No Conversion Required

April 3, 2013
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Are you a Green Bay Packers fan?” was the first question Nana, my future husband’s grandmother, asked me when we met more than 10 years ago. I wasn’t — I had never even thought much about the NFL, let alone the Packers — and I realized that as far as my non-Jewish husband-to-be’s family was concerned, I was a stranger.

I’ve often thought that this experience of being a “stranger” resonated with the experiences I’ve heard — and continue to hear — from friends who enter our Jewish community: the feelings of being confronted (you are not one of us), being unsure (I don’t understand what’s going on), and, strangely, being attracted (there may be something special here).

From that moment in 2002 in Waukesha, Wisc., I began the journey of figuring out how to be an authentic fan of the Green Bay Packers, despite the fact that I didn’t grow up in Wisconsin and didn’t understand the game of football. Nonetheless, I felt curiously inquisitive, and I knew it was important to become a fan, if not for its own sake, for the sake of my relationship with the non-Jewish family I would someday join. What I learned is that the concept of the “Fellow Traveler,” one who has not converted but who has tied her or his spirit to the community, is an authentic way to be part of a people, whether they be “Cheeseheads” or Jews. As Jews, we need to embrace these fellow travelers who have chosen to live lives filled with Jewish practices, despite the fact that they are not, by any accepted standards, Jewish.

My husband, the Packers fan, is one of them. He has not converted (and he may never), but he does make Jewish choices: He honors the Sabbath every week by refraining from work, and he parents our Jewish children with me. I never asked him to convert because such a serious decision must be made by an individual alone.

By recognizing fellow travelers like my husband as welcomed members of the Jewish community, we can reinvigorate the concept of ger toshav, the stranger among us. Then, we can celebrate and honor both those who have undertaken the important ritual of conversion and those who have tied their spirit to the Jewish people. Rather than turn away those who are not Jewish, despite their interest in the Jewish community, we offer them a legitimate way to feel included. A 2005 Greater Boston Community Study reported that intermarried families with children (a family in which one partner is a fellow traveler) are generally as observant in traditional Jewish ritual practices — including having their children become b’nei mitzvah — as families affiliated with the Reform movement in which both parents are Jewish.[1]

The teaching Na’aseh v’NiSh’ma (“we will do and we will understand”) offers inspiration about how to welcome the ger toshav. Na’aseh v’NiSh’ma suggests that first we “do” — that is, we convert — and then we “understand” the meaning of being Jewish. But I’d like to suggest that the opposite may be true when it comes to the ger toshav: Judaism is a tradition of action and practice, and much of what we do as Jews does not require one to be Jewish. Studying texts, observing Shabbat, reflecting and repenting every year — all enrich life, regardless of status. But even more important, they help someone who hasn’t grown up with these traditions and practices to learn empirically what it means to live as a Jew. Conversion is an option that some fellow travelers may choose, but rather than being the first step in joining the community, it becomes a significant (but not necessary) milestone in one’s Jewish journey.

One way we can demonstrate the community’s support of fellow travelers is to recognize the journey they are on. We can be more sensitive when using Hebrew or Jewish “terminology”
by explaining its meaning. We can say “thank you” to fellow travelers who have chosen to raise their children as Jews, despite the fact that they themselves may still be learning what it means to live a Jewish life. And,  finally, we can offer information and programs that address the unique challenges of being a fellow traveler (or convert); for example, the community might offer opportunities for fellow travelers and converts to discuss how they honor their own families of origin and how they walk through holiday seasons with them.

Fellow travelers bring much needed fresh blood — literally and figuratively. The story of Moses and Yitro illustrates this well. It is Yitro, Moses’s father in law (who is a Midianite and not Jewish), who advises Moses and helps him see that he cannot be a solitary leader, but that he must learn to delegate responsibility and include the voices of others. Today, it is often the perspective of a fellow traveler that helps an intermarried Jew “struggle” with how to express her or his Judaism. For many of us, it is too easy to follow the path of our parents — to do Jewish without any personal stake in making it our own. But when I have to explain (and sometimes advocate for) a Jewish concept or practice to my husband, it forces me to reflect upon and understand the practice more fully. Fellow travelers can alert us to our own struggles with our tradition, building on the story of Jacob who struggled with the angel.

