Russell Shorto

McLaughlin? Is That a Jewish Name?

The New York Times Magazine

by Russell Shorto

March 24, 2002

It is a mild december evening in Georgia, and in the community room of their synagogue in the town of Marietta, Felton and Deborah McLaughlin talk with typical parental pride about their elder daughter’s bat mitzvah, which took place earlier in the year. Felton, wearing a purple skullcap, smiles at the memory. It was literally the most wonderful experience of my life,” says Deborah, who works as a librarian at a private school in Atlanta. It was very spiritual. Everyone loved it — everyone in both of our families was so proud of her.”

The grandmothers, aunts, uncles and cousins, moved as they were, needed some help understanding the rituals and language surrounding the Jewish rite of passage to adulthood because none of them had ever been to a Jewish service. Three years earlier, the family — Felton, Deborah and their two daughters, Allison and Elizabeth — converted en masse to Judaism. The conversion ceremonies, which followed more than a year of study of all things Jewish, from the history of the religion to blintzes and latkes, were brief: a hearing before a tribunal of two rabbis and a cantor, then a submerging naked into a ritual bath. When they stepped out again, a seemingly elemental barrier had been breached. Generations of matter-of-fact Christian heritage, going back on both sides to Scotland, came to a formal end. The crucifix was set aside; Christmas was over for good. They were Jews.

As Deborah and Felton speak about Allison’s bat mitzvah, which became a kind of confirmation for the whole family of their new identity, Elizabeth is off somewhere playing with friends in the synagogue’s day-care area, while Allison’s class is going on in the Hebrew school. Our lives now pretty much revolve around the synagogue,” Felton says in a mellow Georgia burr. He comes from Waverly Hall, a tiny town in the western part of the state, and describes himself as a proud Southerner.” He first felt sympathy for the Jews during the Six-Day War of 1967, when he was a high-school senior. A year later, during a break from college, he went to the Israeli Consulate in Atlanta in an attempt to join the Israeli Army, but he was told he would have to convert to Judaism, which seemed an extreme move at the time.

Deborah, an Atlanta native, first felt the pull while reading The Diary of Anne Frank” as a teenager. She says she never felt comfortable with the Christianity of her youth. For a long time I tried to find a Christian tradition that felt right, but it never rang true to me,” she says. After we had children, we wanted a value system for them, but we didn’t want to raise them in something we couldn’t believe in.”

They had heard that conversion to Judaism was something that rabbis frowned on. I can tell you,” Deborah said, it was scary to call up a temple and say, I think I’d like to become a Jew.’ ”

The fear was unjustified, to say the least. On a Sunday morning in Atlanta, the man she eventually contacted is crouched in the corner of a cramped radio station studio (1340 Talk Radio WALR — Atlanta’s Straight Talk”), wearing jeans, a knit shirt and a baseball cap that says Rock n’ Roll Rabbi,” doing a furious air guitar to the blaring electric Hanukkah music. Rabbi Steven Lebow, a short, bald, 47-year-old native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., whose round face (and imaginary guitar) give him a Paul Simon aspect, is the high-energy maestro of the Reform synagogue that the McLaughlins joined, and one of a new breed of rabbis actively seeking converts. Thanks to him, Temple Kol Emeth, on a winding suburban road north of Atlanta, is among the fastest growing Reform synagogues in the country. In the past decade, when the total number of Jews in the United States declined slightly, its congregation swelled to 900 households from 295.

Many of those recent arrivals are new Jews, who were drawn by Rabbi Lebow’s proactive methods. He runs print ads. He does radio spots. He broadcasts the High Holy Days services on local cable TV. In 1995 he conducted a billboard marketing campaign all over Atlanta: make our home your home — temple kol emeth, old canton road, marietta. And he’s on the radio every Sunday morning, making a frank pitch for customers. As the music fades, the producer nods, and the rabbi leans into the microphone: Good morning, Atlanta! This is Rabbi Steve Lebow, the rock n’ roll rabbi!”

