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New Study Raises Key Question: How to Promote Active Converts?

Reprinted with permission of JTA. Visit www.jta.org.

NEW YORK, April 12, 2006 (JTA)--Low conversion rates among intermarried Jewish families continue to plague those working to reverse the demographic downtrends in American Jewry.

Fewer than one-fifth of non-Jews who marry Jews convert to Judaism, according to a new study distributed by the American Jewish Committee.

The "Choosing Jewish" report, which interviewed 94 mixed-marriage couples and nine Jewish professionals in the Boston and Atlanta areas, also painted a bleak picture of Jewish involvement for those who do convert.

Many converted Jews--40 percent--are described as "accommodating Jews by choice." They come to Judaism because they are asked to, and allow others to determine their level of Jewish observance, the report said.

Jews in this category often have profiles of Jewish involvement similar to moderately affiliated born Jews.

Another 30 percent of converted Jews are identified as ambivalent Jews--they continue to express doubts about their conversion and feel guilty about beliefs or holidays left behind, according to the report. Their children mirror this ambivalence by thinking of themselves as half-Jews.

The report qualified only 30 percent of converted spouses as "activist Jews," or those who identify deeply with the Jewish people and Israel. These Jews often are more committed to Jewish practice than are born Jews, and their children are virtually undistinguishable from children whose parents were born Jewish.

The findings, compiled by Brandeis University professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, have widespread implications for a community grappling with the reality of mixed marriages.

According to both the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey and surveys by Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research, the U.S. Jewish intermarriage rate is between 40 percent and 50 percent.

The AJCommittee hopes the new data will create a road map for greater Jewish involvement among converts and intermarried families.

The breakdown of converted Jews by category shows that we should "not treat converts as an undifferentiated mass," said Steven Bayme, the AJComittee's director of contemporary Jewish life.

Instead, he envisioned a sliding scale of Jewish involvement, ranging from those with a low level of affiliation to those who are highly involved.

"We should not see conversion as the end of the story," he said. "What we're really aiming for is converts who enrich the Jewish community through Jewish activism.

"We need to enlarge the pool of activist converts," he added.

But that requires a proactive approach.

First and foremost, Jews need to "wave the banner of inmarriage," advocating Jewish partners whenever possible, he said. In cases of intermarriage, Bayme described conversion as "the single best outcome."

"We need to be up front about our preference for conversion," he said.

To that end, he talked about the role of rabbi as the "nurturer of would-be converts," and the need for Jewish family members to "be clear about values and objectives."

In addition, Bayme advocates raising children in an exclusively Jewish household, since attempting to combine religions would be "a disaster Jewishly."

Edward Case, publisher of InterfaithFamily.com, which encourages Jewish connections in the interfaith community, took issue with several of these premises.

"I think there is a real danger in promoting conversion too aggressively," he said. "If we stand at the door, a lot of people might not come in."

Case said that accepting intermarried non-Jews who don't convert--not just those who do--should be paramount.

"The way to have more Jewish children is for interfaith couples to get involved in Jewish life," he said. "It's important to see intermarriage as an opportunity and not as a negative or a loss.

"I think it's important to communicate a message of welcome," he continued. "The message we need to send to unconverted non-Jews is, We're grateful to you and happy to have you just as you are."

Case criticized the lack of money allocated to such interfaith outreach--less than $3 million a year between Jewish federations and family foundations, he said.

Bayme said "it's a bit premature'' for the AJCommittee to recommend any policy changes based on the report, but that the group will discuss the findings at several upcoming meetings.

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.
Rachel Silverman

Rachel Silverman is a freelance writer.

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