Arnold Eisen’s inauguration as the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary last fall has generated a fair amount of excitement in the Jewish world. As the first non-rabbi to serve in the role in more than 65 years and one of the leading sociologists of American Jewry, he is widely seen as bringing a fresh perspective to his leadership of the Conservative movement’s flagship institution.
So far, his statements about intermarriage have been encouraging, but I’m really enthused about what he said in this recent Q&A with the St. Petersburg Times. His response to a question about intermarriage is so positive that I want to share its entire text:
What is the rate of intermarriage among Jews and Christians in America ? Is it increasing and is it having an effect on Judaism in this country?
The rate of intermarriage has apparently stabilized somewhere in the 40 percent range. It is similar or even less than the rate of intermarriage among other ethnic populations in America. I don’t think that single-minded focus on intermarriage is a terribly good thing.
The problem is not intermarriage per se, but the loss of Jewish commitment that often, although not always, results from intermarriage.
The challenge facing Jews is to welcome non-Jewish partners, make them part of the Jewish community, reach them with Jewish teaching and Jewish ways of life, and hopefully convince a significant number of them not only to raise their children as Jews but to become Jews themselves.
This dilemma cuts across denominations. It is receiving a particular amount of attention right now in Conservative Judaism, which can no longer afford the luxury of thinking intermarriage is a problem for Reform Jews or secular Jews. We now know that intermarriage is a fact in many Conservative congregations, and our task is to find ways of welcoming non-Jewish partners and family members at the same time as we can encourage them to fully join the covenant.
Do interfaith families have a place in Conservative Judaism?
Yes, is the short answer. Interfaith families do have a place in Conservative Judaism. But again, the focus should be twofold. …The word should go out that whether the non-Jewish partner or family members convert or not, they are welcome in our midst forever. They have hearts and souls and minds which can and should be reached by the teachings of Torah. They have wisdom and skills and love that can benefit our communities.
Having said that, though, one also needs to say honestly that both our experience as a people over three millennia and the commandments of our tradition urge us to urge them to seriously consider becoming fully a part of this tradition and joining in the covenant, and that means conversion.
I was particularly struck by his statement “The word should go out that whether the non-Jewish partner or family members convert or not, they are welcome in our midst forever.” That sends the message that non-Jewish family members are not flawed in some way, but are valuable contributors to the Jewish community. As he says, “They have wisdom and skills and love that can benefit our communities.” That kind of welcome–without conditions, with love and approval–is exactly the kind of response the Jewish community needs to exhibit towards the intermarried.
I look forward to seeing how his leadership will help push the Conservative movement further on the road to integrating intermarried families fully into the life of Conservative synagogues.
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