Attracting Interfaith Families to the Conservative Movement Day Schools

Last week, the Rabbinical Assembly (the rabbis’ guild for the Conservative movement), sent out a press release. Together with representatives from the Schechter Day School Network (the Jewish day schools affiliated with the Conservative denomination), they met in late-October to talk about “outreach to and inclusion of intermarried families.” Great!

This isn’t the first time we’ve looked at how to attract and include interfaith families in Jewish day schools. We blogged about the AviCHAI foundation’s conversation and I participated in their day of meetings, which brought together teachers, school administrators, other Jewish educators, parents, and community professionals such as myself.

Back to the Rabbinical Assembly’s press release. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the consensus reached in their meetings would likely continue to alienate the families they want to attract and include.

The rabbis expressed their commitment to conversion according to the standards of Conservative Judaism, as the ideal for our keruv (outreach) to these families.

Our studies have shown that having conversion as the focus of the Jewish community’s outreach creates barriers to inclusion and welcome. “Perceived pressure to convert” is ranked as a barrier to expanded connection with Jewish community institutions, such as synagogues and, I’m extrapolating here, day schools. If that pressure is a deterrent from going to Shabbat services, wouldn’t it also be a deterrent from sending kids to day school?

The focus on conversion as the ideal continued, as exemplified by one of the “challenging questions” the group discussed:

What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is not yet Jewish to the school?

Before getting to a timeline, let’s take a step back. A great place to start would be using inclusive language. If a child is going to your school, chances are their parents are raising them as Jews. So clarify what you actually mean, but do it in a way that does not further alienate these families. How about,

What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is a patrilineal Jew?

I would, of course, recommend defining such a term on your forms. Make sure to explain why the Conservative movement does not view patrilineal descent as “Jewish,” unlike the Reform movement. (Conservative Judaism determines who they consider to be a Jew through matrilineal descent — a Jew is someone who is born to a Jewish mother, or who has converted to Judaism in a ceremony that meets their requirements.) For these children of patrilineal descent, the assumption is that their parents would want them to convert, that their families need additional support and Jewish education as well. In some cases, sure; we’ve received plenty of feedback from parents over the years, telling us they’d love to learn along with their kids. But for others, the additional resources might not be wanted. (I wonder if all families at the schools are viewed equally: are resources offered to parents who have in-married but who do not practice Judaism at home? What about intermarried families where the mother is Jewish, thus the Conservative movement considers the children Jewish — are they offered resources too?)

As my colleague, Ari Moffic, wrote in February, 2012, you might also consider creating “A Pledge for All of Our Families” for your schools. Her suggested template offers inclusive language that could be inserted in every school’s handbook and/or posted to the school’s website.

It’s great to see that the follow-up activities will include “drafting recommended language for admission applications to the schools.” Hopefully the resources on our site will help with that process.

And when you start looking for professionals to join your focus groups, you know where to find me.

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2 thoughts on “Attracting Interfaith Families to the Conservative Movement Day Schools

  1. I was bat mitzvah in a Conservative synagogue. I married a non-Jew. We joined the closest synagogue when I was pregnant, a Conservative synagogue, and we had his bris there. We were TOLD that the synagogue was very welcoming to interfaith families. I never saw any evidence of it. We were approached one time during a small service to see if we wanted to open the Ark. I honestly wasn’t sure if they’d even welcome my husband on the bima, so I went up alone. When I was asked, what about your husband, I said, oh! he’s not Jewish. And the person said, oh, it’s a good thing he’s still sitting then.

    We switched to a Reform synagogue as soon as we moved out of the neighborhood, and I’m not considering Conservative again. They just don’t “get it”.

    To be fair, my non-Jewish said that he didn’t notice a difference between the Conservative and Reform synagogue services, except that the Conservatives mumbled more!

  2. One of the challenges IFF may have in getting invited to the table in a dialogue with Conservatives may be your judgmental tone. Just as it is important to remember that non-Jews have valid if different religious ideas than Jews, it is important to remember that Jews themselves have different, yet valid, religious beliefs. I didnā€™t understand until I was well into your article that when you spoke of ā€˜conversion, you didnā€™t mean the non-Jewish parent, but rather the child who is not halachically Jewish according to traditional Jewish law. So letā€™s slow down here. First, we arenā€™t talking about converting any adults. We are talking about WHO the school can admit as a student and their efforts to admit children who they previously could not. That is a worthy endeavor and I commend them. How about we begin with a positive message rather than a negative one? In my work with interfaith couples and families, I find that looking at what they are doing well is a much better way to help them develop new ideas for themselves. I think the same is true here. Letā€™s try to walk our talk and be inclusive of the efforts put forward instead of rejecting them for being different from us.

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