Rabbis Grapple to Liberalize Conservative Approach to Intermarriage

By Joe Eskenazi


Reprinted with permission of j. the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Visit Jewishsf.com.

Friday April 15, 2005

Angela Alonso-Bileca has a question to ask. And she thinks it’s a reasonable one.

“I’ve given two kids to Judaism. And if they take that part of the bargain, why should I not be acknowledged? The things I want are very simple. When my kid is bar mitzvahed, I’d like to be there with him on the bimah. At this point, I cannot, but I’d like to,” said Alonso-Bileca, a Spanish-born Catholic married to a Jew and raising two Jewish boys. “We keep a Jewish household. I go to temple. Every time the kids go to church, they fall asleep. So it wasn’t meant to be.”

The congregant at Berkeley’s Netivot Shalom was one of five intermarried panelists addressing a conference of nearly three dozen Conservative–and inquisitive–rabbis.

The conference, held April 5 and 6 in Berkeley, was organized by the East Bay-based Tiferet Project and the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, and focused on new approaches to intermarriage.

The panel came at the end of a day in which the rabbis grappled with issues of how to properly welcome supportive non-Jewish spouses into a synagogue, where to properly “draw the line” on which synagogue rituals a non-Jew can participate in and even when to ask a couple hoping to be married if both of them are Jewish.

Answers to that last puzzling query ranged from “before you even pull out your Palm Pilot” to check your schedule, to Rabbi Harry Manhoff’s more relaxed habit of having prospective couples fill out a form after a half-hour chat.

If it turns out that one of the prospective partners is non-Jewish or not halachically Jewish–a rare query for Manhoff now that he leads the Conservative Beth Sholom in San Leandro after previously serving in Reform temples–his approach is to potentially suggest an eventual mikvah conversion. Or, if that seems inappropriate, he will write a Jewish-themed ceremony with the couple and direct them to another spiritual leader to perform the ceremony.

His approach is by no means the last word. In seminars and rap sessions the rabbis discussed how strongly to suggest conversion, in which cases conversion was even necessary and how to gently pass upon officiating a mixed marriage.

Discussions on how to accept non-Jews came as a breath of fresh air for the rabbis, many of whom said they feel saddled by draconian, 40-year-old Conservative guidelines that often drive mixed couples out of the synagogue and, perhaps, away from Judaism.

“The position established in the 1960s is that if someone intermarries, the Jewish partner shouldn’t have an aliyah to the Torah,” said Rabbi Mark Bisman of Har Zion Congregation in Scottsdale, Ariz.

That policy has been off the books for more than 30 years, according to Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Policies like that drove people away from the synagogue, a move Bisman feels Conservative Judaism can ill afford. “Some of our most skillful and dedicated people are, by happenstance and for a variety of reasons, married to someone who is not Jewish,” he said.

Bisman likened portions of the conference to a “support group” for rabbis who have had to balance the fine line between pleasing a congregant and adhering to the tenets of Conservative Judaism.

At the end of the conference’s first day, the rabbis peppered the five panelists with questions. Among the first was, why choose Conservative Judaism, which is far less intermarriage-friendly than Reform?

“I grew up hearing Latin mass, that was serious religion. Hebrew feels more familiar than a Reform synagogue does. When I go to a Reform synagogue, that feels like Episcopal church,” said Mary Kelly of Piedmont, who was raised Catholic.

“Ouch,” responded Manhoff, who was ordained in the Reform movement.

Other panelists attended the chosen synagogues of their Jewish spouses, or had been raised in the Conservative movement.

Panelist Dirk Rosen of Oakland, whose wife is not Jewish, told the rabbis it would make a poor impression on the children of mixed marriages if they perceived one of their parents as less than welcome in the synagogue–“so it may be worth stretching a little more than you’re comfortable” to accommodate non-Jewish spouses.

The non-Jewish panelists said they understood if they couldn’t do everything a Jewish congregant could, but they hoped for a little more acceptance of what they’ve chosen to give up.

“I don’t expect a big change in the Conservative movement in regards to interfaith couples. But I’d like to see some acknowledgement that we’ve taken a lot of pains to invest in this faith,” said Alonso-Bileca.

“I’ve decided to raise my kids in another religion. And I not only have to educate myself in that religion, but I’ve had to give up a lot. Sometimes I wonder how much pain it caused my parents when I didn’t baptize my kids. It’s a lot of pain and a lot of effort, so why can’t we participate in the Conservative movement in a way that’s not objectionable? Acknowledge us. Can we have a role in the synagogue?

“Maybe I’ll live to be 100 years old, but I’d like to be buried in the same place as my husband,” she added.

The panelists were surprised to learn that, in a Jewish cemetery in Sacramento, a section has been created for interfaith families.

Some of the rabbis were surprised, too.

“Finally,” joked one, “a reason to visit Sacramento!”


About Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a staff writer for j. the Jewish news weekly of northern California.