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A Rabbi's Response to Eric H. Yoffie's Conversion Message

A front page headline in The New York Times in February stated: "Reform Jews Hope to Unmix Mixed Marriages." The article was based on Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie's presidential address at the Biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism, the organization of Reform Jewish congregations. In this speech, Rabbi Yoffie called upon Reform synagogues to increase their efforts to convert non-Jewish spouses. He stated that, by welcoming and accepting gentile spouses, Reform congregations have "perhaps sent the message that we do not care if they convert." He went on to say, "the time has come to reverse direction by returning to public conversions and doing all the other things that encourage conversion in our synagogues."

The Times added that, "a month after Rabbi Yoffie's comments, Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein, the leader of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, made a similar call, urging Conservative Jews as well to be more aggressive in seeking converts among non-Jewish spouses."

A number of people read this article and asked me to respond. First, I want to be clear in stating that I am not against conversion. Indeed, many Sukkat Shalom congregants have chosen to convert to Judaism--usually after having lived Jewish lives for many years. I too want to encourage that choice when it is the right one for the individual. As a rabbi, I believe that Judaism can add true meaning and spiritual depth to our lives.

My primary objection to Rabbi Yoffie's stand is that it sends a terrible message to people just beginning to enter the Jewish world. When a young couple approach me concerning their engagement and plans for their wedding, they are seeking a rabbi to officiate at their ceremony, and they are beginning to address issues of how they will define the religious identity of their family and home. I see my role as rabbi to welcome them into the Jewish world and help them begin to make informed choices about identity, values, and traditions. I am certainly not a neutral party in my counseling and advice. I believe that Judaism has much to offer the new family in terms of values and meaning. But the truth is, this is a most delicate moment in the life of the engaged couple making their marriage plans. If the rabbi is perceived as having a hidden agenda of conversion, that plays into whatever fears of manipulation the couple might feel. I believe that I need to be a person of integrity without a hidden agenda when I am beginning to counsel young couples who come to me at the time of engagement.

Similarly, when families later come to the congregation at the time when a child is born or a child is ready to enter kindergarten, Sukkat Shalom must not be seen as a place that welcomes people only in order to get them to convert to Judaism even if we support those who choose to convert. There is an inherent dishonesty in that approach. Our goal is to welcome the family into the Sukkat Shalom community. We accept people where they are in their spiritual journey even as we help nurture their growth within the Jewish world. I hope people will not read Rabbi Yoffie's statement as descriptive of who we are. Sukkat Shalom is an open home that is welcoming and accepting without proselytizing or manipulating.

Our purpose is not to "unmix mixed marriages" as stated in The New York Times, but rather to support and welcome mixed married familes into a Jewish community that is accepting and supportive. In the process we have built a spiritual home for Jews and non-Jews that is a place of deep spiritual meaning and integrity.

Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon

Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon is the founding rabbi of Congregation Sukkat Shalom of Wilmette, Ill. After 15 years as a rabbi in the Chicago area, he established Sukkat Shalom in 1995 as a unique and innovative congregation serving a diverse population with a specific mission of outreach to intermarried and unaffiliated individuals and families. Rabbi Gordon was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1980.

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