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Responding to the new Reform response to intermarriage

A couple of days ago, the New York Times published an article by Michael Luo called Reform Jews Hope to Un-Mix Marriages. Predictably, several friends emailed me the link, wanting to know my response. As I began my third lengthy email exploring the article and my thoughts about it, I gave in to the inevitable and decided to blog it. Here's the heart of the article:

For the most part, concerted efforts to encourage non-Jewish spouses to convert have been frowned upon. Now, however, in what would be a major shift of outlook for Reform Judaism -- the largest and most liberal of the three major streams of American Judaism, with some 1.5 million members -- that may be changing.

Concerned about what intermarriage is doing to American Judaism, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the organization of the country's Reform Jewish congregations, recently called for Reform synagogues to increase their efforts to convert non-Jewish spouses. By welcoming and accepting gentile spouses, Reform congregations have "perhaps sent the message that we do not care if they convert," Rabbi Yoffie said at the union's most recent conference, in November...

Now, Reform congregations across the country are wrestling with how to respond. The push, which is accompanied by materials and initiatives on "inviting and supporting conversion," treads on emotionally fraught territory for thousands of interfaith families.

You bet it does. I heard Rabbi Yoffie speak about this in his Shabbat morning sermon/keynote address at the URJ Biennial last fall. I had qualms about it then, and I have qualms about it now.

Some of what Rabbi Yoffie said resonated for me. He began this section of his speech by talking about the importance of welcoming non-Jewish spouses, citing the historic Outreach initiative started by Reform Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler twenty-seven years ago. Rabbi Schindler argued that we must not only tolerate converts, but must embrace them -- and that we must not "sit shivah for our children who intermarry." This was not, Rabbi Yoffie explains, an endorsement of intermarriage, but it was (and remains) a strong refusal to reject the intermarried. Reform Judaism, in his words, welcomes intermarried folks "into our synagogues, our families and our homes."

He also spoke about the need to honor and recognize the non-Jews in our communities for the contributions they make. "We need to do far more for the non-Jewish spouses in our midst," he said. "We welcome all such spouses, of course, including those who do not identify as Jewish. But when a spouse involves herself in the activities of the synagogue; offers support to the Jewish involvements of husband or wife; attends Jewish worship; and, most important of all, commits to raising Jewish children, he or she is deserving not only of welcome but of our profound thanks." So far, so good. But he went on to say:

Most non-Jews who are part of synagogue life expect that we will ask them to convert; they come from a background where asking for this kind of commitment is natural and normal, and they are more than a little perplexed when we fail to do so. So we need to say to the potential converts in our midst: "We would love to have you." And, in fact, we owe them an apology for not having said it sooner.

I think I understand where Rabbi Yoffie is coming from. The shift he promotes -- toward actively encouraging conversion, in the case of non-Jewish partners who are involved in Jewish life -- is, for him, a way of heightening the Reform movement's commitment to hospitality and welcome, and an outgrowth of the obligation that congregational rabbis feel to provide spiritual care for all members of their congregations. By inviting the non-Jews in our families and our communities to choose a Jewish identity, Rabbi Yoffie suggests, we show them how much we value them. If we don't invite, then our non-Jewish loved ones have no way of knowing that we want them to join our community in this deeper way.

But there's a fine line between welcoming non-Jews to join us, and sending the message that our non-Jewish loved ones aren't okay as they are. Pushing conversion could give the impression that our initial welcome was temporary or only partial, contingent upon an eventual identity shift. And in so doing, we risk alienating the very people Rabbi Yoffie so desperately wants to welcome. For some non-Jewish spouses, the question "have you thought about converting to Judaism?" might carry the subtext, "we value your presence here and we'd love to have you join us more fully." For others, it might carry the subtext, "we want you to relinquish your current identity," and that could drive people away. To his credit, Rabbi Yoffie seems to recognize this danger:

Special sensitivities are required. Ask, but do not pressure. Encourage, but do not insist. And if someone says, "I'm not ready," listen. If we pursue conversion with a heavy hand, the result could be to generate resentment. And yes, there will be those for whom conversion will never be an option.

I'm glad that he acknowledges these things. Even so, the policy shift worries me, in part because it facilitates an oversimplification of circumstance. Every couple has a unique set of religious desires, issues, and needs. Only a rabbi who knows a couple well, and has a clear sense of how the subject would be received -- whether it would feel like a welcome invitation, or like a slap in the face to the status quo -- should broach conversion with a non-Jewish spouse or partner. Those who take the time to get to know each couple don't need Rabbi Yoffie's policy change; those who might be inclined to act without considering the impact might find in Rabbi Yoffie's policy change an inducement to offer inappropriate pressure.

