Monday, July 16, 2012

Look Who’s Trying to Convert You Now

The doorbell brigade is expanding. 

The missionary army has gotten another cohort.  Not only are Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses likely to knock on your doors, Reform Jews are looking for converts, too.  They are inviting Christians to classes.  The approach is less intrusive, but the intent is the same.

For almost 2,000 years, Jews have resisted the in-your-face approach to religion, leaving the front door confrontation to Christians.  Jews used to proselytize, but that was before they grew paranoid about Christianity. 

Convinced that the world was about to end, and that only people who believed in Jesus would be welcomed into heaven, early Christians fanned out across the Roman Empire late in the first century.  They traveled from synagogue to synagogue with their message.  There were plenty of places to go.  Historians estimate that about 10 percent of the Roman Empire was Jewish or supported Jewish ideals.

Jewish leaders, however, were leery of this new message and, eventually, to reduce efforts to convert members, simply banned proselytizing.  By tradition, a rabbi had to deny a potential convert three times before beginning instruction. 

Television apparently changed that tradition.  In the show "Sex and the City," Charlotte (right) converted to Judaism.  That highlighted the growing effort in the more liberal Reform Movement to attract non-Jews to the ancient faith.

Rabbi Mackler
Rabbi Shana Mackler, who leads conversion classes at The Temple, Congregation Ohabai Sholom in Belle Meade, Tenn., said in a published story that 100 non-Jews annually attend a class in his temple to learn about the Jewish roots of Christianity.  Then, they are invited to join conversion classes.

An estimated 12 people a year convert, she said. That’s a small number, to be sure, but reflects a massive change from previous centuries when droves of Jews perennially left the persecuted faith while no outsider joined.  

The courses have been a revelation to participants.  For example, Jason Wesley attended a class in Tennessee only to find his father, a Methodist minister, was also enrolled.   

"Over the years, I tried to go back to church here and there. I'd get into theological debates, and that would be about it," Jason said. "I spent 30 years trying to invent Judaism, and it was here all along."

Not all Jews agree with the Reform approach.  The Orthodox sects reject active conversion efforts, preferring to focus on their own communities.

Rabbi Isaacs
"We wouldn't even offer the class to begin with," Rabbi Judah Isaacs said in the published story by Heidi Hall in the Tennessean newspaper. "Most Orthodox conversion takes place in private study with a rabbi."

In reality, the Orthodox portion of Judaism really has no need.  It’s the fastest growing portion of the religion as people follow the biblical dictates of “be fruitful and multiple.”  In addition, its ironclad tenets have provided a rigid set of rules to people who have become overwhelmed by the cascading changes in our technologically overrun world.

In fact, orthodox groups in all religions have shown growth in recent years as the battered residents of our freewheeling modern society seek shelter in strictures and scriptures.

On the other hand, Reform Judaism has been losing members.  An estimated 70 percent of Reform Jews intermarry.  Many of them do not raise their children as Jews.  Reform Jews also tend to be better educated, another tried and true birth control method.  Educated people on average have fewer children.

Reform Judaism opened the door to more women participants.
The situation was so dire a few years ago that Reform Jews actually voted to become more conservative in their approach to Judaism.  I can recall a rabbi giving a sermon on the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, in which he said there’s no God, but we should pretend there is for several reasons he then explained.  That thesis probably would not pass muster these days.

Instead, you might check your mail or an invitation to learn some religious history.  Can well-dressed, clean-looking Jewish missionaries pushing your doorbell be far behind?

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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