In 1817, Czar Alexander was convinced by the Holy Synod of the Russian Church that his ticket to heaven was to convert all the Jews in Russia to Russian Orthodoxy. He therefore attempted to do so by granting special privileges to those Jews who would convert. They would live outside the Pale of Settlement, be entitled to freedom from taxes and other privileges. Stubborn Jews who remained Jewish would have everything taken away from them.
In order to make conversion more attractive, remaining a Jew had to be made more distasteful. Toward that end Alexander banned the Jews from having distilleries, which was traditionally a Jewish business. He also did not allow them to be landlords’ agents for the collection of rents, another traditional Jewish line of work. He granted these rights to the converts. He established an organization called “The Society of Jewish Christians” of which he was the patron.
One of the ironies of history is that if you try to make Jews good they are stubborn and if you try to make them bad they are stubborn. From 1817 to 1850, more Russians converted to Judaism than Jews converted to Christianity!
In fact, the rate of conversion to Judaism in certain areas of Russia was so high that the Church was terribly distraught. There were many Russians who went halfway: they denied Christianity and became “Subbotniks,” Sabbath-observers in the mold of the Seventh Day Adventists, giving up the Sunday of the Church.
This phenomenon existed throughout the entire first half of the 1800s. The more the Russians tried to convert the Jews, not only did they have less success, but more Russians became Jews. It made no sense.
When the Czars relaxed their hold and their enmity against the Jewish people, a small amount of conversion took place among Russian Jews. The way to catch Jews is with honey, not vinegar. This is true for good as well.