“So, are you a Green Bay Packers fan?” It took a few years until I was able to say “yes” with a sense of authenticity. Although I will never live in Wisconsin, nor ever sport an Aaron Rogers jersey, nor read PackersNews.com on a weekly basis, I get excited when the Packers win and disappointed when they lose. I have not “converted,” but I do feel part of the Green Bay tribe. My husband feels the same way about being part of the Jewish community. And, together, we have an opportunity to reframe the question, “Who is a Jew?” into “Who is part of the Jewish community?” Rather than focusing on Jewish status, we can honor everyone, Jewish or not, who is bringing the riches of Jewish traditions and sensibilities to our lives.

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Mamie Kanfer Stewart is board chair of InterfaithFamily (interfaithfamily.com) and a board member of Moishe House, Slingshot, Bible Raps, and Lippman Kanfer Family Foundation. She is the product manager for an early stage venture and is pursuing an MBA at New York University’s Stern School of Business. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Brooklyn, N.Y.

7 Comments

  1. A critical piece missing from this article is how do we honor the converts among us. When we more or less equate people who have converted with people who are not Jewish but are doing some Jewish things, we are, whether we realize it or not, being incredibly insulting to converts. In essence, we are saying to converts – very nice that you turned your life inside out, that you made a decision not only to do Jewish things, but to BE Jewish, to commit all of yourself to the Jewish people – but really, it’s just the same to us as the person down the street who has not made these commitments, but to whom we are very grateful because he has made some Jewish choices – it would really be just the same had you not converted. We can be appreciative of non-Jews raising Jewish children, etc. while still understanding that a convert has made a different choice, and with regard to Judaism, a deeper choice.

    I do not say this to offend anyone’s sensibilities, but to describe the message this mindset sends to the convert – and I say this as someone who was intermarried for the first 16 years of my marriage, after which my wife converted. I have stood on both sides, so to speak, and I can say unequivocally, and from direct person experience, that there really is a difference between the two. My wife and I wrote about our journey from being intermarried to becoming Jewish in “Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope.” In it, we describe the very real issues intermarried families grapple with at many different stages of their journey. And there is no question that being intermarried with a non-Jewish spouse committed to raising Jewish children is still very different from being a Jewish family (whether by birth or conversion).

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  2. I appreciate the thoughtfulness in Mamie Kanfer Stewart’s reflections but one line gave me pause: “ We can say ‘thank you’ to fellow travelers who have chosen to raise their children as Jews…” Stewart’s suggestion reminds me of stories I have heard of rabbis who have an aliya and/or misheberach on the High Holidays for non-Jewish partners/parents also to “thank them” for raising their children as Jews.

    To me this begs a number of questions, which I submit in a spirit of respectful dissent and honest puzzlement:

    Not to be insensitive, but what exactly are we thanking them for, and why? I find it hard to imagine the reverse: a church where the minister of priest or members are expected or invited or motivated to “thank” Jewish parents for raising their children as Christians.

    Is there something implicitly negative (even if subliminal) being suggested about Jewish identity such that a decision to raise a Jewish child needs an appreciation? Is there a suggestion that in doing so the parent(s) made a hard decision? Why would it be a hard decision except for intra-parental debate? In which case the Jewish parent might want to thank the non-Jewish parent for going along with her or his wishes…but why ought the Jewish community be thanking anyone?

    I cannot imagine it is the intention of people who suggest non-Jewish parents are owed a “thank-you” that there is something negative, risky, or difficult about someone being raised as a Jew, but I wonder if that might be heard as a/the message?

    Finally, I wonder whether “thanking” does not inevitably invoke a residual aura either of anxiety (“whew, we got another one!”) or implicit triumphalism (“Thank God he/she isn’t going to be a Christian!”).

