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Conservative Synagogues Shift Tactics on the Intermarried

July 2, 2009 By:
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Rabbi Ira F. Stone can cite one reason why Conservative congregations have been losing ground to their Reform and Reconstructionist counterparts: Many people perceive them as less open to intermarried families.

Stone, the religious leader of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City, believes that Conservative shuls need to become more welcoming not only because it's the right thing to do, but because the demographics of the Jewish community necessitate such outreach.

The question is how, especially when Jewish law prohibits non-Jews from participating fully in synagogue life.

"If your definition of welcoming is that we take you in and pretend that you're Jewish, then that's not going to happen," said Stone. A synagogue needs to be "respectful of the fact that people who are not Jewish have their own identity and need not give it up when they come" to shul.

Last week, he joined nearly 20 other local rabbis -- including Reform, Reconstructionist and two other Conservative rabbis -- to discuss how to better serve intermarried families who belong to synagogues or would like to become involved.

The June 17 meeting at Max & David's, a kosher restaurant in Elkins Park, was organized by Interfaithways, a locally based organization founded three years ago, according to its Web site, to "address the unique issues and possibilities of interfaith living."

The event signified the first step of a larger program called Bonei Gesharim, or "Builders of Bridges," according to Rabbi Mayer Selekman, vice president of Interfaithways.

Interfaithways staff members plan to hold follow-up meetings with participating religious leaders. The goal is to develop program ideas, and ultimately help make congregations more comfortable and accepting communities for non-Jewish members, whether or not they are considering conversion.

By signing on, rabbis made a commitment for their synagogue to take part in a program called Interfaith Family Shabbat Weekend, slated for November. The rabbis who are invited to participate had already demonstrated an openness to working with intermarried families, according to Gari J. Weilbacher, managing director of Interfaithways.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia provided the $75,000 grant to fund a two-year program to reach out to rabbis in the area. The annual budget for the organization is $150,000.

From the Margins to the Center

Selekman said that Federation's support is evidence that such outreach has moved from the margins of Jewish life toward the center. He said that the notion that children of intermarriage are likely lost to the Jewish people has lost ground.

He called last week's conference groundbreaking. "I don't know that there was ever a conference like this," said Selekman, referring to the fact that religious leaders from three of the four major movements took part.

In the 1960s, the former religious leader of Temple Sholom in Broomall was one of the first rabbis nationally to perform interfaith weddings; some hailed him as progressive, others argued that he was working to undermine the future of the Jewish people.

In the past two decades, Conservative congregations have gradually moved from being reticent about engaging interfaith families to encouraging conversions, as well as acknowledging that there's a place in synagogue for non-Jews who feel no need to adopt Judaism, according to Rabbi Eric Rosin of Kesher Israel Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in West Chester.

Some are now more willing to let non-Jewish members stand on the bimah during life-cycle events or recite English prayers. But reading from the Torah or reciting an aliyah are still out of the question for most places.

"We are all moving away from the idea of feeling threatened by the presence of interfaith families," said Rosin after the event. He said that, among other things, Kesher Israel plans to start a workshop for non-Jewish parents of Bar and Bat Mitzvah students.

Rabbi Craig Axler of Congregation Beth Or, a Reform synagogue in Maple Glen, acknowledged that, welcoming reputation or not, any synagogue can be intimidating for non-Jews.

"Sometimes, the issues are around flashpoint moments, life-cycle moments," said Axler, noting that's when non-Jews often feel most out of place.

Axler, who is also taking part in Bonei Gesharim, said that Beth Or has started up a Mother's Circle, a group for non-Jews raising Jewish children. He's also planning a group for grandparents of Jewish children from interfaith marriages.

He said that it's all just "the beginning of a process. We need to plan in practical ways and think through the issues."

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