What comes first – education or conversion?
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What comes first – education or conversion?

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A recent sermon by Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, religious leader of Manhattan’s Park Avenue. Synagogue, may have started a long overdue conversation about conversion, several local rabbis say.

Cosgrove – whose congregation, affiliated with the Conservative movement, is large, wealthy, and influential – said that some potential converts see the movement’s requirement of year-long study as an obstacle to conversion. He suggested, therefore, that the Conservative movement might want to discuss the idea of converting first, educating later.

Local rabbis – most of them Conservative, one Reform, and one Orthodox, reacted to Cosgrove’s suggestion.

Rabbi Ronald Roth

Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation Bnai Israel

“He raised a very realistic issue,” Rabbi Ronald Roth of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation Bnai Israel, which is Conservative, said. “We’re often approached by couples where one person is Jewish, one not, who plan to be married,” he said. “It’s often a difficult situation,” especially when the planned wedding is slated to occur shortly. “We want to bring the non-Jew into Judaism, but there is a long conversion process.”

Roth said that at times when he tells a couple how long the process will take, “they say goodbye and I never see them again.” On the other hand, he said, sometimes they do come back.

“I had a case where I thought I’d never see them again,” he said. “They got married civilly but then came back and the wife spent a year studying.” Not only did the bride convert, he said, “but she wound up working as a program organizer for my previous congregation.”

“We’re talking about a real issue,” Roth said. “There’s no simple answer. We have to maintain the standard of having someone be serious about conversion but we also want to draw people in. I don’t think [Cosgrove’s] solution is good, but I’m glad that he expressed it, and it should be part of a discussion.”

Roth said sometimes people undergo conversion training and then decide that “it’s not for me.” In one case, he said, he found that the potential convert was under pressure to convert from his prospective in-laws.

“I don’t want them to convert under duress,” he said.

Roth also suggested that the issue might be seen differently in the Northeast than in other parts of the country, noting that “religion may be [taken] more seriously in the South than in the Northeast” and potential converts there might not be frightened off by the prospect of year-long study.

“As a movement, we’re trying to say we’re open to intermarried couples,” he said, noting that the issue Cosgrove raised is particularly salient in the Conservative world. “We’re having a lot of discussions on how to make our congregations more welcoming. We want that message to go out to intermarried couples.”

Still, he said, all religious groups make distinctions between those who are part of the religious group and those who are not.

“It seems odd to some people,” he said. “But remember that a non-Catholic can’t be nominated for pope.”

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg

United Synagogue of Hoboken

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg of the United Synagogue of Hoboken, another Conservative congregation, said he agrees with Cosgrove that Conservative Judaism’s policies encouraging conversion often are perceived as placing barriers before congregants.

However, he said, “In my experience, though, the primary barrier is not the requirement of study – which many potential converts are very happy to undertake – but the requirement that converts in the context of Conservative Judaism must be committed to the observance of the mitzvot – commandments – of Judaism, which involves significant lifestyle changes that one would not undert ake lightly.

“In my experience, when a conversion takes an especially long time, it is not primarily because of the study component but because growing in one’s commitment to the mitzvot is a slow and gradual process,” he said “Additionally, I know of plenty of non-Jews – usually married to Jews – who know as much about Judaism as many converts and who have a significant level of commitment to Jewish practice, but who are simply not interested in conversion to Judaism, whether for identity-related reasons, or family reasons, or theological discomfort, among other reasons.”

Rabbi Randall Mark

Congregation Shomrei Torah, Wayne

Rabbi Randall Mark of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Wayne, a Conservative synagogue, said that “Rabbi Cosgrove is correct that often the rules of Conservative Judaism are conversation stoppers when seeking to engage young people in dialogue – but I have not found that to be the case regarding conversion.

“No one expects to get their high school or college diploma first and then take classes,” he said. “That’s not the way the educational system works in this country. I have found that every serious conversion candidate is willing to study and learn without pre-condition in the hopes that in the end they will be converted to Judaism.”

Mark added that “while once upon a time many of my conversion candidates came due to an impending marriage, I’m finding that to be less and less the case as time goes on. I now find couples who intermarried and the non-Jewish spouse has been living as a Jew for many years and now wants to make it official.

“Conversion to Judaism is a process less rigorous than earning a Ph.D. or a professional degree but more than simply joining a gym,” he said. “I want conversion candidates to experience what Judaism has to offer. I want them to study, learn, and, most importantly, to live Jewishly. I do my best to integrate them into the congregation, so by the time we are taking the last step, it is a formality. They have become knowledgeable, active, committed members of the Jewish community.”

