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Conservative Body Extends Hand to the Intermarried

This article originally appeared in, and is reprinted with permission of, the Forward. Visit www.Forward.com. For subscription information, call 1-866-399-7900.

A major arm of Conservative Judaism is attempting to take some bite out of the movement's hard-line stand against intermarriage -- and no one, at least publicly, seems to mind.

This crack in the ideological wall is coming from the movement's Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, in the form of a new publication titled "Building the Faith: A Book of Inclusion for Dual-Faith Families." The 70-page booklet, geared toward pulpit rabbis and lay leaders, argues for increased participation of non-Jews in synagogue rituals. It calls for the movement to do "everything we can" to increase the involvement of intermarried families in Jewish communal life.

"You can't just put your head in the sand," said Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, which serves as the central body for synagogue-affiliated lay-led social groups across the country. "Our people are in real agony. No one is providing them with guidance when members of their family intermarry. Our movement is not providing rabbis and lay people with the rhetoric and programmatic guidance they need in order to address the major issue of the Jewish community."

Rabbi Simon described the new booklet as "radical," even though it upholds the movement's prohibitions against intermarriage, rabbinical officiating at mixed-marriage ceremonies and non-Jewish participation in many aspects of synagogue life.

Rather than take aim at these regulations -- which are widely supported among movement leaders -- the new document endorses a more liberal interpretation of existing rules, while urging congregational leaders to focus more time and resources on finding ways to include non-Jewish spouses.

The publication has received the blessing of Rabbi Kassel Abelson, chairman of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the Conservative movement's supreme religious lawmaking body. In an August 2 statement, Rabbi Abelson said the booklet provides "a good summary of the positions of the Conservative movement" and will help synagogue leaders "deal with the many problems that mixed marriages raise in our congregations."

In the past, movement leaders have called for strict policies against intermarriage and non-Jewish participation. At the same time, most of these leaders advocated outreach to mixed couples in the interest of having their children raised as Jews and encouraging non-Jewish spouses to convert. But critics inside and outside Conservative circles complain that too much emphasis has been put on promoting the movement's anti-intermarriage message, at the cost of alienating many intermarried couples.

"This book is breaking new ground because, up until now, we have talked about intermarriage only in negative terms," said Rabbi David Booth, a contributor to the new booklet and the newly appointed religious leader of Temple Beth Torah in Ocean Township, N.J. "This book says we will do a better job of maintaining boundaries if we open up, if we talk about things in a positive way."

In his article for the new publication, Rabbi Booth argues for including non-Jewish family members in the Torah service. While the Conservative movement prohibits non-Jews from reading from or blessing the Torah, Rabbi Booth told the Forward that congregations should consider allowing them to open and close the ark that contains the scrolls, "dress" the Torah in its decorative cover and lead the congregation in certain English readings.

"The restrictions are on anything for which there is a religious obligation," Rabbi Booth said, attempting to explain his rational for permitting non-Jews to participate in some aspects of the service, but not others. "For example, they can't lift the Torah because there is an obligation for people to see the print. But with [putting the cover back on the Torah] there is no such obligation."

The booklet also calls for the creation of support groups for intermarried families and "think-tanks" in each congregation that would focus on making synagogues more welcoming. It suggests that rabbis and synagogues are often ill-prepared to counsel families that are dealing with intermarriage issues, and suggests programs to improve the situation.

The booklet was published over a month ago, but leaders of the movement's main rabbinical seminary and congregational body -- who can usually be counted on to defend the Conservative positions on intermarriage -- say they have yet to read it. Among those not commenting are the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, and its provost, Jack Wertheimer, who for years has lamented what he sees as the Jewish community's failure to uphold the historic taboo against intermarriage.

United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism executive vice president Rabbi Jerome Epstein also said he has not read the new publication, but suggested that, in recent years, Jewish leaders and organizations generally have not been doing enough to promote endogamy.

"Today everybody wants to stress welcoming, and we do too, but there has to be a balance," Rabbi Epstein said. "If we don't articulate the message that endogamy is important, we're afraid that it won't be articulated at all."

Steven Bayme, national director of contemporary Jewish life for the American Jewish Committee, praised the Conservative movement for historically combining a principled opposition to intermarriage with a sense of compassion for the intermarried.

"They hold the middle ground," said Mr. Bayme, who earlier this year organized a coalition that aims to prop up the communal taboo against intermarriage. "Ten years ago I spoke to the [Conservative movement's] Rabbinical Assembly, and said that outreach and inclusivity are desirable so long as they don't alter our value system and sense of priorities. The Conservative movement has carefully toed this middle ground."

Critics, however, counter that in the push to uphold and publicize their opposition to intermarriage, Conservative leaders have created an unwelcoming atmosphere in many synagogues, even for those who are willing to accept stringent limits on non-Jewish participation.

"I think the issue is not about rules, but attitude," said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute. Many interfaith families are willing to accept the rules of a particular movement, Rabbi Olitzky added, so long as a congregation welcomes them and treats them with respect.

"It's when those parameters get translated by individual rabbis because of their prejudice, and then that becomes the benchmark for the movement, that a problem emerges," Rabbi Olitzky said. "I think the Conservative movement could be more open then it has been. We're not asking the movement to change its rules necessarily, only asking them to open up those rules within the context of reality."

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. A cabinet- or cupboard-like structure that houses the Torah(s) in a synagogue.
Ami Eden

Ami Eden writes for the Forward.

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