Spouses Influence Converts’ Commitment

By Jennifer Siegel

Published April 21, 2006, issue of April 21, 2006.
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A new qualitative study on interfaith families argues that it is a mistake to view converts to Judaism as a single class.

In her new study, “Choosing Jewish: Conversations About Conversion,” Brandeis University Professor Sylvia Barack Fishman attempts to explain why non-Jews convert and how their conversions affect the wider Jewish community. She divides converts into three groups: the “activist” converts, accounting for about 30%, who are highly committed to Jewish observance and peoplehood; the “accommodating” converts, accounting for about 40%, who generally become Jewish because they are asked to do so, and the “ambivalent” converts, accounting for about 30%, who have doubts about their decision.

Fishman based her study, which was commissioned by the American Jewish Committee, on more than 100 interviews with Jewish and non-Jewish men and women in Atlanta and in Boston.

She found that the likelihood of conversion increases when spouses, families and rabbis unambiguously promoted Judaism, and that the more Jewish “capital” a born Jew has — including religious education and a Jewish social circle — the greater the likelihood that his or her spouse will convert.

The findings seem to support the argument of those who stress the importance of publicly advocating conversion, including the AJCommittee’s national director of contemporary Jewish life, Steven Bayme. At the same time, however, the new study indicates that to some degree the success of such efforts is dependent on the religious background of the Jewish partner in a couple.

According to the most recent National Jewish Population Survey, conducted by United Jewish Communities in 2000 and 2001, more than one-third of American Jews are intermarried. And of those non-Jews who married Jews over the past three decades, fewer than one out of five converted to Judaism. Currently, 1.5 million Americans have one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent.

“The real issues regarding mixed marriages today are value-oriented issues,” Bayme said. “Namely, how do we feel about the phenomenon and how do we feel about the phenomenon of conversion.”

Bayme added that it is “extremely important to create Jewish environments in which Jews meet one another,” but that talking about the value of marrying Jewish is just as important because it is a message that is not transmitted by the larger American culture.

Paul Gollin, associate executive director of the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute, objected to this approach. Highlighting Fishman’s findings about the importance of Jewish capital, Gollin argued that in the case of many interfaith marriages, the Jewish partner’s own lack of a connection to Judaism plays a decisive role.

“Most Jews in this country are not religious, and I think that’s one of the stumbling blocks to the suggestion that conversion is the answer,” Gollin said. “Because what you’re saying is that the nonreligious Jew who married a nonreligious non-Jew should ask them to go through a religious process, and it feels completely hypocritical.”

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