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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

HOW HUMANISTIC JEWS VIEW "JOINING THE TRIBE" - PART 2


Last week I wrote about some of the history of conversion, also known as adoption, in our movement.* This week I bring the happy news that secular conversion is growing!


By whatever name we choose, there's no question that interest in our secular route to Jewish identity has been rising. It's even increased since the horrible events of October 7, a phenomenon that we've seen before when attacks on Jews have made headlines. At our movement level Rabbi Miriam Jerris oversees an organized program of adopting Judaism under the auspices of the Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ). With the generous support of the National Center to Encourage Judaism (you probably didn't know there was such a thing) Rabbi Jerris and the Society have published a wonderful guide to the process of "secular, cultural Jewish conversion" as its subtitle proclaims.


This booklet (available as a PDF at this link) guides seekers through some of the common questions they may have, helping them to evaluate whether they are candidates for becoming Jewish. The best part of this is the way its contrasts with the Jewish history of rejecting potential converts. The guide's bottom line is that, Yes!, if you're looking for a secular door to Judaism, you've found the place!


A quick Google search that I conducted about secular conversion revealed that the interest is out there. Sadly, many of the articles ruminating on the mere idea of opening a secular door to Judaism seem to have been written just to rule it out. Even where there was support, there was little to no recognition that it already exists. This, of course, happens to our movement a lot. We may have the popular ideas but in Jewish historical terms we are still a movement in its infancy, not nearly as well known as we should be. Fortunately, social media and other internet routes are bringing our message, including this one, to wider audiences. I was especially impressed with an Instagram campaign that the SHJ ran about it quite recently.


Are people responding? Absolutely. Since just last July, Rabbi Jerris has received 121 requests for information and guided forty-nine individuals through the process. While the program is not new, this spike shows that interest is only growing. This raises an interesting question. Given that our movement by no means requires a process in order to join our communities or to access most of our programs, what is it that is motivating people to seek a more formal secular path to forming Jewish identity?


According to Rabbi Jerris, some number of them have unearthed a lost family connection. This was something that I experienced in Miami where, among the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from around the Americas, there were many hundreds who had discovered a connection to the exiled or oppressed Jews from the Iberian Peninsula of so long ago. One traditional synagogue near me welcomed and converted several dozen. The Jewish Community Center where I worked was a popular Jewish home for many others.


Rabbi Jerris' correspondence mirrors this phenomenon. One woman, writing from Poland, spoke about intuitively clinging "to Jewish places, literature, music, and over time to Jewish philosophy" only to later discover that her grandfather was a Jew from Crimea who escaped to Poland in 1918, consequently forced to hide his Jewishness there. Another wrote about her Jewish maternal grandfather whose mother was murdered by the Nazis. Though this young woman grew up in the Jewish community, her lack of belief in a higher power seemed to block a path to formal recognition. She was "thrilled" when she discovered our movement with our authentic path to "officially convert," as she described it, especially in the aftermath of the vicious events of October.


Alongside those with moving stories of family connections are those who seek to "join the tribe" because they were inspired by their connections—or proximity—to Jewish communities and culture. This includes those who "married in" but also a significant number of people who, as Rabbi Wine once put it, simply found that they "like Jewish people and want to be associated with them." The SHJ website blog features a wonderful collection of individual "Adoption Stories."


From this growing group of newly affirmed and affirming Jews, our communities—both locally and globally—have been deeply enriched. The mere fact that there are people all over the internet and the real world wondering about whether such a thing as secular conversion even exists should further impel our welcoming efforts. That there are also people misinforming them that such a thing is impossible should push us even harder.


Humanistic Judaism holds the distinction of frequently being way ahead of the curve when it comes to creating and maintaining dynamic and meaningful new approaches to Judaism. Whether we call it adoption or conversion, our open-armed welcome to Jewish belonging and identity is a gift to the entire Jewish world.


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