Reconceptualizing Conversion

By Edmund Case

Because 84% of new households that include non-Orthodox Jews are interfaith, it’s essential to engage interfaith families for any liberal Jewish activity to thrive in the future.

Experts agree that people engage with a group if they feel included – that they belong. But the traditional Jewish view – that a partner from a different faith tradition who wants to belong can and should convert – discourages most of those partners from ever engaging in the first place.

Instead of a condition to inclusion, seeing conversion “for the right reasons, and at the right time” as an incidental possible positive future outcome of unconditional inclusion is key to our future vitality.

Rabbinic officiation at weddings serves to welcome and include new couples in Jewish life and community. The traditional view imposes conversion as a condition to a rabbi’s officiation at a wedding involving a partner who comes from a different faith tradition. That’s why Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz’s passionate statement at the recent United Synagogue/Rabbinical Assembly biennial that Conservative rabbis should be permitted to officiate at weddings of interfaith couples who intend to raise their children Jewish was so striking – and hinged on his view of conversion:

“It would be great if Christopher [the hypothetical partner of Rachel] would convert. Conversion would clearly be our preferred option. We would move heaven and earth to encourage him to convert if he were open to it. But here is what he says…. I love Rachel for who she is. I want to be loved for who I am. Maybe in time I might choose to convert, but I want to do it for the right reasons, and in the right time. The right reason is that this is something that I want to do, that I am drawn to. The right time is when I feel ready. I don’t want to do it to make her parents happy, or to make clergy happy, or as a condition to a wedding. I am happy if our children are raised Jewish. I would be partners with Rachel in their getting a Jewish education. But I am not ready to convert to Judaism unless I feel it is something I want to do because it feels right to me.”

Meanwhile, in the Reform movement, where 88% of rabbis will officiate for interfaith couples under certain conditions, many congregational leaders still view conversion as a condition for inclusion. That is the key takeaway from the results of a survey the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism (CFRIJ) conducted in connection with a learning session at the URJ Biennial. Leadership positions continue to be largely restricted to Jews; in only 43% of congregations can partners from different faith traditions serve as board members, and in only 21% as officers. While ritual participation has opened up, with 70% of congregations allowing parents from different faith traditions to have or join in an Aliyah at the b’nai mitzvah of their children, it is not clear how many congregations allow partners from a different faith tradition to recite the words of the Torah blessings. The clear message is that if you convert, you can hold any position and lead any prayer – otherwise you can’t.

Shortly before the URJ Biennial, CFRIJ announced a grass-roots campaign to have Reform congregations propose a resolution at the 2021 URJ Biennial calling for full inclusion of interfaith families and partners from different faith traditions. One rabbi strongly objected, saying that if partners from different faith traditions can do everything Jews can do, Jewish identity would be meaningless, and no one would convert. He raised the old Reform Jewish outreach analogy that it’s like citizenship, where aliens have certain rights but can’t vote. Maintaining high boundaries and applying the citizenship analogy – essentially, requiring conversion as a condition to full inclusion – is a recipe for decline. At another URJ Biennial session, on supporting “Jewish adjacent” members, two partners from different faith traditions detailed their extensive Jewish engagement in both their families’ lives and in their synagogues. Questions from the audience commented that they were more Jewishly engaged than many Jews, and wondered how they felt about conversion. Both indicated that for their very personal reasons, it wasn’t the right time, but it might be in the future.

It doesn’t make sense to risk turning away people like these by conditioning inclusion on conversion. We are so much better off with their active engagement – and with a conversion later, if at all, as a potential positive outcome from that engagement.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs gave an important speech at the URJ Biennial, “As Numerous as the Stars of Heaven.” After stating that “Jewish life was meant to expand and grow” and urging the Reform movement to enlarge the size of its tent, the speech focused almost entirely on embracing Jews of Color, and ended with a call to action to address antiracism. While embracing Jews of Color is very important, the impact of doing so is dwarfed by the potential numerical gain available from embracing partners from different faith traditions.

Rabbi Jacobs did refer at one point to “so many people out there who are Jewishly adjacent… and they are part of this family of ours.” But instead of saying “There are millions of North American Jews … looking for a place to belong,” he could have referred to millions of “North American Jews and their partners from different faith backgrounds.” When he said, “It is time that we make every person who comes under our tent feel like they already belong,” he could have said “that means partners from different faith backgrounds, too.”

I can’t help but think that the reason to prioritize and explicitly refer to making Jews of Color but not partners from different faith traditions feel that they belong is the persistent view that conditions inclusion of those partners on conversion. We should instead set unconditional inclusion and the resulting engagement as our goal, viewing conversion not as required but as a possible positive future outcome. We can’t afford to miss opportunities to explicitly prioritize engaging interfaith families, the defining challenge of our time.

Edmund Case, the retired founder of InterfaithFamily, is the president of the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism, publisher of his book Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future. Contact him at ed@cfrij.com.