The Hebrew Israelite community -- an umbrella term encompassing a variety of Black Jewish organizations and movements -- has just selected Chicago Rabbi Capers C. Funnye as its official Chief Rabbi. The Forward has a good overview of this historic event and the current status of Hebrew Israelites in the United States.
Rabbi Funnye is a well-known figure in both the Hebrew Israelite and American (Ashkenazi-dominated) Jewish establishment (I was well aware of his congregation when I lived in Chicago during law school). He is also relatively unique in the Hebrew Israelite community for having undergone a "formal" (Conservative-overseen) conversion to Judaism. Many members of the Hebrew Israelite community do not do this, primarily because they already see themselves as Jews and they bristle at the suggestion that their Jewish pedigree needs validation or ratification from other (predominantly White) Jewish institutions. A similar controversy often exists in African Jewish communities, who frequently see conversion requirements as disrespecting their own historical identification as Jews.
Yet there is no doubt that Rabbi Funnye's conversion has assisted him greatly in building bridges between his Jewish community and the "mainstream" one populated by people like me. Which got me thinking. There are not that many Jews, and there are not that many people seeking to identify as Jewish. Our default stance should be to embrace diverse populations which want to join our community, and at one level a "conversion" is a great formal ritual to make clear on all sides that regardless of what you look like or where you come from, we are all equal as Jews. Yet I am sympathetic to the notion that there is something askance about forcing a predominantly Black Jewish community, that has been practicing Judaism for multiple generations and fully identifies as Jewish, to submit itself to Jewish approval by predominantly non-Black institutions. What gives us the right to form that hierarchy? And what does "conversion" say about their prior status as Jews?
So it seems to me that it should be a Jewish priority to come up with an alternative. Not a conversion, but a unification -- a ritual or practice whereby persons from Jewish communities that have historically been on the margins of normative Judaism, who perhaps have not always been recognized as Jewish by normative Judaism, can have the opportunity to declare themselves and be declared part of the broader Jewish family. Of course, this is not an open-door proposal -- unification requires, if not agreement by all parties on all aspects of what Jewishness means, then at least consent by both parties that they mutually understand the other to be Jewish in a sufficiently robust way so as to be part of a single community.
Were I a Rabbi -- and lord knows I'm not -- this is what I would be spending my time developing. I think along the same lines regarding the children of interfaith couples where the mother is not Halakhically Jewish but the child has been raised Jewish and fully identifies as a Jew. For that child, it seems to me that the Bar or Bat Mitzvah could just as easily serve the role of a "conversion" as well: it is, after all, the moment where a young person assumes the responsibilities as a Jewish adult, and so a young person who was not born a Halakhic Jew but who is willing to assume those same responsibilities can, in my view, reasonably be said to have been accepted into the community as a Jewish adult.
Judaism is strengthened by our multiculturalism -- the vast montage of human diversity and experience which is enveloped under the Jewish umbrella. We should be proud that we are a faith which for thousands of years (and through no small adversity) continues to exercise a pull on persons of widely divergent histories. I have no desire for Judaism to become a proselytizing faith. But in a world where different faiths and ethnicities interact and intersect like never before in human history, it is time for Judaism to adjust in how it embraces persons who -- diverse though their heritages may be -- are united in their identification as Jews.