Conservative Synagogues Are Welcoming Homes to Interfaith Families

By Ruth Shaw Gross

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“A Conservative Synagogue! I don’t think so. That was definitely not in the agreement.”

“We don’t have to join it; let’s just take a look,” assured my husband of almost two years.

Marty and I had recently moved to Massachusetts from New York City. He was to join a pediatric practice replacing a physician who had been a member of a Conservative synagogue nearby. As a thoughtful gesture (membership motivated, no doubt), the rabbi had called Marty at work asking if we’d like to come by and meet him.

“He sounded really nice, Ruth.”

“I don’t doubt that he’s nice now, but how will he react when he finds out I’m not Jewish? I’ll be so embarrassed if he tells us there’s not a place in the congregation for couples like us.”

“This is Southeastern Massachusetts, not Great Neck,” Marty replied. I’m sure the thought has crossed his mind. Anyway, telling us we can’t both be a part of the congregation would be much more embarrassing for him than for us.”

Thus began our journey into the Conservative Movement of Judaism: a friendly gesture, a pleasant afternoon. I had never been in a Conservative synagogue, actually I had never been in any synagogue. We had been married by a Reform rabbi and an Episcopal minister, but the wedding had been held outside and we had only met the rabbi in his study.

Our first meeting with Rabbi Ben was interesting and totally non-threatening. We chatted about our backgrounds–including the fact that I, like several other individuals in the synagogue’s community, was not Jewish and was not planning to convert. We toured the sanctuary and were even able to view a Torah. We drank tea and admired the pictures of Ben’s children. It was comforting, and it was welcoming. We began to attend occasional Friday night services, took a year-long Jewish education class together (a review for Marty, an introduction for me) and joined the congregation.

Soon we were asking Ben to help us plan a bris (ritual circumcision). I had made the commitment to raise our children Jewish sometime during Marty’s and my six-year courtship. It seemed like a good compromise between an observant Christian and a non-observant (at least since his Bar Mitzvah) Reform Jew by heritage, agnostic by faith. My plan was, “your religion, my rules.” I wanted to belong to a religious institution as a family without the pressures of spouse and in-laws disagreeing with the beliefs set forth. My family lived in the South and I only saw them once or twice a year. They loved and accepted Marty, differences and all, and wouldn’t question our decisions.

“You’ll, of course, want to have the baby converted to Judaism,” Ben stated.

“This is taking things a little too far,” I thought. “First ritual coffee-table surgery, now a visit to a mikvah (ritual bath). Aren’t the bris, years of Hebrew School, and a Bar Mitzvah enough to make him a Jewish boy?”

Ben patiently explained, though, that Daniel could work very hard and develop a strong Jewish identity, but there would still be Jews–possibly potential spouses or in-laws–who would not accept him without the conversion.

“Okay, I guess I’m in this all the way,” I thought. “Anyway, if he were Christian I’d want him baptized, so at least it’s a somewhat familiar process.”

The years came and went: another son, another bris, another trip to the mikvah, the beginning of Hebrew School, active duties for me in Sisterhood and helping with Hebrew school functions. So many activities and always a welcoming community.

When Daniel was in third grade and Greg was in kindergarten, we changed to another synagogue, also Conservative. Rabbi Ben had left the original congregation and we felt a change was in order for us, too. The new synagogue was larger, with more children, more programs and, of course, more congregants who might feel we weren’t in the right place. Again, that gnawing suspicion that, even though we’d had one good experience, a Conservative congregation was for traditional Jewish families.

The new Hebrew school met during the week and on Saturday mornings. I had always had an aversion to the idea of just dropping off children for services and had decided we should attend the Saturday morning worship as well (remember, his religion, my rules). As things worked out, though, the first day I planned to go was a day Marty was working. I walked into the chapel feeling very out of place and wondering what I was doing there. I was sure everyone was looking and whispering.

The first thing I heard, though, was someone calling my name in a loud whisper. I looked around to see the school committee chairman and another parent sitting together, beckoning me to join them. Okay, so it was a little embarrassing that they knew my name and I didn’t know theirs. With a name like Ruth, though, they must have thought I was Jewish. However, once I had changed seats and joined them, they both started pointing out and explaining parts of the service to me. They stuck to me during the Kiddush (prayer over wine, following the service), too, introducing me to other congregation members–several of whom, I might add, were either not Jewish or married to a person of another faith. Why had I thought they would be a homogeneous group? Why had I assumed a Conservative temple would be an non-welcoming place?

