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August 7, 2014 By:
Advocating for Conversion Doesn’t Work for All Families
On June 24th, The Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece with the headline: “Wanted: Converts to Judaism.” Written by Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative movement, the piece urged rabbis “to use every means to explicitly and strongly advocate for conversion.”
In response, I posted a column on InterfaithFamily.com: “Converts Not Necessarily Wanted — An Open Letter to Arnold Eisen.”
In urging Chancellor Eisen to reconsider his position, I wrote that I agree with him that “it is incumbent upon those of us who are rabbis as well as all people and institutions that are committed to Jewish continuity that we let all people, and especially those family members in our midst who are not Jewish, know that they are always welcome to become Jewish if that is what their soul desires, and that our doors are open wide.
“Conversion, when done for the right reasons,” I wrote, “is a blessing for the new Jew as well as for the Jewish community. But conversion isn’t the only option, and it isn’t always the right option.” I noted that reasons for not becoming Jewish are as diverse as the individuals themselves — including the fact that family members “may believe in and practice another religion; they may not want to convert out of respect for their own parents or other family members; or they may simply not believe in God, thus feeling that conversion to any religion would be insincere.”
Pushing family members who are not Jewish to convert implies that conversion is about a “numbers game” — as Eisen wrote: “Judaism needs more Jews” — and encourages conversion for the wrong reasons. It could end up turning away the very people we seek to draw near.
Rather than spending our time and money advocating for conversion, the Jewish community should ensure that resources are available for parents who did not grow up Jewish — as well as those who did — to raise their children with Judaism in their lives, whether or not they themselves convert.
Within two days of being posted, responses to my “open letter” included:
• “Earlier this year, I decided to begin my own conversion to Judaism, but I did it because it was the right time for me. …Would this experience be the same if I felt pressured to convert before the birth of my first child eight years ago? I don’t think so. Would I feel resentful or uncommitted? Maybe not, but if this mindset, that Jewish families are preferable to interfaith families, prevails, then others may be doomed to exactly that.”
• “As we approach our son’s Bar Mitzvah within the next year, I honor and appreciate my husband for his commitment to our Jewish community … My hunch is that if [our synagogue were not as welcoming and accepting of interfaith families], our son may not be the engaged, young Jewish man he is … I call that Jewish continuity in action!”
I also received emails like this: “Rabbi Eisen’s words left a bad taste in my mouth. It is as if he’s interested in increasing the head count, not building committed, supportive interfaith families who remain involved in the Jewish community.”
My hope is that Conservative rabbis — and everyone in the Jewish community — will listen to those in interfaith families. Pressuring those who aren’t Jewish to convert isn’t just contrary to the best interests of those individuals and their families; it’s contrary to the best interests of the community. I agree with Chancellor Eisen that the high rate of intermarriage presents the community with a unique opportunity. But I disagree about what that opportunity is.
In my view, the opportunity we have is not necessarily to convince those who are married to Jews to convert. Instead we can help to ensure our Jewish “tomorrows” by unconditionally welcoming spouses and partners of Jews into our Jewish community and making it as easy and meaningful as possible for them to raise Jewish children.
Rabbi Robyn Frisch is the director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia. To learn about the offerings of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, including an upcoming trip to Israel for interfaith couples and families, go to: interfaithfamily.com/philadelphia