The Inverse Effect of Proselytizing Jews

Judging a person’s 'Jewishness’ only serves to alienate. Rather than reaching out, rabbis and religious Jews should try to draw others in.

A recent article by the Forward investigated the Chabad “Are you Jewish?” guys. I’ve had my own encounters with them, albeit not in New York City. When I was at college in southern United States, at a campus where there was a relatively small Jewish community, Orthodox Jewish men would sporadically pop up asking students if they were Jewish.

It made me (and my friends) extraordinarily uncomfortable, as if these men were prying into an intimate part of our lives. Religion and spirituality, unless you wear it on the outside by donning religious gear or clothing, are usually personal things.

What made things worse was the feeling that we were being judged: when we said we weren’t Jewish we felt guilty for lying, but when we told the truth and refused to accept the items the Chabad men were offering (or, in men’s cases, pray with them), they would look down at us – or at least that’s how it felt.

Unfortunately, until I was older, most of my experience with Judaism was just that: feeling judged for “not being Jewish enough.”

I never had a bat mitzvah, the first time I attended synagogue with my high school youth group I didn’t know the prayers (and resultantly was snickered at by the other girls), and when a Jewish classmate saw me eating a cupcake on Passover, she snarled and scoffed at me.

Experiences like those turned me off Judaism for a long time and only served to distance me further from the faith. In fact, until I met my husband two years ago at a synagogue event, I hadn’t been to an American shule in eight years.

And it’s not just little old me that feels judged. I’m sure Isaac Mizrahi feels my pain: after he sold items on QVC on Yom Kippur, some Jewish leaders started saying other Jews shouldn’t buy from him.

For a religion and group of people that so often brags about not proselytizing and forcing our beliefs on others, we certainly push our beliefs on other Jews. Two women in Jerusalem recently set out on a campaign to convince secular girls to become religious - and no one can tell me that’s the first time it's happened.

Of course this isn’t a phenomenon unique to Jews. But, as Jews, I wish we would learn to be more tolerant of one another. Instead of judging, we could be inclusive and introspective; instead of accosting people on the street or assessing whether or not they are truly Jewish based on their tradition, we could turn inward and examine our spirituality as something deeply personal and not communal; and instead of lauding those who try to force their Jewish practices on others, we could condemn them, for all proselytizing to the uninterested does is cause them to feel alienated.

Rabbis and religious people should open their knowledge in such a way that draws others toward them. If they did that, less religious Jews might feel more inclined to explore their own Jewish identity, and stop worrying about how to respond to people who want to analyze them from a quick glance on the street.

Yael Miller is a professional working in International Affairs in Washington, D.C.
 

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