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Is Conversion “THE” Solution?

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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.



2 Comments

  1. I read about you in the Jerusalem Post, and I became interested those ideas being presented.

    Comment by Chaim Levi Ben_Avraham — July 16, 2005 @ 4:27 am

  2. B”H

    I am a descendant, on my father’s side, from a Jewish man who assimilated some generations back and married out. I had an orthodox conversion and am now a Jew. Certainly I am not alone in “coming back” and there are many people today who feel strongly pulled towards converting to Judaism. Something big seems to be happening today that was not the case fifty or a hundred years ago or so.

    Personally I cannot accept that someone who has converted outside orthodox auspices and does not accept the mitzvot is truly halachically Jewish, though of course I would be respectful towards anyone with a non-halachic conversion (if I were actually aware of it!). As someone who converted Orthodox, I really did feel very different after the mikvah and have no doubt that is where I received my Jewish soul. The Torah does not change to suit modern sensibilities, however much we may want it to do so. Hashem is the same G-d who appeared to Moshe and He has not changed, nor have the fundamentals about what Jews are supposed to do to fulfill His commandments.

    That said, I believe that the process of conversion as it exists today often causes a great deal of needless suffering that cannot be ethically justified. While keeping the process both thorough and halachic, I feel positive changes can be made so it becomes far less bureacratic, more “user friendly”, individual (everyone is different, with different needs, levels of learning and length of time before they are ready) as well as being able to provide some emotional support for anyone going through the huge trauma that conversion normally entails.

    I think it is wrong and can actually be very cruel to make people wait years to reach the mikvah and to waste valuable time in their life that can never be replaced. My understanding is that there is no halachic basis for any lengthy delay, according to the Talmud. Conversion can be expensive and not everyone can afford it. Lack of money to pay for study etc. should surely not be any kind of bar to conversion. In addition, surely it is up to orthodox rabbis around the world to agree on acceptable standards of knowledge and commitment. Once you are halachically Jewish, you are Jewish period and not to accept another orthodox Beit Din’s decision seems to be very wrong and contrary to what it says in the Torah about not oppressing converts.

    Comment by Gila bat Sarah — November 13, 2006 @ 7:28 am

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