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Reprinted with permission of j. the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Visit www.jewishsf.com.
Though discouraged by all streams of Judaism, intermarriage remains a stubborn fact of Jewish life. But how should congregations respond to the challenge?
Step one: Form a committee. That's just what a consortium of local Conservative rabbis did. Funded by the Walter and Elise Haas Foundation, the group launched the Tiferet Project--tiferet is Hebrew for "beauty"--to address the subject of intermarriage head on.
Participating were Rabbis Stuart Kelman (Congregation Netivot Shalom), Mark Bloom (Temple Beth Abraham), Gordon Freeman (Congregation B'nai Shalom), Ted Feldman (Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay), Harry Manhoff (Temple Beth Sholom) and Mimi Weisel (Jewish Community High School of the Bay). Tiferet's lay members included Rose Levinson and Glenn Massarano.
After two years of research and debate, they collectively wrote A Place in the Tent: Intermarriage and Conservative Judaism. The book offers remedies to real-life questions that Conservative congregations face, everything from whether non-Jewish spouses may stand on the bimah to whether they may serve on synagogue committees ("yes" and "yes, but...").
"None of the questions was simply theoretical," says Kelman. "I could see these things happening in my congregation."
The book also proffers a newly coined term to describe non-Jewish partners of Jewish congregants. Say hello to k'rov Yisrael. K'rov Yisrael (called KY in the book) means "friend or relative of Israel." For the rabbis of the Tiferet project, the term is far more inclusive then, say, "non-Jew."
"Labels can be tricky," says Weisel. "They can put someone in a bad light. Yet there's tremendous power in acknowledging someone's humanity and existence, and giving them a place within the structure."
Over the years the rabbis met, disagreements often arose, and the book reflects them. Although the group sought answers in line with halachah (Jewish law), some problems presented no simple solutions.
For example, the rabbis couldn't completely agree on whether halachically non-Jewish children could attend religious school. Some said no, others said yes (with reservations), the last word on the subject being: "We need to think about this situation and find creative solutions."
Said Kelman: "I took all responses, edited them, and showed that even in a small geographic area rabbis could differ."
However all agreed that KYs couldn't be full members, but rather associate members of congregations, a position consistent with the Conservative movement's official policy.
Beyond the rabbinical dialogue, A Place in the Tent includes first-person case histories by actual KYs from local congregations. One is Alice Hale, a member of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland and a Jew-by-choice. The subject of intermarriage proved so meaningful in her own life, she signed on as Tiferet's new outreach coordinator. Hale now works with the East Bay's Conservative congregations, helping them best serve their intermarried member families.
"A lot of Jewish members don't know what the non-Jewish parent can do," she says. "Some congregations have developed customs and standards around rituals and lifecycle events. I'm trying to get them to put these down on paper. It's a matter of talking about these things, and everyone will feel more comfortable."
Positive as the Tiferet Project may be, none of the participating rabbis would wish to convey the message that intermarriage is suddenly cool with Conservative Judaism. On that score, nothing has changed.
Says Kelman: "Once someone has intermarried, then it's a fact on the ground. That's the issue we deal with. This is not saying intermarriage is OK."
As for the goals of Tiferet, all are looking beyond the confines of the Bay Area. The rabbis hope their work has an impact on Conservative Judaism nationwide.
Says Weisel: "I hope this will create a conversation within different synagogues, give them tools for discussing the issues in ways that are respectful of tradition."
A Place in the Tent: Intermarriage and Conservative Judaism by the Tiferet Project ($8.95, EKS Publishing, 81 pages).