The subject of the day is conversion: One of Judaism’s greatest strengths is that unlike other world religions, we have not forced ourselves on others. But this reluctance to embrace conversion is also one of our greatest weaknesses. Much of the Gentile world assumes that we Jews are a closed group and that Judaism is a closed club, enterable only by birth. Let me suggest to you a different paradigm for the 21st century, a model in which Judaism competes in the marketplace of ideas. The time has come for Judaism to be open to others, to seek honest and dedicated converts to our religion.”

What drives Rabbi Lebow, and exercises much of the Jewish leadership in this country, is a demographic urgency. In the 1930’s, Jews accounted for 3.7 percent of the American population; today the number is about 2 percent and dropping. And when you measure adults who consider themselves Jewish by religion, as opposed to by birth, the number drops to 1.3 percent. Add to this the fact that since 1985 more than half of all Jews who married have married someone who is not Jewish, and that the majority of these end up raising children who don’t practice the faith, and you face the specter of what Alan Dershowitz calls, in the title of a recent book, the vanishing American Jew. Or, as Rabbi Lebow put it to his congregation recently, We Jews are in danger of making ourselves historically irrelevant if we refuse to admit new people into our midst.”

Many of the new people they are admitting are Christians. Egon Mayer, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a sociologist of American Judaism, estimates that in recent years between 4,000 and 5,000 people have converted to Judaism annually in this country and that there are now about 200,000 Jews by choice,” as many like to be called. Just as noteworthy is who is converting. In the past, converts nearly always came from those who were engaged or married to Jews, and indeed, a recent survey indicates that during the 1990’s the rate of conversions to Judaism in marriage nearly doubled. But rabbis also report seeing more individual seekers: those not following a Jewish spouse but who, in the free marketplace of spiritual ideas, consider Judaism an option alongside joining a yoga ashram or moving from one Christian church to another. We’ve seen a real shift in conversions over the last several years,” said Dru Greenwood, director of outreach for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the institutional center of the Reform Movement. It’s really people exploring Judaism who don’t necessarily have a Jewish partner. They may have a Jewish ancestor, or they may simply be spiritual seekers.”

Curiously, these so-called faith conversions seem most common outside the Northeast, the traditional heartland of American Jewry, and are especially prevalent in the South and Midwest. The reason, Rabbi Lebow says, is the ethnic thing.” As he puts it, There are no hang-ups about not being really Jewish because your ancestors weren’t in the concentration camps.”

Rabbi Barry Block, of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, Tex., which actively seeks non-Jews for its evening Jewish culture courses with ads in The San Antonio Express-News, says he believes that there is an advantage for converts in a place with few Jews. While someone here is less likely to know somebody Jewish,” he said, they’re also less likely to be weighed down by cultural matters like You have to eat bagels’ and Oy vey.’ ”

Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis of Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, Tex. — who converted to Judaism himself 18 years ago — has a different theory to explain why interest is especially strong in the Bible Belt: I get a phenomenal number of people coming to me considering conversion. I think there’s a new element of philo-Semitism in the Christian communities here. Now Evangelicals, who study the Bible seriously, have a philo-Semitism, a real respect for Judaism.”

That may be an overly optimistic view of the extent of admiration for Judaism among Christians, but if you need evidence of the pull of Judaism Down South, consider that even Orthodox rabbis are feeling it. I would estimate that in the past several years I’ve had in excess of 500 approach me about conversion,” said Rabbi Avraham Shmidman of the Orthodox Knesseth Israel Congregation in Mountain Brook, Ala., just outside of Birmingham. He says he believes that seekers in the South are drawn to Judaism because many had an Evangelical upbringing steeped in the Bible and feel the Orthodox tradition will be closer to the Hebrew Scriptures and thus purer.
The catch is that Orthodox rabbis also set the bar much higher for would-be Jews. We are very willing to accept converts, and we’re instructed in the Torah to love the convert,” Rabbi Shmidman insists. On the other hand, out of those 500, he has actually recommended only 1 person for conversion. Many Orthodox rabbis hold to the centuries-old teaching that calls on them to deny a would-be convert three times before finally agreeing to help. We insist that conversion is not a logical thing,” he said. Joining a group of people who have been persecuted for over 3,000 years in every land they’ve adapted to is not logical. Therefore when somebody comes as a candidate, there is going to be a healthy degree of skepticism.”

