Many Paths to a People
From Orthodoxy to Reform, the word is in: Bringing a non-Jewish spouse into Judaism is good for the Jews.
Sarah Hoffmann of Kansas City, Missouri, waited 18 years after marrying her Jewish husband, John Spertus, before she went to the mikve. The 47-year-old mother of three, ages 15, 13 and 8, raised her children Jewish and the family belongs to a Reform synagogue. But at the time of her marriage, she balked at making the formal commitment. “I had trouble with the belief-in-God thing,” she says.
That changed as her children grew and she became involved in synagogue life. Three years ago, her daughter began preparing for her bat mitzva. To keep up with her child’s studies, Hoffmann signed up for a two-year course at the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School. Her teacher, Rabbi Amy Katz, guided her to a new understanding of what faith means in Judaism and how she could find her place in the community. On June 16 of this year, Hoffmann converted. There was no flash of spiritual lightning, more a quiet acceptance of what she had already become. “It’s been a very slow evolution,” she says, “so when I did it, it was a very natural part of what had been happening for the past 18 years.”
And when her son celebrated his bar mitzva last month, Hoffmann says she was “committed to it. Instead of hanging back and watching my kids and husband up there on the bima, I felt connected.”
In many ways, Hoffmann is typical of people converting to Judaism in the 21st century. They are more likely to be older, sometimes coming to Judaism after years of marriage to a Jew. According to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, women converts continue to outnumber men by two-to-one among those who are married. Hoffmann is one of about 96,000 converts married to Jews. The NJPS reports about 164,000 converts in the United States.
In total numbers, notes sociologist Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, there are more converts now than at any time in the past. But the percentage of those who convert has declined steadily for 35 years—more Jews are marrying non-Jews, but fewer of their spouses are converting. In the 1960’s, the peak decade, 24 percent of non-Jews married to Jews went through formal conversion. In the 1970’s, the rate dropped to 17 percent, then fell to 11 percent in the 1980’s and 7.7 percent in the 1990’s. According to Sylvia Barack Fishman, professor of Jewish studies at Brandeis University, today fewer than one in five intermarriages involves conversion.
And the rate continues to drop, fueled by such factors as Reform acceptance of patrilineal descent—why convert if your children are considered Jewish?—better integration of intermarried families into synagogue life in all non-Orthodox streams and increased acceptance of interfaith marriages in society in general.
It’s hard to know precisely how many people are converting. Some experts believe the NJPS figures are too low. The movements don’t keep their own figures—once a person converts, he or she is considered fully Jewish. Most conversions in the United States, however, take place under Reform auspices. Kathy Kahn, outreach director of the Union for Reform Judaism and herself a convert, gives a ballpark figure of 10,000 a year.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, says that while his movement “has not seen a decline in conversion, we haven’t seen tremendous growth.” Most of those who convert to Conservative Judaism are married to Jews or contemplating such a marriage.
Orthodoxy has the fewest converts; the smallest movement, it has the least intermarriage and the most stringent conversion process, requiring a year of study and clear demonstration of intent to lead an observant Jewish life.
How have things changed? Up to the mid-1960’s, Phillips says, Jews who married outside their faith did not tend to be active Jewishly. Neither they nor their spouses were looking to be part of the Jewish community. That is no longer true. Increasingly, intermarried couples are building Jewish homes and raising Jewish children, even without conversion. The NJPS found the rate of intermarried couples raising their children as Jews has grown 5 percent this past decade to 33 percent.
That still leaves more than 60 percent of intermarrieds not raising their children as Jews. In addition, sociologist Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York has conducted several studies indicating it is far more likely that children will be raised Jewish and stay Jewish when the non-Jewish parent converts.
That presents a dilemma for the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements: On one hand, they want to welcome intermarried families into their congregations and encourage them to raise their children as Jews; on the other hand, they would like to see the non-Jews in these families become Jews.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the URJ, captured that dichotomy poignantly during his keynote sermon at the movement’s biennial last November in Houston.
While urging congregations to honor the non-Jewish adults who are active in their synagogues and are raising Jewish children—people he deems “heroes of Jewish life”—Yoffie also called on Reform movement communities to invite them—delicately, noncoercively—to convert.
Noting that Reform has for a quarter-century made non-Jews feel comfortable and accepted in the synagogue and community, he continued, “Perhaps we have sent the message that we do not care if they convert.” That is, he said, “not our message…. It is a mitzva to help a potential Jew become a Jew-by-choice.”
Epstein issued a similar call at the Conservative movement’s biennial last December in Boston. Unveiling what he called a new kiruv, or outreach, initiative, he urged congregations to continue inviting non-Jewish spouses or potential spouses to convert, while opening the doors to their, and their children’s, increased participation in synagogue life. “We’re in a world where if we don’t deal with these things, we’re foolish,” he said.
