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