Conservative synagogues take a milder approach to conversion, with the focus on mixed marriages. Our synagogues don’t go to the extent of placing billboard ads for converts, but we do accept them,” said Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, an association of 800 Conservative synagogues in North America.

Thus it’s the Reform movement — the largest of the divisions of Judaism in the U.S. — that is carrying the banner in the outreach effort. More than 85 percent of Reform synagogues in the country now offer an intensive Introduction to Judaism course for would-be converts. In February, Hebrew Union College, the main Reform rabbinical school, began a program to train its rabbis-to-be in the art of conversion.

Reform leaders insist that they aren’t shooting in the dark but are reacting to a pre-existing yearning among a variety of people who, beginning sometime in the 1990’s and for different reasons, became entranced by the idea of being a Jew. They say that many of these are lapsed Christians, who had felt uncomfortable with the faith they were born into but remain attracted to the Bible. And somewhere along the way it hits them that if you take Christianity out of the Christian Bible, what you’re left with is Judaism.

Kim Smith, a member of Rabbi Lebow’s congregation, converted eight years ago. Sitting in her Victorian living room in the small town of Cartersville, Ga., next to her husband, Tom Owens, and their 12-year-old daughter, Wallis, she tries to explain how it began. Her path has been a particularly circuitous one: she is Korean by birth, was adopted by a Protestant couple, grew up in California and Arkansas and was raised a Methodist. Well, I guess I’m such a novelty anyway,” she says in her wide Arkansas twang. People are like, O.K., she’s a Korean from Arkansas, why not Jewish too?”

But she’s not being entirely serious, and Tom, who did not follow his wife on her religious journey, tries to put it in context: She had a major illness eight or nine years ago. And while she was recuperating, she did some serious soul-searching, asking herself why this happened to her. She started reading books on religion. And then there was the movie.… ”

Laugh if you must, but as people like Rabbi Lebow will tell you, in parts of the country with few Jews, pop culture provides an introduction. It turns out Kim saw Schindler’s List” while she was sick. I walked out of the theater thinking, What is this belief that breeds such hatred?” she says. I had some friends who were Jewish, and I knew they didn’t believe in Jesus, but I didn’t really know what they did believe. So I went to the library and checked out some books. And I was just so impressed. As I read I kept thinking, Yes, this is what I believe! As I see it, Christianity is more about whether or not you have faith, whereas with Judaism it’s what kind of person you are and how you live. I think it’s just a more intellectual religion.” Kim and Wallis now attend services at the synagogue, and Wallis is in Hebrew school there, preparing for her bat mitzvah. I hate Hebrew school!” she says cheerfully. But I like my friends there.”

Thirty miles south, Robin North, sitting in the living room of her neat, year-old colonial-style home, in a subdivision of similarly new and neat homes carved out of the red soil of Marietta, explains how it is that, after having been raised in a fundamentalist Christian home, she is in the process, along with her two daughters, of becoming Jewish. About 10 years ago,” she says, when I was still married and living in Milwaukee, my husband and I were looking for a health club. The Jewish Community Center was the closest and cheapest thing we could find.”

There is a pause, and then 14-year-old Melanie, who has been slouching into an overstuffed chair, comes to life. We went to the J.C.C. camps! We went swimming, and to dance classes. Most of my friends were Jewish.”

Robin, a petite woman with short red hair and flashing eyes who works as a social worker in the public-school system, picks it up then, trying to squeeze a decade’s evolution into a few sentences. I rejected my Christian upbringing at age 13, but I always knew I wanted to raise my daughters in something. It happened gradually. Melanie started getting involved in Shabbat and the holidays. We went to all the religious and cultural activities. When I was going through the divorce, it was the people at the Jewish center who helped me.” She pauses. So it wasn’t like a blinding flash of light. After a while, I just started to feel Jewish.”

