JOI Statement on the “Conversion Debate” in Today’s Forward

JOI’s executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky co-wrote an op-ed with Dr. David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, appearing in today’s Forward Jewish newspaper entitled “Conversion Is Not An Outreach Strategy.”

In the piece, they write:

We are all for conversion and welcome anyone who wants to join us. But…. conversion is not an outreach strategy. If outreach is indeed about going to where people are, then to ask people to convert before they have developed a sense of belonging in the community…is just not the right approach. Nor can it be the covert goal of programming to reach people on the periphery. Once people have been given the opportunity to imbibe the waters of Torah, let them be motivated to join us on their own….

To focus on conversion alone as a panacea to the challenge of interfaith marriage and Jewish continuity is mistaken. Our real task is to create a community of meaning worth joining.


  1. The Olitzky-Ellenson statement on conversion serves as an important counterpoint to views recently expressed by the leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism. Hopefully, the Op-Ed piece in the Forward written by the heads of JOI and HUC will help refine the debate within the Reform movement over its current outreach initiatives. More broadly, the Olitzky-Ellenson approach puts a human face on the “holy children” born of intermarried parents and should help nuance the broader debate over exogamy among progressive Jews of all stripes.

    Comment by Lance J. Sussman — May 14, 2006 @ 11:03 pm

  2. it seems that the three-part strategy developed by Jewish communal leaders tends to focus more on prevention and conversion than it does on outreach. by overlooking outreach, Jewish communities are leaving some very key members out in the cold: interfaith couples/families, unaffiliated single/divorced/in-married Jews, and Jews-By-Choice. and these people are just as important to the community as the active affiliated members are. but these groups cannot be expected to simply walk into a synagogue, as many of them have concerns about how they will be treated (especially the interfaith group). which is why Rabbis and other community leaders, regardless of denomination, need to find new ways to be more open to those on the periphery. as the writers stated in the piece, intermarriage occurs in all communities, not just ours. but since the Jewish population is a lot smaller than those of other faiths, the effects that intermarriage has can be extremely difficult to handle for many.
    when prevention of intermarriage fails, conversion is likely to be viewed as the next best thing to ensure Jewish continuity. but like Olitzky and Ellenson said, it should not be the ultimate goal in correcting intermarriage. an individual cannot be expected to convert before they have the chance to experience any form of Jewish life and culture. and pressuring someone to convert simply for the sake of continuity or for keeping the peace with relatives is not going to draw in potential Jews-By-Choice. by creating a warm and welcoming environment for all, the Jewish community will only see positive results. interfaith families will more likely raise Jewish children and non-Jewish spouses will more likely be inclined to convert. although we are still a long way from achieving this goal, JOI and other outreach organizations are doing all they can to get there.

    Comment by heather — May 15, 2006 @ 4:00 pm

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