Don Cohen is a freelance writer and community activist living in West Bloomfield, Michigan.
Integrating Intermarrieds: Conservative Movement Explores Outreach Approaches
This article is reprinted from the Detroit Jewish News with permission. Visit www.detroitjewishnews.com.
Will Conservative Jews become less conservative when it comes to the issue of intermarriage? Time will tell, but the movement is looking to better serve congregants who have been touched by intermarriage.
Early this month, Rabbi Joseph Krakoff of Congregation Shaarey Zedek participated with 15 other Conservative rabbis from across the nation in what he describes as a "think tank" to "talk about the issues and do a better job as a movement and with our congregations of making intermarried households a more integral part of synagogue life."
The importance of the intensive two-day session on intermarriage in Los Angeles, sponsored by the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, became clear when all the participating rabbis raised their hands when asked if they had a non-Jewish relative somewhere in their family tree.
"We immediately understood our own family experiences as a microcosm of the American Jewish reality today," Rabbi Krakoff said. "It was clear that there is an immediate need to create authentic opportunities for outreach and inclusion within the realm of synagogue life.
"The question is a complicated one: How can we be inclusive while maintaining the integrity of our tradition?" he said.
Regarding tradition, the movement remains clear on its standards. In 1995, the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism reaffirmed standards set by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly that upheld matrilineal descent, and reserved membership in Conservative synagogues and affiliated organizations, as well as ritual honors, such as being called to the Torah, for Jews. It said, in part, "While the Conservative Movement acknowledges the individual and social circumstances that have given rise to an increase rate of intermarriage, it is committed to the ideological imperatives of encouraging in-marriages and conversions." But what can be done short of loosening these standards? That is what the rabbis, the movement and the congregations are dedicated to finding out.
Walking That Line
At the forefront of the keruv (outreach) effort, the name the movement has given to its interfaith efforts, is the Conservative Movement's Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs. Its 2001 publication Building the Faith: A Book of Inclusion for Dual-Faith Families has just been enhanced by a new publication, Let's Talk About It ... A Book of Support and Guidance for Families Experiencing Intermarriage.
"There is no sense in hiding the fact that there is intermarriage," said Rabbi Krakoff, who finds the book a useful and important tool to facilitate discussion "in a safe and nurturing environment." Plans are under way to begin such discussions at his synagogue in the coming year.
At the Los Angeles meeting, the rabbis discussed relating to non-Jewish marriage partners and in-laws, the role of the Jewish partner and grandparents in interfaith marriages and the impact on religious practice.
"We looked at non-Jewish characters in the Bible, including Shifrah, Puah and Yitro, and how they enhanced Jewish life through their intimate relationships with Jews," Rabbi Krakoff said.
"It is increasingly apparent to me that we have the distinct opportunity to amplify the commitment and identity of born-Jews as well as create a culture of non-Jews who are Chevrei Yisrael--friends of the Jews--willing to play an active role in raising Jewish children while maintaining a sense of attachment to Jewish life and the synagogue.
"We must focus on helping Jews retain a strong commitment to Jewish life," Rabbi Krakoff said, "while we create a safe place for the non-Jewish partner and the children to experience the joy of Judaism."