Cross-Denominational Differences Regarding Conversion

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

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Completion of this course does not obligate conversion. In fact, I often urge non-Jews who have Jewish mates but feel they cannot convert, or are not ready to convert, to take this course as a first step toward understanding the ethnic and religious background of their Jewish partners. Since it is not billed as a conversion class per se, the enrollment often includes some born Jews who are taking the class purely for self-edification.

As for the conversion itself, the individual rabbi must decide whether the mikveh (immersion in a ritual pool, for men and women) and the brit milah (circumcision, for men) will be required, strongly encouraged, or presented as optional. A convert who has undergone a Reform conversion will be welcome as a member in any Reform or Reconstructionist congregation, but perhaps not in an Orthodox or a Conservative one. However, religious services in all synagogues are open to anyone who wishes to attend.

The Reform policy of admitting non-Jews to synagogue membership has been widely criticized, even within the Reform movement itself. Critics believe that acceptance without conversion diminishes the individual's motivation to convert. Why bother if they can enjoy the same status as the born Jews in their synagogue?

This argument is compounded by the Reform movement's controversial decision on patrilineal descent [in which the child of a Jewish father is considered a Jew if he or she is raised in a Jewish home and educated as a Jew], which negates the traditional rule that only a child born of a Jewish mother is considered Jewish. In the past, the desire to have Jewish children may have motivated many women to convert. Now that their children can be considered Jewish anyway, they themselves may be less likely to ever decide to convert.

Others respond to the criticism with the argument that lack of pressure to convert, combined with a warm welcome and the opportunity to become familiar with Judaism at a slower pace, leads to more and better committed converts. Those who have worked closely in programming for Reform converts report this to be the case.

The Conservative Approach

Conservative Judaism, sometimes described as a middle ground between Reform and Orthodox Judaism, accepts the authority of the Written and Oral Law of the Torah and the Talmud and believes that adherence to these laws strengthens the Jewish community both socially and spiritually. But the movement also maintains that modern-day realities necessitate certain modification in the laws, as long as the decisions are made by authorized scholars and rabbis and supported by halakhic arguments. Among the changes over the years have been granting equal status to women as members of a minyan [a quorum of 10 for prayer] and in the practice of ritual; permitting Jews to drive a car on the Sabbath or holidays in order to attend services; allowing men and women to sit together in synagogue; and altering the text of the prayerbook.

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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.