April 2007 (with Micah Sachs)
One of the most uplifting parts of the Passover seder is when we sing “Dayenu.”
Each verse speaks to a different gift that God gave the Jewish people, followed by the celebratory chorus “Dayenu”–“it would have been enough.” If God had only allowed us to leave Egypt, goes the first verse, it would have been enough. If God had only given us Shabbat, goes another verse, it would have been enough. If God had only given us Torah, goes the last verse, it would have been enough.
Recently, interfaith couples have been getting a message from the Jewish community that raising Jewish children–by participating in Passover seders and other Jewish activities–is not enough. Instead, they’re hearing that only the conversion of the non-Jewish partner to Judaism will do. Now, following a new study on conversion sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, some Jewish leaders are suggesting that even conversion isn’t enough.
In a JTA article on the study, Steven Bayme, the AJC’s director of contemporary Jewish life, says, “We should not see conversion as the end of the story? what we’re really aiming for is converts who enrich the Jewish community through Jewish activism.”
Which begs the question: when is enough enough?
Conversion of non-Jewish spouses of Jews has stepped to the forefront of the organized Jewish community’s agenda in the past year. Each of the three major Jewish movements–Reform, Conservative and Orthodox–has looked at its approach to conversion. Each has in some way modified its stance. Both the Conservative and Orthodox movements have become slightly more welcoming to non-Jewish partners interested in conversion. That is a good thing.
But Reform synagogues are home to the greatest number of interfaith families, so the Reform movement’s stance is most relevant.
In November, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the head of the movement, gave a remarkable sermon on non-Jewish spouses and conversion at the movement’s biennial convention. First, he called non-Jewish partners who commit to raise their children Jewish “heroes” and said they deserve celebration and gratitude. Second, he called for Reform temples to do more than just celebrate and thank non-Jewish spouses; he said they should “ask, but? not pressure; encourage, but? not insist” that non-Jewish spouses convert to Judaism.
Taken on its own, Rabbi Yoffie’s idea of the “soft sell” on conversion is a worthy approach. Unfortunately, in the Reform movement’s own publicity about the speech, and especially in the major media’s coverage, the notion of gratitude was almost completely lost. A New York Times article from February 12 was titled “Reform Jews Hope to Unmix Mixed Marriages” and focused exclusively on the call for conversion. We’ve heard of more than one story from non-Jewish partners in interfaith couples who had carefully negotiated a decision to create a Jewish home and now fear being pressured to convert.
To make matters worse, the American Jewish Committee just released a study by Sylvia Barack Fishman called “Choosing Jewish: Conversations About Conversion.” Fishman interviewed 94 people in interfaith or conversionary relationships; only 37 of her subjects were formal converts to Judaism. Instead of seeing converts as “a monolithic group,” Fishman places them on a spectrum of Jewish involvement, from Activist Converts to Accommodating Converts to Ambivalent Converts.
Whatever value this kind of categorization has as sociology, it could be the basis of disastrous policy. Any person who has decided to become Jewish has made a decision to change an essential part of his or her identity. Fishman’s categories, and Bayme’s comments on them, send the message that making that decision is not enough. Converts must not merely be accommodating–and God forbid they be ambivalent–they should be activist (and even better yet, according to Fishman’s loaded typology, they should be Activist “Stars.”) It’s hard enough for converts to change a key part of their heritage–now we must denigrate them for not achieving a standard that few born Jews ever achieve?
In her study Fishman repeatedly calls for rabbis and spouses in interfaith relationships to advocate for conversion. She cites a handful of converts who say they would have appreciated being asked to convert earlier. But when Fishman looks at research on young interfaith couples, she finds they have entirely different attitudes: these younger couples have “strong anti-pressure feelings,” “see pressure to convert as a negative,” and “would be ‘turned off to Judaism’ if they were approached about conversion by clergy or even family friends.”
Let’s be clear: we at InterfaithFamily.com fully support anyone who chooses conversion. We wish them and their families “Mazel tov!” We are delighted if our resources help anyone make this wonderful personal decision. But conversion is not our goal, nor should it be the goal of Jewish outreach. Non-Jewish partners who are participating in Jewish life, and more importantly, raising their children as Jews, should be accepted as they are, not as if they are somehow “damaged goods” because they didn’t happen to have Jewish parents or have decided not to convert. As Reform rabbis and leaders begin to gently encourage conversion, it is essential they continue to offer statements of gratitude and acceptance to non-Jewish spouses who are raising their children as Jews. To those interfaith families raising their children Jewish, we emphatically say “Dayenu”–“it is enough.”
As for Bayme and Fishman and other significant voices in the Jewish community whose antipathy to intermarriage is unmistakable, we have only this to say: Enough is enough.