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Conversion: A Theological 360

Should Judaism proselytize? No. Should it be more welcoming? Yes.

For years most rabbis instinctly followed the Talmudic norm that one should push away converts warning them about the difficulties of becoming Jewish. God knows how many conversions stopped with a rabbi explaining to a potential convert, “Do you know how hard this is going to be?” For 2,000 years, this approach was adopted by Jews across the spectrum.

Of course, there were some at the margins of Jewish life who said otherwise, but for the most part that was the general approach adopted by leaders in the Jewish world. Then came the realization that the Jewish community was doing such a good job at pushing people away from converting (while at the same time being super-welcoming) that many congregations had more non-Jews in their pews on Shabbat morning than Jews. So recently, Rabbi Eric Yoffie (Reform) and Rabbi Jerome Epstein (Conservative) each independently called on his respective movement to stop being so welcoming and start doing more converting. Talk about making a theological 360!!


Epstein’s and Yoffie’s words have generated a great deal of discussion and have highlighted the shifting boundaries of identity politics in Jewish life. Many, including my teacher Dr. Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department of the American Jewish Committee and of the Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations, and Dr. Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, have hailed the initiative as “constructive” and “courageous.”

On the other hand, there have been those on the left and on the right who have criticized the shift toward conversion. Blogger Steven I. Weiss has pointed out some of the seeming contradictions and problems with Yoffie’s approach, including the irony of those who lambaste Christian evangelicals promoting conversion for non-Jews. Likewise, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna of NYU Hillel has expressed fear that such proselytizing will trickle down to the college campus, making pluralisitic Hillel houses into conversion centers.


For Orthodox Jews, the issue is of a different nature but one no less pressing. Sadly, those who are being converted by Reform and Conservative rabbis will one day come in front of an Orthodox Jew who will question their conversion.

With an intermarriage rate hovering around 50 percent, such situations will only become more common and create more of a divide between the different denominations. Nonetheless, it would seem that Yoffie and Epstein are correct: As Bayme has documented, in the long run those who take “the plunge” into Judaism breed stronger and more vibrant Jewish families. And isn’t that what’s most important?

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Aviella bat Avaham v' Sarah

posted February 16, 2006 at 12:34 pm

I was disturbed by some of the comments made in the article. Just as rabbi’s should turn away potential converts 3x; they should also foster acceptance of those that do convert. My huband and I converted together a decade and a half ago and enjoy a rich Jewish life. We have suffered prejudice and even violence against us for our conversion by non Jews. No one invitied us to this way of life; rather we felt pulled in that direction through our lives. We studied in depth for over two years and since our conversion have re-married under a chuppah (though we had been married civily for 20 years at the time of our Jewish vows). I agree that Jews should not proslytize, but they should accept fully those who join the “tribe”.

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posted February 16, 2006 at 3:36 pm

I sure as heck hope you’ve been welcomed by Jews in your community and congregation. As far as I’m concerned, a converted Jew, a Jew by choice, is a much a Jew as one who is born Jewish.

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posted February 16, 2006 at 3:51 pm

While I am a convert myself, what I do not understand is that while I know there are varied ‘beliefs’ as to Orthodox, Conservative, etc. and there are tenants in all those beliefs intertwined with the subject of conversion. My husband and I were converted through the conservative movement, however, we want to be more observant and want to be orthodox..but at present time we cannot live in the ‘community’..we live 1 hour away from any jewish life at all..and my husband’s job is elected if we can find a shabbos house every weekend, is it to be that hard to be able to convert to Orthodox? My other concern is I thought one was converting to Judaism and not to a ‘branch’ within.. Chana

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posted February 16, 2006 at 4:34 pm

It seems to me that the practice of turning away prospective converts by telling them how hard it’s going to be is a good one, and we Christians should adopt it. Actually early Christians were much closer to this (just as Jews were more eager proselytizers before Christian and Islamic repression forced them to turn inward). Early Christians required converts to go through a three-year catechumenate in which they were placed on probation.

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Linda Gurin

posted February 16, 2006 at 9:04 pm

I don’t think it is anybody’s business whether or not a person converts or not. If the people who are directly involved want to pose a comment then go ahead; but for a stranger to live someone else’s life with their beliefs, I think that they would be quite upset if that stranger had someone leading their life.

