Abraham, the first Jew, came to worship God on his own, just as many of today's converts to Judaism come to it because it matches their religious sensibilities. The biblical Ruth however, who is considered the archetypal Jew-by-choice, came to Judaism through her marriage into a Jewish family -- just as an equal or perhaps larger percent of today's converts to Judaism come to it through family ties. Therefore, from the very beginning and for better or worse, there's always been a relationship between conversion to Judaism and marriage into the Jewish community. To this day, that complicates the way the Jewish community welcomes the convert and addresses intermarriage.
On the one hand, Judaism makes it tough on potential converts, in order to confirm their sincerity. Conversion is, after all, a religious process. On the other hand, many Jewish leaders alarmed at the high rate of intermarriage during the past several decades have suggested that conversion of the non-Jewish spouse is the best possible outcome of a Jewish intermarriage, almost a "cure" for intermarriage, with little regard for whether or not those potential new Jews feel any connection at all to the religious beliefs to which they are being asked to subscribe.
Thankfully, in recent years the community has moved away from that stance. The Conservative movement replaced its ineffective three-tiered statement on the issue (in which intermarried families were basically told they were third tier behind in-married and conversionary families) with a more inclusive approach. And when the Reform movement, which has become the welcoming home for so many intermarried families seeking synagogue affiliation, also linked conversion as the preferred outcome of intermarriage a few years ago with an initiative to more aggressively "invite conversion" of non-Jewish spouses, it generally went unheeded on the ground.
Perhaps those charged with implementing such an initiative rightly recognized that blanket statements from the pulpit aren't very helpful when dealing with some of the most intense and private choices a person can make (not one of the Reform initiative's "18 Ways to Invite and Support Conversion in Your Congregation" involved actually asking individuals what their current religious beliefs and practices were). That even the inclusive Reform leadership linked conversion and intermarriage in such a way -- rather than simply promoting conversion in general to all "unchurched" Americans, as first imagined when the Reform's outreach initiative launched in the 1970s -- speaks to the complex relationship between intermarriage and conversion.
A lot has changed even in just the six years since that initiative. As acceptance of intermarriage continues to grow in the organized Jewish community today, with the recognition of just how many intermarried families can and do raise Jewish children, I'm hopeful that separation between the issues of intermarriage and conversion will continue. The relationship is not a negative one, in which conversion can be used to eradicate intermarriage, but rather should be seen as a positive one, in which intermarriage is just one of several ways that genuine seekers and potential adherents may come to Judaism.
For Jews to become even more welcoming and inclusive as a community, we must continue to identify and remove the unnecessary challenges that remain around these issues. Too many Jews-by-choice are confronted with assumptions by born-Jews that the only reason they converted was to please a Jewish spouse or parent-in-law. Many times, the Jew-by-choice being confronted with that assumption isn't even married! But even if they were originally part of an intermarriage, it is simply an outdated (and was always an offensive) assumption that needs to be retired. The overriding assumption today should be than anyone who puts themselves through the rigors of Jewish conversion is not only sincere, but in many cases more Jewishly involved than most born Jews.
We must also recognize that non-Jewish spouses interested in conversion will face the same challenges as all potential converts to Judaism face, and try to address all of those challenges in general. For example, one woman I know -- American of Nordic descent, married to a Jewish man -- has spent more than a decade living in a Jewish household, raising her children Jewish and attending synagogue. She explains that though she feels Jewish personally, and the religion resonates with her, she hasn't converted because she doesn't feel she'd ever be fully accepted as Jewish. Her blond-hair, blue-eyed appearance has been a topic of contrast and commentary too often in a Jewish community that continues to mistakenly believe that you can "look Jewish." For my friends in the Jewish multiracial community (whether Jews-by-choice or born/adopted into Judaism), there's nothing "funny" about "you don't look Jewish." In fact, it's been a devastating misconception that has pushed people out of our communal doors and undermined the very notion that we are a religious community.
Judaism is a religion that is sensitive to the feelings of converts, at least in theory, including Talmudic admonishments against harassing converts and a tradition of never reminding converts of their non-Jewish past. In practice, however, today's Jewish community needs more sensitivity and education about welcoming the convert. Several grassroots sources of support and advocacy have emerged, including the excellent group-blog JewsByChoice.org and two programs operated by my own organization: Empowering Ruth, for women who have chosen Judaism, and Shofar, for men. These communities allow for a remarkably diverse conversation across denominational lines about the entire spectrum of issues faced by those who have chosen Judaism or are considering conversion.
We also need more communal education about conversion, which is why I'm honored to be participating in what promises to be a fascinating symposium at the Center for Jewish History in New York on Sunday, April 10 called, "Conversations on Conversion -- A Symposium Moderated by WNYC's Brian Lehrer." I expect it to be a lively and enlightening event, and I hope it may serve as a model for much-needed conversations in other Jewish communities as well.