Lowering Barriers for Jews-by-Choice

Rabbi Marc Angel, founder and director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, is troubled by the ever restrictive policies regarding Israel and converting to Judaism – particularly Orthodox conversion. Writing in The Forward, he says the new policies have had a profoundly negative impact on Jewish peoplehood. “These policies prevent and deter many people from converting to Judaism according to Halacha (Jewish law),” he writes. “They cause unspeakable pain and frustration to numerous individuals who want to cast their destiny with the Jewish people – but who are rejected, humiliated and threatened by the rabbinic bureaucracy.”

Rabbi Angel traces the problem back to a 2006 decision in which Israel’s chief rabbinate “announced that it would no longer accept conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora, unless the rabbis were on the pre-approved list.” Since then, he writes, power over conversion has been inappropriately consolidated by a rabbinate that “has become narrower and more extreme.” This at a time when “world Jewry is very much in need of responsible, creative, sensitive and inclusive religious leadership.” Conversion, he writes, should be in the hands of individual rabbis, not an “inflexible and restrictive hierarchy.”

Indeed, these barriers to Judaism have reached unfortunate levels. We understand the desire to ensure those who choose Judaism do so with proper guidance and education, but must it come at the expense of the entire Jewish community? Subscribing to the rigid standards of an orthodox minority shouldn’t be a prerequisite to become Jewish. They lay no greater claim to Judaism than adherents of every other Jewish denomination, and they shouldn’t stand as the ultimate gatekeepers.

Abraham and Sara opened their tent on four sides to welcome all who approach, and that is the model we need to emulate today. Closing doors and shutting people out of our community only creates divisions that damage our sense of Jewish unity. We will find more people coming through our doors if we lower barriers to participation and welcome everyone who would choose to begin a Jewish journey, no matter which path they take.

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