First Study of Converts to Judaism Calls for Re-examining Traditional Jewish Response, UAHC Reports

The majority of converts — 86 percent — taking part in a scientific study of conversions, were repotted here today to feel that it is important to give their children a serious continuing Jewish education and almost all of them reported they intended to give their children such an education.

This was one of the findings of what was described as the first scientific effort to assess the impact of the conversion experience on the converts, on his or her born-Jewish spouse and on their non-Jewish and Jewish families. A report on the study, titled “New Jews: The Dynamics of Religious Conversion,” was released at the 55th General Assembly of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). Nearly 3000 leaders of Reform Judaism in the United States and Canada are attending the Assembly through Dec. 11.

The study also found that converts had a socio-economic profile and education level comparable to that of born Jews and that only 15 percent came from homes in which religion was “very important.” Many reported viewing their childhood religious backgrounds as “oppressive.”

The study found converts become more active Jews as the length of their lives as converts increased. Parents of converts in the study, while generally resenting their children’s decision to convert to Judaism, at first, “ultimately become reconciled,” especially if the marriage is successful.

POSITIVE SIGNS NOTED

Rabbi Sanford Seltzer, director of Reform Judaism’s “Task Force on Outreach,” said there were many “positive signs” for Jewish life in the on-going conversion process which were being overlooked. He told the delegates that these included.

“The generally positive attitudes toward Jews and Judaism as evidenced by the choice of Jewish mates by non-Jews; the tendency of converts to actively embrace synagogue life and become practicing, observant Jews; the infusion of new blood into a Jewish community experiencing a decreasing birthrate; the proclivity of those who have chosen to retain their non-Jewish identities after marriage to Jews to forge ties with the Jewish community, nevertheless.”

Data for the study were obtained through statistical records on 389 converts and response to questionnaires from 181 converts, plus personal interviews in 1978 and meeting with participants in a 15-week “Introduction to Judaism” course sponsored by the UAHC in Boston. The data showed that 48 percent of the Boston area converts in the sample were brought up as Catholics and 39 percent as Protestants, reflecting the heavily-Catholic make-up of the Boston area.

The study found that the converts reported feelings of being on “permanent probation” as Jews, rejection by their parents; and worry about having a Yule tree in their homes. More than 80 percent of the respondents said they had no regrets about their conversion, but some reported identity confusion, in-law troubles, non-acceptance by born-Jews, isolation, guilt feelings and negative parental reactions.

Dr. Steven Huberman, who directed the study, said that action should be taken to help converts with such problems. He said for a convert to become meaningfully Jewish requires “the help of family and community. It is the belief of the majority of the respondents that although conversion involves tremendous stresses and strains, becoming and being Jewish is worth the struggle.”

The study made a number of recommendations. One was that conversion courses should deal with the emotional aspects of conversion. Another was that rabbis should stay in contact with their converts after the conversion ceremony. The typical convert developed strong bonds of trust with his or her rabbi and converts reported that inability to maintain contact with the rabbi after conversion was felt as a real loss.

Another recommendation was to encourage converts to join synagogues. Converts see synagogues as the most important link to their new Jewish identity, next to their. Jewish spouses and families, the study noted. The study found that while 57 percent of the converts belonged to a synagogue, only 18 percent had joined any other Jewish organization. The study said educational efforts are needed to explain the status of converts to born Jews.

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