Last spring, at a service of the Reform Congregation Beth Jacob in Carbondale, Illinois, the Jewish Shema prayer was given a new treatment: It was sung in black gospel style. Jennifer Siegel reports in the Forward that the unique version of the prayer was offered by congregation’s newest members: 55 African American converts to Judaism from nearby Cairo, a predominantly poor, rural, and African American town of fewer than 4,000 people.
The Cairo group’s conversion process began when Phillip Matthews, a local resident who grew up Baptist, developed an interest in Judaism. Matthews formed Torah study group and eventually contacted St. Louis Rabbi Lynn Goldstein, who agreed to accompany the members on their journey toward conversion. Matthews told Siegel that he and his fellow converts “didn’t just want to read what was in the book; we wanted to live out what we were reading.”
Matthews and his fellow converts haven’t abandoned all areas of evangelical emphasis, however. In fact, they’re now actively seeking more members. “Our job as a newly converted Jew is to show the people that there is a better way of life,” Matthews said. “Right now, we’re just taking a simple message to our people: If you’re seeking, what you’re seeking for you’ll find, and if you’re looking for truth, I believe in my heart that Judaism is a better option.”
The belief that one’s primary spiritual responsibility is converting others is common in evangelical circles but hardly a central tenet of Judaism. In my experience, the subject of conversion is a sensitive one in Christian-Jewish relations. Rabbi Goldstein, however, argues that the evangelical undertones to Matthews’ rhetoric are a natural part of the conversion process. Goldstein said, “Doesn’t everyone who comes to Judaism have their own understanding of what it is?”