Yoffie’s invitation to convert got a mixed reception, particularly from Reform leaders who felt it might offend their non-Jewish friends and relatives. Rabbi Donald Weber, chair of the conversion committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinical association, says it’s not easy to ask someone to convert. “My colleagues are trying to walk a very fine line between encouraging someone to convert without telling them that raising a Jewish family is not sufficient,” he says. “Yet the more involved they are, the better candidate they’d be.”
Ed Case, president of InterfaithFamily.com, a nonprofit that supports intermarried families making Jewish choices, feels Yoffie’s and Epstein’s initiatives put too much pressure on non-Jewish spouses who have already proved their allegiance to the Jewish community. “The most important thing for Jewish continuity is for more interfaith families to raise children with Jewish identities,” he states. “That’s more important than having the non-Jewish spouse convert.”
In fact, he fears a possible backlash. “I’m concerned that the more aggressively you promote conversion, the fewer Jewish children you’ll end up with,” he warns.
Interestingly, some non-Jews have a different reaction. Karen Kushner, director of the Reform movement’s San Francisco-based Project Welcome outreach initiative, convened a panel of half a dozen non-Jewish spouses and Jews-by-choice. All of them said they would welcome being invited to convert.
“One woman said, ‘No one ever told me I could convert,’” Kushner relates. “Others said, ‘I don’t know Hebrew, I don’t know Talmud,’ as if that were an insurmountable barrier.”
“We’re always so careful around people, but the reality is we want people to be Jews,” remarks Lorel Zar-Kessler, cantor at Reform Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, Massachusetts. “To be in the club for years and years without being asked to join is not a good thing. It’s freeing to say, ‘Yes, we love you and we want you.’”
Even the Orthodox are feeling the pressure of increased intermarriage. Traditionally, Orthodox rabbis have been reluctant to convert someone after he or she marries a Jew. But that is changing, says Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Orthodox movement’s main rabbinical body. Orthodox rabbis are beginning to reach out to invite the non-Jewish spouse to convert, to ensure future children will be Jews, instead of writing off the entire family.
“There are some leading rabbis who say, if the non-Jewish spouse and the Jewish spouse say, ‘what was, was, today we want to live a Jewish life and raise Jewish children,’ then we should make it easier for them…,” Herring says. While urging continued caution to ensure that the potential convert intends to follow Orthodox strictures, he declares, “we should not make it needlessly difficult…[but] should embrace someone who wants to be part of the Jewish people.”
Last fall, Eternal Jewish Family, a nonprofit based in Monsey, New York, brought ultra-Orthodox rabbis from around the world to a conference in Newark, New Jersey, aimed at standardizing Orthodox conversion and setting up specialized batei din, rabbinical courts, as a central place for non-Jewish spouses (and children of non-Jewish mothers) to undergo an Orthodox conversion. Potential converts working with these batei din go through a traditional Orthodox conversion process, but are assured that the rabbis on the beit din are “experts in conversion,” according to EJF conference chairman Marvin Jacob.
The group has held two more conferences, established eight batei din for conversion in the United States and performed, as of April 2006, more than 70 conversions. Hundreds of Orthodox rabbis, including the chief rabbis of Israel and heads of major yeshivas, have signed on.
Traditionally, one may not refer to a person’s conversion after it’s complete. That delicacy has shrouded the subject in secrecy, even negativity.
That, too, is changing.
Rabbi Richard Shapiro of Temple Sinai in Palm Desert, California, is on the Reform’s CCAR conversion committee. He sees “a much greater openness and acceptance.”
Hundreds of Reform congregations now hold public ceremonies of welcome. Sudbury’s Congregation Beth El announces conversions in its newsletter, just like any other joyful event. New converts are called up to the Torah on the Sabbath after they convert.
And on Rosh Hashana, before the first blowing of the shofar, the names of all the new babies and converts of the previous 12 months are called out from the bima. They’re read in alphabetical order, “all our new Jews, the Shlomos and Rivkas and the MacDonalds,” says Zar-Kessler.
There is also greater attention to making the conversion ceremony more meaningful and aesthetically pleasing. In the Reform world, which has a tradition of individualized ceremonies and family participation, this heightened attention to aesthetics has been accompanied by a revived interest in using mikve for conversion. More than two dozen liberal mikvaot have been built this past decade in North America, most of them because Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis were not able to use local Orthodox ones for conversion.
Last June, the URJ sponsored the first national conference on liberal mikvaot at Mayyim Hayyim, a two-year-old community ritual bath in Newton, Massachusetts.
