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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That this is so reflects, in part, the peculiar nature of American Jewry; its own fundamental character is voluntary. In a sense, all American Jews are Jews by choice; people who are born Jews must choose to remain active Jews by such actions as choosing a marital partner, joining a synagogue or Jewish organization, and making other similar choices. There are no legal, and weakened religious, familial, and cultural forces that seek, reward, and support such a voluntary choice to remain a Jew. Thus the unique conditions of contemporary American Jewish culture have contributed to making born-Jews appreciate the validation of their religious lives by Jews-by-choice.

There are other aspects of the general religious culture of America that also contributed to a climate in which Jews-by-choice would be welcomed by Jews-by-birth. The rise of ethnicity as a socially approved organizing principle for defining identity has made Jews more willing to identify themselves and to be identified in the society as Jews. The self-confidence that emerged from this ethnic identification, which was dramatically supplemented by a pride that emerged from an identification with the efforts of the people of Israel, allowed American Jews to feel more comfortable in America, to put the American anti-Semitism of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s behind them, and even, to use a commercial metaphor uniquely applicable to America, to place their product up for sale alongside the other religious products already available in the marketplace of religious ideas.

Additionally, an important part of the American religious scene in the 1970s and 1980s had been the visibility of cult groups and evangelical ministers popular in the American media. The religious fervor of both the cults and the evangelicals was complemented by their open desire to convert others to their beliefs and way of life. Their beliefs and activities increased the legitimacy of conversion in American culture, including conversion to Judaism. In addition, the cultic and Christian efforts prompted a defensive response against their conversionary overtures in the Jewish community. The increase in acceptance of conversion can in this sense in part be seen as an ironic acceptance of the aim (but not the tactics) of those whom they saw as posing a religious threat; welcoming converts became a way of fighting religious fire with religious fire.

Beyond these and other social and internal communal reasons, the attitude of American Jews has been changed by the converts themselves. They have spoken out in forums, on television, in books, in synagogues, and in uncountable conversations, arguments, fights, and tear-filled pleas. They have requested acceptance, and have frequently gotten it.

Changing Attitudes Move Rabbinical Leaders to Create Outreach Programs

Sensing the changing attitudes, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), a Reform group, delivered an address in December 1978, to the Board of Trustees of that organization, urging it to establish an outreach program for the "unchurched," that is, those without formal religious affiliation. He proposed that Jews should try to attract non-Jews to Judaism, especially the non-Jewish partners in intermarriages. The outreach program was intended to be unobtrusive, taking its forms in the establishing of information centers, educational courses, and publications rather than such methods as door-to-door missionary work.

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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.