Currently there is just one way to become Jewish in a publicly recognized and officially authorized fashion: undergo religious conversion under the auspices of a rabbi.
Whether it’s through Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or other auspices, conversion is explicitly and entirely religious in nature. Movements and rabbis vary in the preparation they demand and the religious commitments they seek of potential converts. But all require a significant measure of religious education, practice and expressed commitment to a Jewish way of life.
In the United States, interest in becoming Jewish has grown, in part because of intermarriage, intergroup friendship and more positive feelings about Jews and Judaism. Jewish thought and ideas resonate with many people. And with the melting of hard social boundaries separating Jews from others, many have entered into marriages, friendships and close working relationships with Jews.
Yet, notwithstanding these ties, many with some interest in joining the Jewish people may be disinclined to do so for a variety of reasons. Some prospective converts are atheists, agnostic, secular, or even committed to another faith tradition. Others may be wary of adopting Judaism as an exclusive religion so as not to offend family members, or because conversion requires abandonment of religiously grounded customs and holidays such as Christmas.
As a result, many would-be members of the Jewish people have no possibility of engaging in a course of study and socialization that would lead to public recognition of their having joined the Jewish people, and they have limited access to enriching their familiarity with “lived Judaism” — the actual culture and ethos of the Jewish life of families and communities.
To provide a viable alternative to the religious route to becoming a Jew, we propose a second, explicitly cultural pathway to join the Jewish people. This path, which we call Jewish Cultural Affirmation, would be clearly distinguished from Jewish religious conversion.
Religious conversion would remain a rabbinic prerogative and we are not suggesting this path should undermine or obviate the traditional path to conversion. In fact, for some, it could be a first step toward it.
Candidates for Jewish Cultural Affirmation would undertake a course of self-guided study and experiences, outlined in a yet-to-be-developed web-based curriculum. Candidates would be encouraged to sample a variety of areas of Jewish civilization — such as politics, literature, music, comedy, social action, learning, organized community, Israel and texts — and to achieve a level of familiarity with and competence in participating in American Jewish life.
For those who come to desire official recognition, there could be a public ceremony and a certificate of membership in the Jewish people.
Jewish cultural experts — professors, writers, artists, educators, communal leaders and others — would constitute boards that would oversee the program and would attest to the validity of the affirmation.
We welcome those who would like to support this endeavor to join us in the conversation so that this proposition might be brought to reality.
Steven M. Cohen is research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is executive director of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute.