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Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community

Review of Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community, by Gary A.Tobin (Jossey-Bass Publishers, $25).

Gary Tobin, a leading researcher of the Jewish community, has written a provocative book in which he calls for organized, systematic efforts by the Jewish community to seek converts. Tobin defines "proactive conversion" simply as welcoming non-Jews to become Jews. He says he doesn't advocate proselytizing--he wants to just open the gates, not charge out of them. He doesn't want to abandon standards for conversion as set by the religious movements. He just wants the Jewish community to have a positive attitude towards conversion and to take advantage of the American phenomenon of denomination switching.

Tobin addresses and disagrees with the standard arguments against seeking conversion: that it is traditional to discourage conversion, not to encourage it; that it will produce a backlash in the Christian community; that it shouldn't be a priority for use of the community's limited funds; that it only produces one generation of Jews (because their children do not remain Jewish); that converts are religious but not communal or people oriented; and that it would be preferable to have a smaller number of core, committed Jews than a larger number of uninvolved ones.

Among the benefits Tobin anticipates for the Jewish community if it follows his advice, beyond increasing the numbers of Jews, are that reaching out forces a re-examination of the structure of the Jewish community; converts add a richness to Jewish life and inspire born Jews to participate; and having more racially and ethnically diverse Jews will help Jews bridge gaps with other groups.

Potential targets identified by Tobin for these conversionary efforts include non-Jewish spouses of Jews; children of intermarrieds; individuals with some Jewish heritage; the "unchurched;" and those who are unsatisfied with their current religion.

A lot of what Tobin says rings true. He argues that it is important for Jews not to regard converts as lesser than born Jews (interestingly, Tobin's wife is a convert). He has an excellent discussion of conversion as a transformation of identity through experience and understanding--a process of becoming that begins prior to a formal conversion ceremony, and continues thereafter, and shouldn't be expected to occur prior to marriage (interestingly, Tobin's wife converted after three of their six children were born).

What is missing from Tobin's book is a convincing presentation of why conversion is necessary or preferable to non-Jews making Jewish choices without formally converting. Why couldn't Tobin call for "proactive inclusion" instead of proactive conversion? The motivations he cites for converting--selecting a Jewish spouse, searching for spiritual well being, and desiring to be part of a vibrant community--can be had without conversion. He says that unambiguously Jewish families are necessary to transmit Jewish traditions, but that can happen in intermarriages too; then he assumes that conversion turns a family into an unambiguously Jewish family, but the spouses in such a family could be very minimally involved, while the spouses in an intermarried family could be very involved. Instead of promoting conversion, the community could encourage intermarried spouses to make Jewish choices, including possibly conversion.

Tobin also avoids any serious discussion of the issue of rabbinic officiation at intermarriages. He says that the first contact an interested non-Jew has with the official Jewish community can determine if the person decides to proceed with or withdraw from the process of becoming a Jew--but despite the fact that that first contact in many cases is with a rabbi asked to officiate, Tobin does not advocate strongly for such officiation.

Opening the Gates is not a "how to convert" book. It is an interesting extended policy argument in favor of promoting conversion. Those considering conversion may find it useful in explaining the kinds of attitudes that converts can encounter in the Jewish community, but it is not meant to address what it feels like to undergo the conversion process.

Edmund Case

Edmund Case, the founder and CEO of InterfaithFamily.com, Inc. and co-editor of The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life: An InterfaithFamily.com Handbook (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001), frequently writes on intermarriage issues. Recent pieces include "Can the Jewish Community Encourage In-marriage AND Welcome Interfaith Families?," from a presentation at the November 2010 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America; "The Missing 'Mazel Tov'," an August 2010 op-ed in The Forward; and "Chelsea Clinton's Interfaith Marriage: What Comes Next?," an August 2010 blog post on The Huffington Post.

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