Identity, Religion

Even The Conservative Jews Proselytize

One of the things I could say I was proud of in being raised in Conservative Judaism was that we didn’t proselytize. I say could because, unfortunately, I can say that no more. Amidst another article, peppered with commentary about the need to engage more Jews, is the story of Pete Stein, a new Conservative Rabbi who hits the streets of the Upper West Side, an area I’d definitely say is not lacking in engaged Jews.
If there’s one thing I can’t stand more, it’s being imposed upon over and over by people on the street, saying Jesus will save–save me–save us all. With any religious entity, I rarely find this an engaging or motivating technique that brings me closer to their message. The rise in, not only discouraging the embrace of interfaith couples, but proselytizing, demonstrates once again the true unease many are feeling within institutionalized Judaism about the fact that they are no longer seeing their image in the eyes of those before them, that the power and pulpit they have held so dear, may not remain.
I have to say, as someone who loves many elements of the religious practice, this does little to scare me. What scares me more is the idea that proselytizing on the street is a positive step for building religious movements, identities and institutions. I appreciate Paul Golin, ED of JOI‘s sentiment that it is not productive to think that people will just come to them, but meeting people where they are at doesn’t mean talking “to”–it means, at the very least, listening with, and respecting how Jews are building meaningful engagement in multiple communities that may no longer look like you.

22 thoughts on “Even The Conservative Jews Proselytize

  1. Wait, wait, wait. Prostylzing (at least as far as I understand it) in the case of Christianity is promoting Christianity to non-Christians. Hence, in the case of Judaism, it would be promoting Judaism to non-Jews and no, we still don’t do it and Rabbi Stein isn’t doing that.
    Nothing wrong with getting unaffiliated (not post-denominational, who are affiliated) Jews engaged with Judaism and mitzvot. In fact, Kol HaKavod Rabbi Stein

  2. Pete’s a chill guy – I don’t think he’s at all trying to make more “Conservative Jews.” He’s just trying to have conversations with people about Judaism in general. Though standing on the street wouldn’t be my choice for finding people to talk to, he’ll probably get in touch with more people than, say, a $38 BBQ at the JCC. Also, if anything, Pete totally gets the fact that “the…pulpit…may not remain” and is exploring alternative avenues for enganging people in Jewish life. Plus, a “conversation about Torah” is still different than physical chasing of a person to shake a lulav, take home shabbat candles, or wrap tefillin. Perhpas Pete will chime in here and let us know what Torah he is teaching.

  3. Hi Cole
    This is an interesting and thought-provoking topic so thanks for posting it.
    Before I get into my actual reply I would like to say that I come to this topic from the POV of a convert to Judaism, and so may be coming at this from a different angle than the average Jew by birth.
    If I understand you correctly Cole, your point is not so much about the idea of engaging Jews but rather how this particular rabbi is going about things. If this is the case, I must admit that I agree with you, I don’t think soliciting on the street is necessarily the way I would like to see things done or be approached myself. However that being the case I do think your choice of words leave something to be desired because I certainly don’t believe what this Rabbi is doing qualifies as proselytizing.
    Outreach in Judaism is something of a misnomer compared to the broader context of the term at least as applied by other religious traditions. Where others use the term in order to convert nonbelievers into their faith or tradition, proselytizing in the Jewish context often simply refers to addressing issues around attrition and assimilation of the existing Jewish population. Said another way outreach is simply the attempt to actively get Jews to be more engaged in their own Jewishness, something I feel is a worthwhile and noble endeavor.
    Speaking as a progressive liberal type of person I believe that non-Orthodox traditions unfortunately are way behind in their efforts to engage in meaningful and effective outreach. Organizations such as Chabad and Aish have been effectively engaging in outreach albeit from their more traditional perspective for a while now, and I suspect that the people they are drawing are not traditionally Orthodox types but rather siphoning away (at risk) Reform & Conservative Jews. If non-Orthodox traditions such as Reform and Conservative don’t do something to catch up they’re putting themselves at increased risk of losing young people which could quite easily lead to devastating and far-reaching consequences down the road.
    I’m no fan of Chabad but I respect their methodology and ability to seize on an opportunity when it presents itself and I believe that the more progressive traditions have something to learn from what’s going on here. In a very proto-type sort of way I believe this is what your conservative rabbi is doing. He is onto something it’s just a question of delivery and I think it’s important to see that because this guy doesn’t need to be judged for the shortcomings of what he’s doing, but rather encouraged to do things in a way that is more appropriate or a least diverse in approach.
    I could keep going on but don’t wanna risk boring anyone to death so I’ll wrap up here.
    Thanks again for a thought-provoking post and getting me thinking.

  4. The point isn’t about Pete as an individual. My critique is not of an individual, but rather the underlying message that it contributes to a larger echo chamber occurring right now–for hundreds of years many Jews have not engaged in religious institutions, yet have remained staunchly Jewish. These are not the Jews captured in many studies b/c they can’t be “found”–i.e. they aren’t in the institutions. This idea that this is a new phenomena is simply not true. This is historically how Jews have been.

