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Inviting Non-Jews to Convert to Judaism

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Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism

Traditionally Jews have not actively encouraged conversion to Judaism. In fact, Orthodox Judaism generally discourages potential converts from converting so that only those with a true desire to adopt Judaism and enter the Jewish community will persist and become Jewish.

In sharp contrast, the Reform movement, North America's largest branch of Judaism, announced that it will now begin to actively invite non-Jews to convert to Judaism.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, announced this initiative at the movement's 68th biennial conference in November 2005. More than 4000 Reform Jews from more than 500 congregations attended the conference.

The latest research shows:
  • 54 percent of American Jews today marry non-Jews
  • 33 percent of currently wed American Jews are intermarried
  • 33 percent of intermarried couples are raising their children to be Jewish
Thus, many Reform temples in the United States host congregations consisting of a signicant number of non-Jews. These non-Jewish members married someone Jewish, but decided not to convert themselves. As a family, they joined the local Reform temple, which tends to be welcoming of intermarried families. At the same time, there are many Reform temples that do not yet have a clear policy regarding non-Jewish participation.

Setting this policy can be a very emotional undertaking. However, the Union for Reform Judaism believes that a clearly outlined position on non-Jewish participation may encourage conversion by enhancing the value of becoming a Jew.

At the conference, Yoffie urged Reform congregations to honor non-Jewish members who are raising Jewish children and to suggest that these non-Jews convert to Judaism. "It is a mitzvah to help a potential Jew become a Jew-by-choice," Yoffie stated. The union has prepared programs to help synagogues implement both ideas.

According to Steven Cohen, a research professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement is best placed to lead the American Jewish community as "The federation system has abdicated, the Conservative movement doesn't have the wherewithal or the confidence, and the Orthodox have become sectarian."

Balancing openness to the intermarried while encouraging conversion is a challenge. The Reform movement will have to be welcoming, while simultaneously presenting conversion as the optimal choice.
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