smaller doll.