Converts Not Necessarily Wanted – An Open Letter to Arnold Eisen

Chancellor Eisen,

I just read your article in the Wall Street Journal, Wanted: Converts to Judaism, in which you advocate for “the rabbis of the Conservative movement to use every means to explicitly and strongly advocate for conversion.”  Considering that you are the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative Movement, your words carry great weight.  And because of this, I am asking you to reconsider your position.

I of course agree with you that there is much beauty and deep meaning in living a Jewish life.  I am overjoyed when someone comes to me and says that she has decided to pursue the path toward conversion—whether it is because she has lived with a Jewish partner and raised Jewish children and now wholeheartedly desires to become a Jew; she has fallen in love with a Jewish person and thinks that living as a Jew could elevate her own life; or because, independent of any personal relationships, she has found Judaism and has come to believe that she is meant to be a Jew.

It is incumbent upon those of us who are rabbis as well as all people and institutions that are committed to Jewish continuity that we let all people, and especially those family members in our midst who are not Jewish, know that they are always welcome to become Jewish if that is what their soul desires, and that our doors are open wide.  As a rabbi, there are few things I have done that are more rewarding than accompanying someone on their journey to becoming a Jew. Conversion, when done for the right reasons, is a blessing for the new Jew as well as for the Jewish community.  But conversion isn’t the only option, and it isn’t always the right option.  And while I am sure you in no way intended this, I greatly worry that by advocating for conversion, the Jewish community will give the impression that any conversion is OK, even without the sincerity of conviction and belief that a genuine conversion would require.

I agree with you that we should ensure that “opportunities for serious adult study of Judaism and active participation in Jewish life” are always available.  Over the years, I have seen many family members who are not Jewish take Jewish learning very seriously, and I have seen such family members actively participating in Jewish communal life.  I am sure you have witnessed this as well. Sometimes family members who are not Jewish decide over time to become Jewish themselves (often before a significant life-cycle event, such as a child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah).  Others choose not to become Jewish but to remain part of the community.  Their reasons for not becoming Jewish are as diverse as individuals themselves – including the fact that they may believe in and practice another religion; they may not want to convert out of respect for their own parents or other family members; or they may simply not believe in God, thus feeling that conversion to any religion would be insincere.

While I believe that family members who are not Jewish should always know that they are welcome to explore becoming Jewish and that we would be honored to have them as converts if this is what they truly want and believe, I worry that if  “Jewish institutions and their rabbis…actively encourage non-Jewish family members in our midst to take the next step and formally commit to conversion,” as you suggest we do, we will not only encourage conversions for the wrong reasons, but that we will also be putting undue pressure on family members who are not Jewish.  Rather than bringing them into the fold, as you desire, I fear that we could turn them away.

Instead, I think we need to send the message that we welcome family members who are not Jewish as part of our community just as they are (rather than trying to turn them into what we want them to be).  Rather than “explicitly and strongly advocat[ing] for conversion” as you suggest, I believe that we should let family members who are not Jewish know that we would be honored to help them become Jewish if that is what they wish for themselves, and we would be equally honored if they do not convert but make the commitment to raise their children as Jews.  What we really need to do is to ensure that resources are available for parents who did not grow up Jewish (as well as those who did grow up Jewish) to raise their children with Judaism in their lives, whether or not they themselves convert.

Toward the end of your article, you make reference to the biblical character Ruth, the “most-famous convert in Jewish tradition.”  While we often refer to Ruth as a “convert,” using such a term is anachronistic, since “conversion” as we now know it did not exist in Biblical times.  But, more important, as I point out in my blog Re-reading Ruth: Not “Ruth and Her Conversion” but “Ruth and Her Interfaith Marriage,” we cannot ignore the timing of Ruth’s conversion.  As I noted in my blog, by the time Ruth made her famous declaration of commitment to her mother-in-law Naomi and to the people and God of Israel, Ruth’s Israelite husband, Noami’s son Machlon, was already deceased.  This was already after Ruth’s marriage—not before it.

