The Reform movement is often praised–or villified, depending on what circles you’re in–for its 1983 decision to recognize the children of non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers as Jews. It is rightly considered a watershed moment in the Jewish community’s response to intermarriage, and is a major reason why most affiliated interfaith families are members of Reform synagogues.
As important as that 1983 decision was, the Reform movement was not the first Jewish movement to officially recognize the legitimacy of patrilineal descent. The Reconstructionist movement made a similar decision–15 years earlier.
In May 1968, the national convention of the Reconstructionist movement passed a resolution recognizing as Jewish the “children of mixed marriage–when the mother is not Jewish–if the parents rear the child as a Jew (providing the boy with circumcision), matriculating the child in a religious school so that the child may fulfill requirements of bar or bat mitzvah or confirmation. No other formal conversion rites will be required…” (1989 American Jewish Yearbook, quoting the Sept. 1968 Reconstructionist Newsletter)
These conditions are quite similar to the Reform rabbinate’s 1983 resolution, which also says that children of non-Jewish mothers can only be identified as Jewish if the parents take steps to raise them as Jewish.
The reason for the level of attention given to Reform’s decision–and the lack of attention given to Reconstructionism’s decision–is the difference in the movement’s sizes. In 2002, the Reconstructionist movement claimed 100 congregations and 50,000 members, while the Reform movement claimed 960 congregations and 1.5 million members. The Reform population is 30 times as large as the Reconstructionist population. And those numbers were surely even more skewed in 1968, when Reconstructionism was struggling even to be recognized as a legitimate Jewish movement.
Reconstructionism was only founded as a movement 13 years before the decision on patrilineal descent and the Reconstructionist seminary, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, only opened in 1968. It wasn’t until 2002 that the movement had its first camp.
Reconstructionism has also had a hard time distinguishing itself from an even more experimental brand of Judaism, Jewish Renewal. According to a Jan. 18, 2002, article from the Jewish Week, the former president of the RRC, Rabbi David Teutsch, said that only a decade earlier, “people confused Reconstructionism and [Jewish] Renewal.”
Despite the small size of the Reconstructionist movement at the time of its 1968 decision, Reconstructionism deserves recognition for its bold stand. In terms of the makeup of the modern American Jewish community, 1968 is practically ancient history.
While 47 percent of Jews who got married from 1996 to 2001 married someone of another faith, only 13 percent of Jews married before 1970 married someone of another faith. As a point of comparison, when the Reform movement made its decision, 38 percent of Jews were marrying non-Jews. In 1968, intermarriage wasn’t even an issue.
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