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Opposition to Mission to Bring Non-Jewish Spouses into Fold

Reprinted with permission of The [Boston] Jewish Advocate. Visit www.thejewishadvocate.com.

Interfaith families in Boston this week criticized two major branches of Judaism that announced campaigns to convert non-Jewish spouses, calling the move a mistake.

In the last month, both the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism and the Union of Reform Judaism stated that each is making a concerted effort to reach out to interfaith couples. One Conservative leader said he wants to "aggressively encourage conversions of potential Jews who have chosen Jewish spouses."

"It's all very short-sighted," said Pam Hallagan of Needham, a Reform Jewish woman whose husband is a non-Jew. "If raising a Jewish family in a Jewish community is contingent on a non-Jewish spouse converting, you are going to limit the number of children you are going to be able to bring into the Jewish faith. This is all going to backfire."

At the USCJ's Biennial Conference in Boston last week, hundreds were on hand to witness the abrupt change in the Conservative Movement's policy on converting the non-Jewish spouses of inter-religious families. We must begin conversions said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, head of the movement. "And if conversion is initially rejected, we must continue to place it on the agenda."

At the URJ Biennial Conference in Houston from Nov. 16-20, head of the Reform movement Rabbi Eric Yoffie told attendees that by making non-Jews feel comfortable and accepted in Reform congregations, "we have sent the message that we don't care if they convert." Yoffie was unavailable for further comment.

"Conversion is a wonderful thing, but it's a mistake for the Jewish community to approach interfaith families with conversion aggressively," said Edmund Case, president and publisher of Newton-based interfaithfamily.com. "The first thing that should be done is to welcome people and thank non-Jewish spouses for raising their children as Jews, and then bring in the conversion factor."

Interfaithfamily.com is an online resource supported by Combined Jewish Philanthropies that encourages interfaith families to explore Jewish life and make Jewish choices. "This is a mistake. More people will be turned away than will come in the first place," said Case, whose wife is a convert to Judaism. "The smart thing to do is to be welcoming and grateful and then sensitively invite conversion."

However, argued Epstein: "I think that there are people who are not ready at one particular moment to think about changing religions, but I think we have to help people find the right time. Too often, we in the Jewish community give up, and we've lost opportunities to reach them as a result. There will be some people that will not accept this, but based on the receptivity by our congregations and members it's about time we went on this route."

Epstein did say that doing so in a forceful manner is not the best way to go about converting the non-Jewish spouses of interfaith families. "There is a good, positive way to do this, ways that will help people really move in a positive direction. Our challenge is really to do this in a sensitive and meaningful way and hopefully influence people, work with them to show what we have to offer."

"It sounds like the Orthodox attitude is filtering into [the] Conservative [movement]," said Louise Choate, a mother of three from Malden whose husband is not Jewish. "It would turn me off if someone kept coming after me to tell me that my husband had to convert. I can understand where they're coming from, but if we're raising our children Jewish and we're involved with a temple, I don't see the problem."

Cathy Kahn, director of outreach and synagogue community at URJ, added: "Offering someone to convert is like offering a marriage proposal, and we all hope the answer is yes. But we understand that this may not be the case and we respect that. If conversion doesn't happen, we still want to make the non-Jewish spouse comfortable in a synagogue atmosphere."

At the convention, Rabbi Yoffie added: "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."

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. 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.
Jacob Sugerman

Jacob Sugerman is a staff writer for The Jewish Advocate, New England's oldest Jewish newspaper, a weekly publication based in Boston.

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