Conservative Judaism making inmarriage a priority

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NEW YORK — Leaders of Conservative Jewry have dug in their heels on the issue of intermarriage, affirming the movement's longtime opposition to interfaith unions.

A coalition of Conservative groups this week issued an often sharply worded six-page policy statement that urges Jewish "inmarriage." It preceded an annual gathering by the movement's Rabbinical Assembly this week in New York.

The statement reinforces longtime standards and rebukes efforts within the movement to make it more comfortable for non-Jews to participate in synagogue life, as the Reform movement has done.

"In the midst of our confusion and pain we should not ask of Judaism to adopt strategies which do violence to its integrity," the statement said.

"At the very heart of this movement stands our belief that we must find the proper application of traditional Jewish norms and values to the modern context."

Alan Ades, president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents 800 Conservative congregations, said:

"We're not going to go to the extremes that some others might be doing. We respect their feelings, but Conservative Judaism has a different standard."

Conservative Jewry, he said, emphasizes the importance of Jews marrying Jews, or, as the new statement describes it, "the mitzvah [commandment] of inmarriage."

Failing that, the statement says, the movement encourages the conversion of the non-Jewish spouse according to halachah, or Jewish law.

If that does not work, the movement focuses on keruv (outreach), which means inviting the family's non-Jewish spouse and non-Jewish children into the life of the Jewish community, but not altering the community's standards or practices to do so.

"We are determined and committed to challenge intermarriage, rather than accept it," says the policy statement.

The leaders of the movement's five principal organizations meet regularly in a forum called the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism.

The participating groups are the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs and the Women's League for Conservative Judaism.

The latest statement was expected to be introduced during the 1,400-member Rabbinical Assembly's convention at the Concord Hotel at Kiamesha Lake, N.Y. Some 575 rabbis were expected to attend.

"This statement is important because in the absence of a clear public position easily accessible to the laity as to where we stand on these front-burner issues, people get their answers from popular culture, from [television shows like] `Seinfeld,'" said Rabbi Alan Silverstein, whose term as president of the Rabbinical Assembly ended at the convention.

"It's very important that our message be a very public message today, easy to comprehend and comprehensive in its scope so that it will enable people to plug into an activist program."

Publication of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study confirmed that as many Jews marry non-Jews as marry Jews.

The movements have varied in their approaches to the crisis. In the Orthodox community, where the rate of intermarriage is lowest, little has been done to address it.

In the Reform movement, which has the highest intermarriage rate of any affiliated population, the movement has done outreach and included non-Jewish spouses.

In the early 1980s, it adopted its controversial patrilineal descent policy, formalizing its practice of recognizing as Jewish those children who are born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, as long as they are educated as Jews.