Pushing Interfaith Conversion?

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There have been recent discussions here about both conversion of intermarried partners and decision-making within the Conservative movement; the two come together in a Baltimore Jewish Times Op/Ed this week, in which the Executive Vice President of the United Synagogue, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, says that if we don’t change our approach to conversion of spouses, “Judaism’s future in North America” will be lost:

The Jewish community’s ongoing loss of interfaith couples and their children testifies to the failure of past strategies designed to keep them within the fold. If we are to reverse this – and we must to stabilize Judaism’s future in North America – a new and creative response is needed immediately. Moreover, this new response must recognize both Jewish values and reality. …

For too long Jews discouraged non-Jews from seeking to convert. Even in this modern era that outmoded policy lingers in our psyches. This has limited our ability to passionately encourage those closest to us to convert to Judaism.

We can no longer afford that complacency born of a historical insecurity. Not as a movement, a people, or a religion. Not if we truly care about survival.

I don’t mean to contest that our approach to the intermarried should operate by a somewhat different set of rules; as already discussed, the rules are indeed different. But the reason for that is because of the Jewish spouse — not because the Jewish future itself is at stake, or that it could possibly be assured through more conversions, or that a Conservative Rabbi can tell us one way or the other.

Let’s not be sarcastic, but factual. Rabbi Epstein should have gone to the PEJE conference if he wanted to see people working on Jewish survival. Day school education has a far better track record than conversion seminars, if it’s the Jewish future we care about. All he needs to do is take a momentary glance at the Orthodox numbers, and see what two generations of day school education have accomplished. Any honest observer is forced to admit that it is not “Judaism’s future in North America,” but liberal [aka non-Orthodox] Judaism’s future that is at stake. The Orthodox are doing something right, and that something is educating, not converting.

The truth is that I have discussed both the Conservative Movement’s new approach to conversion, and my own qualms about it, before. My thesis remains as it was then — that when they are busy losing what they have, conversion isn’t going to reverse the decline:

If we are indeed losing 50,000 of our own every year, as the article claims, that is much, much larger than the number of “lost tribes” [or, in our current case, spouses] who might even entertain thoughts of conversion in a given year.

Furthermore, what would happen to them afterwards? They might be part of our people for another few generations, but then their children will hardly be immune to the malaise afflicting the rest of Jewry. Are we merely to staunch our losses by doing mass conversions every year? It’s like treating a patient with a spurting arterial wound by giving him a transfusion.

There’s a medical term for that solution: malpractice.

One hardly needs better proof that the great institutions of organized American Jewry have no clue how to deal with the continuity crisis.

By all measures, the Conservative movement is in decline. They are losing numbers. They are no longer the largest movement in the US, because the descendants of Conservative families either resume observance and become Orthodox, or have less need for Jewish traditions and go to Reform. They are unable to encourage or maintain standards of Jewish observance, as Rabbi Avi Shafran famously put it in 2001:

Even the movement’s radically relaxed standards remain virtually ignored by the vast majority of Jews who identify as Conservative. According to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, a mere 29 percent of Conservative congregants buy only kosher meat. A mere 15 percent consider themselves Sabbath observant (even by Conservative standards).

As he pointed out, Rabbi Daniel H. Gordis, then the acting dean of the University of Judaism’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, admitted that “the Conservative Movement allows its laity to set its religious agenda.” It is currently wrestling with the question of whether or not to endorse Western values over Torah at perhaps the most profound level yet, dealing with behavior the Torah calls an abomination and the West calls a lifestyle choice.

It is perhaps too cold a truth, but the only path upon which the Conservative Movement is likely to lead us is the Road to Oblivion. If this is the best they can do in terms of staunching their losses, a lot of Jewish blood remains to be lost before that truth will at last be faced.

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5 Responses

  1. Joshua Josephs says:

    I must agree with the above post that conversion is unlikely to stem the tide away from Judaism. Since an Orthodox conversion is unlikely to occur why should the people who convert have any incentive to insure that their children remain Conservative at all. I have to say that education is likely the best answer. I am a product of a good day school Beth Tfiloh in Baltimore and believe that this type of school is the way to go. Children from all branches of Judaism attend and in my class at least virtually all are more religious now several years after graduating than they were during our time there. Even those students who have not become Baalei Tshuva take their responsibility to Judaism far more seriously.

  2. Ron Coleman says:

    Oh, Steve, believe me, believe me — I believe in kiruv. Some of my best friends, etc.

    I don’t, however, think this article has anything to do with kiruv.

  3. Steve Brizel says:

    Obviously, the rabbinic and lay leadership of R and C have been in a sort of convergence on this issue for years. Contrary to Ron’s comments, kiruv works, albeit in different approaches for different people.

  4. Ron Coleman says:

    For too long Jews discouraged non-Jews from seeking to convert. Even in this modern era that outmoded policy lingers in our psyches. This has limited our ability to passionately encourage those closest to us to convert to Judaism. We can no longer afford that complacency born of a historical insecurity. Not as a movement, a people, or a religion. Not if we truly care about survival.

    It reminds of the people who look at the history of assimilation and Jewish survival and say, “The problem here is there have been too many walls between Jews and gentiles, so they end up hating us” — or perhaps, “Communism doesn’t ever really fail; it’s just never been tried.”

    Yaakov, as an intellectual matter this is like shooting fish in a barrel. Turning away converts hasn’t been a problem for the non-orthodox world for a generation. Turning on Jews has.

  1. February 12, 2007

    […] I have said in the past that reaching out to non-Jews is an ineffective way to ensure a Jewish future—comparable to “treating a patient with a spurting arterial wound by giving him a transfusion.” […]