Conversion again

As the Jewish New Year starts, the issue of promoting conversion is prominent once again. As we noted in last Friday’s post, Rachel Zoll, an excellent AP religion writer, wrote a problematic article about Jews encouraging conversion.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last two days writing letters to the editor of every newspaper that I think published Rachel’s article. It’s an eclectic list, ranging from major papers in major media markets like the Washington Times, the Miami Herald, the New York Post, and the Chicago Sun-Times, to much smaller cities, like Jackson Hole WY, Lincoln NE, Daytona Beach, El Paso, Portsmouth NH, and many in between.

Why bother? Because I’m very concerned about the reactions interfaith couples will have to the story.

Late last year, when the secular press publicized new efforts by the Reform and Conservative movements to encourage conversion, we heard about several couples that were very upset to think they would be pressured to convert. In one instance, the non-Jewish spouse was approached at work by her non-Jewish boss, who said to her, “I hear the the synagogues want people like you to convert.” The instances we heard about involved couples that had thoughtfully and carefully worked out that they would raise their future children as Jews. Anticipating pressure to convert was a setback to their plans. What are they going to think when they see another article — right before Rosh Hashanah, to boot — with a title like “Jews embrace conversion”?

So my letters to the editor are part of InterfaithFamily.com’s advocacy efforts to move the Jewish community to be more welcoming to interfaith families. I know that letters to the editor aren’t nearly as effective as the original articles, but they are the least we can do to try to get a message to those interfaith couples we’re concerned about that there are significant parts of the Jewish community that are much more interested in welcoming them as they are, and much less interested in pushing conversion.

I don’t know yet whether the letters have been published, except this one, which appeared in the Washington Times:

Rachel Zoll’s article (“Jews encourage conversion,” September 23) overstates Jewish leaders’ advocacy for conversion. At the same time that Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform movement, said that Reform synagogues should not shy away for inviting non-Jewish spouses to convert, he launched an initiative to express gratitude for non-Jewish parents who raise their children as Jews, calling them “heroes of Jewish life.”

Encouraging more interfaith couples to raise their children as Jews is critically important to ensuring Jewish continuity. Rabbi Yoffie’s balanced approach recognizes that that that will happen far more often if the non-Jewish partner is genuinely welcomed and accepted, than if conversion is promoted too aggressively.

Zoll cites a “major” new study by the American Jewish Committee finding that “advocating for conversion works.” But that study, which included interviews of only 37 converts, cited research that focused on young interfaith couples – the most important demographic – and found that they “would be ‘turned off to Judaism’ if they were approached about conversion by clergy or even family friends.”

Conversion to Judaism is a wonderful personal choice. But the Jewish community will shoot itself in the foot if it takes anything other than an unpressured approach toward conversion.

I need to say one other thing about conversion. A few months ago I was at a confernence and ran into an excellent reporter for the New York Jewish Week. She greeted me with, “Why are you so against conversion?” She was referring to our most recent essay on the subject, Enough is Enough. I asked her, “didn’t you see in that article where we said that conversion was a wonderful personal choice?” She said “yes, but … why are you so against conversion?”

The issue of how the Jewish community should approach conversion of non-Jewish spouses and partners is a very nuanced one. Unfortunately it is very hard to convey a nuanced message in sound bites. We have always, consistently said, and say again: we are not against conversion. Conversion is a wonderful personal choice. We are delighted is any of the resources provided by InterfaithFamily.com help anyone along the path to conversion. But our number 1 goal is to maximize the number of children who are raised as Jews in interfaith families. We are convinced that that will happen more if interfaith couples and families are welcomed as they are, than if conversion is promoted too aggressively.

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