A year ago, an Encino synagogue bucked Judaism’s traditional distaste for proselytizing by announcing plans to seek converts among unaffiliated Jews and non-Jewish seekers to recoup membership in the age of mixed marriage.
Today, as the Jewish High Holy Days close with Yom Kippur rites, the innovative Valley Beth Shalom congregation says it will offer future converts not only a view of its own centrist Conservative branch of Judaism but information about traditional Orthodox and liberal Reform and Reconstructionist versions of the faith.
“Those who become ‘Jews by choice’ ought to be able to choose their denomination,” said Senior Rabbi Harold Schulweis of the 1,800-family synagogue, the largest in the San Fernando Valley. “This has never been done before.”
Prominent Los Angeles area rabbis have agreed to describe their denominations to classes of possible converts early next year at Valley Beth Shalom. “These representatives will be expected to present--without restrictions--the attraction, depth and excellence of their school of thought and of practice,” Schulweis said.
By giving converts denominational options, the program acknowledges that people “should be able to choose a way in Judaism compatible with their ideology and understanding,” Schulweis said. The multidenominational approach also has the goal of countering what the rabbi called “serious fragmentation” in Jewish communities.
Alluding not only to disputes between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews in Israel and the United States, Schulweis contended that even Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist institutions too often keep to their own circles.
“A people barely 2.6% of the general population in America is made smaller yet by our de facto apartheid policies,” said Schulweis. Synagogue leaders, whether liberal or traditional, have decried the shrinkage of American Jewry by so many marriages to non Jews.
Denominationalism is partly to blame, he said. Jewish youth from synagogue-affiliated families are robbed of contact with larger numbers of dating partners and potential marriage partners by the camps, organizations and activities run along denominational lines, he said.
“It is important to demonstrate and, not by rhetoric alone, that we are one people, that God is one and that Torah is one,” Schulweis said, adding that he hopes the novel approach to potential converts will spread countrywide.
The Valley Beth Shalom Keruv (in Hebrew, “to bring close”) Center will begin a series of 17 Wednesday night classes on Feb. 25, starting with an introduction to Judaism by Schulweis and Rabbi Nina Bieber Feinstein, the course coordinator.
In the four following weeks, Orthodox Rabbi Abner Weiss of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, Conservative Rabbi Daniel Gordis of the University of Judaism, Reconstructionist Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of University Synagogue in Irvine and Reform Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills will talk about their respective branches of Judaism.
Among other noted rabbis speaking on selected topics are Reform’s Harvey Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Isaiah Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise Temple, Orthodoxy’s Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA Hillel, and another Reconstructionist, Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillath Israel, Pacific Palisades.
At the same time, the Keruv Center at the Encino synagogue is trying to put a friendly face on its own congregation and ritual observances. During the High Holy Days, Valley Beth Shalom leaders sought volunteers to act as mentors to potential converts by inviting them to their homes for a Sabbath meal and, in the spring, to a Passover Seder. Mentors would also be assigned to accompany seekers to a synagogue service.
Rabbis Schulweis and Edward Feinstein will meet with recruited mentors in November to lead discussions on what Valley Beth Shalom and Judaism in general has to offer.
In the process, Schulweis said, volunteers themselves will learn a lot more than they ever knew about their religion. “Teaching enlivens the teachers, stimulates their own inquiry and encourages them to find out for themselves,” he said.