One Step Closer, Still One Step Behind

A piece in Sunday’s St. Petersburg Times called “The Future of Judaism” reads, in some ways, like a breath of fresh air. It’s an interview with Arnold Eisen, the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (where Conservative Rabbis are ordained), and in it he discusses intermarriage in some very reasoned terms:

The challenge facing Jews is to welcome non-Jewish partners, make them part of the Jewish community, reach them with Jewish teaching and Jewish ways of life…

Okay, so far so good, but here’s where we take a step back:

…and hopefully convince a significant number of them not only to raise their children as Jews but to become Jews themselves. …Our task is to find ways of welcoming non-Jewish partners and family members at the same time as we can encourage them to fully join the covenant.

Here’s our prediction (you heard it here first): Just as the Conservative movement finally realized that vocally promoting in-marriage as the “solution” to intermarriage was counterproductive to the goal of welcoming more intermarried families, in a few more years the movement will also (again belatedly) realize that promoting conversion as the “solution” to intermarriage is also counterproductive to the goal of welcoming more intermarried families.

Don’t get us wrong. Nobody is more supportive of Jews-by-choice than JOI, and we have programming like Empowering Ruth specifically for the support of Jews-by-choice. But it is unfair to Jews-by-choice and to interfaith families to conflate the two issues.

Becoming Jewish is a personal decision that should be made by those who find meaning in the Jewish religion and/or peoplehood, not a communal policy to address demographic trends. Likewise, we know of countless interfaith families who are raising strongly-identified Jewish children where it would be outright rude to ask the non-Jewish parent to convert, because he or she is still practicing another religion.

It’s one thing when a rabbi asks a non-Jewish spouse about conversion because the rabbi knows that spouse, understands where he or she is “at” in their Jewish journey, and senses that the timing is right. It’s another thing altogether when the rabbi simply states from the pulpit “non-Jewish spouses should convert.” We trust that very few Conservative rabbis actually make such pulpit announcements, so we wonder why the movement leaders feel it appropriate to do so from the “pulpit” of the mass media?

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