Reprinted from The Jewish Week with permission of the author. Visit http://www.thejewishweek.com.
Special to The Jewish Week.
I sometimes wonder whether leaders of the Conservative movement used to take their cue from Groucho Marx, operating on the assumption that no unaffiliated Jew would join "any club that would have me as a member."
I grew up a "non-practicing" Jew, and the few occasions that I visited Conservative synagogues were alienating; a cantor or rabbi seemed to drone on at the front in incomprehensible Hebrew, never bothering to tell anyone what page of the prayer book he was on. Congregants tended to ignore me once it became clear that I was firmly outside their Ramah/Schechter/USY circle.
In college, when I began exploring Judaism, I often encountered Orthodox Jews eager to make me more religious. While Orthodoxy did not appeal to me, I enjoyed the attention and the invitations to Shabbat dinners. In contrast, it always seemed to me that Conservative Judaism had much of Orthodoxy's hyper-attention to ritual observance, with none of its passion or desire to bring in newcomers. From the outside, Conservative synagogues and their members often looked self-righteous and unfriendly, unwilling to bother accommodating the needs of newcomers.
Since marrying my Catholic husband eight years ago, I've bristled at the movement's approach to intermarriage: being at best unfriendly to gentile spouses unless they plan to convert immediately and slapping punitive measures on Jews who intermarry, including in many cases not allowing them to teach Hebrew school or serve in leadership positions.
And yet, I also find myself drawn to Conservative Judaism--at least the liberal wing of it. For years, I attended the alternative High Holy Day services at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Later, Joe and I joined a Conservative congregation in Hell's Kitchen, although--with electric guitar music on the bima Friday nights and a quirky rabbi from the nondenominational Academy for Jewish Religion--it was hardly a typical movement shul.
I like the authentic feeling Conservative services have--the traditional tunes, the Hebrew (as long as transliterations and translations are also available), the focus on substantive Jewish learning. And although I don't keep kosher or observe the rules of Shabbat, I like knowing that I will do so when I am inside a Conservative synagogue.
So I've been closely following the movement's latest debates on intermarriage, particularly its recent announcements that outreach must be a greater priority. I applaud this shift, but I was disappointed by many aspects of "Al Ha-Derekh," the new "roadmap," unveiled at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism biennial in December.
Rather than the manifesto for inclusiveness or even the "encouragement" it purports to be offering, "Al Ha-Derekh" feels to me like a rulebook, with its detailed cataloging of what a non-Jew may and may not do in synagogue. Membership is off limits, but gentiles are allowed to pay dues. Numerous committees are verboten, but non-Jews are allowed to be "adjuncts" on committees like fundraising and "membership outreach to interfaith couples."
To read "Al Ha-Derekh," you would think that a mob of crusading gentile spouses was standing at the entrance of Conservative synagogues, poised to overrun the bima and plant a cross on the Ark. In reality, I think that most non-Jews are just as happy to play a low-key role in the synagogue community and are more concerned with feeling accepted than in challenging religious practices.
I hope Conservative synagogues look to a more appealing approach just under their noses: the Keruv (Outreach) Initiative launched over the past few years by Rabbi Charles Simon of the movement's own Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs. Instead of reiterating, as "Al Ha-Derekh" does in its opening, the tired rhetoric about only deigning to deal with intermarried couples after other options are exhausted, Rabbi Simon's writings--particularly his monograph, "The Role of the Supportive Non-Jewish Spouse in the Conservative/Masorti Movement"--are far more positive in tone. As Rabbi Simon's materials note repeatedly, stigmatizing intermarriage has simply not proven effective, and the movement needs to look beyond merely "reinforcing its boundaries."
Currently in 30 synagogues around the country--including two in Westchester and one in New Jersey--the Keruv Initiative encourages lay leaders and rabbis to facilitate discussions to talk through the issues that interfaith couples and their parents face in the synagogue and figure out ways to make the congregation more welcoming and sensitive.
At Shaarei Tikvah in Scarsdale, the initiative led to changing the by-laws so that non-Jewish spouses can become voting members, although the rabbi is given the authority to exclude them as needed from certain religious decisions. It has also spurred greater voluntarism and involvement among the interfaith families in the congregation. For example, one intermarried couple chaired a successful fundraising effort, while another spearheaded a program for babies and toddlers.
"My view is if you create opportunities for people to feel welcome, it's natural for them to want to do more," says Arthur Glauberman, who chaired the keruv effort and is now the synagogue president.
The changes have not gone unnoticed by Rob Seulowitz, a Congregationalist Protestant whose wife, Naomi, grew up in a traditional Conservative home. Shortly after the couple joined, Shaarei Tikvah began its keruv discussion groups, which helped the Seulowitzes become involved in the community and taught them that not only weren't they the only interfaith couple in the synagogue, but that virtually every congregant has family members who are intermarried.
"I'm never going to feel like a full member of the community because I haven't been bar mitzvahed and the ritual is still unfamiliar to me, but I like the rabbi and I like his sermons," Seulowitz said. "And I don't feel rejected by them, and that's really important."