Conservative Synagogues Crack Open Door to Intermarried Families

Movement Seeks Balance Between Tradition and Greater Openness

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published August 31, 2011, issue of September 09, 2011.
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In June, after a year of internal discussion, Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, a Conservative synagogue just outside Philadelphia, made a tiny amendment to its constitution: It redefined household membership to apply to families with one Jewish parent as well as those with two.

Though the amendment impacted a small number of intermarried congregants —some 10 families out of a total of 720 — it spelled a philosophical transformation for the congregation that reflects broader changes in the Conservative movement writ large. Faced with the prospect of losing members because of a hostile environment for intermarried couples, Conservative congregations are providing membership opportunities for non-Jewish spouses. But in doing so, they are sometimes placing themselves in opposition to the national Conservative leadership. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the movement’s congregations, opposes membership rights for non-Jews.

“Is it so outrageous for us to say that someone who is married to a Jew also has a place within the Jewish community?” asked Rabbi Neil Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El.

The changes at Beth Hillel are of a piece with efforts to accommodate intermarried couples nationwide, but they also go one step beyond by offering limited voting rights to intermarried couples. Because a family membership at Beth Hillel comes with two votes — one for each adult partner — non-Jewish spouses may now weigh in alongside the rest of the congregation to amend the synagogue’s constitution or elect individuals to the board or the executive committee. However, non-Jews cannot take leadership positions. They’re not allowed to serve as synagogue president, nor can they chair committees. Other issues of concern remain. Can non-Jews stand alongside Jews on the bimah? Should intermarriages be listed in the synagogue bulletin’s “Mazel Tov” column? These will be dealt with at a later date.

“I decided where we had to start was membership,” said Cooper. “It was silly to talk about how we were going to welcome people into the community if we were pulling them in with one hand and pushing them away with the other.”

The question of what to do about intermarriage has long bedeviled the Conservative movement. As Jewish rates of intermarriage have climbed over the past few decades, the Reform movement has gained a reputation for openness, recognizing patrilineal descent and allowing rabbis to officiate at mixed marriages. On the other end of the spectrum, the Orthodox movement has disavowed intermarriage as a violation of Jewish law and a threat to Jewish continuity.

Conservative Judaism occupies a murky middle ground. Its Rabbinical Assembly prohibits Conservative rabbis from officiating at interfaith weddings, and even their presence at such a marriage can cause a stir. (Witness the fuss made over the presence of Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, at the reception after Chelsea Clinton’s wedding in July 2010. Although he is not a rabbi, Eisen had to publicly state that he had not attended the wedding, which had taken place during Shabbat.) When it comes to synagogue policies on welcoming intermarried couples, however, national guidelines are vague, if not completely outdated.

The R.A. is currently revising its policies regarding intermarriage. The last time it took an official position on the subject was in 1988, when it advised Conservative congregations to encourage non-Jewish spouses to participate but not to belong. A non-Jewish partner might be welcome at High Holy Day services, for instance, but he or she would be barred from membership.

The USCJ has historically taken a similar tack. “When it comes to participation, more should be done to be more welcoming,” said Rabbi Steve Wernick, the organization’s CEO. “But in terms of ownership, our current position is that it is reserved for Jews.”

Over the years, exclusionary attitudes both inside synagogues and at the leadership level have caused an exodus of intermarried couples from Conservative congregations to Reform ones. “Very few interfaith couples stayed in Conservative synagogues,” said Rela Geffen, a professor of sociology at Gratz College in suburban Philadelphia. “The idea that intermarrieds wanted the Jewish community to change on their behalf was a very contemporary idea.”

Things did begin to change in Conservative synagogues in the early 2000s, when the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, under the leadership of Rabbi Charles Simon, initiated a campaign to integrate intermarried couples. Since then, an untold number of Conservative synagogues around the country have simultaneously hewn to and flouted the advice of the national Conservative leadership, adjusting membership norms in a way that nominally accommodates the intermarried.

According to several leaders in the Conservative movement, mixed households were once categorized as single-parent families on synagogue rolls, which allowed them to pay less for membership. In an effort to make intermarried families feel more welcome — but also to fill synagogue coffers — synagogues began to do what Beth Hillel-Beth El did in June, changing the definition of household membership to include intermarried families as well as inmarried ones. But most of these synagogues allowed only one vote per household, effectively barring the non-Jew from making decisions that would affect the future of the synagogue.

“It’s one household, one vote,” said Simon of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. “This is not about us letting non-Jews do this or that. This is about how you treat people. If you treat people with dignity, then they are integrated into the shul.”

At Ansche Chesed, a Conservative synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, for instance, household membership is extended to inmarried and intermarried couples alike. As a matter of synagogue policy, only Jews may vote. But, said Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, such an occasion has yet to arise. “The number of times that this has been a relevant factor, where we would have to count votes about a thing, is exactly zero,” he said. “I admit this is a minor inconsistency. If there were a major event and we had to have a vote, we would have to say some votes are valid and some are invalid.”

Yet, while some Conservative leaders see the utility of a vague approach to membership — one that allows non-Jews to feel welcome yet limits their participation — others say that congregations should be more inclusive, proffering voting rights to people who participate in synagogue life, regardless of their religious backgrounds.

This is the view of Kerry Olitzky, the Reform rabbi at the helm of the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute, an advocacy group for intermarried couples. In 2007, Olitzky penned an op-ed piece in the Washington Jewish Week in which he likened synagogue voting for non-Jews to women’s suffrage and civil rights. “Until we offer them full voting rights in our institutions, no matter what we do, they will still be considered — and feel like — second-class citizens,” he wrote.

As far as Cooper is concerned, Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El’s changes in policy — allowing non Jews to vote on certain matters but barring them from leadership positions — are unfolding at the proper pace for a congregation bound by tradition and propelled by modernity.

“My goal in this whole thing has been to try and go slowly and steadily by teaching and talking and discussing so that we could make changes that are evolutionary but not revolutionary,” he said. “I don’t want to catch people off guard and have them ask, ‘When did this come about? Are we becoming Reform or Orthodox?’”

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at zeveloff@forward.com


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