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Grappling with interfaith inclusion

NEW YORK, Oct. 31 — Like every Conservative rabbi, David Lincoln, who is spiritual leader of Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue, occasionally finds himself faced with the need to involve a non-Jewish parent in a child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah. He sets strict guidelines for their involvement: non-Jewish parents are allowed to stand on the bimah while the Jewish parent says a Hebrew blessing of thanksgiving. But they are not permitted to open the ark holding the Torah scrolls, or to wear a tallit, or take on any of the other roles that they might be allowed in a Reform or Reconstructionist setting. One time, though, an enthusiastic non-Jewish father at Park Avenue Synagogue bought a tallit especially for his child’s Bar Mitzvah during a visit to Israel. While he didn’t discuss his intention to wear it with the rabbi, someone else in the congregation tipped him off to the man’s plan, said Rabbi Lincoln. “I just let it go,” said Rabbi Lincoln. In the delicate, emotion-laden environment of a synagogue at a lifecycle event, rabbis have to pick their battles. “They are touchy issues. It’s particularly difficult for Conservative rabbis. We’re stuck in the middle, trying to be modern and trying to keep halachah,” or Jewish law, said Rabbi Lincoln. His experience is just one of the wide range of ways in which rabbis in each of the liberal Jewish religious movements deal with the reality that all face of non-Jewish family members in their pews. For the first time, 183 Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis have been surveyed to see what those ways are. The Jewish Outreach Institute conducted its study, “Rabbis and the Intermarried Family in the Jewish Community,” over the course of last year. The institute is a Manhattan-based national research and advocacy organization that promotes the idea that synagogues should be more inclusive of interfaith families, including the non-Jewish members. “Interfaith marriage is a reality. These rabbis are grappling with that reality,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, a Reform rabbi and executive director of the institute. “The decisions that rabbis make with regard to interfaith families are dynamic and not static over the course of the family’s lifecycle and over the course of their own career.” The study lumps together the Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis into one category on questions when the movements’ policies are similar. Findings include that: • In line with their denomination’s policy, most Conservative rabbis want a completed conversion before they will officiate at a wedding. Eighty-six percent said that they will never officiate at an interfaith wedding even if the non-Jew is in the process of converting. • Just under half of Reform/Reconstructionist rabbis will officiate at an interfaith wedding in at least some circumstances, if the non-Jew commits to raising their children as Jews. Sixteen percent indicated that they would consider officiating where there is no conversion of the non-Jew and the couple intends to raise their children in two faiths. • Nearly all Conservative rabbis require that an adopted child be formally converted to Judaism, including the traditional requirement of immersion in a ritual bath. • If a child is raised as a Jew, formal conversion is not required by about 75 percent of Reform rabbis and close to 60 percent of Reconstructionist rabbis. • A slight majority — 55 percent — of Conservative rabbis apparently see the act of brit milah, the ritual circumcision, being, in and of itself, a form of acceptable conversion for boys, since they said they would take an “active role” at the brit of the son of a non-Jewish mother, while 20 percent said they would participate in a girl’s baby-naming. Their movement also requires mikvah immersion. • Almost all Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, as well as about three-quarters of Conservative rabbis, permit a non-Jewish parent to stand on the bimah at their child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements permit their rabbis wide latitude and encourage an actively inclusive approach to dealing with interfaith families — counting as Jewish, for example, the children of non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers, a policy called “patrilineal descent.” The Conservative movement hews to the traditional definitions of Jewishness and has stricter policies. Any rabbi officiating at an interfaith wedding can be expelled from the Rabbinical Assembly, for example. But there are many other life-cycle rituals for which a Conservative rabbi’s position may be informed by deliberations of the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards but is not shaped by denominational policy. One of those moments is the Bar or Bat Mitzvah. The Jewish Outreach Institute study shows that younger rabbis permit non-Jewish parents more active roles than do their older colleagues in both the Conservative and Reform/Reconstructionist categories. Forty-one percent of Conservative rabbis ordained since 1980 allow the non-Jewish parent to also say something in English. Just 14 percent of their older colleagues permit that; they are more inclined to allow the non-Jewish parent to stand on the bimah without speaking — 24 percent of those ordained before 1980 compared to 10 percent ordained since — or to recognize them “in the audience” — 29 percent of those ordained before 1980 compared to 18 percent ordained since. Just under one-third of Conservative rabbis allow the non-Jewish parent to say a prayer before the congregation. Slightly more older Reform/Reconstructionist rabbis permit it — 69 percent — than do those ordained since 1980 — 60 percent. Fewer Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis ordained since 1980 — 31 percent — accept a 13-year-old’s “self-identification” as a Jew as sufficient to consider them a member of the Jewish people than do their older colleagues, 52 percent of whom will go with self-identification. These findings might reflect a swing toward more traditional Jewish values in some areas among the Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis. “There has been a growing traditionalism among younger liberal rabbis, and this statistic may reflect that orientation,” said Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and author of a newly-published book of essays, “After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity” (HUC Press, 2004). “At HUC virtually every student wears tallit and tefillin — that would not have happened 30 years ago. But they go on to serve people whose commitment may be very weak,” he told The Jewish Week. “The irony is that at the same time you have this return to tradition among religious leaders of our community, you have record numbers of people abandoning Jewish identity altogether. Which is why there is this dissonance between rabbis on the one hand and the people they’re going to serve on the other.” According to the institute study, board members and congregants have more influence over how rabbis ordained since 1980 consider officiating at life-cycle rituals involving a non-Jew than they do on rabbis ordained before 1980. When asked who has been most influential on these matters over the course of their careers, just 6 percent of Conservative rabbis ordained before 1980 said that it was board members or congregants. That more than tripled, to 19 percent, for Conservative rabbis ordained since 1980. It also rose among Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis — 24 percent of older rabbis cited lay people while 37 percent of those more recently ordained did. At the same time, reliance on “written sources,” meaning Torah and its interpretations has plunged among Conservative and Reform/Reconstructionist rabbis. Fifteen percent of Conservative rabbis ordained before 1980 cited written sources as the biggest influence on their views on the topic, while just 3 percent of those ordained since did. There was a similar divide among Reform/Reconstructionist rabbis. “The questions Conservative rabbis grapple with are ‘what are the boundaries here’ between ‘absolutely no’ and saying ‘how do I involve this person’s non-Jewish mother/father/grandparent, who has committed to raising this child as Jewish?’ ” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “They try to deal with a complex situation.” He said that Conservative rabbis have to deal more frequently with these issues today — not because intermarriage has increased, but because “There is less stigma attached to intermarriage than years ago. People are more accepting and so more likely to say to their rabbi they want you to help us do something than they were 10 or 15 years ago.”

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