    My own sense is that there are pretty intense sensitivities in the Jewish community about what non-Jews think about Jewish identity and Jewish boundaries. Whether, for example, non-Jews can have aliyot or be in a minyan and the like are often argued as if “reserving” these for Jews is “restricting” them from non-Jews. But I have yet to hear a progressive Jew who is in favor of giving aliyot to non-Jews complain the she or he is unfairly denied communion at a church and thus marginalized. It is at least curious. Is it in some way connected to minority consciousness? Is there perhaps insecurity and/or some form of residual internalized anti-Jewishness among some Jews (I am not accusing Stewart of anything like that, just raising the question)? Is Jewish identity seen as one that cannot stand on its own terms as equal to any other and not in need of apology?

    Now I admit I may have, even likely have, way over-read into a relatively small piece of a much longer and more complex article. And I fear I may have given offense where none was intended. Mostly I am puzzled at the suggestion that I as a Jew owe a non-Jewish parent a “thank you” for raising a Jewish child. This strikes me as something I cannot imagine a Jew suggesting of any other parent in any other circumstance (“Thank you for raising your inter-racial child as black?”). And that, I suggest, tells us something about how even in the 21st century perhaps some American Jews may still not feel fully at home in America.

    Posted by
    Richard Hirsh
  3. Richard, thank you for raising such an important point in my essay. You are absolutely correct to ask “what exactly are we thanking them for, and why?” I understand your interpretation, but would like to offer insight into my perspective which prompted the statement to begin with.

    But let me start with a question – have you ever done something very important that you knew very little about, that took decent effort to do, and where you felt that many people were looking over your shoulder? This is often the position that non-Jews feel they are in. It is not that raising a Jewish child (or not raising a Christian child) is something to be thankful for. Instead it is that fellow travelers should be recognized for the situation they’re in – many are still learning what it means to live Jewishly themselves and yet they are also trying to role model and teach their children simultaneously. For example, while celebrating Jewish holidays is often a fun tradition for Jews, for fellow travelers it can be days of discomfort or even stress from not knowing the stories, rituals, and Hebrew language. Over time, a person learns these things, and yes, one could take Introduction to Judaism classes or do other learning to get up the curve faster. But, nothing replaces experiencing a seder for thirty years of your life.

    So we’re thanking them for not giving up, not turning away because we speak a different language and do things differently (which if you’ve ever been to a religious ceremony for another culture, you know can be very uncomfortable). We’re thanking them for continuing to be part of our community even when it’s not easy and, to be completely frank, when our communal policies and attitudes are often outright unwelcoming.

    I am not sure if this fully addresses your points, but I hope that it at least offers an alternative perspective and continues the dialogue.

    Posted by
    Mamie Kanfer Stewart
  4. With respect to Harold Berman’s comment, it’s wonderful if partners who aren’t Jewish decide to convert and become traditionally observant as happened with Gayle Berman — but Jewish leaders must realize that this is likely to happen with only a marginal fractional of the large intermarried population. With respect to Rabbi Hirsh’s question, people who are giving up passing on their own religious traditions to their children, in favor of raising them as Jews, something the Jewish community needs to have happen if it is to grow and be enriched, deserve expressions of appreciation. These comments contributed to the pall settling over attitudes towards intermarriage in the Jewish community that I felt last week; my views are expressed more fully on the InterfaithFamily Network Blog in “Sadness and Hope” http://www.interfaithfamily.com/blog/iff/intermarriage/sadness-and-hope/.

    Posted by
  5. Hi Mr. Case,
    Thanks for the insightful article and comments.
    May I ask you to clarify something you wrote above? You wrote, “With respect to Harold Berman’s comment, it’s wonderful if partners who aren’t Jewish decide to convert and become traditionally observant as happened with Gayle Berman.” I’m curious if you also mean to say “it’s wonderful if partners who aren’t Jewish decide to convert, irrespective of whether they become traditionally observant.” I’m guessing the answer is yes, but what I’m really curious about is if you’re willing to say “it’s wonderful — and preferable — if partners who aren’t Jewish decide to convert, irrespective of whether they become traditionally observant.”

