The Conversion Option

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

by Michael Schulson
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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.”

4 Comments

  1. Adelle Stavis on said:

    Conversion is not something to be ‘pushed.’ It alienates.

    My father and my Shoah survivor grandmother, both of Blessed Memory, respected my husband’s decision/choice not to convert. Why? Because it wasn’t a hollow gesture. If it wasn’t heart felt and a true calling, they saw it as a mockery of our faith. But, my dad was also want to say, “It took you finding a shaygitz to find a mensch.” We celebrated our 25th Anniversary last year.

    My husband is agnostic at best, and has no emotional connection to religion. He wasn’t connected to his birth religion. To expect him to suddenly want a faith connection was unrealistic; to push conversion would have meant losing a man who loved me and was willing to raise Jewish Children.

    Our children went to Jewish preschool, Jewish day camp, and synagogue based school. They were USY members who wouldn’t miss Encampment for anything. My older child went on TRY in high school,and was a Maimonedes scholar in college. She majored in Jewish Studies at Hofstra and was president of Chabad (saying the Hillel program lacked Yiddishkheit). My younger is still in high school. He isn’t as oriented toward religion, now. But given his choices surrounding his Bar Mitzvah, I have faith he will come full circle just as I did when I stopped practicing Judaism after leaving Yeshiva Day School.

    Through it all, my husband drove carpool, cleaned for holidays, and supported me and the kids in our Judaism, even though he didn’t believe (and even felt hostile about $ issues and the time I spent in synagogue ). People at the synagogue asked him how he was, how work was, and treated him like every other dad.

    That’s what Conservative Synagogues should be doing, normalizing the treatment of interfaith families and non- Jewish spouses. Stop worrying about dilution and who may serve on committees, and remember to act with rachmanas. Far more will be accomplished, and far more families will truly feel the essence of Kehilah.

    You can raise Jewish children, who truly identify Jewishly, even if you have a Christmas tree and your kids get Easter baskets. But if synagogue members and leadership treat these practices with negativity instead of acceptance (that families are respecting the non-Jewish part of the family as well as the Jewish part), you accomplish the exact opposite of ‘Keruv.’

  2. Michael White on said:

    One day, soon I hope, I will read a piece about Conservative Judaism that doesn’t need to insult Reform Jews. One day soon, I hope. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not insulted, more bemused. Some day someone will do a study examining why advocates for Conservative Judaism feel the need to sideswipe Reform Jews when discussing their vision and plans. It doesn’t speak well of you!

  3. chaya on said:

    At this time, I don’t think we should push conversion. We’re not supposed to. But if people are willing to be converted, I think there should be a standard form that everyone has to follow. In my synagogue, there is not a standard program that each person has to complete. It seems to be on a case-by-case basis. This bothers me.

    • Chaya,
      I’m not sure what conversion standards your synagogue holds, but there are general requirements set forth by the Rabbinical Assembly (RA). As a convert, I can tell you that each conversion is unique. I converted in the Reform Movement (halakically recognized by the RA as well) with a standardized process of classes, tikkun olam, personal reflection, and individual meetings with my rabbi. Conversion candidates start the process at different points in our religious search, learn at different speeds, and feel “ready” for the beit din at different times, so even with a standard program, each conversion candidate will ultimately have to be treated on a case-by-case basis.

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