Conservative Synagogues and Intermarriage

We at JOI are always excited to read about evolving trends toward inclusion in the Jewish communal world, and are encouraged by a recent article in the Forward, in which JOI Executive Director Kerry Olitzky is quoted. The article explains the evolution of the relationship between Conservative synagogues and interfaith families, which remains complicated. However, as the article highlights, many Conservative synagogues are opening their doors, and their membership.

According to the article, some Conservative synagogues are implementing increasingly inclusive attitudes toward interfaith families, while simultaneously wrestling with more concrete measures of inclusion, such as voting rights and ritual participation of non-Jewish family members. In many cases, the policies adopted regarding the latter issues are much less inclusive than their policies toward membership.

Rabbi Olitzky is quoted in this article outlining the various aspects of implementing less-inclusive policies for interfaith families. He explains that limiting access to voting rights and broader participation in synagogue life sends the message that interfaith families are “second-class citizens,” and are not entitled to as much of a say as in-married families. When interfaith families are able to join synagogues, but are unable to participate as fully as in-married families, their relationship to the synagogue will almost certainly be negatively affected.

When the Conservative Jewish community seeks to define the role of non-Jewish partners by limiting voting rights, they are ignoring that those partners already have a vote, in a very practical way. Non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages are often deeply engaged in promoting Judaism in their families’ lives. Non-Jewish spouses, such as participants in our Mothers Circle program, are often responsible for implementing Judaism in the home, and for advocating for Jewish education for their children and synagogue membership for their entire family. In actuality, they are already influencing the way that the Jewish community does business, and the shift towards inclusion in some Conservative synagogues is reflective of this. We at JOI have seen time and time again that the more the Jewish community welcomes and supports spouses of other backgrounds, the more those families return the investment with stronger ties to Judaism.

As the face of the American Jewish community continues to change, the Conservative movement must confront some difficult questions and challenges. Honoring halakhah (Jewish law) while engaging the community with modernity is not an easy task. However, part of that engagement is reflecting on the current nature of the modern Jewish family and how that family experiences itself as Jewish. By engaging with non-Jewish spouses in a genuinely welcoming way, there is a real opportunity to strengthen the ties between these families and the organized Jewish community.

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