If I wasn’t Jewish, I would want to become Jewish.
And I would want Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of New York’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue to help me.
Here’s why. Rabbi Hirsch’s conversion program is pretty demanding. Most programs take a few months to a year to complete; his takes eighteen months. When he decided to institute this new program, not everyone at the synagogue thought that it would fly.
They were wrong.
Fourteen students are currently in the program; two have completed it; another five are considering joining the program.
(By the way: Rabbi Hirsch’s program is far more rigorous than the “traditional” Jewish conversion process. According the Shulchan Arukh, the classic code of Jewish law, a candidate simply had to acknowledge that he or she was joining a persecuted religious faith; had to learn some “hard” commandments and some “easy” commandments, and then submit to circumcision and/or ritual immersion. Ah, but back then, the community would take care of the rest of the convert’s acculturation process.)
Is Rabbi Hirsch’s program counter-intuitive? Perhaps. “This is more stringent and a more significant commitment than we’ve seen in almost any community … not only in the Reform movement, but outside of the Reform movement,” said Rabbi Howard Jaffe, who co-chairs the Reform movement’s Joint Commission on Outreach.
Or, perhaps Rabbi Hirsch is on to something. Because there are many modern people people who actually want more out of their religious faith, not less — and they are willing to commit the time, energy, and resources to reach that sacred goal.
That is how Rabbi Sharon Brous, spiritual leader of Ikar in Los Angeles, sees it. As she says in Rabbi Sidney Schwarz’s book, Jewish Megatrends: “Our communal instinct—toward ease and convenience—is a recipe for generational disengagement. The reality is that the young Jews we assume will never dedicate the time or energy needed to take themselves seriously as Jews— who will only go to Shabbat services if they promise to be short, sexy, and conveniently located— are the same young people who will dedicate many hours each week and significant amounts of money to their yoga practices. If a Jewish experience feels cheap and watered down, they won’t sit through it, and they certainly won’t come back.”
We see this reflected in the most recent Pew report on American religion. Evangelical churches are growing. Why? In his 1994 essay, “Why Strict Churches Are Strong,” economist Laurence Iannaccone says that the devout person joins those churches because they offer “a better religious product.” Because those churches are strict, they weed out members with weak commitments. The result? The person sitting next to you in the pew is really into it, and that creates a better experience for everyone.
Dean Kelley figured this out, more than forty years ago, in his book, Why The Conservative Churches Are Growing. He had assumed that growth-oriented churches would have to be non-demanding. Lo and behold, he discovered that the churches that are growing tended to be conservative churches — those that bear active witness to faith; that stress the primacy of worship; that make religious instruction primary; that make requirements.
Yes, we laugh at The Book of Mormon (can you imagine how Jews and, uh, other religious groups, would react to similar lampoons of their faith)? Laugh all you want to, but the Church of Latter Day Saints is one of the world’s fastest-growing religions.
Because the Mormons are all about commitment. Recently, a Jewish high school teacher bemoaned the summer plight of her student, a young Mormon. His summer job was doing volunteer work for his church. She thought that it was a terrible to spend the summer. Especially because he wasn’t getting paid.
“I think it’s great,” I replied. “Imagine what American Judaism would look like if we had thousands of Jewish kids doing precisely that — working, and giving back to the Jewish community.” She admitted that I was right (and there are many Jewish kids who are doing precisely that).
It’s about mission (which doesn’t require you to be a missionary). It’s like exercise. You want to be transformed? It means that you are going to have to break a sweat.
The Talmud teaches: “If someone tells you, ‘I labored in Torah study, but did not find it — do not believe him. If he tells you, ‘I have not labored in Torah study, yet I did find it,’ do not believe him. However, if one says, ‘I have toiled ,and have found it’ — believe him.’”
If American Judaism is going to survive, it will need this kind of religious rigor — and not just from the Orthodox. Gil Troy invites American Jews to “become Jewishly ambitious, to stop approaching Judaism as another item to be sampled in the smorgasbord of life. It means triggering a values revival throughout the Jewish world, using Judaism as a framework for meaning and virtue, as a bulwark against the me-me-me, my-my-my- more-more-more secular world. It means positioning Judaism as an alternative to modern society, not a slave to the latest trends.”
I am betting that we can do it.
In fact, we must. The very future of American Judaism is at stake.