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.

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