During the first ten years of my interfaith marriage I was a non-Jewish spouse actively involved in the Jewish education and identity of my children. It would have meant a great deal to me to have some recognition by the Jewish community that I was viewed as an asset.
Now Eric Yoffie, the president of the Reform movement which has welcomed interfaith families for nearly thirty years, is calling for a new, two-pronged approach to non-Jewish partners. Yoffie advocates recognition of non-Jewish partners who take an integral role in the Jewish education and identity of their children. And he advocates inviting the non-Jewish partners to convert. Both of these initiatives will have a direct effect on the temple experience of an interfaith family.
To call non-Jewish spouses to the bimah (podium) for a blessing or to invite them as guests to a congregational breakfast strikes me as a reasonable way to recognize and celebrate these vital members of the congregation. Such public testaments to the importance of the actively involved non-Jewish spouse/partner should pave the way to better communication and a more comfortable experience for the family and congregation as a whole. Yoffie's call for the recognition of "non-Jewish heroes in Jewish life," with nothing more in mind than an expression of respect and thanks, should benefit everyone.
The invitation to convert strikes me as more problematic. Yoffie makes it clear in his speech that there should not be pressure in the invitation to convert. In fact, he says, "special sensitivities are required. Ask, but do not pressure. Encourage, but do not insist. And if someone says, 'I'm not ready,' listen. If we pursue conversion with a heavy hand, the result could be to generate resentment. And yes, there will be those for whom conversion will never be an option." Yet I know that if I had encountered anything that seemed to be an expectation or agenda for me to convert, I would have curtailed my participation in Judaism long before I reached my decision to convert. I needed to feel that I could be accepted for what I was--a non-Jew working to raise Jewish-identified children--in order to feel comfortable hanging out at a synagogue. And it was only through my involvement at the synagogue and in the education of my kids that I grew to feel Judaism was a religion that I wanted for myself. It surprised me as much as anyone else when I realized I wanted to become a Jew.
My rabbi, Jack Luxemburg of Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, never suggested conversion until I asked him how I could learn more. When I did, he directed my husband and me to a class for people considering conversion. It wasn't until I'd completed that class and approached him to learn the next step that he worked with me individually. He was wonderfully supportive and sympathetic to my process and my wishes. When I felt ready for the actual beit din (council of rabbis) and mikvah (ritual bath)--the final parts of the conversion process--and he told me they were more a recognition of my place in Jewish life than the beginning of becoming a Jew, I knew exactly what he meant.
For me, the lack of any pressure or expectation made me feel free to explore Judaism at my own pace. It also gave me the assurance that there was no agenda to any classes or temple events, which would have made me feel uncomfortable about attending them. It I'd felt either, I doubt I would ever have gotten to know Judaism enough to feel I wanted it as my own.
Of course, others have different opinions. For Betty Zukerman, a non-Jewish spouse raising children with a Jewish identity, the invitation to convert is not as important as the timing of that invitation. Says Betty, "At the point of marriage would probably be a good time to discuss it [conversion] . . . I guess I might not have had the motivation then, but it would've been a natural time to learn about it." Although not bothered by the thought of being invited to convert, Betty says if she had been strongly identified with a faith at the time of her marriage, she "might have felt the presentation of this option at marriage was more intrusive."
For Betty, another obvious time to bring up conversion would be "as part of the Bar Mitzvah process, when children are getting older and adults may want to solidify their own connection to the temple or, if not, would feel secure enough to simply say 'no thanks.' Oddly enough, it's after having been a member of the temple for several years that I might see conversion as more attractive . . . "
Betty's husband Ira agrees that the timing of the invitation is important. "Liminal moments--those easily associated with life-cycle events--are times where the non-practicing Jew can become newly engaged in the religious tradition--if provided the right opportunity, access, and information . . . What [the invitation to convert] does is potentially make the whole endeavor a family thing."
Donna Osborn, a Jew-by-choice whose partner Beth is Jewish since birth, feels that the idea of extending the invitation "without making a person feel pressured might be of some assistance to people considering conversion. A way to help them explore what the first steps might be."
But who should extend the invitation and how can that person judge the appropriate time? Rabbi Michael Feshbach of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland, says the first signal for him is when a non-Jewish spouse/partner "begins to refer to Jewish holidays and traditions in terms of what 'we' do. That shift to the 'we' signals a difference in how that person views himself in relation to Judaism." Rabbi Feshbach thinks the outreach initiative and programs will make it easier to begin conversations about conversion without making the non-Jewish party feel pressured.
On the other hand, for Ellen and Thomas McIntyre (who prefer using pseudonyms), the Yoffie initiative to invite conversion makes it unlikely they will affiliate with a synagogue. "Thomas respects my wishes to raise my kids as Jews. I'm not going to put him in a situation where he feels conversion is what's expected of him," says Ellen. "I'll find another way to get my kids the religious education I want for them."
Jacob Snyder, who is engaged to a non-Jew (and who also prefers to use a pseudonym), voiced a strong negative reaction to the initiative. "It seems kind of arrogant and unappealing to me to assume that your religion is superior to another. It turns me off to Judaism and makes me reluctant to approach a synagogue. We had been planning to have our future children bar or bat mitzvahed, but this push for conversion makes the plan less appealing."
With such a range of responses, we'll have to wait to see if Rabbi Yoffie's initiatives have the positive effect he envisions.