    Posted by
    Mr. Saylor
  6. Dear Mr. Saylor,
    I was addressing the Bermans, who are encouraging and helping people who want to become traditionally observant; that’s a wonderful option, but not likely to appeal to many interfaith couples. Yes, I think it is wonderful if partners who aren’t Jewish decide to convert, whether or not they become traditionally observant, but no, I’m not willing to say that it is preferable if partners who aren’t Jewish decide to convert. If we say that explicitly, or if that message is conveyed as our hidden agenda, we risk discouraging partners who are not interested (or not yet interested) in converting from getting involved in Jewish life and community and raising their children Jewishly. Let’s get interfaith couples started on a Jewish journey and let conversion come up later if and when it does.

    Posted by
  7. Hi Ed,

    I appreciate your comments and after re-reading what I posted above and your comment on it, I thought it might be beneficial to clarify and amplify what I said. We share the perspective that outreach to interfaith families is critical, that as you put it we should “get interfaith families started on a Jewish journey” and that we should not be pushing non-Jewish partners to convert. I don’t see that as casting a “pall” on intermarriage. That I think we should also be celebrating the convert and not sending them a negative message by equating them with someone who has not taken the same journey, still, I think, is not casting a pall on intermarriage.

    Our new web site and program, http://www.j-journey.org (as well as our book, “Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope,” is designed as a resource for those intermarried families who are interested in exploring (at whatever stage) the possibility of an observant Jewish life. It is meant to be a resource, not in any way a means of pressure – but rather, in the same spirit as interfaithfamily.com (but in a very different way), a means of support and inspiration for those who have an interest in making Jewish choices.

    Regarding the idea that (formerly) interfaith families who become observant Jewish families will never be more than a “marginal fractional” of the large intermarried population” – with all due respect, I object to the choice of wording, which may not have been intentional. There is a clear difference between “few in number” and “marginal.” Marginal implies something that’s not of great significance, that’s a “fringe” development, etc. In that sense, I don’t see the families who have done this as marginal at all. They may be relatively few in number – although I have had the wonderful opportunity to have met so many families who fall into this category. A minority of the whole to be sure, but there are far more of them than one would think, and certainly than the mainstream Jewish community is aware of. And of those I’ve met, they are hardly marginal – they are raising strong Jewish families, serving a great source of inspiration to many inmarried families around them, and having an impact on Jewish life that is exponentially beyond their numbers.

    Whether more intermarried families might be interested in taking this journey if we were to provide a welcoming face and support system to become a Jewish family is simply not known – because it’s never really been tried. But there are many aspects of observance that, rather than being an obstacle, can be a source of deep fulfilment. There actually was one attempt at welcoming intermarried families to become observant Jewish families several years back – Eternal Jewish Family (amazingly, this came out of the ultra-Orthodox world). The organization unfortunately went up in flames – but that had nothing to do with their approach to intermarriage, and everything to do with certain personal issues of the leadership. Before that happened however, they had gained quite a bit of traction, and within a short time hundreds of intermarried families were working under their auspices toward Orthodox conversion.

    The J-Journey model is rather different in that it is not a rabbinical initiative but rather a peer support system designed to complement the rabbinical role. We certainly don’t believe that the majority of intermarried families are going to choose this route, nor would it be our goal to convince them to (trying to convince someone to convert who doesn’t want to is counter-productive, and is going to backfire 100% of the time). But even a small number of families who choose this route is going to have a huge impact on those families, and on their children – that’s no small thing. More than that, if more families chose this route and were more visible, they could be a great source of inspiration for the larger intermarried population – i.e. those who may not choose to do this but will be inspired by what they see to deepen their own Jewish practice and make more Jewish choices.

    In this context, I reiterate my original point that the article above does a disservice to converts. How we treat our converts matters too. And in fact, when non-Jewish intermarried spouses see converts basically treated as if they are still intermarried (as I have seen many times), it can send a pretty negative message to them about how we view people not born Jewish. I believe that it is possible to honor our converts for the amazing choices they have made while still welcoming the intermarried.

    Interfaithfamily.com has a section on conversion. Since J-Journey is designed as a resource for intermarried families interested in conversion but does not in any way pressure intermarried families to convert, and since it is the only support program of this kind for intermarried families interested in Orthodox Judaism, I certainly hope you will consider including it as a resource on interfaithfamily.com to expand the range of options available to intermarried families who are interested in exploring.

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