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Revisiting ‘Shotgun Conversions’
jennifer M. Paquette

A generation ago, if my parents had found out I was dating a non-Jew, they might have brought him to the rabbi for a shotgun conversion. It was better to date Jews, but if you happened to fall in love with a goy, conversion could make it kosher.

Those conversions were looked down upon, of course. Forcing anyone to accept our religion was always faintly distasteful. But at least you ended up with two Jews, building a family together.

These days it seems that Jewish families are no longer a top priority. A recent study reveals that half of American Jews think it’s actually racist to oppose intermarriage. In that study, conducted by the American Jewish Committee, most respondents also felt conversion wasn’t a good response to intermarriage. This is my parents’ generation, and most have kids with non-Jewish sweeties.

They’re trying hard to sugar-sweeten the bitter pill of intermarriage, explaining away the non-Jewish grandchildren at their seder tables in the name of open-mindedness. It’s like those tobacco ads claiming, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Women have earned the right to lung cancer; Jews have earned the right to strained, lonely families.

I almost bought in, too — until my first Rosh HaShanah without my boyfriend, Ted, alone in shul, without even a shared vocabulary to talk to him about it afterward. That convinced me: Judaism was essential to the marriage I wanted with him. Finally, I asked him to convert, though I’d sworn I never would.

When he agreed, we both knew it was not out of fear but to build a life together. Raised Catholic, he saw my request as a “good initial motivator,” but his own initiative has had to lead him from there. Even without outside pressure, though, we’re still struggling against the myth that “shotgun” conversions are inferior. It’s a cold slap in the face from unexpected corners of the Jewish world.

Like Rabbi Alan Silverstein, a Conservative Rabbinical Assembly leader who said in a recent Moment feature about single converts, “it’s very rare to find faith conversions in Jewish life … [most] people convert for the sake of marriage.” Faith or a Jewish sweetheart, not both.

And I was shocked to hear radio talk-show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger announce recently that conversions for marriage don’t work. Despite condemning “interfaithless” marriages, she ridiculed a caller considering conversion: “You’re going to … make believe you’re his religion?” Dr. Laura said it would “last about three, maybe five years, and then [the convert gets] hostile.”

Ouch. Short of an epiphany, Dr. Laura doesn’t believe Ted and I can encounter Judaism together. She may even feel her objections are grounded in her Orthodox beliefs, unaware that Orthodoxy is increasingly open to the reality of “coupled” converts.

Rabbi Reuven Bulka, an Orthodox rabbi who has written extensively on conversion, emphasizes drawing both partners into the fold. According to Rabbi Bulka, “The Jewish partner ready to marry [a non-Jew] is obviously moving away.” Judaism’s task, he feels, “is to counteract that spiritual inertia.”

Orthodox institutions are rising to the challenge. The Aish HaTorah synagogue Ted and I now attend offers traditional services and a range of classes to Jews of many races and backgrounds. I wish I could introduce the skeptics from the AJCommittee study to all the converts I’ve met who weren’t drawn to Judaism on their own, but who have found that it answers many of their questions nevertheless — and that it has strengthened their connection with Jewish spouses.

Rabbi Bulka stresses that a convert’s original motivation shouldn’t be questioned. Even a bet din, the three-rabbi conversion tribunal, seeks only to “assure that conversion is [the convert’s] sincere desire.” Whether that desire was inspired by a private revelation or Shabbat dinner with a fiancee isn’t the issue, only that it exists.

“It is painfully true,” Ted tells me, that choosing Judaism is a huge effort — one which in the end, “you do have to do for yourself.”

With his courage in mind, I worry, hearing new advocates for old myths. Coupled converts are still suspect, and I shudder to think how our conversion will be viewed, despite the very real changes we’re making in our lives. Hearing Ted stutter through havdalah, I think about what it means to separate one day of the week, to separate ourselves from other nations. Watching his beard sprout during sefirah, I’m reminded that it hasn’t always been easy to be Jewish, and that becoming Jewish still isn’t. We don’t know how long his conversion will take, but the journey so far has been meaningful for both of us.

The survey respondents are right that conversion can’t “solve” Jewish alienation; only good outreach and education can. But conversion can bring Jews back, if the myths don’t stop us from opening our arms. We need to encourage intermarried Jews to share their faith wholeheartedly. If the person you love is really the other half of your soul, we can tell them, sharing Judaism will let those halves communicate spiritually.

In shul with Ted last Rosh HaShanah, I was amazed how far he’d come. But I, too, had grown in the weeks before — not just baking honey cakes but taking classes and reading. If he can take my religion so seriously, there’s no way I’m ever going to turn my back on it.

Racist? I don’t think so. Just optimistic about our Jewish future.

Jennifer Paquette writes from Canada.

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