The Conversion Option

There’s a range of opinions on how much to push conversion to Judaism and when.

by Michael Schulson

When Steven Wernick was a rabbi in Philadelphia, a member of his synagogue asked him a question that caught him completely off-guard. “Rabbi,” the man said. “I have to ask you something. I’ve been a member of this synagogue for two years. For the last year I’ve been taking my daughter to synagogue virtually every single Shabbat. Most people in this synagogue don’t even realize that I’m not Jewish. How come you’ve never asked me to convert? Is there something wrong with me?”

Wernick, floored, invited the man to begin conversion classes, which he did. For Wernick, it was an eye-opening moment. “What would it mean,” he asks today, “to really step up and say that Judaism is a world class religious tradition, one that’s worthy of other people’s interest to convert to and to participate in?”

Traditionally, Jews do not encourage people to consider conversion. Once someone does express an interest in becoming Jewish, it’s customary to dissuade him three times. These practices date back to a time when Jews
were very suspicious of outsiders. That’s less relevant today. “The custom of turning someone away three times is not in Jewish law,” notes Rabbi Stephen Lerner, the director of the Center for Conversion to Judaism in New York City. Lerner has guided close to 1,500 people toward conversion. While he wants to make sure that potential converts are serious, he places a priority on being welcoming.

Most of Lerner’s conversion students have chosen Judaism because they’re in a relationship with someone Jewish. While nobody advocates pressuring non-Jewish spouses to convert, a number of rabbis have argued that
one way to address intermarriage is to make conversion seem like a more viable option for couples who might otherwise be hesitant – or, like Wernick’s congregant, simply not know where to begin.

Conversion in the Conservative movement generally involves classes, attendance at services, and meetings with a rabbi, culminating in an appearance before a rabbinical court and a dip in the mikvah. The whole process usually takes between nine months and a year. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York would like to speed that up – or, more accurately, flip it on its head. Citing a famous story about Hillel, in which the sage converts a man who’s standing on one foot, Cosgrove has proposed performing the conversion first, and holding the classes afterward. In the face of rising intermarriage rates, this is “a policy aimed to create the maximum number of halachically defined Jewish families,” he writes.

When couples ask about conversion, Cosgrove explained in an interview, “The first response of the Jewish community should be, ‘Yes! How can we make this happen?’” Is his proposal halakhically acceptable? On this  point, Jewish law is vague. “I’m not declaring lobster kosher,” says Cosgrove. “I’m asking a question that to the best of my knowledge exists in a halakhic grey area.”

Even without such speedy conversions, there are probably ways that Conservative communities could make conversion more accessible. Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program
in Los Angeles, points out that financial obstacles, for instance, can make conversion seem less than welcoming. Potential converts pay several hundred dollars for a class. Then they pay for the mikvah. Then they go to a shul, where, says Greenwald, “They say, ’Great, we’re happy to have you as a member. Now give us money.’” That financial burden tends to fall on young couples, the demographic that can least afford it. “We need to make this available and possible for everyone,” Greenwald argues.

The simplest approach, perhaps, is for the movement to speak more openly about conversion. Jack Wertheimer, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, argues that Conservative communities should have ambassadors: “Let’s send out formerly intermarried families where the non-Jewish spouse had converted to Judaism, who might testify in the sense of speaking publicly about their own family’s experiences and why this conversion to Judaism helped their family life, strengthened their family life, and certainly strengthened their children’s commitment to Jewish life.”

Wertheimer suggests that conversion can be a kind of Conservative niche. “What the Conservative movement could do to be quite distinctive, because neither the Orthodox nor the Reform are doing this, is to be the movement that says, if you intermarry we will do everything possible to educate you as to the virtues, to the benefits, of unambiguously Jewish family life,” he says. The line between promoting conversion and unintentionally discouraging it, though, can be very fine. Greenwald, for example, has had many students who decide to convert, but say they would have left their introduction to Judaism classes immediately had they sensed any pressure. “I think we do better by not pushing,” he says.

It’s important to remember, too, that many non-Jews raise Jewish families and play an active role in their synagogues. Their reasons for not converting are manifold. Becoming Jewish is a very personal, and in some families very fraught, decision. Recognizing the range of Jewish involvement and identities, sociologist Steven M. Cohen has suggested creating a way to have some kind of official Jewish identification without
undergoing religious conversion. Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles, in a similar vein, speculates about having some kind of green card to Judaism – a kind of intermediate step toward conversion.

What’s clear is that the old model of turning away potential converts is a thing of the past. When it comes to conversion, says Cosgrove, “We should see ourselves as agents, not gatekeepers.”