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Conservative Rabbis Reaching Out to Interfaith Couples

This article originally appeared in The Jewish Bulletin of Northern California and is reprinted with permission. Visit www.JewishSF.com.

The Walter and Elise Haas Fund has granted $170,000 over the next three years to allow a group of Conservative rabbis to study how they can improve the movement's outreach to interfaith couples.

It has been well-documented that Conservative Jews with non-Jewish partners can often feel excluded from their synagogue.

"They often experience and perceive sometimes explicit messages and sometimes subtle messages that someone has done something wrong," said Ted Feldman, the executive director of Jewish Family and Children's Services of the Greater East Bay. He has often witnessed this himself.

"They are not really accepted into the context of Jewish communal life, and this is hurtful for them."

Rose Levinson couldn't agree more. A member of Berkeley's Congregation Netivot Shalom, the Albany resident's partner isn't Jewish.

But rather than him feeling isolated at times, he is concerned about her. "It's the Jew who feels the censure," she said. "The Jew can sometimes feel that the community is judging you harshly and is saying 'you've done bad.'"

But that could change, thanks to this grant.

Called "Tiferet," which means harmony, the grant will allow rabbis Stuart Kelman of Netivot Shalom, Mark Bloom of Oakland's Temple Beth Abraham, Harry Manhoff of San Leandro's Temple Beth Sholom, Gordon Freeman of Walnut Creek's Congregation B'nai Shalom and JFCS's Feldman to work together with Levinson, the project's manager, to develop programs and policies for interfaith couples who want to be part of a Conservative synagogue.

According to Freeman, the Conservative movement is nowhere near where it should be when it comes to the issue of intermarriage.

While the Reform movement has thrown open its doors to interfaith couples, the Conservative movement has been less enthusiastic. While interfaith couples can join Conservative synagogues, it is usually in the hope that the non-Jewish partner will eventually convert.

"Up until now, the Jewish community has construed intermarriage as a problem to be solved," said Freeman. With the much-quoted figure from 1990 that 52 percent of American Jews marry out of the religion, with an even higher percentage doing so in the Bay Area, Freeman said, "We need to stop thinking about it as a problem."

Instead, he said, the group should be viewed "as a population who comes to us to serve them, and we need to find the best way to do that."

Furthermore, he believes the Conservative movement, in particular, sends a mixed message.

"Primarily, it sees intermarriage as a problem and threat to the future of the Jewish people, because with people intermarried, there's less of a population. On the other hand, it tries to be welcoming to people who are intermarried, which gives a negative and a positive message at the same time."

Freeman believes the movement needs to be more accepting, or at least neutral on the subject. "We're better off seeing this as an opportunity rather than a problem."

But fully accepting the non-Jew into the synagogue is not as easy as it sounds. The intention is to see how welcoming a Conservative synagogue can be while still operating within the confines of Jewish law, which has strict boundaries as to what a non-Jew is allowed and not allowed to do.

Conservative rabbis are faced with this all the time, mostly in lifecycle events. Freeman gave one example, in which a non-Jewish parent of a b'nai mitzvah can participate by reading a blessing in English. A non-Jewish parent cannot be called to the Torah, because by doing so, "they say 'we take upon the covenant,' and obviously that person doesn't have that obligation," said Freeman.

"If the ritual will have substance and power, we have to take it seriously."

During Tiferet's first year, the rabbis will study what Jewish law has to say about intermarriage. They will also look at it from a sociological, historical and practical perspective.

After the study period ends, the rabbis will come up with a statement, which they will disseminate nationally hoping to spark dialogue.

In addition, 10 to 12 intermarried families will meet once a month with the rabbis, Levinson explained. "They will function as a reality check, and there will be an exchange and dialogue around how the issues are seen by them."

There will also be two two-hour introductory sessions on the High Holy Days for interfaith couples who are considering joining a Conservative synagogue. Led by Feldman, the sessions will be more like a workshop than a service.

"The High Holidays are such a loaded time," said Levinson. "We wanted to find some doorway."

Those involved hope this study will influence not only Conservative Judaism in the Bay Area, but nationally.

He complimented his colleagues for being sensitive to both the interfaith couples and the standards set by the movement.

"I think that we have been slow to confront the intermarrieds and that therefore, we are losing them to the Reform movement or to Judaism completely," he said. "I think that the Conservative synagogue has a responsibility to develop some programming that would stimulate intermarrieds to explore the possibility of becoming members of Conservative synagogues, and the Tiferet initiative seems to me to move in that direction."

Tiferet's High Holy Days workshops will take place from 2 to 4 p.m. Sept. 8, and 10 a.m. to noon Sept. 15, at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. The $25 fee includes childcare and refreshments.

Information/registration: (510) 549-9447 ext. 244 or tiferet2@earthlink.net

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." Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") 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.
Alexandra J. Wall

Alexandra J. Wall has written for the Jewish press for 15 years. She recently left j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California to do a natural foods chef program.

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