Pillars of Outreach

Last week, Julie Wiener reported on an intermarriage workshop that took place at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The workshop was touted as noteworthy because it marked the first time the school had sanctioned an event where students could come together and discuss issues surrounding intermarriage and how they impact the Jewish community (although JOI’s exec Rabbi Kerry Olitzky has presented to the students on the subject several times over the past few years). In response to the piece, JTS chancellor Arnold Eisen wrote a letter to the (New York) Jewish Week clarifying the school’s “policy on the matter of outreach to intermarried families.”

Eisen wanted to make clear that even though he supported the workshop, the school’s policy on intermarriage remains straightforward. He wrote:

JTS subscribes fully to the Conservative Movement position on keruv, with its twin pillars of (1) warm welcome to all who wish to be part of our communities; and (2) honest expression of the hope that non-Jewish family members will be moved at some point to take on full participation in the Covenant of Israel by means of conversion.

A couple of things stand out in his statement. It seems to represent a departure from what had been a three-pillar approach of the Conservative Movement, which was to (1) first promote in-marriage, then, if that doesn’t work, (2) promote conversion of the non-Jewish spouse, and then finally (3) welcome the intermarried. We had long been critical of that policy because it did not work in practice; by the time intermarried families had endured steps one and two, why would they stick around for step three?

In this reformulation, in-marriage is not mentioned at all, and welcoming takes precedence over encouraging conversion of the non-Jewish spouse. This, we believe, shows progress by JTS (and the Conservative Movement) in its efforts to reach and engage intermarried families, which we commend. At the same time, though, we still find it problematic to tie together conversion and intermarriage, and to suggest that conversion is the best-case-scenario (or “a cure”) to intermarriage. This is not only a turn-off for intermarried families where the non-Jewish spouse cannot consider conversion for whatever reasons—even though he or she may have committed to raising Jewish children—it is also painfully offensive for the many Jews by choice who are drawn to Judaism for Judaism’s sake. This sentiment was beautifully articulated in a blog post on “Mike’s First Draft” in which an unmarried Jew-by-choice writes:

Chancellor Eisen, you seem to be dividing non-Jews into two categories: those who are married to Jews and those who aren’t. You call upon us as a movement to actively welcome only the first group. The implication is that conversion should be thought of primarily as a stopgap against intermarriage. If I had heard something like this ten years ago, I could have easily been scared away from the Conservative movement. The selective outreach you seem to be advocating strikes me as a violation of the Jewish value of loving the stranger, and it is hurtful to me personally as a Jew by Choice.

Intermarriage outreach needs to focus on welcoming and inclusion – any decisions people make later on should be made on their own without pressure. Therefore, while we commend the Conservative movement for dropping the “promote in-marriage” pillar (which did not work) and rearranging their remaining two pillars to put welcoming first, why not just make that the single pillar? It is strong enough to support the whole movement.

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