Danielle Freni is Senior Communications Associate for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life in Washington, D.C.
Teaching Judaism Without The Sales Pitch
After a four year hiatus, Sex and the City fans have recently been reunited with their favorite fictional foursome. Originally billed as the television series' "Episcopalian Princess," Jew-by-choice Charlotte York Goldenblatt is now seen on the big screen, living a Jewish life with her husband and their adopted Chinese daughter. Charlotte is finally in a good place, but it wasn't long ago that viewers watched as the low points of her conversion process (including a door-slamming rabbi and foiled Shabbat dinner) played out, over several episodes, in painfully accurate detail.
True to Jewish tradition, the rabbi Charlotte first contacted to discuss conversion repeatedly refused to meet with her. It turned out that he was testing Charlotte's commitment, as there is a shared belief among many observant Jews that the Chosen People are held to a stricter and higher standard, a way of life that cannot be entered into lightly. Many rabbis want to know that potential converts won't be so easily deterred.
Judaism's approach to conversion is far from the proactive recruitment style of Christian missionaries like Latter-Day Saints and Jews for Jesus. On the contrary, there is a Talmudic requirement to turn away a potential convert three times. The ancient practice is not only a means of testing the prospective convert's sincerity, but also stems from fear and an obligation to protect the community.
At one time Jews were successful proselytizers. Historians cite proselytes as the reason for thriving Judaism in first century Rome. It's estimated that at that time, 10 percent of the Roman Empire, or approximately 8 million people, were Jews. But the Roman emperors Septimius Severus and Constantius II outlawed the practice, making Jewish proselytizing, intermarriage with non-Jews and conversion of non-Jews crimes punishable by death. In the interest of saving lives and preserving the Jewish people, the rabbis who codified the Talmud urged against the concept of active recruitment.
It is this history that puts Jewish outreach workers in an awkward position. How can they be welcoming and informative to the non-Jewish partners of Jews who want to raise Jewish families, and to people who are interested in converting to Judaism, without making anyone feel pressured to convert? Persuading people to convert goes against Jewish religious tradition and contravenes Jewish communal sensibilities, but the traditional process of turning people away hurts people's feelings.
Dawn Kepler, director of Building Jewish Bridges in Oakland, Calif., works with people in the process of converting. Kepler says the practice of turning converts away is outdated, but adds that she knows of conversion students who have canceled appointments and then expressed concern that they never hear back from the rabbi.
Kepler's response has been, "The rabbi will never call you back. [A conversion student] can always walk away from the process. The rabbi not calling back is his way of saying, 'That's fine. You don't have to convert and you don't have to explain [your reasons] to me.'"
Kepler describes Building Jewish Bridges as an educational program open to people of all faiths, which includes discussion groups for non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish children. In those groups, Kepler explains, there is no pressure to convert. The goal is to enhance the Jewish future of the children.
A similar program exists in Hartford, Conn., at Chai: The Center for Jewish Life. Director Elana Goldberg MacGilpin, who is married to a non-Jew with whom she is raising a Jewish son, explains that The Mothers Circle is an educational resource for non-Jewish parents, not a conversion class. MacGilpin reports that in the past three years, only one of 23 non-Jewish mothers with whom she's worked has converted to Judaism.
Pressuring anyone to convert, MacGilpin says, "is not how I would ever go about it. Everyone has their own preferences. Who am I to tell them that being Jewish is better than what they are? People convert for a lot of different reasons and hopefully the reason they're doing it makes the most sense to them and not because it's 'better' or 'worse' than anything else."
Linda Cohen has been coordinating a Jewish conversion program with the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City for the past five years. She says nearly half the people in the program are single and choosing to convert on their own. For those intermarried and engaged couples, "there is no longer a sense of 'if I don't do this, it's the end of the relationship,'" says Cohen. She also points to an example of one female student, intermarried for 33 years, who only recently converted to Judaism.
"Very often there is a delay between the class and the brit gerut (conversion ceremony)," explains Cohen. "Every year there is at least one student who does not complete the class for various reasons. They are welcome to rejoin at any time and completing the class does not mean they are required to convert. There is never any sense of proselytizing."
Both Kepler and MacGilpin echo Cohen. As outreach professionals they share an appreciation for other faiths. Their focus is on education, not competition.
"Being in an interfaith relationship and working with interfaith families," says MacGilpin, "I see so many wonderful things about the [interfaith] experience. I don't want [my husband] to convert if he doesn't want to. Everyone has to deal with [religion] in a personal way."
Cohen, who is married to a congregational rabbi and is the mother of a rabbinical student, hesitates when asked how she would feel about an interfaith in-law. "It's a hard hypothetical. My children identify strongly as Jewish. [Interfaith marriage] would never have entered their minds."
"We are a people who have been historically traumatized," says Kepler. "Jewish tradition is not American tradition. People have to know what they are getting into." Still, she believes, "we can do a better job of inviting people in."