The reform branch of Judaism decided to get aggressive seven years ago, when its national office developed an evening lecture, A Taste of Judaism.” We found that half the people who were showing up were not Jewish,” says Greenwood, of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. After people got their taste of Judaism and were still hungry, synagogues found they needed to develop a curriculum for those interested in actually becoming Jews. The Introduction to Judaism course, which typically runs for 20 weeks, might just as well be called How to Be a Jew, focusing as it does on a combination of theology and lifestyle matters. Learning to make brisket is as much an issue for some people as reading biblical texts,” Greenwood says.

Which gets to what many people — Jews and non-Jews — find a bit confusing. Converting to Judaism is not the same as shifting from Presbyterian to Lutheran. The idea of becoming Jewish” has an odd, defying-the-laws-of-nature ring to it, like deciding you want to become black, or Hispanic, or a sunflower. Judaism is a religion, but Jew” describes something more, does it not? An ethnicity, a culture with its own cuisine and slang, a club that spans the millennia. Can anyone really just join?

The answer is yes. Go back — way back — and you find that seeking converts was a part of Judaism. By some estimates, the Roman Empire was 10 percent Jewish, thanks in part to proselytizing Jews who fanned out from Palestine. With the spread of Christianity came an increase in anti-Semitism, and Jewish leaders put an end to conversion efforts as a matter of self-preservation. It was the startling rise in the number of Jews marrying outside the faith in recent years that caused Jewish leaders to reach back to the ancient model. Even Orthodox Jews insist that once a person meets their arduous requirements and performs the rituals of conversion, he or she is a full-fledged Jew, indistinguishable from any other.

Standing on the rocky and brushy crest of Kennesaw Mountain northwest of Marietta, you look down into a plain that stretches north to the horizon and south to the skyscrapered Tara of Atlanta. It’s one of those vantages that bring meaning to historical events. On June 27, 1864, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and his Union army met Gen. Joe Johnston and his men here in the major campaign leading to the battle of Atlanta.

Another well-known event, which the city would prefer that history forget, is the lynching of Leo Frank, the most famous person in American history to be hanged for being Jewish. In 1913, in a climate of rabid anti-Semitism, Frank was convicted of murdering a 13-year-old girl and sentenced to death. After the governor commuted his sentence to life in prison two years later, a posse of Marietta’s leading citizens burst into a prison farm, kidnapped Frank and hanged him from a tree. The Frank case echoed loudly down the ensuing decades, leading to the reinvigoration of the Ku Klux Klan and the creation of the Anti-Defamation League. Marietta prefers not to dwell on the case, however. The site of the lynching is memorialized by only a tiny plaque — affixed by Rabbi Steven Lebow.

Rabbi Lebow relishes the oddity of building a new, multiethnic community of Jews in what was once the home of American anti-Semitism. He also delightedly admits to borrowing some of the marketing pizazz of the pastors of the Evangelical megachurches that hold sway in Marietta and elsewhere. But, over brunch at an Atlanta diner (potato latkes, naturally), he’s careful to clarify that his aggressive tactics don’t amount to proselytizing. With Judaism, you don’t fall down on the floor and announce that you’ve seen Moses,” he says. I don’t foresee a time when Jews will wander the halls of the Atlanta airport, asking strangers, Hey, have you accepted the Torah into your life?’ ” Rabbi Lebow says that his goal is simply to make it known that the synagogue’s doors are open, and that those who are curious about the tradition of Moses and Hillel (or for that matter Spielberg and Seinfeld) are welcome to come inside.

At the same time, the rabbi has a weakness for the sort of gimcrack business analogies favored by megachurch pastors. If you don’t like Ace Hardware, you have every right to go to Home Depot,” he’ll say. We’ve got to let people know that we have a good product, because otherwise they’re going to go somewhere else.” And his synagogue has something of the megachurch about it as well. The temple recently purchased five adjacent acres and has plans for social halls, basketball courts and an expanded sanctuary. It used to be common for synagogues to put a cap on their membership, furthering the image of Judaism as a private club. Rabbi Lebow’s philosophy is about as far removed from that as possible. I think that sends a weird message,” he says. I never in my life heard of a church limiting its members.”