Conservative Jews and Intermarriage: A New Resource

By Judith Bolton-Fasman


Review of Let’s Talk About It: A Book of Support and Guidance for Families Experiencing Intermarriage and for Synagogue Leadership. A Volume in “The Hearing Men’s Voices” Series. Edited by Rabbi Charles E. Simon and an initiative of the Conservative Movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs.

“Hate intermarriage, but love the intermarried.” The late Rabbi Alexander Schlindler’s catchy adage transmits the Conservative Jewish movement’s philosophy and “three tiered approach to intermarriage beginning with attempts at prevention, the notion of conversion, and finally, when prevention and conversion fail to occur, keruv [drawing near, reaching out] to the mixed family.”

A new anthology called Let’s Talk About It: A Book of Support and Guidance addresses situations which are difficult and in some instances nearly impossible to resolve in an intermarriage. They run the gamut from philosophical to domestic to theological issues. The book is an initiative of the Conservative Movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs and was edited by Rabbi Charles Simon, a Conservative rabbi who has dedicated himself to reaching out to intermarried families.

Emblazoned on the book’s cover is the Hebrew word, L’Dabare, “Let’s Talk About It.” Any successful attempt at keruv must be preceded by honest, open, and often heart-wrenching discussion on intermarriage and its far-reaching effect on families. These discussions should take place between the interfaith couple as well as with the rabbi they consult. The book’s contributors–many of them pulpit rabbis–are sympathetic and realistic. They acknowledge that intermarriage results from “living in an open society, welcoming and encouraging individual differences rather than group responsibilities and norms.”

For the vast majority of Jews, gone are the days when a family sat shiva, mourning a child who intermarried as if he or she had died. However, vestiges of that traumatic act linger, contributing to a sense of shame or a nagging feeling that somewhere along the line the parenting went awry.

Other more subtle but still harmful forms of rejection are still very much with us. I remember a family wedding where a cousin sat mutely and stoically with his arm around his non-Jewish wife as some of us were thoughtlessly gossiping over whether another cousin had brought a Jewish date. We were mortified when we realized what we had done.

My friend M., whose long-time partner is not Jewish, asked me what I thought of the word goy. A racial epithet, I told her. What else could it be? Yet people who recoil at the word shvartze, another racial epithet, this one in Yiddish for an African-American, casually use the word goy as if it’s an acceptable description. Contrary to the schoolyard ditty about sticks and stones, words hurt and, writes Norman Kurtz, “they may lead to further harm.” Kurtz, a practicing attorney in Chicago, is a vice-president of the Federation of Men’s Clubs. In his essay he takes on stereotypes like “Jewish men make better husbands. Jews are not alcoholics.” Kurtz, whose wife is a Jew by choice, points out that hearing such generalizations can make those Jews not only feel as if they are strangers in a strange land, but that their birth heritage is tainted.

Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman contributes an excellent article in the book. Rabbi Segelman, the spiritual leader of the Westchester Jewish Center in Mamaroneck, New York, prefaces his thoughts with a concept from halacha, or Jewish law. He explains that within a Talmudic framework events are categorized “before the fact” and “after the fact.” “In Judaism,” he writes, “there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. It is not a way of thinking; it is not a way of spirituality; it is a way of living.”

From there Rabbi Segelman outlines his sensible and empathetic approach to dealing with intermarriage. To the couple he gently talks about the realities of parenting in an interfaith marriage. He counsels the Jewish parents of the couple to thank God for their healthy children. Then he asks the rhetorical question: Are they making a choice you disagree with? Yes, they are. That happens in life?

It may be self-evident that life is not simple, but the concept is intrinsic to Jewish thinking. Rather than withdraw, there are Torah, halacha and community to ease life’s difficulties. If the couple doesn’t embrace these things through conversion, a Conservative rabbi has an obligation to tell that couple that he or she cannot participate in their union. “My not officiating at the wedding,” Rabbi Segelman asserts, “is often misconstrued as disapproval and abandonment. It is not that at all. It is important for rabbis and synagogues to help people understand that it is simply because I live and I lead a community within a certain framework. If somebody wants or chooses to exist outside of that framework, I am not abandoning them just because I can’t step out of my framework.”

This is precisely the point when conversation and outreach are essential. But where does one start? The problem is difficult. The resources are inadequate. The only thing that is certain is that a successful intervention must be firmly rooted in Judaism. The situation is urgent, given the daunting statistic that two thirds of the children born to intermarried couples are not raised as Jews. But for the Conservative rabbi, concern and even panic cannot override traditional Jewish law.

Conservative Judaism unequivocally supports matrilineal descent, meaning that a child is considered Jewish if the mother is Jewish. However, once the mother’s Jewish identity has been established, there are ways to accommodate and respect non-Jewish relatives. For example, at a Bar Mitzvah ceremony where one of the parents is Jewish by choice, this means that half of the family in attendance is not Jewish. There are non-Jewish grandparents to consider. “God forbid,” writes Rabbi Segelman, “that I as a rabbi, as a Jew, should leave them out of this important milestone. We have what I think is a beautiful ecumenical grandparents’ prayer. And the Bar or Bat Mitzvah child stands before their non-Jewish grandparents and the grandparents place their hands on the child’s head and say this ecumenical prayer. …It is not a Baruch atah Adonai; they can’t say Baruch atah Adonai. They have chosen not to be Jewish. But they can say, ‘Dearest God,’ and they can become part of the milestone.”

Let’s Talk About It offers suggested programming that accompanies the discussions in the book. These potential tools of outreach are only outlined, so interested readers will have to contact the Federation or the program creators for more information. One of the programs in the book that offers specifics explores the possible culture clash between Jewish and non-Jewish families. The success of that program would be best assured if it is facilitated by Jews by choice as well as non-Jewish spouses supportive of Jewish choices.

Despite the book’s generalities, it strongly advocates for Jewish continuity. But the many issues that are raised in the book lack a deeper connection to Judaism’s rich traditions which honor Jews by choice. What does come across clearly is that Jewish continuity can only be achieved through strategies that are compassionate and respectful of the non-Jewish partner. To that end, Let’s Talk About It confronts painful topics that Jews in all movements must address with care and intelligence. And for that alone, the Conservative Movement is to be lauded for supporting and strengthening their keruv program to interfaith families.


About Judith Bolton-Fasman

Judith Bolton-Fasman is a freelance book reviewer and writer in the Boston area.