Reform Jews to recommend return to traditional practices for converts

Posted: Friday, June 29, 2001

When Ellis Island wasn't a museum and Jewish immigrants aspired to be as American as baseball, Reform rabbis changed their way of worship to fit in with their Christian neighbors.

Decades later, anti-Semitism has diminished and Jews are more established than ever, leading the largest and most liberal branch of Judaism back to the practices it once rejected.

This week, the Reform movement is expected to formally recommend that converts be examined by a panel of learned Jews, immerse in a ritual bath, and, for men, undergo circumcision.

The conversion guidelines are likely to be approved Wednesday at a meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Monterey, Calif. The organization of 1,800 rabbis says it represents about 1.5 million Reform Jews.

The recommendations reverse a position the group has held for 108 years that traditional rituals in conversion are meaningless. The vote also comes two years after the conference revised its ''Statement of Principles'' to put renewed emphasis on studying Hebrew and the value of tradition.

''Previous generations, their challenge was to become Americans. They knew as a given they were Jewish. This generation, we know we're American. But for us the struggle is how do we affirm our Jewishness,'' said Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the conference.

Conversion is especially important in the Reform movement. It is the branch of Judaism most welcoming of interfaith couples and openly courts gentiles who express interest in becoming Jews.

Orthodox and many Conservative rabbis reject Reform converts, due to the lack of ritual in their conversions and absence of any requirement to obey Jewish laws, such as keeping kosher.

The new Reform approach still leaves too many theological differences for the Orthodox to change their position. But Reform leaders hope Conservatives will be more accepting.

''We believe that we are converting individuals to Judaism, not simply to Reform Judaism,'' said Rabbi Richard Shapiro, of Santa Barbara, Calif., who led the committee that drafted the guidelines. ''It is our hope they will be able to function in the widest possible Jewish arena.''

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said he would feel more comfortable if the new procedures were required, instead of recommended.

''There is a difference about whether you make this a standard or you make it a suggestion,'' Epstein said.

Under the guidelines, prospective Jews would study the religion for a minimum of a year. The convert would then be questioned by a Bet Din, a panel of three learned Jews or rabbis, to see if his or her commitment to Judaism is sufficient.

Men would be circumcised or, if they have already undergone the procedure, would undergo what is called a symbolic circumcision, in which a single drop of blood is drawn from the place where foreskin was removed. Immersion in the ritual bath, or mikveh, would follow.

Rabbis also would be encouraged to immediately consider a gentile's request to convert. Jews have an ancient tradition of turning away a candidate three times to test his or her sincerity.

Shapiro believes interest in becoming a Jew is increasing because of intermarriage and a renewed curiosity about religion among Americans. But no reliable statistics exist on how many conversions are performed.

Steven Bayme, national director of contemporary Jewish life for the American Jewish Committee, estimates the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements combined convert between 3,000 and 4,000 people annually.


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