Many converts face an uphill battle

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While some believe soaring intermarriage rates will one day wipe out the Jews, local rabbis, interfaith counselors and at least one demographer say there's a more worrisome culprit on the horizon.

That culprit is not another dictator or a Pharaoh — it's the way we handle intermarriage.

In San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and throughout the country, the Jewish community's failure to embrace non-Jews poses a more serious threat to Jewish survival than intermarriage itself, some Jewish professionals are charging.

They cite icy welcomes of non-Jews and interfaith couples as well as entrenched negative attitudes about conversion. And while many communities have taken baby steps toward change via interfaith programs and outreach over the past two decades, not much has really changed.

"The Bay Area is pretty much like the rest of the Jewish community," said Gary Tobin, a San Francisco demographer and author of the recent book "Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community."

"Someone who is interested in becoming a Jew still faces the same psychological and institutional barriers that they do elsewhere," he said recently.

Distrust of outsiders still shapes the orientation of many Jews toward newcomers, he asserts. And some area rabbis still follow talmudic directives to turn away a non-Jew twice before considering the individual as a conversion candidate.

"People shop around. There's a network in knowing who's more interested" in taking conversion students and who isn't, said Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman, who tutors up to 15 conversion candidates per year at the Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.

Those determined enough to find their way to a conversion program talk of initial rebuffs and awkward questions, as was experienced by Kate O'Brien, a San Francisco public relations consultant. Two years ago, the 26-year-old woman approached a rabbi at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where O'Brien lived at the time.

She recalled the skeptical rabbi inquiring, "'When are you getting married?' and I said I wasn't. She asked, 'Then, why are you converting?'"

Not easily discouraged, O'Brien became a Jew-by-choice last year. She attends San Francisco's Conservative Congregation B'nai Emunah and has become serious with a Jewish man.

With such an example in mind, Tobin asserts that more intermarriage studies or additional interfaith programs won't save the Jews. Instead, he's betting on a pro-active conversion stance.

We "don't want to be so hysterical about Jews going out that [we] prohibit Jews coming in," said Tobin, who ironically has conducted the very intermarriage studies that have fanned the flames of hysteria.

"It's not [prewar] Poland or 15th-century Spain," the demographer said. "It's contemporary America. And in America, adults choose their religion."

The director of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, Tobin has gone public with his ideas about conversion in his new book.

"I see people all around me who would be Jews — if we helped them. I see spouses of Jews who are intrigued and looking for religious security. They could be Jews," Tobin writes in the book's preface.

"I see my children's friends, who have no religion…and come to our Passover Seder every year…people on airplanes or at conferences [with] a Jewish father or grandmother…millions of Jewish lives unrealized.

"This seems to me a communal shame."

Tobin acknowledges he's walking a fine line between simply encouraging conversion and active proselytizing, which is discouraged in Judaism. Yet he contends there's a payoff for his controversial position. If the community invests in the conversion of the intermarried, their children, those of Jewish heritage and even the casually interested, Jews will blossom as a people.

Perhaps the most notable champion of aggressive outreach is Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president emeritus of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Schindler suggested in 1978 that Jews actively seek the conversion of non-Jewish spouses in mixed marriages.

The rabbi said he "couldn't be more delighted that [Tobin] is taking up the cudgels" for an idea he first proposed more than 20 years ago.

Not everyone agrees with that position, however.

Rabbi Ted Alexander of B'nai Emunah said Jewish attrition by intermarriage and a lack of observance is historic.

"We are one of the oldest civilizations on earth. But if we didn't lose the lazy and disinterested in each generation, we would be more lost than the Romans," said Alexander, a rabbi for the past 42 years.

While he does not support a "proactive conversion stance," Alexander nevertheless asserts that he converts in a year "more non-Jews than all the Conservative rabbis in the area combined." Many of Alexander's Jews-by-choice are the spouses and partners of Jews, and find their new spiritual path in the rabbi's Introduction to Judaism class.

Alexander also notes that Jewish disappearance seems implausible in the current atmosphere of blossoming Jewish academic activity, publishing and "more coming back to Jewish observance than in any other generation."

In Berkeley, Finkelman also pooh-poohs a proactive stance.

Learning to live a Jewish lifestyle, he points out, is a serious undertaking that must come from within, not as a consequence of marrying a Jew or by suggestion from a friend.

To him, conversion is for the divinely inspired.

As for Jewish disappearance, Finkelman contends, "That is God's problem. He has promised that we would be around until the end of days. I don't have to worry about it."

However, other Jews worry plenty about intermarriage. And some fret enough to seek counseling.

East Bay psychologist Joel Crohn works with such individuals. The therapist specializes in the counseling of interfaith couples and families. He also leads workshops for rabbis who grapple with the boundaries of interfaith relations.

