Progressive Conservatives

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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15 thoughts on “Progressive Conservatives

  1. The problem is intermarriage and it’s getting worse. Arnold Eisen is just another anti-Torah rambling idiot who wants to destroy Judiasm. He won’t suceed and neither will interfaith families. We don’t need Gentiles to “improve” Judaism and never will.
    If conversion to Judaism is not appreciated then what kind if message does it send to Jewish converts? What’s the point in Gentiles converting to Judaism when it won’t make a difference in the end? Once you have no standards anything will become aceeptable in that is happenning in Judaism.
    Intermarriage is bad for the Jews.

  2. the problem is not intermarriage itself, but rather finding new ways to keep people interested in Judaism that don’t just apply to finding Jewish spouses. people want to feel comfortable in a Jewish setting and not have to constantly be thinking if there is a hidden agenda attached to a particular event. obviously, it’s great if two Jews meet at an event and later on marry. the Manhattan Jewish Experience, an organization in New York that prides itself on educating unaffiliated Jews in their 20′s and 30′s, has been successful at producing several in-marriages and a few Jews-By-Choice since they started a few years ago. but if public events have an undertone of “hooking up” Jews with other Jews for romantic purposes, people can sense it. now obviously there are lots of Jews who want to marry Jews, but they shouldn’t have to be pressured into it by organizations and families…or by people such as yourself. i sense that you are the type of individual who would disown your children if they fell in love with someone who isn’t Jewish. you’d rather go through life acting as though your children are dead rather than trying to retain them despite their intermarriages…that’s disgusting. we don’t live in those times anymore. the Conservative movement (and to some slight degree the Orthodox) have recognized that. this does not mean they are completely abandoning their values. besides, the whole theme of Conservative Judaism is adapting to modern changes while still being mindful of halacha. and the message it delivers is that it will not abandon those who intermarry and will continue to attempt to enrich their lives both Jewishly and otherwise. though conversion is always preferable when intermarriage occurs the individual has to decide if and when conversion is right for them, not the movement or the in-laws…and certainly not you.

  3. Matt;
    What an immature response to my comments. You’re an idiot but it’s obvious to anyone who reads your comments. Comparing me to Hitler is fighting words and I don’t appreciate it. You wouldn’t dare say it to my face. Actually Hitler would support intermarriage because it’s destroying aspects of Judaism like secular and Reform Judaism. I’m proud of being Jewish and obviously you’re not. You have a lot more in common with Hitler than I do, loser!

    H;
    You make a lot of good points but intermarriage is a problem. You can’t be open to everything and anything and then expect to be respected. Judaism has been too tolerant of everything and now it’s a big problem. Catholics and Mormons are very strict about conversion and no one criticizes them, so why should Judaism be criticized? I welcome new Jewish converts, especially those who aren’t converting because of marriage. It’s a beautiful thing to see Gentiles who feel that have a Jewish soul, their words not mine, and go through conversion because they want to feel whole. They are in many ways more Jewish than many Jews by birth.

    I’m in my mid-twenties in a serious relationship with a lovely Jewish women. I will hoepfully make aliyah in the not-to-distant future and raise my children in Israel. I haven’t even thought about the marriage of my future children. They will be raised with Jewish pride which decreases their chance of intermarrying.

  4. Anti-Marriage,
    Thanks for responding. I had to use the Adolf comment to draw you out. For that I apologize. I’m not Jewish. My brother-in-law is Jewish. He and my sister have been ostracised on several occasion. The people doing the ostracising were other Jews not Chirstians. My brother-in-law is a fine man. He is a great husband to my sister and is more of a father than step-father to my niece. He and my sister have created a wonderful, loving home where the traditions of both faiths have been blended. They look at each other as individuals not as Jew and Christian. Our families are very close which includes celebrating the holidays-Hannuakah, Christmas, Passover, Easter… My mother and sister’s mother-in-law are great friends who communicate several times a week. I have also developed a strong mentoring relationship with my brother-in-law’s son who I consider my nephew. We communicate almost daily.

