Reprinted from The Canadian Jewish News [in Toronto] with permission of the author. Visit www.cjnews.com.
How does a community or synagogue maintain its sense of distinctiveness, and at the same time open the door to people in interfaith marriages, in a way that is welcoming and not just grudging?
How does one teach about the importance of inmarriage, and still maintain an openness to those who have married out?
Those were some of the questions on the mind of Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, senior rabbi of Beth Tzedec Congregation, when he returned from an invitation-only think tank on intermarriage last month. The meeting, the third in a series run by the Conservative movement's Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs (FJMC), was held in Hollywood Beach, Fla.
Rabbi Wayne Allen of Beth Tikvah Congregation is the only other Canadian to have participated thus far. Last December, he travelled to Los Angeles for the first such event, where he shared his synagogue's experience with the issue.
For more than two years, Beth Tikvah has run a program for members and non-members, called "Married Out, Not Opted Out." Most participants have children who are intermarried or interdating. Interfaith couples make up a small proportion, the rabbi said.
The underlying premise is that "Jews who intermarry are not making a declaration of secession from Judaism or the community," said Rabbi Allen, who does individual counselling and has also spoken to the group. "We did not want to lose them. Every Jew is precious, and in our day when assimilation is a very severe threat, we wanted to hold on to any Jews who wanted to retain their affiliation."
Rabbi Allen attributes the relative rarity of such groups to many reasons, including the delicate nature of the subject and competition for limited resources.
Married Out, Not Opted Out began in the context of "exploratory work" with no budget, he said. It has since become an established program with a social worker facilitating the group.
If other synagogues don't have similar programs, "it's not because they're being lackadaisical," he said. "It's because it's a pioneering initiative."
Both rabbis said their synagogues have a small percentage of interfaith couples. At Beth Tikvah, programming rose from a grass roots movement; at Beth Tzedec, there has not yet been a demand for such a program, although there was a series a few years ago in conjunction with Jewish Family & Child Service, said Rabbi Frydman-Kohl.
He is "certainly aware, as we all are, of increased rates of intermarriage... I'm anticipating [that in the future] the issues are going to arise more and more."
Based on American statistics, he noted that in a marriage between a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman, "the likelihood of there being a significant Jewish attachment on the part of the child to the Jewish community is very slim."
Speaking for the majority of Conservative leaders, Rabbi Frydman-Kohl said, "We don't want to go in the direction of the [more liberal] Reform movement, either in terms of patrilineality [accepting a child as Jewish on the basis of the father's Jewishness, instead of using the halachic criterion of the mother's Jewishness] or in terms of opening our congregations up to looking at non-Jews as members.
"We also don't want to go the other way, to exclude people from our congregations who are intermarried. We want to find a way within a framework that promotes inmarriage and that understands the borders of Jewish law, and still be a welcoming community."
Personal contact between rabbis and congregants "to let them know that they're still valued and that there's still a place for them" is one part of addressing the issue, he said.
Relevant programming might include teaching grandparents "how to be conveyors of Jewish tradition," or programming for couples regarding issues that arise in the marriage.
At Beth Tzedec, non-Jewish family members cannot be members of the congregation, but are welcome at all programs and services (tickets are provided for the High Holy Days).
Similarly at Beth Tikvah, non-Jewish spouses of members are entitled to High Holy Day seats. "We've made a conscious choice. We're not going to separate the families... Everyone is welcome," said Rabbi Allen.
Rabbi Frydman-Kohl, whose presentation at the meeting dealt with the challenges of programming in the context of an already full calendar, credited the FJMC for its initiative in the area of keruv (the Hebrew word for "bringing closer").
"This is the cutting edge of discussion now, at the highest levels of the Conservative movement," said Rabbi Allen. "The Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs has really been pushing the envelope."