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Conservative Judaism Soft-Pedals Conversion In Outreach to Interfaith Families

July 10, 2009

This article originally appeared in The New York Jewish Week with the title,"Conservatives End Push To Convert Intermarrieds." Reprinted by permission.

At the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism's biennial convention in 2005, its top professional drew a line in the sand: He told delegates that the movement could no longer be passive on the issue of conversions. "We must," Rabbi Jerome Epstein said, "begin aggressively to encourage conversions" of non-Jewish spouses.

Quarterback Conservative rabbi
"If we needed to implement change, we realized the rabbis couldn't do it themselves but needed a strategic partner who was a member of their congregation," said Rabbi Charles Simon. "We wanted the rabbis to be the behind-the-scenes quarterback."

Meanwhile, the movement's Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, which two years earlier created a Keruv (outreach) Initiative, was encouraging a cultural change in synagogues to make them more inviting to potential members of diverse backgrounds. The message? No conversions necessary. Some suggested that United Synagogue's push for conversion was a reaction the Keruv Initiative.

Although not as divisive an issue as the ordination of openly gay students, the changing role of women in Jewish ritual and the question of whether the Conservative movement even follows halacha, the longstanding conversion controversy has quietly festered as yet another rift in the movement.

Without throwing daggers at one another, the United Synagogue and the Men's Club have gone their separate ways regarding conversions and outreach, and for the most part held their fire about the other. But there were exceptions. The Men's Club's Web site, for instance, noted without naming names that its Keruv program faced "resistance from both clergy and lay leaders who fear that promotion of keruv either sanctions intermarriage or compromises halachic standards."

These different approaches to the intermarried caused such concern among the other arms of the Conservative movement that a committee was established in an attempt to find common ground. The result is a pamphlet that will be distributed in the coming days in which all arms of the Conservative movement speak with one voice--decidedly softer in tone on conversions--in spelling out their principles on outreach:

  • All are welcome.
  • There is a commitment to fostering Jewish marriage and family life.
  • Interfaith couples are welcome.
  • There is "nurturing and support for the spiritual journey of non-Jewish partners who join us, to deepen their connections to the synagogue, the Jewish community and to the Jewish people, and to inspire them to consider conversion."

 

In discussing the pamphlet, Rabbi Joel Meyers, who was executive vice president of the movement's Rabbinical Assembly when it was written, said: "The movement is still very much in favor of Jewish family life, and so the question was how does one approach American Jewish communal life today without changing religious standards."

Asked about the noticeable shift in the United Synagogue's position away from an aggressive push for conversions, Rabbi Meyers said simply: "It's dealing with the reality of contemporary life."

It was also a compromise that all arms could live with; an initial draft didn't even contain the word "conversion."

Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, said that while the leaders of the movement were hammering out the wording of this pamphlet, the editors of the movement's magazine were not briefed on the policy shift. Perhaps as a result, the summer issue published last month focused exclusively on conversion, with a drawing on the cover of a woman entering a mikveh or ritual bath as part of the conversion process. No mention was made of interfaith families.

"We were not making any statement about interfaith families," said Joanne Palmer, co-editor of the magazine, Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism.

"You can't possible include everything in the magazine," Palmer said. "I would not be surprised if we take up interfaith families in a later issue."

This is certain to remain a hot-button issue. The United Synagogue's biennial convention in December will devote six hours to it, and for the first time Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, has been invited to address the delegates. The institute is an independent organization dedicated to bringing Judaism to interfaith families and the unaffiliated.

Rabbi Olitzky said he was aware of the movement's evolving stance on the intermarried and would have preferred that its new pamphlet on outreach omitted the word "conversion." "While I believe wholeheartedly in conversion, I do not believe that conversion is an outreach strategy," he said. "If you say on the one hand that we are welcoming you unconditionally, how can you then say we want you to convert?"

