Saying that children of non-Jewish mothers would benefit from a Jewish day school education, a Conservative leader has proposed that such children be admitted to the movement’s Solomon Schechter Day Schools with the understanding that they are expected to eventually convert to Judaism.
“We do not now accept non-Jews, but the practice has been that they are taken in as long as they are converted by the end of the first year,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “I think we need to rethink that. If we want to encourage people to raise a Jewish child, the child has to be exposed to Judaism. If we say beforehand the child has to be converted in a year,” it is too restrictive.
“It may take 18 months or two years [for the child to convert],” Rabbi Epstein argued, “and if we set an arbitrary deadline it might be unproductive."
Rabbi Epstein made his proposal at a meeting of the Solomon Schechter Day School Association’s convention in Boca Raton, Fla. It is seen as part of the movement’s increased effort to reach out to the growing number of intermarried families.
“The whole family will benefit from the child’s education and in most cases it will inspire the children to identify with Jews,” Rabbi Epstein said in a phone interview. “If they have a close relationship with Jewish friends, it would be helpful and their families would benefit too.”
“We need affirmative action to reach out to these children,” he continued. “We don’t want our schools populated by children who are not halachically Jewish [according to Jewish law], but if we say this is the goal and if it takes longer than a year, that should not be the issue. The issue is how you make the school welcoming to them so that they are not pressed the first week to talk about [conversion].”
Asked how the subject should be addressed, Rabbi Epstein said that during a meeting with the child’s parents they should be told that “our school is for Jewish children and this is a conversation we are going to have” until the child is converted. He said that although no time limit should be set, he believed the conversion must take place before the child’s bar or bat mitzvah.
Rabbi Epstein said he hoped this proposal would be positively considered and eventually adopted by the association.
“What we are trying to do is open it more so that we can get people into Jewish life differently than we did in the past,” he said.