Utne Blogs > Mind and Body

Jewish Converts Seeking Converts

by Staff


Tags: Conversion, black church, Reform Judaism, interfaith, evangelical,

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?”

Steve Thorngate

contemplatingconversion_2
4/16/2008 12:34:22 PM

I was raised Baptist. As a kid and adult I took Jesus to be the Messiah. After doing research I began wondering where Jesus fit into the Old Testament. Also, the Old Testament was never really focused on or understood as a part of my faith. It was like a part of the bible used to confirm New Testament belief. Anywho, the major tenet of the faith is that Jesus is the Messiah. How could I know this for sure if we never really delved deeply into the Old Testamaent? In my own understanding, I can't find Jesus linked from the Old Testament to the New. As a result I've come to question the real significance he should play in my life as a believer in God. So, I am on a quest to gain the answers. In my readings of the Old Testament I have sought to understand it in its own right setting the New Testament aside. After reading it and a New Tanahk that I've purchased I've found some contrasts and similarities. Mostly similar. I've found the Tanahk to be more inline with what should've been a focus of our faith. The more I read of it the more I seem to be loosing belief in Jesus as being the Messiah. I am continuing to read, however. One of the main concerns about the Christian faith to me was that there was not enough reading and really understanding the scripture before trying to witness to others. I hope to really gain the answers I seek.


contemplatingconversion_1
4/16/2008 12:30:10 PM

I was raised Baptist. As a kid and adult I took Jesus to be the Messiah. After doing research I began wondering where Jesus fit into the Old Testament. Also, the Old Testament was never really focused on or understood as a part of my faith. It was like a part of the bible used to confirm New Testament belief. Anywho, the major tenet of the faith is that Jesus is the Messiah. How could I know this for sure if we never really delved deeply into the Old Testamaent? In my own understanding, I can't find Jesus linked from the Old Testament to the New. As a result I've come to question the real significance he should play in my life as a believer in God. So, I am on a quest to gain the answers. In my readings of the Old Testament I have sought to understand it in its own right setting the New Testament aside. After reading it and a New Tanahk that I've purchased I've found some contrasts and similarities. Mostly similar. I've found the Tanahk to be more inline with what should've been a focus of our faith. The more I read of it the more I seem to be loosing belief in Jesus as being the Messiah. I am continuing to read, however. One of the main concerns about the Christian faith to me was that there was not enough reading and really understanding the scripture before trying to witness to others. I hope to really gain the answers I seek.


kensley_2
3/19/2008 12:03:41 PM

In response to Sarah Pumroy: It's true Jews don't "seek out" converts. The tradition of turning down a potential convert 3 times probably comes from the middle-ages when a convert AND the convertor would be killed. The Rabbi was actually tried to protect the life of the goy.


kensley_1
3/19/2008 12:03:36 PM

In response to Sarah Pumroy: It's true Jews don't "seek out" converts. The tradition of turning down a potential convert 3 times probably comes from the middle-ages when a convert AND the convertor would be killed. The Rabbi was actually tried to protect the life of the goy.


rena_1
1/24/2008 9:42:50 AM

Why would any thinking person allow them self to be a part of an organization who has a history of blood and murder written into their script? The evil that underlies the feel good stuff - the singing, praying is not worth the price of admission. The Jewish faith with its arrogance, sense of entitlement, and tribalism has all the ingredients that allow their masses to play out of victim hood and perpetrate violence. Throw away the costumes, the archaic script and look to the Genome map and to astronomers for guidance.


anonymous
1/24/2008 3:27:34 AM

Raised as a Reform Jew I can identify with Sarah's comments.I do not believe in conversion either. However, there is something very exciting about the prospect of hearing the Shema sung in gospal style. We have to look at what converts can bring to Judism as well as what they get out of it. My experience of being Jewish had largely to do with what we did as a family, whether it Raised as a Reform Jew I can identify with Sarah's comments. I do not believe in conversion either. However, there is something very exciting about the prospect of hearing the Shema sung in gospel style. We have to look at what converts can bring to Judaism as well as what they get out of it. Judaism could do with a little more rhythm, dance and joy. My experience of being Jewish had largely to do with what we did as a family, whether it was celebrating Chanukah at home or Passover at the Temple. Converts may find it harder to realize the portability of Judaism, that is, when driven to another country we could always celebrate in our homes until the 10 people could be assembled for services and Temples or Synagogues could be built. There is another opportunity in this particular example. In Israel there is a prejudice against “black” Jews, those from Ethiopia and other non-European countries. How new converts of color are treated in this instance will be important and has the potential of being a positive example for the Beth Jacob congregation, Israel and the rest of the world.


joyce_1
1/23/2008 6:18:52 PM

Religion is much more public than spirituatlity. I was brought up Christian however had deep feelings of longing toward the Jewish faith. I never understood this until at 50 I discovered my grandfather was Jewish. What is and has always been in my heart is Judiasm. What I know is Christianity. When I discovered my roots, I brought Judiasm into my home. My children have only known Christianity and that is the tradition that has always been in my home. I know practice side by side because it is about the family traditions and culture. I can't remove Christianity but I can embrace my Jewish ancestory. I consider myself Jewish and I do agree with Sarah. The rich culture and tradition be it Christianity or Judiasm is a part o our identity. I am tryng to integrate Judism in my life. I am learning about the theology. I will never consider myself a convert, I am Jewish by what is in my heritage but more importantly, what is in my heart.


sarah pumroy
1/21/2008 2:48:34 PM

I'm a bit skeptical about motives when it comes to mass conversions, but I hope these people find whatever they're looking for in Judaism. However, for me, the best part of Judaism is the rich cultural experience that comes from family traditions and being involved in the Jewish community since I was young, which couldn't be replicated by this type of conversion. I'm also disturbed by Matthew's belief that his job as a newly converted Jew is to convert others; as Steve points out, Jews don't seek out converts. In many cases conversion is actually discouraged; rabbis are supposed to turn away prospective converts three times to make sure they are serious. http://www.utne.com