Consider first the case of an assimilating American Jewry. Too many warm-hearted, bright to brilliant American Jews have sacrificed their Jewish lives on the altar of self-fulfillment. They increasingly don’t feel an obligation to marry Jewish partners. They marry late. They have a negative birth rate (that is, they don’t have enough children to replace themselves). These choices have demographic consequences. American Jews are older than non-Jewish Americans. Their percentage of the overall American population is declining.
Most observers single out intermarriage as the crucial sign of an endangered community, but the wider issue is the declining numbers of people who participate in and sustain Jewish communal life. The intermarriage numbers, though, are scary by themselves. The numbers from the recent Pew study, "A Portrait of Jewish Americans," are devastating. Two-thirds of recent marriages of non-Orthodox Jews are to gentiles. More exactly, since 2000, 72% of the non-Orthodox who married did so with an unconverted gentile.
Some American Jewish leaders seek to reassure the Jewish community by asserting that an increasing number of these non-Jewish families at least raise their children as Jews. The Pew study shows that such an assertion is incorrect. Forty-one percent of Jews with a Jewish spouse attend synagogue at least once a month. Nine percent of intermarried Jews do. Twenty-two percent of intermarried Jews sent their kids to a formal Jewish educational or youth program. Eighty-two percent of Jews married to other Jews did so.
To the complex, puzzling question of what to do about intermarriage, there are a variety of responses such as explicitly stating a preference for in-marriage or creating programs to make Jewish life more attractive to the intermarried or just accepting that intermarriage is a sociological reality, one that is as immune to change as gravity.
We can argue as much as we like about all of these responses, but there is at least one simple, clear, effective response that can be immediately put into practice. That response is to encourage the conversion of the non-Jewish romantic partner before marriage (in which case there is no intermarriage) or after marriage, but, if possible, before the birth of the first child so all the children are born Jewish. These romantic partners are already part of the fabric of the Jewish community just by their relationship to a Jewish partner. Their children will have at the very least a partly Jewish background.
They may or may not be interested in converting. It is worthwhile discovering if they are already interested or would at least like to explore the possibility of a Jewish life. They may, for example, come to believe that it is best for their children to have Judaism as their clearly-defined faith.
The romantic partner, the Jewish family, and, if there is one, the rabbi counseling the couple, can all approach the option of conversion. They should not be reluctant or afraid to discuss the subject of embracing the Jewish people. Surprisingly, most gentile romantic partners are never asked if they wish to learn more about a Jewish life.
Of course, conversion rarely occurs after a single conversation. It is a long process. Naturally, when raising the subject, no emotional or any other kind of pressure should be used. Instead, love and humor are two Jewish qualities that are especially important when discussing the possibility of becoming Jewish.
Conversion, though, isn’t only a valuable response to rising intermarriage rates. Consider the declining Jewish numbers and influence. With such a decline, the American Jewish community will have decidedly less political influence. Such a decline feeds on itself. Fewer numbers now means fewer Jews to marry in the future. More Jews will be tempted to assimilate. Jewish artists, wanting an audience, will be increasingly tempted to avoid narrow Jewish subjects. A Jewish population that is less involved in the Jewish community will mean less support for day schools, synagogues, Jewish community centers, Jewish media, kosher establishments, and so on.
How can we increase our numbers? Pronatalism, encouraging the bearing of additional children, has never been effective in a democracy. There is a way, though, to increase our numbers without having to affect birth rates. That, of course, is increasing the number of conversions to Judaism.
Such encouragement also helps Israeli Jews
Beyond dealing with intermarriage and declining numbers, encouraging conversion provides the answer to another question plaguing American Jews. That question is: What is our purpose? Traditional religious answers – studying sacred texts, keeping the mitzvot, and so on – are unsatisfying for many American Jews. But without such answers they are left with a mission gap. One possible answer to this question is to offer the Jewish heritage to those who are interested in learning about it. Of course to teach Judaism to others requires the would-be teachers to be conversant with the subject they are intending to teach. In offering Judaism to others, Jews will have the added benefit of learning more about Judaism.
Encouraging conversions to Judaism, then, helps American Jews in many ways. But such encouragement also helps Israeli Jews. Consider, for example, the demographic competition between Israeli Jews and Arabs. Some Palestinian Arab thinkers, noting that demography is destiny in a democracy, believe that in time the Arab population west of the Jordan River will be greater than the Jewish population and, because Israel is a democracy, potentially threaten Israel’s political stability. Demographic numbers are notoriously elusive and different studies have different results. But, whether such an Arab assertion is true or simply wishful thinking, it is clear that having more Jews means a more stable Jewish nation politically, more personnel for the IDF, and more workers for Israel’s incredible economic and energy growth.
An increasing Jewish population is a profound statement telling the rest of the world that Jews are determined to stay in their land and defend it, that Israel is truly the center of world Jewry, that any Arab demographic efforts to destabilize Israel are doomed to failure, and so on.
Attracting more aliyah is, in part, a question that is attached to the demographic issue. But aliyah is more than just numbers. It is part of a deep-seated Zionist ideology, a foundational belief that a genuinely Jewish life can only be lived in the Land of Israel, and so every Jew should make aliyah.
What does conversion have to do with such a belief? In the confused religious reality of modernity, there are many people with Jewish ancestors who aren’t Jewish by religious law. If the Israeli government and religious authorities can sort out how to make conversion to Judaism more convenient for more such Jews, many additional people with Jewish ancestors, knowing they can convert, will make aliyah.
For all these reasons and all these issues in Jewish life, conversion is the answer.
Lawrence J. Epstein served as an advisor on the Middle East for two members of the United States Congress.