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Challenges for the Conservative Movement in Welcoming Intermarried Families

An article in the Washington Jewish Week a few weeks ago, “A delicate balance: Rabbis continue seeking ways to welcome,” does a nice job describing the challenges faced by the Conservative movement.

We are greatly encouraged by innovation at the grass-roots level, and when we at JOI hear of such leaders we try to highlight their efforts. So we applaud the efforts described in this article about Rabbi H. David Rose at Congregation Har Shalom, who honored a congregant by asking him to make a blessing over the Torah even though the congregant was about to intermarry. Of course, this is more about in-reach than outreach because the intermarrying Jew was already a synagogue member, but simply retaining intermarrying members (or their parents) should be the first priority for the Conservative movement.

Unfortunately, aspects of this article also describe ways that the movement falls short, including the reiteration as “still binding” of the “1989 teshuvah, opinion, written by United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism executive vice president Rabbi Jerome Epstein [that] states that there should be no ‘congratulations’ or ‘public acknowledgment’ of intermarriages within Conservative congregations.”

We believe this national policy maintains a culture of shame around intermarriage that surveys have proven is out of step with the Conservative movement’s own congregants’ beliefs, and we’ve seen that many Conservative congregations today that are simply ignoring it. However, we also encourage those congregations to do even more.

For example, the article describes how one congregation’s “newsletter distinguishes between the union of two Jews and intermarriages by wishing the former ‘congratulations’ and the latter, ‘best wishes,’ although…the distinction was probably ‘lost on many congregants.’”

We can only imagine the countless committee meetings and hours of wrangling to come to that decision, about total minutia! Meanwhile, there are literally thousands of intermarried households in the DC area who are not being touched by any congregation and may be willing to engage in Jewish life, if only someone were to reach out and invite them!

We encourage the Conservative synagogues we work with to recognize that there are very few halachic (Jewish legal) boundaries preventing them from welcoming newcomers, including intermarried families. As Rabbi Avis Miller says in the article, “the policy often is less important than ‘a rabbi with the right tone.’” While that may or may not be true for those already on the inside, we believe it is definitely true for intermarried families on the outside, who are much less interested in the minutia of synagogue policy and are simply looking for a warm welcoming and an embracing community.

The bottom-line challenge for the movement is spelled out in the article: “to strike a delicate balance between encouraging interfaith couples to be a part of the Jewish community while at the same time not sanctioning or approving of intermarriage.”

Too often that second part about “not approving of intermarriage” is interpreted as “actively discouraging” or “disapproving of intermarriage,” but that’s neither effective nor necessary. It’s time now for the movement to put all its efforts into the first part of the equation, to begin encouraging interfaith couples to be a genuine part of their community. We know it can be done, because there are a number of Conservative synagogues actually doing it, and we encourage their colleagues at other Conservative synagogues to listen and learn from them.



5 Comments

  1. If I was part of an interfaith couple and looking to affiliate, knowing that the conservative synagogues would have refused to perform my marriage would probably be a non-starter, notwithstanding whatever they do to reach out. I guess I would go to a reform congregation. While I appreciate that these changes don’t occur over night, unwillingness to perform the marriage but desiring to outreach seems somewhat hypocritical.

    Is it any wonder the reform movement continues to grow while the conservative movement shrinks?

    Comment by Jeff — January 17, 2008 @ 12:52 am

  2. Thanks Jeff. I believe you’re correctly identifying THE biggest challenge to the Conservative movement over the past couple of decades. But to be fair, more than half of Reform rabbis won’t officiate at intermarriages either. Still, it may be that the flexibility the Reform movement gives to their rabbis to decide for themselves is what helps create the perception of greater inclusion.

    And as a caveat for whenever I make generalizations about the movements, it’s important to point out that what really matters are the individuals at each institution. There are some very warm and welcoming Conservative synagogues, and plenty of cold and cliquish Reform synagogues, and in some communities the most welcoming Jewish professional is the Chabad (Orthodox) rabbi even though he of course won’t officiate at an intermarriage.

    Comment by Paul Golin — January 17, 2008 @ 1:06 pm

  3. I was married nearly 18 years ago to a wonderful woman who promised to bring up our children Jewish yet didn’t want to convert herself. Today, I have 3 beautiful children, all converted at birth and the oldest just became a Bar Mitzvah in a conversative synagogue. Myself and our children practice only Judiasm and support my wife during the holiday’s she wants to observe. Our children learn to respect their mom and her family traditions, yet practice only Judiasm. We go to Synagogue together as a complete family, my wife is very involved in the children’s Jewish education and is even now assisting in the pre-school. We are more a Jewish family than most other jews I know.

    After years of keeping my distance from the daily activities of the Synagogue I have recently begun to be personally active. I’m sure there are many others like me who have remained Jewish even while being intermarried. The conservative movement needs to work more diligently to respect the non-jewish spouse for many reasons.

    One such reason is that the children feel defensive against any separation the non-jewish parent must tolerate due to rules at the Synagogue. In order to be comfortable with Judiasm, the children in these families need to feel that they and their familiy are respected. Rabbi’s should be more cognizant that within the congragation are many non-jewish spouses, who are supporting Judiasm and also children of interfatih marriages. These children are listening at the services and want to feel that they and both parents are accepted. The debate about whether or not conservative clergy should perform interfaith marriages will not be solved soon, and maybe it shouldn’t. But, when one is Jewish, and the family has decided to practice Judiasm and teach that to their children, then the family needs to be fully accepted; even if that means changing or moderating some traditions.

    Comment by Eric — January 17, 2008 @ 7:45 pm

  4. And we are working hard with all of the movements–generally on the front line with individual congregations and rabbis and volunteer leaders to make them more welcoming and inclusive of all families, particularly interfaith families. That is what our Big Tent Judaism (www.BigTentJudaism.org) Coalition is all about and that is what our Call Synagogue Home project is also all about. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky

    Comment by Kerry Olitzky — January 18, 2008 @ 9:02 am

  5. In Kiryas Yoel, an ultra-Orthodox (small tent Judaism?) community the population is doubling every decade and there are absolutely zero intermarriages.

    To paraphrase, ‘Is it any wonder that the ultra-Orthodox continues to grow far faster than ANY other part of Judaism’

    Comment by Dave — January 20, 2008 @ 11:42 am

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