Courage of the Converts

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I was on a plane to Salt Lake City to attend the Religion Newswriters Association conference, a three-day conference for mainstream journalists who cover religion. To prepare, I was reading The Impact of Jewish Outreach on the Intermarried and Unaffiliated, a 2001 study by the Jewish Outreach Institute on the effectiveness of outreach programs. It’s one of the few studies of its kind, and like other studies addressing the issue, it finds that outreach does work, that previously unengaged interfaith and unaffiliated families and singles increase their Jewish behaviors after participating in outreach programs.

That’s important, but I bring up the study because as I was reading the section that analyzes methods of outreach, I came across a familiar name: Pam Waechter. You may not remember the name, but she was the woman who was shot and killed by a gunman at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle in July.

At the time of the study, she was director of the Community Outreach Project of Greater Seattle, an outreach program that presented occasional community events for the unaffiliated, ran a Jewish informational phoneline and website and helped other organizations market their events to the general community. The study includes a handful of comments from Waechter. It quotes her briefly on the importance of “having a staffperson identified with outreach who is seen doing things, producing and publicizing results,” and also quotes her several times on her gratitude to the Jewish Outreach Institute for funding her program.

Seeing her name and her quotes made me realize what a courageous woman she was. I didn’t know her, but from what I know about her, it seems that she made a serious of brave personal decisions. Earlier in life, she made the difficult decision to convert to Judaism. When she converted many in the Jewish community were less than welcoming to converts, and I can only imagine that her Christian friends and family had misgivings about her decision. Then, after making this bold move to embrace a new faith and a new community, she decided to become actively involved in Jewish communal work, first volunteering with her synagogue. Once in the Jewish professional world, she became involved in outreach, one of the most controversial fields in Jewish communal work. Some of her comments–”the community is learning about outreach and the mind-set is changing”–are a testament to the uphill battle she faced in running a new outreach program.

The fact that she died at the hands of an anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist man also demonstrates the courage of all converts to Judaism, as well as others–like the non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages–who choose to identify themselves with the Jewish community. By taking part in Jewish life, converts and Jewishly engaged non-Jews alike are saying that they are serious enough about their commitment to the Jewish community that they are willing to become potential targets for anti-Semites and anti-Zionists. And in this world where both anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are on the rise, that is a brave and commendable choice.

(In other news, I’ll be posting updates from the Religion Newswriters Association conference. If I can escape from our exhibitor table for a while–these reporters are a prime marketing target, after all–I hope to catch a speaker or two.)

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