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.

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