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Ethnicity Is Not Judaism, Says Potential Convert Who Seeks a Welcoming Environment

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
May-June 2002

“The biggest threat to Judaism is not intermarriage, but the message born Jews send to potential converts like myself,” writes David Essex in Reform Judaism (Summer 2002). “Bringing non-Jews into Judaism is essential to the Jewish future - and yet many non-Jews will never feel connected to the Jewish people as long as so many born Jews cling to ‘ethnic baggage’ in defining Jewish identity. Yiddish slang and Bubbe’s chicken soup is more about Eastern European assimilation and nostalgia than about Jewish identity. They are incidental, not fundamental to Judaism, and therefore hold little attraction to religious seekers who might otherwise consider becoming Jews-by-choice.”  

Mr. Essex, whose wife is Jewish and whose three sons have been raised in the Jewish faith, asks: “Why does the road to modern Jewish identity have to take a detour through the shtetls of Poland and the Lower East Side? Wouldn’t it make more sense to go directly to the original sources: torah, Israel, and the teachings of inspired Jewish sages through the ages?”  

After seriously considering conversion, and having studied the liturgy, rituals and Hebrew language, Mr. Essex describes what has stopped him: “The impossibility of my ever feeling ethnically Jewish. Ethnicity is the element that separates me from most Jews. It obscures what I regard as the essence of the Jewish faith - monotheism, ethical living and tikkun olom. ... From my perspective, the tendency among many Jews to confuse ‘yiddish-keit’ with Judaism is a detriment to the Reform Movement’s otherwise commendable Outreach initiative.”  

He concludes: “My sons will raise their children in a world in which Smith and O’Reilly are as likely to be Jewish names as Rosenbaum and Goldstein. What is more likely to hold them fast to Judaism - a family tree that passes through Eastern Europe or a living religion that is an enduring source of wisdom, solace and belonging? I hope that by rededicating themselves to choosing Judaism in their own lives, born Jews will create a more welcoming environment for people of all ethnic backgrounds. Only then will we have an American Judaism that truly reflects the diversity of America.”  

Writing in Moment (June 2002), Rabbi Sid Schwartz, founder and president of The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, notes that, “The future of Jewish group identity in America will be based neither on ghettoization nor appeals for ethnic solidarity. Rather we need to stake the claim for Jewish identity on the conviction that Judaism and the Jewish community have a unique contribution to make to a society desperately in need of a moral compass. Judaism can inform our conversations about creating a sustainable ecosystem, narrowing the gap between rich and poor and a host of other social concerns. It also provides a formula for a rich inner spiritual life in a society that otherwise engages in the idolatry of consumerism.”  

In Rabbi Schwartz’s view, “If our religious and communal leaders begin to make this case to younger American Jews, they might just be interested in what our heritage and our community have to offer.”  

In his book, Judaism for Everyone: Renewing Your Life Through the Vibrant Lessons of the Jewish Faith (Basic Books) Rabbi Shmuley Boteach opposes the identification of Judaism through “negative compulsion” - the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. Fear, he says, is not a good basis for sustaining a commitment.  

“We must stop making Jews choose between being Jewish and mainstream by making the world more Jewish,” he declares. He hopes that people - both Jews and non-Jews - who read this book will “reconnect to God and their families.”  

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.