Our friend Lawrence Epstein, founder and president of the Conversion to Judaism Resource Center in Commack, NY, wrote an op-ed in today’s Jerusalem Post that identifies a population crisis for the Jewish people and states, ” The solution that can work is encouraging people to embrace Judaism. There are literally millions of people with Jewish ancestors, people whose ancestors were forced to convert out of Judaism, or who assimilated. Additionally, there are many people who are loosely attached to the Jewish community through a romantic partner, parent or other family member. Some even consider themselves Jewish, though no formal Jewish religious group would accept such a claim.”
Epstein suggests that “Potential converts are discouraged by our inability to define common standards for conversion. It is not easy for people considering Judaism to hear they will be accepted by some Jews as authentic, but not by others.” He goes on to recommend “a single worldwide organization or department that has the sole mandate of increasing the Jewish population through welcoming converts.”
While Mr. Epstein does wonderful work, we see potential pitfalls in his recommendation.
The lively debate within Judaism, the lack of a single authority like a Pope, the great variety within the denominational movements—these are all aspects that make our people so interesting. Yes, let’s make conversion more accessable for those who would join us, but why do we need to centralize that effort? Knowing the community, it’s politically impossible. Those who adhere to an orthodox interpretation of Jewish law will never lower their requirements for conversion, and if that becomes the sole standard, we’ll actually have less conversions to Judaism, not more.
The other missing piece is the fact that conversion is a religious act, yet most Jews are not religious! When a “cultural Jew” intermarries, it often feels hypocritical to ask his or her spouse to convert religiously when neither of them are religious people.
Likewise, what about all the intermarried spouses from other religious backgrounds who are still actively practicing their religion of origin, yet have agreed to raise their children as Jews? Conversion is clearly not the “Solution” for them. Getting help from the Jewish community in raising Jewish children, while also being warmly welcomed and thanked for sacrificing, now that’s a more realistic solution.
Conversion is a wonderful thing for the Jewish people and we should let more people know how much we welcome and appreciate Jews-by-choice, but it is also a difficult choice and often a long process that happens after many years of engagement with the Jewish community. Getting more people engaged, regardless of their current status, is our “Solution.” For those whose journey then goes on to include conversion, we are lucky to have Rabbi Epstein’s Center. But we also welcome those who, for whatever reason, will never make that leap yet still want to raise Jewish children within the context of an intermarriage. And that, too, addresses the population crisis brought about by low Jewish birthrates mentioned in his article, if we can help more such intermarried families raise Jewish children by sharing the beauty of Jewish life.