  5. It’s true using the term proselytize raises some questions, but I use it because I still think it fits. The Webster definition: “to induce someone to convert to one’s faith; to recruit someone to join one’s party, institution, or cause transitive senses; to recruit or convert especially to a new faith, institution, or cause.” This does not mean that it has to be to an entirely different religion.
    The other thing is that even if one says that they are only trying to engage Jews on the street, they are in a public space, which means they are engaging with all who are there.
    And I couldn’t agree more, that I support the ideas of engaging people more in history, tradition, etc, but the methods used to do so are just as important. thanks tikkunger

  6. This is not really on-topic, but it sort of is. How come the Jewish public space is always appropriated and taken up by the Orthodox? How come we never see egal minyanim in airports or bus stations or conferences, etc? How come its the Orthodox who find each other and put together kosher meals? Why is it that Liberal Jews are not really Jews unless they are at home in their own shul (generally speaking, of course – no offense to anybody).
    The specific case in point is the synagogue at JFK – there are millions of Jews who fly through JFK every year, but all the minyanim at the synagogue are Orthodox!

  7. i don;t think that is true amechad. they just, having to deal with the orthodox minyanic hegemony, davven there. i, for one, made my own minyan on el al last time i flew… an egalitarian minyan at that.

  8. “Proselyitzing” is what Conservative Jews need to do more of. They certainly don’t seem to retain their members so they’ve got to get new ones from somewhere.
    I’m also unsure of the future you see for Jews who don’t engage with Jewish institutions. The Orthodox seem to have the greatest future and the greatest engagement. (Most likely to belong to at least one synagogue, send the kids to yesivot, etc etc). I am not confident in the Jewish future of my intermarried friends who nominally consider themselves reform.
    I would love to see the day when C&R Jews start having minyans all over the place, but unfortunately most can barely make it to synagogue one day a week..

  9. If you don’t want to talk to Pete Smith about Torah – then don’t. He’s not exactly brandishing a gun with his signboard. Clearly, anyone offended by the idea of a Conservative rabbi willing to discuss Judaism in public is not exactly Smith’s target audience. But there is an audience out there of moderately affiliated Jews and unaffiliated Jews who otherwise are going to go into the Mitzvah Tank of Chabad or the “Discovery Programs” of Aish Ha-Torah. I am far more confident in Pete Stein’s ability to offer these Jews a path to Torah that does not require them to negate their prior selves or abandon liberal values.

  10. Again, our conversation here comes back to the “different ways of being Jewish” theme. Stein is trying to promote Conservative Judaism to people who are at least semi-receptive. His methods may be (forgive the pun) a bit unorthodox, but so what?
    He’s not trying to catch secular Jews, clearly, since most secular Jews would readily dismiss anyone whose idea of an icebreaker was “Got a minute for Torah?”
    He’s trying to catch people who are receptive to his message, but perhaps don’t feel like they really own their Jewishness. The article mentions internarried Jews in particular, and I think that’s significant. The water’s still murky on the issue for Conservatives, so his saying, “You don’t have to give up Torah for your spouse” may be the right words at the right time for somebody.
    As a seperate issue, the question of why the Orthodox are so often the ones who define Jewish activity…I think they tend to seek out things which are expressly promoted as Jewish because they know (if it’s done right) it’s safe for them, but a chance to vary their experience a bit, grow and change, and perhaps find a fuller observance of mitzvot. I think the Orthodox presence in itself makes even some religious non-Orthodox Jews uncomfortable. There are feelings of inadequacy, perhaps, or even just a sense that you’re sitting across the table from someone who defines Jewishness so differently from you that he probably wonders why you’re even here. And you might do the same.

