A New Conservative Approach to Conversion and Intermarriage

Crossposted to Jewschool.

“I am worried that our present policy is internally conflicted and thus strategically self-defeating,” the rabbi said. “The idea of refusing to be present for the wedding and then expecting the couple to feel warmly embraced by the Jewish people strikes me as a policy constructed by someone who doesn’t know the mind of a young couple…. I am not exactly clear on the message the Conservative movement is sending out into the world, and I am not sure if it is a viable policy in the long term.”

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue

This quote is from Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, a Conservative shul in NYC. He’s not talking about a policy shift within his synagogue or the Conservative movement, but sharing his thoughts on conversion and intermarriage, as reported in the New York Jewish Week (Time To Rethink Conversion Policy).

He likened [the current approach] to joining a gym, noting that a potential gym member is not told first to exercise, get in good shape and then join. Rather, if the person is willing to join, he or she signs up and then the work begins. Moreover, the rabbi added, this logic is not just one of good consumer policy but is consistent with traditional Jewish teaching.

In one of the most famous Talmud stories, the man who wants to learn all of the Torah while standing on one foot is shooed away by Shammai, who has no patience for him, but welcomed by Hillel.

“First, Hillel converts, and then Hillel teaches,” Rabbi Cosgrove said. “First you join and then, once you are a vested member, you figure out what it’s all about.”

In that way, the rabbi suggested that it might be more effective for Conservative rabbis to first accept converts and then teach them.

This would be a huge shift! Compare it to the usual course of action someone follows if converting within Conservative Judaism: a year of study followed by formal conversion (going to the mikveh, and brit milah or brit hadam if the convert is a male).

Imagine if, when an interfaith couple approached a Conservative rabbi to officiate their wedding, the response wasn’t “I can’t officiate, but consider conversion!” or “I can’t officiate, but you’re still welcome to come to synagogue!” but instead was “Welcome! Let’s bring you into the community, celebrate your wedding, and then, as you and your partner establish this next phase of your lives together, let’s make sure Jewish learning is included!”

“My priority is to create Jewish homes, and everything I do is toward that goal,” he said. When a congregant’s adult child comes to him with a non-Jewish partner and wants to get married, he now describes the yearlong conversion program requirement that is a prerequisite to the wedding. Many of them, he says, never come back, choosing a justice of the peace or other [Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal] clergy to marry them.

As Rabbi Cosgrove points out, “love trumps religious affiliation, with the result being that few families are immune from the situation of a child coming home with a non-Jewish partner and wanting to be married in a Jewish ceremony.” So the question becomes: how do rabbis keep up? Do you think Rabbi Cosgrove’s idea to convert the partner who isn’t Jewish so that Conservative rabbis can officiate their weddings and then bring them to study would work? Do you have other ideas?

Israel Doesn’t Want Reform Converts?

There is a very powerful op-ed in the New York Jewish Week today, Israel Doesn’t Want a Reform Convert Like Me by Rabbi Heidi Hoover who serves as rabbi of Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek in Brooklyn.

Jewish status in Israel is controlled by the Chief Rabbinate, and conversions by non-Orthodox rabbis – and now even under by some Orthodox rabbis – are not recognized. Because Rabbi Hoover converted to Judaism under Reform auspices, her conversion is not recognized, and she concludes, “Israel doesn’t want me.”

I think Rabbi Hoover is exactly right when she says,

One of the messages that American Jews receive relentlessly is that we need to support Israel. There is much hand wringing over the perceived lessening of American Jewish connection to Israel among teens and young adults, and even among rabbinical students. I believe this lessening of connection is in part due to a growing number of American Jews who cannot fully live as Jews in Israel because their status as Jews is not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate….

The question of Jewish status depends on who you are asking, or whose opinion you care about. Rabbi Hoover tells people in her congregation who are converts under liberal auspices, and people who identify as Jewish whose mothers were not Jewish, that “they are, in fact, Jewish,” but she wants them to be prepared that there are those who will not recognize them as such. That’s important, especially for the many young adults raised as Jews in interfaith families whose Jewish status would be questioned by others.

I think Rabbi Hoover also is exactly right when she concludes,

It is crucial that American Jews of all denominations join to support religious pluralism in Israel, and in the United States as well. We need to find ways to respect and recognize each other’s conversions and life-cycle rituals. There are not so many of us that we can afford to be divided, and if Israel continues to disenfranchise American Jews, she cannot expect their support to continue indefinitely.

Membership Possibilities: the Give and Take Model

Many rabbis I meet with me tell me that they need more members in their synagogues. They want to retain their current members while adding new members. Congregations have tried different models for making membership more appealing to more people, from suggested donations rather than membership dues to low cost membership for the first year or for people under 30.Give (and Take) More and more congregations are going into secular spaces to try to meet potential congregants who may have misconceptions about synagogue membership or may not know all that a community has to offer.

