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Reprinted with permission of The Jewish Week. Visit thejewishweek.com.
March 10, 2006
The Conservative movement, which has strenuously opposed the idea of patrilineal descent, may admit the children of Jewish fathers but non-Jewish mothers into its camps under a proposal made this week by Dr. Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Rabbi Schorsch, speaking Monday, March 6, at the North American Camping Leaders Assembly, said he has recommended that leaders of the Conservative movement's Ramah camps consider allowing the children of Jewish fathers to attend their camps until age 13. Then, he said, Ramah would make clear to the parents that the movement expects their children to convert to Judaism once they reach bar mitzvah age.
Once they turn 13, Rabbi Schorsch said, the children could attend the camps only if they have already become a “Jew by choice.”
In a phone interview after his comments, Rabbi Schorsch said that while JTS determines Ramah's educational and religious policies he wouldn't make such a change unilaterally. “I would try to persuade the leaders,” he said.
The change is necessary because of demographics, Schorsch said, adding that 34 percent of American-Jewish children consider themselves Jewish because of patrilineal descent. “The only chance of registering a conversion in a mixed marriage is not with the adults but with the children,” he continued. “So we need to draw them into our educational institutions.”
According to Jewish law, in order to be considered Jewish, one must have a Jewish mother. However, for more than two decades the Reform and Reconstructionist movements have accepted “patrilineal” Jews as fully Jewish.
Rabbi Schorsch, who is retiring as chancellor in June and will be succeeded by Arnold M. Eisen, said he believes his proposal “would be inclusive without compromising our religious principles.” He also suspects that the number of children admitted under his proposal would be small, he said, “but we need to test the waters.”
Ramah operates seven overnight camps and three day camps, serving more than 6,500 children.