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November 24, 2014 | 2nd Kislev 5775

Dear Reader: We Need to Ask

Let us say to the potential converts in our midst, “We would love to have you.” The time has come to heed Rabbi Alexander Schindler’s advice: “We must not forget to ask.”

 

by Eric H. Yoffie

yoffieIn recent years, the number of non-Jewish spouses who convert to Judaism has declined, and anecdotal evidence suggests that interest in conversion has waned in our congregations as well.

 

What happened? Perhaps we've forgotten the advice of my predecessor and Outreach initiator, Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, z'l: "We need to ask. We must not forget to ask." Following his lead, in the early years of Outreach, many of our congregations actively encouraged conversion and made conversion ceremonies part of regular worship services.

 

Such ceremonies are far rarer now. Perhaps, by making non-Jews feel comfortable and accepted in our congregations, we have inadvertently signaled that we do not care if they convert.

 

But we do care. In fact, we care a great deal.

 

Why? Because it is a mitzvah to help a potential Jew become a Jew-by-choice. Because the synagogue is not a neutral institution; it is the instrument that promotes a vibrant religious life for the Jewish people. Because we want families to function as Jewish families, and while intermarried families can surely do this--and we applaud their involvement in synagogue life--we recognize the advantages of an intermarried family becoming a fully Jewish family, with two adult Jewish partners. Studies have shown that observing two religions under one roof often causes confusion and conflict among children, even when they are raised as Jews.

 

And keep in mind: Most non-Jews who are part of synagogue life expect that we will ask them to convert. They come from a background where asking for this kind of commitment is natural and normal, and they are more than a little perplexed when we fail to do so.

 

So let us say to the potential converts in our midst, "We would love to have you." And let us offer them an apology for not having asked sooner.

 

Of course, special sensitivities are required. Ask, but do not pressure. Encourage, but do not insist when someone says, "I'm not ready." If we pursue conversion with a heavy hand, we will only generate resentment. We must accept that, for some, conversion will never be an option.

 

But none of this is a reason for inaction. The time has come to heed Rabbi Schindler's advice: "We must not forget to ask."

 

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

 

President, Union for Reform Judaism

 

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