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We at the Jewish Outreach Institute believe that the conversion process has two steps, one that is external and public, and one that is internal and unseen. But we wonder if the organized Jewish community puts too much emphasis on the external (formal) conversion--in order to categorize "Who is a Jew" and better quantify our numbers--without recognizing that, like most things in life, the transition into a new religion includes varying shades of gray.
Rabbi Bernard Felsenthal, a spiritual leader in Chicago during the late part of the nineteenth century, and one of the earliest rabbis in America, said it rather succinctly: I consider a Jew anyone who calls himself one and is considered by others to be one. While we might make his statement more "gender neutral" to fit the tendency of the times, we are pretty much in agreement (though halakhic, that is, Jewish legal authorities would disagree). After all, what is a conversion anyway? It is a ritualized process to confirm the existing circumstances that Rabbi Felsenthal identifies.
Dr. Kerry M. Olitzky, our executive director and a rabbi for twenty years, reminds us that when a person formally converts, only that person is sure of the order of those two steps. One step, the public ritual of conversion, is marked in time and follows a certain procedure controlled by a beit din (court of rabbis). There is relative control of the process, including study, ritual immersion, and for males, circumcision or the release of the ritually required drop of blood. The other step is what Dr. Olitzky and others call "conversion of the heart." This is when the individual has an internal conversion, when he or she effectively casts his or her lot with the Jewish people. There is no way to control this process. It happens when it happens--sometimes before the other step, sometimes after, and sometimes never. But to us, this is the real conversion, the most important.
For many interfaith families, a formal, ritualized conversion for the non-Jewish parent is not appropriate or not possible. But they may have cast their lot with the Jewish people anyway. Why else would they raise their children as Jews, even when they themselves do not convert? To exclude these people from feeling fully a part of the community is, we believe, a mistake. Even if there is no official conversion, we should honor and welcome those non-Jews who have dedicated themselves to the continuity of the Jewish people by raising their children Jewishly. In many cases, they may have already undergone a "conversion of the heart," which would go unrecognized by a beit din but should be celebrated by the Jewish community nonetheless.
Take for example the non-Jewish wife who was so actively involved in raising her kids as Jews that, when a friend of hers found out theirs was an intermarriage, the friend remarked, "I didn¹t know your husband wasn't Jewish!" (The only reason the wife hadn't converted was because she feared it would devastate her parents.) At JOI, we hear many such stories.
This is not to take away from conversion as the ultimate expression of identifying oneself with the Jewish people, and most Jews would still agree that conversion of the non-Jewish spouse is the "best case scenario" of intermarriage. Too often, however, institutions within the Jewish community are heavy-handed about promoting conversion, or wary of non-Jewish seekers rather than welcoming of them. As Dr. Olitzky points out, "It's like saying, 'first join our club, then we¹ll welcome you into it.'"
JOI's research shows that conversion rates are not keeping pace with the rise in intermarriage. Therefore, the community needs to adopt new strategies of welcoming non-Jews who want to join our "club"--without us requiring "membership" upfront.
In the last issue of InterfaithFamily.com, Dr. Egon Mayer, our co-founder and director of research, argued that a "conversionary agenda inevitably sends the message to interfaith couples that they are welcome in the Jewish community only if they will be prospects for conversion. That is the surest way to insure that our efforts at welcoming will not be reciprocated." Interestingly, a woman replied to his article with the tale of her own conversion process, and pointed out how badly she felt that--pre-conversion--she was unable to kiss the Torah during synagogue processions.
If we take a step back and put this in historical perspective, it seems quite remarkable and somewhat ironic that we have the luxury of asking non-Jews to refrain from kissing our holy scrolls (that they would even want to!) when, within a half-century--one generation really--Jews were running into burning synagogues to save those very scrolls, and were murdered simply for belonging to a community that we now have the opportunity to open to all who genuinely want to join. Perhaps it's more than remarkable, it's miraculous, and it's as much a test of survival for the Jewish people as any in the past. We hope the community can identify and applaud those "conversions of the heart" as much as we do the more formalized conversions. Let's work together to measure up to this great test.