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Mixed Messages of a Movement

June 9, 2005 By:
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Can a religious denomination retain its adherents when they find themselves increasingly at odds with its practices?

Despite the opposition of what polls say is a sizable portion of American Catholics, the church has not changed its positions on birth control or abortion.

But in the less centralized world of American Jewry, where movement between synagogues and even denominations is more common, can a synagogue or a movement survive if it finds itself out of touch with the needs of its members?

If you believe the numbers called by the National Jewish Population Studies of 1990 and 2001, then the answer may be no.

The later study showed a marked decline in the number of American Jews who identified themselves as members of the Conservative movement.

The reason for this downturn - and the rise in the number of those affiliated with the Reform movement - is widely believed to be the movement's respective stands on intermarriage.

That was the topic much on the minds of a small group of rabbis, educators, administrators and laypersons affiliated with the Conservative movement that gathered at Temple Sinai in Dresher on Sunday to attend a conference on outreach sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic region of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Personal Validation Needed

Their problem? How do they begin to square their movement's opposition to intermarriage with a stated policy that seeks to welcome interfaith families into their synagogues?

To listen to the comments and questions offered by those in attendance was to realize quickly how hard it is to try and sell a nuanced position to people who want validation for their personal choices, and not halachic arguments.

Thus, while Conservatives say they are dedicated to trying to make interfaith couples feel as if they can find a home at a Conservative shul, they know that most intermarrieds still think they will be treated as outcasts.

Why? The stand of Conservative Judaism, as articulated by institutions such as the Rabbinical Assembly and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, is clear: Its rabbis will not conduct intermarriages, and it actively encourages activities to promote endogamy. Yet at the same time, virtually all of the leaders of the movement say they favor outreach to intermarried couples and welcome them into their synagogues.

As Rabbi David Booth of Temple Beth Torah in Ocean, N.J., put it in his keynote address to the conference: "I'm against intermarriage, not intermarrieds."

Is this admittedly mixed message viable? Booth - who spoke of his own marriage with a young women whom he met at college, and who ultimately converted to Judaism - is convinced that the goal of Keruv, or "outreach," is possible.

But he, and his movement, face a formidable challenge.

To their right, Orthodox Jewry faces no great dilemma about intermarriage. They are opposed to it. To the Conservatives' left are the Reform and Reconstructionist movements that, while not advocating interfaith marriage, are far more open to accommodating the growing population of interfaith families.

In contrast to the Orthodox and the Conservatives, the Reform movement accepts children of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother as Jews. And while some Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis still speak openly of opposition to intermarriage, the movements do not formally disapprove of rabbis conducting interfaith ceremonies. Reform's shift to support patrilineal descent makes it a natural home for intermarrieds.

That leaves Conservatives squarely - and not always comfortably - in the middle. On the one hand, they can appeal to a broad audience of Jews who like their more traditional, though non-Orthodox, approach to Judaism. But to the increasing number of people who were raised in Conservative shuls but who find themselves married to non-Jewish spouses, the USCJ's adherence to principle on this issue is unacceptable.

As long as the Conservatives refuse to give rabbinic sanctions to interfaith weddings and oppose the participation of non-Jewish spouses of members in Torah services or their holding positions of leadership in their synagogues, the perception remains that intermarrieds needn't bother coming in the door.

Booth understands that "intermarrieds more often join Reform shuls because Reform rabbis marry them." But he also rightly points out that mainstream movements can learn a lot from the Chabad movement's phenomenal success at outreach, which is predicated on a welcoming atmosphere and a willingness to tailor its programs, though not its principles, to the needs of those who come through its doors.

To that end, Conservative shuls should start practicing what they preach about being welcoming. According to Booth, that means they need to do things such as as allowing children who are not Jewish according to halachah to take part in their religious schools in the lower grades. This will give families who are searching for spiritual meaning a real option. They should be allowed to explore and learn about Judaism without making a commitment first or being told they don't belong.

But can such a "mixed message" really succeed?

A Community of Faith

Indeed, for many American Jews, any mention of religion, let alone the Conservative take on halachah, is a turnoff.

A study issued earlier this year by the late sociologist Egon Mayer's Center for Cultural Judaism said the major obstacle families providing some sort of formal Jewish education to their children was not cost or even the number of hours required.

Their surveys showed that the more than one-third of Jewish families who are not giving their kids any sort of Jewish education are primarily turned off by the inclusion of any religious content. These results seemed to point to a supposed need for a completely secular alternative to all religious movements.

Pessimists say that ultimately, Conservatism will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, as those who demand acceptance of intermarriage flee to Reform, while those who are turned off by Conservatism's willingness to compromise on other issues drift toward Orthodoxy. Both Reform and Orthodoxy have coherent approaches to modernity and faith that are attractive to their growing constituencies.

But while the center may appear as if it is collapsing, Conservatism has a long way to go before its critics can write its obituary. Despite Mayer's poll figures, the historical experience of the Diaspora shows that Judaism cannot survive as an ethnic or purely nonreligious identity. At bottom - and whether we define ourselves as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist - if American Jews are to have any sort of future, it will be as a community - or communities - of faith.

That means that the focus for any of these denominations, and especially Conservatism, shouldn't be so much about marketing as it is about belief.

As Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the executive vice president of the United Synagogue has written, "our values remain our values," the main point about the group's outreach is "creating Jewish families" and raising Jewish children.

If that is so, then adherents of Conservatism's nuanced position on intermarriage need not despair. It has a lot to learn about rolling out the welcome mat, but a movement that is sufficiently grounded in its core values that it is unwilling to discard them to gain numbers need never fear extinction. u

Jonathan S. Tobin can be reached via e-mail at jtobin@ jewishexponent.com.

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