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The Conversion Hot Button

From the Jewish Outreach Institute

The primary mission of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) is to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of intermarriage, JOI's services have since grown to include advocacy, training of outreach professionals, and the sponsorship of innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program (www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org). This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.

There are those who believe that conversion to Judaism is a "simple" step that interfaith couples can take to make the challenges of intermarriage disappear. Some Jewish in-laws even insist on it as the only possible vehicle for harmony within the extended family. As a result, there are many in the Jewish community who advocate conversion as the only option--an option that must be taken early in an interfaith relationship, before marriage. They hold it out as the "admission ticket" into Jewish communal life and suggest that those in the Jewish community should actively pursue conversion for the non-Jews partnered with Jews. Few, however, understand the barrier that such preconditions create for genuine outreach and welcoming.

While conversion to Judaism may diminish some of the challenges that an interfaith family faces, this is only the case when the conversion is sincere and the partner who is born Jewish actively participates in the growth and development of a Jewish family. The convert must be able to enter a Judaism that is nurturing and that offers a depth of meaning. Even in cases where religion seems unimportant to the individuals, a "cosmetic" conversion can lead to resentment down the line.

Conversion may make the raising of children somewhat easier (at least when it comes to religious celebration), and it may improve relations with Jewish in-laws, but it also has the potential to distance the convert from his or her family-of-origin. That added stress could eventually take its toll on the marriage itself. While this may seem obvious to those in interfaith relationships, it is not so obvious to others in the Jewish community who identify conversionary marriages as inherently better than interfaith marriages. At JOI, part of our advocacy work involves putting the "human face" on this situation, for those in the community who may not fully understand the complexities of intermarriage.

For example, we understand that interfaith couples are just as capable of raising exclusively Jewish children as conversionary households, when the commitment to do the extra work exists (and the communal support for the family is in place). Part of our job is to encourage and help them to do so, and another part of our job is to convince the Jewish community that it can be done.

One difficulty not often discussed is that, while conversion is a religious rite, Judaism is not just a religion! It's also a culture, a code of ethics, a peoplehood, a community. A person needs to convert into a religion of practice. For those who are not religious however, it's difficult to "convert" into Jewish culture or tradition. Today, many born-Jews identify themselves as "cultural" rather than "practicing." If they intermarry, their (probably equally non-religious) spouse may not feel comfortable making the religious conversion to Judaism.

What we can do instead is to make Jewish life, learning, and community available to all, regardless of their background, and help them understand what it has to offer. Perhaps we should take a cue from the commercial world (which we otherwise generally eschew). If we want to try out the local gym or health club, they don't force us to join right away. That would be a deterrent, and it wouldn't give us the chance to try out all their great exercise machines, steam rooms, or squash courts. Instead we get a guided tour, usually a free trial membership--a week, a month, sometimes even longer--and some free training.

What if we think of offering the non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages "trial memberships" in the Jewish community? We would take pains to include them in whatever activity is going on when they arrive. We would share with them what we enjoy most about it. And we would show them how to "properly use all the equipment," rather than leave them to fend for themselves. If they happen to "join," we follow up to make sure they get the most from their "membership." If they don't join right now, we don't twist arms or badger them about it--that won't work--but we do keep in touch, letting them know that they are still welcome anytime.

Unfortunately, in too many Jewish institutions, that is not the usual scenario. Instead, they expect people to "join first, feel welcome later." Then, when their institutional membership levels decline, they blame it on intermarriage rather than on their own closed attitudes!

We know that windows on religious identity open and close during one's life journey. It's never a straight path. Often, significant life changes have an effect: marriage; birth of children; enrollment of children in school; the death of one's parents. The Jewish community needs to be more sensitive to the rhythm of the life of potential converts when inviting them to join us. The best way to show people what Judaism has to offer is to simply be there when they need us most, rather than forcing the issue.

The Jewish Outreach Institute is dedicated to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Its website is joi.org.

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