About five years ago, I received a call from a man I had never met, asking if he and his wife could come and celebrate “The Feast of Trumpets” with us at our little synagogue, where I am the volunteer president. Bewildered, I asked what the Feast of Trumpets was and finally clued in, after a few minutes of conversation, that he was talking about Rosh Hashanah. I told them they were welcome to attend (we often have non-Jewish guests at our services) and they came, quietly sitting and standing with the congregation. They were very polite, curious, and a little confused.
Eventually, I came to learn that they were part of the Hebrew Roots movement, a Christian religious movement that attempts to connect its followers to Jewish practices and teachings as a way of connecting to the life that Jesus, as a Jewish man, would have lived. Hebrew Roots isn’t a denomination in the traditional sense of the word; rather it’s a more loose fellowship of Christians who are trying to connect with the roots of their faith, Judaism, which they see as a more authentic reflection of the way Jesus would have wanted them to practice. Many of them observe Jewish holidays, some keep a form of kosher, others wear tallit (prayer shawls)—there’s a wide range of practices.
That polite couple had been so confused because the information they had read online was a smorgasbord of Judaism, not really representative of any particular time and place, and so had only a very tangential relationship with modern Jewish practice.
Over the next few years, we started having some Hebrew Roots followers who came regularly to Shabbat services. These people were also mostly polite and curious, but a few were more insistent, perceiving an excellent opportunity to proselytize or argue with us about scripture. I started having to add a caveat to my phone calls: “Yes, you’re welcome to attend, but please keep in mind that we are a Jewish community and it’s not appropriate to try and convert anyone.” Sigh.
In spite of my frustration, I have some sympathy for the Hebrew Roots movement. Many of the questions they’re asking about Christian practice are the same ones I asked before I started my conversion to Judaism. Many converts I know started off this way and, while I’m not interested in proselytizing (them to us or us to them), I also don’t want the Jewish community in our small city to come across as defensive and closed. When I first arrived on a synagogue’s doorstep, my questions were met with a friendly and welcoming benevolence, and I want to provide the same.
I know we’re not the only small community facing this challenge; my colleagues in other small cities tell me they have the same issue. We all worry that, given the small number of Jews in our communities, that welcoming these curious onlookers will create a zoo-like atmosphere where the observers outnumber the observed. Complicating this dynamic is the reality that Jews affiliate with synagogues for a whole variety of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with religious faith at all. While the Hebrew Roots followers are motivated by a strong, often selective, relationship to Biblical text, many in our communities are motivated by culture, tradition, and family as much, if not more, than by Torah. It makes for strange bedfellows.
I don’t have a good answer for this problem. For now, I’ll continue to approach it on a case-by- case basis, giving my little caveat and trying to keep some reasonable boundaries around community events so that they remain gatherings where our families feel comfortable. But I wonder how other communities are handling this movement, and what questions it raises for us more broadly as Jews. How do we respond to being the root of someone else’s tree when we are, in fact, a tree unto ourselves?