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Conservative Day Schools to Debate Admitting Children of Non-jewish Moms

December 8, 2006
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The Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter day schools are considering changing their bylaws to admit the children of non-Jewish mothers, JTA has learned. The 76 Schechter schools in the United States and Canada officially only admit children who are Jewish according to the Conservative movement’s interpretation of Jewish law, which means children born to a Jewish mother or those who have converted.

Most schools do admit children who are in the process of converting, but they do so quietly, on a case-by-case basis.

The proposed change, which will be circulated in draft format Sunday at the Solomon Schechter Day School Association’s convention in Boca Raton, Fla., would permit, but not require, schools to admit such children openly.

The new policy would require that the child convert before bar or bat mitzvah age, but it would be up to individual schools to determine how long that process should take.

The move is part of the Conservative movement’s increased efforts to reach out to its growing number of intermarried families.

After years of resisting more inclusive outreach policies urged by its liberal wing, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism — the movement’s congregational arm — seems to have taken the reins of a movement in flux and is steering it in the direction of greater openness.

The discussion also comes as the Conservative movement’s highest legal authority paved the way for same-sex commitment ceremonies and the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis.

Movement leaders said the day-school proposal should not be seen as a first step toward accepting patrilineal Jews, which is the term for children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers.

The Reform movement’s acceptance of such children, as long as they were being raised Jewish, set off a furor among non-Reform Jews. Conservative authorities said the decision would lead to further schisms among the movements.

One expert in Jewish education said the proposed change for the Schechter schools would “end the “culture of dishonesty” of the current admissions practice, which “makes the patrilineals into closeted Jews.”

The intensified outreach efforts date back to the United Synagogue’s Boston biennial in December when Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the group’s executive vice president, announced a movement-wide kiruv, or “ingathering” initiative, to make intermarried families more welcome in Conservative institutional life.

The ultimate goal is still for the non-Jews in those families to convert, but the initiative signaled the leadership’s awareness, in their view, that a welcoming attitude toward such families is needed and proper.

“It’s part of the broader pattern of nurturing whatever Jewish spark there is rather than inadvertently dampening that spark,” said Rabbi Avis Miller of Congregation Adas Israel in Washington, who chaired the Conservative rabbinical association’s outreach committee in the 1990s.

Early this year, Epstein began urging Schechter schools to relax their admissions policy. On Monday, he plans to address the convention day school delegates in Florida, “passionately urging” them to accept the proposed bylaw change.

A final decision will be made after the convention by the association’s board of directors.

“Some people say it’s a weakening of standards. Absolutely not,” Epstein told JTA. “It’s counterproductive to say to people who want to raise their children as Jews that they can’t come to receive a Jewish education. Studies indicate that people choose Judaism in part because of knowledge and in part because of relationships. What better place to form a strong Jewish relationship than day school?”

Elaine Cohen, United Synagogue’s consultant to the Schechter schools, said it’s about “reframing current policy in more inclusive language.”

She said the most substantive change being proposed is an extension of the time a family has to convert the child.

“We think it has to be before bar or bat mitzvah, preferably by age 10, but we’re not going to say it has to be done within two or three years,” Cohen said. “We’ll leave it to the discretion of the school.”

Miller questioned whether the lack of a unified national policy would work. She noted a hypothetical case: What if the child of a non-Jewish mother transfers from one Schechter school to another and faces a different conversion deadline?

She also foresees conflicts between day schools and other Conservative institutions that might not accept patrilineal Jews.

“A synagogue might say to participate in our programs the child has to be Jewish,” Miller said. Still, she added, “I wish them luck.”

On March 6, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the outgoing Jewish Theological Seminary chancellor, made a similar appeal to the movement’s Ramah summer camps, which also do not openly admit children of non-Jewish mothers.

Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, director of the National Ramah Commission, said the camps have not yet decided whether to change their admissions policy since Schorsch’s appeal, although like Schechter schools, they “work closely with individual families if the children are under bar and bat mitzvah age, and if they agree that camp will be an important part” of their conversion process.

Cohen said the proposed changes to the Schechter admissions policy should not be seen as steps toward recognizing patrilineal descent, although he acknowledged that “some people might see it that way.”

The end goal is quite clear, he said — the child must formally convert to Judaism. It’s just the warmth of the initial embrace that is changing.

Some Conservative rabbis and Schechter school directors around the country say it’s about time for change.

“It’s long overdue,” said Rabbi Lavey Derby of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, Calif. “There are a great many religiously committed Jews who marry non-Jews for a variety of reasons and want to raise Jewish children.”

At least one Jewish education expert outside the Conservative movement warned darkly about “a big backlash” from the movement’s conservative wing when the proposed change is announced.

But even those Conservative leaders who are more circumspect note that leaving the decision up to individual schools means no change is required, and certainly not right away.

“I don’t see it as changing our admissions policy very much,” said Marci Dickman, head of school for the three campuses of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Metropolitan Chicago. Like other Schechter schools, the Chicago school works with children who are “on their way to conversion,” but she noted that such cases “don’t come up that often, and when they do, we and the family want the child to convert.”

Some schools, on the other hand, are going beyond the proposed changes.

In St. Louis, the city’s 12 Conservative rabbis have been working since September to create a unified policy for their Schechter school “that would be acceptable to us as rabbis and livable for our school,” said Rabbi Carnie Rose of B’nai Amoona.

The policy, sent to the school board this week, specifies that the school will accept a child of a non-Jewish mother up to the age of bar or bat mitzvah. The child will be assigned a rabbinic mentor who will work closely with the family, “so it will not come as a surprise” that the child will be asked to convert by age 12 or 13, or else leave the school.

“There’s a difference between pre-bar mitzvah, when it’s ‘all for the sake of hinuch,’ ” or education, “and post-bar mitzvah, when you take on the yoke of the commandments,” Rose said.

The school would also admit children of non-Jewish mothers after bar mitzvah age, with the stipulation that they must convert within a year.

Ultimately, although the focus of this weekend’s debate in Florida will be narrow, the conversation goes beyond how many years to allow a non-halachically Jewish child to remain in a Conservative school before conversion, and addresses how the Conservative movement looks at the role of a day school education.

How much, asks the Ramah Commission’s Cohen, should a Schechter school be seen “as a subtle inducement to the child and the family” to consider formal conversion, in which case a more open admissions policy is appropriate? Or is it more important to safeguard movement standards unapologetically?

The debate goes to the heart of a Conservative day school’s identity, said Arnold Zar-Kessler, head of the Schechter day school in Newton, Mass. While he personally “looks favorably” upon the proposed change to the bylaws, he said that making such a change to the school’s admissions policy “might be inconsistent with how we see ourselves within the tradition” of Conservative Judaism.

But pointing to last month’s study of Boston’s Jewish community, which showed that 60 percent of the children of intermarried families were being raised as Jews, he said, “It may be that we have to reflect a different reality as time goes on.”

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