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“It is perfectly clear that the Conservative movement lost a lot of people to Reform because intermarried Conservative Jews no longer felt comfortable in Conservative synagogues,” Sarna said.
The movement has made great strides in recent years in addressing this issue. It has, among other things, adopted an approach that welcomes intermarried families to the synagogue but draws a clear line of not accepting intermarriage and of refusing to allow its rabbis to officiate at weddings of couples with one non-Jewish spouse.
This policy is not about to change, but Conservative leaders and members said the movement should be more proactive in reaching out to intermarried families and embracing them. “Non-Jewish partners who take their kids to Sunday school should be treated as heroes, not as problems,” said Rabbi Adam Greenwald, who teaches conversion classes at the American Jewish University, in California. He compared the approach of community members who refuse to accept the fact that intermarriage exists to those advocating abstinence-only sex education: “The problem is, it doesn’t work.”
Suzanne Litke, a lay leader at Temple Beth Zion —Beth Israel, in Philadelphia, said her community “works hard to be welcoming, but any institution can do more.” She noted the need to spread the word that Conservative Judaism is more inclusive than people think. “We can do more in letting people know we are welcoming,” she said.
Another strategic direction discussed at the USCJ conference was reaching out to the community within and outside the walls of the synagogue. The goal, as noted by leaders at the event, was to put an end to the notion that Sabbath morning services are the main, and at times the only, opportunity to connect with the community.
“One of the first things I’ll do when I go back is to meet with my staff and see how we can step outside our institutional structure and get in touch with people,” said Rabbi Andrew Warmflash of the Hewlett-East Rockaway Jewish Center. Phoning members and chatting is the form he believes could work best.
For Debbie Albert of Temple Sinai, in Dresher, Pa., outreach to the community meant establishing “Guess Who’s Coming for Shabbat,” a program in which community members invite friends from the community for Sabbath dinner.