Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Proselytising? II

Jewish Press published the following entitled
Oxnard Diary - what follows is the second half of the article
by Isa David Balaban June 28, 2006

From a Jewish perspective, however, the most heartbreaking aspect may be that those intermarried Jews who, despite past decisions, fervently wish to retain their identity and their children’s identity as Jews are up against near impossible odds. These include the inescapable reality that there are few more serious violations of Jewish law than marriage to a non-Jew, that such marriages are condemned by the Bible and completely unrecognized, and that the status of the children of such partnerships are regarded accordingly. But can Judaism simply turn its back on sincere returnees who are intermarried?
Those who remember the television program “The Millionaire” will recall that each time the anonymous benefactor’s emissary, John Beresford Tipton, approached someone with the gift of a million dollars (which was a lot of money in the late 50’s), the recipient’s initial response was a blend of disbelief and cynicism (the varying proportions of which kept the series interesting from week to week).
Such was the understandable reaction of most of the thirty-two intermarried couples who were invited to the Oxnard Seminar when their local rabbi informed them that the religion best known for turning away potential converts would not only welcome the non-Jewish spouse’s application for conversion but also wanted to roll out the red carpet.
And who can blame them? Having long been written off as a bad investment of an outreach rabbi’s time, they were now being invited along with their children to an all-expenses-paid retreat at a luxurious winery on the California coast. Between the gourmet meals, vineyard tour, and wine-tasting, they would get the lowdown on converting to Judaism, share their own experience with other similarly-situated couples, and meet the team that would streamline the process for them. It sounded too good to be true.
Yet by the end of the three-day event, even the couple who had braced themselves for “the ultimate Amway pitch” were reassured – and much more. Oxnard Seminar participant Mike Perkins called the experience “life-changing.” New Yorker Pauline Edwards described herself as being “beyond inspired.” Canadian David Durand said “it gave us a unity for life.”
Little wonder. Along with the steak and (kosher) caviar, EJF flew in a world class line up of motivational speakers. Such well known Torah heavy hitters as Rabbis Doron Kornbluth, Mordechai Neugroschel and Meyer Schiller gave talks and one of the top Israeli rock bands played through the night. Britney Spears’s publicist even made a video appearance. In short, it was a lineup that would make George Steinbrenner blush, and the all but inevitable result was that of the thirty-two couples that came to Oxnard, thirty applied for EJF’s Universally Accepted Conversion. Suffice to say that with chassidic tales, world class Beaujolais, and the California surf replacing Constantine’s sword, conversion will never be the same again.
Which raises the questions: Who is responsible for Judaism’s apparent course change, who is footing the bill for this, and where is it all heading?
The rudder of Judaism is being steered in the same way as it has for thousands of years – by the leading Torah scholars of the generation. Today, that distinction is shared by HaRav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, shlita, in Jerusalem and HaRav Reuven Feinstein, shlita, in New York. But it would be a mistake to believe that these Torah authorities, however venerated, had the power to change Jewish law or alter God’s Torah. As the Oxnard participants learned, no one has the power to do that – and this is part of what defines Judaism.
The surprising fact of the matter is that the legal basis for actively encouraging the conversion of non-Jewish spouses has long existed in the Bible commentaries of the medieval Jewish sage Maimonides. Based on subsequent elucidations by Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, zt”l, and most recently by HaRav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, the gedolei hador merely made the decision to proactively apply this principal to the American situation at this time.
Financed by investor-philanthropist Thomas Kaplan and led by Feinstein-associate HaRav Leib Tropper, the Eternal Jewish Family was established last year to realize the vision of the gedolei hador. Its mission is to develop a new standard for conversion – one that is universally accepted by all rabbis regardless of their affiliation (divisions had emerged over the last hundred or so years about the proper interpretation of the Jewish conversion laws); to educate the thousands of rabbis from diverse streams of Judaism about the new standard and instruct them in its implementation; and to establish the educational vehicles and religious courts that will serve the needs of the new converts.
With the demand for additional couple retreats now pouring in, EJF is too busy to revel in its California triumph. (Rav Tropper merely said that he was “gratified.”) More advanced couples (who need no such motivational retreats) are already sending the volume of online application for UAC’s soaring (the EJF website can be found at; the phone number is 845-425-0550) and the organization is determined to provide a world class product. Regional EJF offices are opening, and rabbinical conferences are slated for Jerusalem in July and Boston in October, with gatherings in Europe and South America to follow. And as if EJF’s plate needed filling, Israel’s Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar recently announced that EJF would develop Israel’s state-of-the-art, high-tech repository for conversion data .
Where is it all headed? EJF Executive Director David Jacobs believes the organization will receive a steady stream of applications that will gradually grow over time, and that EJF’s success should be measured in terms of the number of Jewish souls that otherwise would have been lost.
Others, like Thomas Kaplan, continue to hold out hope that EJF will significantly mitigate the willful self-destruction of non-Orthodox American Jewry.

Still others decry the entire effort. Concerned that EJF might inadvertently send a message to unmarried Jews that intermarriage is okay or at least fungible, they contend that the Torah authorities involved have made a mistake of tragic proportions.

Only God knows, but it’s clear that something big happened at Oxnard.

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