New Chancellor-Elect Focuses on Inreach

Arnold Eisen, chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary, one of Conservative Judaism’s two rabbinical schools, recently gave a speech to a Long Island (NY) synagogue as described in the article “Eisen Fears Division Over Gay Issue” in the (New York) Jewish Week. Conservative Judaism is shrinking and there is a large divide between those who are involved in its major institutions—USY (United Synagogue Youth), Solomon Schechter Day Schools, and Ramah summer camps—and those on the periphery. Eisen said that he hoped the issue of gay ordination would not split the Conservative movement apart, and then went on talk about his feelings on outreach. “The point is not to count the numbers but to ratchet up your strength….We are in amazingly good shape, despite the fall in numbers.” While internal strength is also important, I am concerned by the lack of emphasis on outreach, particularly to the intermarried.

With nearly half of Jewishly-identified students on college campuses coming from families where one parent was not born Jewish, it seems highly unlikely that Conservative Judaism can have a dynamic future ahead of it if it only focuses on those already within its ranks. Most intermarried families that affiliate do so with the Reform movement, and with intermarried families the Coming Majority of the Jewish community, the Conservative movement will suffer considerably if it does not make itself more welcoming to these families and their children. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is now working to welcome intermarried families. This is a great sign and hopefully indicative of what the entire movement will do throughout its institutions. I wonder what would happen to the Conservative movement if its leaders announced that all intermarried families and people of all sexual orientations were going to be welcomed fully into their institutions and pulpits. Would it come crashing down? Or, as I suspect might happen, people might flood the movement and help to revitalize it.


  1. i was a member of USY from age 9 through age 16. to this day, i still recount all the great memories i had with USY. the kids and staff were extremely welcoming and people didn’t judge others for being more/less religious. if there was an adult version of USY, i’d be open to joining as long as the same welcoming nature was present.
    i applaud the Conservative movement’s attempt to be more open and welcoming to those on the periphery. but although inreach is a valuable asset, building up strengh from within can only take the Conservative movement so far. as the old saying goes, “there is strength in numbers.”

    Comment by heather — November 7, 2006 @ 5:47 pm

  2. Dear Friends: I am very concerned that the Conservative movement’s recent efforts to outreach interfaith families are not going to be sufficient to reverse their declining numbers.

    An article by Rabbi Jerome Epstein states:

    “Recently the Conservative movement inaugurated Edud, an initiative to reach out to intermarried families. An important part of this initiative is a passionate engagement between those of us already living committed Jewish lives and the children of the intermarried. That, we hope, will increase the chance that those children eventually will choose to identify as Jews.
    . . . Children born to non-Jewish mothers must be converted before they reach the age of bar or bat mitzvah. In order to welcome these children, we call upon congregational and day schools to develop policies that promote the Jewish education of the children of intermarried couples.”

    This modifies previous Conservative movement policies in a very positive direction.

    Instead of outright rejection of patrilineal children, unless they are immediately converted, unconverted patrilineal children are to be encouraged to attend Conservative Jewish institutions — good — but — it will be made clear to them and their intermarried parents that they are not-quite-as-good as the matrilineal children sitting at the desks beside them — not good.

    They will not be considered “real” Jews unless and until they convert.

    Now this is a major step up from current Conservative movement policies that forbid the intermarried to serve as teachers and officials, and refuses admittance to patrilineal children to many Conservative institutions, such as Camp Ramah.

    As such, I heartily applaud it.

    But — anyone who has ever raised a child knows how children will interpret this new Conservative policy. Children are hyper-sensitive to differences in status among themselves, and often quite cruel about such differences.

    It is hard to see what will motivate intermarried couples with a Jewish father to spend thousands of dollars to send an unconverted patrilineal child to a Conservative day school or camp to be a second-class citizen.

    Imagine — Joshua or Esther comes home and reports that the other children with two Jewish parents, or a Jewish mother, or who have had Orthodox or Conservative conversions — have told him or her that they are “not real Jews.”

    Speaking as the adult child of an intermarriage and the leader of the Half-Jewish Network, I hear growing numbers of stories from adult children advised by other, “real” Jewish children in a variety of Jewish contexts and movements that they are “not Jews.”

    Let’s say Joshua and Esther refuse conversion at age 13 because they already think of themselves as “real” Jews — they are being raised as Jews, they have their dad’s Jewish last name — will they respond well to being kicked out of their Conservative youth group and Hebrew school at age 13 — the logical outcome of this policy?

    The Conservative movement apparently hopes that by encouraging these patrilineal children to be sent to its institutions, their intermarried parents will be motivated to obtain a Conservative movement conversion for the children.

    I think it more likely that intermarried families with a Jewish father will continue — if they opt for a Jewish education for their kids — to send them to Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Humanistic schools and camps, where their children are likely to be accepted as “real” Jews, provided that they are being raised as Jews.

    I recognize that the Conservative movement is constrained by its current understanding of “who is a Jew?” and is trying to work around this policy to welcome interfaith families with a Jewish father, but I would urge careful consideration of how patrilineal children are likely to interpret such a policy, even one implemented in a kindly manner.

    Again, I applaud the efforts of Rabbi Epstein and his colleagues to move Conservative policy on interfaith families in a more positive direction.

    Robin Margolis

    Comment by Robin Margolis — November 16, 2006 @ 6:48 am

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