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"A Jew is a person of Jewish descent or any person who declares himself or herself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, ethical values, culture, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people." This affirmation is taken from the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Judaism 1988 conference statement on "Who is a Jew?" It has significant repercussions regarding the Secular Humanistic Jewish position on accepting individuals who choose to be Jewish. And it places us in a posture of openness and willingness to accept others into the Jewish family.
As part of my job responsibilities for the Society for Humanistic Judaism, I answer the "Ask the Rabbi" questions on the SHJ website. Almost half the questions we receive concern conversion to Judaism. This is an issue of great importance to many people searching to clarify and expand their own identity. What is fascinating to me is that the questions seem to come less from those who are dating or marrying someone Jewish and more from individuals who are exploring a lost Jewish identity. We seem to be getting an additional opportunity to reach those of Jewish background we previously thought were lost to Judaism.
When one converts to a religion, the individual converting must give up any previous religious identity. For many individuals the religion of origin carries with it a series of family and cultural traditions that are not connected to the religion's creed or belief system in the psyche of the individual. These family and cultural traditions are often more difficult to abandon than the religious beliefs associated with a particular religious identity. For Secular Humanistic Jews, being a Jew is self-defined and culturally based. Consequently, it makes a lot of sense to speak about "adopting" Judaism as a culture and as an identity, rather than "converting" to it.
The Secular Humanistic Jewish stand toward accepting not-born Jews has important consequences for the intermarried world. As Jewish partners discover a place to express and celebrate their Jewish identity, not-born Jewish partners discover a place where they need not give up their family-of-origin cultural identity. Rather, not-born Jewish partners can add Jewish culture to their already existing complexity of identities, thereby providing a place for both the Jewish and not-born Jewish partner and their children. Secular Humanistic Jewish communities offer a home where both partners in an intermarriage relationship are accepted and Judaism is celebrated. Any religious beliefs are personally held and not challenged in a Secular Humanistic Jewish community.
We do encourage those adopting Judaism to study. The Society for Humanistic Judaism has developed a course of study that includes both self-directed readings in Judaism and Secular Humanistic Judaism. The process also requires an essay on why the individual chooses Judaism. For those who are near one of our Secular Humanistic Jewish communities, the opportunity to study Jewish history and culture in an established educational program exists. The Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, Michigan, the largest congregation affiliated with Humanistic Judaism, offers a two-year study program. At the conclusion of the study program, a participant may choose to have an adult Confirmation ceremony and celebration. Adoption is two-pronged. The individual adopts Judaism, and the community adopts the individual. Many of our congregations and communities offer ceremonies that feature adopting Judaism, and if you do not live near a Humanistic Jewish community we will engage in this process electronically and through snail mail. One does not need to belong to a congregation to adopt Judaism.
What are the consequences of this particular approach to becoming a Jew for Jewish continuity? In this open and free society, where movement from one ethnic, religious and cultural group to another is a given, all existing cultural and religious identities are imperiled. In a multicultural society, we know that cultural diversity will increase. We can embrace the modern world and its advantages and encourage diversity and connection to origins by expanding the definition of who is Jewish. We can open ourselves and our communities to multicultural couples who want to remain connected to the Jewish world, thereby increasing our numbers. This will certainly be a different kind of Jewish identity, but a no-less significant one.
As a Jewish community, we must continue to encourage increased Jewish literacy so that new and born Jews can become better acquainted with Judaism. But education will only appeal to those who see the Jewish community as an open and welcoming place for their loved ones. Without strong welcoming communities we will not have access to this new generation of would-be Jews who feel rejected, neglected and ostracized by many Jewish communities. With a posture of openness where individuals feel that they as intermarried Jews will be welcomed and their not-born Jewish partners will be treated equally with dignity and respect, we will have the possibility of reaching families that exist on the far margins of Jewish communal life.
Secular Humanistic Judaism affords a different definition of being Jewish and opens the gates to the Jewish community and arms of the Jewish family. It is one more way to reach out to those struggling to find a door to the Jewish community.