Conversion Shifts

It feels like an inexplicable coincidence. On July 8 I wrote an appreciation of Gary Tobin, a leading Jewish thinker and supporter of outreach to interfaith families who just passed away. I remembered his support for us and our tactical disagreement about how much to promote conversion to non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages. On the same day, the New York Jewish Week wrote about a major shift in the Conservative Movement about … how much to promote conversion as part of interfaith outreach.

Since got started, we have been interested in trying to help Conservative Jews respond positively to intermarriage. I grew up in a Conservative synagogue. At the Hornstein Program at Brandeis, I wrote a paper on the Movement’s response to intermarriage, analyzing responsa literature from the Committee On Law and Standards. In IFF’s early years we had eminent Conservative rabbis like Bradley Shavit Artson (dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University), Myron Geller (a long-time member of the Committee on Law and Standards) and Carl Perkins (author of the revised edition of Embracing Judaism published by the Rabbinical Assembly) write for us.

We were very supportive when the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs started its keruv initiative. Rabbi Charles Simon participated in the conference we held for outreach professionals in May 2007, and we reviewed the FJMC’s pamphlets The Role of the Supportive Non-Jewish Spouse in the Conservative/Masorti Movement and Let’s Talk About It: A Book of Support and Guidance for Families Experiencing Intermarriage and Synagogue Leadership.

Since we started listing Jewish organizations that welcome interfaith families back in 2001 and 2002, we have tried to recruit Conservative synagogues. When I spoke with Conservative rabbis in those days, pretty much the first question they would ask is, “what’s your position on conversion?” When I would say “conversion is a wonderful personal choice and we are delighted if any of our resources help people along that path, but we think that conversion should not be promoted too aggressively because it will turn away people who might otherwise come in and raise Jewish children,” many times the rabbi’s response would be “that’s not good enough.”

It appears that attitudes are adapting to the times. Slowly over the years, we have been able to recruit more than 70 Conservative synagogues and institutions to list on our organization directory. It has been widely reported that the growth in the Reform Movement and the decline in the Conservative Movement between 1990 and 2000 was due to the Reform Movement’s greater acceptance of interfaith families.

Now the Jewish Week article reports that all of the arms of the Conservative Movement have now signed off on a forthcoming pamphlet that will shift the movement away from an aggressive push for conversion. Rabbi Simon is quoted as saying that although “there is nothing wrong with saying conversion is important to us, we should be honest about it. There is not a realistic expectation in today’s life to set a goal of conversion. Couples set their own goals; that is not where I would start the game.”

Today I submitted this letter to the Jewish Week:

I write to applaud news of an important shift in the Conservative Movement’s approach to interfaith families (Conservatives End Push to Convert Intermarrieds, July 8, 2009) and the leadership of Rabbi Charles Simon and the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs on this critical issue. While conversion is a wonderful personal choice, all of the Movement’s arms apparently now recognize that engaging people in Jewish family life is the most important end result, and that promoting conversion too aggressively risks alienating couples who might otherwise get involved. The Jewish Outreach Institute’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky is clearly right that conversion is not an outreach strategy, or, as Rabbi Simon says, the place to “start the game.” The fact that over 70 Conservative synagogues and institutions currently list on the Network of organizations that welcome interfaith families indicates that many Conservative congregational rabbis and lay leaders are already acting consistently with this positive new attitude.

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.