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

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4 thoughts on “Converts Not Necessarily Wanted – An Open Letter to Arnold Eisen

  1. I, too, had a very uncomfortable feeling having read Chancellor Eisen’s article in the WSJ. 30 years of my own interfaith marriage confirms much, if not all, of what you have written. My wife is very active in her church, is an active student of Judaism, is active in my synagogue, and has raised 3 children as Jews. The eldest child is very active in his own synagogue (how many 28 year olds can you say that about) and is about to enter his own interfaith marriage to a wonderful woman who appears to be on my wife’s path. Her commitment to her own religion in no way inhibits her desire to let my son continue to find himself in his own. Would I like her (and my wife) to convert? Probably, but for selfish, not practical reasons. My life is enriched by non Jews supporting me, studying Jewish texts with me, supporting my temple, supporting my community, and supporting Israel. The Jewish people are strengthened by this type of support from the surrounding community so I believe your response hits the nail right on the head. Although an accountant by profession, this “Jewish thing” is not a numbers game, it is a “commitment thing”. We need to focus primarily on conversion of individuals because it is the right thing for them, not because it makes us feel better. All we can properly do is open our communities to them to see the possibilities for themselves.

    • Hi Phil. It sounds like you have a great story yourself. Would you be interested in writing about interfaith marriage from a parent’s perspective for InterfaithFamily? If so, please email me at lindseys@interfaithfamily.com.

      -Lindsey Silken
      Editorial Director

  2. I, for one, have been glad to see a trend away from pressuring people into conversion in the Conservative movement, among the laity if not the leadership. Pressuring people to convert sends the message that something is wrong with the family and it needs to be corrected. It’s better for us to accept the family, welcome the non-Jewish member, be happy if the children are raised as Jews, and see what happens. At my Conservative shul, there are a number of fully supportive non-Jews married to Jews, some with children and some without. They are part of our community and we would not be same without them. Our relationship with them is based on mutual respect and appreciation. Conversion is a very personal decision. It’s not something that can be rushed and its not appropriate for everyone. People can and do commit to the Jewish community without conversion and we should welcome those commitments.

  3. As the non-Jew in my family, I can’t tell you how appreciative I am to read this open response to Chancellor Eisen. I believe the request to be well-intended, but creating more Jews by way of encouraging conversion could potentially create additional tension than that which already exists. There are always a few people who won’t accept anyone who is not Jewish, and having a request such as this being issued and validated by someone who holds a status within the community, either the Chancellor, the rabbi, or even another temple member, puts unfair pressure on interfaith families, and provides a sense of justification for untoward, and unwelcome comments.

    Earlier this year, I decided to begin my own conversion to Judaism, but I did it because it was the right time for me. I learned and experienced enough to realize that this was what I truly wanted in life. My path to conversion has been mostly beautiful, with one minor incident that included a temple member openly mocking me at a dinner party, laughing as he asked, “So what, you just up and decided you didn’t believe in Jesus anymore?” The material I am learning is meaningful, and speaks to me in a way that I haven’t previously realized in life. Magical moments during services permeate my mind and leave an indelible mark on my heart and soul as I connect and confirm that this is right and good. Would this experience be the same if I felt pressured to convert before the birth of my first child eight years ago? I don’t think so. Would I feel resentful, or uncommitted? Maybe not, but if this mindset, that Jewish families are preferable to interfaith families, prevails, then others may be doomed to exactly that.

    Interfaith families that are involved in the Jewish community, who are educating our children about Judaism, and doing the best we can to model a righteous lifestyle are good exactly as they are. We are acting correctly and parenting in a way that should not be considered any less valid than that of a fully Jewish family.

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