Conservative Conundrum

By Meri Phillips

April 23, 2013


I didn’t learn that I was an inferior Jew until the third week of Conservative Jewish Day School. Pigtailed, in my denim jumper with red heart buttons, I had mistakenly made a reasonably comfortable transition from public school to a private school with Hebrew letters on the wall and a big, beautiful field to play in during recess. I had adapted nicely to longer school days split between Jewish studies and mainstream education, and I had even worked out a way to tell which Strawberry Shortcake lunchbox was mine without opening it. I thought I had it all down.detail of a synagogue

Then I mentioned, in earshot of my Hebrew teacher, that my father wasn’t Jewish.

My teacher must have already known. Such a distinctly German last name surely hadn’t gone unnoticed when my mother enrolled me. The kind of name that is very clearly not a German Jewish last name. There couldn’t have been illusions that this German side of my family had escaped Nazi Germany by the skin of their teeth. Yet, here I was in this Jewish Day School.

I was ushered out into the hall by this extraordinarily tall, red-faced teacher and told in no uncertain terms that I was forgiven for having a non-Jewish father, but that I was not to mention him again. The end. It was then I learned, in that echoing hallway of polished linoleum and Rosh Hashanah-themed art on the bulletin boards, that I was, in fact, an inferior Jew. I was the other, and I had better keep my mouth shut. My six year old heart shattered. My attitude changed. The school that had seemed warm and enveloping had become stifling and stultifying. I could barely breathe, let alone learn.

Thus was born my love-hate relationship with the Conservative movement and my own Judaism. By the end of the year I was uninvited back for second grade. My mother wept but I was relieved. Come the next fall I found myself back in public school and in Hebrew School at my family’s Conservative congregation where I never, ever mentioned my father or my non-Jewish roots. My innate inferiority flew under the radar most of the time at Hebrew School. I passed as a typical Jewish girl. There were a few snarky comments about intermarriage here, a guest speaker who used the word “Germans” when he really meant “Nazis” there, but other than that, as long as I didn’t mention my patrilineal heritage no one seemed to notice I was different. And yet I knew. I felt my otherness in my bones.

About the time my peers and I received our bar and bat mitzvah dates with a mix of heady anticipation and stomach-wrenching dread, the lectures cautioning against dating outside one’s religion commenced. The lecture on how intermarriage caused Jewish kids to become confused about what their religion was came the week after Christmas. The same Christmas we had spent with Catholic friends, where I was invited to recite hamotzi over the bread and kiddush over grape juice as part of my friends’ sensitivity and respect for my heritage. (I proudly accepted.) The lecture on how intermarriage caused parents not to care about their children’s Jewish education came 7.5 hours into the eight hour per week extended version of Hebrew school my Mom signed me up for, apparently unaware that her intermarriage was supposed to get me off the hook for Hebrew school. There were countless similar lectures, the essence of which was always that intermarriage was diluting our culture, causing the Jewish population to shrink, and putting our very way of life at risk. My teachers had met the enemy, and it was…me.

My cohort of young Judaic scholars (aka Hebrew/Judaic studies school attendants) lobbied for and were granted two extensions of our religious education past sophomore year. The result was that our education spanned the entirety of high school, culminating in a pre-college seminar studying some fairly heady Jewish philosophy and social issues directly with our rabbis. We shared news of college acceptances and rejections with bagels and shmear, high fives, and sometimes tears as colleges chose us, and then we chose amongst those who wanted us.

I lived at our college’s Hillel House for a little while but never felt like I belonged. How could I belong: I couldn’t let anyone fully know me. I toyed with the idea of rabbinical school. I felt called to serve but I was now nearly twenty. I was done with feeling like the other, the one who had something to hide. I was done pretending to be anything other than what I really was. If my religion couldn’t accept me as who I was in full, I wanted nothing to do with my religion. I dropped out of college and my religion at the same time. I eventually worked my way through college, but Judaism and I remained estranged.

The time and distance of two decades has given me to wonder if the rabbis and Jewish educators who to this day proclaim interfaith relationships such a problem realize the self-fulfilling prophesy that they themselves perpetuate. If the leadership continues to teach Jewish children of interfaith families that they and their beloved Gentile parent are in any way second class citizens, then they will continue to drive such families out of the Conservative movement even in cases where the Jewish children in question have a great passion to belong and participate. Once driven out on a wave of noxious prejudice, such families and their children may choose not to participate in their faith, and when that happens those same Jewish “leaders” get to sit in judgment and say “See, I told you so.”

