OPENING THE DOOR: Why Intro to Judaism is So Important.
by Rabbi Adam Greenwald and Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
Resisting the storm of ethnic panic that has characterized most of the decade since the publication of the Pew Study of American Jews, the New Mexico Miller Introduction to Judaism Program, an affiliate of this national program created by the American Jewish University (AJU) is an oasis of calm. Sit in on a class and you’ll see a Persian-Muslim physician struggling to learn her Hebrew phonics, next to a tattooed Harley Davidson rider who is saving up for separate meat and dairy dishes and a single mom studying Talmud with her teenage son. Crisis? What crisis?
Conversion programs are the single most powerful and cost-effective vehicles to ensure Jewish continuity and growth in an era of steep decline. The Miller Program, which provides adults with serious Jewish education and personalized support in preparation for conversion succeed in launching whole new Jewish journeys for a fraction of the cost of subsidizing a Birthright participant’s week abroad. The return on that investment is a Jew by Choice who represents the genesis of an entirely new Jewish family and a legacy that will shape the Jewish People long into the future.
As over two decades of studies have conclusively demonstrated, the American Jewish community faces an existential demographic challenge. Among non-Orthodox Jews who have married over the past ten years, nearly three-quarters (72%) have married someone who is not Jewish. Of those, less than half (43%) will produce children who consider themselves Jewish and among their children, only 17% will marry Jews themselves. The effect of such trends over a few generations is clear—the future of Judaism in America appears to be in grave peril.
The time has come to put aside old prejudices and remove unnecessary boundaries, to actively welcome those who might wish to join our community. That means a shift in the attitudes of our communal leaders and institutions, who have long met converts with ambivalence, suspicion, or even hostility. It’s time to put aside our fear that welcoming might turn into proselytizing and make Judaism available to all those who are seeking a path of meaning and community.
That support must not stop with the mikveh. In our focus on the immediate goal of conversion, we often fall short in providing the ongoing support necessary to help new members of the tribe navigate the long and sometimes arduous process of integration into the Jewish community. Instead, they are often offered little more than a handshake and a blessing as they are handed their documents and told to go out and find a place in the Jewish community. Many have no clue what to do next.
It is a sad fact that for some Jews by Choice, the most Jewishly they will ever live is in the lead-up to the mikveh, not during the balance of their lives as actual Jews and it is not uncommon for such people to ultimately lose the spark that brought them to Judaism to begin with. We need a real communal commitment to develop resources and programs to help brand-new Jews translate their passion into action. We need mentoring programs, a universal policy of complementary synagogue memberships and religious school subsidies for converts and their families, ongoing learning opportunities, and affordable Israel experiences for those whose connection with Eretz Yisrael is not inborn. We cannot simply leave converts “dripping at the mikveh,” our community must come together to support our newest members for the long process of building Jewish identity.
A famous Midrash teaches that God esteems converts above all others, because they have chosen their identity not out of compulsion but out of love. Today, there are thousands of individuals who are standing just outside our doors—in our synagogues, in our families, and in our broader communities, who just need the door opened and to be invited to step inside to taste the wisdom and beauty of Judaism. It’s time we summoned our collective will, passion, and resources to make that welcome real.
If you are interested or know someone who might be interested in the New Mexico Miller Introduction to Judaism Program, note the following information.
Open House for the Miller Intro to Judaism: : Sunday, September 21, 10am Green Jeans Farmery Pation
First Session of the Miller program: Starting Date: Wednesday Eve, September 14, 2022
More details about the 2022-2023 Miller program including dates, location, tuition, topics, and more will be posted by Friday, June 17th at this website. https://www.shabbatwithfriends.org
Or contact Rabbi Dov Gartenberg at email@example.com or coordinator, Suzanne Savage at Suzy1946@q.com for up to date information
Rabbi Adam Greenwald was the Vice President for Jewish Engagement at American Jewish University, where he directed the Maas Center for Jewish Journeys and the Miller Intro to Judaism Program for 10 years.
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg is the director of Shabbat with Friends NM. He established the New Mexico affiliate and has been the lead teacher for the Miller Intro to Judaism for two years.
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
Rabbi Dov is the founder of Shabbat with Friends NM. He became a rabbi at 29 after schooling at UC Berkely, Harvard, and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has maintained a blog for over twenty years, giving commentary on a wide range of themes, concerns, and passions.