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Reform set to approve conversion standards

NEW YORK, June 19 (JTA) — In another break with its past, the Reform movement is poised to adopt new guidelines that endorse traditional rituals for people converting to Judaism.

Two years after the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ “Statement of Principles” reversed the historic 1885 Pittsburgh Platform — a strident rejection of tradition and ritual — the Reform group is expected to overturn an 1893 resolution that described conversion rituals as unnecessary and meaningless.

The new document will be voted on next Wednesday at the CCAR convention in Monterey, Calif.

Among the suggestions in Guidelines for Rabbis Working with Prospective Gerim, or converts, are that prospective Jews immerse in the mikvah, or ritual bath, undergo at least a symbolic circumcision and appear before a beit din, or panel of rabbis.

Such practices have become increasingly common in Reform conversions, particularly those overseen by recently ordained rabbis.

While Reform mikva’ot, or ritual baths, remain rare, three have been built in North America in recent years, and others are planned.

In addition, communities in New Jersey and the Denver/Boulder area, among other areas, have created Reform rabbinic panels to oversee conversions.

While there is little hard data about conversion, anecdotal reports describe a significant increase in the number of people undergoing Reform conversions, something Reform leaders attribute to outreach efforts targeting spiritual seekers as well as gentiles married to Jews.

With growing interest in conversion putting increased demands on rabbis’ schedules, the Reform movement recently began training volunteers to work with prospective converts, said Dru Greenwood, director of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations’ outreach and synagogue affiliation department.

The new guidelines are not obligatory. According to the introductory document, however, they aim to allow Reform rabbis to “speak as a community with a unified voice on matters so crucial to our self definition.”

While promoting ritual, the guidelines reiterate the Reform movement’s longstanding rejection of the traditional notion that conversion should be discouraged. Instead, they call for an attitude of “joy and encouragement” while urging rabbis to ensure that prospective converts are aware of the challenges of being a Jew.

The guidelines also urge congregations to welcome and integrate prospective converts, calling for conversion to be seen as a long-term process involving study, participation in synagogue life and commitment to certain observances.

“It is essential that” conversion “involve more than simply graduating from an ‘Introduction to Judaism’ course,” the document’s preamble says.

Symbolic of the back-to-tradition approach, the guidelines are printed in a manner similar to a Talmudic tractate, with basic principles in the center of the page surrounded by details and commentary along the sides.

In contrast to the CCAR’s 1999 Statement of Principles — which spurred rabbis to months of e-mail comments and debate about the soul of Reform Judaism — the conversion guidelines are generating little controversy.

The relative quiet stems, in part, from the fact that the various drafts have been shared extensively and many rabbis have influenced the revisions, according to the CCAR’s executive vice president, Rabbi Paul Menitoff.

Menitoff said the guidelines reflect what is “normative,” even if not required, in the Reform world, and are “a snapshot of where we are when it comes to conversion.”

“There was a period within the Reform movement where these rituals were not offered as options and were, if anything, discouraged, but that’s the past,” he said.

The conversion guidelines are “part of the same mindset” as the 1999 principles, recognizing that rituals can add spiritual meaning to life cycle events and Judaism, Menitoff said.

The UAHC’s Greenwood, herself a Jew by choice, praised the guidelines for providing rabbis with an opportunity to “speak with one another about what their practice is.”

“I think it will be very useful for people in thinking about what they want to do and how they can deepen and improve the conversion process for people,” Greenwood said.

Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said the guidelines reflect “the general trend towards a greater receptivity to tradition.”

“The irony is on the one hand we have an ever greater turning towards traditionalism — reflected across the board in all the denominational movements — and simultaneously we have a community that is on the whole more highly acculturated than ever before in American history,” Ellenson said.

“On the one hand, we have a renaissance in Jewish life and at the same time have record numbers of people who do not participate.”

Some welcome the conversion guidelines as a harbinger of normative standards in other areas of Reform, a movement with a long tradition of rabbinic autonomy in which most statements and resolutions carry qualifiers noting that they are not binding.

“If we pass a resolution about conversion standards, it is going to suggest that we need to have standards in other areas as well,” said Rabbi Robert Orkand of Temple Israel in Westport, Conn.

Rabbi Sandra Cohen, of Temple Micah in Denver, said the conversion guidelines are “reflective of what many Reform rabbis are doing in the Denver/Boulder area.”

Cohen, who described working with prospective converts as “a major part of the rabbinate,” said she and her colleagues have become increasingly enamored of the role of ritual in conversions and life cycle events.

“It is really powerful for people that there’s a discrete event that symbolizes the transformation from non-Jew to Jew,” she said.

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