"My grandiose vision is to promote a multicultural, monotheistic Jewish community," Crohn said.

Not everyone has the same vision.

One of his clients once told him: "I look around in shul. To my right is an Asian woman, to my left a black man. There's nothing left to being Jewish anymore."

The client's comment may sound narrow-minded, perhaps even bigoted, but Crohn said such views are not singular. Those sentiments point to where even liberal American Jews must come to terms with the question 'What constitutes a Jew?'

"We have to make a decision between blood and belief. The paradox is that Judaism moves more to the center. As we look to the future, ethnicity is no longer going to be the center."

Research studies indicate that for increasing numbers of Jews perpetuating the bloodline isn't a top priority. Some 52 percent of American Jews marry out of faith, according to the 1990 Jewish Population Survey, the last national study conducted. More recent surveys performed by region indicate that the statistic ranges from about 24 percent in New York to 80 percent in the Bay Area.

However, even demographers admit that such studies could be creating more confusion than insight.

For example, the 1990 census, the biggest and most scientific of Jewish surveys, is widely considered to be flawed, casting doubt about what statistics really say about Jewish survival.

Most of the controversy centers around the surveyors' definition of a Jew, which in the 1990 study included some 600,000 individuals with questionable Jewish status.

Even Tobin, a leading Jewish demographer, acknowledged that his own studies can be misleading. His estimate of an 80 percent intermarriage figure for the Bay Area, which made front-page news in the Jewish Bulletin two years ago, does not characterize the entire Bay Area Jewish community, he noted. He included in the estimate only American-born Gen-Xers and baby boomers, the age groups that are having children.

Of course, many of the Bay Area's Jews are ex-Soviet emigres and Israelis. Tobin excluded them because they intermarry far less often. Therefore, the 80 percent intermarriage figure would be lower if Tobin had surveyed a representative sample of the entire local Jewish community.

The demographer expects the past decade's influx of ex-Soviets and Israelis to lower the intermarriage rate in the next national Jewish population survey slated for the winter by United Jewish Communities. It's been dubbed the Y2K National Jewish Population Survey.

To be scientifically consistent with the last national Jewish census, researchers plan to replicate the 1990 study — including its flawed ways. A UJC spokesman noted, however, that those plans still might change.

Locally, another key study currently under way at the Interfaith Connection of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco will seek to determine the success of its couples program.

Until now, there's been no definitive studies about the effect of interfaith programs on couples' choices, said Rosanne Levitt, program director for the past 13 years.

She personally wants "to see if we are on the right track."

Whether or not the programs are effective, Tobin contends they don't go far enough with their pro-conversion stance. Letting non-Jews know they are welcome and encouraging the individual to convert are still worlds apart, he said.

Crohn takes a different tack on conversion by helping rabbis refine the way they deal with interfaith couples.

He doesn't press rabbis to change their boundaries on intermarriage. He simply wants them to be more sensitive when an interfaith couple approaches. If a rabbi handles even an awkward request well, the pair may feel comfortable enough to choose conversion. And even if the non-Jewish partner decides not convert, a good experience with the rabbi could lead to affiliation and Jewish children.

During a rabbinic workshop last fall, Crohn led a group of Reform and Conservative rabbis and one Orthodox rabbi in role-playing. Reform Rabbi Helen Cohn of Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco recalls playing the part of a Jewish man who was consulting a rabbi with his non-Jewish fiancée.

The girlfriend was mildly interested in Judaism but not ready to give up her tradition entirely.

"The rabbi [played by another rabbi] gave my fiancée a rather hard time," Cohn recalled. "His approach was to be very challenging about not having two traditions at the same time."

Cohn's role as the boyfriend was to be loosely connected to Judaism but ardently opposed to a Christmas tree.

"I respected [my girlfriend] but our home was going to be Jewish and my arms were crossed. Yet, I found myself defending her wanting to have a Christmas. With the confrontational approach, my girlfriend and I got closer.

"It was us against the rabbi. I experienced what it was like being 'the other.'"

Cohn has worked with many dozens of interfaith couples during her five years at Emanu-El, all in the context of religious classes, discussion groups and cultural activities. She has converted nearly 40 of her students.

While some Jews feel that such a program gives a stamp of approval to intermarriage, Cohn says the other scenario of refusing to acknowledge interfaith couples doesn't help either.

"I'm as interested as anyone in Jewish continuity. But I'm looking at the immediate need. I want to help these couples explore having a Jewish home and learning what that means and to feel joyful about it."

Cohn's advocacy, however, stops short of a proactive conversion stance. The rabbi is careful not to hurry or pressure her students in their Jewish investigations.

"It take a long time for people to go through the whole cycle of emotions that's necessary when people are changing a basic aspect of their identity."

Still, she quips, "I'm a rabbi too, so I'm biased. I like to see them choose Judaism."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.