Keruv Initiative Provides Tools for Shuls Across the Country

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The Keruv Initiative, which stems from the New York-based Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (FJMC), facilitates more welcoming environments in the Conservative movement for interfaith families. 
 

Interfaith marriages are bringing Jews together more than ever before — for training seminars.
 
At least, that is the stated goal of the Keruv Initiative. The initiative, which stems from the New York-based Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (FJMC), was begun in order to facilitate more welcoming environments in the Conservative movement for interfaith families. 
 
Around 90 synagogues are involved nationwide, and about 40 people attended this year’s annual advanced training retreat at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood from March 4 to 6.
 
Keruv branched out of FJMC in 1999 after more men in the organization starting discussing the stigma surrounding interfaith marriages, many of whom were part of that statistic. 
 
“It was incredibly evident what pain there was in their lives and their communities,” said Josh Kohn, national Keruv lay leader, “because of either the feelings they felt when their children intermarried or what happened in their communities when they or their children intermarried.
 
“The goal is to make Conservative synagogues more welcoming to interfaith families,” he continued. “So every year, we come together for a three-day retreat where we share ideas about ways to improve our synagogues from what we’ve learned from each other, and 
also think about ways of how to make the future better for the Conservative movement.”
 
Kohn, a member of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, grew up in a Conservative kosher home in Baltimore and later married a non-Jew.
 
“I say this with complete honesty: I can tell you that I certainly wouldn’t be involved with this — on the executive board and board of my synagogue and so involved in synagogue life — if I hadn’t been intermarried,” he acknowledged. “It sounds odd, but many people take it for granted when we marry somebody Jewish.”
 
Intermarried families are less likely to affiliate with a synagogue, and less likely to raise their kids Jewish, Kohn explained. However, interfaith families that are a part of synagogue life have the same rates of affiliation and ties to the community as in-married families. 
 
Intermarriage is a reality, Kohn said, so “you can either look at that as a problem or an opportunity.”
 
“The goal is, when they” — speaking about the event participants — “go back to their own synagogues, they come up with new ideas and things they can work on. It’s really about learning from each other and building a network of people,” he added.
 
While this retreat is for lay leaders and synagogue members who were recommended for the training seminar by their respective rabbis, FJMC also hosts retreats for clergy members. 
 
“This isn’t taught in rabbinical schools or congregational leadership seminars,” said Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of FJMC. “So there’s a lot of attitudinal change that has to happen one person at a time.”
 
Simon explained that after the retreat, lay leaders should have created a simple instructional guide about working with a non-Jewish spouse.
 
“Intermarriage is a fact of Jewish life today,” he added. “So the challenge is how to create Jewish homes and families.”
 
Keruv, with a yearly budget of $700,000, is funded primarily with donations from foundations and private individuals.
 
Initially, these training seminars were for clergy leaders, but Simon said that it soon became apparent that “rabbis and cantors can’t do this by themselves — they need committees,” hence the added focus on lay leaders.
 
Overall, Keruv has close to 100 people operating about 80 congregations in the country and has trained almost 300 rabbis over the last decade.
 
Simon, who is not intermarried, said he is concerned about the perpetuation of Jewish life. 
 
According to a 2014 study by Brandeis University, more than one-third of American Jews are married to non-Jews, and almost half of recent “Jewish” marriages are between a Jew and a non-Jew.
 
“The wave of intermarriage overcame us 10 years ago. There’s no way to reverse that,” he acknowledged. “You have to shift the strategy to meet the needs of a changing population, which is what we do.”
 
Lynne Wolfe, Keruv coordinator, has been working with the organization for several years.
 
She said the theme of the weekend, which had classes in sensitivity training, patrilineal descent and talks from rabbinic leaders, was about engaging the non-Jewish spouse.
 
“The Conservative movement has been a little bit slow in coming around to it, but it impacts everyone and every aspect of Judaism,” she said. 
 
Wolfe traveled from Walnut Creek, Calif., for the retreat. She said there is about a 75 percent intermarriage rate among her open-minded community in the Bay Area.
 
“The Keruv Initiative is the only initiative within the movement that really tries to change the culture of the synagogues and bring them to being open and figuring out how they can be accepting and inclusive of all the intermarried couples that come to our door, and to the parents and grandparents whose children have married people that are not Jewish,” she added.
 
Alayne Pick from Woodcliff Lake, N.J., is also a part of that demographic. 
 
She has been working with Keruv for about eight years, ever since she saw changes within her own family. 
 
“Both of my daughters married out of the faith, and my husband is the child of a [Holocaust] survivor, so being Jewish is really important,” she said. “I just want to set a great model for my grandchildren.
 
“I personally am involved because it hits home to me and my family; I want to make the world a better Jewish place.” 
 
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0737

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