The dramatic new push by the Reform movement towards the conversion of gentiles who are married to Jews is "on the right track" but is not going far enough, according to the author of the first qualitative study of the issue.
The author, Brandeis University sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman, told The Jewish Week that she believes conversion should be the ultimate objective of outreach to intermarried couples.
"It is not a silver bullet, but it opens the way to more connections to Judaism, whereas intermarriage opens the way towards a drift away from Judaism on the part of the couple," Fishman said. "When you convert, you are more likely to have more Jewish friends and give your children a Jewish education and get involved in Jewish adult education programs. And your children are more likely to identify as Jews and to marry Jews."
Conversion, she argued, "should be the eventual focus and ultimate goal. I believe in conversion as a process; I don’t think it happens overnight. But the people who are running these [outreach] programs should have in their minds a formal connection to Judaism as the eventual goal. … Conversion is the single best outcome of a mixed marriage."
But Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said flatly that such a direct approach "is a mistake: it won’t work." He maintained that although conversion should be considered in outreach efforts, "it can’t be the whole agenda from the first contact."
"Our approach is that we want intermarried couples in the synagogue, involved in Jewish life and raising Jewish children," he said. "I said in my biennial sermon [last November] that in my view it would be helpful if we were more aggressive in promoting conversion, but balanced with the fact that we have to embrace non-Jewish spouses and encourage and praise them for their willingness to raise Jewish children.
"In the real world we all know that there are some people who are going to be open to conversion, others who will not be open and others who eventually will be, but not now. The key is for rabbis and others to be sensitive to these distinctions."
Fishman’s three-year study, written for the American Jewish Committee, was based on 103 interviews with Jews and their spouses who were not born Jewish, including 37 of whom converted to Judaism. She said she found that many of the latter were "on the way to becoming Jewish before meeting the Jew they would marry" and that some were "waiting to be asked to convert."
The role of the rabbi can be significant, Fishman said, noting that rabbis who downplay conversion for fear of offending other congregants or undermining the congregation’s outreach efforts to other intermarried couples "may be actually discouraging a potential convert." And she said it is important that the conversion be celebrated when it occurs, and that the couple thereafter should blend in with the rest of the congregation.
"Converts tend to be much closer [to the Jewish community] … than mixed-marriage families," Fishman observed.
She pointed out that more than one-third of American Jews are intermarried, that half of all Jews today marry non-Jews and that less than 20 percent of non-Jewish spouses convert to Judaism. As a result, 1.5 million children have one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent. Fishman added that she believes in outreach efforts "to everyone, but we should not distort Judaism for the purpose of attracting people who are practicing two religions."
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, disagreed with Fishman’s approach however, arguing that "promoting conversion is not an outreach strategy."
"I believe that if conversion is the primary goal of outreach (which is the way it is being currently positioned by various leaders) it is disingenuous," he said. "If people come into our community and like what they see, hear and feel, they will be motivated to convert and I will be happy to work with them in order to do so. However, if we really want to talk honestly about conversion, let’s lower the barriers to conversion: the [conversion] courses and books should be free and offered more frequently, and the use of the mikveh should be free."
Rabbi Olitzky pointed out that only 18 percent of intermarried couples belong to synagogues. Thus, he said, the "majority of intermarried families have not yet engaged with the organized Jewish community." Paul Golin, his group’s associate executive director, suggested that the Jewish community’s desire to promote conversion stems from its concern that the Jewish population is shrinking. "I think that is the wrong reason" for promoting conversion, he said, adding that the emphasis instead should be on the individual and the impact conversion would have on his or her life. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said he agreed with Fishman’s approach that conversion has to be the "focus" of outreach efforts.
"It has to be in the long-range strategic plan," he said. "I’m not talking about manipulating [people]. I want to make them feel comfortable and educate them, with my goal eventually to raise that person to the point of wanting to convert."
Although both the Reform and Conservative movements advocate reaching out to intermarried couples, Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Orthodox movement’s Rabbinical Council of America, said his congregations do not believe in outreach but do welcome intermarried couples if the non-Jewish spouse expresses an interest in converting. He said a man who marries a non-Jewish woman would not be permitted to join most Orthodox synagogues "because the next thing you know he will want a seat for the High Holy Days and to bring his children to the synagogue for the Purim and Chanukah parties and the youth group: and everyone would think they are Jewish."
According to Jewish law, only children born to Jewish mothers are considered Jewish. However, in the 1980s the Reform movement adopted a policy of "patrilineal descent," recognizing as Jewish the children of a Jewish father and gentile mother: assuming the children are given an exclusively Jewish upbringing.
"If the intermarried couple feels the need to raise their children as committed Jews, we are not going to snub them" when the non-Jewish spouse seeks to convert, Rabbi Herring stressed. "But they have to be sincere and have a readiness to do: to keep Shabbos … and to [have] a fundamental commitment to keeping a Jewish life."
Asked about the Conservative movement’s recent decision to accept "patrilineal" Jewish children into its religious schools and summer camps (provided the family agrees to convert the child before his or her bar or bat mitzvah) Rabbi Herring said that although it is possible the child would maintain a Jewish lifestyle, it is not likely.
"How does a child convert in a way that is a real conversion if he is not eating kosher food and is not likely to be shomer Shabbos [observing the laws of the Sabbath]?" he asked.
Rabbi Epstein, however, defended the policy change, saying it stems from the belief that there is a chance to influence the teen.
"If they are involved in religious education and observe some mitzvot and have a bar or bat mitzvah, I have a chance of educating them and we want to help them grow," he said. "It’s designed to encourage Jewish children to live a Jewish life and to encourage the family to have one religion. I recognize that some will never do it, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t continue to try."