Cross-Denominational Differences Regarding Conversion

Differences between the movements grow out of more basic disagreements in philosophy and belief.

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Reprinted with permission from Your People, My People: Finding Acceptance and Fulfillment as a Jew By Choice (www.intermarriages.com).

Few issues epitomize the tensions among the different branches of Judaism as much as conversion. The question--commonly known as "Who is a Jew?"--swirls beneath the surface of every debate among the branches like the lava of a volcano waiting to erupt. That eruption often occurs when the topic of conversion arises.

 

Traditional Judaism holds that a Jew is anyone born to a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism in a halakhic manner [that is, according to Jewish law]. Complicating this seemingly simple formula are two relatively modern phenomena:

    1.        Changes in the conversion process itself as performed by some rabbis, and

    2.        Recognition by the Reform and Reconstructionist movements of "patrilineal descent," which considers as Jewish anyone who is born of a Jewish parent (mother or father) and raised as a Jew.

Although each branch maintains its own official policies regarding conversion and recognition of conversions performed by other branches, rabbis have considerable leeway to adjust the official stance to fit individual circumstances. Interviews with thousands of converts around the country indicate that there is, in fact, more flexibility within all the branches than is readily discernible at first glance.

There are even extreme situations, such as the one in which a rebellious son, trying to strike back at a mother who disapproved of his impending intermarriage, arranged for his fiancée to complete an Orthodox conversion in Boro Park, New York, in a matter of days for $700. (This is mentioned only to warn converts of certain pitfalls and unethical behavior that can be encountered.) Such stories, however, are clearly the exception rather than the rule.

The Reform Approach

Reform Judaism takes a liberal approach to Jewish law, maintaining that it is no longer binding but must be changed or developed to meet the needs of the modern Jew. Rooted in an ethical approach, the practices associated with the Reform movement vary from place to place depending on the particular rabbi and synagogue. Many traditional observances and rituals were eliminated or modified in keeping with Reform philosophy. In recent years, however, some Reform Jews have attempted to bring back certain rituals and traditions in a number of areas.

Given the liberal nature of the Reform movement, it is not surprising that the movement has taken a liberal approach to conversion. This branch of Judaism was the first to institute an outreach program for people considering conversion. Although the movement strongly encourages conversion of a non-Jewish spouse, its synagogues do accept as full members those non-Jews who have not undergone formal conversion but agree to maintain a Jewish home and provide their children with a Jewish education. Reform conversion programs are usually called "Introduction to Judaism" classes. Jewish partners are encouraged to participate along with the potential convert. The course of study usually lasts about 18 weeks.

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Lena Romanoff

Lena Romanoff, founder of the Jewish Converts & Interfaith Network, is the author of Your People, My People: Finding Acceptance and Fulfillment as a Jew By Choice.