Reprinted with permission of the New Jersey Jewish News.
A sea change regarding intermarriage is taking place within the Conservative movement as it struggles to find a middle ground that opposes intermarriage while at the same time welcoming non-Jewish spouses. The change comes with the hope that they will either eventually convert to Judaism or, if they choose not to, that they will be better equipped to raise Jewish children.
An announcement came last month that the New Jersey region of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has revamped a basic Judaism course to attract non-Jews who have not made a commitment to convert. Around the same time, the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs Inc., the largest national organization for Conservative lay leaders, went a few steps further in publishing a handbook advocating extensive synagogue participation of non-Jewish spouses.
Rabbi Jonathan Lubliner is dean of the new course offered by the New Jersey USCJ, which is the umbrella organization of the Conservative movement. "For the first time, conversion is not going to be a requirement to take a course," Lubliner said. "For over 20 years, United Synagogue offered its Conversion Institute, but we've changed its name to reflect the wider scope." The new name is the Institute for Conversion and Outreach Education.
Starting the week of Oct. 28, the course will be offered at three locations. One of them is Congregation Adath Shalom in Morris Plains, whose rabbi, Eliseo Rozenwasser, had long been recommending that conversion and outreach courses be offered in various areas rather than only at United Synagogue's regional office in Linden. Lubliner's Middlesex County synagogue, Beth Ohr in Old Bridge, will also host the course, as will the Jewish Community Center in Paramus.
"By working with three locations throughout the region, students can gain a stronger sense of connection with the hosting synagogue," stated Rozenwasser. Dubbed "If You've Ever Wondered About Judaism... An Introductory Course in Judaism," the course aims to attract intermarried couples with no immediate plans for the non-Jewish partner to convert. Participants, however, must be committed to raising their children as Jews.
"This course is not for those in dual-faith marriages," emphasized Lubliner. "From our perspective, raising children in two religions in not possible and it's not something we would advocate in any case."
In the Rabbinical Assembly discussions that led up to the change, "we never felt it was giving a blessing over intermarriage," said Rozenwasser. "It was more of an approach to deal with it after a fact, with the goal of making sure children will be raised Jewish.
"We recognized that it's a big commitment" for intermarried parents to raise their children strictly as Jews. "The more we can do to help them accomplish that, the better. In this way we are looking at a cup that is half full," said Rozenwasser.
Lubliner cautioned that the "course will not convert you. It's not coterminous with conversionary studies. To convert, you still need a sponsoring rabbi and more extensive study." But if a student in the new course decides midway to convert, he said, "we'll set them on the conversion course and help find a sponsoring rabbi."
The course will run one evening per week for 24 weeks, with an optional Hebrew component and added experiential options such as Shabbatons. The regular teachers will bring in frequent guest lecturers who specialize in a particular aspect of Jewish law or ritual, such as a chaplain to speak about bikur holim and death and dying issues and a mohel (person trained to perform a ritual circumcision) to speak about circumcision.
While "no one is representing that the next step [after taking the course] is conversion--that's up to the congregational rabbi--I think conversion will be the end result for many," said Rozenwasser. By becoming more familiar with Judaism and its rituals, he explained, "it makes more sense to convert rather than maintain a dual-faith marriage. Furthermore, the fear some may have about conversion can be dissipated as they learn more about the religion."
The Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs proposals go far beyond offering a course to non-Jewish spouses and may prove more controversial. The new FJMC booklet, "Building the Faith: A Booklet for Inclusion of Dual-Faith Families," urges the Conservative movement to spend more time and resources to increase the involvement of intermarried families in communal life and Jewish ritual.
Subjects include sensitizing temple leaders to the needs and methods of outreach, guiding an intermarried child or one who plans to intermarry, and how rabbis and congregations can address life-cycle events in interfaith families. The 70-page booklet also defines terms and movement limits in building an outreach program, presents a mentoring program case study and statements on intermarriage from the Conservative viewpoint, and discusses "Grandparenting in the Age of Intermarriage." One essay in the publication argues that non-Jews may even be included in certain Torah-related rituals.
"This book will raise many eyebrows, I'm sure," stated FJMC executive director Rabbi Charles Simon. "But the statistics won't go away if we keep sticking our heads in the sand. We need to get these people back--we can't afford to push them away any longer."
In the next year or two, the FJMC will begin "training specialists in various communities to present model programs on outreach and retention," continued Simon. The idea is to "change the culture of the synagogue" to retain Jews in intermarried families.
While Rozenwasser has yet to see the FJMC proposals--its publication coincided with the busy High Holy Day schedule--he said he is open to its philosophy. At Adath Shalom, he said, non-Jews may not receive an aliya (called up to the podium to recite a blessing over the Torah) but can participate in non-ritual activities. Intermarried couples have lower dues because there is a separate membership category for non-Jews, but temple correspondence is addressed to both heads of the family, he said.