Reform Jews call for conversions

houston | The movement that was the first to welcome intermarried families into its synagogues nearly three decades ago now will focus on actively inviting non-Jews to convert to Judaism.

That was one of the initiatives announced by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, during his Shabbat sermon at the movement’s 68th biennial.

More than 4,200 Reform Jews from 504 congregations in nine countries attended the four-day event at the George R. Brown Convention Center, which most recently sheltered thousands of Gulf Coast evacuees from Hurricane Katrina.

Addressing a Shabbat breakfast meeting of Reform rabbis, cantors and educators, sociologist Steven Cohen said the Reform movement is the institution best placed to lead the American Jewish community.

“The federation system has abdicated,” said Cohen, a research professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “The Conservative movement doesn’t have the wherewithal or the confidence” and the “Orthodox have become sectarian.”

No one in the room disagreed with his analysis.

Neither did Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Hebrew Union College.

“There is an affinity between the ideals marking Reform Judaism — inclusion, pluralism, the individual search for meaning — and the sensibilities that mark most non-Orthodox Jews in the United States,” he said.

Referring to the 20 percent of American Jews who have never affiliated with a synagogue, he said, “If any movement is going to address these people and bring them into the synagogue, it’s the Reform movement.”

Noting that fewer non-Jewish spouses are converting to Judaism than the movement expected when it instituted its open-arm policy toward interfaith families in 1978, Yoffie suggested that perhaps “by making non-Jews feel comfortable and accepted in our congregations, we have sent the message that we do not care if they convert.”

“Conversion first is always desirable” though not always possible, Yoffie said, “So we have to welcome the non-Jewish spouse and embrace them, to the extent that they are raising Jewish children.”

The challenge of balancing openness to the intermarried while encouraging conversion is a major challenge for Reform congregations, movement leaders agree.

“On one hand, the Reform movement has to be welcoming, while at the same time conversion has to be presented as an optimal alternative,” said Ellenson, who called Yoffie’s approach “a move toward tradition.”

“How many of your congregations have a policy on non-Jewish participation?” asked Rabbi Brian Beal of Temple Beth Torah in Nyack, N.Y. at a session devoted to the role of non-Jews in synagogue life. Just six out of 45 people in the room raised their hands.

Jamie Hendi of Congregation Kol Ami in Frederick, Md., said her 60-member congregation is just tackling the issue, and “emotions are very high.”

“We have three intermarried families who were able to do everything, because we didn’t have a policy. They feel very threatened now that we’ll take things away from them,” she said.

Rabbi Arnie Gluck of Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, N.J. said his synagogue prepared a policy booklet outlining what non-Jews may and may not do, along with the reasoning behind each decision.

“People appreciate knowing our boundaries,” he said.

Having a clearly outlined position can encourage conversion by enhancing the value of becoming a Jew, he added, pointing out that he has converted close to 100 people in his 15 years as rabbi of his 550-member congregation.

Rabbi Judith Schindler of Temple Beth El in Charlotte, N.C. said she came from a congregation where Jews sat on one side of the sanctuary and non-Jews on the other, and the Torah was passed only to the Jews. At Beth El, by contrast, “we don’t set those boundaries. The only thing they can’t do is sit on the board.”

That welcoming attitude has not discouraged conversion, Schindler insisted, noting that she has 40 students in her conversion class, and about two convert every month.

That “doesn’t mean we should stand on street corners” and proselytize, she said, “although that’s what my dad would have wanted.”

She was referring to her father, the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the renowned former head of the Reform movement and author of the movement’s 1978 outreach initiative.