I can’t say that every one of my encounters has been one hundred percent positive, but in our experiences with both synagogues we have met kind, friendly, welcoming people who want what we want: a religious experience that we can share as a family, a friendly and supportive Jewish community, a rabbi and synagogue staff who are eager to be teachers and friends, and an atmosphere that is not only warm and accepting, but also unintimidating.

I have found an open forum for questions and concerns within the group of congregants I see at services and events. I have found, in our first synagogue and in the present one, clergymen who are friends and teachers; who find my lack of knowledge, a foundation — and my thirst for knowledge, a challenge. I ask questions–lots of them. I have never had an answer that implied impatience or dismay that I didn’t already know the answer.

Marty, by the way, has become active in the temple, too, and has changed from an agnostic to a believer. He and I were approached several years ago to be on the keruv steering committee. Keruv, meaning “drawing near” is the Conservative outreach program for interfaith and other non-traditional Jewish families. Rather than feel threatened that this committee would become a “support group,” implying we had a problem that needed to be dealt with, we were asked to embrace keruv as a social and educational opportunity for families such as ours; families who need to be “drawn near” to. Intermarried couples often only need to be welcomed and assured that they are not going to be judged or excluded.

I have never converted to Judaism. I have, however, been respectfully asked if I would like to convert. I took no offense when asked. It’s a logical question–I attend services, sign up for committees, host Hebrew school functions. I found out long ago that I was not cut out to remain active in my own church as well as in the synagogue. It’s just too much. I do, however, still love my Christian roots. I can’t imagine becoming a Jew because I am a Christian. That doesn’t mean I can’t worship and learn in the Jewish setting. I try to give back what I take–and I’ve taken a lot.

Because of my choice not to convert, I am not a member of the temple. I do not have a vote. I cannot go to the bimah (podium) for an aliyah (prayer said before reading from the Torah). I can’t be a voting member of a traditional committee (the keruv committee is the only exception), and I can’t be buried in the Jewish cemetery. I know these are big issues to some people. I don’t find them to be a problem. I have chosen to take part in someone else’s religion–to embrace it and challenge it, to ask questions and learn from its leaders. I’ve accepted the caring atmosphere and the mental stimulation, yet have not chosen to make a full commitment to the religion. I understand that unless I make that choice, I must accept the rules which deny a non-member full membership status. No problem.

Would a Reform synagogue have been easier? Probably, especially for Marty who was raised Reform. I imagine, too, it would have been easier when it came to planning Daniel’s Bar Mitzvah three years ago or anticipating Greg’s last April. I have to admit that more than once I have wondered if all of the Hebrew my boys have studied was worth the effort. Our rabbi and cantor, who have both become close and valued friends, teach Hebrew with such devotion and love that I wouldn’t want to deny my children the chance to find the part of themselves that could love it too.

An easier decision isn’t always a better one. I fully believe that expecting coldness and finding warmth, anticipating disapproval and finding acceptance, friendship, and an atmosphere of respect and caring have proven that this was the perfect decision for us. Maybe joining a Conservative congregation is not the right decision for everyone, but it’s no longer an option to be dismissed because of a fear of disapproval. The clergy we have been privileged to know have not only been accepting and patient, they have become understanding friends. We have truly found a home at our Conservative synagogue and a very special family which, like most families, contains people with diverse personalities who don’t always agree, but who choose to remain close anyway.

In my keruv encounters within the Southeastern Massachusetts region, I have found that our experience is not, as might be thought, the exception to the rule. One in every two marriages involving a Jewish person is an interfaith marriage. The Conservative movement may not condone the marriages, but it has come around to the obvious: excluding these couples from the Jewish community would truly be a loss. The loss will be seen in the next generation if the children of these unions are not given the opportunity to study Judaism in a Conservative setting.

Although the idea of joining or even visiting a Conservative synagogue may be intimidating, interfaith families may find, as ours did, that they will be welcomed and valued.





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About Ruth Shaw Gross

Ruth Shaw Gross grew up a Mississippi Protestant in a family who believed they were diverse because one parent was Methodist and the other Presbyterian. She lives with her husband and two sons in Lakeville, MA, where she works as a freelance artist.