Conservative day schools debate admitting kids of non-Jewish moms

boca raton, fla. | The Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter day schools are considering making their admissions policies more flexible.

Currently the 76 Schechter schools in the United States and Canada admit only children who are Jewish according to Jewish law, which means children born to a Jewish mother or those who have converted, or children whose families have committed to completing the conversion process within one year.

In December, at the Solomon Schechter Day School Association’s national convention in Boca Raton, school officials discussed a draft proposal that would remove that one-year deadline. The child would still be expected to convert before bar or bat mitzvah age, but it would be up to individual schools to determine how long that process should take.

“We think it has to be before bar or bat mitzvah, preferably by age 10, but we’re not going to say it has to be done within two or three years,” said Elaine Cohen, national consultant to the Schechter schools. “We’ll leave it to the discretion of the school.”

The move is part of the Conservative movement’s increased outreach efforts to the growing numbers of intermarried families.

After years of resisting more inclusive outreach policies urged by its liberal wing, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm, seems to have taken the reins of a movement in flux and is steering it in the direction of greater openness.

Earlier last year Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, outgoing chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, urged the movement’s Ramah camps to admit the children of non-Jewish mothers. That change has not yet been instituted.

And in December, the movement’s highest legal authority paved the way for same-sex commitment ceremonies and the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis.

Movement leaders said the day-school proposal should not be seen as a first step toward accepting patrilineal Jews, which is the term for children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers.

The Reform movement’s acceptance of such children, as long as they are being raised Jewish, set off a furor among non-Reform Jews two decades ago.

The Conservative movement’s intensified outreach efforts began in December 2005 at the United Synagogue’s Boston biennial when Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the group’s executive vice president, announced a movement-wide kiruv, or “ingathering,” initiative, to make intermarried families more welcome in Conservative institutional life.

The ultimate goal is still for the non-Jews in those families to convert, with conversion seen not as an end in itself but “the beginning of a Jewish journey” that synagogues, day schools and other institutions of Conservative Jewish life should help the family take, Epstein said.

Speaking to conference delegates at the convention in Boca Raton, Epstein made an impassioned plea to Schechter school directors and rabbis to be more welcoming to children of non-Jewish mothers, suggesting that the system “make a special effort to enroll the children of intermarried Jews even if they are not halachically Jewish,” and then engage in concerted outreach efforts to encourage the children and their non-Jewish mother to convert “as part of their Jewish journey.”

He also specified that the schools should clearly articulate “the point by which that child must be Jewish — certainly no more than a few years.”

Reaction to Epstein’s suggestion drew mixed reviews at the conference.

Rabbi Scott Bolton, head of the Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School in New City, N.Y. — which admits only children who are halachically Jewish — was one of several rabbis who believed that such a change should not be made to Schechter admissions practice ahead of more wide-ranging infrastructure changes in the movement “to share our passion about becoming Jewish.”

Mildred David, head of the Brandeis School in Lawrence, N.Y., wants to bring the question to her board. She favors a more flexible conversion timetable for non-halachically Jewish children.

“If the parents want their child at the Brandeis School, it means their lifestyle is Jewish, so why should we distance them?” she asked.

Epstein admitted that his suggestion involves “a change in culture,” which he acknowledged takes time. He told conference delegates that “rabbis have been slow to come on board” with his kiruv initiative, but he expects “that within a year or two we will be in field-goal position” — that is to say, relatively close.

Some Conservative rabbis and Schechter school directors around the country say it’s about time for change. But at least one Jewish education expert outside the Conservative movement warned darkly about “a big backlash” from the movement’s conservative wing when the proposed change is announced.

Still, even those Conservative leaders who are more circumspect note that leaving the decision up to individual schools means no change is required, and certainly not right away.

Some schools are going beyond the proposed changes.

In St. Louis, the city’s 12 Conservative rabbis have been working since September to create a unified policy for their Schechter school “that would be acceptable to us as rabbis and livable for our school,” said Rabbi Carnie Rose of B’nai Amoona.

The policy, sent to the school board this week, specifies that the school will accept a child of a non-Jewish mother up to the age of bar or bat mitzvah. The child will be assigned a rabbinic mentor who will work closely with the family, “so it will not come as a surprise” that the child will be asked to convert by age 12 or 13 or else leave the school.

The school also would admit children of non-Jewish mothers after bar mitzvah age, with the stipulation that they must convert within a year.

Ultimately, the conversation goes beyond how many years to allow a non-halachically Jewish child to remain in a Conservative school before conversion and addresses how the Conservative movement views the role of a day-school education.

The debate goes to the heart of a Conservative day school’s identity. Arnold Zar-Kessler, head of the Schechter day school in Newton, Mass., said he “looks favorably” on the proposed change, and noted last month’s study of the Boston Jewish community, which showed that 60 percent of children of intermarried families were being raised as Jews.

“It may be that we have to reflect a different reality as time goes on,’ he said.

Sue Fishkoff

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