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.