A Welcome or a Wall?

We firmly believe it is up to no single Jewish denomination to decide who is or isn’t Jewish. No one group should have a monopoly in this area. This is particularly true in terms of conversion. Whether someone finds meaning in the Reform or Orthodox movement is irrelevant – we should simply be excited that a person has chosen to join the Jewish community. But recent attempts in Israel to make it harder for a convert to claim Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, writes David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, signals something deeper than a tough new citizenship policy. It’s a “battle over the right of all Jews, irrespective of denomination, to help usher new members into the Jewish fold, consistent with basic criteria of knowledge, sincerity, and commitment.”

The proposal in the Knesset (the legislature of Israel), writes Harris, not only jeopardizes “ties with the vast majority of the Diaspora,” but it also creates more unnecessary obstacles to conversion even as we “bemoan our static numbers.” If a person coverts to Judaism with a “genuine sincerity and knowledge of the tenets of Jewish life, belief, history, and practice,” he or she should be accepted by all denominations and Israel. To make life “difficult” for people who choose Judaism by creating “hierarchies of identity” essentially undermines the entire process of converting in the first place.

Ultimately, though, Harris believes:

…this is a battle over the soul of Judaism - whether, at the end of the day, we are to be an open, inclusive people, practicing mutual respect, or a walled-off, self-limiting people, where only some are deemed worthy of respect.

He’s exactly right, and the choice should be obvious. Converting is a huge decision that requires an enormous amount of sacrifice and dedication. That’s why we created Empowering Ruth and Shofar, support programs for women and men, respectively, who have converted or are in the process. Jewish education doesn’t end when you formally convert. How do you navigate new family structures, new religious practices, and new holidays? Choosing Judaism isn’t just about taking on a new religion – it’s about fully joining an entirely new community.

The same can be said about anyone who becomes a part of our community – including intermarried families and children of intermarriage. We would love to see a statement from AJC that provides a similar welcome to those who are not Jewish but have become part of our community through their commitment to raise Jewish children or keep a Jewish home in partnership with a Jewish spouse. Whatever path people take to come to our doors, our job should be to help make their journey as meaningful and welcoming as possible.

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