    I also have a surprise for you. I am in love with a Jewish woman in Israel. We met by accident on business and have formed a bond that is very special. Every day we learn something new about each other. She has educated me on Judaism and I have educated her on Christianity. She has shared experiences of living in Israel. I tell her what it’s like living in small, southern coastal town. She is my first and last thought each day. We compliment each other in every way. I am a better individual for knowing her. We don’t give each other labels-Jewish, Gentile, Israeli, American. We are two people-who are both friends and if things keep going ahead-future couple. Her family is okay with me not being Jewish. Mine is okay with her not being Christian. The families are looking forward to meeting each other. Unfortunately, there is some resistance from more than a few of her friends.

    Relationships are not easy and neither is marriage. When it is of an interfaith nature it can be even more difficult if you let it. The choice was made not to get caught up on difference but emphasize similiarities. There will be decisions to make. The first decision has already been made—not to run and hide from issues such as the religion of any children, the wedding…. However, this why I visit this site and so does she. So we can educate ourselves and each other.

    No one will deny that Jewish people have been marked for generations. Events like the pogroms and the Holocaust are a stain on humanity that should never be forgotten. My family has seen the results up close. Two relatives of mine help liberate death camps in Germany during World War II. One of these men still has occasional nightmares about what he saw. The threats still exist today from Islamic extremists.

    I think Judaism is a wonderful religion. It does not need improving. I also think Jews as a whole are honorable, industrious, and caring people. In my mind, this is attributed to the value system of the religion. I see it constantly in the woman I love. It was what attracted me to her because I was raised with the same set of values. (Honesty,caring, faith, strong familiy) However, I will point out that neither of us plan on converting nor want the other to do it. Why? Because we enjoy learning from each other and taking part in each other’s traditions. It is what has created our bond.

    Hopefully now that I got your attention, you will think about what I wrote. Gentiles are no threat nor is interfaith relationships. They are wonderful experiences that allow both people to grow. Keep your pride and dedication to your faith for you have much to be proud.

  5. anti:
    while you also raise some good points, i must tell you that i am not open to everything and anything. if i were to marry a non-Jew, it would be someone who does not practice another religion. i can’t see myself marrying a devout Christian for the same reason i can’t see myself with an Orthodox Jew- both are too religious for me and our viewpoints would be completely different. while i’ve met some wonderful men who fit in both religious categories, i just don’t think it would work on a romantic level. i don’t attend church, nor am i Shabbat observant. obviously, i’d prefer to marry a Jewish man but i’m not going to be with someone simply because they share a religion with me. if they have no other commonalities, then it makes no sense to start a relationship with them, at least in my opinion.

    as to why there are typically more conversions for the sake of marriage than of free will, that might have something to do with all the Jewish in-laws out there who want to keep up appearances and not have to deal with hearing gossip about them at shul. the only reason why i don’t like conversion for marriage is because it’s usually a result of succumbing to pressure from in-laws.

    i appreciate your plans to make aliyah and raise your children in Israel. yes, they will have Jewish pride instilled in them. but even the proudest of Jews sometimes find themselves in love with non-Jews and sometimes marry them. if they are truly committed to Judaism, either their partner will see that and choose to convert or raise Jewish children (if they are not yet ready or willing to convert), or the religious difference (or parental disapproval) will put a strain on both and lead to a break-up or divorce. you can instill in the importance of in-marriage all you want in your future children. but do it in a proper manner. in other words, without threats of disowning them or that they will break the chain if they intermarry. highlighting the positives is always more constructive than the negatives.

  6. I appreciate your apology because I was in a rage when I read it. Half of my father’s family was wiped out in the Holocaust and as you can see I don’t appreciate being compared to a Nazi.

    You see like a good guy but it’s obvious you are ignorant of Judaism and our history. I don’t mean that as an insult because I’m ignorant about being a Southern Christian American.

    I and other Jews are against intermarriage because we don’t want to see our people disappear. Our numbers have dwindled because of the Holocaust, pogroms, forced conversions, self-hatred, assimilation and intermarriage. It’s easy to say that religion culture, traditions don’t matter when your people are not in danger of becoming extinct. You have never experienced the pain of thinking about the relatives that would have been born, and have never met, because their parents, grandparents were brutally murdered in concentration camps.

    Jews outside of Israel are shrinking and will continue to if Jews don’t start marrying each other. Interfaith marriages are a threat to Judaism but you don’t see that because it’s something you don’t understand.

    Ingermarriage is also difficult and confusing for the children. Most choose Christianity over Judaism. In fact 90% of the grandchildren of intermarried couples will not identify as Jews.

