Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, thinks Judaism has a problem; it needs more Jews. In his recent opinion piece "Wanted: Converts to Judaism" in The Wall St. Journal, he writes that our numbers are shrinking because efforts to prevent intermarriage have failed and Jews, like many other Americans, are moving away from religious engagement of any kind. His solution: go after the non-Jews that have slipped into the Jewish community through interfaith unions; "actively encourage" them to "formally commit to Judaism;" make conversion the focal point of the Jewish community's consciousness and agenda.
I agree that attempts to discourage intermarriage have failed and I would argue that intermarriage prevention efforts have actually contributed to some Jews moving away from the faith. But as an intermarried Jew, I believe Eisen’s recommendation will exacerbate, rather than solve, the problem of declining Jewish identification and engagement.
A focus on conversion will make our non-Jewish partners who are already committed to nurturing and living a Jewish life, targets of proselytory zeal. Many not Jewish spouses agreed to create Jewish homes because they felt no pressure to change their religious identity. They were welcomed and included, and in some communities, celebrated for their engagement in Jewish life. By “explicitly and strongly” advocating that they convert, we risk alienating these Righteous Strangers, making it harder for interfaith families to live Jewishly.
A strong emphasis on conversion may actually turn away future converts. For many non-Jewish spouses, formal conversion to Judaism is the culmination of a long journey – sometimes 20 or 30 years. These men and women date Judaism through their involvement with their Jewish families often for decades before deciding to marry the faith: They drive religious school carpool, learn the Shabbat blessings–in Hebrew, engage in adult learning, participate in lifecycle rituals, set the Shabbat table and light the candles, observe holidays and volunteer in the Jewish community. One day they decided to formalize their Judaism. What will happen to these journeymen in a convert or else environment? Will they be given the time and the space to explore Judaism in their own way and at their own pace? I doubt it.
I have no issue with asking a non-Jew who lives a Jewish life as part of a Jewish family if he or she has considered conversion. But asking someone is different from placing "conversion at the center of the Jewish community's agenda" and it is different from "explicitly and strongly advocating for conversion" movement-wide.
A few years ago, someone gently asked my husband if he considered converting since he is very active in Jewish life. He answered, “No.” He explained that while he no longer identifies as Christian, finds Judaism’s rationality appealing, and feels part of our Jewish community, right now, he doesn’t feel he needs a particular religious identity. He said, “If that changes, I’ll convert.”
What is Eisen’s back-up strategy, when the answer is, “No?” Surely, he knows, that not all non-Jewish partners are interested in adopting a new faith or identity. What does he suggest the Jewish community do with people like my husband? Do we show them the door? Do we exclude them from our congregations, holiday observances, lifecycle participation, and adult learning opportunities? Do we tell them and their Jewish families that they are not welcome?
Eisen’s strategy makes no allowances for these scenarios and will most likely result in intermarrieds continuing to find Jewish connection in the more progressive and non-denominational Jewish movements, or moving away from Judaism or religion altogether. The chancellor fails to recognize that placing inclusion at the center of the Jewish community’s agenda and consciousness is a far better way to win adherents. Welcoming interfaith couples unconditionally; allowing non-Jewish partners the freedom to explore Judaism in their own time, without pressure or stipulations, and helping intermarried couples raise Jewish children will be what creates more Jews, not Jewish proselytism.
What is wanted and needed is a welcoming and inclusive Jewish community.