Mark said that the issue he finds difficult when talking to a young couple contemplating intermarriage is the fact that he won’t perform the wedding, or even attend it as a guest.

“It is a turn-off to them and often prevents me from getting them to sit down and talk in the first place,” he said. “They feel rejected from the start. I actively try to reach out to interfaith couples contemplating marriage to try and engage them in conversation. To that end – after some study, dialogue, and soul-searching – my synagogue and I decided that we would offer an aufruf to interfaith couples as a way of saying ‘You are welcome in our congregation. There is a place for you here regardless of the life choices you are making.'”

An aufruf is an aliyah to the Torah that a couple receives on the Shabbat before the wedding. The congregation had its first such ceremony for an intermarried couple last May. Mark said that it was well received by both the family and the congregation.

“I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I know that the issues are real and cannot be ignored,” he said. “Our tradition is rich with creativity, and we need to apply [that] now more than ever. I’m hopeful that working together we can make a difference.”

Mark said he agrees with Cosgrove “that we need to be thinking outside of the box. We need to be trying and experimenting to see what works and modifying what does not. The particular proposal he made did not convince me to try it, but I’m thrilled that he suggested it and I look forward to learning of other ideas that may resonate with me. If we want to connect with the next generation, then we have to be open to finding the medium that will work.”

Rabbi Kenneth Stern

Gesher Shalom/Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee

Rabbi Kenneth Stern of Gesher Shalom, the Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee, a Conservative shul, said, “It seems to me that Rabbi Cosgrove’s proposal is really saying: ‘I can’t/won’t officiate at an intermarriage. I also don’t want to turn them away, antagonize them, and turn them off. And I certainly don’t want them to look elsewhere for a rabbi to solemnize their marriage. I don’t want to lose them. So let’s do a quick conversion, and then let’s hope that our new Jew By Choice and his/her spouse will keep their commitment to go through a year of study after their wedding ceremony.’

“And what if they don’t?”

Stern said that while there is no easy answer to this situation, “let’s remember that Shammai, who turned away the person who wanted to study Judaism, also said that you should ‘welcome everyone who comes to you with a cheerful countenance.’ So I can imagine Shammai encountering this individual, welcoming him/her warmly, and then, upon hearing that s/he wants to learn all of Judaism while standing on one foot, Shammai became upset and sent her/him away. Let’s also remember that Hillel does not agree to convert the individual on the spot but rather shares with him a beautiful sentiment from the Torah and then tells her/him, ‘Go and study.’

“No one wants to be like Shammai – including Shammai – and turn someone away; but Hillel does not create a new process or path to Judaism,” Stern said. “The issue – the dilemma – is real. The solution, if there is one, is not readily apparent.”

Rabbi Arthur Weiner

Jewish Community Center of Paramus

Rabbi Arthur Weiner of the Jewish Cummunity Center of Paramus, which is Conservative, commended Cosgrove on his “public musings,” saying that while he doesn’t know the rabbi well, he thinks highly of him.

“Rabbi Cosgrove is onto something,” Weiner said. While the problem that Cosgrove cites is not something that Weiner has seen among the converts with whom he has worked, “he’s correct that it is an issue. We’re trying to hold on to being a welcoming community and at the same time set reasonable standards.”

“The Shulchan Aruch does not prescribe a year-long course of study,” he said. “It’s quite vague about exactly what a person has to know and not know before they convert. It is far more concerned with rituals: milah for men and tevilah, or a kosher mikvah, for men and women. That allows a certain flexibility for rabbis in [different] communities to adopt what they feel is best for their community.”

Weiner said that in the last century, “There has been a ratcheting up of what is imposed on prospective converts, which in itself has been a subject for some controversy.”

In dealing with the new reality, he said, rabbis now find Jews of all backgrounds turning to them for answers, “and we want to have reasonable and compelling answers that draw them in and don’t set up roadblocks in front of them whose utility is debatable.

“Rabbi Cosgrove is courageous in speaking out about this, and reflecting with his congregation, publicly, on the twin pulls on any good pulpit rabbi – the desire to maintain law and tradition while remaining sensitive to the human needs of the people who are coming to us,” Weiner concluded. “This is not at all about avoiding or softening the rituals that are demanded for a kosher conversion. But every rabbi who is supervising a convert has to work with their individual needs and use his best judgment to determine the best course of study [for that individual] in advance of conversion.”

Rabbi David J. Fine

Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center, Ridgewood

Rabbi David J. Fine of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, another Conservative shul, said that he always has approached the issue of conversion “with a sense of flexibility. One year of study is a model, and our movement provides a model for what to look at, but every case is different,” he said. “It’s a personal journey for everyone who comes forward.”

