Rabbi Mark Shapiro is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Springfield, Mass. He has chaired the Reform rabbinate's Committee on Conversion and also served as chair of the Committee on Outreach for the New England region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
Teaching about Conversion in Our Religious School
I have to be honest. When so many of the children in our religious school come from homes where one parent is not Jewish, we have a tough time saying just about anything in regard to mixed marriage.
Especially because we deal with children from 6 to 16, the challenge is made more complex. If we simply assert the virtue of Jews marrying Jews, we confuse and hurt some of our youngest children. (They can't help but hear a criticism of their own parents' marriage.) If we simply insist on Jews marrying Jews for our teens, we feed into their natural inclination to resist authority.
And yet, if the religious school exists for the purpose of molding Jews who will make positive Jewish choices for the rest of their lives, we cannot be silent about Jewish marriages and creating Jewish homes. We just need to say what we say sensitively and in an age-appropriate fashion. That is why my own congregation's religious school teaches about outreach matters in a very deliberate way.
We begin in third grade when the students (who are in their first year of Hebrew studies) come to my office to hear and discuss Mindy Portnoy's book, Mommy Never Went to Hebrew School. This little book tells the story of a child who is rummaging through his mother's photo albums and "discovers" pictures of her celebrating Christmas as a child. When the little boy asks for clarification, his mother explains how she grew up as a Christian, but later chose to become Jewish when she met Dad. "Jewish people are not all alike," says Mommy. Some "never went to Hebrew School." They grew up in their own loving families and, for many reasons, later chose to convert.
The book describes the process of conversion. It also talks about Mommy's loving relationship with her own parents, who are Christian. And the book also offers some commentary on the history of conversion in Judaism. Most importantly, the whole issue is presented gently and in a story format that captivates third graders. Without being preached at, the students have their first introduction to one of the crucial ways in which Jews can respond to mixed marriage. They learn that conversion is welcome in Jewish life.
The same message comes across in fourth grade when the students are studying later books of the Hebrew Bible. I visit the students in their classroom to introduce the Book of Ruth. On that occasion, I become the students' teacher for a day and I help them explore the characters of the story with a special emphasis on Ruth. Ruth occupies center stage because, in the opening chapter of her biblical story, Ruth becomes the first convert to Judaism. Although her "conversion" does not include the formal study or the various blessings associated with conversion nowadays, Jewish tradition has always understood Ruth's words to be the equivalent of converting.
Ruth, who comes from the country of Moab, makes her declaration in a scene where her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, is leaving Moab. Ruth says to Naomi, "Wherever you go, I will go. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God." These words of commitment are the focus of the lesson with the fourth graders. I explore with them how conversion takes place in our time, which becomes even clearer to the students in fifth grade when they study the Jewish life cycle. At that time, a panel of Jews-by-choice is invited into the classroom to present their "stories" to the children.
Three years later when the students reach eighth grade, another session is devoted to the issue of Jewish identity choices. Usually around Hanukkah, we engage the students in a discussion about their own identities in a predominantly non-Jewish world, which leads into a renewed conversation about the meaning of conversion to Judaism.
Finally, in my tenth grade Confirmation class, I actually discuss the issues of interdating and intermarriage. Here, for the first time, I explicitly engage the students in a conversation about their hopes for their own Jewish futures. Do they plan to have Jewish homes and to raise Jewish children? Do they plan to marry Jews? Should they marry Jews? Should they only date Jews? Needless to say, the conversation about these questions is spirited. The students have a hundred different opinions and, best of all, since they are generally 15 or 16 when we have this discussion, they are also able to approach the matter with some maturity and independence. They are "ready" to begin to deal with the issues as young adults.
I am pleased with this overall approach to outreach in the religious school. While being respectful of the children, I hope we are slowly and incrementally leading them into an outreach consciousness. I also hope we are helping them learn how to make Jewish choices for their Jewish futures.