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Making A Right Turn On Intermarriage

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Originally published in The New York Jewish Week. Reprinted by permission.

Growing up in a thoroughly Jewish home and schools, I internalized the need to avoid intermarriage at all costs. The liberal Orthodox yeshiva I attended predicted that rampant intermarriage would sound the death knell of the Jewish people. My parents, a Conservative rabbi and a professor at Jewish Theological Seminary, spoke in hushed tones about family members and friends who had intermarried.

right turn road signThe solution was two-fold: Jews needed to be thoroughly immersed in Judaism and for those who, despite this advice, found themselves involved with someone who was not Jewish, the non-Jewish partner needed to convert before they married.

Jews-by-choice became my father's focus when he opened the Center for Conversion to Judaism in Manhattan almost 30 years ago, and many converts became part of my father’s small synagogue in northern New Jersey. Often they were more committed than those who were born Jewish.

But there was no special concern indicated for those who were not interested in converting. Much of the Jewish world and certainly the Conservative movement maintained this status quo.

Five years ago, I moved to Boston to lead Temple Emunah in Lexington, Mass. This synagogue had started a program of kiruv (outreach) to intermarried couples and families in the early ’90s--a trailblazer in the Conservative movement.

While I appreciated their outreach efforts, I was wary of how far they had gone. Early on, I participated in a meeting of the outreach committee that included converts and intermarried Jews. One Jewish woman described how her non-Jewish husband so supported her desire to raise their children as Jews that he would lead Kiddush every Friday night. I was impressed by his dedication, but wondered how a non-Jew could recite: "ki vanu vacharta--because You (God) chose us."

Over time, I have come to appreciate more and more the devotion of the dozens of intermarried couples among our 535 families. Those couples with children often work hard to provide their children with a strong Jewish identity and education. Giving of their time, resources and energy, they donate to the community on many levels--serving on committees and making the choice to raise their children as Jews. My experience with these families has convinced me to reconsider my own approach to intermarriage.

Why should we push away those who want to be a part of a Conservative synagogue? Rather, given the shrinking numbers of American Jews in general and Conservative Jews in particular, should we not find ways to accommodate those who want to share in our vibrant Jewish communities?

Over the last five years, our congregation has developed ways to include non-Jewish parents in baby-naming and bar and bat-mitzvah celebrations, while remaining faithful to halacha (Jewish law). Our community's inclusivity has led to many conversions. Many of these newer Jews are quite active and committed.

This is a new paradigm. In this model, the non-Jewish partner does not always convert before the wedding, but commits to being a part of a Jewish home and, if blessed with children, to raising them as Jews. Ideally, over time, they become so immersed in Jewish culture and practice that they evolve organically into identifying as Jews.

Intermarried families are vital members of my community and of many other Conservative shuls. We would do well to embrace them more fully.

Thankfully, the Rabbinical Assembly and other Conservative institutions have moved to declare our openness to non-Jews in our midst. We must continue to respond in this area, even changing current norms when doing so does not violate halacha. We need to link actions to our words.

An example: I was taught that a non-Jew should not wear a tallit in shul, since he or she is not obligated in this mitzvah. But after watching a member of my congregation embarrass a non-Jewish man by asking him to remove his tallit during services, I had to rethink it. Why can't a non-Jew wear a tallit? There is no halachic reason to forbid this.

Instead of building walls, we should find more opportunities for bridges.

That does not mean there are no standards. There are: when the mother is not Jewish, her children must go to mikveh in order to be halachically Jewish. But perhaps we don't have to do this immediately, and wait for a family to be more integrated in the community.

One suggestion is that as every student reaches the age of bar or bat mitzvah, he or she be immersed in the mikveh to celebrate this milestone, ensuring that all are halachically Jewish. Not only would this resolve their status as Jews, but it would also open everyone up to this beautiful religious practice.

Our tradition mandates that kiddushin (Jewish marriage) take place only between two Jews. But can we create some ceremony to recognize an intermarried couple who commit to raising their children as Jews?

Today, the policy of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements requires families to choose Judaism exclusively in order to be members of our communities. What about a family where the parents are unsure about how to raise their children or are still trying to figure it out--how can we encourage them to choose Judaism?

Even as we reach out to these families, we need to unabashedly say that marriage between two Jews is the ideal. The challenge becomes how to talk about that when some of our students have parents are not Jewish?

Don't get me wrong: I would love to create a Judaism so vibrant that our young people would all choose Jews as their partners. But since intermarriage is a reality, we need to find ways within Jewish law to embrace those families who wish to journey with us. And we need to explore these questions and challenges and others that are sure to arise as intermarried couples find themselves a home within our synagogues.

If Conservative Judaism is to remain a relevant and dynamic mainstream movement, it must confront these issues more openly and forthrightly.

I have changed my approach in a significant manner. It may not be 180 degrees, but it's the right turn.

Hebrew for "Jewish law," halacha is 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. 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." Hebrew for "sanctification," Jewish marriage is often referred to as Kiddushin, as one partner (traditionally, the bride) becomes "sanctified" (dedicated) to the other partner (traditionally, the groom). Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." 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. Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's 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. Hebrew for "sanctification," a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") Hebrew, literally, for "sitting," refers to a Jewish educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts (including Torah and Talmud study). A yeshiva can be a day school for elementary or high school students, or a place of study for adults. Traditionally, a yeshiva was attended by boys/men only; more recently, yeshivas have opened for girls/women and even co-ed yeshivas now exist. Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. Hebrew for "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners. 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.

Rabbi David Lerner is the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in Lexington, Mass.

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