Proactive Conversion as Outreach

By Dr Gary A. Tobin

December, 2000


Editor’s Note: As we remember Dr. Gary Tobin’s many contributions to Jewish life, we are republishing a piece he wrote for in our early years as an organization, summarizing some of the ideas in his book Opening the Gates. These ideas remain controversial and thought-provoking, even those with which we disagree. May his memory be a blessing.

The Need for Outreach

The need for outreach of all kinds rests in the significant number of Jews marrying non-Jews. When an individual marries someone who was not born Jewish, we often feel that the person who intermarries is lost to the community, or that the children or grandchildren might be lost. We experience sadness and sense of failure: the tribe has a defector, a wanderer, someone who is confused or maybe treacherous, ignorant of the consequences of such a decision or uncaring about the Jewish people. Those who intermarry go to the other side–the outside–choosing another people and not our own. When we see too many people leaving the fold, our sense of communal loss becomes severe and traumatic. We see each defection as contributing to the cumulative demise of the group. The sense of tribal loss overwhelms us, and we are saddened that we might be the last members of a dying people, anthropological islanders whose extinction is only a matter of time. It is no surprise, then, that Jewish community leaders often speak of intermarriage in terms of death, warfare, and genocide–concerns of many groups, to be sure.

Proactive Conversion as Outreach

Proactive conversion is a type of outreach, a positive, accessible and joyful process of encouraging non-Jews to become Jews. Proactive conversion requires Jews to open the ideological and intellectual gates and help non-Jews walk through them into Jewish life. Being proactive means encouraging rather than discouraging non-Jews to consider Judaism. It involves constructing a system that helps non-Jews become Jews in a positive, welcoming way. Proactive conversion is not synonymous with the aggressive recruitment that characterizes proselytizing. Jews should not be knocking on doors and trying to persuade random strangers to become Jews.

Non-Jewish spouses have already entered the realm of Jewish life to one degree or another by living with someone who is Jewish. Over time, a significant proportion of those with no religion or those who are practicing as Jews could become part of the Jewish people. Even those practicing another religion could change their minds and hearts.

Because non-Jewish spouses exhibit tremendous differences and levels of religiosity and identity, no single set of strategies for promoting conversion is appropriate for this group. At the same time, the Jewish community has to develop multiple strategies for the Jewish partner in these relationships. The partners are often ambivalent, uncertain, fearful, or even hostile about their own Jewish identity. They may be more reluctant than the non-Jewish spouse to participate in efforts to help the spouse become a Jew. Alternatively, they may wish deeply for the spouse to become a Jew but are afraid of offending the partner by asking him or her to convert because they believe it is wrong in principle to ask someone to convert. The Jewish community must be very careful about how it approaches non-Jewish spouses. Being overly aggressive is undoubtedly counterproductive. Enormous patience is required; the conversion process could take five, 10, 15 years or more and in some cases still not lead to conversion. Insisting on conversion before marriage is not necessarily a productive way to increase the number of non-Jewish spouses to became part of the Jewish community. Most simply are not ready.

However, the community does need to be clear that it strongly prefers that spouses become Jews at some point. The message should be, “We would like you to become Jewish because we would like to share our beliefs and our community with you. We believe it would be beneficial for you, your family, and the community to join and participate.” This is a different message from “We will reject you if you reject us. We will condemn you if you say no; we consider you to be part of the problem, the disease of the Jewish community, if you do not convert.” And we must mean what we say. We cannot be critical of those who choose not to convert.

The institutional structure must be able to accommodate what has become a large number of families of mixed parentage and identity. Community centers, synagogues, day camps, overnight camps, and every other Jewish organization and institution must deal with the reality of the mixed-married population by helping them to participate in Jewish life.

Rabbis are key to outreach as a form of proactive conversion. But too many rabbis still use the language of tests, exams and job interviews when dealing with potential converts. The obstacles they put in front of converts are very destructive. Rabbis need to be cheerleaders, not prison guards. They need to help unlock the doors and gates, not bar them. They need to welcome potential converts with smiles and challenges, not frowns and declarations of the improbable, difficult, or unattainable. Rather than ask people to prove why they want to be Jewish, rabbis should advocate for Judaism, explaining why it is good to be a Jew, the positive benefits for the individual, family and community. Rabbis must overcome a host of personal feelings and institutional constraints to promote conversion. They cannot send mixed messages or equivocate. Some rabbis have achieved this success. Their ranks must grow dramatically.

We need more Jews, and more connected Jews. The time is right to make the community grow through proactive conversion. Actively promoting conversion is a process that goes far beyond the current system of the reluctant and grudging acceptance of those who can clear hostile institutional and organizational hurdles. Millions of potential Jewish lives go unrealized. This is an individual and communal shame. Rethinking outreach without rethinking our approach to conversion is a communal death wish.


About Dr Gary A. Tobin

Dr Gary A. Tobin passed away on July 6, 2009 at age 59. He was the founder and president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research (IJCR). Dr. Tobin was an innovative teacher, writer, researcher and community builder who worked to help the Jewish people grow and thrive.