Archive for Saturday, September 23, 2006

American Jews wrestle with whether to suggest non-Jewish spouses convert

September 23, 2006


— Christine Benvenuto embodies a Jewish ideal.

Her kitchen is kosher, she attends synagogue and has read rabbinic writings and Torah.

But for many American Jewish leaders, she has an even more compelling quality. The mother of three, whose husband was born Jewish, is a convert.

"A lot of things attracted me to Judaism," said Benvenuto, whose book "Shiksa" chronicles her path to conversion and the choices of other non-Jewish spouses. "I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in New York, and my friends were always Jewish."

As intermarriage continues at a high rate, many community leaders believe the survival of Judaism lies with people like Benvenuto. Over the last year, top rabbis have urged Jews to overcome their fear of offending non-Jewish spouses and suggest outright that they convert.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, each called for a more assertive approach at national religious meetings of their movements in the last year. Together, their organizations represent about 75 percent of North American synagogue members.

The American Jewish Committee, a leading advocacy group based in New York, released the first major study in nearly two decades of why people decide to become Jewish. Among the central findings is that advocating for conversion works.

Even some Orthodox, who have traditionally discouraged conversion, have joined in.

Rabbi Leib Tropper, who runs a school in Monsey, N.Y., for Jews who lack basic religious education, started Eternal Jewish Family a year ago to train rabbinic courts on proper conversion for non-Jewish spouses. Tropper says hundreds of rabbis have attended the training sessions.

"One has to look at how Orthodox leaders are acting rather than what they're saying," said Steven Bayme, an expert on contemporary Jewish life for the American Jewish Committee. "On the ground, the attitudes toward conversion have been more open, although they vary from community to community."

Many Jewish professionals who work with intermarried couples say that suggesting conversion will insult the non-Jewish spouse and drive them away. The community should be focused on making the family feel welcome first, outreach workers say.

"You need to change the culture of synagogues to get this going. You need to develop a game plan where one can even ask those questions," about conversion, said Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, which trains lay people and Conservative rabbis to work with couples in mixed marriages. "Now, the most common phrase you hear when you walk into a synagogue is, 'You're sitting in my seat."'

Another obstacle is Jewish distaste for anything that resembles proselytizing, since Jews have so often been the target of those campaigns.

"That, in turn, has been made it more complicated for Jews to turn around and say, 'It's really OK for us to proselytize others,"' said Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. "So, what Jews have preached is, 'Don't proselytize ours, and we won't proselytize yours."'

That silence has created the false impression that Judaism does not accept converts - a misperception rooted partly in rabbinic teaching. The rabbis said that converting was so serious, that only those prepared to fully observe the complex body of Jewish law and ritual should be allowed to do so. This is the basis for the tradition of rejecting a potential convert three times as a test of his or her readiness, Wertheimer said.


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