    I’m against intermarriage because I want Judaism to be perserved and want to see Jewish babies being born. It has nothing to do with hatred or bigotry against Gentiles.

    Israel is totally different when it comes to intermarriage than America. Your girlfriend is obviously a secular Israeli Jew but even most secular Israelis are against intermarriage. Intermarriage is not recognized in Israel. Even people with Jewish fathers have to go through conversion for their marriage to be legally sanctioned by the state.
    Israeli culture is also very different than American Jewish culture. Go in with your eyes wide open. If you think my opinions are harsh against intermarriage there are 10 times harsher in Israel. I won’t wish you luck in your relationship with your Israeli girl but don’t take it personally. You seem like a nice guy but, as you can see, my opinions on intermarriage are very strong. Good luck in everything else though.

    h;
    You make a lot of good points. For me it’s all about priorities and values that are important in your life that makes you decide what you look for in a partner. My parents never threatened my siblings and I about intermarriage. Jewish values were instilled in us at an early age and that made us more likely to choose Jewish spouses. Take care.

  7. Hey Anti,

    Glad we’re cool with each other. You’re right about a lot of things. While I’m not totally ignorant of Judaism and it’s history, I don’t know 90% of it. Nor can I relate to dwindling numbers. Unfortunately, I know about Israel’s take on intermarriage. My gal has taken more than her fair share of grief about me. It’s alien to me. I am Episcopalian. In the south, the Episcopal church and the Jewish community are very close. It pains me when I hear about the remarks made to her. My sister has been called a shiska to her face. Your opinions are strong. That is evident. Just be careful not to let it develop into an us vs them mentality in other areas. Good Luck with your Aliyah. I hope you and your girlfriend have a long happy life with many children. Also, keep in touch with me and let me know how things are going.

  8. It’s nice to see anti-intermarriage being civil after some very nasty posts here in the past, but I’d like to correct several statements she makes so that Matt doesn’t take her word as gospel:

    1) Anti-intermarriage says, “Jews outside of Israel are shrinking and will continue to if Jews don’t start marrying each other.” It’s a common misperception that the world Jewish population is shrinking. Due to the imprecision of Jewish population estimates, this is in no way clear. But the notion that the Jewish population in America has shrunk is pure bunk. While the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey showed a decrease in the number of Jews since the 1990 survey, the result has been discredited by nearly all respected demographers; even the authors of the report admit that the survey undercounted the American Jewish population. By any measure, the American Jewish population increased during the ’90s. The only major Jewish demographer who continues to maintain that the American Jewish population has shrunk is the Israeli Sergio DellaPergola. I mention him to demonstrate that his was not a biased voice when he wrote in 2002 that the world Jewish population had slightly increased since the previous year. And as easy as it is to pin the blame for flattening population numbers on intermarriage, it’s not entirely accurate. Especially in America, Jewish birth rates are below replacement rate–so even Jews married to Jews aren’t having enough babies to replace those Jews that die.

    2) Anti-intermarriage also states, “Ingermarriage (sic) is also difficult and confusing for the children. Most choose Christianity over Judaism.” That’s pure speculation. The best numbers we have for the percentage of children of intermarriage being raised in a particular religion come from the 2000-01 NJPS, which I already mentioned was flawed. That survey showed that 33-39% of the children of intermarriage were being raised Jewish and speculated that roughly a third were being raised Christian and roughly a third were being raised in both or nothing. I don’t think a single respected demographer would give any credence to the idea that most children of intermarriage choose Christianity over Judaism.

    Anti-intermarriage is right about one thing, though: attitudes about intermarriage are significantly harsher in Israel than they are here. Of course, it’s easy to be against intermarriage when 80% of your potential mates are Jewish.

  9. 1/ Conservative Judaism is the fastest shrinking branch of Judaism. The fastest growing are the Orthodox (especially the ultra-Orthodox). Why take advice from the Conservatives?