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Grant Curry

posted February 16, 2006 at 9:12 pm

I think to discuss Jewish or Christian conversion misses the point. God said to Israel (which included the righteous from the nations among its ranks as well): if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Exodus 19:5 As I read it he never said convert the nations to Judaism so much as be a nation of priests to teach my Torah by word and example. In Isaiah 2 He says: Many peoples will come and say, Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. Zechariah 8:23 is most eloquent: This is what the LORD Almighty says: “In those days ten men from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you. For Christians to want to convert Jews is equally absurd. Jesus and all his apostles were Jewish. No where in the New Testament does it say go make Christians of all nations (especially the Jews). What he did say was go make disciples (talmidim) of all nations . Since he was a Torah teacher (regardless of what you think of his brand of Torah teaching) all he was saying was go teach the Torah to all nations. This is completely consistent with the passages quoted from Zechariah, Isaiah and Exodus above. If Israel could embrace this concept (of teaching Torah [not Judaism class] in word and deed to the world) I believe God would make good on all his lovely promises. I have never know Him to shirk on a promise yet!

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Larry Lennhoff

posted February 17, 2006 at 1:57 am

With an intermarriage rate hovering around 50 percent, such situations will only become more common and create more of a divide between the different denominations. Nonetheless, it would seem that Yoffie and Epstein are correct: As Bayme has documented, in the long run those who take the plunge into Judaism breed stronger and more vibrant Jewish families. And isn t that what s most important? I don’t understand this. There is no magic in conversion – people who convert are more likely to have strong Jewish ties because they cared enough to convert in the first place. Make conversion easy and pressure people to convert and those statistics will alter because the pool of converts will alter. For Orthodox Jews, the issue is of a different nature but one no less pressing. Sadly, those who are being converted by Reform and Conservative rabbis will one day come in front of an Orthodox Jew who will question their conversion. And so it makes sense, from an Orthodox perspective, to encourage more questionable conversions? If someone is in an intermarriage they are going to understand when an O Jew treats their partner as non-Jewish. But when they think their partner is Jewish and the O Jew disagrees it only makes matters worse. Whether it causes the convert to turn away from Judaism, or whether it causes the convert or their spouse to simply despise Orthodoxy it is not good for the Jewish people. Kol Tuv Larry

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posted February 17, 2006 at 3:23 am

Just had to point this out… it isn’t a 360. It’s a 180, folks. Look it up. -M

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Chaya Long

posted February 17, 2006 at 8:41 am

I converted Orthodox. My family has been very accepting of the “new” me. I haven’t lost any gentile friends. I studied for three years before my rabbi escorted me to the Bet Din and the Mikvah. I don’t find Orthodoxy so difficult. In fact it seems natural. I love being a Jew!

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Galon Helpingstine

posted February 17, 2006 at 2:58 pm

Not only should we openly welcome converts, but we should proslytize as did Avarham.

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posted February 17, 2006 at 7:34 pm

Just had to point this out… it isn’t a 360. It’s a 180, folks. Look it up. -M m37 | 02.16.06 – 10:28 pm | # LOL, you are right, of course. I usually hesitate to correct things like that, being afraid of being labelled some type of “epithet” like “grammar police”.

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posted February 17, 2006 at 9:52 pm

Rabbi Stern Bayme has often taken a very negative and antaganostic view towards intermarriage. I would take issue with the idea that converts obviously raise more vibrant jewish families. There are MANY non-Jews who, married to a Jewish partner, are rasing their children in a faith not their own and they are raising committed, passionate Jews. Often, these non-jews ( as well as the committed converts) are more aware than two apathetic Jews of the importance of faith and community. Also: are you aware of the late Eliezer Berkovits’ arguments that the Orthodox, for the sake of Klal Yisrael, should accept non-O conversions? This is a problem that will certainly continue to grow as more non-O conversions occur.

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posted February 18, 2006 at 11:10 am

I converted 3 years ago through the reform movement in the UK, i lived in Isreal for three years befor that decision to convert but my love for Judaism began many years before that. In a way i considered myslef jewish long before i converted, i would like to become more religious – perhaps even Orthodox, i would like to move to Isreal and raise a Jewish family but after nearly 6 years of living as a jew i still find myself feeling like something of an outsider within Judaism- not because of my community -but because of the attitudes within much of the Orthodoxy – and Isreal over who is a jew. In order to become Orthodox i find myself with the prospect of haveing to convert all over agin, even my Jewish status in Isreal is unclear and i get a differant answer on whether i am jewish depending on who i ask. I know that conversion through the Orthodox is something i may have to do – wether i want to or not if only so my children are recognised as jews in Israel I beleive that Judaism needs a massive overhaul- from the Liberal to the Orthodox. I know many peers who would love to become more religious but find the attitudes and many of the ideas within orthodoxy too inflexibel and discriniatory while the Liberal opinions lack some of the ideas/practises that for them define judaism. – the same goes for many of the converts that i know. Judaism needs to make more of an effort to welcome converts to it and to help and support those who wish to explore their new found identity and perhaps want to become more religious . I beleive there is much that judaism could do to re-inspire those who have moved away from Judaism and also to welcome more openly those who wish to become jewish but perhaps lack the courage or initial connections to begin converted. Surely opening our arms in this way can only strengthan the jewish people.

