Nashville, TN (written by Heidi Hall/The Tennessean) -- It used to be a secret test -- rabbis turning potential converts away three times before allowing them to study Judaism.
Then a "Sex and the City" character's on-screen conversion took the mystery out of that tradition -- the series famously demonstrated Charlotte bearing repeated slams of the synagogue door in her face.
"Now some people feel that, if I don't return an email right away, that's what I'm doing," joked Rabbi Shana Mackler, who leads conversion classes at The Temple, Congregation Ohabai Sholom in Belle Meade, Tenn.
The truth is, Reform Judaism is proselytizing in a way rarely seen since before the Roman Empire quashed Jews' attempts to grow their congregations.
Two years ago, The Temple began using its A Taste of Judaism workshop, which draws up to 100 non-Jews annually to learn more about Christianity's roots, as a gentle gateway to joining the congregation. Instead of just saying goodbye, leaders explained how to connect with conversion classes.
This year, the New York-based umbrella group Union of Reform Judaism gave the congregation $5,000 to aid those efforts -- marking the first time the union offered money to help synagogues pay for the process.
While the grant amount is small, and the number of Temple converts rose from three each year to only a dozen annually, the religion's leaders say the new approach reflects a national trend and sea change in attracting outsiders. The converts themselves, who come from a variety of religious traditions -- or none at all -- say it's a relief to find a religion that fits the belief system they held all along.
When Jason Wesley of Hendersonville showed up at A Taste of Judaism in July of last year, he wasn't expecting to run into his dad, a Methodist minister. They were both there to learn more about Judaism, but for one of them, it became a lifelong commitment.
"Over the years, I tried to go back to church here and there. I'd get into theological debates, and that would be about it," Jason Wesley said. "I spent 30 years trying to invent Judaism, and it was here all along."
The psychology student plans to have his conversion ceremony in August.
Various regimes have persecuted Jews for centuries, changing a once-proselytizing people, said Vicky Farhi, an outreach specialist at the Union for Reform Judaism. Jews had to be sure those who expressed interest really wanted to be Jewish, leading to the idea of repeated rejections before agreeing to a course of study.
A forward-thinking rabbi called on the group in the late 1970s to start welcoming converts, but it's been a slow progression.
Like other Jews, Reform Jews believe the Torah is God's word. They also believe religious tenets can change with time. Unlike other branches of Judaism, they accept women as rabbis and congregation presidents and accept gays and lesbians for full participation in synagogue life.
For outsiders, that branch may have the broadest appeal of the four -- Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist -- said Elyce Helford, who's heading up a new Jewish Studies and Holocaust minor at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.
It launches in the fall and sprang from interest in the university's biennial Holocaust Conference, which draws speakers and participants from around the globe. Many students say they're interested in Christianity's Jewish roots or in Judaism's focus on good deeds.
"One thing students say is, 'Jesus was a Jew,'" Helford said.
Orthodox Jews take different approach
Orthodox Judaism, a fundamental form of the religion, doesn't support any similar conversion efforts, said Rabbi Judah Isaacs, director of community engagement for the Orthodox Union. They're focused on cultivating Jewish life within their own communities.
"We wouldn't even offer the class to begin with," he said. "Most Orthodox conversion takes place in private study with a rabbi."
The Union for Reform Judaism claims about 1 million members in the United States but doesn't break out numbers of converts, Farhi said.
She wouldn't reveal membership from a decade ago, saying only that the total number is down due to the economy. A recent nationwide survey by the Association of Religion Data Archives doesn't have comparative information, either.
Anecdotally, Farhi said, synagogues across the nation are reporting increased interest in conversion classes.
Converting typically takes about a year. At The Temple, potential converts meet for two hours every three or four weeks, studying a particular curriculum. They have to prove again and again, through attendance in the classes and regular services, that they're serious about converting. Rabbis ask them pointed questions about why they want to be Jewish.
At the end, students must complete a project that reflects their personal commitment to Reform Judaism.
For Joshua Hawkins, it was a blog about the persecution of gays during the Holocaust. His father and grandfather are Pentecostal pastors, and the conversion strained family ties, but Hawkins and his partner, Robert Burchfield, found another family at The Temple.
"I had been reading and studying, and the more I read, the more I realized this fit my belief system best," he said. "I loved the community aspect of it."
The two were blessed by the congregation at a recent Shabbat service. Mackler, who taught Hawkins and Burchfield their new religion, performed their wedding ceremony at The Temple on June 16, a union fully recognized by that faith.
"For me, it was the acceptance," Burchfield said. "The people just made you feel like you belonged, like you're part of a huge family."
What do Reform Jews believe?
Reform Jews accept the Torah as the foundation of Jewish life, a living document that enables them to confront life's challenges.
They believe Judaism must change and adapt to the needs of the day to survive.
They're committed to the principle of inclusion. Since 1978, the Reform Movement has been reaching out to potential converts and interfaith families, encouraging them to embrace Judaism.
Reform Jews consider children to be Jewish if they are the child of a Jewish father or mother, so long as the child is raised as a Jew. (Some branches recognize only maternal lineage.)
Reform Jews are committed to the absolute equality of women in all areas of Jewish life and were first to ordain women rabbis.
Gays and lesbians participate fully in synagogue life.
Source: Union for Reform Judaism