Jewish communal leaders have always been “Jews by choice.” They have chosen to make their Jewishness a central part of their public lives. Rabbis, synagogue presidents, educators, and nonprofit leaders have been more than simply “Jews by birth.” They have chosen publicly Jewish lifestyles and careers. They have opted for professions in which their Jewishness occupies a central and visible role.
In recent years, the “Jews by choice” in leadership positions have increasingly come to include Jews who have doubly chosen. First, they have chosen Judaism for themselves as individuals: They have converted from another religion (or no religion) to Judaism. (Jews by choice are a notable minority in many Jewish communities. And this notability vastly exceeds mere numbers. According to the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011, 2 percent of those who identified as Jewish had converted.) Second, they have chosen to become not only leaders within this minority, but public voices of the larger Jewish community as well. For many, these two choices are not simply coincidental.
The leaders who have made this double choice exemplify what Sylvia Barack Fishman has called “activist” converts, as opposed to those whom she terms “accomodationist” and “ambivalent” converts. That is, these “activist converts” deeply identify with Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, and therefore they seek to support, enliven, and even create Jewish institutions. Fishman’s 2006 study, Choosing Jewish: Conversations About Conversion, which frames conversion to Judaism in the context of marriage and family, estimates that 30 percent of Jews by choice fit the activist model. Her analysis of activist converts reveals a strong link between the first choice of conversion to Judaism and the second choice of pursuing roles of public leadership.
While not all “activist converts” become visible in positions of official leadership, those who do become leaders contribute to the formation of Jewish community and identity. Whether their contributions have a distinctive and discernible effect, and what that effect may be, remain open questions. When people discuss Jews by choice, both in the context of sociological study and casual conversation, they tend to assume a measurable link between marriage and conversion. Marriage was the “classic” reason for conversion to Judaism, so the connection makes sense. Might the growing number and visible leadership of Jews by choice affect marriage and intermarriage trends?
Given the degree of general social and cultural integration with non-Jews, and given the rate of Jewish intermarriage, the impact of publicly visible Jews by choice in leadership positions will be difficult to measure. In the attempt to do so, vexing questions arise:
• Will the visible presence of more Jews by choice (who did not grow up Jewish) facilitate more intermarriage because they provide examples of people with non-Jewish backgrounds fitting into the community? Or will their presence facilitate greater numbers of conversions to Judaism, thereby increasing the likelihood of conversion as an alternative to intermarriage?
• Studies suggest that when a non-Jewish partner undergoes conversion to Judaism, the Jewish partner comes to identify more strongly with his or her Jewish identity. Will the visibility of leaders who are Jews by choice promote the fluidity or hybridity of Jewish identity?
• Are more people converting to Judaism because they’ve come into contact with communal leaders who are Jews by choice? Or, are communal leaders who have converted more visible because there simply are more people converting?
• Does the growing acceptance of hybrid identities within Jewish communities encourage potential converts to imagine themselves within the community? Or do Jews by choice widen the sphere of possibilities for hybrid identities?
On these questions, most of the evidence is anecdotal. Charting a correlation may be possible, but cause and effect will remain mostly speculative.
The increasing proportion of Jews by choice does, however, point us to the paradigm of religion as personal choice. Even before Thomas Jefferson defined religion as an issue “between man and his God,” Americans framed religious affiliation as a matter of individual conscience. In our contemporary culture, where “different faiths” means different religions and “interfaith” designates interaction between different religious communities, Americans place the religious center of gravity firmly within personal belief. American culture and vocabulary suggest that faith — one’s individual belief — is primary while communal life and ritual practice are secondary. If “faith” is synonymous with religion, then it makes sense that those who find their beliefs and habits of mind expressed in Judaism would choose to become Jewish. The double choice of Jews by choice in leadership roles dramatizes the broader trend: American Judaism is becoming increasingly defined by a paradigm of personal choice. Therefore, for better or for worse (and from most vantage points, it is both), the Jewish community is becoming more and more like other American religious communities.
1 Steven M. Cohen, Jacob B. Ukeles, and Ron Miller, “Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011” (New York: Jewish Policy and Action Research, commissioned by the UJA-Federation of New York.)
2 Sylvia Barack Fishman, Choosing Jewish: Conversations About Conversion, American Jewish Committee (2006).
3 Thomas Jefferson, letter to Danbury Baptist Association, CT., Jan. 1, 1802