Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Future of Conversion to Judaism in the Conservative Movement

Yesterday, at the USCJ's Centennial conference in Baltimore, they discussed (among other things) the future of conversion within the Conservative movement.

A panel of four rabbis led "How Open A Tent? A Dialogue About Conversion" to answer: "What should the Conservative Movement's stance on Conversion look like in the years to come? How do we define our communal boundaries, differentiate our stance from our brothers and sisters to the left and to the right of us - and be responsive to the Jewish community we serve? This session will be an open discussion with four rabbis in the field, with a robust give and take on their recommendations for the future." The panel featured Rabbis Elliot Cosgrove, Ed Feinstein, Michael Siegel, and Deborah Wechsler.

At the same time, Rabbi Adam Greenwald discussed "Conversion as Courtship: Helping Newcomers Fall in Love with Judaism." The description of his talk is: "The journey to becoming Jewish is like falling in love, encompassing flirtation, desire, heartbreak, and transformation. Join the director of the largest conversion program in the nation for a discussion about practical strategies for welcoming new Jews with warmth, integrity, and love."

I wish that I could have attended the conference this weekend, especially these two sessions. This conference is Conservative Judaism's "conversation of the century" and its "reset button" as the movement attempts to change with the times. It is especially obvious in light of the Pew survey on Judaism in America that something needs to change if the USCJ wants to stop losing members. Other topics at the conference included engagement, technology, and theology - all vital conversations to the USCJ's future. According to the Pew survey, 2% of the American Jewish population are converts (Jews who were not raised Jewish and had no Jewish parent). That 2% is split up among all the Jewish streams (the survey did not break them down into movements), so with such a minute population and so many other issues to address, you might ask why the USCJ devoted five rabbis in two sessions at its five day conference to the issue of conversion? It could be related to the rising rates of intermarriage that the Pew study also reported. It could be a signal that the USCJ is considering a more active approach to conversion, like the Reform movement did in the early 2000s. Whatever the reason, I am glad they included it in their overall conversation about the future.

Individuals in the Conservative movement have already gotten the ball rolling on conversion policy discussions! In March, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove suggested (much to my dismay) converting potential Jews first and teaching them about Judaism after. Rabbi Harold Schulweis, one of Rabbi Ed Feinstein's co-Rabbis at Valley Beth Shalom, is among the growing number of rabbis in the Conservative movement who advocate more actively reaching out to potential converts. Rabbi Michael Knopf writes beautifully about the passion that Jews by Choice find in Judaism and how that can translate to Jews by Birth. These discussions are important, because they highlight a growing understanding among Conservative Jewish leaders that attracting potential converts is all in how they are addressed. There are a million reasons why a non-Jew might consider conversion - theological agreement, cultural affinity, introduction through a Jewish friend or significant other - and acknowledging them where they are and providing support as they ask the many Jewish questions they will have, is important in convincing them to turn their interest in Judaism into a fully Jewish life. I am excited to see these discussions becoming part of a movement-wide conversation of change.

It is fitting that the USCJ should start to rebuild its new identity this weekend, during Parsha Lech Lecha. This past Shabbat, as the USCJ Centennial began, we read Lech Lecha, in which Abram was told to go, to leave his home and to become the first of a great people. Lech Lecha is the reason that converts to Judaism take a Hebrew name ending in "ben/bat Avraham v' Sarah" symbolizing that step away from where they were raised toward a new spiritual identity. Jews by choice know a thing or two about building a Jewish identity from scratch, so maybe we can help the Conservative movement.