There is much talk about what young professionals need and want. There is more and more talk about what newly empty nesters need and want and how to engage or re-engage them before they walk away from the synagogue where their children were called to the Torah as a bar or bat mitzvah. As a caveat to this thought, I meet so many couples where one partner had grown up at a local congregation but the family had “dropped out” after the bar/bat mitzvah and now they need to find a rabbi for a wedding.

I have been thinking about a possible new model for congregations. This is the Give and Take model of membership. What if congregations said to the wider community that they want people to associate with this congregation because:

  1. You live in the area.
  2. Judaism is best expressed and lived in community, from study and worship to holiday celebrations and life cycle events. True, Judaism is a religion anchored in the home, but “doing Jewish” with other people adds joy, support, depth, purpose, and more that can’t be felt when observing at isolated moments in private affairs.
  3. This community needs you to share your talents. Judaism is part of your story, part of your heritage and consciousness, and the intergenerational make-up of this synagogue will be enriched by you. Yes, this is a selfless act of volunteerism to benefit others who share part of your story, who are your “extended family,” but giving in this way will undoubtedly fill you.
  4. The Jewish community will change and adapt and learn from you when you are involved.
  5. You will need this community at times in your life and we need you now.

The way it works is that the person, couple, or family figures out what yearly financial contribution they can make to help sustain this local house of learning, worship, social justice, and fellowship. The new member then decides what they can give to the community in addition to money. Maybe it is time teaching in the religious school, preschool, or adult education realm. Maybe it is time sharing a background in PR, marketing, branding, website design, etc. Maybe it is time cooking for communal Shabbat and holiday meals. Maybe it is time visiting families with new babies or sitting with someone who has lost a spouse. Maybe it is job counseling. Maybe it is yoga classes. Whatever you do, the synagogue should make use of it. This is the “Give” part of the membership model.

The “Take” part of the membership model involves taking what those feel is a benefit. If people feel that they benefit from having a school for their children and for them to continue to learn about Judaism, then it has to be supported. If people feel that they benefit from communal holiday celebrations, there has to be space, prayer books, leaders, music, and food. People have to figure out what they value and find ways to keep those things running with vibrancy.

I know there is talk about how some people can’t articulate even why to be Jewish. Not only do most young professionals not want to join a synagogue, they feel no reason to enter one, investigate what’s out there, etc. Finding a rabbi for a life cycle event is one thing, but going to a temple is a whole other ball of wax. Judaism and religion are not on their minds. They are thinking about where to live, whether they like their jobs, whether they should marry their partner, how to keep a good relationship with parents. People think about having fun, how to make friends, whether they are happy. People think about the homeless, about their health, about international affairs. The environment, gun control, and whether all women will have access to safe abortions are topics discussed over coffee. People are secular. They don’t think about liberal religion on a daily basis. As I am writing this, I am sitting next to a neighbor at a coffee shop who said, “As a working mom I am just trying to survive!” Volunteering her time at a local temple would not see fathomable.

However, I am convinced that if this model began, and the people who are inclined to take part in the organized Jewish world find meaning in this Give and Take model, then the joy and sense of purpose and connectedness that they would garner from the experience would spread.

You may read this and say that all membership is give and take. You’re right, it is (or should be), but it needs to be made explicit. It needs to be organized with thoughtfulness and individuality.

What do you think? Could this work? Would people feel more engaged and committed in this model?

And through this, I haven’t even mentioned interfaith couples and families. For the partner who didn’t grow up with Judaism and for their extended family and friends who may find themselves at the synagogue, the community this person was actively giving and taking from would hopefully reflect their values and ideals as well. When people are active, not passive participants, their vision becomes reality.

How a Boycott is Inclusive

Temple Isaiah of Lafayette, CA (inland, due east of San Francisco) is making headlines. Their Board of Directors has “voted unanimously this week to to recommend that the rabbinical staff and synagogue members write letters stating their opposition to the policy, along with withdrawing financial support and refusing to participate in scouting events.”

Further, LGBTQNation reports:

The Board policy calls for a letter writing campaign to the local and national BSA councils, as well as encouraging Temple members and other community organizations to join in the effort to enact change through letters, financial pressure, postponing participation and supporting movements such as Scouts for Equality.

The board said it would also ask staff and others to decline [writing] Eagle Scout recommendations, or allow religious awards for the BSA until the policy is changed.

So why is a boycott something a Jewish community that prides itself on being welcoming of all might undertake? Inclusion shouldn’t just be lip-service. It’s not enough to say that LGBTQ people and their families are welcome in our synagogues — they’re demonstrating that they mean it by trying to change the homophobic policies of Boy Scouts of America. Temple Isaiah knows that folks will feel most welcome within its community when everyone feels they can be recognized as their full selves.

Which has me wondering: what actions can synagogues take to show they’re welcoming of interfaith families? They can join our Network so interfaith couples/families can find them. They can show they’re involved with us by adding our affiliate badge to their homepage. They can create inclusive policies. If you work at a synagogue and want to take actions to show you’re not just giving lip service to your welcome, check out our Resource Center for Program Providers for more suggestions.

