Behind the Headlines: Intermarriage Finally Hits Home in Conservative Branch of Judaism

Intermarriage has snuck up on the Conservative movement of Judaism.

It’s not that Conservative leaders have ignored the problem, which has been an issue for them, to some extent, since the mid-1960s. But it is beginning to have an impact on the movement in ways they never expected.

Intermarriage, they thought, really only affected Reform Jews.

Now Conservative leaders are waking up to the fact that ever-increasing rates of intermarriage promise to transform Conservative Judaism.

Common wisdom held that the rate of intermarriage within the Conservative movement was holding steady at about 5 percent.

But the Council of Jewish Federations’ 1990 National Jewish Population Survey reveals that 28 percent of all married Jews raised in Conservative homes are wedded to non-Jews.

And among those Jews raised in Conservative homes who have married since 1985, 42 percent wed non-Jews, according to sociologist Egon Mayer, who is writing a monograph on intermarriage patterns based on data from the CJF survey.

Intermarriage among Jews who identify themselves as Conservative is now increasing at nearly the same rate as it is for those who identify themselves as Reform, Mayer noted.

"One cannot overestimate the seriousness of this threat to the future of the Jewish people." Rabbi Irwin Groner, president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said at its annual convention in April.

"Even if the Jewish partners in interfaith marriages retain their Jewish identity, in whatever form, the likelihood of that identity being transmitted to children and grandchildren has been catastrophically reduced."

‘BURIED ITS HEAD IN THE SAND’

While it has taken a position on intermarriage since the early 1960s, Conservative Judaism has not addressed the ramifications of the trend and has "buried its head in the sand," said Rabbi Gilbert Kollin, chairman of the Rabbinical Association’s Committee on Keruv and Giyur (outreach and conversion).

As a result, "Conservative congregations are perceived by interfaith couples as uncomfortable at best. We’ve been sending some of our best people to the Reform movement," he said.

The Conservative approach has been to try to discourage intermarriage, on the one hand, while also welcoming intermarried couples to the synagogue and encouraging their conversion.

The problem is finding ways to translate this approach into action. The goal is to develop programs to strengthen Jewish identity, encourage marriage within the faith, and make Conservative Judaism attractive to the non-Jewish spouses of intermarried Jews.

At its April convention, the Rabbinical Assembly approved a resolution urging every level of the movement to make programmatic responses to intermarriage a priority.

But past attempts to create policy have been unsuccessful because of the wide range of viewpoints within the movement.

At the April convention, two of the three proposed resolutions about intermarriage — the two which would have clarified Rabbinical Assembly policy in dealing with the non-Jewish spouses and non-Jewish children of intermarried families in the congregation — were sent back to committee because of deep divisions among the rabbis.

As a result of the diversity of views, it "may take a couple of years to come up with a blueprint for outreach that the Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue will accept," Kollin said, referring to Conservative Jewry’s rabbinic and congregational associations.

DANGER OF OVERREACTING TO PROBLEM

But that’s fine, according to Rabbi Stephen Lerner, director of the Center for Conversion to Judaism in Ridgefield Park, N.J. Lerner, who from 1984 to 1986 chaired what was then known as the Rabbinical Assembly’s Giyur Committee, believes the problem of intermarriage "is so massive that you can overreact.

"We must make a distinction between those who have elected to be Jews and those who have not," he said. "There’s a danger in blurring that distinction in an eagerness to find solutions."

The ideology of the Conservative movement — adherence to tradition with acceptance of modernity — makes dealing with intermarriage more difficult for Conservative Jews than it is for Orthodox or Reform Jews.

Leaders of the movement eschew the ideological purity maintained by the Orthodox, recognizing that the future of Conservative Judaism will necessitate including interfaith couples in the congregational life of the synagogue.

At the same time, Conservative leaders want to make sure that a distinction remains between their approach and that of the Reform movement, which changed its definition of Jewishness when it formally adopted the concept of patrilineal descent in 1983.

The importance of that distinction permeates the Conservative movement’s approach, down to its choice of words: using the Hebrew term "keruv" — which literally means "bringing near" — rather than the English word "outreach."

"It is one thing to reach out, to expand the boundary, lessen requirements, become more inclusive," said Kollin of the Keruv and Giyur Committee.

"Keruv is bringing people in to existing boundaries. We are not changing the definition of who is a Jew, but reaching out to bring them into the organized Jewish community," he said.

MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE VALUES?

Coming to grips with the trend and its implications presents complicated challenges to Conservative rabbis and other leaders.

One of the most difficult challenges is accepting the tension inherent in the contradiction of viewing intermarriage as a threat to Jewish survival and refusing to officiate at such unions, while at the same time having Conservative congregations welcome non-Jewish spouses and children the movement hopes to convert.

"There are mutually exclusive values involved: preserving Judaism and being open to people," explained United Synagogue’s executive vice president, Rabbi Jerome Epstein.

Rabbi Gordon Tucker, dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, does not agree. "We can be against something in the strongest way and still be able to deal with it," he said. "We do not have to consider it tum’ah (impurity)."

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