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Travis E. Brewer

posted February 18, 2006 at 7:01 pm

I have always wanted to convert to Judaism. The article mentioned Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Which one conducts services in English.

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posted February 18, 2006 at 7:04 pm

As to the comment that at some point those being converted by Reform and Conservative rabbis will have there conversion questioned- my response is that the problem with the people doing the questioning, not the people who have converted by going through a meaningful, thoughtful conversion, not matter what the “varity”. I converted under a Reform rabbi, and recently became an adult Bat Mitzvah in a very egalitarian Concervative congregation. I feel very comfortable in my Jewish identity and its validity. That others may my question my Jewishness is not something that I’m worried about.

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posted February 18, 2006 at 7:46 pm

Conversion is good. My circle of friends at my synagogue includes many converts (one just went to the mikvah this week and was called to the torah for the first time this very Shabbbat).

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Michael J. Wellington

posted February 19, 2006 at 4:29 pm

I don’t have a problem with Conversion to an “Observant Lifestyle”. The problem with conversion to “Judaism” is that Yasraelly lose their cultural identity and become “Jews” (i.e. the alliance of Yahudah, Benyamin, Levy, and a remnant of Yisraelly). What do I mean? Christians who convert to Judaism must now where “Levy” “Tartans” or Talits rather than their Tribal Talits and Tartans. They adopt the Jewish Jewelry and symbolisms rather than their own Tribes cultural Gems and symbolisms. If modern Israel is to become the Israel for all observant Yasraelly Tribes and not just Yisraelly Tribes of the Jewish Alliance then Judaism needs to explore a way to open the doors of observance without a person having to leave their Tribal identity at the doors. More to follow in my book “The Code of Yasrael: Identifying the Twelve Tribes”.

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Charles Ray

posted February 20, 2006 at 3:23 am

I am a Jew, my father was Jewish, and my mother was an American Indian (perhaps the “lost” tribe?). I converted officially because of my mother’s lineage, but I see Jews, as a whole, declining because of lack of proselytizing. Any religion that does not spread like a virus, eventually dies like bateria in a bowl of antibiotics. I think we should do more to both welcome and convert.

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posted February 21, 2006 at 5:16 pm

I have found through personal experience that conversion is the most difficult thing EVER! I have been living a Jewish life for 12 1/2 years and have raised my child Jewish sinse birth. But I have found no rabbi to convert us. We are way to poor to live by any of the Orthodox shuls (but we still go there) so Orthodox rabbi’s will not convert us and the conservative and reform rabbis require you take a one year introductory class to Judaism which is not only too elementary for me, but the classes are while I am working. I have lived this way for so long, I figure sinse no one can be understanding I know G-d is.

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posted February 21, 2006 at 5:19 pm

Hey Travis Brewer, Reform is in English. Conservative is usually 1/2 English and 1/2 Hebrew (you can usually find great transliteration which I strongly reccomend), and Orthodox is usually ALL Hebrew. Good luck!

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posted February 22, 2006 at 2:42 pm

Dawn, Congratulations on your decisions. You just keep on doing what you’re doing and keeping the faith and keep heart. Living the life is a good thing. One day, if you want, you can formalize it, but believing and doing the “right” thing counts, too.

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Laurie Itskov

posted February 22, 2006 at 7:13 pm

I converted to judaism 12 years ago and I feel like I never was not Jewish. I think your heart knows when you have found your spirtual home, and I knew I had found mine. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to try to raise my twins with 2 different faiths. When my mother in law died, I realized that the process of grieving was made more bareable by the rules and the traditions and they daily prayer with others who had lost. Shabbat is also so important for families and togetherness. Conversion should be encouraged to interfaith couples.

