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Being a Welcoming Community

The Reform Movement’s call to convert non-Jews is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, non-Jews are increasingly being told that they are welcome in liberal congregations and on the other their non-Jewish identity is devalued as they receive the message that they are not welcome to be who they are. I’m not sure that kind of conditional welcome is the one that will lead to a healthy relationship with the non-Jews in our communities.

In my congregation, there are many instances of non-Jewish partners who have converted to Judaism several years after their weddings. They convert because they have had the experience of being a part of a truly welcoming Jewish community–often becoming as or more involved than their spouses–and want to take the final step to full belonging. This is only possible because our community is so accepting and welcoming of non-Jewish partners, allowing them to fully experience and be a part of our community to the point that they voluntarily wish to take the final step toward living a Jewish life. I am very proud that an adult bar/bat mitzvah class I am currently teaching contains a number of congregants who converted later in life.


Our welcoming attitude stems from the Reconstructionist movement’s general tendency toward inclusiveness. But more than that, it flows from the way Reconstructionism views being a part of the Jewish community. Judaism is a civilization and one can appreciate and participate in that civilization without being Jewish, just as one can appreciate and participate in American civilization without being American. This approach eschews the traditional in-groups and out-groups that don’t reflect the reality of a non-Jewish parent helping his or her child with religious school homework, supporting them through bar or bat mitzvah, and often helping to create a Jewish household. Instead, we recognize that by living in and participating in a Jewish community and according to the Jewish calendar and sacred rhythms, one does attain a measure of belonging. A good analogy is holding a green card–it doesn’t entitle you to the full rights and privileges of American citizenship (for this you need to undergo the formal process of ‘conversion’)–but it does confer a specific status and many rights on you. At our synagogue, non-Jewish partners are like those who hold a green card, what in biblical terms might be referred to as a ger toshav (see Numbers 15:14-16), the non-Israelite who nonetheless lives in and becomes a part of the life of the community.


It’s important to recognize and welcome the valuable contributions these fellow travelers” can bring to our communities. As a rabbi, I honor the choice of those non-Jews who are engaged and choose not to convert, just as I honor–and celebrate–the choice of those who freely choose to do so.

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Rachel (Velveteen Rabbi)

posted February 16, 2006 at 12:47 am

Hear, hear! Thank you for this sensitive and cogent response (which more-or-less mirrors what I said in my own post on this, up to and including citing Rabbi Steve Greenberg’s ger toshav suggestion!) Conversion needs to be a personal decision, motivated by genuine desire to take that leap; and in promoting conversion strongly, we run the risk of communicating to the non-Jews in our families and communities that our welcome of them was conditional or only temporary, which I think could alienate them profoundly.

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posted February 17, 2006 at 1:44 pm

I can never understand why anyone would want to convert to judaism or a jew would want to convert to christianity. I can begin to understand if a non-christian would want to convert to judaism and a non-practicing jew would convert to christianity but the wholw concept seems vulgar to me. It seems that person not knowing their own mind are wishy washy and easily swayed not to mention disloyal.

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posted February 17, 2006 at 3:06 pm

I personally would never have converted if I had not been part of a Reform Jewish community that accepted me as a mother trying to give her first born a taste of the religion the child had begun to study. I listened carefully to the Rabbi’s sermons, and slowly began participating. I eventually held a postion on the Board, even though I wasn’t Jewish then. The more I learned and the more I participated, the more I grew to love Judaism. Soon, I began to take a year long course teaching life cycle events and Jewish holidays. There was no pressure to convert as a result of these classes, and yet sometime during that year I decided to convert. I have been a faithful Jew for over a decade now, and have raised three Jewish children as a result. Thanks to my “green card” I now am a citizen, as are my children. More should be done to encourage non-Jewish spouses to participate at whatever level they find comfortable. The Jewish people need “new blood”, and should work to make sure that non-Orthodox conversions are treated equally with Orthodox ones.

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posted February 17, 2006 at 9:43 pm

I echo Rachel’s concern that pushing for the non-Jewish spouse to convert is a potentially disastrous emphasis. Welcome them, sure. But to suggest that conversion would be viewed more favorably than remaining their birth religion will potentially set up a hierachy that will be self-defeating. Many, if not most, non-Jewish spouses who actively support their children being raised as a Jew will not want to take the step of conversion. We run the risk of losing more by pushing conversion. And given his statements on advocating for Jewish conversion, I would hope Yoffie would not hypocritically call Christians on trying to convert Jews . I know very few intermarried couples who aren’t bothered by this push. One wonders how much input Yoffie solicited from intermarried Jews prior to making his speech.

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Kurt Neumaier

posted March 17, 2006 at 9:01 pm

It would seem that the motivation for contemporary status among many, the goal of universal diversity is actually the beginnings of the end of any religion. It is the distinct identity of a belief that makes it what it is. Christianity has a core value of evangelism that is not within the Jewish faith. That said, what is the motivation to make Jewdism Christian. Belief will define the degree of commitment. Yes, there is the ugly side of politics that infests every schule but that has always been. However, if you are Jewish you have Torah, Christians the Bible, Muslims (the religion of peace) have their Koran and of course the atheists have nothing. If you think that there is something to be gained by trying to be a member of them all or parts of each into a “nondenominational” environment you are mistaken.

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