"As the movement is grappling with these issues, the world is moving very quickly and people are voting with their feet," Rabbi Olitzky added. "Outreach is running to where people are, not waiting for them to run to you. It is not halacha that is holding them [United Synagogue] back, it is synagogue culture and xenophobia."

Rabbi Simon, whose Men's Club organization has members in 275 of the movement's nearly 700 synagogues--down from 760 synagogues in 2005--said he hopes that the "culture of United Synagogue will be changed" now that it has a new top professional. Rabbi Steven Wernick succeeded Rabbi Jerome Epstein as executive vice president last week.

Rabbi Moshe Edelman, director of the United Synagogue's Committee on Congregational Standards, pointed out that in 1995 the entire Conservative movement adopted a policy that "called exclusively for conversion." He said it was the movement's answer to a 1990 Jewish population survey that found half of all Jews were marrying out of the faith.

When the results of a 2000 Jewish population survey found little change in the intermarriage rate, Rabbi Edelman said the United Synagogue published a document on interfaith marriage, Al HaDerech [On the Path], that said the non-Jewish spouse should be encouraged to "study and participate in Jewish life with the eventual goal of halachic conversion."

He said he wrote the paper in consultation with synagogue leaders from the different arms of the movement.

In the meantime, Rabbi Edelman said, "the Men's Club went off in its own direction. But it was made clear that the Rabbinical Assembly was in support of the Al HaDerech approach. ... It preferred the end result of a one-faith family. But given that this does not always happen, the next 15 pages [of the paper] is about how we can engage."

He suggested that the new pamphlet is designed "not to bridge the gap" but to bring the Men's Club back into the fold with the rest of the Conservative movement because it had been "in a distinct minority."

Rabbi Edelman added that the new pamphlet is consistent with the United Synagogue's approach even though its wording on conversion is "a little wimpy."

"United Synagogue's position is that for the survival of Judaism you need Jewish families and Jewish children and that conversion and one-faith families are really very important," he stressed. "And when there is no conversion [of the non-Jewish wife], the paper speaks about conversion of their children. Page after page deals with the kids because we are worried about the next generation. ... "It seems they [the Men's Club] have given up on the notion of conversion."

Rabbi Simon said that although "there is nothing wrong with saying conversion is important to us, we should be honest about it. There is not a realistic expectation in today's life to set a goal of conversion. Couples set their own goals; that is not where I would start the game."

But Rabbi Edelman insisted that while "couples set their own goals, it is up to a rabbi to stand up and speak of kashrut and of lighting candles because we set the bar and ask people to reach up to the bar. We could have a siddur [prayer book] completely in English, or we could say learn how to read Hebrew."

Rabbi Simon said he found Al HaDerech "fundamentally flawed" because it "talks about what people can and cannot do."

"It does not talk about people but about activities and actions," he said, noting that it specifically excludes a non-Jewish spouse from being a voting member of a synagogue or chairing a committee or project.

"Non-Jews don't want religious equality but social acceptance--to be part of the community," Rabbi Simon said. "The first statement of the document says the goal is conversion; the goal of keruv is Jewish living."

He added that when the document was published, he spent "several days" doing damage control, trying to calm down "people who called to say they no longer had a place in their synagogue, and from rabbis who were also upset."

Rabbi Simon said that his organization's Keruv Initiative has, since 1999, trained more than 80 lay leaders and more than 200 rabbis in ways to reach out to intermarried couples in the community.

"If we needed to implement change, we realized the rabbis couldn't do it themselves but needed a strategic partner who was a member of their congregation," he said. "We wanted the rabbis to be the behind-the-scenes quarterback."

For InterfaithFamily.com CEO Edmund Case's reaction to this development, read his blog post.

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." Derived from the Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's pertaining or according to the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. Hebrew for "prayer book," the plural is "siddurim." Hebrew for "bringing close," a term meaning Jewish outreach. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.

Stewart Ain is a staff writer for The Jewish Week.

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