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Intermarriage and the Conservative Movement

There have been two articles in the past week about the Conservative movement and intermarriage. Both demonstrate that the movement is realizing they have to re-think their outreach strategies regarding intermarried families.

The first, in Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent, explained how some local Conservative rabbis met with others from the Reform and Reconstructionist movements to discuss “how to better serve intermarried families who belong to synagogues or would like to become involved.” It shows, said the article, that rabbis in the Conservative movement are “acknowledging that there’s a place” in synagogue life for the spouse of another religious background. The mindset is now about engagement, not about trying to convert the spouse.

But it’s that shift—engagement rather than conversion—that had caused a split in two Conservative organizations, according to an article in the (New York) Jewish Week. The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, in 2005, had explicitly stated that conversion in intermarriage should be aggressively pursued. Meanwhile, said the Jewish Week, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs had started an outreach initiative called Keruv that promoted welcoming without pushing for conversion.

These differences are what led to a special committee that was tasked with finding common ground that will allow the Conservative movement to “speak with one voice.” The committee will soon release a pamphlet that lays out the movement’s new “principles on outreach” to intermarried families. The tone on conversion, it’s noted, is “decidedly softer,” and the language is much more welcoming of intermarried families. In changing the language and attitude, said Rabbi Joel Meyers of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, we are “dealing with the reality of contemporary life.”

In another sign that outreach to intermarried families is taking on new importance, the Jewish Week points out that JOI’s executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky has been invited to speak at the United Synagogue’s biennial convention for the first time. This is evidence that our work is having an impact and people continue to look to us as leaders in effective outreach.

Kerry pointed out in his interview that “as the movement is grappling with these issues, the world is moving very quickly and people are voting with their feet.” The Conservative movement now understands that its outreach strategies have to change if the movement wants to continue to serve the growing diversity of today’s Jewish community.



9 Comments

  1. The Conservative Movement responded to the artcle in Jewish Week. As you will note below in its response, its leaders talk about “unconditional” welcoming of interfaith families and nonJewish members of the family. I would love to enter into a dialogue in order to explore the depth and breadth of what it means to be unconditional in its welcoming. Perhaps that will happen in December when I speak at the biennial of the USCJ.

    Here is the entire statement:
    A DELICATE BALANCE:
    THE RABBINICAL ASSEMBLY’S POSITION
    ON OUTREACH AND CONVERSION

    A Statement by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld and Rabbi Jeffrey A. Wohlberg

    July 9, 2009 (New York, NY)—Readers of a recent article in the Jewish Week – “Conservatives End Push To Convert Intermarrieds” – would conclude that the Conservative movement is currently being torn asunder by two divergent beliefs: that rabbis must aggressively pursue the conversion of non-Jewish spouses; or that all attempts at conversion must be abandoned and interfaith families accepted into Conservative synagogue and communal life without hope of conversion.

    In fact, no such controversy exists within the ranks of those who serve on the frontline of involvement with interfaith families and non-Jews within the community – Conservative rabbis.

    This false dichotomy does more than misrepresent reality; most regrettably, it shortchanges the nuanced and thoughtfully-crafted approach of Conservative rabbis to what is by now a well established reality in contemporary Jewish life – interfaith families and non-Jews within our synagogues and communities.

    Yet, it is understandable that this misunderstanding exists because the Rabbinical Assembly has boldly selected to embrace two seemingly contradictory points of view – the unconditional welcome of interfaith families and non-Jews within the community alongside the prospect of conversion to those who sincerely feel moved to join the Jewish people.

    The Jewish Week article was based on a draft brochure on keruv (outreach), authored by a committee of the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism. Soon to be made available to Conservative synagogues throughout North America, the brochure is the product of a committee of the LCCJ, chaired by Rabbi Rob Slosberg of Louisville, Kentucky. A joint effort of rabbis and laypeople, it sends an important message of welcome and caring to non-Jews in our communities, while stating that we are also eager to share with them the profound joy and meaning of living a Jewish life within a Jewish community.

    Herein lies the cause for confusion and seeming controversy. Instead of promoting an either/or agenda, the Conservative Movement has adopted a mutually inclusive plan of action.

    The forthcoming brochure is the product of cooperative and constructive discussions over many months, reflecting the care and thoughtfulness that we wish to take in considering the delicate matters of personal relationships and spiritual life. It articulates the movement’s principles of outreach, underscoring the warm and sincere welcome it extends to people of all faiths and walks of life. The brochure is expected to be endorsed and promoted by all major arms of the Conservative movement.

    Judaism has historically viewed conversion with some reticence, a position that stems in large part from the perilous circumstances that Jews faced within society. Throughout most of history, to convert someone to Judaism was to expose them to danger and ostracism. These conditions no longer apply and rabbis are able to focus on the myriad gifts of Jewish life and Jewish community, gifts that we enthusiastically share with those who seek to embrace them.

    Indeed, our enthusiasm to inspire conversion has been set forth before, most recently in our 2007 rabbinic guide to conversion, Petah haOhel. We honor the committed relationships non-Jews have forged with their Jewish partners in our communities. At the same time, we also adhere to the integrity of Jewish tradition and hope, wherever possible, to motivate people to become Jewish. Our first priority is always that the non-Jew experiencing our way of life do so at a pace and in an environment where he or she feels comfortable. Moreover, the unconditional welcome we extend to non-Jews is heartfelt and enthusiastic wherever they are on their journey.

    The Conservative movement, with its unswerving focus on the integrity of Jewish tradition and its persistent commitment to evolve as society evolves, has achieved more conspicuous success in the area of conversion than any other religious stream of Judaism. Currently, Rabbinical Assembly members are running highly successful conversion programs in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Jacksonville and countless other places in the United States and abroad

    As the president and the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, we wish to set the record straight regarding our approach to conversion and outreach. Yes, we have undertaken a paradoxical enterprise but there is no controversy, no rift among our ranks regarding conversion. Speaking on behalf of our 1600 colleagues worldwide, we affirm our belief in the coexistence of keruv and conversion as well as the power of the two to support and enhance the lives of interfaith couples and non-Jews who are such an important part of our communities.

    Rabbi Jeffrey A. Wohlberg, president
    Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president
    The Rabbinical Assembly

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — July 10, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

  2. The Conservative movement has the highest average age of the main branches of Judaism, Orthodoxy the lowest. In fact the total number of Orthodox children is about the same as the total number of Conservative children. Facing this problem the Conservatives are imagining that there is this huge number of Gentiles, even those married to Jews, who want to become Jewish.

    All the currently fast growing faiths and sects, Orthodox Jewry, Islam, Mormonism, Hinduism, etc have pro-natalist policies which Conservative Judaism lacks.

    Comment by Dave — July 12, 2009 @ 11:30 am

  3. Nevertheless, there are many adult children of intermarriage as well as adult born Jews who want to return and are looking for a Jewish home. Some of us are - not surprisingly - married to non-Jews. I personally lean Conservative in my beliefs - and am technically a born Jew.

    If one values Jewish continuity above and beyond one’s own personal concerns, why does it matter who converts or even who attends a synagogue? If preserving Judaism is the ultimate goal, why not welcome anyone who wants to be Jewish along with those who might want to become Jewish if allowed to absorb it at their own pace? If the goal is something other than Jewish continuity, what exactly is the goal?

    Comment by Sara — July 12, 2009 @ 5:01 pm

  4. If preserving Judaism means having the numbers ” sign up ” without any regard for their actual practices or beliefs, then what is the point? Isn’t what people do and how they do it important or is it strictly a numbers game?

    Comment by Ell — July 15, 2009 @ 11:08 am

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