  11. Thank you, Cole, for grappling with this topic so “publicly.” First, I’d like to point out that I am the associate executive director of JOI, not the executive director; that honor falls to Rabbi Kerry Olitzky. It probably doesn’t need to be stated but I will anyway: JOI’s mission is not about converting non-Jews to Judaism. It’s about providing more options for Jews and the already “Jew-curious” (including the growing number of individuals not born Jewish but now finding themselves part of our Jewish family due to intermarriage).
    In your initial comments, you wrote, “meeting people where they are at doesn’t mean talking ‘to’–it means, at the very least, listening with, and respecting how Jews are building meaningful engagement in multiple communities that may no longer look like you.”
    That sounds a lot like JOI’s training materials, and we couldn’t agree with you more. Our outreach is not about talking ‘to’ or ‘at,’ and it doesn’t sound like Rabbi Stein was doing that either (though I did not personally encounter his work).
    The goal of JOI’s outreach is to provide “multiple entryways,” offering the entire smorgasbord of Jewish life to those who may not be aware of all that’s available. It may include programs at JCCs, synagogues and federations, but it is certainly not limited to those institutions, and JOI has helped initiate and support grassroots initiatives existing completely outside the “system.” But the point of our outreach is: we won’t know whether a program or service exists for a particular individual until WE ASK that particular individual what is relevant to him or her!
    One size doesn’t fit all; we’re not trying to funnel everybody to the JCC. We’re simply trying to meet them, learn who they are, and let them learn who we are. It’s all about engaging the individual. Personally, I think that’s what’s most lacking from organized Judaism, taking the time to create personal connections between those on the “inside” and those on the “outside,” and it’s why so many people I know would rather do the work to create their own thing than simply join a 1,500-family synagogue. Because they feel the individual is overlooked, or is simply regarded as another “membership unit.”
    Exactly because he is not a pulpit rabbi (yet), Rabbi Stein has the opportunity to spend 20 minutes talking Torah to a complete stranger. Many pulpit rabbis are too overwhelmed with responsibilities to their paying membership to be able to dedicate that time to an “outsider,” yet that’s exactly the kind of outreach we most need. And it has been left to Chabad by default. Maybe all graduating Rabbis should spend a year serving the unaffiliated before they receive a pulpit and get swamped by the inevitably huge amount of work required in tending to a congregation (and that is good and necessary work too, of course, I’m not belittling it; it just leaves too little time for outreach, so we need parallel structures and additional professionals).
    JOI’s Public Space Judaism model evolved out of the realization that if you want to meet those on the outside, you have to physically GO OUTSIDE. This isn’t just about street corners, it’s about secular venues for cultural events, for example. Certainly, you don’t object to a Jewish Film Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, do you? The BAM festival undoubtedly attracts more unaffiliated Jews than if it were held at a JCC. That in itself may be considered outreach by some of its funders. At JOI, we would also ask, who is there to meet them personally? To thank them, to welcome them, to make additional recommendations? Again, based on their own interests. It’s not easy, it requires training and sensitivity, and it is certainly not for everybody. But if we don’t talk to people, well, then it’s just another movie.

  12. I absolutely think we should promote Judaism. However, we should do it in the 3rd world, where I am sure people will be more receptive.

  13. Paul thanks for writing–I think what JOI does is very interesting–what also interests me though is how media covers the issues, and part of what I am responding to is how the JTA framed this. I am glad that you and Pete can respond in this forum, because at least you get to do that, but are you also writing to the JTA, because honestly, the way they represented what you do is not how you describe it above.

  14. md said:
    >The Orthodox seem to have the greatest future and the greatest engagement. (Most likely to belong to at least one synagogue, send the kids to yesivot, etc etc)
    I think this is a complete falsehood: the Orthodox had a terrible fall in the 18th century which led to rampant secularism in Eastern Europe, and all chances point to this happening again (it may be happening now)

  15. Thanks Cole. There are always constraints in media presentation. The few quotes of mine in that article were pulled out of an hour-long phone interview in which I said many other wonderfully brilliant things. 😉 I was mainly just thrilled that they were accurate quotes! (Having been misquoted elsewhere.) All things considered, I think JTA does excellent work and is an invaluable service. The actual techniques of outreach may seem obscure or uninteresting to the lay person; a reporter is charged with fashioning a catchy story. In this case, the story was about the novelty of public-space outreach and implied potential conflict with tradition. It did not delve deeply into technique. Still, we are glad the work is deemed newsworthy at all, so that more people in the Jewish community can consider its potential. And luckily, we now have a forum like Jewschool to hash it out in more depth (thanks, all-seeing, all-knowing Mobius!). JOI makes a real effort to be available and responsive, and I personally answer [email protected], so hopefully if people have issues or were confused by the article they can feel free to ask me questions directly, I’m happy to reply.

  16. Paul, I agree the JTA does really interesting work. I’d love to see them cover a piece laying out exactly what you are talking about, that goes into more of the techniques of outreach, b/c clearly this forum demonstrates that there is an audience interested in these conversations. Thanks again

  17. Amit said:
    “I think this is a complete falsehood: the Orthodox had a terrible fall in the 18th century which led to rampant secularism in Eastern Europe, and all chances point to this happening again (it may be happening now) ”
    I agree that the Orthodox are a minority due to changes in Jewish society in the past 2 hundred years, but I don’t see secular society making the inroads that it did. I’m curious to hear why you think it may happen again. I don’t see how all of a sudden secular society will be able to lure people away. Orthodox Jews aren’t running to R or C Judaism and are basically taught that O is the only authentic Judaism.. Will the Orthodox still be a minority in 50 years? I doubt it.

  18. Hi. I’m a blogger (who happens to be Jewish, as opposed to a Jewish blogger – I just have a problem with labels!) who lives outside Cleveland and as you may or may not know, there’s a real struggle going on politically in this state. As I started to write an entry that discussed two recent Plain Dealer opinion pieces, one from the right making fun of the left and one from a Pastor, Kenneth Chalker, saying why the Ohio Restoration Project is scary, regardless of whether the We Believe effort looks or is acting as it could or should yet, I began by looking for info on prostelitizing and Judaism. This blog post of yours came up in that search.
    Thank you for this discussion. It’s extremely helpful in comparing the state of outreach in Judaism with the type of theological thuggery (a term I changed but grafted from Pastor Chalker) that we’re experiencing in Ohio.
    Should you have anything to contribute to the debate as we’re experiencing it here, I hope you will chime in.

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