Rabbi Urges Conversion, Sexual Limits

By Jennifer Siegel

Published November 25, 2005, issue of November 25, 2005.

HOUSTON — For more than a quarter-century, the Reform movement has made it a priority to reach out to interfaith couples. Now, its leader, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, said it’s time to start doing more to encourage non-Jewish spouses to convert to Judaism.

Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, issued the call to action during his Sabbath-morning sermon at the group’s biennial convention in Houston.

“By making non-Jews feel comfortable and accepted in our congregations, [perhaps] we have sent the message that we do not care if they convert,” Yoffie told a crowd of thousands. He added, “The time has come to reverse direction by returning to public conversions and doing all the other things that encourage conversion in our synagogues.”

Many proponents of conversion, particularly in the Conservative and Orthodox movements, have been critical of the 1983 decision by Reform Judaism to consider a child Jewish even if he or she only has a Jewish father. Critics argue that the decision removed a major incentive for non-Jewish women to convert to Judaism.

Yoffie praised non-Jewish spouses who raise their children as Jews, calling them “heroes” who deserve recognition and praise. He cautioned against addressing issues of conversion in an insensitive or heavy-handed manner. But he said that synagogues are not “neutral” institutions, and they also should promote the advantages enjoyed by families in which there are two Jewish spouses.

Yoffie’s remarks come during a time of renewed public debate on the issue of how far to go in welcoming interfaith couples. In recent months, traditionalists in the non-Orthodox community have criticized what they see as the lavishing of attention and resources on interfaith families at the expense of the committed Jewish households in which the vast majority of Jews were raised.

The debate has entered the Reform movement via a paper by sociologist Steven M. Cohen, who recently joined the faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform rabbinical seminary. In the paper, which was distributed to college alumni, Cohen argued that the emphasis liberal outreach groups have placed on “welcoming” non-Jews into congregational life has done little to increase the likelihood that their children will embrace Judaism as adults.

Yoffie’s remarks raised concerns among some proponents of a more welcoming approach to interfaith couples, who worried that his effort to encourage conversion might overshadow his praise for non-Jews who are committed to raising Jewish children.

“The question is less ‘How do you get people to convert?’ than ‘How do you get people to raise their children as Jews?’” said Ed Case, the executive director of InterfaithFamily.com. “ I just think it needs to be done really, really carefully, and the message that you’re welcome as you are needs to come through.”

During his sermon, Yoffie urged Reform Jews to step up efforts to talk frankly with teenagers about how Judaism’s teachings apply to relationships and sex.

“We are not very good at saying No in Reform Judaism,” said Yoffie, who has pressed congregations to place a greater emphasis on ritual and text study. “We are the most creative and forward-looking movement in Jewish life, but in the realm of personal behavior we are reluctant to ever use the word ‘forbidden.’ Yet in dealing with kids engaged in destructive behavior, the concept of autonomy leaves us unable to set limits and make sound judgments.”

In particular, Yoffie raised concerns about the prevalence of so-called hookups or casual sexual encounters among teenagers.

“We [need to] tell boys and girls that sex is not about controlling or servicing the other,” Yoffie said. “And we need to tell girls in particular that their worth is not defined by what they do for boys.”

The Union for Reform Judaism is creating a six-session course about Judaism and sexuality for 12- and 13-year-old students, and plans to unveil a course for high school freshman in 2007. The courses will not take a “Just say no” approach to sex, nor trade in generalities, Yoffie said, but will address the issues that teens confront.

Tal Grunspan, 24, an Israeli attending the convention who spent last summer working at the Reform union’s Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, Texas, said he agreed with Yoffie that today’s teenagers too often see sex as a free-for-all devoid of genuine emotional connections.

“I would tell [the campers] that just because everyone is Jewish, that doesn’t mean you have to be with everybody,” Grunspan said.

Several teenagers who attended the convention as part of a delegation from the National Federation of Temple Youth also agreed with Yoffie that casual sexual encounters are common among teenagers, but expressed skepticism that more dialogue will offer anything new.

“I give him points just for saying the words ‘hooking up,’” said David Wilensky, a high school junior who is president of a youth group in Austin, Texas. “I’m just afraid they’re just not going to say anything new. The solutions are always the same ones being talked about over and over again, and I’m getting sick of it.”



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