Ruth may have found, as you point out, “community, meaning and direction by entering deeply into her new identity,” but this didn’t happen because Naomi or anyone else in her family encouraged Ruth or advocated for her to take on a new identity.  In fact, the Book of Ruth explicitly informs us that after Machlon had died and Naomi was leaving Ruth’s homeland of Moab to return to Bethlehem, Naomi repeatedly urged Ruth to “turn back” (Ruth 1:11-15) rather than accompany Naomi on her journey.  Ruth uttered the words “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God  (Ruth 1:16) not because Naomi “actively encouraged her” but because Naomi had already accepted her for so many years for who she was—a Moabite, an “outsider,” that was married to her son.  It was because of Naomi’s unconditional love for Ruth that Ruth linked her future with that of Naomi, her people and her God—and ultimately went on to become the great-grandmother of King David.

Chancellor Eisen, you note in the first paragraph of your article that “Judaism needs more Jews.”  I agree with you that the high rate of intermarriage  “presents the Jewish community…perhaps, with a unique opportunity.”  But where we disagree is on what that opportunity is.  In my view, the opportunity we have is not to necessarily convince those who are married to Jews to convert.  Instead, like Naomi, we can help to ensure our Jewish “tomorrows” by unconditionally welcoming spouses and partners of Jews into our Jewish community and making it as easy and meaningful as possible for them to raise Jewish children.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Robyn Frisch
Director, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia

An Enlightening Lobster Lunch

LobsterI have a tradition with a friend whose birthday is also in April, of going out for lobster to celebrate. This is the fourth year we have done this. She is a former synagogue president and Jewish volunteer and as you know, I am a rabbi. I do not promote or broadcast my decision not to keep kosher (each liberal Jew has to learn about and make an educated, autonomous choice about how to practice Judaism) and for some, keeping kosher is a daily reminder about ethical living, environmentalism, animal rights, our sacred responsibility to feed the hungry, choices we are making about the food we consume and the blessings around us all the time.

Ari and server

Ari (right) with her server, Josh S.

Our server’s name was Josh S. We told Josh S. that this was our “un-kosher” birthday lunch and we were hungry and excited to eat! He chuckled. During the meal my friend was telling me about how her son, who married a Catholic woman, just got baptized over Easter as a Hebrew Catholic. It was with some sadness, internal wrestling and wonderment that she shared this news with me. She and her family attended his baptism and her son cried tears of joy and relief that his family supported him through his spiritual and religious journey.

My friend knows that some other mothers would have said, “love is lost and you are no longer my son,” and other mothers would have said, “love is not lost, but I can’t come to your ceremony.” Her son was an active Reform Jew his whole life and even sought out his local synagogue when he was living on his own after college. He did not feel he was greeted there with warmth, welcome or interest from anyone in the community as a newcomer. When he went to church with his wife, however, he was greeted with retreat opportunities to get to know others in a relaxed, fun and engaging atmosphere. He was greeted with love and open arms. We spoke about the need for radical cultural shifts in many synagogues to become a place not of “membership” like a private club, but “My House Shall Be a House of Prayer for All People” as is emblazed across Chicago Sinai a verse from Isaiah, for instance. My friend has come to a beautiful place of acceptance and peace because her child is happy.

At the end of our two-pound lobster lunch (in addition to multiple coleslaws and garlic bread—yes we felt a little sick!) our waiter came with the check. Something made me ask him about being “Josh S.” He explained that he was the new Josh and had to have his last initial on his name tag. He went on to tell us that the S. stands for Schwartz and his Dad is Jewish and mom is Catholic. He was raised Catholic but certainly feels close to his Jewish side of the family. He spoke about going to his grandma’s for holidays and of Jewish foods. He told me he was open to talking more and learning more about InterfaithFamily/Chicago. He said he was confused or conflicted at times growing up, but as an adult has a religious identity.

Oh, I have so many questions for this young man. Are there any ways the Jewish community could be accessible to him if he wants to learn about his heritage? I am going to suggest a Taste of Judaism class among other ideas. He shared his email address so that we can continue the conversation. I taught him the Yiddish word, “beshert” meaning inevitable or preordained (often referring to one’s soul mate).

