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Surprising Trends Driving Conversion to Judaism

It’s not just for marriage anymore

by
Mark Oppenheimer
May 13, 2021
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

An increasing number of people are converting to Judaism, and for reasons other than marriage, according to a Tablet survey of American rabbis.

Since most surveys of American Jews overlook converts—the latest Pew Research Center survey is no exception—in March and April we posed questions about the state of Jewish conversion to over 100 rabbis, from all denominations of Judaism, and received answers from 79. Thirty-four of them, or 43%, indicated they were doing more conversions today than earlier in their careers. And these numbers are conservative. For example, some rabbis said they had seen huge bumps they were certain were related to COVID-19; in those cases, we grouped them among the 34 who said conversion had remained steady.

“I can’t keep up with the traffic,” Brookline, Massachusetts, Rabbi Bill Hamilton told us. “If I had to quantify, it has tripled over the past decade,” said Shmuly Yanklowitz, an Orthodox rabbi at Valley Beit Midrash, in Phoenix, who said the big increase dates to well before COVID-19. Rachel Timoner, said that her Brooklyn congregation, Beth Elohim, is doing so many conversions the “volume is straining our rabbinic team.”

Even more strikingly, today’s converts subvert the old stereotype that converts to Judaism must be making their decision “for marriage.” Numerous rabbis told Tablet that their converts are less likely than in earlier years to be converting “for” a partner, and that many do not even have a Jewish partner.

For example, Mark Cohn, a Reform rabbi from North Carolina who had seen a large rise in conversion students during COVID-19, said that there was “less compulsion from outside” than in the past, and his students—80% of whom are women—now come for “individual reasons.”

Those individual reasons are wide-ranging and hard to categorize. Some converts began their journey after a DNA test from Ancestry.com or 23andMe revealed unknown Jewish heritage. Others are the children or grandchildren of Reform converts, or of ancestors who married into the faith and led Jewish lives, and they are now seeking more Orthodox conversions that will be universally accepted. Many new Jews just fell into a hole on Google, then emerged with a passion for Judaism.

The old cliché about converting for one’s in-laws—a trope that was unfair to the convert, and to the in-laws—is more obsolete than ever.

All of which means that the old cliché about converting for one’s in-laws—a trope that was unfair to the convert, and to the in-laws—is more obsolete than ever. Twenty-five years ago, when Hamilton was overseeing “seven or eight adult conversions per year,” two-thirds, he said, were unrelated to marriage. Since then, the number of conversions is way up, “about 22 to 24 conversions a year,” and the connection to marriage is down, with “1 in 5 being engagement-oriented.”

Today’s convert isn’t looking to please others. Rather, Hamilton said, she “thirsts for commitment to a people and a cause that’s larger and lasting.” And while ending up at Judaism, she can come from most any background, racial or religious, educational or socioeconomic. As Erez Sherman, a Conservative rabbi in Los Angeles, put it: “Judaism will be more diverse in America than it has ever been.”

From the time of Abraham to the time of Abraham Simpson, when people thought of converts to Judaism, they thought of people marrying into the Jewish family. Torah has numerous examples of people joining the Hebrews through marriage—including the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, and of course Ruth—and none of converts without Jewish spouses. Throughout modern history, becoming Jewish put one at risk of social discrimination, exclusion from professions, and pogroms; no surprise, then, that most converts we know about came to Judaism when they married Jews. Even as discrimination waned, for example in the contemporary United States, becoming Jewish remained something one did right before the chuppah.

But there have always been exceptions, people who came to Judaism not for a spouse, or for their in-laws, but on their own terms. Elizabeth Taylor, for example, began studying Judaism after the death of her third husband, Mike Todd, and converted before marrying her second Jewish husband, Eddie Fisher. Anne Meara converted years after marrying her Jewish husband, comedian Jerry Stiller. And any rabbi who works with Jews by choice knows a minority whose path to Judaism had nothing to do with their romantic life.

Jeffrey Salkin, author of the popular bar mitzvah guide Putting God on the Guest List, is seeing fewer converts today, but when he sees them, they are coming for spiritual reasons, and not necessarily converting for marriage, “probably since intermarriage and dating outside the faith are not as taboo anymore,” he said.

So why are they coming?

Some rabbis pointed to the effects of ancestry websites, which have revealed to many Jewish roots they had never known about, or only suspected. “Genealogical research brings them in the door,” said Alexander Davis, of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. “I frequently encounter people who are searching. They find they are drawn to exploring Judaism. When they do genealogical research and find that there is what they call ‘Jewish blood,’ that is, they find an ancestor who was Jewish, that often serves to confirm their feeling, and is what they need to finally pick up the phone and call me, or to tune in on Zoom to a synagogue service, and begin exploring. In the end, of course, we don’t rely on genealogy to affirm a conversion. But they find affirmation and comfort through the test results. It seems like they are more at ease more quickly in their decision. Of course, what makes them truly feel at home in the Jewish community is making friends, learning about and living a Jewish life.”

