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?

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5 thoughts on “A New Conservative Approach to Conversion and Intermarriage

  1. I completely agree – I know I would have converted years earlier if I had felt welcomed and encouraged. Instead, I didn’t convert until my oldest was five, and the reality was that she was self-identifying as Jewish, but wasn’t considered as such because I wasn’t Jewish. I converted, along with my five and two year old, at the same time. But the path would have been easier and I wouldn’t have felt anywhere near as conflicted about it for as long as I did if Conservative Judaism hadn’t made it clear that an interfaith marriage wasn’t what they wanted, and while we were welcome to come to services and events at the synagogue, they weren’t comfortable having a clearly interfaith couple as members.

    • I am sorry to hear that anyone would suffer due to their choice in religion. I personally come from a very unique family. My father (whose family came from Germany and were Jewish) was adopted as a toddler into a wonderful Christian family. I was raised in more of the Christian faith than any other although in my family we have Jewish, Christian, non-believers and we all love one another and get along, which is beautiful. As for me, I am 55 years old, and for about 6 years now my heart strings have been tugging at me to convert (due to my father’s heritage and me having dated a Jewish and celebrated and observed High Holidays), I am now on my path to fulfilling one of my purposes in life and am starting the process of conversion at a conservative synagogue. I hope that everyone’s spiritual journey in life is always as wonderful as my father who was Jewish but adopted into a Christian family…and now me…raised Christian…and converting! I am so happy that there are organizations such as INTERFAITH FAMILY that pointed me in the right direction. Thank you…

  2. I’m Jewish, and my wife is not. Just as we committed to when we got married over 10 years ago, we keep a Jewish home, and we are raising our son Jewish. Was there really no role for a rabbi at our wedding? The Conservative bet din was willing to convert our son based on our expressed intent and commitment. Why couldn’t a similar process have been used to allow a rabbi to officiate at our wedding?

    It was upsetting (though expected) to be so rejected at a time of joy. If I were not personally so committed to my faith, I could see it having driven us away from the Jewish community.

    For those intent on converting, Rabbi Cosgrove’s path may feel more welcoming. For those intent on creating a Jewish home and raising their children as Jews, requiring conversion of the non-Jewish partner still rejects families like mine.

  3. Kol HaKavod, Rabbi. We are all deciding every day who we are and what we identify with. A conversion ‘l’shaim shamayim’ with study as the follow up, to me has as much or more validity than a Jew by birth who abandons all affiliation and identity from bar/bat mitzvah forward. Seems to me that we could/should have a study plan for all newly married Jewish couples, to be sure they get community support for building a strong Jewish home with values and ethics that have perpetuated us for 5000 years, as opposed to the assimilated, secular lives that will be challenged easily at the first sign of difficulties.

    This idea certainly has ‘legs’ to me… hope to read more!

    l’shalom

  4. I think Rabbi Cosgrove’s proposed policy, while it may be more embracing of interfaith families in the USCJ, would be incredibly detrimental to converts overall. There is already a stigma toward converts that we all chose to convert “for” someone, which would only be exacerbated with this “convert first” approach by creating an influx of new “converts” who may or may not understand or really care about what it means to convert and join the Jewish people (religiously, culturally, etc). I have gone into my problems with Rabbi Cosgrove’s plan here: http://goo.gl/xLfbX

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