USY and the interdating ban reexamined

Uriel Heilman

Ever since publication of my Dec. 23 story on the decision by United Synagogue Youth to relax its rules barring teenage USY board members from dating non-Jews (“USY drops ban on interdating”), JTA has found itself at the center of a firestorm about coverage of the Conservative youth movement’s decision.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, head of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly: “We are dismayed by the mischaracterization of these policies in the press.”

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism: “We live in a society that shoots first and asks questions later… We’re talking about two sentences: You don’t teach people how to have a life of value in a constitutional document.”

Rabbi Michael Knopf of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Va., writing in Haaretz: “What makes for good click-bait does not necessarily convey truth.”

Andrew Van Bochove, a Times of Israel blogger and middle school band director who works with USYers: “The same exact day the USYers were being socially active, the JTA published an article that rapidly spread with negativity. Such negativity can be construed As Lashon Hara (gossip) which is actually one of the items the USYers at discussion are trying to conquer.”

Here at JTA, we’ve watched the brouhaha with some degree of bewilderment. What, exactly, did we get wrong?

There are two possibilities: One, that we incorrectly reported that there was an interdating ban for USY officers. Two, that there was an interdating ban, but that we incorrectly reported that it has been dropped. Let’s examine each of these possibilities.

There was no interdating ban.

Um, there was. The language in the constitution stated: “It is expected that leaders of the organization will refrain from relationships which can be construed as interdating.”

Not much wiggle room there. And if you think there is, our conversations with USYers present and past made clear that, in effect, there was a ban on interdating in place.

Let’s consider the second possibility: The interdating ban is still in place.

It sure doesn’t seem like it from our conversations with USYers and a simple reading of the constitutional amendment the board passed last week. Let’s read that amendment like a lawyer would (which is how constitutions are meant to be read): “The Officers will strive to model healthy Jewish dating choices. These include recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community and treating each person with the recognition that they were created Betzelem Elohim (in the image of God).”

That dials back the ban in several ways:

1) Use of the word “strives” — This suggests that striving to meet the standard is sufficient, rather than requiring youths to actually meet the standard.

2) What is the standard? “To model healthy Jewish dating choices.” What does this mean? The new language leaves wiggle room for interpretation. Would interdating automatically be considered an unhealthy choice in a movement where many members with strong Jewish identities come from intermarried homes? Is interdating an unhealthy choice in a movement where most Conservative Jews likely date a non-Jew at some point before marriage (given that, according to last year’s Pew survey, four in 10 Conservative Jews end up with a non-Jewish spouse)?

3) “… recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community” – Recognizing the importance of something is different than being required to practice it. Imagine this scenario: A USYer lives in a remote part of the country where date-able Jews are few and far between. That person may recognize the importance of dating within the community but nevertheless interdate, given her own circumstances. A technical reading of this new amendment would seem to allow that.

4) Finally, the appearance of the term “betzelem Elohim” (in the image of God) – This universalistic language is a hint that we’re probably not just talking about Jews here. Jews commonly use that term to refer to the sanctity of the rest of humanity.

And if the language isn’t clear enough, just talk to USYers themselves: Those interviewed by JTA made clear they believe this new amendment effectively lifts the ban on interdating for USY officers.

If the USY board didn’t mean to lift the ban, they ought to rewrite that amendment and make clear to their officers that they will lose their leadership positions if they date non-Jews.

I can’t but think that the firestorm over this issue has to do with something other than JTA’s coverage.

If the movement is looking for something to be concerned about, its leaders should think about this: A few of my associates who were active in USY two decades ago expressed alarm by something else they saw in my story — that this year’s USY international convention drew 750 teens. Back in the early 1990s, they said, the number was more than twice as large.

If that’s not a worrisome sign for the movement, it should be.

Uriel Heilman is JTA’s senior writer and former managing editor. Follow him on Twitter at @urielheilman