    2/ The Orthodox are having more (the ultra-Orthdox much more) than the replacement level of Jews, so by following the Orthodox example (extremely few intermarriages, and in some communities zero), the Jewish community can be assured of growth (in the case of the ultra-Orthodox tremendous growth)

  10. Matt;
    Thanks for understanding my point of view. I do respect your opinion because of your background and I really can’t blame your for being in love with an Israeli Jewish girl. Please don’t take my views as being bigoted against Gentiles. I have many Gentiles friends and who are of different religions but mostly Christians. Most of them agree with my position on intermarriage because they want their children to be raised with their beliefs and they know it would difficult to do that with a non-Christian partner.
    I personally know converts to Judaism who are more “Jewish” than many Jews I know. They didn’t convert for anyone but themselves and it’s beautiful thing to see their devotion to Judaism. Some have married Jews and I consider their children fully Jewish.
    I hope you continue to get educated on Judaism. I’ll been educating myself on Christianity. Take care.

    Micah;
    I’m a he not a she. You’re wrong on both #1 and #2 points. The American Jewish population has decreased. The studies that I’ve read are very clear about that. In addition to intermarriage it’s the low Jewish birth rate, that you mentioned, that has contributed to this.
    You say that the American Jewish population is undercounted but that’s based on counting people who have one Jewish parent or one Jewish grandparent. Many of them have never considered themselves Jewish but people with some Jewish heritage. There is a big difference.
    The only segments of the Jewish population that have increased are the Orthodoxy who have high birth rates and practically no intermarriage. Dave is absolutely correct.

    Your last point is absolutely flat out wrong. Most children of intermarriage do pick Christianity, albeit secular, over Judaism. Or most of them will be secular with no religious identity. Who can blame them when they live on a predominately Christian country and have a weak connection to Judaism.
    You cite studies of 30-39% of intermarried children being raised as Jews which are flawed. Most of these children will grow up and leave Judaism. 90% of granchildren of intermarried couples will not identify as Jews. You know it’s the truth so you shouldn’t deny it.
    You have your own personal agenda because your wife is not Jewish and you want to change Judaism to accomodate your lifestyle choices. I understand why you’re so defensive about the truth but don’t blatantly lie to Matt and others about the stats on the children of intermarriage.

    I was offended about your last comment on Israel. You seemed to imply that Jews only marry other Jews when they have no choice. Many American Jews do actively choose other Jews to date and marry because we find Judaism important in our lives, despite Jews being only 1-2% of the population.
    Lile many American Jewish males you seem to have negative feelings toward Jewish women. Maybe that’s the reason that you married a non-Jew. It’s really sad.

  11. Micah,
    I apologize for impyling that you have negative feelings toward Jewish women and that is the reason you intermarried. I do believe that one of the reasons that some American Jewish men intermarry is because of their dislike of Jewish women. However, I realize that it’s unfair to put you in that category and I was wrong for doing that.

  12. My apologies in turn for saying you are a “she.”
    However, I am not married, to a non-Jewish woman or otherwise. Nor am I engaged or dating a non-Jewish woman.
    I would love to know the names of the studies that say the American Jewish population is falling. I regularly keep up with these studies, and I have yet to see one by a respected demographer that aligns with your claim.

  13. Anti-intermarriage,

    I certainly appreciate your passion and commitment to your faith. May I respectfully suggest that perhaps this is not the best forum for the tone of your discussion? While I absolutely support your choice to live your life the way you do, and to have your opinions, the mission of this network is to encourage Jewish choices in interfaith marriages. Discussing whether or not interfaith marriages are positive or negative in and of themselves seems to ignore the context of the network. People are encouraged to come here to learn about making Jewish choices; I would feel a lot more comfortable using this site for that purpose if I didn’t have to read re-iterations of how my choice is “wrong” and my children are doomed to abandon their Jewish identities. It must be equally frustrating for you to see people post and discuss about making interfaith marriages work. Perhaps your passion and commitment would be more constructive in a forum where the intended audience isn’t objectionable to you?

  14. the above poster has a point. people use this site to learn, and for many it is the only source of support they receive because their families and communities are uncomfortable with their marital choices. it’s fine that anti-intermarriage has their opinions and is committed to preserving Judaism, and i am glad that someone is as dedicated as they are to the cause. but for the countless Jews who have non-Jewish partners, these opinions can scar their potential to make the Jewish choices that this site encourages and may ultimately turn them off from wanting to raise Jewish children. it can also kill any possibility that non-Jewish spouses will consider conversion if they are treated like monsters. is that what we want? of course not! at this point in time, Jews of all kinds (whether in-married or intermarried) need encouragement to feel as though they are part of a community.

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