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Revisiting and Promoting Conversion

Reprinted from  the January 13, 2006 issue of The New York Jewish Week with permission of the authors. Visit  www.thejewishweek.com.

In November, 2005 the leaders of both the Reform and Conservative movements called for new efforts to encourage conversion. To read an excerpt of Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie's sermon at the Reform movement's biennial, click here; to read Rabbi Jerome Epstein's statement at the Conservative movement's biennial, click here. Steven Bayme and Jack Wertheimer, leaders of the Jewish In-Marriage Initiative, wrote the following op-ed.

Last fall, the heads of the two largest synagogue organizations called upon their followers to engage in an active campaign to convert to Judaism non-Jews married to Jews. Addressing the biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie criticized his own movement for creating a false impression.

“By making non-Jews feel comfortable and accepted in our congregations, we have sent the message that we do not care if they convert,” Rabbi Yoffie said.

A few weeks later, Rabbi Jerome Epstein of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, echoing these observations, declared: “Too often we act as if being warm, welcoming and supportive is our goal, and it is not!” Rather, the goal is to inspire intermarried non-Jews “to choose Judaism out of conviction that Jewish living will enrich their lives.”

As a result of their speeches, both men have come under severe criticism from the left and the right.

We applaud Rabbis Yoffie and Epstein for their forthrightness in promoting conversion as a constructive communal response to intermarriage. Their call is both necessary and courageous because surveys indicate only a minority of American Jews favors such an approach. Yet social science research has demonstrated repeatedly that conversionary families are far more likely than mixed-married ones to raise children who maintain Jewish connections into adulthood. From the perspective of Jewish group survival, conversion is the most desirable outcome of a mixed marriage.

A focused conversion program is also healthy for Jewish morale. Unlike the utopian proposals of some other conversion proponents, Rabbis Yoffie and Epstein target gentile spouses within mixed marriages rather than calling for a broader program to “convert the unchurched,” first articulated in 1978 by the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler.

Unrealistic campaigns--and stagnant levels of conversions to Judaism over the past two decades demonstrate just how unrealistic such calls are--undermine the credibility of the community. They also smack of desperation, as one hears of fantastic schemes to convert “millions” of non-Jews who supposedly are ripe for conversion if only they could be exposed to Judaism.

Ironically, the same proponents of mass conversion cannot muster the courage to challenge those closest to the Jewish community--spouses of Jews--to create exclusively Jewish homes.

Placing conversion on the Jewish agenda is also welcome because it addresses intermarriage in a constructive Jewish idiom. We are reminding non-Jews in our midst to follow in the footsteps of the biblical Ruth by linking their fate to the Jewish people and the Jewish God.

We also declare to them that the best way to raise Jewish children is in a home committed to one religion, one God, one people. We believe such a home is better for children because it does not send confusing messages by exposing impressionable youth to multiple sets of beliefs and rituals, an increasingly common practice, as is evident from the spate of news articles this year about families simultaneously celebrating Chanukah and Christmas.

Furthermore, conversion means that parents do not have to negotiate the “December dilemma” and other family crises with depressing regularity every year.

Sadly, what should be self-evident is in fact hotly contested, as witness some of the intemperate responses to Rabbis Yoffie and Epstein. A recent headline in a Jewish newspaper said it all: “[Interfaith] Families Oppose Mission to Bring Non-Jewish Spouses Into The Fold.” A nationally prominent lay leader, addressing a conference on outreach to mixed marrieds, lamented calls for conversion, to say nothing of pro-endogamy statements, as undermining outreach efforts. Others go further, urging that the very term “interfaith family” be changed to “Jewish family” when gentile spouses agree to raise their children as Jews.

So-called outreach advocacy lobbies have already pressured the Jewish community to drop any public opposition to intermarriage. Now they are campaigning to stymie discussion of conversion as a positive outcome by altering our vocabulary.

The debasement of language so as to wish our problems away has become all too common, yet another reason to laud frank talk about the virtues of conversion. For more than a decade the Conservative movement wisely labeled its program kiruv, suggesting that the objective was to bring mixed marrieds closer to the Jewish community rather than transform Jewish values so as to appeal to the lowest common denominator. We therefore maintain that the term kiruv best expresses Jewish communal values for outreach programs within all religious movements.

Still, a larger question remains: How far should the Jewish community go to welcome non-Jews who decide against conversion? Understandably, religious leaders wish to honor non-Jewish parents who have agreed to raise their children as Jews, particularly those who assume primary responsibility for car-pooling their children to Jewish schooling and accompanying them to synagogue religious services. But such acknowledgement and even encouragement should not come at the expense of frank conversation about conversion as the most desirable outcome for the children, the family, the Jewish community--and, one would hope, the convert, too.

We would do well to recruit Jews-by-choice to serve as advocates. Simply by describing their own experiences, they could attest to the enrichment of their own lives and the shalom bayit (family unity) in their own homes that ensued from their decision to convert.

Let us work actively to promote conversion as the optimal outcome after an intermarriage has occurred. For such families, conversion offers the best hope to create “wholly” Jewish homes as well as “holy” Jewish homes.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "bringing close," a term meaning Jewish outreach. 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.
Steven Bayme

Steven Bayme and Jack Wertheimer are founding members of the Jewish In-Marriage Initiative. Both teach at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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