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A Slice of America: Judaism Among Non-Jews

Posted on 05/31/2003 1:19:39 PM PDT by Courier

A Slice of America: Judaism Among Non-Jews


David Haase observes more Jewish customs than most American Jews: he attends a Conservative synagogue, keeps kosher, sends his children to Jewish day school and fasts on Yom Kippur.

Mr. Haase, who lives in Brooklyn, describes himself as observant in his Jewish practice.

Yet he is not actually Jewish.

Raised in a family of religious German Lutherans — his grandfather and great-grandfather were ministers — he married a Jewish woman and committed to raising a Jewish family. In the process, he has become deeply involved himself.

"Much to my surprise, I actually enjoy the community aspect," he said. "I like the religion a lot."

But though his wife would like for him to convert, he says that "it's not the highest priority for me at the moment."

Stories like Mr. Haase's are becoming more common: a growing number of Americans who are not Jewish by any conventional definition — by traditional or the Reform movement's patrilineal standards — describe themselves as in some way Jewish.

In a postmodern and very American way that may alter the definition of Jewishness, many conclude that joining the faith no longer requires crossing the threshold of formal conversion, but is instead becoming a matter of simple self-identification. This even though traditionalists, those in the Conservative and Orthodox movements, oppose identification without conversion.

"People living as Jews without converting far outnumber the amount of people who convert to Judaism," said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, a San Francisco-based group conducting demographic research on Jews.

"It's part of a phenomenon in American religion in general, where people taste and live certain lives to see if they fit," said Mr. Tobin, author of "Opening the Gates: How Pro-Active Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community" (Jossey-Bass, 1999).

Starting next Thursday, Jews will observe Shavuot, the holiday celebrating both the Jewish people's acceptance of the Torah from God, and conversion to Judaism.

It is a Shavuot custom to read the Book of Ruth, in which the biblical figure leaves her own land and people to join the people of her mother-in-law, the Israelites, after both become widows. Ruth's conversion is so considered a model of Jewish commitment that the Torah says the Messiah will be her descendant.

While there have always been people identifying as Jewish though they were not, the twin circumstances of intermarriage and acceptance of Jews in American society have led to such an increase in recent years that the population is becoming quantifiable. A 1990 study, the National Jewish Population Survey, found 55,000 people who described themselves as Jewish but were not born into the faith and had not converted — essentially 1 percent of the American Jewish population.

The number is thought to have grown since then, said Steve Bayme, national director of contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee. "Today the boundary between being a Jew and a non-Jew is incredibly open and porous," Mr. Bayme said. As a result, current studies provide more ways for respondents to explain unconventional connections with Judaism.

The trend is bound to become a controversial issue as the size of the American Jewish population, as traditionally defined, shrinks because of intermarriage and a low birthrate. It may also lead to significant transformation in Jewish self-concept, which has long been based on parentage or formal conversion.

Though views of conversion are inconsistent throughout the Hebrew Bible, the process became fairly standardized around the second century, says Shaye J. D. Cohen, professor of Jewish studies at Harvard. Since then, it has involved circumcision for men and, for both sexes, Jewish study, rabbinic approval and immersion in a ritual bath.

A watershed break came in 1983, when the Reform movement's rabbis adopted a resolution permitting Jewishness to be conferred not just through conversion or birth to a Jewish mother, but also through birth to a Jewish father as long as the child is educated in Judaism and no other religion, and undergoes Jewish rites of passage.

In practice, however, Reform Judaism, the faith's largest denomination, often does not abide by even those specifics. "We don't focus on seeing who's Jewish and who's not," said Dru Greenwood, director of outreach and synagogue community for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the synagogue organization of the Reform movement. "We put our focus on welcoming people who want to live a Jewish life and be part of the Jewish community."

For the biblical Ruth, joining the Hebrews involved pledging, "Wherever you go, I will go, your people shall be my people, and your God my God." That pledge is now typically recited in conversion to Judaism. But Micah Berul has no plans to make it.

Mr. Berul's father was Jewish, and his mother is Catholic. As he was growing up, he says, he observed the major holidays of both religions, in "a secular way." When he was 17 his father died, and he began attending a Conservative synagogue to say the mourner's Kaddish, reading the unfamiliar Hebrew in English transliteration. A few months later he was considering conversion but, he says, did not want to have a drop of blood drawn from his penis as part of the required symbolic brit milah.

He later married a non-Jewish woman, and the birth of their son eight years ago prompted him to explore his Jewish heritage again. He joined a Reform synagogue and enrolled his son in Hebrew school.

"I feel Jewish, and since there's a segment of the Jewish world which views me as such, I feel confident saying I am," said Mr. Berul, a labor lawyer who is moving from Brooklyn to Berkeley, Calif.

In Berkeley there is a synagogue, Congregation Kehillah, that recognizes as Jewish all who say they are, and permits all ritual roles to anyone who wishes.

