Jews by choice contribute immeasurably to the Jewish community. Their experiences, questions and perspectives invigorate the Jewish world and open exciting possibilities for the evolution of Jewish civilization.
A Turkish couple made an appointment to meet with me. The man was Jewish, the woman Muslim. They had learned that American rabbis frequently performed conversions. The man had a connection in Madison, Wis., so the couple traveled here in the hopes that the woman could convert to Judaism. Rabbis did not perform conversions in Turkey, so their rabbi told them to go elsewhere for the conversion, promising to recognize it when they returned. In their Jewish community, interfaith couples were not accepted. The woman agreed to move in with her fiancé’s parents after the wedding to learn the Jewish customs she would need to know as a Jewish woman.
This was my most unique conversion. The woman didn’t speak English. The man’s parents traveled thousands of miles to be present after she emerged from the mikvah. I officiated at the couple’s wedding, and our congregation threw them a party.
Yet every conversion is extraordinary in its own way. Conversion students each have a sacred story. They bring a set of experiences and motivations that lead them not only to change their religious beliefs, but to immerse themselves in a community that is different from the one in which they were raised.
When I first became the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in 2003, I would work with one or two conversion students at a time. During my first years at the congregation, my students were often, though not always, engaged to a Jew, or they had already married a Jew and realized that they wished to become Jewish themselves.
Sixteen years later, I consistently work with 10 to 12 conversion students in a congregation of 170 households. While the congregation has grown significantly over the years, its growth does not account for this spike in interest. I regularly receive inquiries about conversion, as do the two other congregational rabbis in Madison. Our three congregations run a biannual, community-wide introduction to Judaism course. In the past, roughly 25 students would enroll. This year we have almost 50, and many are on the path towards conversion.
The conversion students’ pathways to Judaism have changed. Some still find their way to Judaism through marriage, but many others are exploring Judaism independent of a partner and for a variety of reasons. Some were dissatisfied with their Christian upbringing and began to search for another spiritual path. Some had always gravitated to Jewish texts. Some had learned about Judaism as a child. Some had Jewish friends in college. Some had come out as LBGTQ and in the process reconsidered their religious identity. For these students, becoming Jewish just felt right.
I have also observed that increasing numbers of people seeking conversion are in relationships with non-Jews, and their partners do not wish to convert. Ten years ago, a new member told me that he had converted to Judaism before moving to Madison. His wife was an active Lutheran, and they were raising their children as Christians. This man had chosen Judaism on his own, and it was deeply meaningful to him. He became an active member of our ritual committee. Periodically, his whole family would attend Shabbat services to hear him chant Torah.
This story would have been unimaginable in other places and at other periods of history. It encapsulates the fluidity of American religious identity and speaks to the individualized nature of American religious practice. It highlights the willingness of many Americans to negotiate multiple religious expressions in one household.
The Jewish community’s attitude towards conversion has varied throughout Jewish history and was often influenced by the larger society’s perception of Jews. When Jews were accepted in the non-Jewish culture and they felt safe, confident and strong, they expressed a greater openness to non-Jews who wished to join the Jewish people. When Jews feared persecution and experienced discrimination by their non-Jewish neighbors, they tended to turn inwards. At these times, they curtailed their relations with non-Jews and disdained conversion.
Over the last 50 years, conversion has become a much more prominent feature of American Jewish life. As more Jews began to marry non-Jews, some of these non-Jews chose to convert to Judaism. Rabbis would perform these conversions quietly, doing what was necessary to preserve the institution of Jewish marriage. Conversion was considered a remedy for intermarriage, not an opportunity for communal celebration.
Jews who were born Jewish often did not consider converts to be legitimate members of the community. They might question their motives or treat them with suspicion. They might hold prejudicial attitudes towards them or fear these outsiders who were joining their community. This was especially true for converts who had become Jewish because they were drawn to the tradition, not because they married into it.
When I first came to Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, I spoke with a member who told me that she had converted to Judaism decades before, though made it clear that her conversion was a private issue not to be widely acknowledged. She had worked hard to become part of a Jewish community and didn’t want other members to question her involvement. A few years later, she objected when I called up a couple of Jews for an aliyah to celebrate their recent conversion. “Now everyone will know that they are converts,” she remarked. I tried to explain that they wanted their community’s affirmation of an important rite of passage in their lives.
Towards the end of the 20th century, the Jewish community became more tolerant of converts, though attitudes vary significantly among different congregations, and many converts still feel marginalized. More people were choosing to become Jewish because growing numbers of Jews were choosing non-Jewish partners, levels of antisemitism were decreasing and Americans were changing their religious affiliations with ever greater ease. The Jewish community became more open, welcoming non-Jews who wished to join them. Converts also began to demand greater acceptance in Jewish communal and religious life.
As conversion gained legitimacy, tolerance gave way to inclusion. The Jewish community began to embrace people who wished to join Jewish communities and formally become Jewish, and congregations created outreach programs to help integrate them into congregational life. Some Jewish leaders welcomed conversion in the hopes that it would ease demographic concerns. As the Jewish population continued to drop, they hoped that converts could replace some of the Jews who were leaving their communities. Some proposed even more aggressive outreach to non-Jews to curb the tide of intermarriage.
I have never been particularly interested in the argument that conversion is important in order to boost the Jewish population. I would rather spend my energy considering how people who have chosen to become Jewish find their place in our community. They have gone to considerable lengths to adopt a Jewish identity, adapt to communal life, embrace an extensive set of customs and create their own Jewish path. The two most important questions we can ask are: 1) In what ways can we support them on journey? 2) What are the particular gifts that they can offer our community?
Last spring, nine adults celebrated b’nei mitzvah at Shaarei Shamayim. Most of them had converted to Judaism. They met every other week for a year to discuss Jewish texts, practice their Torah readings, learn the liturgy and support each other throughout the process. I was deeply moved by their preparations. During the service, I shared the following:
Your b’nei mitzvah has taught me that we are now at a new juncture in time. We are past tolerance, and we are past inclusion. We are now at the point of transformation. As I have watched you lead such a beautiful service and study together for months, adding your particular understanding of Jewish tradition, I have realized how much the Jewish community needs your unique perspectives, your energy and your commitment. You will, collectively, transform the Jewish community — through your teachings, your leadership, your Torah reading, your creative rituals and your wisdom. Above all, I want to say thank you for being here, and mazal tov.
We should not reach out to converts because they can ameliorate demographic concerns, nor should we make space for them because we have a religious obligation not to turn them away. We should welcome them because they are important members of our communities. They have different experiences to share and different questions to ask.
Converts are leaders in every aspect of our congregation: they chair committees, organize havurot, serve on our board, chant Torah and lead services. They mentor our bnai mitzvah students, teach our kindergarteners and bring meals when a member is ill. In the Madison Jewish community, they volunteer in the hevra kadisha and sing in the Yiddish choir. Converts enrich our community with fresh insights. They challenge those of us who grew up Jewish to rethink our assumptions about how Jews look and act. They inject a passion for Jewish practice into a community that can be ambivalent or uneasy about traditional Judaism.
People who have chosen Judaism as their spiritual path have the potential to strengthen Jewish religious and communal life.