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Rethinking Conversion Policy

When one of the country’s leading Conservative rabbis states publicly his discomfort with a major policy of the movement, it warrants attention and consideration. In a Shabbat morning sermon, Elliot Cosgrove, rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City, shared his thoughts about conversion, interfaith relationships, and the status of non-Jewish family members in Jewish families.

Rabbi Cosgrove said he has seen that love trumps religious affiliation, with the result being that few families are immune from the situation of a child coming home with a non-Jewish partner and wanting to be married in a Jewish ceremony. The policy of most Conservative synagogues requires the non-Jewish partner to complete a conversion program, often lasting a year or longer, but the rabbi feels couples see it as putting obstacles in their way. If the non-Jewish partner does not convert in advance, Conservative rabbis will not officiate at the wedding but encourage conversion after the fact.

“I am worried that our present policy is internally conflicted and thus strategically self-defeating,” the rabbi said. “The idea of refusing to be present for the wedding and then expecting the couple to feel warmly embraced by the Jewish people strikes me as a policy constructed by someone who doesn’t know the mind of a young couple.” He likened it to joining a gym, noting that a potential gym member is not told first to exercise, get in good shape, and then join. Rather, if the person is willing to join, he or she signs up and then the teaching begins.

“My priority is to create Jewish homes, and everything I do is toward that goal,” he said. When an interfaith couple is told the non-Jewish partner has to undergo and extensive conversion process before the rabbi will officiate at their wedding, many of them leave and never come back, choosing a justice of the peace or other clergy to marry them.

Excerpted from the Editorial of “The Jewish Week,” March 1, 2013.


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