"For us this became a way to match the reality of life in our congregation, which does not regard discrimination as a good thing," said David Cooper, rabbi of the synagogue, which is affiliated with the small Jewish Renewal movement.

A majority of Congregation Kehillah's member families have non-Jewish members, Rabbi Cooper said, and the congregation informs nonconverted bar and bat mitzvah students that they may not be accepted as Jewish elsewhere.

Policies like these have led to a fracturing between branches of Judaism, since many of those considered Jewish within the Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements are not accepted by the movements that follow Jewish law: the Conservative and the Orthodox. Orthodox rabbis now often require brides or bridegrooms whose mothers or grandmothers converted to provide documentation proving Jewish status.

"Joining this miraculous little nation called the Jewish people is participating in a godly standard passed down for more than 3,000 years," said Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, director of a Hasidic-run Web site. "Upholding that standard is the surest way to maintain true Jewish unity."

Rabbi Shmotkin's Web site,, constantly receives inquiries from people uncertain of their Jewish status, he says, and often refers them to Orthodox rabbis.

Experts are split on whether the trend promises positive things for American Jews, through expanded numbers, or negative things, as the definition of "who is a Jew" becomes increasingly blurred.

"As a Jew myself, I don't know what this trend portends," said Professor Cohen, of Harvard. "Jewishness and Jewish society will certainly be different in a generation or two.

"It's unsettling, it's threatening, it certainly makes one wonder and worry about what this all means, but we simply have to allow that the vast majority of people act in ways far more consonant with their American values than their Jewish ones."

TOPICS: Culture/Society; Extended News; Philosophy
KEYWORDS: religion
1 posted on 05/31/2003 1:19:40 PM PDT by Courier
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To: Courier
No joke, I have thought about converting.
2 posted on 05/31/2003 1:23:16 PM PDT by riri
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To: riri
No joke either, me too. Often. This piece is interesting, that's for sure.
3 posted on 05/31/2003 1:29:06 PM PDT by jocon307 (i just post without looking now!)
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To: riri
I have thought of doing so, also, and actually told a relative once I was probably going to in order to avoid the "CHRISTMAS CRAZINESS" involved with that person.
4 posted on 05/31/2003 1:34:24 PM PDT by goodnesswins (For Lease.....)
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To: riri
No joke, I have thought about converting.

I've not thought of converting, but personally I do feel a bit cheated because
the conservative Christian environment I was raised in didn't spend as much time
talking about Jewish culture and thought.
(LIke most of conservative Christians in the past generation or so, my group did have
positive regard for Israel and the Jewish community...with the usual and
understandable disdain for some liberal nutburgers who JUST HAPPENED to be Jewish.)

While I do religionally "root for the home team", I sure don't want the USA and other
countries to go down the path places like Canada are going...just recently their
Muslim population surpassed their Jewish population.

Jewish influences like Mel Brooks, Jackie Mason and brain-trusts like Dennis
Prager and Michael Medved...I'm all for that.
Folks wanting to nudge us slowly and inexorably to replacing English/American
common law with Shari'a Law...
5 posted on 05/31/2003 1:35:18 PM PDT by VOA
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(yeesh, I know I am treading here but..)

I just think there is something to the OT. I believe in the OT stories. I believe in the God of Abraham

I just struggle with Jesus...Can't get beyond that hurdle.

6 posted on 05/31/2003 1:38:24 PM PDT by riri
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To: Courier
Great post.

But though his wife would like for him to convert, he says that "it's not the highest priority for me at the moment."

Not to mention the 21 stitch cut that goes with the deal for a fully grown man. ;-)

Raised in a family of religious German Lutherans — his grandfather and great-grandfather were ministers — he married a Jewish woman and committed to raising a Jewish family. In the process, he has become deeply involved himself

A remarkably common situation, the family of ministers aside, present with all faiths if you think about it. I've known of it sometimes with friends being an issue in Catholic/Protestant situations but not that much anymore. When my desert hiking bretheren are involved, though, it seems to get a higher profile.

My Mother converted before she married my Father (originally French Canadian Catholic) but I grew up with every festival. As a kid, it's easy. "Presents involved? I'm there!" As you get older you gain an appreciation of the fact that The Almighty cares much less about the language or method of a man's prayer than He does about the feelings in the man's heart. My Bar Mitzvah may be the most significant moment in my memory, but I've had the joy of participating in Catholic, High Anglican and heaven knows what else ceremonies and relished every moment.

I firmly believe that a child must know his one faith, but if that knowledge can be augmented by a spectatorial knowledge of how others worship, only good can result.

7 posted on 05/31/2003 1:46:11 PM PDT by mitchbert (Facts are Stubborn Things)
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Comment #8 Removed by Moderator

Comment #9 Removed by Moderator

To: riri
I just struggle with Jesus...Can't get beyond that hurdle.

not proselytizing...but just saying you are not alone in that.

