Dr. Kerry Olitzky, Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, shares his thoughts on conversion, intermarriage, and our film, Welcoming Waters: Mikveh Baby.
For those who choose it, conversion is a liminal experience. While it might sound cliché or hackneyed, it can be a life-changing event. And that is the way it is supposed to be. I like to say that there are two steps in the process of conversion. (Like a dance, I call it the “conversion two step.”) The first step is the conversion of the body. The second is the conversion of the heart or spirit. I can control the former. No one can control the latter. Sometimes one comes before the other. And at other times, they occur simultaneously. Of one thing I am sure. Without a supportive and welcoming Jewish community, the latter is really hard to come by.
Some will say that the ritual bath, a mikveh, is simply a body of water; that it may be able to contribute to the first step. But it is unable to contribute to the second step in the process. I believe such critics are wrong. They “just don’t get it.” Those who enter the mikveh for the sake of conversion understand its transformative powers and that it is capable of using the first step to bring about a conversion of the heart and soul.
Similarly, there are those who will argue that the mikveh and its revitalization, particularly in the liberal community, are directly tied to the high rates of intermarriage. And while it may be true that those who intermarry, who choose to formally convert their child, as the couple in this video chose to do, are brought closer to mikveh than they might have otherwise been, it can also be said that it is quite possible that they might not have been otherwise exposed to this powerful ritual at all.
Some will see intermarriage as the community’s greatest problem. Some may see it as its greatest challenge. I see intermarriage as our greatest opportunity for it allows us to introduce Judaism – and Jewish ritual – into the lives of others and, as a result, help bring these families closer to the Jewish community.