When Sex in the City’s Charlotte is rebuffed by the rabbi in her attempts to begin conversion training, series writers evoked the Jewish tradition that potential converts be turned away three times to test their sincerity. There was good reason then a days: A potential convert could be a “double agent,” part of a plan to harm the Jewish community. There was also fear of syncretism: converts could dilute Jewish belief and practice with “foreign” traditions like idolatry.
Thankfully, times have changed and our attitude towards converts should too. Jewish converts are a great blessing, often more Jewishly knowledgeable, passionate and observant than born Jews, particularly in the non-Orthodox world. They are the Charlottes who ask their Harrys to turn off the ball game during Shabbat dinner.
Today a different reticence exists regarding conversion: having expectations of people.
It’s a societal problem, really. People want to feel OK on their own terms. They reject external definitions of what is correct or good and disassociate from those making demands upon them. This is partially why the Reform Movement dropped the original requirements for patrilineal descent. Consequently, though, so few patrilineal children raised their children as Jews that the Reform Movement recently decided to encourage conversion in intermarriages.
But having expectations is not just a Reform movement problem. In our desire for inclusion, we in the Conservative movement sometimes forget that expectations are about living for, and actualizing, a higher purpose, God’s purpose. We forget that we can be accepting of everyone, loving them for who and where they are when they enter our synagogues, even as we provide them encouragement and opportunities to continue to grow on their spiritual journeys.
It is hard to find the right balance between expectation and acceptance. Most non-Orthodox congregations include non-Jews in life cycle events in some way, if only because it’s often the non-Jewish parent who drives the child to Hebrew School.
It is important that non-Jews feel welcomed. Sometimes that sense of being warmly enveloped in a community who prayers for and cares for each other inspires a non-Jew to convert, but not always. It is equally important to take seriously what a faith commitment means and to honor the decision non-Jews make not to change their faith commitment to Judaism. That is why the converts in my congregation argued that a non-Jewish spouse not accompany the Jewish spouse to the Torah for an aliyah, for why did they need to bother to convert if no distinction is made between those who convert and those who don’t. Their concerns made we realize that synagogue policies that fail to offer real incentives for conversion actually discourage conversion.
Some of the incredible converts I have worked with began the journey because they fell in love with a Jew committed to building an unambiguously Jewish home. Some wanted to participate fully in their children’s Bnai Mitzvah. A growing number came to Judaism because it makes sense to them, where their Christianity no longer does, or never did. All these candidates understand that committing to a new faith and a new way of life takes training and, well, commitment. They embrace the idea that Judaism is not just a belief system but a way of life: that we serve God in how we eat and how we spend our time and resources in addition to how we treat others and what we believe.
Perhaps our Charlottes can teach a thing or two to our Harrys, as converts inspire born Jews to live richer Jewish lives.