(Edited to add: there's also a difference between opening the conversion conversation with someone who has no personal involvement in other religious communities and opening that conversation with someone who is a devout member of another tradition. The rabbis I know and trust are sensitive to that difference, and would not disregard it, but I have some concern that the policy of promoting conversion, as it was expressed in the Times piece, doesn't seem to take that difference into account.)

I can see how Rabbi Yoffie's remarks are rooted in Reform Judaism's tradition of inclusion. In The State of Reform Judaism Today, Holly Lebowitz Rossi writes, "Reform Judaism is known for opening its doors to those who might have otherwise felt unwelcome in a Jewish context." I celebrate that about the Reform movement, and I believe that Rabbi Yoffie's policy shift is a well-intentioned effort to enhance that welcome. My fear is that it will backfire.

Others seem to share that concern. The article Opposition to Mission to Bring Non-Jewish Spouses into Fold begins "Interfaith families in Boston this week criticized two major branches of Judaism that announced campaigns to convert non-Jewish spouses, calling the move a mistake..." And At Reform conference, movement calls for a push toward conversion confirms my memory that this element of Rabbi Yoffie's speech received only a smattering of applause, in contrast with many of his other points.

The question of how best to relate to interfaith couples and families is a longstanding one, and one that crosses denominational boundaries. I'm focusing this post on the current Reform approach because it's timely and it's in the news. But Orthodox Rabbi Steve Greenberg wrote a fascinating article a few years ago which I think is germane. He suggests that we need to move away from overly-binaristic thinking, and suggests a middle ground between Jew and non-Jew. He writes:

Historically, whenever we Jews have been intimately involved in a non-Jewish society, we have intermarried. We did it in Spain in the Middle Ages and in Europe in the nineteenth century, and we are doing it now in America. The community's preferred approach to date has been to encourage the non-Jewish spouse to convert, but this approach is rather problematic, as it tends to produce conversions of questionable sincerity. This leads me to suggest another approach: why not invent a new category between Jew and gentile? In fact, over the course of Jewish history the tradition has grappled with variants of this challenge and bequeaths to us a number of ideas that we might profitably rehabilitate today. One of the most interesting of these is the tradition's idea of the ger toshav, or resident alien, who occupied this in-between position in biblical times.

By considering the non-Jews who share our family lives as members of this in-between category, we honor their place in our community, and how that place differs from the role of a non-Jew who has no affiliation with Jews or Judaism. Rabbi Greenberg notes, also, that conversions which happen out of "force" or external pressure don't tend to work, for a variety of reasons; and, he adds, "people often have good reasons for not wanting to convert." His article is called Between Intermarriage and Conversion: Finding a Middle Way, and I think it's a useful counterpoint to this conversation.

Reform Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, wrote a terrific short blog post in response to Rabbi Yoffie's new policy. Speaking on behalf of the JOI, he writes, "we hope communal professionals will not confuse Yoffie's exhortation as an outreach strategy," and goes on to say:

People who have joined synagogues have taken major steps in joining the community and casting their lot with the Jewish people. They are raising Jewish children. It is easy to catch people, so to speak, when they are running in our direction. Their rabbis will know them personally — and know where they are in their lives and in their spiritual journeys — before even broaching the subject of conversion. Those on the periphery however, especially those who are intermarried, are not going to be motivated to "dip a toe in the [Jewish] water" if they believe that what we are really interested in is their conversion. Part of being a warm and nurturing community is understanding people's needs at different points in their lives, and providing meaningful experiences at every point along the way. If conversion is part of that journey, terrific. If not, there's still a place in our community for warmth and growth without judgment or coercion.

That's from Welcoming (Without Pushing) Conversion. Unsurprisingly, I agree.

In the end, my frustration with this move may come down to my belief that interfaith couples and families should be welcome in our communities as they are. Choosing to marry someone Jewish already connects these non-Jews with the Jewish people in a deep way; connecting even more deeply should be a personal choice that arises not from external pressure, but from the heart. If that's not the choice that a non-Jewish partner makes, we need to respect her or his religious integrity enough to accept that decision. A close reading of Rabbi Yoffie's keynote address suggests that he understands that. I hope the leaders in the Reform world who enact his policy will, too.

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