Sponsoring the conference is a far cry from the Reform attitude toward this ritual little more than a decade ago. Kathy Kahn remembers calling her mother-in-law before her conversion 15 years ago to ask about immersion. “She said, ‘No, Kathy, it’s mitzva, not mikve,’” Kahn recalls, laughing. “She was a classic Reform Jew. When she was growing up, mikve wasn’t ‘American.’”
Other traditional rituals increasingly embraced by Reform converts and their rabbis are the use of batei din and hatafat dam brit, taking a ceremonial drop of blood from the penis of an already circumcised male convert. “These discussions weren’t happening 10 years ago” in non-Orthodox rabbinical circles, Shapiro says.
Reform conversions also require more serious study than they used to. When Rabbi Steven Foster came to Denver in July 1970, his senior rabbi told him to convert a 21-year-old woman sitting outside his office because he was officiating at her marriage in August.
“I said, ‘August of next year, right?’” Foster recalls. “He said, ‘No, this August.’”
Now most of Foster’s converts are in their midthirties and have considered the decision carefully. “There’s more maturity, they bring with them a seriousness to the process.”
Within the Conservative movement, growing numbers of children of non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers are converting to normalize their status. Some of them are calling it an affirmation rather than conversion, saying they are going through a different, less life-altering process than a person with no former connection to Judaism.
But it still brings up a host of emotions. Kathy Bloomfield, mikve center director at Mayyim Hayyim, has seen many children of non-Jewish mothers who were raised Jewish and then learn before their bar or bat mitzva that they need to convert. “We need to respect the fact that they’re raised as Jewish people, and now they’re told they’re not,” she says, urging the adoption of the affirmation category.
For many adult children of mixed marriages, the decision to convert comes more slowly. Thirty-six-year-old Karen Stephenson of Denver had a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. Ten years ago, her mother, Ann Breslaw, converted and asked Karen to join her. But Karen, who wasn’t raised Jewish, wasn’t ready.
“I was 25, easily distracted, not focused,” she recalls. And she was married to a non-Jew.
When her son was 2, she divorced and decided she wanted to convert. But when she approached Rabbi Foster, he told her to “wait until I’d put my life in order,” she recalls. Four years later, in September 2005, she started studying for conversion. She began attending services regularly at Congregation Emanuel, where her mother is president of the sisterhood.
Two days before her conversion in July 2006, she admitted she was nervous. “I recited the Shema in my head every chance I got,” she says. She was also impatient. “It’s like, come on, I just want to be Jewish! But they don’t want you to take it lightly. You have to sit back and process what’s going on.” In August, her son, now 6, was converted as well.
As intermarriage continues to rise and old attitudes soften, outreach experts believe more intermarried families will make Jewish choices. It remains to be seen whether the new Reform and Conservative focus on conversion, combined with a reexamination of traditional Orthodox barriers, will lead to a resurgence in the number of converts or not.
But current trends point to increased acceptance of conversion. “I think conversion is going to be seen more and more as a life-cycle event,” says Kahn. “It will be normalized. People won’t view converts as some kind of odd fanatic, but will congratulate them in a warm, open way. These people are joining our family and we need to celebrate with them.”
As the conversion scene becomes more multifaceted, so does the profile of those who convert.
In Choosing Judaism: Conversations About Conversion, her study for the American Jewish Committee, Sylvia Barack Fishman sees three types of converts: the activist convert—the 30 percent who are very drawn to Judaism, often becoming the driving Jewish force in their family; the accommodating convert—the 40 percent who “feel warmly” toward Judaism but let their Jewish spouse set the religious tone; and the ambivalent convert—the 30 percent who retain ties to their birth religion and have mixed feelings about being Jewish.
Fishman’s findings contradict current wisdom, which holds that people who choose Judaism are converting more to a faith than to a people. She says this depends on what kind of convert they are, that most start out being attracted to Jewish culture or religion, but the activist converts continue on to embrace Jewish ethnicity.
That sums up Clint Gillom’s experience. The 37-year-old marketing analyst from Kansas City, Missouri, had no Jewish family ties. He was first attracted to Judaism intellectually and began attending services at area synagogues and studying Jewish subjects.
Now, two years after his Conservative conversion, he says his connection to Judaism “has evolved” and includes a strong bond “to the people and the community.” He’s a true activist convert: He tries to wear tefilin daily, sits on the board of his federation’s young adult group and visited Israel with his wife this past March as part of a solidarity mission. (His wife is in the process of converting, too.)
Despite the different reasons for converting, Fishman believes most Jews-by-choice want to deepen their ties to the Jewish people. She urges synagogues and other organizations to develop support services including ongoing mentoring for conversionary families as part of a larger project of nurturing Jewish experiences for the whole community.
“We need to engage Jews and make Jewish culture more dynamic,” she states. “That will help in terms of conversion as well.”
Sue Fishkoff, author of The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch (Schocken), writes for the JTA from her home in Oakland, CA.