The Spirit of Welcoming
by Rabbi Roz
I was recently asked to participate in an online dialogue with another Reform rabbi, Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein, of Congregation B’nai Tzedek, Fountain Valley, CA, responding to the question, “Should the Reform Movement Actively Encourage Conversion?” In a four week program, entitled, Eilu v’Eilu, Rabbi Einstein and I wrote four essays: the first week, we answered the question blindly, without benefit of seeing the other’s response; the second week, we reacted to each other’s statements; the third week, we answered questions from community members; and the fourth week, we summed up our positions. Since it says a lot about who we are at Ohef Sholom, I thought it would be worth your reading. So, following is the first essay I submitted. For those interested in the entire discussion, it can be accessed at https://urj.org/torah/ten/eilu/.
And Ruth said: Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God. (1:16-17).
The first “conversion” to Judaism is often attributed to the Moabite, Ruth. For following her husband’s
untimely death, Ruth beseeches her beloved mother-in-law, Naomi, to let her remain with the Israelites and live as a member of the Jewish people. In her few, heartfelt words, still among the most moving and powerful of all of our sacred texts, Ruth casts her lotwith our community, accepting all its responsibilities and privileges forever more.
The story of our matriarch, Ruth, teaches us much about what it means to choose to live a Jewish life. Ruth is attracted to Judaism through her husband’s family, particularly through her mother-in-law, and finds in it meaning, fulfillment and love. So compelling is Judaism to her that she determines, through her own experience and through the acceptance of those closest to her, that no other faith, people or path makes sense for her any longer. Simply, she becomes a Jew by virtue of being a Jew.
Her story is familiar to many of us. It is what many of our own loved ones, friends and members of our Temple communities call their “homecoming,” the fulfillment of their destinies from the happenstances of their birth to the persons they were always meant to be. It is for this reason that I am uncomfortable with actively seeking conversion. It seems to me that the best way to promote Jewish life is to live it fully, joyfully and lovingly. Modeling the best that our people has to offer through vibrant services, programs and community; encouraging all who wish to travel with us on our journeys; and welcoming those who do choose Judaism publicly have proven to me to be the best ways of promoting Judaism to Jews and non-Jews alike.
Similarly, removing as many barriers as possible to participation and including all members of Jewish families, since that is what they are, is critically important. Encouraging every family member to take part, to the extent that they feel comfortable, in
Shabbat and holiday observances, in fulfillment of rituals and life cycle observances and in educational, cultural and social programming profoundly impacts upon every person in that family and sends the message loud and clear: “you are welcome here and, whether formally or not, you are one of us.” It says we acknowledge the sacrifice and commitment you have made already in choosing a Jewish community, making a Jewish home and raising a Jewish family and we are grateful.
While, I, like all of us, are concerned about the Jewishness of our children and our people’s future, I am also cognizant that people’s identities and faiths are highly personal and evolve at different times and seasons of their lives. Respecting each individual’s process says, “We love you for who you are as you are, for all that you bring and teach us and struggle with.” In those instances, when a clergy person absolutely knows that a member of our community has all but made the declaration to become a Jew, we know with whom, how and when to talk about the formalities. With sensitivity and care, we can ascertain whether or not the value of sparing a living parent hurt or personal feelings of Jewish inadequacy are barriers that need respecting.
When we meet people where they are, openly, lovingly, patiently, they become Jews when they are Jews. The commitment, quality and continuity of their Judaism is always profound and deeply enduring. Then the casting of their lot with our people is, in the best sense of the word, a true conversion, of heart, of mind and of spirit.
Rabbi Rosalin Mandelberg