Reform Movement Leader Encourages Synagogues to Invite and Support Conversion
Yoffie: It is a mitzvah to help a potential Jew become a Jew-by-choice
HOUSTON, November 19, 2005Twenty-seven years after the face of Judaism in North America was changed by the Reform Movements decision to welcome interfaith families, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism today called its adherents to make concerted efforts to encourage non-Jews to convert to Judaism.
At the same time, Rabbi Eric Yoffie also urged the 4,500 delegates to the Reform convention meeting here to honor non-Jewish spouses who become involved in the life of the synagogue, calling them heroes of Jewish life. And he urged the delegates to follow the Movements recommendation that children of interfaith families be educated in only one religion.
We want families to function as Jewish families, and while intermarried families can surely do this, we recognize the advantages of an intermarried family becoming a fully Jewish family, with two adult Jewish partners, he said, explaining the renewed emphasis on inviting conversion.
Noting that the Reform Movement has, over the past quarter century, made non-Jews feel comfortable and accepted in Reform congregations, Perhaps we have sent the message that we do not care if they convert, Yoffie said. But that is not our message, he said. It is a mitzvah to help a potential Jew become a Jew by choice.
Judaism does not denigrate those who find religious truth elsewhere; still, our synagogues emphasize the grandeur of Judaism and we joyfully extend membership in our covenantal community to all who are prepared to accept it.
It was in 1978 that Rabbi Alexander Schindler, Rabbi Yoffies predecessor as the leader of the Reform Movement, first called for the acceptance of non-Jews into synagogue life. Outreach to non-Jews quickly became a hallmark of the Reform Movement and a source of friction with other Jewish organizations, which argued that enthusiastically welcoming interfaith families in synagogue life was tantamount to endorsing interfaith marriage.
In the intervening decades, the rate of intermarriage has stabilized, with the latest National Jewish Population Study (2000) showing the intermarriage rate as more than 40 percent. And the study also showed that from 1990 to 2000, the percentage of interfaith couples who raise their children as Jews increased by 5 percent to 33 percent, an indication that the Reform Movements Outreach programs have been effective.
Yoffie praised the non-Jewish spouses in Reform synagogues who, while maintaining some measure of attachment to their own traditions, even continuing to practice their religion, take on responsibilities that, by any reasonable calculation, belong to the Jewish spouse.
When a non-Jewish spouse involves herself in the activities of the synagogue; offers support to the Jewish involvements of husband or wife; attends Jewish worship; and, most important of all, commits to raising Jewish children, he or she is deserving not only of welcome but of our profound thanks, Yoffie said. These spouses are heroesyes, heroesof Jewish life.
Yoffie was less enthusiastic about those interfaith couples that try to bring two religions into the family.
They tell themselves that if one religion is good, then two religions are better, he said. But what this does is cause confusion for a child, who recognizes at a very young age that he cannot be both, and that he is being asked to choose between Mommys religion and Daddys religion.
Virtually all psychological experts agree that interfaith couples should choose a single religious identification for their children. And the great majority of children in this situation report growing up lacking any sense of belonging. Nonetheless, some parents, desperate to avoid conflict with each other, insist on passing the conflict on to their children by asking them to decide for themselves, he said.
He thus urged the congregational leaders to follow the resolution adopted at the 1995 Biennial convention, which encourages congregations to enroll only those children who are not receiving a formal religious education in any other religion.
It is difficult to formalize boundaries and to say no, particularly for our Movement, which always prefers to open doors and build bridges, Yoffie said. But sometimes it is necessary. Let us not forget the lesson of King Solomon, whofaced with two mothers claiming the same childknew that the parent who refused to cut the child in half was the one who loved him more.
Yoffie also urged the rabbis, cantors, educators and lay leaders to more enthusiastically reach out to unaffiliated Jews, many of whom are intermarried, and to focus on retaining members when they do affiliate.
As Jews of the synagogue, we are called upon to follow Abrahams exampleto lift the Jews out of their aloneness and to help them establish true community, he said. Are we doing it? To a degree. Nearly 80 percent of North American Jews will join a synagogue at some point in their lives.
But here is the problem, he continued. About half of them will leave, usually in three to five years, often right after celebrating a childs bar or bat mitzvah. Approximately one million North American Jews once belonged to a synagogue but no longer do. If we could put an end to this exodus, Jewish life would be immeasurably strengthened.
To achieve this, the Reform Movement is launching an ambitious program to help its synagogues achieve lifelong membership. It includes renewed efforts to reach out to unaffiliated Jews, improving how new members are welcomed into the synagogue community, and paying particular attention to the points of transition such as when a child goes from preschool to kindergarten or high school to college. Information about these programs is available at www.urj.org/membership
The Union for Reform Judaism (formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) is the central body of Reform Judaism in North America, uniting 1.5 million Reform Jews in more than 900 synagogues. Union services include camps, music and book publishing, outreach to unaffiliated and intermarried Jews, educational programs, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, DC.