Conversion History: Late 20th Century

Jewish attitudes toward conversion began to change as spouses of non-Jews remained loyal to Judaism and more converts chose Judaism.

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Reprinted with permission from The Theory and Practice of Welcoming Converts to Judaism (The Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd.).

Despite various pro-conversionary views, none of the three major religious groups in the United States had embarked on a conversionary program. There were relatively few conversions and only a few, small conversionary efforts. 

Such conversionary efforts were at first undertaken by small organizations favoring conversion, groups that began to arise after the Holocaust and the birth of Israel. (These groups included the United Israel World Union, the Jewish Information Society, and the National Jewish Information Service, among others). Individual rabbis and authors praised conversion, but conversion was not an idea that was very valued in the Jewish community or very acceptable to any of its leaders.

By the late 1970s, however, much had changed in American Jewish life. The overt anti-Semitism in America had radically declined. There was a widespread perception among gentiles that Judaism was a religion that emphasized family values, education, a tolerance toward those with differing religious views, personal morality, the social good, and a spiritual outlook on life. Jews were seen as model American citizens--and marriage partners.

Changing Attitudes Toward Conversion Among Jews

The changing attitude toward Jews by gentiles and the continuing cultural assimilation by Jews into gentile society led to a rapid increase in intermarriage. This increase caused alarm within the Jewish community but also resulted in an unexpected development. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, between 30 and 40 percent of those marriage partners not born Jewish were converting to Judaism. The fear of intermarriage and the unexpected rise in voluntary conversions began to change attitudes.

mikvehAt first, the rise in conversions that followed the rapid increase in intermarriages over the last 30 years was simply a surprise to many Jews. It had always been an unspoken assumption, both among Jewish leaders and in the general Jewish community, that intermarriage inevitably meant the loss of the Jewish partner to Jewish life. Jews had concluded that a principal reason for intermarriage was to escape the purported burdens of a Jewish identity. They were unsure about what to make of the many Jews who intermarried but wished to remain Jewish, not to mention those born Christian who chose to become Jews.

Yet Jews were pleased by such conversions at an elemental level. Seeing people who were born gentile choose to become Jews validated the choice of those born Jewish to remain as Jews. The enormous step of conversion made the smaller step of remaining Jewish both easier and more sensible. Just as Israel does, converts--or Jews-by-choice, as many converts began to be called--provide American Jews-by-birth with a sense of personal legitimacy.

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Lawrence J. Epstein is the author of numerous books, including Conversion to Judaism: A Guidebook and Readings on Conversion to Judaism.