I have come to understand that some things have changed – at least on the surface in some places. This fall I consulted with my mother’s extraordinary rabbi over a family matter and I smiled through nostalgic tears because the last names on the Rosh Hashanah poster board projects weren’t only Rosens and Cohens, but there were also some Kilpatricks, Chans, and Gomezes. Still, I wonder if the non-Jewish spouses and partners who gave those children their last names are really welcomed by the community or merely tolerated. I wondered if the children who labored over their projects truly at home at their temple, or if they like me carry a burden in their hearts of feeling that they too are the other. I wonder how those amongst those Jewish children who are people of color perceive the degree to which they are fully embraced in that or any Jewish community. I wonder if Jewish children of interfaith families still endure interrogation by the older members of the temple as I did, questioning their right to be there. I wonder if they have to endure the same lectures I did about how their parents’ relationships and their own existence is what is ruining the religion they are simultaneously being taught to love.

I am a living example of the consequences of intolerance in the movement. I have been happily married for nearly fifteen years. Our son is three. He is the product of a loving marriage between his Conservative-raised Jewish mama and his Gentile, atheist father. Our son rocks his Batman boots and a purple kippah just for fun, holding the kippah down on his head while jumping on our bed, much to my simultaneous horror and amusement. He chirps “boker tov!” (“good morning!”) when I get him out of his crib in the morning. We say the Shemah when we snuggle up together at night before a good night’s sleep.

My husband and I need to find the right Jewish community for us. Our son is getting to the age where it isn’t enough to just go to Bubby’s shul for every holiday by default. It is time for us to pick our boy’s spiritual home where we will cheerfully spend thousands of dollars per year to belong, plus another few thousand each year to give our son a good Jewish education.

Where are those hard earned dollars going to go? To a Conservative congregation that may well reflect the only partial, reluctant acceptance of our family, teaching my son that he is inferior… less than… the other? Are we looking for a community that would grudgingly accept my husband only if he were to submit to a conversion, which as an Atheist would be the equivalent of living a lie? Or should we seek a Reform shul or Reconstructionist congregation where my husband is just another supportive member of the community who happens not to be Jewish. I struggle with this because I love so much about the Conservative movement and my Mom’s Conservative shul has the most amazing female rabbi who has offered so much love, wisdom, and support in recent times, but I cannot count on her loving kindness to be reflected throughout the synagogue’s community. The rabbi who headed the same congregation when I was a girl was also loving, wise, and kind, and his loving kindness was in no way reflected in my bitter education.

I am not the only one struggling with this. I am not the only one to whom it is not enough for her congregation to merely tolerate her mate and gloss over her child’s heritage so long as it is kept hush-hush. I am not the only one of us who refuses to be a part of any congregation for whom my family is the barely tolerated inferior other. Many of my friends from Hebrew school, high school, and college have married out of their faith, and they are fleeing the Conservative movement in droves.

Despite the doomsday prophesies of my Hebrew school teachers and other so-called experts, these real life intermarried couples that I know aren’t running away from Judaism. They are running towards Judaism. They are running towards Jewish communities where their entire family is welcome, embraced, educated, and celebrated together in unity. I know because I have run into them when I go to visit the shuls and havurot they belong to or see pictures of them and their partners and sometimes their children at their houses of worship.

It is because of this that the Conservative movement has likely lost yet another wonderful, committed family in us. It is my duty to protect my son and his gentle little heart. I will not stand for anyone deprecating his heritage, his father, or himself, whether it be overt or covert discrimination. My son is not an inferior Jew, and there will be five feet of snow on Masada before anyone can convince me otherwise.

What the Conservative movement leadership hasn’t realized is that they have met the enemy…and it is themselves. The responsibility for the flight of interfaith families exists as much within the temple walls as it does outside the gates. Those of us who are children of the Conservative movement were taught to stand proud and unashamed of our Jewishness. We were taught that Jews are valuable and worthy and equal as people of other faiths. We were taught that it is our moral obligation to speak up when others are ill treated and to stand up for ourselves if we are ill treated. In order for the Conservative movement that I still so dearly love to survive, it must learn the lessons of Rabbi Hillel from the inside out: What is hateful to you, do not do to another. For thousands of years we have been oppressed, we have been made to feel inferior, we have been driven out of nearly every country we’ve called home at one time or another. Now it is time to stop doing the very same thing to ourselves.

About Meri Phillips

Meri Phillips is a writer, wife, and mother. Her extended family includes members of six different religions and philosophies. She lives with her husband and son and innumerable dust bunnies in Eastern Massachusetts.