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Conservative Movement Reaches Out: Review of "Building the Faith"

Review of: Building the Faith: A Call for Inclusion for Dual-Faith Families, published by the Conservative Movement's Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs

It's heartening to see this publication, which was assembled and is being distributed by an organization that is part of the national Conservative Movement. It is one of the few documents from the Conservative Movement which attempts to address the issue of intermarriage in a helpful manner, rather than taking a wholly catastrophic view.  

The audience for the book is rabbis, educators and lay leaders working in Conservative Jewish institutions, primarily synagogues. The sixteen very short sections by different Conservative rabbis address various programs and processes which can be utilized in an effort to make synagogues more inclusionary and more receptive to prevailing demographics, i.e., to the growing numbers of intermarried families who wish to affiliate with Conservative Judaism.

It is most useful to consider the sections of the book in isolation rather than as a whole. There is a difference in the points of view expressed and dissimilarity in what each writer chooses to emphasize. If nothing else, the pamphlet is a valuable sociological guide to Conservative Jewish thinking on intermarriage in this first part of the twenty-first century.

The publication also reflects some of the pain and confusion that Conservative Jews experience when dealing with intermarriage. It reveals some of the fears internalized around the impact of intermarriage on Conservative Judaism as it is lived and practiced. Reading through it, one encounters both a desire to reach out and a concern that not enough attention is being given to discourage intermarriage because of the (negative) impact it is having on Jewish continuity. The bias is to move the non-Jew towards conversion as the desirable goal.

One might best look at the work as part of the beginning of a public dialogue on intermarriage within Conservative Judaism, and see it as a starting point from which other conversations may spring. The topics addressed--including "Synagogue Transformation"; "Facing Loss in An Interfaith Family"; "Learning to Speak to Your Non-Jewish Son or Daughter-in-Law"--are of prime importance both to intermarried families themselves and to their relatives, as well as to the Jewish institutions of which they seek to be a part.

One of the opening essays, entitled "Inreach/Outreach: How Do We Begin" (p. 4) remarks on the need to see intermarrieds as part of the community, and to recognize that there is a great deal of change taking place which calls for new and creative responses: "...how flexible and creative our tradition is (but) rather than err on the lenient side we establish harsher criteria for the non-Jewish spouse than we might have desired." This essay also remarks that "It is possible for a family in which a conversion has not taken place to find a home within the Conservative/Masorti Movement. The challenge for us is how do we create the appropriate environment, which will attract and retain these families to our way of life" (p.5).

In a later essay entitled "Jewish Family Matters" (p. 8), one reads of some ways to include non-Jewish spouses as meaningful participants in Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebrations. And an essay on "Counseling Dual-Faith Families" (p. 52) stresses that the rabbi should develop a sense of trust and not be a punitive force.

Dual-faith families are likely to find particularly affirming the essay "Integrating Non-Jews in Synagogue Life and Home Celebration" (p. 33). Crucial aspects of intermarriage are addressed with great sensitivity, such as the need for the Jewish partner to feel part of Conservative Judaism when he or she has married out, whatever the non-Jewish spouse does or does not want from the community; the futility of perceiving the non-Jew as an enemy to be kept out of synagogue and sanctuary; and the various ways non-Jews can be a functional part of the synagogue community.

The essay makes an excellent point about the necessity to separate sociological issues from religious ones by understanding that many dual-faith families do not want religious equality in the sense of equal participation in Jewish spiritual and religious practice. Like endogamous couples, they often want different things within their shared commitment to synagogue affiliation and to Jewish life.

The book is available, for $10.95, from the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, at 800-288-FJMC or 212-749-8100 or on www.fjmc.org.

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah."
Rose Levinson

Rose Levinson was recently Project Director of Tiferet, a pilot program of National Camp Ramah for intermarried families raising Jewish children. She has written for Jewish Lights' Lifecycles, Volumes I and II, and is host of a weekly radio program focusing on public policy issues.

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