At Reform Conference, Movement Calls for a Push Toward Conversion

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 here.

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

Hurricane relief, aid to Sudanese refugees in Darfur and opposition to the Iraq war were other major topics at the conference.

The atmosphere at the biennial was decidedly upbeat, reflecting the confidence of what the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey pronounced the country’s largest Jewish stream.

Addressing a Shabbat breakfast meeting of Reform rabbis, cantors and educators, sociologist Steven Cohen, a research professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said the Reform movement is the institution best placed to lead the American Jewish community.

“The federation system has abdicated,” he said, “the Conservative movement doesn’t have the wherewithal or the confidence” and the “Orthodox have become sectarian,” Cohen said.

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.”

That confidence was evident in Yoffie’s Shabbat sermon, in which he urged Reform congregations to find tangible ways to honor non-Jewish members who are raising Jewish children, while not shying away from suggesting that these non-Jews convert.

The union has prepared programs to help synagogues implement both ideas.

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.”

On the contrary, Yoffie continued, “it is a mitzvah to help a potential Jew become a Jew-by-choice.” In fact, he said, “we owe them an apology” for not inviting them to convert sooner.

“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.”

Yoffie’s conversion initiative met with only a smattering of applause from the 3,000 attendees at Saturday morning services, in contrast to the loud approval that greeted his call for honoring non-Jewish parents raising Jewish children, his plea that Reform religious schools not accept students who are also being educated in another faith, and his criticism of the religious right.

Afterward, however, people seemed to agree with Yoffie’s approach.

Inviting non-Jews to convert “is nothing new, it’s just fallen by the wayside,” said Steven Joachim of Temple Emanu-El in Atlanta, as his lunch companions nodded their agreement. All of them said they should be more open in discussing conversion with their non-Jewish friends in the synagogue.

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.”

Reacting to the suggestion that the new initiative brings the Reform approach to conversion ever closer to that of the Conservative movement — which will be unveiling its own, more liberal outreach initiative at its Dec. 4-8 biennial in Boston — Ellenson called it “an example of the homogeneity of the non-Orthodox Jewish community in America today.”

The topic was well represented at the biennial, with half a dozen workshops devoted to outreach and intermarriage.

“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.

Several people at that workshop said more than half the members of their congregations were intermarried, and not having clear guidelines led to confusion and hurt.

Kathy Kahn, the union’s outreach director, said most Reform congregations set limits on what non-Jews may do in ritual life and synagogue governance, though some do not.

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.

Some Reform Jews would prefer fewer limits. Debbie Kujovich of Congregation Kol Ami in Vancouver, Wash., said most of her congregation is intermarried, yet her non-Jewish husband is not permitted to hold the Torah during services.

“There are still lots” of barriers, she noted, which makes it hard for the Jews in her congregation to convince their non-Jewish spouses to come to synagogue.

“My husband is not going to convert, yet I have to create a good environment for him in the congregation so I can participate,” she said.

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.

Social justice and social action projects were front and center at this biennial, but many sessions continued the Reform movement’s increased focus on worship and tradition, the major emphasis of its last biennial.

A preview edition of the soon-to-be-released Reform prayerbook, “Mishkan T’filah,” was unveiled at Friday night and Saturday morning services. Laid out in a two-page format, with the traditional liturgy on each right-hand page and alternative readings and meditations on the left, it transliterates every Hebrew prayer to encourage Reform congregations to use more Hebrew in their services.

Several options were offered at the biennial for daily shacharit morning and ma’ariv evening services, including a yoga minyan each morning and services conducted entirely in Hebrew, a novelty in the Reform movement.

A new addition was a beit midrash, or study hall, held at the same time as each worship service. Participants studied Torah in chevruta, the traditional partnering method used in yeshiva.

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