That's why you get brain-trusts like C. S. Lewis spending most of their lives trying to make
sense of the topic...and explain his understanding to others.
10 posted on 05/31/2003 2:24:20 PM PDT by VOA
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To: Courier; Nachum; Yehuda
I'm not sure why NYT choose to put this out on the sabbath. Observent Jews don't read the paper or go online until sundown. (I'm not very observant) I'm pinging some more obserbant Freepers.

I find the hole concept of "Jewish" Christians to be a bit odd. I would understand the idea of a sect of Christians choosing to rediscover the Jewish roots of Christianity. (Seventh Day Adventists?) On the other hand, Christians following Jewish Law (to varying degrees) without the intent of conversion is strange.
11 posted on 05/31/2003 3:05:56 PM PDT by rmlew ("Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute.")
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To: rmlew
Yes it is "strange" but when you consider that there is somewhat of a reviving among Christians about "inspiration" of the bible it becomes explainable.

For instance Dr. Cherry, a Christian doctor, professes the benefits of eating a "biblical diet". That it is the duty of every Christian to care for their body (vessel). This easily translates into eating kosher.

This along with the resettlement of Israel and 1st, 2nd, 3rd century archaelogical discoveries of Christian life not only in Israel but around the world has caused a renaissance of understanding that Christianity isn't European.
12 posted on 05/31/2003 4:49:00 PM PDT by kuma
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To: rmlew
Oh but I don't consider myself to be Jewish.
13 posted on 05/31/2003 4:49:35 PM PDT by kuma
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To: riri
I believe all the Old Testament and the words of Yeshua as well. I was even circumcised at 13 when my foreskin mysteriously grew almost completely closed overnight. I love the scriptures, old and new, and I await the Messiah's reign in Jersulaem.
14 posted on 05/31/2003 5:01:08 PM PDT by man of Yosemite ("When a man decides to do something everyday, that's about when he stops doing it.")
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To: rmlew
In Christianity, it is faith that saves apart from the works of the Law. When I read the old testament, I see foreshadows of what Christ would accomplish. The ram in the thicket which was sacrificed in place of Isaac was a picture of Jesus being sacrificed in place of man. The cleft in the rock into which Moses was placed while he beheld the glory of God is a picture of God revealing his glory to the one who identifies Christ's wounds as his own. The rock which was struck and out poured water to sustain Israel is a picture of the spiritual life being given through the Son of God who was struck in our place. The Passover lamb an example of death passing from the ones who have faith in the blood applied to the doorposts of their hearts. As it says in Daniel 9:25, "And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself..." And again in Isaiah 53:10-11, "Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. He shall see the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities."
15 posted on 05/31/2003 5:25:57 PM PDT by man of Yosemite ("When a man decides to do something everyday, that's about when he stops doing it.")
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To: riri
Jesus himself said that He was the stumbling block..

The OT declares that since the beginning there was The Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God..

Jesus of the old testament is God the son...there is also God the Father and God the Holy Spirit
Three in one..kind of like those fold out cups...the kind where the three parts compact into one and pull out to reveal a full cup?

God is able throughout the bible to "put on a meat suit..carnal flesh..become human" and walk he appeared to Abraham and had lunch with him (including meat)...

When God became a man he needed to be born of a human order to satisfy the requirement that a pure sacrifice be made for man's sin order to redeem those He has and will redeem..

God became a man...and a willing attoning sacrifice...was crucified ..dead ..and buried ..and resurected..He appeared to many....proved to reliable witnesses..including staunch Roman officers...and Jewish officials...many many witnesses to the many miracles and his crucifiction and resurection..

Jesus is the stumbling block...for He said of himself..that No man can come to the Father but by Him..(Jesus) He said that he is the way , the truth, and the light..The only way...The only path..The only truth...

And that is ,imo, what hangs most people up...especially in this era of dogmatic belief that Christianity is "intolerant"....The truth is always intolerant of the has to be or it is no longer the truth..
16 posted on 05/31/2003 8:25:55 PM PDT by joesnuffy (Moderate Islam Is For Dilettantes)
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To: joesnuffy; Courier
Some Problems With Christ as Messiah

"...attends a Conservative synagogue, keeps kosher...observant in his Jewish practice."

Yet he is not actually Jewish.

Me too.

Thanks for posting, c.

17 posted on 05/31/2003 9:41:51 PM PDT by onedoug
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To: rmlew
Many papers run a "religion" section on Saturday. This peice seems to fit that mold. The times likes to blur the lines between religions.
18 posted on 05/31/2003 10:40:14 PM PDT by Nachum
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To: riri
I just struggle with Jesus...Can't get beyond that hurdle.

Keep struggling, you'll get it.
19 posted on 06/02/2003 6:16:51 AM PDT by Valin (Age and deceit beat youth and skill)
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To: stylecouncilor

An oldie, but interesting.

20 posted on 04/13/2012 9:05:26 PM PDT by onedoug
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