Focus on Issues: Conservative Jewry Reaffirms Strong Stance on Intermarriage

Leaders of the Conservative movement’s five major organizations have jointly issue a policy statement detailing what they believe is the proper approach to the high rate of intermarriage.

The six-page statement, which is strongly worded in places, can be read as an affirmation of the movement’s long-held standards.

It can also be read as a rebuke to those within the movement who would like to see Conservative policies relaxed vis-a-vis the intermarried in order to make it more comfortable for non-Jews to participate in synagogue life much the same way the reform movement has.

The statement’s closing paragraphs say: “In the midst of our confusion and pain we should not ask to Judaism to adopt strategies which do violence to its integrity.”

“At the very heart of this movement stands our belief that we must find the proper application of traditional Jewish norms and values to the modern context.”

Publication of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study confirmed what may in the Jewish community had long known in their hearts: There are as many Jews marrying non-Jews as there are those marrying Jews.

The movements have varied in their approaches to the crisis. In the Orthodox community, where the rate of intermarriage is lowest, nothing much has been done to address it directly.

In the Reform movement, which has the highest intermarriage rate of any population claiming religious affiliation, policies began to change long before the demographics were confirmed.

The Reform movements had long been actively engaged in outreach and inclusion of non-Jewish spouses. In the early 1980s, it adopted a controversial policy, known as patrilineal descent, formalizing its practice of recognizing as Jewish those children who are born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, as long as they are educated as Jews.

That decision continues to be viewed by other movements as a deeply divisive change from the traditional definition of Jewishness, which comes from birth to a Jewish mother or conversion.

Among Reform Jews, the issue continues to be debated at every national convention held by the movement.

Contrasting the Conservative position with the other movements, Alan Ades, president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents 800 Conservative congregations, said: “We’re not going to go to the extremes that some others might be doing. We respect their feelings, but Conservative Judaism has a different standard.”

His movement, he said, emphasizes the importance of Jews marrying Jews, or, as the new statement describes it, “The mitzvah of inmarriage.”

Failing that, the statement says, the movement encourages the halachic conversion of the non-Jewish spouse.

If that does not work, the movement focuses on Keruv (outreach), which means inviting the family’s non-Jewish spouse and non-Jewish children into the life of the Jewish community, but not altering the community’s standards or practices to do so.

“We are determined and committed to challenge intermarriage, rather than accept it,” says the policy statement.

What is new is the fact that the organizations overcame a history of working independently of one another – and at times, disagreeing with one another – to coordinate a larger effort to communicate a movement-wide approach on intermarriage.

“Since everyone recognizes the urgency” of the intermarriage crisis, “We’ve developed a wonderful relationship” among the arms of the movement, Ades said.

“We don’t agree on everything. But when you find a project that has the importance and meaning that this one does, we’re all going to devote the utmost of our resources to making it work.”

The leaders of the movement’s five principal organizations meet regularly in a forum called the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism.

The participating groups are: the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs and the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.

The first step in the group’s new, concerted effort was to issue the six-page statement on intermarriage, basically an explanation and reaffirmation of its approach.

The statement was expected to be introduced to the media at a news conference during the annual convention of the 1,400-member Rabbinical Assembly.

The assembly’s convention is being held this week at the Concord Hotel at Kiamesha Lake, N.Y. Some 575 rabbis were expected to attend.

“This statement is important because in the absence of a clear public position easily accessible to the laity as to where we stand on these front-burner issue, people get their answers from popular culture, from [television shows like] Seinfeld,” said Rabbi Alan Silverstein, whose term as [resident of the Rabbinical Assembly ended at the convention.

“It’s very important that our message be a very public message today, easy to comprehend and comprehensive in its scope so that it will enable to plug into an activist program.”

Elements of the planned activist program include expanding use of a toll-free number established last year by the Rabbinical Assembly to respond to questions and provide information about introduction to Judaism and other courses offered by Conservative synagogues.

The number, 800-ASK-N-LEARN, has received several hundred phone calls over the past year, Silverstein said.

But limited people-power means that calls are picked up by an answering machine rather than a live voice, and limited funding has meant that its existence has not been widely promoted.

Now the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm, is joining in to improve both the people-power and the promotion-power with a High Holiday campaign, said Silverstein.

Two books written by Silverstein and published last September, titled “It All Begins With a Date,” and “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family After Intermarriage has Occurred,” will be promoted and more thoroughly distributed through synagogue gift stores.

A few dozen synagogues currently offer a pre-Bat and Bar Mitzvah seminar for parents and their children to promoting in-marriage, and that will be expanded throughout the network of Conservative congregations, Silverstein said.

“Parents are increasingly uncomfortable explaining why it’s important and special to be Jewish. They know it in their kishkes but we have to help them be able to say it,” he said.

“That becomes the framework for teen-age years,” he added.

The movement is also working with the national network of Jewish family service agencies to develop support groups for the parents of teen-agers, and parent- teen dialogues.

Also emphasized will be reaching young singles after they graduate from college and before they marry.

“If we don’t provide more than a support setting, opportunities for them to meet young Jews, we will suffer, and we have suffered as a result of that,” said Ades.

The policy statement ends with a “reaffirmation of standards” including: * Matrilineal descent, meaning a child’s religion is the same as the mother’s * Prohibition against Conservative clergy officiating at intermarriages and against them officiating or being present at purely civil ceremonies. * Only Jews may belong to Conservative synagogues and only Jews may be granted ritual honors such as being called to read from the Torah. * Intermarriages should not be publicly acknowledged in any official synagogue forum. Congratulations on the birth of a child may be extended to an interfaith family if the child is Jewish according to Jewish law (i.e., the mother is Jewish) or if not, if both parents have committed themselves to converting the child. * Sincere Jews by choice should be warmly welcomed by the community. * Sensitivity should be shown to intermarried Jews and their families, and they should be offered opportunities for Jewish growth and enrichment.

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