What’s my take-away from this lunch? There are many, many people who have family members who are Jewish, who are heirs to this great culture and way of life. Whatever paths they have chosen, they may be interested in learning more about Judaism and connecting in some way as adults. We need to make sure our synagogues are accessible, period. And Jewish Community Centers and other Jewish cultural centers like Spertus should also be celebrated by our community as places where someone can tentatively tip toe in and maybe end up staying a while.

A New Conservative Approach to Conversion and Intermarriage

Crossposted to Jewschool.

“I am worried that our present policy is internally conflicted and thus strategically self-defeating,” the rabbi said. “The idea of refusing to be present for the wedding and then expecting the couple to feel warmly embraced by the Jewish people strikes me as a policy constructed by someone who doesn’t know the mind of a young couple…. I am not exactly clear on the message the Conservative movement is sending out into the world, and I am not sure if it is a viable policy in the long term.”

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue

This quote is from Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, a Conservative shul in NYC. He’s not talking about a policy shift within his synagogue or the Conservative movement, but sharing his thoughts on conversion and intermarriage, as reported in the New York Jewish Week (Time To Rethink Conversion Policy).

He likened [the current approach] to joining a gym, noting that a potential gym member is not told first to exercise, get in good shape and then join. Rather, if the person is willing to join, he or she signs up and then the work begins. Moreover, the rabbi added, this logic is not just one of good consumer policy but is consistent with traditional Jewish teaching.

In one of the most famous Talmud stories, the man who wants to learn all of the Torah while standing on one foot is shooed away by Shammai, who has no patience for him, but welcomed by Hillel.

“First, Hillel converts, and then Hillel teaches,” Rabbi Cosgrove said. “First you join and then, once you are a vested member, you figure out what it’s all about.”

In that way, the rabbi suggested that it might be more effective for Conservative rabbis to first accept converts and then teach them.

This would be a huge shift! Compare it to the usual course of action someone follows if converting within Conservative Judaism: a year of study followed by formal conversion (going to the mikveh, and brit milah or brit hadam if the convert is a male).

Imagine if, when an interfaith couple approached a Conservative rabbi to officiate their wedding, the response wasn’t “I can’t officiate, but consider conversion!” or “I can’t officiate, but you’re still welcome to come to synagogue!” but instead was “Welcome! Let’s bring you into the community, celebrate your wedding, and then, as you and your partner establish this next phase of your lives together, let’s make sure Jewish learning is included!”

“My priority is to create Jewish homes, and everything I do is toward that goal,” he said. When a congregant’s adult child comes to him with a non-Jewish partner and wants to get married, he now describes the yearlong conversion program requirement that is a prerequisite to the wedding. Many of them, he says, never come back, choosing a justice of the peace or other [Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal] clergy to marry them.

As Rabbi Cosgrove points out, “love trumps religious affiliation, with the result being that few families are immune from the situation of a child coming home with a non-Jewish partner and wanting to be married in a Jewish ceremony.” So the question becomes: how do rabbis keep up? Do you think Rabbi Cosgrove’s idea to convert the partner who isn’t Jewish so that Conservative rabbis can officiate their weddings and then bring them to study would work? Do you have other ideas?

JFS Case Settled and Jewish Community Unsettled

We’ve posted before on the British Jewish school court case, first when the Court of Appeals ruled that JFS, the largest Jewish high school in Europe, couldn’t exclude a boy whose mother was a non-Orthodox convert, and then when the British Supreme court was ruling on the case. Now the British Supreme Court has returned a verdict–the school admissions policy was discriminatory.

As The Guardian reported,

Phillips said the judges did not consider the Chief Rabbi to be racist. The judgment “should not be read as criticising the admissions policy of JFS on moral grounds, or suggesting it was ‘racist’ in the pejorative sense”, he added.

Is there a non-pejorative sense of racist? I can’t think of one.

