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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The Orthodox movement continues to accept converts in principle, but to reject converts not converted according to what the Orthodox understand to be halakhic [Jewish legal] standards. By their definition, no non-Orthodox conversion can be religiously valid because non-Orthodox rabbis are unqualified to serve as religious witnesses and because, according to many Orthodox, the formal conversion requirements and practices of the non-Orthodox don't conform to traditional Jewish law. Of course, non-Orthodox rabbis forcefully disagree with such an Orthodox viewpoint.

There were other signs that the Jewish community was starting to welcome converts. Numerous programs and support groups organized by YM-YWHAs and Jewish community centers were established. Rabbi Stephen C. Lerner, who is affiliated with the Conservative movement, established the Center for Conversion to Judaism to provide support for converts and potential converts through such activities as counseling and weekend retreats. Lena Romanoff, author of the highly acclaimed book on conversion Your People, My People, established the non-denominational Jewish Converts [& Interfaith] Network which coordinates local support groups for converts. A wide variety of books and articles on conversion appeared as well as many newsletters such as Jewish Ties, edited by Doreen Clark.

Negative Factors

Despite the increase in efforts to welcome converts, two negative factors stand out. First, none of the organized Jewish religious groups in the United States has yet linked the traditional interpretation of Jewish universalism to the covenantal mission to offer Judaism and welcome converts. Second, the percentage of conversions among the intermarrying or intermarried has declined. The reasons for this decline are varied and include a greater tolerance for intermarriage by American Jews and a greater willingness by rabbis to perform intermarriages without conversion.

Some in the Jewish community also cite as a reason for the decline the Reform movement's patrilineality principle, which presumes that a child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother who identifies as a Jew is, in fact, Jewish. This principle, at odds with Judaism's traditional matrilineal principle, has, it is claimed, reduced the urgency to get non-Jewish mothers to convert. Defenders of the principle say the very absence of pressure to convert leads not only to more converts but to converts who are more knowledgeable about and committed to Jewish life.

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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.