Conversion History: Late 20th Century

Jewish attitudes toward conversion began to change as spouses of non-Jews remained loyal to Judaism and more converts chose Judaism.

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Reprinted with permission from The Theory and Practice of Welcoming Converts to Judaism (The Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd.).

Despite various pro-conversionary views, none of the three major religious groups in the United States had embarked on a conversionary program. There were relatively few conversions and only a few, small conversionary efforts. 

Such conversionary efforts were at first undertaken by small organizations favoring conversion, groups that began to arise after the Holocaust and the birth of Israel. (These groups included the United Israel World Union, the Jewish Information Society, and the National Jewish Information Service, among others). Individual rabbis and authors praised conversion, but conversion was not an idea that was very valued in the Jewish community or very acceptable to any of its leaders.

By the late 1970s, however, much had changed in American Jewish life. The overt anti-Semitism in America had radically declined. There was a widespread perception among gentiles that Judaism was a religion that emphasized family values, education, a tolerance toward those with differing religious views, personal morality, the social good, and a spiritual outlook on life. Jews were seen as model American citizens--and marriage partners.

Changing Attitudes Toward Conversion Among Jews

The changing attitude toward Jews by gentiles and the continuing cultural assimilation by Jews into gentile society led to a rapid increase in intermarriage. This increase caused alarm within the Jewish community but also resulted in an unexpected development. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, between 30 and 40 percent of those marriage partners not born Jewish were converting to Judaism. The fear of intermarriage and the unexpected rise in voluntary conversions began to change attitudes.

mikvehAt first, the rise in conversions that followed the rapid increase in intermarriages over the last 30 years was simply a surprise to many Jews. It had always been an unspoken assumption, both among Jewish leaders and in the general Jewish community, that intermarriage inevitably meant the loss of the Jewish partner to Jewish life. Jews had concluded that a principal reason for intermarriage was to escape the purported burdens of a Jewish identity. They were unsure about what to make of the many Jews who intermarried but wished to remain Jewish, not to mention those born Christian who chose to become Jews.

Yet Jews were pleased by such conversions at an elemental level. Seeing people who were born gentile choose to become Jews validated the choice of those born Jewish to remain as Jews. The enormous step of conversion made the smaller step of remaining Jewish both easier and more sensible. Just as Israel does, converts--or Jews-by-choice, as many converts began to be called--provide American Jews-by-birth with a sense of personal legitimacy.

That this is so reflects, in part, the peculiar nature of American Jewry; its own fundamental character is voluntary. In a sense, all American Jews are Jews by choice; people who are born Jews must choose to remain active Jews by such actions as choosing a marital partner, joining a synagogue or Jewish organization, and making other similar choices. There are no legal, and weakened religious, familial, and cultural forces that seek, reward, and support such a voluntary choice to remain a Jew. Thus the unique conditions of contemporary American Jewish culture have contributed to making born-Jews appreciate the validation of their religious lives by Jews-by-choice.

There are other aspects of the general religious culture of America that also contributed to a climate in which Jews-by-choice would be welcomed by Jews-by-birth. The rise of ethnicity as a socially approved organizing principle for defining identity has made Jews more willing to identify themselves and to be identified in the society as Jews. The self-confidence that emerged from this ethnic identification, which was dramatically supplemented by a pride that emerged from an identification with the efforts of the people of Israel, allowed American Jews to feel more comfortable in America, to put the American anti-Semitism of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s behind them, and even, to use a commercial metaphor uniquely applicable to America, to place their product up for sale alongside the other religious products already available in the marketplace of religious ideas.

Additionally, an important part of the American religious scene in the 1970s and 1980s had been the visibility of cult groups and evangelical ministers popular in the American media. The religious fervor of both the cults and the evangelicals was complemented by their open desire to convert others to their beliefs and way of life. Their beliefs and activities increased the legitimacy of conversion in American culture, including conversion to Judaism. In addition, the cultic and Christian efforts prompted a defensive response against their conversionary overtures in the Jewish community. The increase in acceptance of conversion can in this sense in part be seen as an ironic acceptance of the aim (but not the tactics) of those whom they saw as posing a religious threat; welcoming converts became a way of fighting religious fire with religious fire.

Beyond these and other social and internal communal reasons, the attitude of American Jews has been changed by the converts themselves. They have spoken out in forums, on television, in books, in synagogues, and in uncountable conversations, arguments, fights, and tear-filled pleas. They have requested acceptance, and have frequently gotten it.

