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Conservative Synagogues Join Forces to Welcome Interfaith Families

Reprinted with permission of New Jersey Jewish News. Visit www.njjewishnews.com.

Interfaith couples don't have a problem--the Conservative movement has a problem, according to Ronald Silver of Mountainside. A lifelong member of Conservative synagogues and an intermarried Jew, he has firsthand experience with the movement's less-than-warm embrace of intermarried families.

He isn't alone.

"You're continuing the work of Hitler," Sarah McNamara said she recalls being told by one member of a Conservative synagogue in another New Jersey community when she married her fiance, a Christian who has since converted. Although McNamara, who now lives in Maplewood and attends Congregation Beth El in South Orange, said she found the rabbi and community welcoming, the comment has stayed with her. "It can be a horrible experience," she said.

The problem was significant enough at the Summit Jewish Community Center that, according to its vice president, Karen Wexler, interfaith families would join to ensure their children had a place at its desirable preschool but then would switch to nearby Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue, as soon as their children moved on to elementary school.

Aware of the challenges interfaith families face, Rabbi Mark Mallach of Temple Beth Ahm decided to take action not only at his own synagogue in Springfield, but across the area to change the way intermarried families are received.

The result is a six-synagogue Keruv Coalition that will present a yearlong series of events beginning next month. The programs will focus on outreach to households in which at least one member is not Jewish, with the hope that the perceived disapproval of the Conservative movement toward interfaith families will be replaced by outreach.

"We want interfaith families to know there is a place for them within our tent at their comfort zone," said Mallach.

"We as the collective Conservative movement--the rabbis, lay leaders, and members--have failed," said Mallach. "As the intermarriage rate has gone up, we stuck our heads in the sand and preached the same line. Those whose chosen partner is not Jewish have felt unwelcome. We're losing too many Jews, and this is an opportunity to create bond . . . We need to show that the Conservative movement is viable and can make interfaith families feel welcome."

Beginning last summer, he invited five other Conservative congregations across two counties to join Beth Ahm in its outreach efforts. "I decided we had to do something," he said. "We needed a concerted effort. And I began circulating the concept of a consortium." All of the rabbis he spoke with were receptive, and representatives of each synagogue have since held meetings at Beth Ahm.

In addition to Beth Ahm, other synagogues in the group are Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains, Summit Jewish Community Center, Congregation Beth El in South Orange, Congregation B'nai Israel in Millburn, and Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston.

The coalition--with Silver, a member of Beth Ahm, serving as chair--will present a series of programs in Essex and Union counties designed to welcome interfaith families. Thirteen members of the coalition committee worked on details for the March 22 kickoff event at its Jan. 26 meeting.

Seeds for the program were planted last spring, when Beth Ahm began considering inviting Rabbi Moshe Edelman, director of congregational planning and leadership development for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, to speak. Edelman wrote "Al HaDerekh," the position paper that recommended a shift in Conservative movement attitudes toward interfaith families. His position became one of the major platforms at the USCJ biennial convention in the fall. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, USCJ executive vice president, said the initiative's aim was to welcome Jews and non-Jews into synagogues while "passionately and compassionately" encouraging the conversion of non-Jewish spouses and the children of non-Jewish mothers.

But Mallach was ultimately disappointed with the position the movement adopted and with Epstein's talk at the convention, which, he said, "sidestepped" the most important issues. "It does not address those people out there who are not at the point of conversion. Where do they fit in? I am interested in finding a place for these individuals within our movement."

The Keruv Coalition is his own response, although he had begun forming it in advance of the announcement of the movement's position. He was quick to point out that all the efforts that will be undertaken will follow Conservative halachic parameters, and that conversion--"is always on the table," even if it is not the focus of this coalition.

Among local synagogues, Mallach's position does not appear to be controversial, since no one refused his invitation to join. He acknowledged, however, that not all the participating synagogues have exactly the same policies toward interfaith couples. Differences range from restrictions regarding who can be on the bima during a bar or bat mitzva, to who can join men's club and sisterhood, and even who can join the synagogue. (One of the six participating synagogues asks prospective members whether more than one faith is practiced at home. Membership is refused if the answer is yes; the other synagogues don't ask.)

Mallach said he believes the effort is unique and might even offer a model for other areas.

"Individual synagogues have done outreach on their own, and some have relied on Pathways"--a 15-year-old program for interfaith families run by United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey that was terminated last year as the result of a funding decision aimed at finding new approaches to serving interfaith families. "But no one has tried a concerted effort on a united front. I believe the way to change perceptions is to have a concerted effort. It shows that we are not chasing new members, but we are opening our door. Maybe this will become a paradigm."

Temple Beth Ahm is a recipient of a $10,000 grant from UJC of MetroWest NJ to help fund its program.

The series is tentatively titled "Community Conversations: Judaism and Interfaith Families." The March 22 event at Beth Ahm will be a pizza party followed by an address by Edelman on how the Conservative movement is changing to include interfaith families and a craft project for children on the Jewish idea of bruchim haba'im, extending a welcome.

Each coalition synagogue will host an event for interfaith families between March and November; all will include components for adults and for children. Some will feature a guest speaker, while others will offer hands-on activities or panel discussions. Topics include "Where Do I Fit In? How Interfaith Families Deal with Home and Synagogue," to be held at Beth Israel in Scotch Plains in May; "Creating Jewish Experiences for Children, a Discussion for Grandparents, Aunts, and Uncles," at the Summit Jewish Community Center in September; "Surviving the Synagogue Experience," at B'nai Israel in August; and "Grandparents in the Age of Intermarriage," at Temple Beth Shalom in November.

The committee has agonized over some of the details, from logos on flyers to titles of events. As Wexler put it, "We want to show people they can actually have a home with us."

And while McNamara, who sits on the coalition committee, welcomes the initiative, she reminded the group that special programs here and there will not be enough without buy-in and sensitivity from all parts of the community. "Certain messages make interfaith families uncomfortable," she said. "Preaching and lecturing about the intermarriage rate as something to be panicked about does not go over so well."

For more information, contact Mallach at Temple Beth Ahm or 973-376-0539.

©2006 New Jersey Jewish News
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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." 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. 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. 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. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well.
Johanna Ginsberg

Johanna Ginsberg is a staff writer for The New Jersey Jewish News. She can be reached at jginsberg@njjewishnews.com.

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