New Conservative initiative reaches out to the intermarried

boston | The Conservative movement needs to go beyond opening its doors to intermarried families and begin working to fully integrate them into congregational life, while continually suggesting to the non-Jews in those families that they consider conversion.

That’s the crux of a new outreach initiative presented Tuesday, Dec. 7 at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism biennial by the organization’s executive vice president, Rabbi Jerome Epstein.

More than a year in the making, the initiative, which includes an explanation of the thinking behind the initiative as well as a detailed action plan for rabbis and congregations, includes input from all the major bodies in the Conservative movement. It’s being mailed to every Conservative professional and lay leader in North America.

For too long, Epstein told conference delegates, the Conservative movement has at best “merely welcomed” intermarried families, and often has rejected them.

Instead, he said, Conservative congregations should work to bring the entire family into congregational life, encouraging the couple to raise Jewish children and encouraging the non-Jewish spouse to convert.

“Too often we act as if being warm, welcoming and supportive is our goal, and it is not!” Epstein said in a veiled reference to the Reform approach.

While improving initial outreach to intermarried families is “a vital first step,” he said, the ultimate goal of the new Conservative outreach is inspiring the intermarried non-Jew “to choose Judaism out of conviction that Jewish living will enrich their lives.”

The Conservative movement is suggesting a more active welcome to interfaith families just weeks after the Union for Reform Judaism at its biennial in Houston advocated openly suggesting to the non-Jewish spouse that he or she convert.

“If we believe that Jewish family life is important, let us say so sensitively but passionately,” Epstein said. “We must begin aggressively to encourage conversions of potential Jews who have chosen a Jewish spouse. And if conversion is initially rejected, we must continue to place it on the agenda.”

To bring children of mixed marriages into Jewish life, “special outreach” is needed to ensure their Jewish education, Epstein said. While not laying down rules for the movement’s Solomon Schechter schools, youth programs and camps, the new initiative proposes special scholarships and extra attention for children of intermarriage.

After the presentation, people talked about their experiences with intermarriage and tried to hammer out positions for their congregations to take.

In general, participants seemed to feel that the initiative was long overdue. Even though it would introduce even more complexity into a movement that already has an equivocal relationship to Jewish law, many people felt the initiative was necessary.

“I don’t know that we have to be happy about it, but we have to address it,” Richard Price of Aberdeen, N.J. said of intermarriage, which he noted “has touched my own family.”

Price said he hopes the initiative wasn’t created simply because of the Conservative movement’s declining numbers, but is “about addressing the human needs of the people involved.”

The Conservative movement doesn’t dictate outreach policy to member congregations, and some people were surprised to find out that not every Solomon Schechter school requires non-Jewish children to convert within a year of admission, as the movement recommends — or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, that not every supplementary school accepts non-Jewish children up until their bar or bat mitzvah.

Marilyn Feinberg of Kalamazoo, Mich., said non-Jewish children of intermarried families are accepted in her congregation’s school without question.

“In adult conversion we educate first, so why not do that with the child?” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to wait until they’re 13.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].