Conservative Jewry misses boat on intermarrieds

Paul Golin

I was not among the impressive slate of political luminaries invited to speak in Washington, DC, at the recent conference of the Rabbinic Assembly, the organizing body of Conservative rabbis.

That makes sense, because I’m not a political luminary. But even if I were a luminary, I wouldn’t have been permitted to speak, due to a policy recently brought to light by the JTA. “The policy is we will only invite speakers who are either single or, if they are married, are not intermarried,” the RA’s executive vice president explained.

Welcome Mat

That’s too bad. Because as an intermarried Jew who grew up in the Conservative movement, the message I’d deliver relates directly to the future of the movement.

In a nutshell, my message would be: You lost me, here’s why, and here’s how to get me back.

According to the most recent National Jewish Population Study, during the prior decade the Conservative movement was the only stream of Judaism to shrink, losing its position as largest denomination. That shift is most often attributed to the increasing numbers of intermarried families who have found a more welcoming home in Reform synagogues.

In other words, there are probably tens of thousands of Jews who have had similar experiences as me: educated in Conservative Hebrew schools, bar/bat mitzva’d in Conservative sanctuaries, most comfortable with the Conservative liturgy — yet wholly unwilling to subject our non-Jewish spouses to the kind of cold shoulder we anticipate (real or perceived) if we were to reenter those very institutions that helped instill our Jewish identities.

For a movement that prides itself on bridging tradition with modernity, the Conservative movement’s policies toward the complex, nuanced phenomenon of intermarriage had been basically black and white: All intermarriages are bad for the Jewish community, all intermarried Jews should be handled the same. It’s clear that this understanding has changed over the past few years, and there are important initiatives in the works. What’s still unclear is where the movement is going on the issue of intermarried families.

That the ban on intermarried speakers at the RA conference will be “reconsidered” is good and necessary, but it’s a relatively small step. Major policy updates need to occur if there is any hope of growing the Conservative movement. Traditionally, the Conservative three-step approach has been to (1) promote in-marriage, but if that fails, (2) promote conversion, but if that fails, (3) welcome the intermarried.

In practice, step 3 is rarely reached because the messages intended to accomplish steps 1 and 2 work against it. I recommend reversing the order. New step 1: Welcome everybody. If Conservative Judaism is so wonderful, let’s share it. Let’s help more people access it. Let’s explain why we find it so beautiful and meaningful. We are charged with “welcoming the stranger” and being a “light unto the nations.” Who cares if the newcomer is Jewish or not, married or not? (Don’t panic, it doesn’t mean they get a Torah honor Saturday morning.)

New step 2: When someone who isn’t Jewish has come from the outside to the inside, is deeply engaging in Jewish life, and is known to the rabbi, then it may be appropriate for the rabbi to have a personal heart-to-heart about the possibility of them converting to Judaism. That’s the only appropriate way for non-family members to “promote conversion,” not from the pulpit or through slogans.

New step 3: With a more nuanced approach to intermarriage, where we acknowledge that it is possible for intermarried families to raise Jewish children, we can of course also acknowledge that it’s generally easier for two Jewish parents to raise Jewish children than for one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent. But in-marriages don’t happen because of sermons or policy statements. They happen because Jews meet other Jews when they’re engaging in a vibrant Jewish community. In the 21st century, creating a vibrant (non-Orthodox) Jewish community means welcoming the intermarried and children of intermarriage.

Over the last eight years I’ve consulted with synagogue staff and clergy on the issue of inclusion. Many folks “on the ground” in the Conservative movement are working to include more intermarried households. A handful of Conservative rabbis have positively challenged my stereotypes through their warm and open attitude toward welcoming intermarried families.

Change is coming, but it’s coming in very incremental gestures. Today, few Conservative synagogues bar non-Jewish spouses from the bima during their child’s bar/bat mitzva. Similarly, a number of synagogues offer a “household membership” dues structure rather than treating intermarried families as “single Jewish” households.

It’s not the minute policy details, however, that keep intermarried families who would participate in Jewish life from joining most Conservative synagogues; it’s the culture and attitudes of the people inside those synagogues. And that’s true of many Jewish institutions, regardless of denominational affiliation. There are plenty of Reform synagogues where newcomers are ignored rather than warmly greeted when they cross the threshold.

Still, policy change on the national level can help foster cultural change within individual institutions of a movement. For the Conservative movement to initiate the kind of attitudinal shift that could help win back former-Conservative intermarried Jews, it will require a complete rethinking of intermarriage.

At the Jewish Outreach Institute, we consider non-Jewish spouses who help raise Jewish children heroes to the Jewish people and believe they should be thanked. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, JOI’s executive director, coined the phrase “successful Jewish intermarriages” for such intermarried families, who actually grow the Jewish community with their presence, and it’s a term we hope all the liberal movements will adopt. That’s when I will feel more comfortable escorting my wife across the threshold of a Conservative synagogue.

Paul Golin is associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute and coauthor of Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do (And Not Do) to Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren.