In the Shavuot "season of conversion," longtime area rabbis reflect on how communal attitudes regarding converts has shifted dramatically over the past few decades.
In the 35 years since Rabbi Ira Stone was ordained, he has worked closely with more than 200 converts. He may not remember every detail of their stories, but the religious leader of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel contends that each one has had a profound effect on his rabbinate and his understanding of modern Jewish identity and community.
“For me, it has always been a joy to have an intelligent adult willing to make a commitment to learn about Judaism,” said Stone, 65, adding that potential Jews by choice combine text study with experimentation in practice and observance.
The kind of in-depth exploration of the faith he undertakes with some of his conversion students “is the goal of what I would like to do” with the 600 members of the congregation, said Stone, who has announced his retirement but will remain at BZBI — where he has served since 1988 — through next year while the Center City Conservative synagogue searches for a new religious leader.
Stone is one of four longtime area rabbis retiring or recently retired who reflected on their experiences with conversion and how communal attitudes regarding conversion and converts have shifted dramatically over the past few decades.
In many ways, this is the season of conversion. The local arms of the Reform and Conservative movements have wrapped up their conversion-preparation classes. Conversion ceremonies — which require immersion in the mikvah for men and women and often involve an element during Shabbat services — are taking place at congregations throughout the Delaware Valley.
And then there’s Shavuot, the two-day festival that begins this year on the evening of June 3.
The festival has long been closely associated with converts because the Book of Ruth is chanted in synagogue. Ruth the Moabite, King David’s great-grandmother, is the Bible’s most famous convert. A key component of Shavuot is the notion that every Jew, through the ages, stood together at Mount Sinai and witnessed the revelation of the Torah. Jews by choice metaphorically take on the Torah and commandments much as the ancient Israelites did at Sinai.
Throughout the centuries, the Jewish people have had a complex relationship with the concept and the practice of seeking converts, unlike Christianity and Islam, which historically have sought out converts throughout the globe.
Hillel, the first-century rabbinic sage, was open to converts. In Roman times, Jews actively sought converts throughout the Greco-Roman world. As Stone explained, it was only after the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity that it became perilous for Jews to openly seek converts. For much of the past two millennia in many parts of the world, seeking converts meant flirting with death — so by and large it wasn’t done.
At the same time, there wasn’t much attraction for non-Jews to voluntarily become Jewish, given the fact that Jews were so often persecuted.
But those realities and attitudes were undergoing a radical overhaul at a time when Stone and other local retiring rabbis — including Elliot Strom, Sue Levi Elwell and Seymour Rosenbloom — entered the rabbinate.
In separate interviews, each said that in the 1970s, it wasn’t so much that it was dangerous to seek converts but that there was still a strong stigma in the Jewish community against intermarrying.
And many Jews were skeptical of those who did convert, assuming that they had done so merely for the sake of marriage and not out of conviction.
But, the rabbis said, that stigma no longer exists and many Jews by choice — if they are distinguished at all in their communities – are admired for their knowledge of Judaism and active participation in synagogue life.
Some Orthodox rabbis take a more skeptical view of conversion. In a piece on Chabad.org, Rabbi Aron Moss said that obstacles are placed in the way of non-Jews “so they can taste what it’s really like to be Jewish. So that it should be clear from the outset that a Jewish life is not an easy one. There will always be obstacles.”
But in a general era of openness, a central question confronting non-Orthodox clergy remains: To what extent should they advocate for conversion to intermarried couples and families?
The Reform movement instituted its “open door” policies toward interfaith families and conversions in 1978. In 2006, then-Reform president Rabbi Eric Yoffie acknowledged in a speech that fewer non-Jewish spouses were converting than in the past. He said the movement would work harder to encourage non-Jewish spouses to choose Judaism.
“It is a mitzvah to help a potential Jew become a Jew by choice.” In fact, he said, “we owe them an apology” for not inviting them to convert sooner.
But now, major voices are urging for the opposite approach. Kerry Olitzky, a Reform-trained rabbi who heads the national Jewish Outreach Institute, and Steven M. Cohen, an influential sociologist of the Jewish community, have argued that a new category of non-Jewish spouse is needed: Jewish cultural affiliation.
In a 2013 opinion piece published in the Jewish Exponent and elsewhere, they argued that “many would-be members of the Jewish people have no possibility of engaging in a course of study and socialization that would lead to public recognition of their having joined the Jewish people, and they have limited access to enriching their familiarity with ‘lived Judaism’ — the actual culture and ethos of Jewish life as lived in families and communities.”
Rosenbloom, who was ordained in 1972, has served as religious leader at Congregation Adath Jeshurun since 1978 and is retiring this year, said he still has to “pinch himself” to remember that some of the converts he has worked with weren’t born Jewish.
“They have thrown themselves into Jewish life and into Jewish living,” said Rosenbloom. “As a result, it’s hard to think of them as anything but Jews.”
Neither the Reform nor Conservative movements keep reliable statistics on the number of conversions performed annually, so tracking numbers is difficult. The local branch of the Rabbi Morris Goodblatt Academy, the Conservative movement’s conversion program, has remained steady. In 2004, it had 30 students. This year, it has 31.
One thing that has changed, the rabbis said, is that as non-Orthodox communities have become more welcoming to non-Jews, there’s much less pressure for a non-Jewish spouse to convert. More than ever before, several rabbis said, Jews by choice are coming to the faith out of conviction, not out of a desire to please their spouse’s family.
Stone said that today, the reasons offered by Jews by choice include “a desire to have religion in the household, a desire to raise the kids in a unified approach.”
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, who recently retired from the Union for Reform Judaism after 18 years with the organization, had a personal perspective on conversion. Her ex-husband, Stephen Elwell, converted in the 1970s, prior to their wedding.
“I was fortunate to have an inside view, to have family members who aren’t Jewish,” said Elwell, 66, who is now married to a Jewish woman but remains close with her ex-husband. ”I was able to see what was comfortable and what was uncomfortable through his eyes.”
Within the Reform movement, conversion candidates are typically sponsored through a congregational rabbi and take a communal class before going before a Beit Din comprised of Reform rabbis. Having a connection to a synagogue helps Jews by choice transition into the community, said Elwell, who plans to continue to write, teach and perform life cycle events.
“Being Jewish is being part of a community,” she said, noting that she and her ex-husband were always part of a synagogue, which helped him connect and grapple with issues relating to becoming Jewish.
Elwell, who was ordained in 1986, said that over the years, she has seen the non-Orthodox Jewish community become more multicultural and open in general. Jews by choice, she said, no longer stand out in the Jewish crowd.
Strom, 63, who is stepping down next month as leader of Shir Ami in Bucks County, pushed for the creation of a mikvah at his congregation in order to have a local place for non-Orthodox conversions. The mikvah opened in 1999. Prior to that, conversion candidates had to go to Allentown or New York to find a mikvah that wasn’t under Orthodox auspices. The synagogue also has hosted a conversion class for the last three decades. Strom didn’t have exact numbers, but said that participation had fallen in recent years, though it increased this year.
In addition to the personal reward of working with converts, Strom said, it has been a huge boon for his Reform congregation. Many of the most active and knowledgeable members happen to be Jews by choice, he said.
“Teaching when somebody is hungry to learn is very satisfying,” he said. “We are better for it. Our Saturday morning minyan has a high number of folks who are Jews by choice. They take it very seriously and don’t take it for granted.”