In past blog posts I’ve tried to provide some context for this case. First there is the context of the British educational system, which provides government funds to “faith schools,” which are one third of the state schools in England. That’s very different from here in the US, where religious schools are private, and only provide public services in a limited way under contract. Another piece of the context is the religious complexion of Britain’s Jewish community, which seems to consist mainly of non-observant Jews affiliated with the modern Orthodox United Synagogue, under the aegis of the Chief Rabbi. There is also a growing minority of haredi or far-right Orthodox Jews, who have a strong influence on the rabbinical court of the Chief Rabbi, and there is another minority of liberal Jews whose beliefs and practices line up (not very precisely) with Reform and Conservative Judaism here.

Another piece of the puzzle is JFS–an excellent school that is oversubscribed. Making admissions contingent on the most stringent definitions of who is a Jew (excluding some children whose mothers had undergone Orthodox conversion as well as the child in the present case) gave the school a way to weed through the candidates. This has left an unpleasant taste in some community members’ mouths, as the New York Times reported today:

David Lightman, an alumnus of JFS who keeps kosher, whose wife is a convert to Judaism and whose daughter was also denied entry to the school on the grounds that it did not recognize the conversion, said that its old admissions policy was narrow-minded and divisive.

His wife is the head of the school’s English department, he said; his daughter teaches Hebrew classes. Why, he asked, should they be considered less Jewish than a non-believing atheist, say, whose mother happens to be Jewish?

“God can work it out,” Mr. Lightman said. “He’s a big boy; he’s been around for a long time. He can decide who’s Jewish and who isn’t.”

Lightman isn’t inventing a straw person for the sake of argument; last year The Guardian ran an article about atheist sending their children to faith schools because these schools were academically better than the local secular ones.

I know that some Jewish educators in the US are scratching their heads and wishing they had these problems–state funded, excellent schools so good that people are fighting to get their children into them. Or maybe not? Because who really wants the state involved in the internal decisions of their community, and requiring students to prove they are “religious” when they aren’t in school. It will be interesting to see how the school handles their new problem of determining who is a Jew–who is behaving in a Jewish way–and whether it’s easier or harder than their old problem.

The Anglo-Jewish School Case, Revisited

Over the summer, we blogged about a British Court of Appeals decision that involves the British government in the question of who is a Jew. In short, a student applied to London’s JFS (formerly the Jews Free School, largest Jewish school in Europe) and was rejected on the grounds that his mother’s conversion to Judaism was not acceptable to the Chief Rabbi of the United Congregations of the Commonwealth. The family sued the school, and lost, and then won on appeal.

Last week, the New York Times reported on the progress of the case to the British Supreme Court.

There’s a lot of backstory to this case, some of it having to do with the structure of British society and the place of Anglo-Jewry within it.  There are 97 Jewish schools in the UK out of 7,000 publicly financed religious schools. All of the Jewish schools are under the auspices of the United Synagogue and therefore nominally Orthodox–but not all of them restrict their admissions to Jewish students. At least one, the King David School in Birmingham, a city with a shrinking Jewish population, is 50% Muslim. Many Christian schools of various denominations require religious practice tests–but they don’t have the challenge of not being able to write on their Sabbath when students go to worship, as Jewish students do.

Another piece of the backstory is the general acceleration of moral panic over self-definition that seems to have afflicted the entire Jewish people in the last year and a half, with the Israeli high rabbinical court declaring conversions invalid after the fact on what seem from my perspective to be entirely spurious grounds. In Britain, according to Miriam Shaviv in The Forward, the Chief Rabbi had already declared in 2005 that two women who’d converted in Israel (and therefore with an an Orthodox rabbinical court) weren’t Jewish enough for the United Synagogue, because they weren’t Jewish enough to pass muster with Haredi (trembling, or far-right Orthodox) Jewish authorities on the rabbinical court. Those families didn’t fight back–the family of the child in the present case, who was rejected in 2007, did. (Shaviv points out that the judge who ruled in the family’s favor on the appeals court is Jewish.)

I need to write at length about this moral panic over conversion and self-definition, because it’s incredibly painful for a lot of people in our lives. It’s probably enough for now to say that even with all the backstory, I can’t understand the rationale for keeping motivated kids out of a great Jewish school, or taking the risk of getting the government involved in that school’s admissions policy.

