Conservative movement tipping toward openness to children of intermarried

By Sue Fishkoff

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) – What should a synagogue or day school educator say to a Jewish child who talks about helping a non-Jewish grandma decorate the Christmas tree?

“What the teacher should not say is, ‘You’re not supposed to do that – you’re Jewish,’ ” says Rachel Glaser, education director of the religious school at Beth Israel Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Owings Mills, Md. “That hurts the child and shuts a door.”

That was among the lessons Glaser and 70 other Conservative educators in the Baltimore area learned during a “keruv,” or outreach workshop, held last month focused on sensitizing Conservative educators to the needs of children who have non-Jewish family members – a population that is growing in Conservative preschools and religious schools as intermarried couples fill more of the pews in the movement’s synagogues.

It was the first such seminar for religious school teachers organized by the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs.

The movement has been divided on the issue in recent years, with the Men’s Clubs as the voice of openness toward intermarried families and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism coming out more forcefully for conversion.

At its 2005 biennial conference, the Conservative movement’s leadership asked its congregations, schools and summer camps to be more welcoming to the children of non-Jewish parents even as it urged rabbis and lay leaders to “encourage conversion” of the non-Jewish spouse.

Five years later the balance seems to be tipping in favor of openness. Movement insiders chalk that up to the efforts of the Men’s Clubs’ Keruv Initiative, which has run workshops on outreach for rabbis and lay leaders for several years and is now branching out to religious school teachers. In January, a second teachers’ workshop will be held in San Francisco, and four or five are planned for the coming academic year.

Keruv, which is Hebrew for “bringing closer,” is the term used for the act of bringing people closer to Judaism.

“I’ve evolved a lot,” said Rabbi Carl Wolkin of Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, Ill., who attended one of the early rabbinical keruv think tanks.

Over the past three years, his congregation has developed an active outreach committee, and it now offers worship services and other programs for intermarried couples. Wolkin now makes sure that both parents, Jewish or not, come up to the pulpit at b’nai mitzvahs and baby-naming ceremonies.

It’s not about compromising standards, Wolkin says.

Like other Conservative rabbis, Wolkin will not officiate at an interfaith wedding, but he wants the couple to know they are wanted in the congregation as they explore their Jewish future. That message has been blurred too often in the Conservative world, which hurts the movement, he says.

“We’ve lost a lot of the kids of people who grew up in this congregation because we haven’t let them know in an effective way that we want them back,” Wolkin told JTA.

The teachers’ workshop in October came about because of interest from Conservative schools in the Baltimore area, said Lynne Wolfe, a longtime intermarriage outreach professional who ran the program with two local lay consultants.

“These teachers already have children from interfaith families in their classrooms,” said Wolfe, a mentor and communication facilitator for the Men’s Clubs. “This was the first opportunity they had to talk about it.”

Rabbi Paul Schneider, headmaster of the Krieger Schechter Day School of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville, Md., took 30 teachers to the workshop. He says they “came away with a new appreciation” of how to make children from intermarried homes feel welcome.

“There was a time not long ago when I’d tell teachers to steer the conversation in a different direction if a child wanted to talk about Christmas at their grandparents,” Schneider said. “Now I see we need a different approach. We need to allow children to talk about their family experiences.”

“Things have gotten remarkably better” the past few years, said Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs and the primary force behind the keruv workshops.

Simon notes that he has been working closely with the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in the past year. The two groups produced an outreach web-based seminar in August calling for greater support for non-Jewish spouses, and they are planning more webinars.

The Rabbinical Assembly this year reconstituted its Keruv committee, which had become inactive. Two years ago, a movement-wide Keruv subcommittee was created representing the four major Conservative organizations. It produced “principles of outreach” that, among other things, declare that Conservative institutions “welcome interfaith couples” whose “devotion to each other enriches us” – language not usually associated with Conservative Judaism.

These changes are subtle but noticeable, movement leaders say, and they’ve come in the past few years.

“Three years ago, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs was the only one dealing with this issue. Now all four [movement bodies] do,” said Rabbi Robert Slosberg of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Louisville, Ky., who chairs the new subcommittee. “Keruv is on everyone’s agenda and my colleagues are taking it seriously, more so than 10, even five years ago.”

Policies can be changed with the stroke of a pen; attitudes take longer. The traditional ways of dealing with intermarriage are changing, but not everywhere and not at the same pace.

Elaine Cohen, executive of the Solomon Schechter Day School Association, the umbrella body for 61 Conservative day schools in North America, says that a general relaxing of guidelines has taken place over the past three or four years. The previous guidelines had stipulated that the child of a non-Jewish mother was expected to convert within a year of entering the school.

“There’s been a recognition that it takes longer than that,” she said.

Conservative leaders draw a distinction between policies regarding the children of non-Jewish mothers who are not considered Jewish according to halachah, or Jewish law, and the need to make such children feel welcome once they are enrolled in Conservative schools or camps. They must convert before bar or bat mitzvah, and a growing number of Conservative schools are allowing them to wait that long.

Some, however, hew to the old, stricter standards, particularly on the East Coast and in major urban centers “where Conservative synagogues tend to be more traditional,” Cohen said, and where parents have more than one day school from which to choose.

“Those in smaller communities, or in regions where intermarriage is more prevalent, have taken a more lenient approach,” Cohen said.