Why Is It So Hard To Convert to Judaism?


High Walls: Should becoming Jewish be as hard as getting into Harvard Law School?
High Walls: Should becoming Jewish be as hard as getting into Harvard Law School?

Published June 02, 2014, issue of June 06, 2014.
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In February 2013, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue, as fancy and important a place as its name suggests, floated an intriguing idea. In a sermon to his congregation on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Cosgrove urged the Conservative movement, his movement, to become much, much more welcoming to anyone interested in converting to Judaism.

He cited the famous talmudic story of the would-be-convert who approaches two dueling rabbis, Shammai and Hillel, asking to learn the entire Torah on one foot. Shammai dismissively pushes the man away. Hillel, instead, converts him immediately, teaching him that the Torah’s central message is: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.”

“The order of events is often missed, but it is instructive for us today,” Cosgrove said in his sermon. “First Hillel converts, and then Hillel teaches. First you join and then, once you are a vested member, you figure out what it is all about.”

Cosgrove’s sermon created a stir, and he repeated his proposal before various meetings and conventions during the past year. He’s not the only one to suggest that conversion become simpler, quicker, cheaper and way more welcoming. There’s even a discussion about this in the latest edition of the Conservative movement’s official magazine.

Enough talk. Time to do something.

We who care about sustaining the future of the modern Jewish family, who want to confront the tide of assimilation and disengagement with positive, affirming Jewish values, or who simply like being Jews and want to pass that along, need to radically rethink conversion. Instead of playing hard-to-get, or acting as if Jews are part of a club with admission standards higher than Harvard Law School, we need to open our arms, drop our reluctance, lower the barriers and not just welcome converts to join our synagogues. We need to encourage people to become Jews, in their way, in their time — especially when marriage and child rearing are involved.

“Some people don’t talk about money or sex. Jews don’t talk about conversion,” notes Rabbi Joy Levitt, executive director of the JCC in Manhattan, who has thought a lot about this issue. “I don’t understand why. I think it’s a wonderful thing. I have a lot of confidence in the tradition’s ability to work its magic on people.”

Think this isn’t a problem? Read the latest issue of Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism, which to its credit published a couple of pointed articles criticizing the status quo. “I think it’s hard for anyone who grew up Jewish to understand how intimidating — how downright scary — it can be for a non-Jew to set foot in a synagogue or make an appointment with a rabbi to discuss conversion,” writes Darcy R. Fryer, a historian and teacher who converted in 1998.

The title of her story, “Too Long a Wait,” suggests one of the barriers placed before the convert. Fryer studied for 14 months; many rabbis require at least a year, ostensibly to experience the annual Jewish calendar. There’s the cost — hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, in conversion classes. There’s the tradition of turning away a would-be convert three times, just to test her resolve and dedication.

Why stretch out what is essentially an emotional decision? As Fryer writes, “most of my figuring out how to live as a Jew came after I converted, just as couples figure out how to be married after they get married and parents how to parent after they have children.”

Even the words we use stigmatize. We refer to a person as a “convert” rather than a “Jew.” We give this new Jew a Hebrew name affixed with “son of Abraham and Sarah” rather than with his (presumably) non-Jewish parents. When that name is read aloud in synagogue, he is labeled. And we wonder why the process can be alienating.

As Levitt says, “We should use convert as a verb, not a noun.”

There is, let’s be honest, an underlying hypocrisy here: We ask more of the convert than we do of the Jew by birth. That’s especially true as the number of Jews “of no religion” increases and the intermarriage rate soars for the non-Orthodox, two key findings of last year’s Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jews. We don’t ask Jews by birth to study for a proscribed time, to pass a test, to prove themselves. All you need is one Jewish parent and little else in your life to qualify for a free trip to Israel with Taglit-Birthright.

For centuries, there was good reason for Jews to hold tight to the clan and avoid even the appearance of proselytizing, lest they antagonize their neighbors and the powers-that-be. But the situation is reversed now. Our reticence to promote ourselves and our reluctance to welcome newcomers is the exact opposite of what’s expected in the digital age.

Jonah Peretti, founder and CEO of Buzzfeed, one of the nation’s fastest-growing media companies, spoke to a media summit last year and used a comparison of Mormons and Jews to make a point about the nature of social interaction that is relevant here.

“There was one Mormon for every 10 Jews [in 1950]. Now there are more Mormons in the world than Jews. Why is that?” Peretti asked. It’s not because Mormonism is a higher-quality religion than Judaism. “The real reason is that Mormons actually focus half of their time on practicing their religion and the other half of their time on how to spread their religion,” he said. “The idea matters but so does the mechanism for spreading the idea.”

We don’t suggest that Jews don Mitt Romney-like suits and skinny ties and go around spreading the Gospel for a year or two. But somehow we have to harness the passion, dedication, indeed the confidence that Mormons exude and overcome our reluctance to share our faith and culture with anyone the least bit interested in joining us.

“Everybody wants their lives to be more meaningful,” Levitt observes. “We have what to offer here.”

This is a campaign tailor-made for the Conservative movement. Orthodoxy clings to the traditional notion that years of study and observance must precede conversion. (And that’s in America. The Israeli rabbinate sets the bar impossibly, cruelly high.) The Reform movement has little incentive, given its embrace of patrilineal descent and the increasing willingness of its rabbis to perform interfaith marriages.

But Conservative Jews could be to the modern world what Chabad-Lubavitch is to the traditional: a center of exuberant outreach. Such an embrace could also help Conservatives with the central paradox of their attitudes toward intermarriage: Conservative rabbis may not perform, or even attend, an interfaith marriage, and yet expect that the new couple will somehow gravitate toward their synagogues. This may be a principled stand, but it’s not a sustainable one.

Ironically, in a series of videos released by the Jewish Theological Seminary for the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, several Conservative scholars cited talmudic teachings emphasizing the need for straightforward and undemanding conversion.

We should have no fear of diluting Judaism by making conversion easier. It is a radical transformation of identity, but so is being born into a Jewish family, except the new Jew has made a choice, one we should hasten and embrace.

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