My non-Jewish wife of twenty-five years, the co-chair of the synagogue Social Action committee, regular Shabbat, Sabbath, service-goer, after a recent discussion with me announced that "Jews are weird." She had good reason to say so.
Wendy was looking for a speaker for the Social Action Shabbat, and someone had suggested a Christian clergy person who had founded an organization that promoted faith-based social justice efforts. The fact that the proposed speaker was a Christian, even a Christian clergy person, wasn't a problem--we've had several Social Action Shabbat speakers like that in the past. But this one had a Jewish sounding name and had converted from Judaism to Christianity.
By the time Wendy asked me what I thought, I had already shivered. I'll admit it, the notion of a Jew converting "out" makes me very uncomfortable. Wendy had already discussed this with the Jewish co-chair of the committee, who had the same reaction as I did. Wendy thought this person would make a great speaker and couldn't understand the reactions she was getting.
I explained what Wendy already knew--that Jews have historically experienced persecution; that the Spanish Inquisition involved the forced conversion of Jews to Christianity; that many Jews who were raised like I was were likely to have the same uncomfortable reaction when confronted with a Jew who had converted "out." Wendy already knew all of this--but it wasn't the first thing she thought of, which is one of the differences between us.
We've been talking a lot recently about the boundaries in synagogues between Jews and non-Jews, and about conversion into Judaism. We each often encounter Jews who say that if a non-Jew wants to be active in the synagogue, why doesn't he or she just convert?
Wendy has got a good point --isn't it inconsistent to, on the one hand, recoil at the notion of a Jew converting "out," but, on the other hand, be cavalier about the significance of a non-Jew's decision to convert "in"?
Ed Case is publisher of this magazine and a regular contributor to the "Interfaith Musings" column in JewishFamily.com. He and his wife Wendy have two children.