If you open the door, they will come

Many rabbis would be surprised how well encouraging conversion can work.

By JONATHAN ROMAIN
February 10, 2006 10:55
conversion class students 248.88

conversion class 248.88. (photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger [file])

It is time to reassess our attitude towards proselytes. A convert to Christianity is greeted with delight, but it is a very different story with Judaism: rabbis tend to be much busier turning down requests for conversion and see them as an unwanted intrusion. At worst, this is justified by an element of superiority that borders on racism. "Converts can never be fully Jewish," whisper some these days, while Rabbi Helbo was downright insulting in talmudic times: "Proselytes are as difficult for Israel as leprosy." At best, such objections are geared toward ensuring the sincerity of applicants, so that they reach the highest ideals of Judaism. Such an approach tends to assume that anyone who considers conversion upon becoming engaged to a Jewish partner cannot possibly be sincere. But why should coming to Judaism through the Jewish family life of a fianc be any less worthy than being introduced to it through a library book? In many respects it is even better, because those with Jewish partners have the advantage of a Jewish support group to help them. What is astonishing is that, contrary to the negative position so often taken with regard to conversion today, Jewish sources are often much more positive. When Genesis declares that Abraham left Haran with "all the souls that they had gotten," Rashi tell us approvingly that this refers to the converts Abraham had made. Even more significant is the Book of Ruth. Not only has her ringing declaration - "Your people shall be my people, your God my God" - become a signal to countless others that it is possible to join Judaism, but she went on to become the great-grandmother of David, from whose line the messiah will arise. Given such examples, it should not be surprising that the rabbis of the first and second centuries were so enthusiastic about attracting converts that an exasperated Gospel writer complained how they would "travel over sea and land just to make one proselyte" (Matthew 23.15). WITH AN outmarriage rate of 44%, British Jewry today would do well to follow the example of the rabbis of two millennia ago. If we did, non-Jews married to Jews might be among the first to convert, thereby helping to keep born-Jews Jewish and preserving the next generation. Our demographic decline could be reversed through the new souls that modern Abrahams would attract in London, Manchester and elsewhere. Standards need not be lowered. Sincerity and knowledge will remain prerequisites. What should change, though, is the way in which we apply them. We should abandon the traditional approach of rejecting an enquirer three times to test their resolve. Why teach people we do not mean what we say? Why send applicants away "to think about things" for six months when many have nurtured the idea for years before summoning up the courage to approach us? We should welcome them into conversion courses and see how they fit into the reality of Jewish communal life. There is an even earlier stage of letting potential converts know we are receptive to them. Look at any synagogue newsletter and you will notice dozens of activities listed, but almost never a conversion class. What message do we send by hiding such classes away like a shop item never on display but available under the counter on request? How do we expect potential converts to find them? In researching a book on the subject, I found that in Britain today Judaism was less welcoming to potential newcomers than any other faith. It is time to unlock the fences we have needlessly erected around the Torah. Conversion courses should, in addition to covering the basics of Judaism, provide the practical knowledge they need: such as on lighting Shabbat candles and on synagogue customs. It should also include time to discuss personal issues: the emotional challenges of conversion, how one fits into a new community, the effect on relations with one's partner. Equally important is to reinforce what the 16th-century code, the Shulhan Aruch, states: that after conversion, the person is considered a fully-fledged Jew. Many Jews fail to accept converts, always regarding them as "not quite like us." Sometimes this is sheer prejudice; other times it is because they feel threatened by converts who take Judaism more seriously than they do. Such behavior is very hurtful for converts, while they can also feel puzzled as to why those lucky enough to be born into the faith should value it so little. This might also apply to the Jewish family into which they are marrying, who may not keep many of the observances to which the convert adheres, and may, for instance, be annoyed that the convert will not eat in the same restaurants as they do. Many synagogues report that a disproportionately high number of religion-school teachers are converts. This is partly because they often know more than born-Jews, and partly because they are enthusiastic enough to give up Sunday mornings while others are still in bed. The rest of the community should be much more appreciative than we are, and should be much more helpful when they first approach us. If our community were to open its doors wider, my experience indicates that the results could be dramatic. Since demonstrating a policy of openness toward conversion, our congregation has sent seven times the numbers of converts to the Beit Din than far larger congregations. We did not produce this stirring result by making the course easier; we just advertised its availability and made applicants feel welcome. We also actively sought out non-Jews married to Jews, asked whether they had considered becoming Jewish and explained how it could be done. There was no pressure, but for many it meant opening a door they had assumed was locked shut, or did not even realize existed. Encouraging conversion produces real benefits: we have grown as a community, attracted mixed-faith couples (now Jewish ones) who wanted to become part of us but felt unable to do so, and helped the Jewish partners - whom we insisted join the classes too - deepen their Jewish knowledge and reconnect with their heritage. Finally, we have added to the ranks of the Jewish people men and women committed to Jewish life, the Jewish future, and to revitalizing our community. <>The writer, author of Your God Shall Be My God: Religious Conversion in Britain Today, is the rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue, England (www.maidenheadsynagogue.org.uk).


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