Wooing potential converts may take a light touch

For the longest time, my daughter thought her father was Jewish. She and everyone else who wasn’t around for his First Communion when he was 8.

I thought he was Jewish, too, when I met him as we were rigging up our windsurfer sails on San Francisco’s Crissy Field beach. The last name, the dark curly hair, even the fact that he hailed from Los Angeles. Wishful thinking perhaps, but our union was meant to be, even if he wasn’t a member of the tribe.

“Daddy’s not Jewish?” my daughter asked, puzzled one day after she heard me explain the fact to a new friend. “Can he get Jewish?”

Actually, it wasn’t only her father she wanted this for, but her friends too. “Katya’s going to ask her mom if she can be Jewish!” she excitedly told me when I picked her up at school. She likes being Jewish, and thought that everyone else should be, too.

I thought of this when I heard about both the Conservative and Reform movements’ recent efforts to encourage conversions. At first I read about efforts to reach out to interfaith couples, people like me. How nice, reaching out … that’s great.

But then I read the Conservative movement’s statement: “We must begin aggressively to encourage conversions of potential Jews who have chosen a Jewish spouse.”

Aggressively? I pictured ardent conversion activists chasing my husband down the street and imagined phone calls at dinner time from a phone bank of Jewish telemarketers, sipping Manischewitz and munching matzah while reading from a script: “Shalom, we’re calling to ask if we can count on you to convert.”

OK, I have an active imagination, but what, exactly, does aggressively mean? And would these new guidelines scare my husband away?

As a non-Jew helping to raise a Jewish daughter, my husband’s commitment has never been questioned. He supports her Hebrew school experience, attends the services he can, and has even been the one to remind us that it’s time to light candles on Friday night. But “getting Jewish,” as my daughter so innocently asked, isn’t on his agenda, at least not in any formal way.

In our family, I’m the one who’s really on the path to getting Jewish — I take classes, attend events and programs and have a tottering pile of Jewish books on my bedside table. But since I was born to Jewish parents, the conversion question doesn’t apply. I’m Jewish, no matter how little or how much Jewish knowledge I possess. Or how much of that I pass on to my child.

I understand that increasing the commitment, as well as the depth and breadth of our observance to Judaism, is and should be the goal of religious leaders. I worry, though, that if undertaken insensitively, this new decision may scare some away.

So I read the entire text of the statement by Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Words like “sensitive,” “patience” and “support” show up in his suggestions for the new approach. That’s a relief.

The aggressive part comes down to mentions of “personal invitations” and “personal visits and telephone calls” (see, my telemarketing scenario isn’t completely off track). But not to fear, that’s not what they have in mind at all — just a friendly inquiry from a religious leader or an outreach-committee member.

The focus is on creating Jewish families to ensure continuity, and those familiar statistics are cited, the ones I’m well aware of as an intermarried Jew: the high number of intermarried couples and the extremely low percentage of those couples who are raising their children as Jews. I think about my intermarried friends, the majority of whom are unaffiliated. Our being congregation members is the exception, not the rule.

I’m curious about how these new guidelines might be felt in my Oakland congregation, where 15 percent of the members are non-Jews. “I believe in the ask,” Rabbi Mark Bloom of Temple Beth Abraham tells me. “Converting because of someone you love is the best reason.”

Bloom acknowledges that converts make some of the best Jews. In terms of outreach, though, he feels that the “most significant outreach is getting to know everyone.”

And that’s an initiative I’m fully behind.

Joanne Catz Hartman, who lives in Oakland, can be reached at

[email protected].