Reform rabbis adopt conversion blueprint in Monterey

The new Reform guidelines for converts to Judaism will have little effect on the many Reform rabbis who already employ many of the traditional practices suggested.

The guidelines adopted late last month by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement's 1,800 member rabbinical arm, are deemed only suggestions and not requirements, overturning a 19th-century platform that did away with such conversion rituals.

The new guidelines — approved during the CCAR's annual national convention two weeks ago in Monterey — are the latest step in the Reform movement's gradual return to tradition, which has been ongoing in recent years.

They call for converts to go before a beit din, or a Jewish court; visit a mikvah, or ritual bath; and for already circumcised men to undergo a symbolic circumcision, in which a drop of blood is drawn.

"I've always required everyone to go to the mikvah," said Rabbi Steven Kaplan of Temple Beth Torah in Fremont, adding that the new guidelines won't change anything.

"With regard to circumcision, I've left it open. Sometimes they do the tipat dam," or drop of blood, "but I've also had [situations] where they went through a full circumcision."

Rabbi Gerald Raiskin of Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame agreed. He said the new guidelines suggest "what we do already."

For the past 20 years, Raiskin has required his converts to immerse themselves in the mikvah and male converts to undergo a symbolic circumcision. The only exception, he said, was made for adopted children who underwent conversion and had already been circumcised.

Over the years, he said, "it's gone from suggestion to requirement, and no one has even raised the issue."

But Rabbi Richard Shapiro of Santa Barbara, who chairs the CCAR's committee on conversion, said that in fact, the new guidelines place the emphasis on the process of conversion rather than the rituals themselves.

They recommend that the potential convert actively participate in a Jewish community for one year prior to the conversion, keeping a Jewish home and raising Jewish children.

"We're trying to improve the quality of the attention we give to people who are considering conversion," he said. While many of his colleagues are already requiring certain rituals of converts, he hopes the document will influence those who are newly ordained.

"It sets a tone for where we are as a movement, so as new rabbis are ordained and those who aren't using the practice will be influenced as they see consensus-building," Shapiro said.

As to whether the increased usage of the mikvah among Reform Jews would require the building of new Reform-run ritual baths, Shapiro said, "It's already started.

"Generally what we've tried to do is cooperate with all the other movements in building community mikva'ot, but in those cases where necessary, we'll find other options."

Some 450 Reform rabbis gave their input into the new document, which was five years in the making and was revised nine or 10 times.

There were only three voices of dissent among some 570 rabbis attending the conference.

One of those was Rabbi Philip Posner of Mitzpah Congregation in Chattanooga, Tenn. In the debate that preceded the vote, he argued that the Reform movement had always prided itself on allowing the individual to decide which rituals to embrace and which to reject.

But he was in the tiny minority.

"Men and women who are seeking conversion to Judaism deserve the best we can give them," Shapiro said before the vote.

"These people are choosing not just to enter a Reform Jewish community, but klal Yisrael [the community of all Jews]. We want to provide the maximum entree to gerim," or strangers.

The guidelines stop short of asking converts to keep kosher. That was also brought up for discussion before the vote.

"We wrestled with it and went back and forth on it four times," Shapiro said. "Because the use of that term is sensitive to some elements of our community, we decided to leave it out as a consensus-building tool."

The guidelines also suggest making Judaism more welcoming to the potential convert, rather than turning those seeking conversion away several times, as tradition dictates.

"These guidelines underscore Reform Judaism's willingness to make Judaism accessible to those seeking a spiritual home without attempting to proselytize members of other faith communities," said Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the CCAR. "The guidelines signal an openness to welcoming converts while insisting that they complete a rigorous educational process prior to conversion."

The CCAR also approved a resolution regarding peace in Israel, which calls on the Palestinian Authority to denounce the use of violence, and for the government of Israel to neither build nor expand existing Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The resolution also calls for the U.S. government to initiate a new diplomatic effort to end the violence.

While the resolution reiterated the movement's support of Israel, it also called upon the government to "employ reasonable restraint in its handling of the current unrest and, while doing what is necessary to protect human life, refrain from acts of collective punishment."

In a session closed to reporters, the CCAR also voted to amend procedures for responding to allegations of sexual misconduct.

Other resolutions that were supposed to be voted upon, ranging from the use of medicinal marijuana to the actions of the Taliban in Afghanistan, were not voted upon because of time constraints.

The CCAR ended with the Rabbi Martin Weiner's installation as president of the organization. Weiner is senior rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."