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posted February 23, 2006 at 1:25 am

it says in Torah that we are made in the likeness of G-d, in his image. when i look in the mirror, with my dark hair and slanted eyes, what i see is a jew. my stance on this is issue is that it is irrelevant whether or not we as a people should proselytize, but rather that we should teach Torah and love of Torah. i lived in an orthodox community in the eruv for some time and i loved it. it was wonderful, but i also struggled with issues within the congregation that everyone struggled with. i struggled with my identity just as everyone else struggles with their identity – i just choose not to let OTHER people’s struggles with their identity and their opinion of mine affect me. i will never look like your typical ashkenazi because i’m ethnically chinese. (which brings to mind a joke but i’ll tell that later hehe) people have thought i was the hired help at shul when i went to help volunteer for sisterhood. i attended a few yad events and other community programs where no one talked to me. so what? i went and talked to them (only when i had battled down my own fear enough to be able to do so) and now i have family; i have friends; i have a place. being jewish isn’t easy – but nothing worth having was ever easy. a relationship (and that is ultimately what this is all about) with G-d has never been easy. it’s a struggle! but no one can take away your jewishness (regardless of whether or not you are orthodox, conservative, or reform) unless you let them. so what if some people do not accept you? not everyone completely accepts everyone. those whose opinion matter to you – will accept you. so the issue really is – whether or not you accept yourself. i am a jew. i just happen to be chinese jew. i also just happen to have a more conservadox belief system. your walk with g-d is your walk and mine is mine, so as long as you don’t cut me off in my path i won’t honk my horn at you. :) that’s all i’ve got to say about that. (okay corny joke inserted here) => a man walks into a chinese restaurant and asks the waiter, “do you have any chinese jews?” the waiter looks pensive for a moment. “I ask.” He goes to the back and speaks rapidly with the chef and then comes back outside. “No. No Chinese Jews.” The man looked disappointed but went ahead and opened his menu to order when the waiter speaks up again. “No Chinese Jews, but yes have grape jews, orange jews, apple jews….” Tee hee. Okay. Have fun folks. Oh and keep one thing in mind. The day you come out of the mikveh the first thing you’re gonna do is laugh. Why you may ask? Because you’ll finally get all the jokes. My epiphany came watching the princess bride. it was perfect. :)

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posted February 24, 2006 at 6:57 pm

For Orthodox Jews, the issue is of a different nature but one no less pressing. Sadly, those who are being converted by Reform and Conservative rabbis will one day come in front of an Orthodox Jew who will question their conversion. This touched a nerve for me. As a convert and the co-moderator for an online community for JBCs and those considering conversion, I see this question come up all the time. It disturbs me when people talk about converting to Orthodox Judaism just so they’ll be accepted as Jewish by the whole community — and not because they believe or embrace the central tenets of Orthodox Judaism. I consider myself a post-denominational Jew. I became a member of a Reconstructionist synagogue, but met the halachic requirements of Conservative movement by going before a beit din at the UJ in Los Angeles and going to the Mikvah. Although I am a member of a reform congregation, I don’t consider myself a Reform Jew. Just a Jew. It is my ongoing goal to become more observant and to study Torah. My current goal is to learn enough hebrew to read the prayerbook and the parsha. While I have a deep respect for Orthodox Judaism, though I had been born Jewish, I probably would not been frum. So, when I consider the whole “Who is a Jew” question with the Orthodox, this is my approach: I don’t ask or seek their recognition of me as a Jew. And the fact is that will always be a small minority Jews may never recognize me halachically or culturally as a Jew. And that doesn’t bother me because in my day to day life, it’s irrelevant. Unless I wanted to marry an Orthodox Jew or live as an Orthodox Jew, my halachic status is not much of a barrier. If I had children and they wanted to marry an Orthodox Jew and become observant, I would tell them to convert so there would be no question about their status.

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posted February 26, 2006 at 3:25 pm

ADA’s comments: I laughed aloud from this entry. I have always been facinated of the subject of conversion. I come from a town of many, many, different peoples, Japanese, Chinese, filipinos, Somoans, Hawaiians, etc. etc. Jews were a tiny minority. Maybe there were three families that admitted their Jewishness in my school district. A Chinese Jew. Just a another Jew in the mosaic of Jews. The single most important requirement for conversion is not what I have seen on the blogs yet. The Talmud requires the acceptance of the heavenly obligation to perform the commandments. The Talmud does not differentiate if the mitzvot are too difficult or inconvenient. All Jews have some difficulty. Some mitzvos are easy for one Jew and more difficult for another. So? It doesn’t make him less a Jew. A Ger Tzeddick, a rightous convert is joining an exclusive club. I read an entry like ADAH’s and I feel like giving that person a great hug. However, that would probably be impossible, as we both recognise the limits modesty in human relations places on us. My wife will hug you.

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