Community’s Response to Intermarriage

Over on the Forward, there’s an interesting opinion piece on intermarriage that responds to Jane Eisner’s concerns. She wrote:

What haunts me and the many parents I know who have children in their twenties and thirties is whether they will marry and, if so, whether they will marry Jews.

The fact that this concern is rarely discussed publicly by the organized Jewish community highlights the disconnect between our so-called leadership and how most of us live our lives. And it reflects the extreme reluctance liberals feel to express out loud what may be perceived as a traditional, even intolerant point of view.

I found this interesting to read, given that I hear the conversations about intermarriage all the time. Of course, I work here at InterfaithFamily. But even when working at other Jewish organizations, intermarriage was a topic frequently discussed (and ususally from the perspective of “how are we going to prevent this second Holocaust?!?”). And, yes, these discussions happened amongst individuals who would be labeled as “liberal.”

Eisner’s conclusion?

We need to figure out how to honor individual choice and the desire to move beyond ghettoization with the communal need to promote marriage as the foundation for a healthy Jewish culture.

And that’s where things get interesting. Enter Dan Brotman’s response, also in the Forward.

Intermarriage is a deeply personal affair for American Jews, as most of us have a close relative or friend who has married out of the faith. If Eisner takes a look at the personal lives of major non-Orthodox Jewish donors and lay leaders in the United States, she will find that many of them are themselves married to non-Jews, or have children who are married to non-Jews.

How can she expect American Jewry’s “so-called leadership” to fight the battle against intermarriage when many of them have married out of the faith or have intermarried children? We are talking about people’s lives here, so a Jewish leader aggressively fighting against intermarriage will most likely risk hurting their intermarried children, friends and relatives. Like it or hate it, it is much easier to focus on Israel than to discuss an issue which so personally affects each and every one of us.

A great point to start us off. He continues,

Eisner’s alarmist language (“If current trends continue, worrying about whether our children hear an anti-Israel slur in the college dorm will be the least of our concerns”) makes intermarriage out to be a zero-sum game. But I know from personal experience that it is not. If Jewish continuity is Eisner’s biggest concern, she should first look at how the American Jewish establishment can make it easier for young people to raise Jewish families. This means highly subsidizing Jewish education and institutions, which will incentivize young Jewish professionals to get married and have children sooner.

If we accept that intermarriage cannot be wished away, then we need to ask whether the American Jewish establishment (federations, synagogues, schools, etc.) have been welcoming enough of interfaith families. Families which feel included in the Jewish community are more likely to raise Jewish children than if they are shut out. A single negative experience at a Jewish communal event or institution can sufficiently traumatize a non-Jewish spouse to the extent that they will distance themselves and their family from the Jewish community.

By the same token, a parent who rejects their child’s decision to marry a non-Jew risks that child not raising a Jewish family at all. It is much more effective for parents to actively assist their children to incorporate Judaism into their interfaith family than to treat it as an all-or-nothing situation.

Just read the whole response. He makes excellent points that mirror the mission and work of InterfaithFamily.

The Struggle to Tolerate the Intolerant… One Parent’s View

I heard someone say, “I hate the xxxx people. They are so intolerant.” I thought this was a very hypocritical statement and it was very… well, intolerant. You can insert any extremist group for xxxx, but the person seemed to think that they were very progressive and open minded in their thinking. I thought otherwise. I have struggled with this concept for months: I don’t want to be intolerant of people who are themselves intolerant because then I would be a hypocrite.

I try to teach my children to set high standards in order to do their best. Somehow, the implication of trying to attain high standards implies that other people have low standards. Who hasn’t heard the argument, “Well Joey gets to watch TV all day,” followed by, “I‘m not Joey’s parent!” I don’t want to insult or second-guess the judgment of another parent. I try not to criticize other people because, for all I know, maybe Joey doesn’t watch TV all day or his parents are not home when Joey watches TV. In the heat of the moment, it is difficult not to imply that we think we are better than others. However, as a parent, it is important to instill respect and acceptance of others.

For example, during the most recent election, I tried to teach my kids how lucky we are that we can vote for our president without fear. I punctuated the conversation by saying that in some countries, women aren’t allowed to vote. The kids were surprised and asked which countries and why. We have friends of many nationalities and I dodged the question because I didn’t want to create any inadvertent prejudice. My son’s good friend is Muslim and I didn’t want to get into a discussion about religious influence on politics in some countries.

While I don’t want to be a hypocrite, there are times when striving to be the best that we can be may come across as a little condescending. The crux of it is, as long as we are aware of where the line of tolerance is, we are doing the best we can. None of us can be “politically correct” all of the time, but as long as we are trying to be sensitive, that’s a very good first step.

In the Jewish community, there is often scorn or lack of respect toward intermarried couples. We need to embrace the different choices people make (even if we would choose differently) and encourage intermarried Jews to keep a piece of their Jewish identity. As Jews, if we are welcoming to the person of a different faith, they will likely gain additional respect for their spouse’s Jewish identity. Jewish people should treat all individuals regardless of their religion or background with chesed — kindness. We will all sleep a bit better knowing that we have been kind and respectful to others.