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Welcoming Non-Jewish Spouses and Converts to Judaism

Reprinted with permission.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President of the Reform movement, delivered his Biennial Sermon at the Union for Reform Judaism's 68th General Assembly on November 19, 2005 in Houston, Texas. The following excerpt from the sermon addresses outreach issues.

Let's talk now about welcoming of a very specific sort--welcoming non-Jewish spouses and converts to Judaism.

There is no better place to raise these issues than in Houston, for it was in this very city twenty-seven years ago that Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler initiated our outreach program. He declared that we would not merely tolerate converts; we would enthusiastically embrace them. And he proclaimed that we would not sit shiva for our children who intermarry. This was not an endorsement of intermarriage, but rather a refusal to reject the intermarried. We would welcome them into our synagogues, our families, and our homes. We would do this in the hope that the non-Jewish partners would ultimately convert to Judaism; and if not, that they would commit themselves to raising their children as Jews.

The outreach revolution was Alex Schindler's greatest legacy to us and one of our movement's greatest legacies to the Jewish world. It is, nonetheless, a revolution that remains unfinished.

To begin with, we need to do far more for the non-Jewish spouses in our midst. We welcome all such spouses, of course, including those who do not identify as Jewish. But when a spouse involves herself in the activities of the synagogue; offers support to the Jewish involvements of husband or wife; attends Jewish worship; and, most important of all, commits to raising Jewish children, he or she is deserving not only of welcome but of our profound thanks.

These spouses are heroes--yes, heroes--of Jewish life. While maintaining some measure of attachment to their own traditions, and sometimes continuing to practice their religion, they take on responsibilities that, by any reasonable calculation, belong to the Jewish spouse. And very often they do all of this without recognition from either their Jewish family or their synagogue.

I would like you to meet one such hero. Helen Dreyfus met Richard, her husband-to-be, on a blind date and later took an Introduction to Judaism class with him. Although she enjoyed the class and admired Judaism, she did not think that she could convert. But she and Richard agreed to raise their children as Jews and joined Temple Emanuel here in Houston. When her two boys started preschool, Helen felt embraced by the synagogue. Over time, much of the family's holiday and Shabbat preparation fell to her, and she grew to enjoy it. She also became involved in the Parent-Teacher Organization of the religious school. When her husband fell ill with colon cancer in 2003, Judaism was a source of consolation and the temple offered support throughout. Following Richard's death earlier this year, Helen and her sons--Daniel, 10, and Adam, 8--have remained immersed in religious school and temple life. I would like to ask Helen to stand.

Our obligation is to extend our appreciation with a full embrace to Helen and to others like her.

One way to express our thanks is with a formal ceremony of recognition. Some of our synagogues do this in a low-key way, perhaps at an annual breakfast meeting. Others choose a dramatic point in the liturgical cycle. Rabbi Janet Marder asks non-Jewish spouses to come to the bimah on Yom Kippur morning and then has the congregation stand as she blesses them with the Birkat Kohanim. Whatever approach we choose, surely we can agree on the need for every Reform congregation to recognize these remarkable individuals.

Another challenge that we face is the decline in the number of non-Jewish spouses who convert to Judaism. There is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that interest in conversion has waned in our congregations.

In the early years of outreach, Alex Schindler often returned to this topic. Alex told us: "We need to ask. We must not forget to ask." And for a while, our movement actively encouraged conversion. Many of our congregations began holding public conversion ceremonies during regular worship services, but such ceremonies are far rarer now.

The reason, perhaps, is that by making non-Jews feel comfortable and accepted in our congregations, we have sent the message that we do not care if they convert. But that is not our message.

Why? Because it is a mitzvah to help a potential Jew become a Jew-by-choice. Because the synagogue is not a neutral institution; it is committed to building a vibrant religious life for the Jewish people. Because we want families to function as Jewish families, and while intermarried families can surely do this, we recognize the advantages of an intermarried family becoming a fully Jewish family, with two adult Jewish partners. Judaism does not denigrate those who find religious truth elsewhere; still, our synagogues emphasize the grandeur of Judaism and we joyfully extend membership in our covenantal community to all who are prepared to accept it.

And by the way: Most non-Jews who are part of synagogue life expect that we will ask them to convert; they come from a background where asking for this kind of commitment is natural and normal, and they are more than a little perplexed when we fail to do so.

So we need to say to the potential converts in our midst: "We would love to have you." And, in fact, we owe them an apology for not having said it sooner.

Special sensitivities are required. Ask, but do not pressure. Encourage, but do not insist. And if someone says, "I'm not ready," listen. If we pursue conversion with a heavy hand, the result could be to generate resentment. And yes, there will be those for whom conversion will never be an option.

But none of this is a reason for inaction. The time has come to reverse direction by returning to public conversions and doing all the other things that encourage conversion in our synagogues.

There is one other outreach issue that requires our attention.

It sometimes happens that when an identifying Jew marries an identifying Christian, the couple will bring both religions into the family. They tell themselves that "if one religion is good, then two religions are better." But what this does is cause confusion for a child, who recognizes at a very young age that he cannot be "both," and that he is being asked to choose between Mommy's religion and Daddy's religion. Virtually all psychological experts agree that interfaith couples should choose a single religious identification for their children. And the great majority of children in this situation report growing up lacking any sense of belonging. Nonetheless, some parents, desperate to avoid conflict with each other, insist on passing the conflict on to their children by asking them to decide for themselves. And they then enroll their child in both a Christian Sunday school and a Hebrew school, even though few can sustain two schedules of religious education.

Ten years ago, on the recommendation of our Outreach Commission, the Union Biennial passed a resolution encouraging our congregations to enroll only those children who are not receiving formal religious education in any other religion. This was a wise and a humane decision; still, some synagogues have been reluctant to comply. In some cases, they have adopted a "don't ask, don't tell" policy; even if a child is attending a church school, as long as the parents say nothing, the synagogue says nothing.

We understand the reasons for this reluctance. The Jewish parent, wishing to avoid conflict with a spouse's family, may feel that some Jewish exposure is better than none; and synagogue officials are reluctant to take steps that may alienate interfaith families. Nonetheless, there is no escaping that dual education is harmful and unfair to the child. It also causes problems in the religious school, where teachers are often unable to handle the conflicts that arise. Experience has shown that it is far better for our congregations to adopt our 1995 policy and present it in a sensitive way to all concerned. As our resolution stated, our rabbis and educators should also meet with parents, explain the reasons for choosing a single religious tradition, and offer them study and counseling that will enable them to make this choice wisely.

True, it is difficult to formalize boundaries and to say "no," particularly for our movement, which always prefers to open doors and build bridges. But sometimes it is necessary. Let us not forget the lesson of King Solomon, who--faced with two mothers claiming the same child--knew that the parent who refused to cut the child in half was the one who loved him more.

The Union's Department of Outreach and Synagogue Community has prepared a comprehensive guide to assist us in all of these areas: in recognizing the non-Jewish parents in our congregations; in inviting and supporting conversion; and in revisiting our resolution on religious school enrollment. By any accounting, our outreach agenda is an ambitious one.

But so be it. In a little more than a quarter of a century, our Reform movement has made the once radical idea of outreach into a central pillar of Jewish life. In the process, we reached out to the affiliated and the unaffiliated, to the intermarried and the Jew-by-choice. And in so doing, we shared with others the beauty of Judaism and strengthened our destiny as a holy people. This is the legacy of Alex Schindler and we remain true to his vision.

Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. 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. Hebrew for "seven," refers to the seven days of mourning following the funeral of a family member.
Rabbi Eric Yoffe

Rabbi Eric Yoffe is the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

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