Out of the Wilderness

Lincoln, Nebraska, is a fine place to live. One of America’s top 20, in fact, according to a recent study. With 170 churches to serve 200,000 people, Lincoln is also a very Christian city. It is a major center for Seventh-day Adventists; has strong Mormon, Methodist, and fundamentalist churches; and has a large, conservative Catholic diocese, one of only two in America that do not yet permit altar girls.

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There are two synagogues in town, each with a membership of just over a hundred families, a healthy chunk of the city’s total Jewish population of less than a thousand. And it’s the same story across the state: Nebraska is known for corn and college football, not for its Jewish community.

So why do non-Jews there want to convert? If they married one of the handful of Jewish singles, they might consider it. But something else is going on in Lincoln, something that’s been happening across the country over the past decade with increasing frequency, especially outside the major urban centers of the East and West Coasts: Christians with no family ties to Judaism are coming forward to convert. They’re converting in Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, in cities and towns with few Jews, or sometimes no Jews at all; places without the expected influence of large Jewish communities and aggressive outreach campaigns. ‘Some of them have never even met a Jew before,’ says Rabbi Stanley Rosenbaum, one of Lincoln’s Jewish leaders.

No one knows exactly how many Americans have converted to Judaism. Most synagogues don’t keep records; Jewish tradition prohibits referring to a convert as such, on the grounds that after conversion one is a full member of the Jewish people. It is estimated, however, that one Jew out of every 35 in the country converted to Judaism.

Rabbis say there is no typical faith convert. Most talk about some kind of theological attraction: Some converts were turned off by something in their birth religion. Former Catholics, in particular, mention the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus as central tenets they can no longer accept. Many former Protestants, especially those schooled in fundamentalist churches, find themselves more drawn to the Old Testament than the New, eventually leading them to embrace the religion that ‘sticks to the original.’ Many speak favorably of the Jewish concept of God as monotheistic and all powerful, a partner with the Jewish people in ongoing creation. Many converts are drawn to the Jewish community, others to Jewish history, others still to the Jewish values of family and education and the Jewish emphasis on social action. Some, particularly those who grew up with little or no religion, are attracted to Jewish ritual, to the holidays and Shabbat services. Some like the exotic sound of the Hebrew prayers.

Whatever the reason, the converts keep coming. And the Reform movement, in particular, has responded by shoring up the support systems these seekers sometimes need. A Taste of Judaism, an adult education course launched in 1996 in four pilot cities in the Northeast, has expanded to more than 470 synagogues, including some in rural areas of the South and the Midwest. More than 22,000 people have taken the course.

Although Taste was designed to bring in unaffiliated Jews, non-Jews also enroll. In fact, half of all who attend nationwide are non-Jews. In areas of the country with smaller Jewish populations, that figure rises to 80, even 90 percent. And according to Reform Judaism records, 13 percent of those non-Jews convert. So many, in fact, that the Reform movement created its Outreach Fellows Program three years ago specifically to train lay leaders to work with the enormous influx of potential converts swamping Reform rabbis.

For Nanci Hamicksburg, who converted three years ago in Lincoln, Judaism fills a spiritual void. ‘I did Christianity, and there was something missing,’ she says. ‘I did Neo-Paganism, and it was better, but there was still something missing.’ Judaism, on the other hand, has become her anchor in a shifting world.

‘We’re living in a more religious era,’ says Rabbi Steven Einstein, rabbinic co-chair of the Reform movement’s national outreach commission. ‘These are people who are alienated from Christianity . . . but not from God or religion.’

From the Jewish Reform movement magazine Moment (Dec. 2000). Subscriptions: $27/yr. (6 issues) from Box 7028, Red Oak, IA 51591.Discuss this article at the Spirit conference in Cafe Utne: cafe.utne.com

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