The Case for Proactive Conversion
How proactive conversion might affect interfaith couples is the primary focus of Egon Mayer’s concerns. His questions are based on years of excellent research and analysis about interfaith couples and outreach. He fully understands the complexities and difficulties that occur with families when the issue of conversion is faced. He knows that overly aggressive promotion of conversion can be destructive. We both agree that proactive conversion would be a harmful strategy if implemented as “convert or else,” or “we reject you if you do not convert,” with a focus on interfaith couples.
However, proactive conversion is just the opposite of coercion or rejection. Proactive conversion is the positive, accessible, and joyful process of encouraging non-Jews to become Jews. Proactive conversion requires Jews to open the ideological and intellectual gates and help non-Jews walk through them into Jewish life. Being proactive means encouraging rather than discouraging non-Jews to consider Judaism. It involves constructing a system that helps non-Jews become Jews in a positive welcoming way. We must change our ideology, our practices, and our institutional structure to facilitate conversion to Judaism. My research shows that synagogues of all denominations believe that they are much more open than potential converts actually find them to be.
Proactive conversion is not synonymous with the aggressive recruitment that characterizes proselytizing. Jews should not be knocking on doors and trying to persuade random strangers to become Jews. We do not need to engage in these tactics.
Some Jews who live with non-Jews will not be candidates for conversion. The institutional structure must be able to accommodate what is becoming a large number of families of mixed parentage and identity. Community centers, synagogues, day camps, overnight camps, and every other Jewish organization and institution must deal with the reality of the mixed-married population. The Jewish community?s current allocation of resources to this subgroup is small, and lacks a systematic approach. Dr. Mayer correctly points out that sensitivity to mixed-married couples is essential.
But addressing the needs of interfaith families is very different from the global issue of welcoming converts. Interfaith families are not the only focus, and perhaps should not be the primary focus of proactive conversion efforts. Other groups may be equally vital for Jewish communal attention. For example, there are now millions of Americans who retain some Jewish heritage. And, within a few years there are likely to be more people of Jewish heritage than individuals who have two parents born Jewish. Individuals of Jewish heritage may be inclined to explore the Jewish part of their identity, and with proper nurturing, reclaim their Jewish past and integrate it into their current lives.
Furthermore, studies consistently show that millions of Americans are “unchurched,” and may be candidates for conversion to Judaism. While some in this group do not believe in God or organized religion, and do not want to be part of a faith tradition, others are seeking, but cannot find a faith tradition in which they feel comfortable. Some may be disengaged from their birth religion while others have had no religious upbringing and are seeking religious fulfillment. The successes of self-help groups, television evangelicals and pop culture fads that promise meaningful lives are a testimony to the vast numbers of Americans who are longing for something purposeful in life. Some are looking for spiritual fulfillment, others are looking for community. Judaism can be an attractive alternative for millions of these individuals who are interested in either faith, community, or both. Both gates should be open, and one may lead to the other. Proactive conversion encourages all entry-ways into Jewish life; not just what Egon Mayer calls conversion for “God-seekers.”
America is a culture of denominational “switching.” Individuals born into one religious group may choose another, and often do. Judaism, like other religious groups, needs to be a destination as well as an origin. Converts also be culled from disaffected members of other religious groups, individuals who follow their current religion because they have not thought of anything else.
Egon Mayer also states that conversion — in the hands of the rabbinate — is problematic. If the rabbinate remains unchanged, he is correct. But envisioning a healthy, proactive conversion strategy also includes imagining a radically different rabbinate, with very different approaches to conversion. The Jewish community cannot effectively deal with the issues surrounding conversion without a new set of attitudes and behaviors from most rabbis.
Many rabbis still use the language of tests, exams, and job interviews when dealing with potential converts. The obstacles they put in front of converts are very destructive. Rabbis need to be cheerleaders, not prison guards. They need to help unlock the doors and gates, not bar them. They need to welcome potential converts with smiles and challenges, not frowns and declarations of the improbable, difficult, or unattainable. Rather than ask people to prove why they want to be Jewish, they should advocate for Judaism, explaining why it is good to be a Jew, the positive benefits for the individual, family, and community. Rabbis must overcome a host of personal feelings and institutional constraints to promote conversion. They cannot send mixed messages or equivocate. Some rabbis have achieved this success. Their ranks must grow dramatically if the Jewish community is to flourish.
Actively promoting conversion is a process far beyond the current system of reluctant and grudging acceptance of those who can clear all the hurdles that a hostile institutional and organizational network puts forward for those who might consider becoming Jewish. The outreach focus must be much broader than the non-Jewish spouses of Jews. The models of success must become the norm, rather than the exception. Millions of potential Jewish lives are now unrealized. This seems an individual and communal shame. Proactive conversion can help revitalize the Jewish community. Rethinking the Jewish future without rethinking the communal approach to conversion is a communal death wish.