Just Not Right

I recently read Rebecca Blady’s  blog post on the website of New Voices, a Jewish student magazine. Blady’s post discusses the National Council of Young Israel’s (NCYI) 2007 policy that restricts member synagogues from having converts to Judaism or women as congregational presidents.  Blady and others have also discussed several other policies which demonstrate how NCYI likely has moved to the right of Modern Orthodoxy.

According to Quinn’s article in the Yeshivah University Commentator two years ago, the NYCI gave only a vague reason for its 2007 restriction on synagogue presidents. They cited a ruling by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a major 20th century Orthodox rabbi,  that converts or women should not be in a position of coercive authority over other Jews.  It’s not clear that presidency of a local synagogue in the United States is a position of coercive power, and I fear that this interpretation violates a major Torah principle of accepting the convert. In fact I had been taught it was downright rude to call attention to a convert’s background.

I began to wonder why the NCYI would choose to implement this policy in the 21st century.  Perhaps,they were influenced by the United States constitution, which prohibits an immigrant from being president?  Or maybe the NCYI feels that being the president of a synagogue gives one real coercive power over their fellow synagogue members. (I hope not!) I fear that for most people, the take-away is a message that converts may be somehow less Jewish, less committed to the performance of mitzvot. InterfaithFamily.com readers can attest to the opposite.  Those who choose Judaism may be more cognizant to the details of a Jewish lifestyle. 

As someone who has enjoyed praying at Young Israel synagogues in the past, I hope they will reconsider some of their policies.  Meanwhile, I can think of a lot more welcoming Orthodox institutions both more traditional and more liberal than the NCYI that I will support instead.

Lindsay Lohan Choosing Judaism?

It looks like Lindsay Lohan is interested in converting to Judaism. According to several news sources including the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz Lohan announced her intentions on her Facebook page with a profile change. (By the way, InterfaithFamily.com has a Facebook fan page and you are welcome to join!)

Lindsay Lohan

Lohan and her girlfriend, Samantha Ronson, recently went to London for Ronson’s brother’s bar mitzvah. One part of the media blitz on this topic disturbed me. Every article I have read on the topic spoke of how she was only doing this to please her girlfriend. Lohan has explored other religions in the past and it seems unfair to say that she is just converting for love. Maybe Ronson introduced her to Judaism, but I hope she is making this decision for herself.

InterfaithCandy.com and Werewolf Bar Mitzvah

On the main site, we are running two opinion pieces, one in favor and one opposed to doing Halloween as a Jew.

I admit it. I’ve never been that interested in Halloween. I went through a phase of feeling guilty that Halloween was a watered-down version of this major Celtic pagan holiday Samhain. Then several pagan and Wiccan friends of mine told me that I shouldn’t feel guilty. Well, all right. I can go feel guilty about something else, and go trick-or-treating with my kid if he wants. He wants.

jukeboxMy son thinks Halloween is the bomb. He went through a totally different sort of phase of wanting to borrow books about Halloween out of the library. He’s not a big candy eater, but he does like to get candy to give away to others and to eat in small amounts over such a long period that we throw out the last of it at Passover. He also likes the whole costume-magical-cutting up pumpkins element of things, because it indulges his mistaken notion that I am crafty. He told us last night that he wants to be a jukebox for Halloween, but luckily he’s figured out how to make the costume himself without me buying a sewing machine. (“Like Anna’s mom.”)

In the meantime, some wonderful person left a bowl of these amazing chocolate covered stuffed dates in the kitchen of the offices we share with many other Jewish organizations. So I had the insight that, because the dates are from Saudi Arabia, we could be interfaithCANDY.com. Ha ha, thank you, thank you, I’m here all week folks.

I’ll just embed my Jewish-themed Halloween video now, shall I? It’s below the cut. Continue reading

Boy Wonder

When I had my bar mitzvah 18 years ago, it was truly all about the party. Back then, at least at my synagogue and in my community, there was no required community service project, kids didn’t lead the service and the theme of the party was more relevant than the theme of your haftarah portion.

Back then, I certainly didn’t know anyone like Thomas Karatzas.

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