There may also be a sense that Judaism, with its emphasis on exile, has something to offer marginalized or transient people. Ed Farber, a Conservative rabbi for 47 years, works in the Miami area, where he has seen an increase from the Latino community—Latinos make up half his converts, he estimated. Farber said he has seen more singles converting without marriage, “80% of them Catholic, 75% women.”

There were other revelations from our survey. Sexual and gender minorities now seem to make up an outsize number of today’s converts. “One population that has increased the most is trans people,” said Yanklowitz, of Valley Beit Midrash, in Phoenix. “I don’t know if that’s because they think of me as an ally, so they reach out to me, or because trans awareness and public awareness has increased these past few years, or something about trans people who want to transition, they want to transition religions and genders.”

Lurking in any discussion of conversion is the question of proselytism: It’s a tenet of faith for many Jews that we don’t proselytize, don’t seek converts. Although there have been exceptions throughout history, it’s true that generally Jews have not tried to persuade anyone else to become Jewish—for the simple reason that for most of history doing so could get us killed. In the contemporary West, the legal strictures against proselytizing have disappeared, but there’s still a cultural taboo against directly suggesting to a non-Jew that she might consider becoming Jewish. Romantic partners used to be the only group with tacit permission to suggest that someone become Jewish.

Today, of course, it’s easier than ever to learn about Judaism without having a personal guide. There’s the library, and the internet, both filled with resources, often written for the Jewish layperson but accessible to anyone who is seeking. You can read a popular memoir of finding oneself through a page a day of Talmud, or the story of how an Obama speechwriter returned to her Judaism. “I find there are more people who reach out for conversion based on independent reading they’ve done from books or online material, but who have rarely or never attended synagogue,” said Daniel Cotzin Burg, rabbi of Beth Am, a Conservative synagogue in Baltimore. “This used to be the reverse, where more people would check out shul, make some connections and then decide they wish to pursue conversion. Or they grew up going to b’nai mitzvah of friends, so had more familiarity with Jewish tradition and practice.”

Today, as social prejudice against Jews has greatly receded, and the pressure to convert for marriage is, outside the Orthodox world, increasingly an artifact of those older times, finding Judaism can exert a new kind of pull, one keyed to the times we’re in.

This, then, may be another trait of today’s convert: not converting for marriage, and not converting because of a tight friendship circle or even a profound experience after wandering into synagogue, but rather converting for the ideas of Judaism—the theology, which ironically many Jews from birth know so little about. “Some people who convert are ambivalent about God or in a process of questioning about God, and this matches where many Jews are as well,” said Timoner, of Brooklyn’s Beth Elohim. “Many who choose Judaism have come from other traditions where they felt pressure to be loyal to a set of beliefs, and they find relief that in Judaism there is room to question. They appreciate that Judaism emphasizes what we do—mitzvot—and has room for diverse interpretations.”

Scott Perlo, who estimates that in his 13 years as a rabbi he has “over 100” conversions, said that “in the annals of history, this might be a unique time, in terms of the ability of people to move between identities.” Citing the popular statistic that half of Americans have changed religion or denomination at least once—this was the finding of a 2009 Pew survey—Perlo said, “We’re in this sustained moment of profound change. People are moving and changing and shifting. Everything in contemporary Judaism, whether about conversion or about those who were born Jewish, has to be understood in light of that.” In past periods of spiritual tumult in America—say, the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century—the action was in Christianity, or in new religious movements. Even in the late 1960s, when there was a strong Jewish counterculture, and neo-Hasidic and Renewal movements exerted a pull, it was largely Jews who got curious, decided to dive deep. Today, as social prejudice against Jews has greatly receded, and the pressure to convert for marriage is, outside the Orthodox world, increasingly an artifact of those older times, finding Judaism can exert a new kind of pull, one keyed to the times we’re in.

“I think that there is an appeal in being part of an ancient people in this time in which everything is disposable,” said Lizzi Heydemann, of the “emergent” community Mishkan Chicago. “Everything we’re part of digitally, social media wise, it happens so quickly and there’s so much pressure to be creative, innovative, smart, and witty, too—to have your own personal brand, be a brand influencer, all of these pressures that I think are pretty new. They probably have analogs in the past, but it’s just a totally different level.”

For people who feel that way, stepping into ancient ways, or living on a calendar slowed down by Shabbat, may be especially appealing—and not, obviously, to Jews alone. “I think conversion is really important for the health of our community,” Heydemann said, “in the same way that immigration into this country is part of what built and created the can-do spirit of this country: people coming to cast their lives with ours, and say, ‘I want to be here, I want to live here, I want to be part of this story.’”

Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood.

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