The chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America recently took his call for the Jewish community to proactively support non-Jews’ conversion to Judaism, which had largely been an internecine Jewish issue, to a national audience.
In a July 24 essay in the Wall Street Journal, Eisen wrote that while many Jews have “left Judaism” through history, Jewish tradition “has not done much to encourage” conversion to the Jewish faith. (He cited the revelation that the late Cardinal John O’Conner, New York City’s Catholic archbishop, had a Jewish mother.)
“That must change. Because Judaism needs more Jews, and has a lot to offer them,” Eisen wrote in the essay, which was headlined “Wanted: Converts to Judaism.”
Referencing the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s 2013 survey, which showed that “almost half of married Jews in America have a non-Jewish spouse,” and that many people raised in Jewish homes no longer identify as Jews, “I believe that Jewish institutions and their rabbis should actively encourage non-Jewish family members in our midst to take the next step and formally commit to Judaism,” Eisen wrote. “We should help them make this move.”
His comments represented one of the strongest public statements by a prominent Jewish leader in recent decades in favor of a more open approach to conversions.
While his comments were aimed specifically at the Conservative denomination (JTS is Conservative Judaism’s flagship educational institution), they apply equally to all the branches of Judaism, said Steven Bayme, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Contemporary Jewish Life Department.
“I thought it needed to be said; all too often we become neutral towards conversions,” Bayme said. “We have been tepid about advocating to conversion, and we have shied away from advocating for conversion of the non-Jewish spouse.”
Conversion of a non-Jewish spouse has (available) come to be recognized “across the board as the best outcome of mixed marriage,” Bayme said. While the Reform movement, which recognizes as Jewish a child raised as a Jew in an intermarried household, “restored conversion to the communal agenda” a decade ago, some parts of the Orthodox community, “without much fanfare,” have also seen a growing acceptance of spouses who convert before marrying a Jew, he said.
Eisen’s comments contrasted to the practice of many Conservative synagogues, which encourage intermarried families to become synagogue members, while their rabbis refuse to officiate at intermarriage ceremonies. Intermarried couples are unlikely to feel welcome in such congregations, say many Conservative rabbis, notably Elliot Cosgrove at Park Avenue Synagogue. Rabbi Cosgrove wrote in a Jewish Week Opinion piece last year that synagogues should first welcome intermarried couples, then seek to the conversion of the non-Jewish spouse.