Thursday, July 9, 2009

Conversion and Intermarriage: A Nuanced View

The Conservative movement is very good at doing nuance. We are lousy at explaining it.

I'm a great fan of nuance, because very few things in this world are black and white (for more on that, see The Muddle in the Middle). But a nuanced approach often sends mixed signals, and nowhere has that happened more in recent years than with the issue of interfaith families. The movement's position has long been to emphasize "Keruv," as it's called meaning to "draw them near." Outreach. But of late that has been complicated by a USCJ focus on promoting conversion. The two emphases need not be long as the non Jewish family members are welcomed unconditionally under our big tent.

I'd like to think that is the case here - and increasingly so over the past several years.

The Jewish Week just ran a story that has somewhat muddied the waters: Conservatives End Push To Convert Intermarrieds.

Below is a response just released today by the leaders of the Rabbinical Assembly. I believe it states well the argument for a nuanced approach leaving the door wide open for conversion - but equally for unconditional acceptance and love.


A Statement by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld and Rabbi Jeffrey A. Wohlberg

July 9, 2009 (New York, NY) -- Readers of a recent article in the Jewish Week – “Conservatives End Push To Convert Intermarrieds” – would conclude that the Conservative movement is currently being torn asunder by two divergent beliefs: that rabbis must aggressively pursue the conversion of non-Jewish spouses; or that all attempts at conversion must be abandoned and interfaith families accepted into Conservative synagogue and communal life without hope of conversion.

In fact, no such controversy exists within the ranks of those who serve on the frontline of involvement with interfaith families and non-Jews within the community – Conservative rabbis.

This false dichotomy does more than misrepresent reality; most regrettably, it shortchanges the nuanced and thoughtfully-crafted approach of Conservative rabbis to what is by now a well established reality in contemporary Jewish life – interfaith families and non-Jews within our synagogues and communities.

Yet, it is understandable that this misunderstanding exists because the Rabbinical Assembly has boldly selected to embrace two seemingly contradictory points of view – the unconditional welcome of interfaith families and non-Jews within the community alongside the prospect of conversion to those who sincerely feel moved to join the Jewish people.

The Jewish Week article was based on a draft brochure on keruv (outreach), authored by a committee of the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism. Soon to be made available to Conservative synagogues throughout North America, the brochure is the product of a committee of the LCCJ, chaired by Rabbi Robert Slosberg of Louisville, Kentucky. A joint effort of rabbis and laypeople, it sends an important message of welcome and caring to non-Jews in our communities, while stating that we are also eager to share with them the profound joy and meaning of living a Jewish life within a Jewish community.

Herein lies the cause for confusion and seeming controversy. Instead of promoting an either/or agenda, the Conservative Movement has adopted a mutually inclusive plan of action.

The forthcoming brochure is the product of cooperative and constructive discussions over many months, reflecting the care and thoughtfulness that we wish to take in considering the delicate matters of personal relationships and spiritual life. It articulates the movement’s principles of outreach, underscoring the warm and sincere welcome it extends to people of all faiths and walks of life. The brochure is expected to be endorsed and promoted by all major arms of the Conservative movement.

Judaism has historically viewed conversion with some reticence, a position that stems in large part from the perilous circumstances that Jews faced within society. Throughout most of history, to convert someone to Judaism was to expose them to danger and ostracism. These conditions no longer apply and rabbis are able to focus on the myriad gifts of Jewish life and Jewish community, gifts that we enthusiastically share with those who seek to embrace them.

Indeed, our enthusiasm to inspire conversion has been set forth before, most recently in our 2007 rabbinic guide to conversion, Petah haOhel. We honor the committed relationships non-Jews have forged with their Jewish partners in our communities. At the same time, we also adhere to the integrity of Jewish tradition and hope, wherever possible, to motivate people to become Jewish. Our first priority is always that the non-Jew experiencing our way of life do so at a pace and in an environment where he or she feels comfortable. Moreover, the unconditional welcome we extend to non-Jews is heartfelt and enthusiastic wherever they are on their journey.

The Conservative movement, with its unswerving focus on the integrity of Jewish tradition and its persistent commitment to evolve as society evolves, has achieved more conspicuous success in the area of conversion than any other religious stream of Judaism. Currently, Rabbinical Assembly members are running highly successful conversion programs in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Jacksonville and countless other places in the United States and abroad

As the president and the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, we wish to set the record straight regarding our approach to conversion and outreach. Yes, we have undertaken a paradoxical enterprise but there is no controversy, no rift among our ranks regarding conversion. Speaking on behalf of our 1600 colleagues worldwide, we affirm our belief in the coexistence of keruv and conversion as well as the power of the two to support and enhance the lives of interfaith couples and non-Jews who are such an important part of our communities.

Rabbi Jeffrey A. Wohlberg, president
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president
The Rabbinical Assembly

1 comment:

Rabbi Kerry Olitkzy said...

I believe wholeheartedly in the notion of microtrends where two opposing positions (trends) can coexist, as opposed to megatrends which we once thought to be more important and persuasive. But I think that the challenge is to the term "unconditional." What does that mean in the context of a synagogue, particularly a Conservative synagogue? What is the extent of the permitted participation in both the ritual life and the corporate life of the congregation.

Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky
Jewish Outreach Institute