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What to Say about Yoffie’s Conversion Call?

An important initial element to come out of R’ Eric Yoffie’s speech at the recent URJ conference was his call to increase conversions. Section IV of his speech it seems to restrain itself entirely to the conversion of non-Jewish spouses of Jewish members of Reform synagogues, except in his conclusion, “The time has come to reverse direction by returning to public conversions and doing all the other things that encourage conversion in our synagogues.” What he means in that last part deserves more investigation, as does the general issue of how Conservative and Reform Jewish organizations are approaching the topic of conversion generally: the increasingly upbeat attitude towards conversion, in which the number of conversions completed is celebrated, has sever implications for Judaism’s status as a religion that does not proselytize to the non-Jewish masses.
Now, how much of a concern is Yoffie’s specific case, in which he calls for Jews to “ask” these spouses to convert. Key grafs:

In the early years of Outreach, Alex Schindler often returned to this topic. Alex told us: “We need to ask. We must not forget to ask.? And for a while, our Movement actively encouraged conversion. Many of our congregations began holding public conversion ceremonies during regular worship services, but such ceremonies are far rarer now.
The reason, perhaps, is that by making non-Jews feel comfortable and accepted in our congregations, we have sent the message that we do not care if they convert. But that is not our message.
Why? Because it is a mitzvah to help a potential Jew become a Jew-by-choice. Because the synagogue is not a neutral institution; it is committed to building a vibrant religious life for the Jewish people. Because we want families to function as Jewish families, and while intermarried families can surely do this, we recognize the advantages of an intermarried family becoming a fully Jewish family, with two adult Jewish partners. Judaism does not denigrate those who find religious truth elsewhere; still, our synagogues emphasize the grandeur of Judaism and we joyfully extend membership in our covenantal community to all who are prepared to accept it.
And by the way: Most non-Jews who are part of synagogue life expect that we will ask them to convert; they come from a background where asking for this kind of commitment is natural and normal, and they are more than a little perplexed when we fail to do so.
So we need to say to the potential converts in our midst: “We would love to have you.? And, in fact, we owe them an apology for not having said it sooner.
Special sensitivities are required. Ask, but do not pressure. Encourage, but do not insist. And if someone says, “I’m not ready,? listen. If we pursue conversion with a heavy hand, the result could be to generate resentment. And yes, there will be those for whom conversion will never be an option.

What makes this call significantly different from a generic call for proselytizing? While the argument could be made that these are individuals who’ve shown interest in converting through being members of synagogues and raising their children in Jewish households, the reality is that they’ve never actually expressed interest in converting and, given how intimate they’ve become with Jewish practice and life without ever raising the topic, it could be argued that in a very specific sense they’re showing a disinterest in conversion.
It’s not clear at all what makes these targets for conversion different from any other potential targets. It’s obviously not their faith or expressed interest.
It seems clear that this isn’t the type of doctrine that will easily lead to missionizing on a practical level, but it’s hard to discern any difference on a theological level. Further, while it’s entirely clear that Yoffie’s language here isn’t in any direct contradiction to the claims he makes about the religious right (see section V of the speech), there is something strange about a religion that calls for conversion lashing out against other faiths it feels try to represent “a monopoly on God.”
Yoffie hasn’t given us any reason to think that his conversion campaign is any different from any other specific conversion campaign. It’s hard to see how that’s good for the rest of the Jewish community. And with the lack of any specific justification for the call, it’s difficult not to see it as an effort to jack up their numbers in the Jewish community.
How did the Jewish media deal with this issue? That comes after the jump.

None of the coverage seems to address the basic question of whether a call for conversion is an appropriate stance to take in the first place, a shocking oversight in light of Yoffie’s own words against evangelicism and the general outspokenness of Jewish leaders against Evangelical Christianity of late, and of the Jewish historical question on this issue in general.
One positive point can be raised for Matthew Berger’s JTA piece, that gets into much illuminating detail about inclusion of non-Jews and the approach to conversion in the Reform community, citing a wealth of specific examples. It’s good reading.
The New York Jewish Week’s coverage from James Besser is extremely thin.
The Forward’s coverage from Jennifer Siegel, meanwhile, is disturbingly myopic.

Many proponents of conversion, particularly in the Conservative and Orthodox movements, have been critical of the 1983 decision by Reform Judaism to consider a child Jewish even if he or she only has a Jewish father. Critics argue that the decision removed a major incentive for non-Jewish women to convert to Judaism.

I don’t know who these “proponents of conversion” are in Orthodoxy, and as I’ve said above, Conservatism’s approach deserves more exploration, but either way, it’s nuts that the most critical this story gets is with the perspective of so-called “proponents of conversion.” Aren’t there any questions coming from those who don’t think such active conversion is a great idea? As to the source of their dismay, I suppose these “proponents of conversion” may have been concerned that patrilineal descent created a disincentive for conversion, but every mainstream critique I’ve seen — including recently and prominently by Ismar Schorsch and Richard Joel — has been that it created a definition for Jewish that other denominations didn’t have; that it created too many Jews. And for whatever this claim about “proponents of conversion” is worth, it’s hard to see just how they could be upset about any decision in Reform, since for the most part Conservative and Orthodox wouldn’t consider a Reform conversion to be a true one, anyway. This is a very odd paragraph.
The only semi-critical quote in the Forward item:

“The question is less ‘How do you get people to convert?’ than ‘How do you get people to raise their children as Jews?’” said Ed Case, the executive director of ” I just think it needs to be done really, really carefully, and the message that you’re welcome as you are needs to come through.”

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