Fine said that for some it may take more than a year to be ready for conversion. For others, however, “those who have spent a lot of time in the Jewish community, have Jewish friends, and participate in Jewish holidays, it may not require a year of study.”

In addition, he said, “when people are brought up Jewish but were children of intermarriage, or they were brought up Jewish through patrilineal descent, I wouldn’t require any period of study, if they identify as Jewish and have a Jewish education. It depends on the circumstances.”

Fine said he would be willing to expedite a conversion for an impending wedding.

“So often, [wedding plans] are a fait accompli,” he said. “They don’t always consult with the rabbi. If I can do it, I will try to adjust. If they’re serious about converting, they’ll approach it seriously.”

Another situation in which he will expedite conversion is where a woman is interested in converting, her husband is Jewish, and she is pregnant.

“I’ll do everything I can to expedite the conversion so the children will be born Jewish,” he said. “Part of the idea…is to [consider] what’s in the best interests of the woman and the family, to have in mind the building of a Jewish family. All those factors need to be weighed.”

Fine said that the idea of “reticence” in converting non-Jews “reflects a different period. We didn’t have the blessings of being well integrated into society.”

Rabbi Neal Borovitz

Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge

Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, which is Reform, said that he “applauds” Cosgrove’s idea. “I’ve been involved with interfaith couples since I did my rabbinic internship at the University of Michigan Hillel in 1973,” he said. “I think that it is very important for us to be welcoming and encouraging and inviting without being coercive or evangelical.”

Believing that, he said, he thinks we “need to do more to be proactively reaching out.”

Noting that conversion is a major decision, Borovitz said that Jewish tradition teaches that a person who chooses to be Jewish must be taught both the rights and the responsibilities of being a Jew.”

“But what really concerns me on the issue of conversion is the crisis the world Jewish community is facing with the obstinacy of the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel, where 300,000 Israeli citizens are Jewish under the law of return but not as far as the rabbinate is concerned,” he said. “The stumbling blocks before them are horrendous.”

Borovitz, who recently returned from a national rabbinic cabinet mission sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, said he was “moved to tears” by the stories of potential converts who suffered “humiliation and rejection. We’re creating more and more of a two-class society.

“In the American Jewish community, we need to be more welcoming,” he said. “One of the things I have seen over 40 years is that more and more of the conversions are for people who after marriage have been living Jewish lives and raising Jewish kids.”

He said he is also critical of his own movement for not being as proactive now in the area of outreach as it was under Rabbi Alexander Schindler in the 1980s.

“The budget cuts that have impacted those efforts are tragic,” he said. “I try to teach that Judaism is a sociology and a theology, not a biology.” Everyone is welcome to join.

“It’s great to have this discussion,” Borovitz said. “Leviticus 19, the holiness code, teaches us to remove stumbling blocks before the blind. We shouldn’t be putting them before people who wish to choose Judaism.”

Rabbi Lawrence Zierler

Jewish Center of Teaneck

Rabbi Lawrence Zierler of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, which is Orthodox, said while he isn’t looking to criticize another denomination, it’s not fair to shortchange anyone when it comes to teaching about Judaism.

“We’re competing against a lot of other areas, and we have to put in our best effort,” he said. “We don’t expect prospective converts to know everything, but we shouldn’t deny them a good background. It’s a disservice.”

Zierler said that in his movement, rabbis don’t have the license to be flexible on the issue of conversion. In some cases, “weddings take place right after conversion – literally, from mikveh to chuppah. The study process and involvement in a meaningful way in is an indispensable [part of] conversion,” he said, adding that every community has its own set of expectations.

“Preparation for the life-changing experience of conversion is highly personal and requires an organic journey through the necessary preparatory steps,” he wrote in a follow-up email. “To be fair to the would-be convert and afford him or her a full experience with the texts, traditions, and textures of Jewish life before the conversion occurs it cannot reasonably be assigned to a timetable. It is highly affective and does not lend itself to a narrowly defined course syllabus. Indeed, there need to be benchmarks and guideposts and telltale signs of a positive acclimation to and saturation in experience and core competencies so that one can feel a positive sense of belonging to their new community.

“Almost 30 years of experience has clearly demonstrated that this cannot happen as readily and effectively after the fact.”

Zierler added that on the question of counseling couples before marriage, it is instructive to look at the Catholic church, which is governed by a centralized authority.

“Where there’s more of a structure, it’s easier to expect things of congregants,” he said, pointing to the church requirement that couples answer a list of questions when considering marriage.

“They have tests for compatibility,” he said. “If you don’t pass, you can’t get married in the church. It gives the clergy the authority to be able to ask hard questions before people make big decisions.”

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