Changing Attitudes Move Rabbinical Leaders to Create Outreach Programs

Sensing the changing attitudes, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), a Reform group, delivered an address in December 1978, to the Board of Trustees of that organization, urging it to establish an outreach program for the "unchurched," that is, those without formal religious affiliation. He proposed that Jews should try to attract non-Jews to Judaism, especially the non-Jewish partners in intermarriages. The outreach program was intended to be unobtrusive, taking its forms in the establishing of information centers, educational courses, and publications rather than such methods as door-to-door missionary work.

Schindler's revolutionary point was that Jews should not wait for potential or actual partners in an intermarriage to consider converting, but rather, Jews should approach such partners about the possibility. Schindler wanted his movement to do the seeking, to identify and nurture those who might convert and support those who did. He sought to minimize Christian opposition to his proposal by ruling out seeking converts from among those who were already affiliated with another religion. The UAHC's Board of Trustees unanimously adopted Schindler's resolution and endorsed a joint task force created with the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR).

The task force presented its report to the 1981 UAHC General Assembly. That assembly adopted five resolutions establishing an outreach program. In 1983, the task force was re-formed as a Joint UAHC/CCAR Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach and was charged with, among other tasks, developing appropriate programs and visual materials for its various outreach audiences. The Commission has regional outreach coordinators and has produced an impressive array of publications on the place of converts within Reform Judaism.

Other religious movements in America were also reacting to the changing times. In 1979, the Reconstructionist movement developed formal Guidelines on Conversion, including an outreach program. Their program was aimed directly at those who had already converted in order to help them integrate into the community.

The Conservative movement eschewed the original missionary idea inherent in Rabbi Schindler's approach, but nevertheless saw the value of preventing intermarriages by encouraging an intermarried non-Jew to convert and making Judaism available (as opposed to intrusive proselytizing) to those who were interested. In 1985, the movement's Rabbinical Assembly approved a statement viewing the increase in conversions as a "positive" aspect of Jewish life, both as a reaction to intermarriage and as a personal religious quest.

In 1987, the movement held its first Conference on Intermarriage and Conversion and was planning a common syllabus to use in teaching potential converts as well as other related efforts. Also in that year, the Rabbinical Assembly published Embracing Judaism by Simcha Kling, a book explaining Judaism that was especially aimed at potential converts. The Rabbinical Assembly also established Regional Conversion Institutes, which provide introductory courses in Judaism that may lead students to convert, and the Assembly's Committee on Keruv and Giyur issued a Keruv Resource Guide in 1991. [Keruv, according to the Rabbinic Assembly's Statement on Intermarriage, "connotes the attempt to bring Jews and their non-Jewish spouses closer to us and to our established communal standards," and giyur means conversion.] The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism established a Committee on Intermarriage in 1991.

The Orthodox movement continues to accept converts in principle, but to reject converts not converted according to what the Orthodox understand to be halakhic [Jewish legal] standards. By their definition, no non-Orthodox conversion can be religiously valid because non-Orthodox rabbis are unqualified to serve as religious witnesses and because, according to many Orthodox, the formal conversion requirements and practices of the non-Orthodox don't conform to traditional Jewish law. Of course, non-Orthodox rabbis forcefully disagree with such an Orthodox viewpoint.

There were other signs that the Jewish community was starting to welcome converts. Numerous programs and support groups organized by YM-YWHAs and Jewish community centers were established. Rabbi Stephen C. Lerner, who is affiliated with the Conservative movement, established the Center for Conversion to Judaism to provide support for converts and potential converts through such activities as counseling and weekend retreats. Lena Romanoff, author of the highly acclaimed book on conversion Your People, My People, established the non-denominational Jewish Converts [& Interfaith] Network which coordinates local support groups for converts. A wide variety of books and articles on conversion appeared as well as many newsletters such as Jewish Ties, edited by Doreen Clark.

Negative Factors

Despite the increase in efforts to welcome converts, two negative factors stand out. First, none of the organized Jewish religious groups in the United States has yet linked the traditional interpretation of Jewish universalism to the covenantal mission to offer Judaism and welcome converts. Second, the percentage of conversions among the intermarrying or intermarried has declined. The reasons for this decline are varied and include a greater tolerance for intermarriage by American Jews and a greater willingness by rabbis to perform intermarriages without conversion.

Some in the Jewish community also cite as a reason for the decline the Reform movement's patrilineality principle, which presumes that a child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother who identifies as a Jew is, in fact, Jewish. This principle, at odds with Judaism's traditional matrilineal principle, has, it is claimed, reduced the urgency to get non-Jewish mothers to convert. Defenders of the principle say the very absence of pressure to convert leads not only to more converts but to converts who are more knowledgeable about and committed to Jewish life.

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Lawrence J. Epstein is the author of numerous books, including Conversion to Judaism: A Guidebook and Readings on Conversion to Judaism.